May 31, 2007


I’d Really Like to Eat a Child. By Sylviane Donnio. Illustrated by Dorothée de Monfreid. Random House. $14.99.

The Police Cloud. By Christoph Niemann. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Cars: The Junior Novelization. Adapted by Lisa Papademetriou. Random House. $4.99.

      There’s plenty of old-fashioned charm in the new books by Sylviane Donnio and Christoph Niemann: both are illustrated in ways recalling classic kids’ books of decades ago, but both have a thoroughly modern and very attractive sense of humor and absurdity. I’d Really Like to Eat a Child, the first book published in the U.S. by an author-and-illustrator team that is quite popular in France, features a finicky-eater alligator named Achilles, who gets tired of bananas and decides that he wants to eat a child instead. His parents, who are not your typical reptilian carnivores, try to tempt him with a sausage and a chocolate cake, but Achilles insists that he wants to eat a child and nothing else. And he spots one: a little girl playing by the river. So Achilles approaches her – and then, in the funniest of Dorothée de Monfreid’s many amusing illustrations, we discover just how tiny Achilles really is. The girl finds him cute: she picks him up, tickles his belly and tosses him in the river. So Achilles goes home and resumes eating bananas – but is he downcast? Not at all: he will keep eating the fruit until he grows big enough so he can eat a child…a prospect young readers are unlikely to dread when they finish this wryly humorous book.

      The Police Cloud has the sort of broadly rendered illustrations familiar from simple kids’ books of old, and its gently absurd story is thoroughly nonthreatening. It’s about a little cloud (shown with two blue eyes and a simply drawn nose and mouth that change color) that wants to be a policeman, so the police force gives him a try – but he is a cloud, so things don’t work out. For example, when he tries to stop a burglar, the other pursuing police officers can’t see the bad guy (because they can’t see through the cloud), so the thief gets away. The heartbroken cloud starts to cry – that is, to rain – and he happens to drift over a burning building, put the fire out, become a hero to the fire department, and…well, you can see where this goes. The important thing is that it goes there so ingenuously and so entertainingly. This is the first picture book by Christoph Niemann, who often does cover illustrations for The New Yorker. His style fits a kids’ book very well indeed.

      There’s nothing quite so old-fashioned about Cars: The Junior Novelization, which of course is based on the popular Pixar/Disney animated film – and which contains 16 full-color stills from the movie as illustrations. The story of Cars does have its charms, but it works so well as a film that it’s hard to see why children who enjoy the movie will want to read a version in book form. Lisa Papademetriou’s adaptation gets all the movie’s highlights in, but the frenetic pacing of the film is missing, as are the highly individualized voices that made the movie so entertaining. The book deserves a (+++) rating for trying to get kids interested in the animated cars’ antics in another format, and for following the script accurately. But the newfangled approach of Cars, the film, fits less well between covers than do more old-fashioned tales meant to be told in book form.


The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World. By Elaine Jackson. Maps created by Digital Wisdom Publishing Ltd. Scholastic. $17.99.

      Here’s a (++++) idea with a (+++) execution. Children today – even very young ones – are so computer-literate that they may have little use for a traditional world atlas. They may never even have seen one. The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World is aimed squarely at young people who are accustomed to glitz and to something to do, not just look at, at all times. It is an accurate, spiral-bound atlas that offers a smattering of facts about each part of the world; and it features a variety of things to fold, pull and turn, in an attempt to hold the interest of kids ages seven and up while helping them absorb knowledge about our Earth.

      Good strategy; so-so tactics. The front-of-book map, designed to give a sort-of-three-dimensional geological look at the world, is underwhelming. The facts about the world are well done and well compressed, but they do not make up the first part of the book, which is about maps and how they are made. This is actually more interesting than the information later in the book, but it blurs rather than expands the idea of what an atlas is.

      The interactive elements, which are the really new things here, are of variable interest and quality. A pull tab that lets you create a globe from sections – showing how difficult it is to make flat maps of our spherical planet – is fascinating. A pull tab on time zones gives a clear graphic demonstration of how the zones work, although the explanation will likely be too complicated for younger readers. And a tab that you turn to compare polar ice in 1980 and 2005 is a very effective visualization of the effects of climate change. But a similar tab designed to show hurricane rotation does not reveal very much, and quite a few of the interactive elements add little or nothing to the book: a fold-up world map showing the continents on top and, when folded, their populations; a small bound-in booklet about American wildlife; foldouts on the Channel Tunnel and the Olympics; and so on. Even when a special element does add useful information – for instance, you pull a tab to show how coral-atoll formation occurs – it is unlikely to hold young readers’ attention for long or make them want to return repeatedly to the book.

      Atlases are, above all, reference works, which means they can stay on the shelf indefinitely (subject to political and geophysical upheavals, of course) and be consulted again and again when someone needs information. The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World will not be very useful on this basis: it does present lots of basic facts, but when kids need information for research papers, they will find more of it online than here, and at least as easily. Nor does this book really succeed as a work to be read for pleasure: the interactive elements just won’t remain interesting for very much time, and it’s hard to say how well they will hold up long-term if they get used too often. The idea of updating the old atlas format to appeal to younger readers is a very good one, and this book certainly takes some steps in the right direction, but “ultimate” it emphatically is not.


Miki Falls 1: Spring. By Mark Crilley. HarperCollins. $7.99.

Warriors: The Lost Warrior. Created by Erin Hunter. Written by Dan Jolley. Art by James L. Barry. Tokyopop/HarperCollins. $6.99.

28 Days Later: The Aftermath. By Steve Niles. Illustrated by Dennis Calero, Diego Olmos and Nat Jones. Fox Atomic/HarperCollins. $17.99.

      Graphic novels are getting serious (sometimes), complex (sometimes), and far more interesting (most of the time). Many are tackling more-adult themes than in the past and – thanks to the influence of Japanese manga – doing so with drawings that go far beyond comic-strip style.

      Mark Crilley, who splits his time between Japan and the U.S., is heavily influenced by manga, as he has shown in his Akiko series for preteens – which started as comics and became novels. His new Miki Falls tetralogy is aimed at older readers, ages 12 and up, and seems – on the basis of its first part, Spring – to be willing to look at some fairly substantial questions about life and love while still being entertaining. Miki is a high-school senior who, in Spring, meets a new and mysterious student named Hiro and finds herself developing an insatiable curiosity about him…and other feelings for him as well. In the first part of the book, Crilley does a fine job – both in words and in interestingly framed and shaded drawings – of developing Miki’s personality and carrying readers along with the mystery of Hiro, who is strange, withdrawn and apparently frightened in some unexplainable way. Miki’s success at pulling somewhat closer to Hiro is well paced – but when Hiro abruptly rejects her and she begins following him (stalking him, actually), the book starts to lose its way a bit. The solution to the mystery behind Hiro’s comings and goings, when Miki uncovers it, is just plain silly, but Crilley asks readers to accept it at face value as the reality elements of the book take off into fantasyland. The transition is rather abrupt; whether readers accept it will depend on the extent to which they have fallen under Miki’s spell – and on what Crilley does with the upcoming second Miki Falls book, Summer.

