August 30, 2007


Make Cakes Not War. By Judy Horacek. Andrews McMeel. $14.95.

One Hot Chick: In Search of Mr. Right (Now). By Cheryl Caldwell. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

      These are books whose word-and-picture combinations add up to more than the sum of their parts. The words are all right, sometimes even witty, and the art is nicely done, amusing, even clever. But together, words and pictures are really special.

      The title of Make Cakes Not War, for example, is the four-word content of a single-panel cartoon showing baked goods raining down from the skies as a woman and two children dance happily in the delicious shower. The expressions of joy on the people’s faces, the variation on the famous “Make Love Not War” peace slogan, and the gentle absurdity of cupcakes and cake slices descending from the clouds, combine to create a powerful panel as well as a funny one. Judy Horacek usually does single panels, and sometimes purely for their joke value: the genie from the lamp says, “Please enter your four digit PIN”; and an arachnid hanging above a man’s bed says, “I’m your fairy godspider – I’ve come to grant you three wishes,” to which the man replies, “Please just go away.” The surrealism of the spider scene is sometimes the main thing that Horacek emphasizes, as in a panel showing a woman sitting and relaxing in a common piece of kitchenware that is also used as an amusement-park ride: “The giant teacup was still quite comfortable but ever since the arrival of the giant teabag she had been filled with a sense of unease.” Or Horacek pairs absurdity with a touch of philosophy, as in a drawing called “Nietzsche and the Monkey,” in which the philosopher says “God is dead” and the monkey asks, “Mind if I mash this banana into your hair?” Every once in a while, Horacek breaks up her single large panel into several (usually four) smaller ones, as in a sequence imagining that you can purchase “heart felt” and “sinceresucker” at a fabric store. There is bite to many of Horacek’s cartoons, but it is a gentle sort of bite – more a little nip, actually, that you realize only later is something you have really felt.

      Feelings are a big part of the dating scene, of course, and that’s the problem for Cheryl Caldwell in One Hot Chick, a gift-book-size hardcover that you deserve to give yourself if you are a woman searching for something better than everything you have found out there so far. The “chick” on the cover, standing in a frying pan, looks a bit like Tweety Bird on steroids and with lipstick. But the illustrations inside Caldwell’s book show characters that are all too recognizably human, as Caldwell laments – amusingly – the tribulations of the dating world: “I’m sorry, but I was looking for someone a little higher up (on the food chain).” “So many freaks…so few circuses.” Caldwell warns of being misinterpreted when trying to take up new hobbies: “Want to play a round?” refers to golf, and “Support your local hooker” is about fishing. The wisest comment here is one that it can be hard to believe while trying to survive the dating scene: “Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it.” Caldwell is one chick who can help you do just that – without becoming peckish.


Stardust. By Neil Gaiman. HarperEntertainment. $6.99.

Burying the Sun. By Gloria Whelan. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

      Neil Gaiman does fantasy so well because he refuses to play by the rules. Or, more precisely, by the genre’s long-established rules. There are rules in Gaiman’s fantasies – in fact, what the rules are and how they work is a big part of Stardust – but Gaiman likes to make up his own rules, not use some dusty old ones left over by other writers. Stardust was originally published in 1999, and is now available as a new paperback that includes illustrations from the recently released live-action film based on the book. Whatever you think of the film – whose screenplay Gaiman did not write – the novel is just as enjoyable a sendup of heroic fantasy as ever. It’s all about a young man named Tristran Thorn, who makes a foolish promise in the English countryside of long ago – a promise that takes him through a mysterious high stone wall and into the land of magic. What awaits him there is not your typical fairy-tale strange and wondrous adventure. Oh, it’s strange and wondrous enough, but in true Gaiman style, it’s a little…well, skewed. Tristran is seeking a falling star – which turns out to be a young woman – and the two must journey together so Tristran can return to his walled village (named, of course, Wall) and marry the girl for whom he foolishly promised to seek and find the star in the first place. Throughout the journey, Gaiman plays by fantasy rules and with them as well, as when Tristran meets one of the denizens of the magical world: “‘Thief!’ shouted a cracked old voice. ‘I shall turn your bones to ice and roast you in front of a fire! I shall pluck your eyes out and tie one to a herring and t’other to a seagull, so the twin sights of sea and sky shall take you into madness! I shall make your tongue into a writhing worm and your fingers shall become razors, and fire ants shall itch your skin, so each time you scratch yourself – ’ ‘There is no need to belabor your point,’ said Tristran to the old woman.” This combination of overstatement and deflation of fairy-tale tradition is the heart of Stardust, pulling the tale merrily along to its epilogue, “In Which Several Endings May Be Discerned.” Throughout all this, it is worth bearing in mind what one character points out: “These things have rules. All things have rules.” True – and figuring out which ones Gaiman is following, and inventing, is a major pleasure of this book.

      Burying the Sun has a fairy-tale title but a subject drawn from real-world history – although filled with quite enough horrors to make a grim (or Grimm) fairy tale. This is the third volume of Gloria Whelan’s Russian Saga, which began with Angel on the Square and continued with The Impossible Journey. This third book, published in 2004 and now available in paperback, is set in Leningrad (now restored to its old name of St. Petersburg) in 1941, when onetime allies Germany and the Soviet Union are at war and the city is subject to a long-lasting and terrifying siege. This was a turning point of the war – Mother Russia eventually repelling another seemingly invincible invader, as she had ousted Napoleon in the previous century – and an inspirational one: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” commemorates it. But for 14-year-old Georgi, all that matters is day-to-day survival for him and his family. Georgi is too young for the army but not too young to try to help save the city – just as his mother is helping by treating wounded soldiers and his sister is packing up the art from the Heritage Museum in hopes of keeping the masterpieces (and the cultural history they represent) safe for the future. Burying the Sun merits a (+++) rating for its moving portrait of a city under siege, but its adventure elements – Georgi decides that his role will be to find a way to get food into the city – are fairly straightforward, and its characters are not portrayed with significant depth. This may be fine for many readers ages 10 and up – the book’s target audience – but more-thoughtful preteens may find the approach a little thin and formulaic.


The Purple Balloon. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Decoding of Lana Morris. By Laura & Tom McNeal. Knopf. $15.99.

      Books that genuinely try to help young people understand and deal with difficult issues are so well-meaning that they are highly worthwhile even if not entirely successful. That is certainly the case for The Purple Balloon (a portion of whose proceeds will be donated to Children’s Hospice International) and The Decoding of Lana Morris (whose authors are giving 10% of their net proceeds to The Arc of the United States, a nonprofit advocacy organization for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities).

