September 28, 2007


John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Live performance at Strathmore Music Center, North Bethesda, Maryland, September 27, 2007.

      The various furors and tempests in teapots relating to Marin Alsop’s selection as the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are now old news, and Alsop has officially assumed her new duties with an opening-night concert that shows her to be an uncompromising programmer and a fine podium showman…or is that showwoman? She chose a long and difficult program to launch the BSO’s 2007-2008 season, and handled everything with panache if not always perfect musicality.

      The first work, John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries, is filled with catchy rhythms, clever orchestral textures, good humor and lots and lots of noise. It is also much too long; or perhaps, if you accept Adams’ approach to this 1988 work, too short. Adams himself was on hand to introduce the piece and pump it up a bit, but his speech mostly showed how difficult it is to talk people into or through music. Fearful Symmetries is essentially an exercise in orchestral color and continuous driving rhythms, played until the very end entirely at mf through fff dynamics. Supplementing a full orchestra with saxophones, synthesizer and more, Adams essentially creates a half-hour ostinato above which rock and heavy metal styles merge (or clash) with traditional classical ones. The work has no apparent organizational principle in terms of its length – this is why it could easily be shorter or longer. It is an Alice in Wonderland case of “begin at the beginning; continue until you get to the end; then stop.” Alsop and the BSO certainly gave the work everything they had, with enormous masses of sound rolling off this very well-balanced ensemble while Alsop paid meticulous attention to details: a pizzicato here, a wind screech or brass outcry there. And Alsop made herself into a big part of the show, bending and bouncing and cajoling and stretching to emphasize a point or cue a musician way at the back of the stage. She was fun to watch; the work was fun to hear; but there is less to this music than meets the ear.

      Mahler’s Fifth was another sonic world altogether. This is a huge and complex symphony and an important one, marking Mahler’s return to pure orchestral expression after three symphonies in which voices had important roles. Mahler said it is in three parts: the first two movements; the third; and the fourth and fifth. First trumpet Andrew Balio presented the opening solo with clarity, and in general the brass was very impressive (although Balio had one embarrassing missed note later in the movement). There was demonic energy here, but Alsop had an irritating tendency to insert fussy little hesitations at the start of almost every new section – exactly the opposite of what Mahler intended. The result was unwonted fragmentation of the movement. Alsop did bring out many lovely details, but her decision to re-seat the orchestra with the cellos to her right – the BSO had previously placed the violas there – led to some muddiness in the middle voices. Alsop wisely went immediately into the second movement, which was stürmisch indeed until the beautiful cello-and-viola section, which seemed to come from another planet (again, though, the violas’ position meant the cellos nearly drowned them).

      The complete mood change of the third movement was well handled, with the horns outstanding and the lithe ländler rhythms nicely shaped. But again, Alsop introduced uncalled-for rubato from time to time, missing the overall shape of the movement, which is more than a disconnected series of marginally related episodes.

      The fourth and fifth movements proved the most effective. In the gorgeous Adagietto, for strings and harp, the BSO’s outstandingly warm string sections shone, and Alsop let the music swell and subside naturally. And the finale was given a strong, propulsive flow as Alsop kept its sections moving smartly into each other, leading to a stirring brass choir and satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.

      In all, Alsop offered a meticulous Mahler Fifth, with very good attention to detail but little sense that she has a personal overview of the grand shape of the music. She is certainly a conductor to watch – in fact, one who is very enjoyable to watch. And she seems to have a genuine vision for the future development of the BSO. Now she needs one for the music as well.

September 27, 2007


666: The Number of the Beast. Point/Scholastic. $14.99.

Curses, Inc. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

One Beastly Beast (Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales). By Garth Nix. Illustrated by Brian Biggs. Eos. $15.99.

The Scary States of America. By Michael Teitelbaum. Delacorte Press. $7.99.

      Frightfulness and funniness go together surprisingly well: a lot of scary stories depend on elements that, considered objectively, are silly, so an author who wishes to can emphasize either the fearful or the funny. These collections of stories offer shivers from a variety of different angles.