      The Warriors trilogy is for younger readers and is more straightforward in both narrative and illustration. Based on Erin Hunter’s series about cats and their clans, this first book of a manga version focuses on Graystripe: how he comes unwillingly to live among “twolegs”; how he loses parts of his warrior nature and becomes more like a “kittypet”; and how he discovers his abilities again, and gains a helper named Millie whom he trains in warrior ways. Some of the forced perspective here is effective, and the human-like expressions of the cats are well-matched to their feline motions. But the story has none of the depth of top-rate graphic novels, and little of the sensitivity of Hunter’s original books – as readers will discover from a six-page excerpt printed at the back.

      28 Days Later: The Aftermath is neither original (like Miki Falls) nor based on prior novels (like Warriors). Its origin is in the film 28 Days Later and its recently released sequel, 28 Weeks Later. The first of these films is a zombie-horror movie with several differences from the genre norm: it is less about gore-filled violence (though it certainly has some) than it is about what it means to be human, and what unintended consequences even the best impulses can have. In the film, it is an animal-rights group’s attempt to free chimpanzees from being used as experimental subjects that unleashes a deadly virus called Rage, which turns its victims into the ultimate expression of anger and vicious violence. Uninfected characters respond with anger and violence of their own – which sometimes helps them survive and sometimes dooms them. 28 Days Later: The Aftermath fills in some of the holes in the first movie and in the times immediately after it takes place. It is considerably more violent, in some ways, than the movie itself, with all three contributing artists milking every scene of intense gore for maximum effect. The blood-red cover by Tim Bradstreet, showing London in flames, is itself effectively frightening. The three stories are intense – but will be largely incoherent for anyone who has not seen the film (and perhaps somewhat repetitious for those who have seen it). This book is an example of graphic novels reaching well beyond preteen and teenage readers to try to connect with young adults. It’s a fanzine of sorts: designed for a pre-selected audience only.


Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. By Eric Lichtenfeld. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.

      A work of considerable fascination for students and makers of films, but a case of analytical overkill for everyday moviegoers, Action Speaks Louder is a bold attempt to figure out what action movies mean, and how they mean it. This is an easy thesis to dismiss: they don’t mean anything – they exist strictly as mass-market entertainment, especially targeting a segment of moviegoers (primarily young men) for whom shoot-‘em-ups and blow-‘em-ups are about the only thing as exciting as video games (which, not insignificantly, are often tied to the action movies).

      This dismissal, though, is an oversimplification. Even if producers and directors seek merely to reach a particular audience and make as much money as possible, the way they reach that audience has changed over time, and a study of those changes can tell us something about the audience and about moviemaking in general.

      This is the study that Eric Lichtenfeld, a teacher of film and frequent writer about it, here seeks to do. How well he succeeds will depend largely on who is reading Action Speaks Louder. Parts of the book will resonate with everyone who has seen the films being analyzed. For example, after discussing Clint Eastwood’s urban-avenger film Dirty Harry, Lichtenfeld turns to that film’s successor, Magnum Force, which was originally to be called Vigilance. He discusses the daytime settings of most of this sequel (as opposed to the nighttime of much of the original), comments on the industrial backdrops that replace the “expressionistic shadows” of the earlier film, and points out that “frequently, machines and instruments (including weapons) are the most commanding part of the frame, even when relegated to the set-dressing.” From this and other points, Lichtenfeld concludes that the elements of Magnum Force “do not evoke the individualism inherent to the Western myth (and the previous Dirty Harry film), but rather, an industrial, if still violent, world.” This sort of analysis can actually make a re-viewing of the film under discussion more interesting.

      On the other hand, Lichtenfeld sometimes just seems to be showing off, as when discussing a portion of the animated film The Incredibles – “a sequence in which missiles seek and destroy a jet carrying Helen, Violet, and Dash.” Here, Lichtenfeld discusses the pacing by breaking the scene down into parts, and then those parts into smaller parts: “With each [portion of the narrative,] the sequence gets progressively more intense as average shot lengths decrease by one-third of a second—from approximately 1.67 seconds to roughly 1.29 seconds to about .91 seconds.” Okay, thanks for that.

      Lichtenfeld makes some excellent points about changes in action films through the years, and illustrates some of them with well-chosen stills from his own collection. And even when he gets into more detail than most readers are likely to care about, he does so quite knowledgeably. He dissects the innards of the Rambo series, the Mad Max films, Die Hard and its successors, the Spider-Man franchise, Taxi Driver, The Day After Tomorrow, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and many other movies – always with a critic’s eye and an expert’s industry knowledge. But it all gets to be a bit much after a while; and some of Lichtenberg’s conclusions make him seem a little too close to his subject: “What all good action movies must first share is that they are well-crafted. …[T]he filmmakers must balance ferocity and finesse.” Lichtenfeld’s own analyses seem to indicate otherwise: that finesse is all well and good, but can fall by the wayside, and often does, if there is enough explosive slam-bang action to guarantee big box-office receipts in the U.S. and, increasingly, around the world.


Retained by the People: The “Silent” Ninth Amendment and the Constitutional Rights Americans Don’t Know They Have. By Daniel A. Farber. Basic Books. $26.95.

      It is the job of constitutional scholars to pick, nitpick and chip away at frequently unclear terminology to uncover the nuggets of truth within. This is an ongoing process and often a contentious one. For example, the Second Amendment’s statement that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed is preceded by the phrase, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” Does this mean that only well-regulated militias may bear arms? Or does it mean that the right to bear arms is absolute, but was enumerated in the Bill of Rights because of the importance of militias? Much legal ink has been spilled on this matter; much blood has been spilled, many argue, because no interpretation has been accepted as definitive.

      So what are we to make of the little-known, rarely discussed Ninth Amendment, which states, in its entirety, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”? On the face of it, this says that the fact that some rights are enumerated in the Constitution does not mean that those are the only rights the people have. But is this really what the amendment means? What is the implication of the phrase “or disparage”? What did the Founders think they were doing with this amendment – and why is the amendment notable by its absence from Supreme Court arguments and from lower-court discussions about the constitutionality of such asserted rights as privacy, child-rearing, gay marriage and many more?

      Daniel A. Farber, an attorney, former U.S. Supreme Court clerk and author of several books on legal and constitutional matters, argues in Retained by the People that the Ninth Amendment means just what the words say – if those words are understood in the context in which the Founders wrote them. The amendment means that people have numerous rights, only some of which are specifically listed in the Constitution, and that the Constitution in no way eliminates or limits those rights simply because it fails to mention them.

      Farber bases his arguments on history: the first half of his book discusses the notion of fundamental rights as the Founders understood it. Farber then examines the implications for the modern United States of accepting his reading of the Ninth Amendment. And it does have implications – for reproductive rights, end-of-life decisions, gay rights, education and more. Farber parses his analyses as closely as you would expect a lawyer to: for instance, he argues that terminally ill patients have the fundamental right to refuse unwanted medical treatment, but not to obtain drugs for assisted suicide; and that people of either gender and any sexual orientation have the right to do as they wish in their relationships, but that there is no fundamental right to unrestricted access to abortion.