      The Purple Balloon is a simply written, understated attempt to deal with one of the most difficult subjects of all: death, specifically the death of young children. Chris Raschka bases his book on a story – recounted at the opening by Ann Armstrong-Daily, founder and CEO of Children’s Hospice International – that children who become aware of their own impending death, and are given a chance to draw their feelings, frequently draw a blue or purple balloon floating free. Armstrong-Daily says this is true regardless of a child’s cultural or religious background; and whether or not that is so, the escaping balloon is a lovely metaphor for release from pain. Raschka uses it to produce drawings of balloons of all colors floating, talking, clustering around each other and easing the passage of someone who is dying. The narrative of the book is simplistic enough for very young children – and therefore too simple for older ones, although the book is intended for all ages. “When someone dies, it’s good to have a family. And it’s good to have friends.” Raschka’s balloon drawings are more emotionally expressive than the text: the balloons look sad, have downcast eyes, even cry. “Good help makes dying less hard,” writes Raschka. For very young children, this book may make it easier to help, even if not easier to understand the inevitable question so many children – and adults – ask: “Why?”

      The Decoding of Lana Morris is written in the form of a traditional novel for ages 12 and up, but its subject is out of the ordinary – and explains the authors’ donation decision. Lana Morris is a foster child, her father dead and her mother an alcoholic, and she lives in a home filled with what are nowadays called “special-needs children.” Lana’s foster mother is cruel to her, and her foster father is overly attentive in ways that are making Lana increasingly uncomfortable. Unable to escape and not knowing what to do, Lana one day stumbles into a mysterious antiques shop – and the tale moves from gritty reality to fantasy. At the store, Lana uses her most valuable possession, a $2 bill from her father, to buy a box containing 13 blank pieces of paper. These are no ordinary papers, as Lana finds out when she starts drawing on them: what she draws seems to come true, and what she erases seems to become untrue. With this new sense of control over herself, her life and her environment, Lana starts trying to make things better for herself and the other foster kids; but of course, things do not go smoothly. Magic paper (if it is magic) does not prevent scenes like this: “Alfred is hitting himself in the face, not too hard, but hard enough so Lana knows he’s upset, and yet Lana feels a hardness take hold of her, the same hardness she saw in her mother when Lana would pour her mother’s booze down the sink or flush her drugs down the toilet, the hardness that made her mean.” The book is ultimately about wishes, good and bad, ones that work and ones that go awry, and how the physically and mentally disabled have their good and bad wishes, their good and bad days, just like everyone else. The ending is neatly knitted together – perhaps a little too neatly – but it is clear throughout that Lana will eventually be just fine, despite all the challenges she faces. That is an overly optimistic view of what happens to foster children; and the developmental disabilities of some of the other characters are downplayed unrealistically – although they are accurately portrayed in other ways. Laura and Tom McNeal’s hearts are certainly in the right place, even if their book takes several very difficult subjects and makes them seem easier to manage than they are in the real world.


The Intruders. By Michael Marshall. William Morrow. $24.95.

      This is a novel in which no one is who he or she seems to be. More precisely, the people are what they seem to be, but not who. The book opens with a particularly appropriate quotation from Jacques Lacan: “How can we be sure we are not impostors?” And that is what The Intruders is about – who is real, who is not, what it means to “be real,” and what makes a particular person into that person.

      This is also a murder mystery. A multiple-murder mystery. Michael Marshall combines elements of noir detective story with touches of science fiction and fantasy, wraps everything in the sort of conspiratorial trappings that keep people focused on the Kennedy assassination and supposed flying-saucer landing in Roswell, New Mexico, and throws in a bit of numerology to tie everything together: “Our mathematics was created to honor the power of 9. To the power of the Nines. But the Nines themselves have become weak in the meantime, spiritualized, have even come to believe in their own cramped version of the lies. To believe that our power must be constrained, that we must enter life as a newborn – must hide in plain sight, just another tree in the forest. But the forests have all been cut down.”

      It takes a while to get to this nonsensical existentialism, though. First, Marshall introduces ex-Los Angeles cop Jack Whalen, who left his job and the city after 12 years on the force and now lives in a small town in the Northwest, where he is trying to be a writer, without much success. Visited by a childhood friend who is now a lawyer – Gary Fisher, who knows or thinks he knows a great deal about some very shadowy occurrences – Jack refuses to help Gary solve the murder of a woman and her teenage son. Then Jack’s wife, Amy, goes missing: she’s on a routine business trip to Seattle, but has not checked into her hotel and is not answering her cell phone. And then someone else disappears: a 10-year-old girl named Madison, in Oregon. Pulled into these interrelated occurrences – if they are interrelated – by a suspicion that Gary knows what they have in common, Jack begins the traditional-in-this-kind-of-book exploration that, traditionally, leads deeper and deeper into an underlying evil.

      Marshall (author of The Straw Men, The Upright Man and Blood of Angels) handles all this with expert pacing and a blithe disregard for any absurdities he finds along the way (and there are more than a few of them). Some of his writing is downright clever, as when Madison – who has unsuspected inner strength – declines to go to the police station with an adult who wants to help her: “She’d never understood how easy it was to deal with grown-ups, after you realized most of them were basically frightened of you. Sure, moms and dads were okay with their own children, but they always watched other children out of the corner of their eyes, as if all other kids were wild and ungoverned. And children could be, Madison knew. Little girls had a power and light all their own.”

      The narrative of The Intruders veers, sometimes shakily, from first-person to third-person, depending on what events are occurring and who is at the center of them. It eventually ends in Whalen’s voice, with the many mysteries solved but the future as uncertain as ever – a standard genre conclusion. The Intruders is, in fact, little more than a well-written genre book, its attractions coming from the difficulty of figuring out which genre (or genres) it fits into. It’s clever rather than smart – interesting while you read it, but not particularly memorable after you finish.


Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Variations on a Theme of Haydn (Chorale St. Antoni). Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16. Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      Brahms experimented with several fairly large-scale orchestral works, among them the Haydn Variations and the two Serenades, before finally producing his First Symphony. Musicologists still argue whether the composer hesitated to undertake symphonic form because of Beethoven’s shadow (of which Brahms was certainly aware) or because he felt a need to develop his own musical language more thoroughly before creating a full-fledged symphonic work. There may well be elements of truth in both views. In any case, the practice pieces, if that is what they were, are wonderful in themselves; and by the time Brahms did produced a full-fledged symphony, he was clearly already a master of the form.

      There have been many recordings of the four Brahms symphonies, and the cycle now being started by Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony promises to be a top-notch one. This orchestra rose to its heights thanks to the collaborative style of William Steinberg, who led it from 1952 to 1976 in a manner almost diametrically opposed to that of his more autocratic contemporary, George Szell, in Cleveland. For a time, the best orchestras in the United States were these two and the Boston Symphony. Today, despite many different personnel, the Pittsburgh Symphony retains much of the warmth and apparently effortless sectional balance for which it was renowned. Janowski takes full advantage of the orchestra’s strengths in the Brahms First. The first movement’s introduction is warm and grand, with especially good wind/brass contrast and balance – indeed, the brass is outstanding throughout. The movement’s main section is propulsive if a touch lacking in grandeur. The Andante Sostenuto is more Andante than Sostenuto, but the slightly brisk pace works well, and the very sweet oboe is a big plus. Two-thirds of the way through the movement, the contrast between horn and violin is particularly affecting and well played. The delicate and charming third movement gives way to a very dramatic start of the finale, where PentaTone’s outstanding SACD sound is particularly helpful: brass warmth, string pizzicati, horns and much more all come through clearly and cleanly. Passionate strings and prominent brass are featured in the movement’s main section, whose intensity builds toward a strong, well-balanced conclusion.

      The Haydn Variations (still so-called even though the Chorale St. Antoni that Haydn used was apparently not written by him) also sound wonderful here. The relaxed, flowing opening is filled with excellent playing; its predominant impression is of warmth and expansiveness. By the time of the first Vivace variation, the faster tempo is a real contrast, and the second Vivace is quite fleet-footed. The slower Grazioso variation that follows is perhaps a little tense, but the work’s conclusion is strong and celebratory.

      Janowski’s recording was made earlier this year. Kurt Masur’s performances of the two orchestral serenades date to 1981, but they scarcely sound any less clear. This recording is one of those being released by PentaTone in their original four-channel format, a commercial failure that was so far ahead of its time that it sounds as good as anything being produced digitally today. Of the two serenades, it is the first, in six movements and for large orchestra, that most clearly anticipates Brahms’ symphonies. The Leipzig Gewandhaus players give Masur a broad and expansive first movement, filled with vivid details, and a beautifully flowing second movement, with especially warm strings. In the third movement, marked “Adagio non troppo,” Masur is certainly “non troppo,” producing a movement that is more pretty than profound, but still convincing. The fourth movement is delicate, with amusing bassoon details. The fifth, marked “Scherzo (Allegro),” is broader and larger-scale than usual and a touch slow. The finale is a large-scale, emphatic conclusion with attractively delicate treatment of the second theme.

      The second serenade, in five movements, is altogether quieter, more like chamber music, and its sonorities are unusual: Brahms omits the violins, as Bach did in his sixth Brandenburg concerto. The first movement here is gentle and flowing; the second, speedy and light, with attractive wind passages. The third movement – marked “Adagio non troppo,” like the slow movement of the first serenade – is lilting, then dramatic, with strong horn work, and sounds clearly like this work’s centerpiece. The fourth movement is gentle, with pleasant bounce, while the bustling finale often sounds like someone other than Brahms: there is a little Sir Arthur Sullivan here and a touch of Irish dance.

      Taken together, these two excellently recorded SACDs offer fine renditions of three of Brahms’ pre-symphonic orchestral works, as well as the first symphony, for which the earlier works may have been studies.

August 23, 2007


Positive Attitude: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      Now with all the collected strips in full, glorious (inglorious?) color, Dilbert has gone beyond cult status, beyond worldwide sales and acclaim, beyond snippets of targeted sarcasm, into actual philosophical musings. True, Scott Adams has offered these before in his book introductions, but they have usually been about such subjects as being anti-stupidity rather than anti-management (leaving it to readers to figure out what the difference is, if any). In this 29th collection, though, Adams actually opens by making a point that carries through the entire 128-page book: optimism in the workplace is largely indistinguishable from insanity. That is, an insane person keeps doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result (something Dilbert once explained to the Pointy Haired Boss when the PHB couldn’t get a mouse click on the Internet to do anything…until, many tries later, it did). An optimist repeatedly does exactly the same thing, hoping for a better result next time, without realizing what he or she is doing. This raises the interesting question of whether the insane person is less insane than the optimist, or only smarter.

      In any case, after his pithy introduction (that’s pithy), Adams illustrates the “optimistic insanity” idea repeatedly. There’s the departing worker who tells the PHB that she is leaving because “I was spending way too much time thinking about creative ways to kill you,” then optimistically suggests the PHB check to see whether she has cleared out her desk. There’s Wally, commenting on the company CEO receiving a $400,000,000 bonus and asking for the same, being told the CEO is worth a million times more than he is – then optimistically asking if he can have $400. There’s Dogbert publishing a best-selling book that’s “part fake autobiography and part plagiarism,” being invited to appear on “Oprah,” and asking Dilbert to go instead – for which Dilbert optimistically thanks him before being repeatedly punched on camera. There’s Dilbert, making a presentation far too complex for the CEO to understand, deciding optimistically that “I will feed you some lies that point you in the right direction.” There’s the minor Job Hopper character, who sports huge rabbit ears, quitting on his first day and optimistically saying, “I’m going someplace where my coworkers will never waste my time!!!”

      But Adams doesn’t merely skewer workplace optimism. He skewers plants. Turns out that the head of human resources is “the ficus tree that used to be in the lobby,” and a new worker named Phil O’Dendron is “a potted plant [that] has three stories that he repeats in an infinite loop.” As usual, there’s a cast of irregulars here, such as the Society of Insane Chicks, Stinky Pete, Betty the Bulldozer, the “technology left-behind,” and the Nemesis: “The nemesis function used to be handled informally. Now it’s a profession, kind of like project management.” There’s also the usual cast of regulars: Dilbert, Dogbert, Wally, the PHB, Asok the intern, Alice (“if you aren’t willing to punch a coworker for a chair, you don’t belong in this business”), and the world’s smartest garbage man. There are the expected props (the huge spoon of Phil, ruler of Heck) and the unexpected ones (the plunger of blame). Adams has come through a series of difficult personal problems – affecting his ability to talk and to draw – with his sense of humor intact and even edgier than before. The result is a book that not only looks good but also is “prettier than a skunk sandwich and cooler than a hobo’s mittens.” No, wait…that’s how Wally, during a stint in Marketing, describes the company’s product…


Clarence the Copy Cat. By Patricia Lakin. Pictures by John Manders. Dragonfly. $6.99.

Nicolas, Where Have You Been? By Leo Lionni. Random House. $16.99.

      Mice make particularly good stand-ins for kids in books for young children: they’re small, cute (at least in artists’ renderings), mischievous, and have a lot to learn. They’re not always the good guys, though. In Clarence the Copy Cat – originally published in 2002 and now available in paperback – mice are a problem, and a well-meaning cat finds a creative way to be the solution. Clarence is a gentle cat, and even though his parents are expert mouse catchers, he doesn’t want to hurt anything, not even a mouse. Clarence knows mice can be a problem – they “ate the deli meats and scared the customers” at the shop where he and his parents lived. But Clarence is peaceful and nonviolent and just can’t bear to harm anything. As a result, he is turned away from every shop where he tries to make a home. But then he turns up at the town library, where he is welcomed, and where he gains his nickname for his habit of sitting atop the copy machine and watching people come and go. Then, one day, a mouse shows up, and even at the urging of the friendly librarian, Clarence just can’t bear to catch the pest. So he hatches an amusingly wrong-headed plan to keep mice out – and when that fails, resigns himself to losing yet another home. But something unexpected happens, and Clarence inadvertently finds a way to get rid of the mouse without hurting it at all – thanks to his close acquaintance with the copy machine. Patricia Lakin tells the story amusingly, and John Manders’ illustrations fit it wonderfully well, giving Clarence both feline and human poses and characteristics. The mouse is actually pretty cute, too, but in this case it’s really just a mouse.