      Although Farber is clearly more liberal than conservative – he offers harsh words for “social conservatives” and the views of onetime Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and current Justice Antonin Scalia – his analysis is not really a political one (although he does his argument no good with snide asides against current officeholders). It is, however, rather abstruse, of interest to fellow lawyers and constitutional scholars but probably not to most lay readers. And Farber does not suggest any way in which his commentary could be adopted by sitting justices – except, by implication, that they could read this book and decide, on their own, to implement its arguments. The Ninth Amendment certainly deserves closer scrutiny than it has had in modern judicial settings, and Farber’s analysis could provide that if the right people were to read and accept it. But for anyone else, the book may come across only as an arcane (if well written) discussion of an amendment that itself seems to be something of a curiosity.


Stanford: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Roussel: Symphony No. 3; Bacchus et Ariane (complete ballet). Stéphane Denève conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is known today more for the music of his students, who included Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams, than for his own. The first volume of Naxos’ planned presentation of all seven of Stanford’s symphonies shows why. Stanford was a composer of impeccable taste – perhaps too much so. There is an overlay of politeness in his symphonies, an unwillingness to shake up the form as Brahms and Schumann used it, that results in pleasant but uninspiring music. Symphony No. 4 in F was written in 1888 – the same year as Mahler’s First – and first played in early 1889. But while Mahler stormed the heights and created tremendous controversy with his expansive approach, Stanford had much more modest goals. The first movement is very melodious, solidly orchestrated, with nothing harmonically daring. The gently flowing second movement is labeled Intermezzo and is so far from a scherzo as to be almost a slow movement. It is thoughtful and mostly quiet, ending softly and leading directly into the designated slow movement, which is disjointed at first but then pulls together thematically and instrumentally. This is not deeply emotional music: it gets the Romantic gestures right without really conveying strong feeling – it is pretty, not profound. The finale flows well and has some attractive folklike thematic elements, but there is always something a bit stodgy about it. It is workmanlike, but nothing in it soars. The handsome playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones gives the symphony a burnished presentation, but there remains more form than substance here.

      Although Stanford’s seventh and final symphony, in D minor, dates to 1911, the year of Mahler’s death, it looks back all the way to Mendelssohn in its light, scurrying opening. There is a bit of minor-key melancholy in the first movement, but the overall mood is thoughtful rather than intense, and the movement ends very softly. The second movement is again not a scherzo: it is marked, surprisingly, “Tempo di minuetto,” but has no strong ¾ rhythm. Indeed, there is little emphatic in this mostly passionless interlude. The slow movement is a genteel set of variations, featuring particularly good writing for woodwinds and brass. It leads directly to the fanfare-like opening of the finale, whose lyrical second theme sounds particularly pleasant on the strings. There is a certain elegance of orchestration here – but in this movement as elsewhere, much of the music is played at moderate dynamic levels, almost as if Stanford had externalized the once-famous reserve of the British.

      The French, on the other hand, are known to be more emotionally tempestuous, and the third symphony of Albert Roussel (1869-1937) certainly fits that reputation. France is not particularly known for producing great symphonists, but Roussel had certainly mastered the form by the time of this work (1929-1930). Although more in line with 20th-century musical developments than anything by Stanford, Roussel’s Third is scarcely forward-looking. It is episodic, with periods of intensity rapidly followed by calmer ones. The first movement flickers quickly from hard-driving sections to more-relaxed ones. The Adagio is balletic, swelling and subsiding repeatedly and – despite its designation as the slow movement – including a fast section that builds to a substantial climax before the music falls back into tenderness. The third movement features irregular rhythms and attractive percussion, and leads directly into the finale. This is propulsive, but with relaxed interludes and fine writing for the high woodwinds, and brings the symphony to a colorful close.

      Still, Roussel’s forte lay more in ballet than in the tighter symphonic structure. Bacchus et Ariane dates to the same time as the Third Symphony (1930) and comes across more successfully, precisely because Roussel’s opulent orchestration and clever use of rhythm are here given in snippets of sound, most of them lasting no more than three minutes. The ballet tells the story of Ariadne after Theseus, having defeated the Minotaur with her help, abandons her. Theseus appears briefly in the ballet, and there is a “Dance of the Labyrinth” early on, but most of the music is devoted to Ariadne’s discovery by Bacchus and the way she falls under his spell. Roussel prepared two suites from this work – one from each act – so when both are played, as they are here, you have the complete ballet. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra may not be entirely idiomatic in its handling of this very French music, but Stéphane Denève elicits expert playing, if not exactly the sort of sound that French orchestras deliver. Soft and sweet dances alternate effectively with more angular, intense ones. The ones near the end of the second suite are especially effective, as Ariadne’s sinuous, sensual dance is followed by a short and strongly rhythmic one for Bacchus – capped by a Bacchanal for the whole company and the majestic coronation of Ariadne at the ballet’s conclusion. Roussel did have talent as a symphonist, but it is in this ballet that his music really shines.

May 24, 2007


You Suck: A Love Story. By Christopher Moore. Morrow. $21.95.

A Dirty Job. By Christopher Moore. Harper. $13.95.

      Christopher Moore is an amazing writer, whose impossible characters seem real and whose impossible situations seem as if maybe they are real, too. But…

      Moore is laugh-out-loud funny – it’s almost impossible to get through one of his books without breaking into hysterics at least once – and yet he manages to consider serious and meaningful subjects. But…

      He has a style that combines elements of others’ sensibilities yet is like no one else’s, and includes the ability to invent some new and very creative curse words, which is no mean feat. But…

      There has never before been reason to include a “but” in writing about Moore. He is more of an “and” – funny and deep and clever and stylish and one of the few modern authors worth multiple rereadings and superb at characterization and unafraid to follow absurd ideas to their unnatural conclusions…and so on.

      But with his two latest books, Moore has become a bit, well, unmoored. He is creating a mythology. It works, but it doesn’t feel quite Moore-ish – even though the style, characterization, etc. are all there.

      Here’s the thing: In A Dirty Job (originally published last year and now available in a handsome paperback edition with a delightful glow-in-the-dark cover whose illustration, for better or worse, reveals an important plot point) and You Suck (published this year in hardcover), Moore revisits characters he has used before, causes some of their lives to intersect with the lives of newly created characters, and turns San Francisco, where both books are set and which is already a mighty strange city, into a metropolis of the absurd, the dark and the utterly inhumane. Well, and the humane, too.