      Not so the mice in Nicolas, Where Have You Been? Leo Lionni’s lovely little 1987 fable is now out in a top-notch new edition, and it remains as sensitive and thoughtful as ever. Nicolas and the other mice resent birds, with good reason: the mice eat berries, but birds snatch the good ones before the mice can get to them. Nicolas decides to find a berry patch that the birds have not yet discovered, but instead he gets snatched by a bird and is carried away. He struggles, and the bird drops him – into the nest of another bird. But the three little birds in the nest, and their mother, are very different from the mean one that picked Nicolas up. Everyone tells stories and sings together, and the mother bird even brings Nicolas extra-sweet berries. But birds do leave the nest, and when Nicolas wakes up one morning to find his friends gone, he is so sad that he can’t even eat the luscious fruit they have left for him. Nicolas climbs down from the nest, finds his mouse friends, and tells them his story – leading them to shout for war against all birds when he talks about being grabbed and carried away. But then Nicolas tells the rest of his tale, and just as he finishes, the friendly birds show up, bringing berries for everyone, and old Uncle Raymond presents the moral: “One bad bird doesn’t make a flock.” It’s a simple and lovely bit of instruction, delivered as pointedly as the moral of an Aesopian fable but without sounding preachy – and being made all the more palatable by Lionni’s thoroughly delightful collage illustrations.


Vampire Kisses 3: Vampireville. By Ellen Schreiber. HarperTeen. $5.99.

Vampire Kisses 4: Dance with a Vampire. By Ellen Schreiber. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Midnight Library, Volume VI: Shut Your Mouth. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Teens and vampires go together like…well, like teens and slashers, and teens and zombies, and teens and other horror characters. This is especially true in the movies – all those Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street films and their imitators – but it’s the case in books as well. Ellen Schreiber’s Vampireville series fits the teen sort-of-horror genre well. It’s not nearly as bloody as the horror flicks, having a stronger emphasis on romance and family issues. But there are plenty of adventures here, and a fair amount of suspense.

      The third entry in the series, Vampireville, was published last year and is now available in paperback. Its focus is on the relationship between Raven of the mortal world and Alexander of the Underworld. Just as in teen-oriented books without vampires, this one has rivalries and troubles galore: Alexander’s enemy, Jagger, keeps showing up, along with his sister, Luna. Everything takes place in a town that Raven calls Dullsville (but that really should be called Vampireville, see?), with the main plot being Raven and Alexander’s search for Jagger and Luna’s home base, to try to stop them from doing nefarious things. “‘This isn’t a contest,’” says Raven when confronting Luna. “‘These are people, not prizes.’ Her blue eyes turned red. She stepped so close to me, I could smell her Cotton Candy lip gloss. ‘I want you to back off!’ she said in my face. ‘I want you to back off!’ I said in her face.” That’s a fair sample of what passes for style here.

      There’s more of the same in the brand-new fourth series entry, Dance with a Vampire. The dance of the title is prom, which Raven is looking forward to attending with Alexander. But Raven has family problems: her brother, Billy, has made friends with Valentine Maxwell, younger brother of Jagger and Luna, and that spells trouble. Equally troubling, Valentine seems to know more than he possibly could about Raven’s private thoughts. It’s hard to be sure how seriously Schreiber intends readers ages 12 and up to take what she writes. For example, when Raven gets disappointing news from Alexander, she says, “It hit me like a closing coffin lid.” And when she affirms her feelings, she says, “My gentle vampire wanted to protect me from the underworld, but gradually, through our time together, he felt comfortable enough to share portions of it with me – the Mansion, the amulets, his coffin.” This is a book in which coffin-shaped skateboards and crispy French fries appear within a few paragraphs of each other. Best to take all this with a grain of salt, or drop of blood, and just have fun reading it.

      Scholastic’s Midnight Library is aimed at younger readers – preteens – and is certainly intended to chill, but the frights are mostly on the mild side. In the sixth volume of three-per-book formulaic stories, Shut Your Mouth, the “Damien Graves” pseudonym is assumed by Sally Jones and Allan Frewin Jones. Their title story is about a candy store that sells certain special candies with alarming powers – powers that four friends learn about the hard way when they steal a box. “Good Luck, Bad Luck” is the title of a mysterious board game that seems to have just a little too much influence on real life – and that won’t let people stop playing it. And “Ghost in the Machine” is a messily plotted story of a new car, a GPS system that works by itself, a lightning strike, and electricity that attacks people – all mixed together without even an attempt at explanation. The characters in these tales are interchangeable and featureless – they exist simply to be the ones to whom bad things happen. The Midnight Library series is as silly as it is scary, but preteens looking for quick and occasionally frightening stories will enjoy this latest installment.


Acorna’s Children: Third Watch. By Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Eos. $24.95.

Legends of the Riftwar, Book II: Murder in LaMut. By Raymond E. Feist & Joel Rosenberg. Eos. $14.95.

Warriors: The New Prophecy—Book 5: Twilight. By Erin Hunter. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

      Fantasy epics seem to grow almost of their own accord, taking in new characters, new worlds and, increasingly, new authors. The first two novels about Acorna, the unicorn girl, in which the title character tried to figure out who or what she was and where and with whom she belonged, were written by Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball. All the other Acorna tales – Third Watch is the 10th – pair McCaffrey with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. These books now move along with all the assurance of a well-oiled machine, delivering consistent plotting, pacing and characterization. In the Acorna’s Children trilogy, Third Watch is the conclusion, focusing on Acorna’s rebellious daughter, Khorii, who in the two earlier books of this sequence (First Watch and Second Wave) went on her own star journey and found a sister she had never known. She found an enemy, too – more than one, in fact, as Third Watch makes clear. Here Khorii finds herself and her family under attack, both by a mysterious power from afar and by evil closer to home. Readers cannot really pick up the story with this book, much of which makes no sense without the context of prior events: “The Khleevi invasion on Vhiliinyar destroyed the waterways and conduits for the time machine. It kept it from working properly there, and it probably would here, too.” And only existing fans of the series will likely put up with some of the excesses of the dialogue: “You think I’m stupid enough to let the head of House Harakamian out of my piratical clutches?” But fans of the Acorna tales will welcome this wrapup of the latest sprawling installment.

      Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar stories sprawl, too, having started with Honored Enemy (co-written with William R. Forstchen) and now continuing with Murder in LaMut (in which Feist’s coauthor is Joel Rosenberg). Set in the land of Midkemia, this second volume focuses on mercenaries Durine, Kethol and Pirojil, who are enjoying a welcome respite between battles when they are ordered to guide a woman and her husband safely to the city of LaMut. This would not be epic fantasy – or a Feist tale – if the journey proved straightforward, and of course it does not. A winter storm traps the travelers in a castle filled with schemers, involving the mercenaries in an unsolved murder and possibly making the political future of Midkemia their responsibility. As so often in epic tales of far lands, the dialogue often seems overly mundane and Earth-centric: “When the ship’s sinking it’s time to get overboard and not worry about what you’ve got stored in the hold, eh?” But the fast pace and rapid plot turns of Murder in LaMut will keep Riftwar fans guessing – and reading.