      Moore writes so well that he could make a shopping list interesting. A sample list for these books might include batteries to power strong UV lights to burn the skin off vampires…a sword cane…frozen steaks and old answering machines to feed hellhounds…a titanium codpiece…you get the idea. When not writing shopping lists, Moore is even more interesting. A sample from A Dirty Job: “Charlie hadn’t really counted on killing a guy that morning. He had hoped to get some twenties for the register from the thrift store, check his balance, and maybe pick up some yellow mustard at the deli.” Another, for metaphor fanciers: “A blanket of fog lay over the Bay and from Pacific Heights the great orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge jutted through the fog bank like carrots from the faces of sleeping conjoined twin snowmen.”

      This is great stuff. BUT…A Dirty Job, which involves human beings becoming sort of assistants to Death, is a touch derivative – Piers Anthony’s seven-book Incarnations of Immortality had a series of analogous plots, although treated at much greater length and with less madcap humor. And A Dirty Job involves cameo and more-than-cameo appearances by characters from Moore’s wonderful 1995 novel, Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, including a comment by a police detective that makes sense only if you know the earlier book – and an appearance by Jody, the gorgeous vampire heroine of the earlier book, in a scene that is then repeated (from a different viewpoint) in You Suck, a young-vampires-in-love-and-trouble tale that is an out-and-out reader-requested sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, which remains Moore’s best book.

      Both of Moore’s latest novels are wonderfully written and often hilarious, but both have some disappointing flaws. In A Dirty Job, Moore makes much of his lead character, Charlie, being a “beta male,” not an alpha, so when Charlie concludes that he is destined to become the Luminatus – kind of the No. 1 Death – we know that’s not true and, because of the context, we know who will be revealed as the Luminatus. For Moore, that’s an uncharacteristic telegraphing of the plot – as uncharacteristic as some warmth that doesn’t fit the Moore style, such as a passage in which Charlie muses on the wonderful things done by hospice workers. As for You Suck, it has a singularly unsatisfying ending, leaving a variety of loose ends that will guarantee a sequel to what is already a sequel. Moore has never written that way before: every one of his books until these two has been entirely self-contained, each in its own wonderful way.

      Moore handles the books’ interrelationships with consummate skill, and his creation of a mythic San Francisco existing beside or in addition to the real one is quite wonderful. For example, the goth chick who works at a second-hand store in A Dirty Job has a best friend who is a major character in You Suck. But these are the first Moore books in which you will miss out on some things if you haven’t read other Moore novels. For example, the Emperor of San Francisco appears in both books – but makes much less sense as a character if you haven’t met him in Bloodsucking Fiends. And nearly all the characters in You Suck require you to have read the earlier book to understand what is going on.

      Make no mistake, though: these books are a delight to read. Moore mixes the sensibilities and pacing of François Rabelais, Jonathan Swift and the late Kurt Vonnegut, and his characters are deeply flawed in a thoroughly endearing way. But now that he is enlarging his canvas, interrelating novels and settings, he is doing something different from what he has done before, and there is a certain frantic, possessed craziness that is missing from Moore’s newest novels. They are a bit more studied than his earlier books, a little more carefully wrought. Perhaps that is simply a sign of maturity. But those who love Moore for his let-it-all-hang out immaturity should watch for his next work with a slightly wary eye.

(++++) HUMORS

Loserpalooza: A “Get Fuzzy” Treasury. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

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

      Ya takes yer humor where ya finds it, ya know? Neither of these books will appeal to everyone looking for a laugh, but both will bring plenty of chuckles to people who are in tune with their very different skewed views of the world.

      Darby Conley was fully hitting his stride by the time of the Get Fuzzy collections entitled Say Cheesy and Scrum Bums, and now those collections have themselves been collected in oversize “Treasury” format (with color Sunday strips) – allowing Conley to regale his fans with a heaping helping of offbeat and off-kilter humor. Rob Wilco, in whose household Bucky Katt and Satchel Pooch live (and usually dominate), is a pretty unattractive specimen of homo sapiens, and the front cover of this collection shows him just about at his worst: As the drummer in a Get Fuzzy rock band, he is hairy and pop-eyed and pot-bellied and generally not the sort of guy you’d want to spend time with outside the funny pages. Bucky and Satchel look a lot better on the book’s cover, and frequently within it as well. Here, for those who missed it the first time around, are the strips in which Satchel finally snaps because of Bucky’s unending insults and yells the cat into temporary submission. Characteristically, what puts Satchel over this uncharacteristic edge is Bucky’s constant nastiness toward Satchel’s friends – this is one mighty self-effacing pooch. The three central characters are more in character elsewhere here: Satchel names objects in the apartment, is traumatized at the possibility of moving, and takes up a collection for Martha Stewart when she gets into legal trouble; Bucky tries to get the better of the ferret next door (always without success), hatches numerous schemes that go nowhere, and gets the worse side of a wrestling match with a chicken; and Rob is totally ineffective at everything, except apparently at advertising, the field in which he works to be able to support the cat and dog in the style to which they prefer to be accustomed. If you’re a Get Fuzzy fan, you’ll love the book – if you don’t get it…well, just get something else.

      Get, for example, The Government Manual for New Pirates, the third Government Manual parody by Matthew David Brozik and Jacob Sager Weinstein. It’s a little too far on the juvenile side, and it’s not quite sure whether it’s trying to satirize government instruction books or actually write one for would-be pirates, but it’s clever enough for a (+++) rating. Most of what you get here is pirate-like jargon: “Land, and How to Avoid Lubbing It,” and “Here There Be Loopholes.” And even, in deference to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, “A Parleydox! A Parleydox! A Most Ingenious Parleydox!” There are also instructions on how to be a pirate – or, if you are one already, how to be a better one: “Every tar worth his salt – and vice versa – knows that X is far and away the most useful of all the letters; it is, after all, X and no other letter that marks the spot.” There is information on being a pirate in the Caribbean, being an Ice Pirate in the Arctic, and naming your ship appropriately (“Blood Vessel” and “A Painful Berth” are okay, but not “Idle Warship” or “The Love Boat”). And there is a great deal about rum. The book is strung together with a “political campaign” for pirate king, which is pretty weak string; but its main purpose, it seems, is to be intermittently funny while perhaps cashing in on some of the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to which it bears no direct (or much indirect) relation. Give it a yo-ho-ho or two anyway if you enjoy comments like this explanation of why pirates and parrots go together: “Parrot sounds a lot like pirate, especially to a pirate (or a parrot) who has been up late drinking.”


Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Can It Rain Cats and Dogs?; What Makes an Ocean Wave? By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Robert Sullivan (Rain); John Rice (Ocean). Scholastic. $6.99 each.