      Erin Hunter has not taken on coauthors in her Warriors projects, but her tales of cats as epic heroes and heroines seem to sprout more branches than the average tree. The original Warriors series ran to six books; Warriors: Power of Three has just begun; and the fifth book of Warriors: The New Prophecy is now available in paperback. Twilight, originally published last year, takes place after the warrior clans have settled into new homes. The harmony that made the clans’ survival possible starts to disappear as territoriality and pride again become divisive factors, and the clans start fighting among themselves. As in epics featuring human and quasi-human characters, the protagonists here engage in their share of infighting, too: within ThunderClan, for example, Squirrelflight and Brambleclaw argue intensely, and medicine cat Leafpool faces the same struggle between love and duty that all readers of epic fantasy know well. Perhaps because her stories are intended for younger readers – ages 10 and up – Hunter provides more guidance to settings and characters than do most fantasy authors, offering several maps and a list of major members of the various clans. Still, it can be hard to tell less-central cats apart, and while the clans’ enemies are ones that make sense for cats – in Twilight, the major external concern is badgers – the overall structure of Warriors: The New Prophecy breaks no new ground. Still, it is a treat for feline fanciers, and Hunter remains true to the characters and settings she creates.


Mandarins. By Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Translated by Charles De Wolf. Archipelago Press. $16.

      Equally insightful into the Japan of the 1920s and the universality of human experience, the short stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) have attracted much honor within his native land: the Akutagawa Prize is Japan’s most important literary award, and it was a story by Akutagawa, “In the Grove,” that the great director Akira Kurosawa adapted into his film Rashomon. But Akutagawa’s short, deeply troubled life – he died at 35 from an overdose of barbiturates – is little known outside Japan, and his stories are also largely unacknowledged. Three of the 15 in Mandarins have never before been published in English: “An Evening Conversation,” “An Enlightened Husband” and “Winter.”

      Akutagawa’s stories are not for everyone, certainly not for everyone in the Occident, being in many ways bound up with Japanese customs and societal expectations. Yet they strike universal chords as well. The title tale here, for example, includes the sort of angst-ridden question that many other writers have asked with less elegance: “The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia – if they were not the very symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what were they?” The story “At the Seashore,” far from beginning with sun and pleasure, opens with an ellipsis and a sentence at odds with what one normally expects in a beach tale: “…It went on raining.” In “An Evening Conversation,” men sit around discussing life, love and art in a format that (as Charles De Wolf explains in his notes) is part of a long Japanese tradition, but is also recognizably related to Victorian English stories set in men’s clubs (and sometimes expanded quite famously, as in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days). “Autumn” is a story about a woman’s literary talent, the ways in which her marriage to an uncaring husband damage her, and her eventual “tranquility of bleak resignation.” In “Winter,” the pressures of a conformist society and its effects on family relations are shown with a kind of cold simplicity. This story, which Akutagawa finished only a month before his death, has clear autobiographical elements, according to De Wolf – and so do a number of the others. But De Wolf, a professor at Keio University, wisely leaves this information for the back of the book, realizing that the stories must succeed or fail in English based on their ability to communicate across the years, across the miles, and across the decades.

      Many of them do so quite effectively. Others, more steeped in Japanese culture or minute descriptions of long-vanished elements of Japanese life, seem more exotic but of narrower interest. Yet all have familial elements to which modern readers can relate. “The Garden,” for example, may not be immediately clear when it mentions “the retired head of the family” and says, “To his eldest he had relinquished his rights as householder.” But within a few paragraphs, this family’s story has easy-to-understand elements: “At the end of the next spring, the second son absconded with money from his adoptive parents and ran off with a tavern maid. In the autumn, the wife of the eldest gave premature birth to a baby boy.” The ways in which the various individuals and families, all imperfect and flawed, try to get by as society changes around them, are the elements that give Akutagawa’s stories depth and continuing appeal – and perhaps, through this Archipelago Press edition, greater familiarity.


Ives: Variations on “America”; Overture and March “1776”; They Are There! (A War Song March); Old Home Days: Suite for Band; March Intercollegiate; Fugue in C; March: “Omega Lambda Chi”; Variations on “Jerusalem the Golden”; A Son of a Gambolier; Postlude in F;’ “Country Band” March; Decoration Day; Charlie Rutlage; The Circus Band; Runaway Horse on Main Street; March No. 6, with “Here’s to Good Old Yale”; “The Alcotts.” United States Marine Band conducted by Colonel Timothy W. Foley. Naxos. $8.99.

      You’ve never heard Ives quite like this. Here are 21 arrangements (five of them as movements within a suite) of various and sundry Ives works, sketches, bits and pieces, arranged and transcribed and otherwise made to fit the polished perfectionism of “The President’s Own,” as the United States Marine Band is known. This is a band with a very elegant sound, beautifully rounded and without rough edges. Its playing is well-mannered and refined – and, you might well think, exactly wrong for the thumb-your-nose-at-the-musical-establishment sonic world of Ives.

      Yet this is a marvelous disc, partly because a great deal of the music is unfamiliar; partly because much of it is early, tonal Ives; partly because the arrangements are excellent; but mostly because the United States Marine Band – although its inability to cut loose makes a CD of it performing Ives seem an incongruity – plays these pieces so superbly.

      The most interesting thing that ardent Ivesians will learn from this disc is that the composer was quite capable of writing a march as good as Sousa’s. “March Intercollegiate,” with its strong military beat, is a gem that might have been written by the March King himself. “March: ‘Omega Lambda Chi,’” written for a nonexistent Yale fraternity that was used as a joke on incoming freshmen, is also Sousa-like, sounding much like “The Liberty Bell” at start and finish. For a greater blend of the Sousa sound with Ives’ rough-hewn humor, there is “March No. 6, with ‘Here’s to Good Old Yale,’” in which the straitlaced elements of Sousa are somewhat subsumed…or subdued.

      Other march tunes here are more recognizably Ivesian. “Overture and March ‘1776’” moves from a subtle, quiet opening to loud dissonances with many off-beats, and prominently includes one of Ives’ favorite tunes, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” That song also figures in “They Are There! (A War Song March,” a snappy pastiche of patriotic tunes that ends with “Reveille,” much as Ives’ Second Symphony does. “A Son of a Gambolier” is a march, too: a light and flippant piece with some Sousa-like elements – but greater intricacy. “The Circus Band,” a quickstep with off-rhythms, is great fun, and the players handle it without missing a beat. But perhaps this is a case of being a touch too good: it sounds odd when Ives seems this easy to play. That is also the case with the raucous “‘Country Band’ March,” which eventually became part of “Three Places in New England.” This is bright, jolly, highly complex music that just shouldn’t sound so darned smooth as it does here – although it must be said that this is a performance in which you can actually hear all the tunes (a real rarity).

      There are a number of Ives’ solemn pieces interspersed among the marches. The four-voice “Fugue in C” is warm and hymnlike, building slowly, then suddenly reaching a climax before fading out. “Variations on ‘Jerusalem the Golden’” is warm and hymnlike as well, quiet almost throughout, and ending with music clearly meant to go with the word “amen.” “Postlude in F” is a more chromatic hymn. And “Decoration Day” (the second movement of “Four New England Holidays”) – whose title refers to the holiday now called Memorial Day – sounds particularly affecting in this arrangement. It starts seriously and with solemnity, played with feeling and close attention to the appearance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Taps” and other tunes. Then a strong march (as people go home from the cemetery) bursts through – only to subside into memory and thoughtfulness.

      As for the remaining pieces: “Old Home Days” consists of five short movements based on early Ives works – a short, warm Waltz; a double march called “The Opera House and Old Home Day”; a quiet, churchlike interlude called “The Collection”; a funereal but not particularly sad “Slow March”; and an eruption of gaiety in which Ives plays games with the song, “London Bridge Is Fallen Down!” “Charlie Rutlage” starts and ends as a cowboy tune, but its central section is packed with dissonance and dramatic cross-rhythms. “Runaway Horse on Main Street” is rhythmically very complex as well, although these players handle it with apparent ease.

      The CD’s opening and closing pieces make appropriate bookends. “Variations on ‘America’” introduces the disc in a version whose intensity and humor lie somewhere between Ives’ original for organ and William Schuman’s well-known and somewhat overly bright version for full orchestra. The percussion is a highlight here – parts of the piece are genuinely funny. At disc’s end is the pensive “The Alcotts” from the “Concord Sonata,” played with hearthside warmth and close attention to the interruptions of the famed Beethoven’s Fifth theme, to which Ives gave an important role.

      A sonic delight, this CD is perhaps not ideal for Ives purists – but it is purely enjoyable from start to finish.

August 16, 2007


Clara & Seňor Frog. By Campbell Geeslin. Illustrations by Ryan Sanchez. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Wicked Big Toddlah. By Kevin Hawkes. Knopf. $16.99.

      Remember Horton the Elephant’s famous line, “A person’s a person, no matter how small”? These two books will have you thinking, in the same poetic rhythm, “A family’s a family, no matter how odd.” The point of both books is acceptance of the peculiarities that outsiders may think would make family life impossible – but that in fact make it more close-knit.

      Clara & Seňor Frog is a charming book about a single mother and her daughter, Clara – drawn by Ryan Sanchez with an outsize, egg-shaped head. In Campbell Geeslin’s story, Clara’s mom, a magician’s assistant, is courted by a large man whom Clara describes as follows: “His head is big. His eyes stick out. His belly is a barrel. This giant looks like a frog!” The man even dresses in bright green clothing. It turns out that he is a famous artist, and he makes real magic – Clara even believes that a fly he has painted on a picture of a watermelon is a real insect. Soon Clara is modeling for Seňor Frog, who creates amazing pictures by mixing her real-life appearance with his own imagination. “I am not a photographer,” the artist explains. “I picture you in a dream, and then I paint what I see.” This is a wonderful description of the magic of art, and Clara recognizes it for what it is. Her mother and Seňor Frog marry, and both Clara and Mamá are incorporated into the artist’s work. And soon Clara begins doing paintings of her own, mixing real-life elements – a parrot, a cat – with fanciful ones. “We can make magic any time we want,” says Seňor Frog in a wonderful summation of what art is all about. This book is an adventure without any of the standard “quest” elements. Its triumph is quiet and deeply meaningful; its characters, each a hero in his or her own way, are both servants and masters of Art, which transcends them all. What a delightful way to build a family!

      The delights are different, and in a big way, in The Wicked Big Toddlah, a tall (and wide and large) tale on a scale that you can only find Down East – that is, in Maine. It is the snowiest day of the year in that frigid state when a new baby arrives – a really huge new baby who immediately grasps his big sister’s hand (and most of her arm) and lifts her right off the ground. Toddie, as everyone calls the baby, is brought home atop the “Grant’s Lumbah” truck’s flatbed (the Maine pronunciations, indicated by Kevin Hawkes’ spelling, are part of the fun here). Just how big is Toddie? Well, at one point he has trouble sleeping in the special cradle made just for him, despite the best efforts of three musicians, two cradle rockers, one person with a pacifier, one whispering into his ear, one hanging from the ceiling, and two getting his bottle ready – all 10 of whom would fit into the cradle with plenty of room to spare. Just imagine what has to happen when Toddie needs a diaper change! (Hawkes imagines hazardous-waste suits and a helicopter bearing a giant bottle of baby powder.) But despite everything – which includes Toddie getting covered in mud and maple syrup, and picking up and playing with real bears and moose because he thinks they are toys – the family cooperates to keep this wicked big toddlah safe, healthy and happy. Because that’s what families do.


2008 Calendars: Engagement – Dilbert; Day-to-Day – Dilbert: He Only Talks When He Listens; Cartoons from “The New Yorker”; Zits; Non Sequitur; Eats, Shoots & Leaves; Wall – Grey’s Anatomy. Andrews McMeel. $12.99 (engagement); $11.99 each (day-to-day); $12.99 (wall).

      The year 2007 may not be much more than half over, but why not start looking ahead to 2008 anyway? The folks at Andrews McMeel have, with the result that you can already anticipate many ways to tickle your funnybone, take out your work-related frustrations, enjoy celebrity-laden medical soap opera, or even learn a little something next year.

      Engagement calendars – desktop, lie-flat books with spaces in which to write appointments and notes – have diminished in popularity as electronic organizers have become more widely used. But there’s still something to be said for a colorful, spiral-bound book that helps keep the office in perspective through full-color Dilbert cartoons on every left-hand page – and small spaces for daily notes on the right. The spaces really are small, encouraging you to keep appointments and meetings to a minimum or develop really tiny handwriting. Either way, this helps keep work in its place.

      Of course, there are other ways to make Scott Adams’ strip a part of your daily life. The day-to-day calendar, with tear-off pages, lets you revel (if that’s the right word) in a different Dilbert strip every day, realizing from the Kafkaesque situations in which the characters perpetually find themselves that your own workplace is a joy by comparison. Hopefully.

      Work is only one subject in Cartoons from “The New Yorker,” which also includes typical New Yorker takes on psychiatry, home life and, especially, relationships. This is a calendar in which an elephant lies on a shrink’s couch, lamenting that no one acknowledges him even when he’s right in the room; where a couple walks side by side as one remarks, “If you’re bored with yourself, imagine how I feel”; where money and sex get the same wry treatment as dating and politics…to which, come to think of it, they are closely related.

      Prefer something a little more family-oriented? Try the day-to-day calendar based on the wonderful Zits strip by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. If you have a teenager or ever were a teenager, you’ll enjoy a daily dose of the life of the Duncans, featuring 15-year-old Jeremy, who eats everything in sight and many things not in sight yet; takes notes on his body instead of on paper, so he can’t wash up for dinner; declines to discuss chores, but asks his long-suffering parents if they would like to leave him voice mail; and generally embarrasses everyone but himself. And sometimes himself, too.

      To get a dose of something entirely new every day, a great choice is the Non Sequitur calendar, since the strip’s title means “it does not follow.” Day follows day, true, but why should there be a connected narrative throughout the year? Wiley Miller does have some recurring characters, such as the little girl, Danae, who starts her own religion. But most of the Non Sequitur panels will simply give you an offbeat angle on life: a bar calling itself “reality rehab center,” an obsessive-compulsive chicken that can’t stop crossing the road, a superhero named Litigator Man, and lots more.