The Three Little Fish and the Big Bad Shark. By Ken Geist. Illustrated by Julia Gorton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

      There’s lots of wet stuff out there – nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is water – and two of the fine entries in the Scholastic Question & Answer Series provide loads of interesting information about the compound without which life as we know it would be impossible. Melvin and Gilda Berger immediately answer the cats-and-dogs question with a clear “no,” but they then point out that it can rain frogs and fish: some have been swept into the air by powerful storms, then dropped from the clouds along with the rain. This book answers some simple-but-puzzling questions, such as why the weather keeps changing (because the sun heats our planet unevenly), as well as some more-complex ones, such as what the difference is between weather and climate (the former describes conditions at one time and place; the latter refers to the usual weather in an entire area). Then, in their book on the ocean, the Bergers tell how high the highest wave ever measured was (higher than a 10-story building); why the Dead Sea is really dead, and why the oceans are salty (salts from soil and rock wash into the oceans but cannot wash out – and Dead Sea water is nine time as salty as ocean water, so almost nothing can live in it); and how fish manage to stay afloat (most have swim bladders that are filled with gas to aid buoyancy). Like all the books in the Scholastic Question & Answer Series, these two are short but packed with information: each question may get an answer that runs only a few lines, but there are lots of questions. Also as usual in these books, the illustrations are pleasant and unobtrusive – knowledge is king here.

      Families looking for a purely fictional ocean tale can try The Three Little Fish and the Big Bad Shark, which is a rather thin story with one significant factual problem, but which nevertheless gets a (+++) rating simply because it’s fun – and the illustrations are attractive. This is merely the tale of the Three Little Pigs told in an underwater version, with three small fish trying to make homes for themselves despite the attacks of a huge and fierce shark. The first fish makes a seaweed home, the second a sand home, and the third builds a home in an old wooden ship that’s just too tough for the shark. It’s cute to have the shark say, “Little fish, little fish, let me come in,” and have each fish reply, “Not by the skin of my finny fin fin,” but that’s just about all there is to the story. And the ending, in which the shark loses all his teeth by trying to bite through the old ship and learns to eat seaweed, is funny only if kids don’t know that sharks lose teeth throughout their lives – and constantly regrow them. Very young children will enjoy this book, but don’t be surprised if they outgrow it quickly.


Peak. By Roland Smith. Harcourt. $17.

Standing Eight: The Inspiring Story of Jesus “El Matador” Chavez. By Adam Pitluk. Da Capo. $14.95.

      Although one of these books is fiction and the other fact, they share a theme: young people rise above themselves to attain greater success than others ever thought they could. In Peak, which is a novel, the “rising above” is literal. The title refers both to the protagonist, 14-year-old Peak Marcello, and to the mountain peak that he is determined to conquer: nothing less than Mount Everest. The story starts not in Asia but in New York City, where Peak’s penchant for illegally scaling skyscrapers gets him injured and into trouble with the police. It also gets another boy killed: that boy, who collected newspaper articles about Peak’s exploits, decided to try to climb a building himself even though he had never climbed before. He fell off and died. Although Peak is not responsible, the legal system tries to find a way to make an example of him – until Peak’s father, a climber long absent from Peak’s life, shows up in court and offers to take custody of his son…getting him away from the city and the glare of publicity. All this is wildly improbable, but there would be no story if the judge didn’t agree to place Peak on probation until he reaches age 18 and let his father take charge of him. And so Peak’s real adventure begins, as his father takes him to Tibet for a climb up Everest – which, if Peak makes it, will make him the youngest person ever to reach the mountain’s summit. Much of Roland Smith’s book’s progress is drearily familiar from countless other coming-of-age novels: the setbacks, the successes, the personality clashes and the physical dangers of the climb. But the exotic setting is attractive, the rigors of mountaineering are well communicated, and Peak’s eventual discovery of the value of selflessness is satisfying, if rather predictable.

      There is less predictability in Standing Eight, but of course real life is rarely as neat as fiction. Adam Pitluk here tells a particularly gritty story of a Mexican boxer whose story could be that of many poor but determined youths for whom the boxing ring is a way toward respect (if not, to many eyes, respectability) and a decent living (if not riches). This is a well-told story but a rather curious one: Pitluk is a journalist but not a boxing writer, and his fascination seems to be far more with Jesus Chavez than with the sport (which not everyone acknowledges as a sport). Yet it is boxing that is at the center of the positive side of Standing Eight. There is plenty of material for the negative side – illegal immigration, gang life, a prison sentence, deportation – and Pitluk details this early part of Chavez’s life with intensity and sympathy. It is, in many ways, the most interesting part of the Chavez story: illegal entry into the United States at age seven, gang life in Chicago despite what seems to have been a highly supportive family and good performance at school and in athletics, and an eventual three-year prison term in Chavez’s mid-teens. The reasons for Chavez’s failures in society, despite a more solid upbringing than many troubled youths receive, remain a mystery here – Pitluk is more interested in moving the tale ahead, as Chavez relocates to Austin, starts training to become a professional boxer, and later returns to Mexico (where he is now considered a foreigner and endures some additional hard times, including being poisoned). Non-fans of boxing are unlikely to find this later, more successful part of the Chavez story as uplifting as Pitluk himself clearly finds it. There is something inherently positive in any tale of a downtrodden youth who eventually makes good. But Chavez, although he came from a poor family, was not really raised in terrible circumstances – his failures appear to have been mostly of his own making. His success was, too, but that scarcely makes his story an inspiring one.


Norton 360. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $79.95.

      Symantec’s new Norton 360 isn’t really new, but it’s clever marketing and very good technology – although at a high price and with some less-than-generous features. The product is essentially an enhanced version of Norton Internet Security, with the enhancements coming from the excellent Norton Utilities suite of software to help computers run more efficiently. From Norton Internet Security come antivirus, firewall, antiphishing and antispyware software and more. From Norton Utilities come backup and tuneup programs that protect data and keep the clutter on your PC down. The entire Norton 360 package comes with a new user interface – Symantec has been steadily improving these for years – that breaks down what you can do by function rather than by identifying what software is performing what task. Longtime users of Symantec products will find this a simplification, and perhaps one they will not much care about. But Norton 360 reaches out to people who have never before used Symantec’s software, perhaps fearing that it will be difficult to set up, use, maintain and understand (which indeed it has been in the past, although less so in recent years). This is the cleverness of the marketing side of Norton 360: It is specifically aimed at people new to Symantec’s forms of computer protection, and is designed to make them comfortable with a product whose interface is more intuitive than ever and whose operations go on beneath the surface, without requiring constant user updating or tweaking.

      The proliferation of free and low-cost protective technology is a problem for Symantec (and its competitors): why pay for antivirus protection, for example, when you can get a program such as Grisoft’s excellent AVG 7.5 Free Edition for nothing? The answer toward which Symantec has intelligently moved is: simplicity. Install Norton 360 (which takes 300 megabytes of disk space – not that large a number on the newest computers), set it up once, and you can feel safe and protected on a maximum of three PCs. At least for a year.

      Ah, there’s the rub. Eighty dollars is not a small amount to pay for protective software at a time when, if you wish, you can get good programs for little or nothing (provided you are willing to spend some time downloading, installing and maintaining them). The price seems particularly high in light of the fact that it buys you only a single year of protection – after that, you have to buy a license for another year. Furthermore, Symantec skimps on some features: Norton 360 gives you only two gigabytes of online storage for backups – a pittance for people who use their computers for photos, videos and music. If you want more backup capability, you’ll pay $30 for five gigs or $50 for 10. Given the fact that you can get two gigs of secure online storage for exactly zero – for example, through Mozy from Berkeley Data Systems – Norton 360 seems at best ungenerous.

      Symantec is taking a calculated risk with this product – a smart one from a technical and marketing standpoint, but perhaps not from a pricing standpoint. Norton 360 does what it is supposed to do, and does it very well; and its attractive interface and ease of use make it a very good product for families that worry about computer risks but are uncomfortable with any sort of technical involvement in mitigating them. But how much will those families pay for this level of peace of mind? How much is your family willing to pay for a product that protects effectively, but for only one year; and that backs up effectively, but handles only a small amount of the important material you have accumulated on your PC?


Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Albert Bonnema (Siegfried), Hernan Iturralde (Gunther), Franz-Josef Kapellmann (Alberich), Roland Bracht (Hagen), Luana DeVol (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Gutrune), Tichina Vaughn (Waltraute), Janet Collins-Lani Poulson-Sue Patchell (The Three Norns), Helga Rós Indridadóttir (Woglinde), Sarah Castle (Wellgunde), Janet Collins (Flosshilde). Staatsoper Stuttgart, Staatsopernchor Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $35.99 (4 CDs).

      There is no operatic experience so overwhelming, so exhausting, so utterly draining as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. In more than four hours, it retells the stories of its three predecessor operas and moves toward an inevitable conclusion related as strongly to Greek tragedy as to the old German and Norse sagas that were Wagner’s immediate sources for the libretto that he meticulously constructed. This is an opera so huge that it is sometimes better heard on CD than in an opera house, because a staging that fails to give the work a tremendous helping of grandeur can quickly make the whole thing seem overwrought and ridiculous – which the music on its own is decidedly not.

The new four-CD Naxos set is the fourth and final release of the Staatsoper Stuttgart productions of late 2002 and early 2003, each done with a different primary cast but with the same chorus and orchestra, and all featuring the excellent Lothar Zagrosek as conductor. The production photos show this as a “modernized” Ring cycle, with 20th-century furniture and important scenes occurring in such places as a home’s kitchen – a recipe for theatrical absurdity. But the musical performances are first-rate, and Götterdämmerung is their capstone. The skill of vocal acting here is remarkable: Roland Bracht makes a genuinely dark, shuddersome Hagen; Hernan Iturralde is a strong-voiced, rather simple-minded Gunther whose personality actually meshes quite well with the naïveté of the lighter-voiced Albert Bonnema as Siegfried; Luana DeVol is a passionate Brünnhilde, exhibiting the strength and determination of a Valkyrie even before her climactic final self-immolation; Eva-Maria Westbroek is an ingenuous Gutrune, as uncomplicated emotionally as her brother; Tichina Vaughn is an unusually sympathetic Waltraute, whose long tale of the already-dying gods actually evokes sympathy for some generally unsympathetic characters – notably Wotan, whose power has so thoroughly waned that he is not even present in this opera; and all the other roles are filled by singers who can handle Wagner’s notes well enough to get at the emotions behind them.

Götterdämmerung has some undeniably ponderous sections: for example, the Norns’ spinning of the tale of the Ring at the beginning is highly atmospheric – and necessary as an explanation for anyone who has not seen the first three parts of the tetralogy – but is certainly lacking in action. In this recording, where no action is required, it becomes a scene of high drama – although it would have helped immensely if Naxos had provided a German-English libretto (a German-only one is available online; but, even with the English summary included in this set’s accompanying booklet, it is inadequate for English speakers). At the opera’s other end, the tremendous cataclysm of Valhalla’s destruction and the River Rhine overflowing its banks is far more easily imagined than performed: Wagner’s music conveys the full drama in a way that perhaps only Bayreuth (when it chooses to follow the composer’s original plans) is able to do in a staged production. Zagrosek paces Götterdämmerung with a sure hand, and the outstanding vocal acting of the principals makes listeners feel the import of what is happening and ignore some of the patent absurdities of the story – which, after all, is a myth with resonance, not a true-to-life tale. This Naxos set is a noble Götterdämmerung indeed, and well-nigh unbeatable at the price. The musical and dramatic themes of this opera, and the entire four-opera set of which it is the culmination, will resonate with listeners long after the Rhine at last reclaims its stolen gold and the old gods are consigned to a deserved oblivion that they have brought upon themselves through their own treachery and venality.

May 17, 2007


The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy: Only You Can Save Mankind; Johnny and the Dead; Johnny and the Bomb. By Terry Pratchett. HarperTrophy. $5.99 each (Save; Dead). HarperCollins. $16.99 (Bomb).

      Terry Pratchett has a wonderfully convoluted mind. In The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, he puts it at the service of stories for readers ages eight and up – in particular, readers willing to see the world as not quite what it looks like, the people as not exactly what they seem to be, and their everyday lives as very far from ordinary indeed.

      These are books of the 1990s, but their fast pace, wry humor and offbeat story lines serve them very well in the 2000s. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and Johnny and the Dead (1993) are now available as paperbacks, with Johnny and the Bomb (1996) out in a new hardcover edition. You don’t have to read all the books, but if you start with one, you’ll want to. And if you don’t start at the beginning, you’ll wish you had.

      Only You Can Save Mankind takes place largely in a video game. Yes, in it. Johnny Maxwell, a rather ordinary 12-year-old who sees a bit too much simply because he doesn’t wear the real-world blinders of everyone around him, finds himself one day playing a (now old-fashioned) video game of the shoot-the-space-invaders variety, during which the leader of the invaders suddenly asks to surrender instead of being shot…which of course is impossible. Johnny has several friends to whom he turns when impossible things happen, and they are pretty much no use at all, as evidenced by their nicknames: Yo-less, who is black but “had been born with a defective cool”; Bigmac, a skinhead and math expert who gets the answers right but has no idea how, and doesn’t much care, and who has a tendency to drive too fast in other people’s cars; and Wobbler, who “wanted to be a nerd but they wouldn’t let him join,” who messes around with computers and usually messes them up as well. Through a series of events that range from impossible to merely extremely improbable, Johnny finds himself making common cause with the alien leader, which results in all copies of the game going bad as Johnny ties to help the aliens escape alive from nowhere to somewhere else. And then a ship appears in gamespace that doesn’t merely try to blast its way through but hovers thoughtfully around, and turns out to be piloted by a 13-year-old girl named Kirsty who likes to be called Sigourney and who knows everything and has the awards to prove it. And when Johnny and Kirsty make common cause and start interfering with (or complementing) each other’s dreams, if they are dreams, then things get even weirder…

      And if all that isn’t strange enough, there’s Johnny and the Dead, which does not include Kirsty but which again has Johnny sort of open to things that other people just don’t perceive, which in this case means dead people. Not ghosts (turns out the dead don’t like the word). Just people who used to be alive and are now dead, but are still, you know, people, and are unhappy that their old small-town cemetery is about to be destroyed so a megacorporation can build an office building there. These are not ravening fiends, though – Johnny teaches them to dance (Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, specifically), and they teach themselves how to use the telephone and call talk-radio shows, and there are some marvelous scenes in which it turns out that even nonliving things can have ghosts, or ethereal afterlife existence, or something like that. And Pratchett, as is his way, slips in a surprising message or two along the way, such as the realization that cemeteries are not for the dead but the living…