      Or maybe you’d prefer a verbal pick-me-up instead of an illustration. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is informative, fascinating and a great deal of fun in showing just how important punctuation can be. The title – which is also the title of the Lynne Truss book on which the calendar is based – contains a misplaced comma in a description of a panda’s diet. If you want your pandas harmless rather than equipped with weaponry and ready to use it, and you want to find out not only how to use commas, apostrophes and more but also why, this “zero tolerance approach to punctuation” has the answers.

      Too serious, even if delivered in a lighthearted way? Well, how about something totally mindless, such as a wall calendar featuring a dozen stars of one of the most popular of the steamy prime-time soap operas, Grey’s Anatomy? For a whole month, you can look at one large photo and multiple small ones of every major character, from Dr. Meredith Grey herself to Drs. Derek Shepherd, George O’Malley and Alex Karev on the male side, and Drs. Calliope Torres, Miranda Bailey and Isobel Stevens among the females. Fans will revel in the full-color images and brief text relating to each character – and there’s plenty of room to jot down real-world notes on every day of every month.


Lives of the Planets: A Natural History of the Solar System. By Richard Corfield. Basic Books. $27.50.

      The notion of writing a biography of inanimate (well, mostly inanimate) objects is an outlandish one, and Richard Corfield deserves a great deal of credit for not only tackling the idea but also doing so with great success. Planet by planet, celestial object by celestial object, Corfield explores our solar system in a particularly attractive way. The science here is impeccable, but the stories are so fascinating that the facts are almost beside the point (even though they really are the point). Corfield writes as if wanting to introduce readers to a fascinating group of slightly dotty relatives, each having enough quirks and oddments to be worth…well, a full chapter in a book.

      There is a poetic sensibility to Corfield’s work that removes it immediately from the realm of dry science. Mercury is “the piper at the gates of dawn,” Jupiter “the eye of the universe.” Earth and its moon are “the Wizards of Earthsea,” a perfect description that borrows quite deliberately from Ursula LeGuin’s novel of the same name. In fact, Corfield makes very effective references to a variety of fictional works in order to explain scientific facts. For example, he points out that for many years, “The scientific thinking…suggested that Mercury’s proximity to the sun would make it the mineral treasure house of the solar system. It was an idea that permeated the science fiction of the time, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s classic short story ‘Runaround.’” Then Corfield shows how later scientific research debunked earlier beliefs – and then, as if coming full circle, he explains why it is possible that “when the time comes for human interstellar travel, we will head to Mercury…for the metals necessary to build our starships.”

      This is fascinating material, presented by Corfield as if he has made the personal acquaintance of each part of our solar system and wants to give readers an informal introduction. It’s not just the stuff “out there” that gets this treatment, either – the stuff on Earth gets it, too: “Stonehenge is a Stone Age supercomputer whose read-only memory consists of thirty-five megaliths, each weighing more than twenty-five tons. Its RAM is an enigmatic set of concentric holes in the ground, its monitor is a solitary megalith standing some distance apart from the others, and its hard drive is a 5 trillion-ton sphere that rotates once every twenty-four hours.” Can you think of Stonehenge as just a mysterious collection of rocks after reading this description?

      Corfield, a Visiting Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research at the Open University, carries his stylistic flair to the farthest reaches of our little bit of the universe. His Mars chapter refers to two separate SF works – it is entitled “The Martian Chronicles,” after Ray Bradbury, and has several sections that refer to Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man.” But in many ways his discussions of the less-known planets are the most intriguing of all. “The Harmonies of the Ice Giants: Uranus and Neptune” begins by noting that “the greatest astronomical discovery of the eighteenth century was made by a man whose first love was music,” then regales readers with mysteries: the most varied terrain in the entire solar system is on the Uranian moon Miranda; Uranus has a magnetic field in a strange corkscrew shape, and it spins on its back – the poles get more energy from the sun than the equator does. What wonders are here, and what wondrous descriptions! Although there may be no life as we know it elsewhere in the solar system, Corfield makes the very rocks scattered throughout the sun’s gravity well come alive themselves.


Peanut. By Linas Alsenas. Scholastic. $16.99.

Dreaming in Libro: How a Good Dog Tamed a Bad Woman. By Louise Bernikow. Da Capo. $22.95.

      For children and adults alike, it can sometimes be more pleasant to seek the companionship of animals than humans. And there can at times be more rewards to human-animal relationships than to human-human ones. But the attitude toward these interspecies attachments changes when books for children become ones for adults, and not always for the better. The underlying simplicity of the love of humans for their animal companions – and the love humans receive in return – can sometimes be better told in a simple story of words and pictures than in a larger one designed to display human angst and uncertainty. Thus, Peanut is a thoroughly delightful book about people and animals, while Dreaming in Libro is a somewhat overdone, rather pretentious and too-self-important one.

Linas Alsenas’ Peanut is simply the story of a lonely old lady named Mildred, who one day is lucky enough to find a stray puppy and bring it home. Except that it isn’t a puppy – it’s a baby elephant. Does Mildred realize? Does it matter? She loves the supposed puppy, which she names Peanut after its favorite food, and the two develop a contented life together, with Peanut watering the plants (with his trunk), sitting on the couch with Mildred, and taking walks in the park. Mildred notices that, unlike other dogs, Peanut does not play games or roll over or bark; but she loves him, and they enjoy life with each other…until a circus man finds Peanut in the park and identifies him as a missing circus elephant. The man is quite kind to Mildred, as are the other circus people when Mildred goes there to see Peanut perform; but something big, even elephantine, has left Mildred’s life. Still, there is a happy ending when Mildred, again alone in the park, spots a stray…well, she thinks it’s a kitten… Hope springs eternal, particularly when people hope for the uncomplicated affection that comes from joining one’s life to that of a companion animal.

One should not, however, make more of the relationship – or of one’s own part in it – than it can bear. Louise Bernikow is an overdoer of things, as she makes amply clear in her chronicle of eight years of life with an abandoned boxer that follows her home. Dreaming in Libro has enough heart-tugging and sincere moments to earn a (+++) rating, but it has plenty of frustratingly self-centered, gaze-at-my-own-navel, celebrate-the-New-York-City-experience ones, too. Indeed, Bernikow’s book will be most enjoyable for dyed-in-the-wool (or in-the-fur) New Yorkers, since she loads it with tales of the Hamptons, of city scenes galore, even of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. Bernikow is self-described as a writer, which is fine – she wrote this book, after all, plus a previous one about Libro, plus half a dozen others – but she is irritatingly smug about what she does. “It is an odd failing of historians and biographers that the presence of a dog in a writer’s life goes largely unnoticed by them. …If inspiration and support for male writers has come from benevolent, maternal, sometimes sexy, female Muses, what then has it been for women? I say the dog.” Serious? Half-serious? Just kidding? Bernikow’s tone isn’t always clear. Scenes of real humor (some of those in the Hamptons, for example) fit uneasily with ones that are presented seriously but that will border on the ridiculous for non-New-York non-writers (pet therapy after 9/11, or such passing comments as, “We both needed an hour of meditation”). Dreaming in Libro has some charming elements and some heartfelt ones, but it is hard to escape the thought that it would have been a more appealing book if Libro had written it and called it Dreaming in Louise.