      Speaking of which, Johnny and the Bomb sort of mixes them up. The dead and the living, that is. Everyone is a year older here – Johnny is 13. Kirsty is back this time, calling herself Kasandra, and the rest of the dead-end gang is along for the ride, too, and this ride turns out to be back and forth in time, thanks to a very strange shopping cart pushed along by a bag lady named Mrs. Tachyon, whose name would be a hint if any of the characters in the book chose to take it. There are also some jars of gherkins, a cat with a bent spine and nasty disposition, and a few other oddments here and there. And there’s a genuine puzzle for Johnny, as in the other books: here he finds himself going back to the day during World War II in which Nazi bombers missed their target and instead destroyed an entire street in Johnny’s town, killing 19 people. Can he stop the killings? Should he stop them? All the usual time-travel paradoxes are trotted out here with Pratchett’s typical aplomb and fine sense of who-cares-what-anyone-else-thinks. Yup, Johnny and Kirsty/Kasandra meet themselves, or almost, and they travel with the other boys, except when they lose one, and Mrs. Tachyon keeps bouncing back and forth in time as well, and the whole book becomes a set of ethical/moral puzzles presented in terms of an absolutely marvelous adventure. In fact, that’s a description of the whole trilogy. If you have not yet made Johnny Maxwell’s acquaintance, what are you waiting for? Transportation back to the 1990s?


Underland Chronicles No. 5: Gregor and the Code of Claw. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Golden Hamster Saga, Book V: Freddy’s Final Quest. By Dietlof Reiche. Translated by John Brownjohn. Illustrated by Joe Cepeda. Scholastic. $16.99.

      Turns out they both held a little something in reserve. Suzanne Collins and Dietlof Reiche deliberately waited for the final volumes of their five-book series to broaden the scope of their work, bring in some new thoughts while further developing familiar characters, and provide satisfactory – if decidedly bittersweet – endings.

      The conclusion of The Underland Chronicles returns to the pell-mell pace and high intensity of the early volumes, after a somewhat disappointing fourth book (Gregor and the Marks of Secret) that seemed much like a placeholder setting up a final resolution. Gregor and the Code of Claw, it turns out, is very much worth waiting for. Here Gregor sees the final prophecy associated with his existence as an Underland warrior, and it is a frightening one indeed, predicting that the warrior will die. Gregor’s mother and his little sister, Boots, remain in Regalia, and Gregor knows he must try to rescue them and get his family home safely despite the prophecy’s dire prediction. The fate of Underland itself awaits Gregor’s actions, and as his dark side grows stronger, Gregor the Overlander needs to find his own place as well as dealing with a war to end all wars. And if that sounds familiar, it should, being a description in our human world of what became known as World War I – which of course did nothing whatsoever to end wars. The human world, and Gregor’s awareness of it, are increasing elements of the progress of Gregor and the Code of Claw, as the attack of the rat army in Underland finds parallels in the world above, such as the uncertainty of alliances: “Gregor found it difficult to believe the ants would join ether the humans or the rats. They had made it very clear they wanted both species dead.” Gregor finds he must make decisions he does not wish to make (even more so than in earlier books), and the final battle – involving bats, cockroaches, mice, spiders and others – leads to a deadly confrontation with the Bane and a very strange way of fulfilling the last prophecy. There is little joy at the end of this extended story, but that little proves most welcome after a very dark tale indeed.

      The Golden Hamster Saga is altogether more lighthearted, and Freddy’s Final Quest brings it to an appropriately upbeat conclusion, although not without a few tears being shed. Freddy Auratus’ journey here is not to a place, as in the fourth volume, The Haunting of Freddy, but through time itself. In fact, Freddy finds himself in a land of Crusaders and wild golden hamsters as he and his companions – Sir William the tomcat, Enrico and Caruso the guinea pigs, and Tjark the robot hamster – try to save a young boy’s life. There is plenty of humor here: “Time travel with guinea pigs is bad for hamsters (Freddy’s First Law of Time Travel).” But there are serious occurrences too, as the journey to Assyria results in Enrico and Caruso being captured and put on the Crusaders’ menu. The unexpected attraction between Freddy and a wild hamster named Zuleika points the way toward the eventual happy ending: “Zuleika rose to her feet, looking extraordinarily attractive. Those neat little ears, those dark, expressive eyes, that little pale pink nose, that silky golden fur… But I guess I’m repeating myself.” Still, there are adventures aplenty before Freddy can find his own version of the Promised Land – from which the destruction of the time machine guarantees he cannot return. Nor, in the end, does he want to, no matter how much affection he feels for the humans and other species with which he has been interacting. None of them, after all, is a golden hamster. And even though Freddy knows that living in the wild will mean the loss of his ability to read and write – because he won’t need it anymore – he realizes, “I probably wouldn’t miss it too much.” Readers of The Golden Hamster Saga will surely miss Freddy, however. Yet he is happy at the end, and what more could readers wish for him?


Evil Genius. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

Tomorrow’s Magic. By Pamela F. Service. Random House. $15.99.

The Darkwar Saga, Book Two: Into a Dark Realm. By Raymond E. Feist. Eos. $25.95.

      The goals that fantasists set for themselves frequently determine how well their books come out. There is safety in hewing closely to well-worn formulas, but little likelihood of breaking new ground or luring readers who have not previously been interested in the genre. But there is risk to moving beyond the clichés of the field – the risk of alienating fantasy lovers while still failing to find an audience among people who do not usually read books of this type.

      Catherine Jinks takes the risk, and if she had only had the courage of her convictions and carried through her unusual and entertaining idea for the entire novel called Evil Genius, she might have brought forth something really special. As it is, the book is well written, fast paced and exciting, but once it moves into familiar good-but-misunderstood-boy-in-danger mode, it is far less intriguing than it might otherwise have been. For Evil Genius begins with a fascinating premise: where do the bad guys, the really smart bad guys, go to get educated? Cadel Piggott is a genius, and one without many scruples. He lives with adoptive parents; his true parentage is a mystery. He “could picture systems of all kinds in three dimensions, with perfect accuracy,” and uses his ability to cause railway problems, traffic jams and such. He is small for his age – nine when the book starts – and has a girlish look about him that turns into movie-star attractiveness when he becomes a teenager. What he wants is to make ever-increasing amounts of mischief, not actually to hurt anyone but to understand better how complex systems work and how they can be manipulated – and if people do get hurt, that is just part of the process. In fact, Cadel starts looking at social interactions as just another complex system, soon figuring out how to get other people to make mistakes, start fights, get into arguments, and so on. Clearly he has a talent that can be channeled, and the first part of the book shows where he goes to expand and exploit his abilities, and how good he becomes at subjects ranging from explosives to guerrilla skills to forgery of old documents. This is great stuff, more so because Jinks keeps Cadel (whose name means “battle” in Welsh) endearing even as he learns how to do bad things and revel in them. But then Jinks loses her way, turning the book into a “misunderstood youth” story in which Cadel makes friends, reaches out to people, is kidnapped by real bad guys, and is eventually reduced to blubbering fear from which he needs adult rescue. This descent into conventionality turns Evil Genius into a far lesser book than it could have been. The planned sequel, Genius Squad, sounds even more goody-two-shoes and thus even less interesting.

      There is plenty that’s interesting in Tomorrow’s Magic, but it is less intriguing now than when Pamela F. Service’s work was first published in two volumes: Winter of Magic’s Return in 1985 and Tomorrow’s Magic in 1987. The new edition of the combined work includes Service’s whole story of post-nuclear-holocaust Britain and a bold attempt to return the nation to rule by King Arthur, whose reappearance in a time of great need has long been predicted. Service is a top-notch writer, and this tale of mutants, Merlin, Morgan Le Fay and the ordinary (or perhaps not-so-ordinary) humans caught in the midst of a good-vs.-evil battle is excitingly told and very well paced. In a world of fell-dogs and ordinary sheep, where roses and unicorns are both equally extinct, the attempt to re-establish order by returning to an age of good rule – and changing the outcome of the final battle in which Arthur and his forces were destroyed – is a noble calling that makes for a fine piece of high fantasy. But it was a better story 20-plus years ago. Aftermaths of nuclear holocausts were already the subject of far too many tales by the mid-1980s. Retellings of Arthurian legends have sprouted weedlike in the years since. Tomorrow’s Magic will enchant readers who have encountered few, if any, post-holocaust and Arthur-returns stories. But most of today’s fantasy readers have surely seen this sort of thing quite often enough. The creativity of Service’s book has largely evaporated, mainly because of circumstances beyond the author’s control. But for whatever reason, Tomorrow’s Magic now reads mostly like a well-wrought relic of yesterday.

      Raymond E. Feist doesn’t even try for anything particularly new in The Darkwar Saga, of which Into a Dark Realm is the second book (after Flight of the Nighthawks). There is nothing inadequate in the plotting or pacing of this book, but there is nothing distinguished, either. Feist is a master of a formula, and makes no attempt whatsoever to color outside the lines that the formula dictates. The description of Into a Dark Realm could fit many other fantasy books, with only some specific names changed: a murderous brotherhood’s reign of terror and attempt to foment civil war was stopped in the first book, but the victors have no time to rest, for a mad and powerful sorcerer has escaped, and the realm is threatened not only by him but also by “the most vicious warriors in the known universe,” who are bent on conquest because that, after all, is what vicious warriors are always bent on. A good sorcerer, his brave helpers and a mysterious outsider must join together to seek a way to defeat the enemy – and to do so must journey into the heart of the enemy’s own empire. This formula has served Feist and other writers well for years, and Into a Dark Realm will not disappoint readers who like Feist’s writing style (which is quite good) and hunger for a tale with whose outlines they will be familiar from the first page to the last. There’s little unexpected in this book, but little that will disappoint devotees of its genre.


Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry. By Ian Stewart. Basic Books. $26.95.

Charles Alston. By Alvia J. Wardlaw. Pomegranate. $35.

      “Mathematics rests on numbers but is not limited to them.” This is one of the deceptively simple statements that University of Warwick mathematics professor Ian Stewart uses to lure readers into Why Beauty Is Truth, a book that is packed with math but that non-mathematicians and even math phobics will find fascinating if they get past the idea that math is just a bunch of numbers. Hence Stewart’s statement. Now, there is plenty of math here, but Stewart presents much of it entertainingly and with reference to other elements of life: positional notation, for instance (the notion that a symbol, such as the number 2, has no fixed meaning independent of its context); or the excesses of the Pythagorean cult “that viewed mathematics, especially number, as the basis of the whole of creation” and believed, among other things, that the number 2 was male and the number 3 female; or the way in which the poet known today as Omar Khayyam – who was also a mathematician – incorporated self-deprecatory references to his math theories into the Rubaiyat. Most of Stewart’s book is concerned with the particular concept of symmetry, where it shows up in mathematics (in lots of places), and what contributions to its study were made by some frequently peculiar characters – discussed in chapters such as “The Frustrated Doctor and the Sickly Genius,” “The Mediocre Engineer and the Transcendent Professor,” “The Drunken Vandal,” and “A Quantum Quintet.” Stewart is fond of phrases such as “the beauty and value of…results” and of quotations including such words as “a solution, as precise as it is profound, of this beautiful problem.” Indeed, he sees beauty where others might see elegance or precision. Stewart writes well, and explains complex concepts as clearly as it is possible to explain them. But his reaching out to non-mathematicians is not really successful – not everything in the book is mathematical, but you have to wade through a lot of math to find the parts that aren’t. And the book’s title is a bit of a cheat, since Stewart never really explains why beauty is truth – or even that beauty is truth – but merely explores the subjects of truth and beauty from a mathematical perspective. To quote out of context the poet John Keats, whose “Ode on a Grecian Urn” supplied Stewart with his title, where this book’s subject matter is concerned, it is not quite “all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

      The beauty in Charles Alston is decidedly non-mathematical, although many will find it every bit as varied as mathematics, if only occasionally as symmetrical. Alston (1907-1997) was a skilled and influential African-American artist; this book is the sixth volume in The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art. Frequently in art books, there is a brief introductory essay, after which the art is left to speak for itself. Not so here: Alvia J. Wardlaw, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, writes quite extensively about Alston, his influences and those he influenced, and illustrates her chapters with a very wide-ranging selection of Alston’s work. “Wide-ranging” is, in fact, a fine adjective for Alston, who did strictly representational art; semi-representational works, such as a series of murals for Harlem Hospital and their excellent graphite-on-paper studies reproduced here; semi-abstract art, using elements of cubism and other styles; and entirely non-representational works, including quite a few called “Untitled.” Alston worked in a wide range of media: pen and ink on paper or rice paper, oil on canvas, oil on Masonite, and watercolor and gouache on paper. And he mixed media intriguingly, using, for example, ink and watercolor on rice paper to create some haunting abstracts. Alston was also a sculptor: a photo of his fine bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is included in this book. Alston was clearly proud of being an African-American, as shown in his mural, “The Negro in California History: Exploration and Colonization,” created in 1948 for the Golden State Mutual Life insurance Company, and also in scenes such as “Midnight Vigil” and portraits of individuals. But his best work transcends skin color, showing a fine sense of line, scale and shape, and the ability to communicate emotion even in such a work as an untitled 1960 abstract whose color scheme ranges from grey to black. Charles Alston is not a book for everyone – Alston’s art will not be to all tastes – but it offers a welcome chance to explore a contemporary artist whose skill is impressive in an unusually large variety of forms.