Avalon High. By Meg Cabot. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Avalon High: Coronation—Volume 1: The Merlin Prophecy. By Meg Cabot. Illustrated by Jinky Coronado. Tokyopop/HarperCollins. $7.99.

      So there’s this high school, okay? And it’s got the usual jocks and cheerleaders and good guys and bad guys, okay? But they’re not what they seem to be, okay? Because they’re, like, reincarnations of these really old characters from some kind of Middle Ages story? Only they don’t know it? But there’s this old professor who does know it? But nobody believes him? But maybe the new girl in school will? Because she’s a reincarnation, too? And if she doesn’t take her part, really bad things will happen? Like maybe the end of the world?

      Believe all of this, or at least a good part of it, and you have the fantasy world of Avalon High and its graphic-novel successor. It’s all wildly silly, but Arthurian legend is certainly a new angle for an author to take on the tried-and-true formula of high-school angst, romance, cliques and infighting. Meg Cabot puts nice-girl Ellie, newly arrived at Avalon High, at the center of all the intrigue in the original novel, published last year and now available in paperback. When not taking classes or running (she’s a track star), Ellie is piecing together bits of the mysteries that she seems to find down every hallway. At the center of most of them is Will, class president and all-around hottie, who has a really bad relationship with his parents because, as Ellie eventually learns, Will’s father sent his (the father’s) best friend into a war zone where he was killed, and then took the friend’s wife for himself. Spoils of war and all that. Oh, and dad now wants Will to go to the Naval Academy. “Maybe that’s why [Will] liked sitting around by himself in the woods, listening to medieval music, so much,” thinks Ellie. Yes, maybe that – and maybe the fact that he is the reincarnation of King Arthur has something to do with it: Arthur had family issues of his own, and the whole father-taking-friend’s-wife theme closely echoes the old legends.

      Still, the high-school setting for the plot is so absurd that only a writer as good as Meg Cabot can prevent it from constantly degenerating into ridiculousness. It still degenerates from time to time, but Cabot – best known for The Princess Diaries – has enough wit and a good enough sense of pacing to prevent that from happening all the time. By the end of the book, Ellie has Will as a boyfriend; he is convinced (well, almost) that he is indeed King Arthur; and he has realized what Ellie’s own role is: she is the Lady of the Lake, who brought Arthur the sword Excalibur and also, in the legend, brought him home to Avalon.

      But bringing Will home from the estrangement he feels from his family, especially his father, is a task of…err…legendary difficulty, as Ellie discovers in the graphic novel that picks up where the traditional novel leaves off. Jinky Coronado does a fine job of visualizing the characters – readers of the novel will find they look just about as they expected them to – and Cabot herself moves the story ahead at a pace that works well with the manga illustrations that Coronado provides. The pictures actually make some of the characters’ dual natures clearer than in the novel – the contrast between the Morgan who used to be a sweet girl and the Morgan who is coming into her role as the evil Morgan le Fay is particularly striking. And some action sequences work quite well, such as Professor Morton’s shattering of a globe to indicate what could happen if Ellie does not convince Will to believe in himself as Arthur reincarnated. The original Avalon High has a comic-book implausibility to it; it becomes in some ways more effective when actually done as a graphic novel. Still, be sure to, like, suspend lots of disbelief when you read this stuff, okay?

August 09, 2007


Crooked Little Vein. By Warren Ellis. William Morrow. $21.95.

      You won’t find a better beach read this summer than Warren Ellis’ strange and wonderful novel about the underbelly (or underbellies) of America, Crooked Little Vein. Just be sure to pack it for a short beach day – it’s a very quick read.

      It’s a detective novel of sorts, a political novel of sorts, and a novel that channels bits of Terry Southern, pieces of Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), and a touch or two of Elmore Leonard, all filtered through the sensibilities of William Burroughs, but with much more coherent style.

      The plot has to do with an alternative U.S. Constitution, one with invisible amendments and the ability, thanks to some alien tinkering, to mold the minds of people who hear it read aloud in person. This alt-Constitution can be used to return our modern, debased America to the forthright values and morals of the Founders’ own time.

Compared to the rest of the stuff in Crooked Little Vein, the plot is only a little peculiar. It’s really a construct on which to hang Ellis’ version of a search for America, undertaken by the traditional burned-out, hard-luck private eye (named, in this case, Michael McGillis) and his trusty (but not too trusty) assistant, Trix, who is accurately encapsulated by another character as “a crazed omnisexual vaginalist with a string of lovers from genders they don’t even have names for yet.”

      The unlikely travels of this unlikely pair are the core of what the book is all about. It is a sociosexual journey as well as a quest for what America has become in the many years since Easy Rider and the few since 9/11. Airports and airplane riders play an important part in this: “Lots of people in prettily decorated bid-flu masks moved in twitchy flocks around the airport, darting away in migration patterns from anything that coughed.” Aboard planes, Mike meets such characters as a 71-year-old serial killer who objects to the many mass-market treatments of his never-solved slayings, and a ridiculously phony detective (whose meanderings give the book its title) whom Mike frames as a shoe bomber to get him to shut up, and who turns out to have been on to something after all.

      What Mike and Trix are on to takes them to, among other places, a Texas barbecue restaurant: “On [the serving trolley] was a horizontal section of a bull. As if someone had taken a steer, chainsawed the sides off, and chucked the middle part on an eight-foot-long steel platter on wheels. It still had a horn sticking out of it. It was served blue; cold, basically, just seared to seal it and slapped on the plate. If it had still had both sides, a good vet could’ve gotten it up on its feet in an hour or so.” And they encounter one of the quintessential Rich Old Men: “Just one of the guys here. Blue jeans and a work shirt, salt of the earth, working man like yourself. Like they’re somehow uncomfortable about being rich enough to sleep in a bed made of vaginas being pulled around the town at night by a fleet of gold-covered midgets.”

      Mike, the modern Everyman – he is several times compared to Dante, with various other characters claiming to be Virgil – keeps the reader on an even keel during his journey through this modern Inferno because he is so ordinary, although he does have a way of expressing himself: “It felt like I was trapped in a room opposite a mad weasel with paintstripper daubed on its nipples. One false motion and it’d stop ripping itself to shreds right in front of you and go straight to chewing your head into a stump.” While Trix has made her peace with modern depravity, and even revels in it (well, some of it), Mike has simply gone to seed, as one character remarks when seeing him naked: “Last time I saw a body like yours it was dangling from a tree on CSI. Do you live on grease sucked straight out of burger-joint drains or something? I bet the only exercise you get is flushing the toilet.”

      So what does Ellis make of all this total brain-frying weirdness? Crooked Little Vein turns out to be – a love story. Okay, it’s a love story the way David Lynch’s movie Wild at Heart is a romantic comedy. But there you have it. Take it along to the beach for some sun, surf, and a bracing dose of genuinely strange amusement.