      666: The Number of the Beast is entirely on the dark side. There are 18 original supernatural stories in this anthology, gathered into three groups of six each (6-6-6, that is), under the headings of “Evil,” “Darkness” and “Beasts.” The book is intended for older teenagers and young adults, and some of the authors apparently decided that that justifies going for pure shock value: Christopher Pike’s “Saving Face,” which includes a horror-movie-inspired (and rather disgusting) torture scene, is the most extreme example. Interestingly, it is followed by the shortest and most subtle story in the book, Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Little Sacrifice,” whose implications are far more frightening and far more a part of the real world than the overt violence in Pike’s tale and others. There’s something for every fright fan here, from the demonic possession of Heather Graham’s “If You Knew Suzie,” to the transformation and possible madness in Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ “Empire of Dirt,” to the SF dystopia of Joshua Gee’s “Incident Report,” to the Poe-esque madness of Robin Wasserman’s “Scapegoat,” to the ghost entrapping the living in P.D. Cacek’s “La Fleur de Nuit.”

      Vivian Vande Velde also has a story of a ghost seeking a living person to take her place in Curses, Inc. Originally published in 1997 and now available in paperback, this collection shows its age in some ways, as in the title story, whose protagonist connects to the Internet by dialup modem. Vande Velde aims for readers as young as 12 and keeps her frights more modest and laced with occasional humor than do authors seeing older readers: the title tale here has a neatly amusing twist ending, and “To Converse with Dumb Beasts” is out-and-out hilarious. There are 10 stories in all, including “Past Sunset,” the one in which a ghost seeks a replacement. Vande Velde’s end notes are interesting both for background and for showing that an author does not always know which of her tales are most effective: she gives short shrift to “Remember Me,” for example, but this tale of lost (or stolen) identity is both clever and a real chiller.

      There’s nothing chilling at all in One Beastly Beast (Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales), perhaps because Garth Nix intends this book for ages 7-11. But there’s plenty of fun in the four brief fantasy adventures here, including “Blackbread the Pirate,” in which a boy enters a world of swashbuckling rats – real rats; and “The Princess and the Beastly Beast,” in which Princess Rinda has to decide whether to jump into the maw of the beast of the title. Then there’s the tale of the aliens who want to kidnap, or maybe adopt, “Bill the Inventor.” And in “Serena and the Sea Serpent,” the title character befriends a fierce monster and finds herself turned into…a penguin. Brian Biggs’ amusing, cartoonlike illustrations of all these characters add to the book’s considerable charm.

      There’s not much charming in any of The Scary States of America, according to Michael Teitelbaum, who offers “50 Weird and Terrifying Stories Based on True Events.” Teitelbaum creates as his narrator a spook chaser named Jason Specter, who had an experience inside a weird locker in fourth grade and has collected stories of the paranormal from around the United States ever since. Once you get past the gimmick of one story per state, the tales themselves are pretty straightforward, and some are just dull; the book as a whole deserves a (+++) rating. Each tale is introduced with a brief fact about the state – but you’ll be disappointed if you expect a connection between the real-world information and the made-up stories. For South Dakota, for example, the opening statement is about the carving of Mount Rushmore, but the story is about a woman who finds her husband cheating and kills him. The Hawaii fact mentions Pearl Harbor; the story involves the skeletal ghosts of a long-ago battle won by King Kamehameha. The Nevada fact mentions weddings in Las Vegas; the story is about dreaming of a fire before it happens. The chapters are all brief and easy to read, and the book may be an enjoyable accompaniment to a lengthy family drive around the U.S. But it’s really not particularly scary.


Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. By James Gurney. Andrews McMeel. $29.95.

Ilario: The Stone Golem—A Story of the First History, Book Two. By Mary Gentle. Eos. $14.95.

      James Gurney’s tales of Dinotopia are unending feasts for the eyes, even if the underlying stories tend to be rather thin. Gurney’s newest book, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, actually has some clever writing here and there: “Bix, my faithful ally, was a diminutive Protoceratops, the size of a sheep and the color of a musk mallow, with a fearless heart, a creaky voice, and an old-style kindliness, like a parrot raised in the company of Presbyterians.” But even the more-interesting portions of the narrative take a back seat to the magnificently realized portraits of intelligent dinosaurs living and interacting with human beings. One of the extraordinary things about Gurney’s oil paintings is the way he painstakingly shows the faces and bodies of the humans, bringing out their personalities and peculiarities expertly through form and expression – and then applies exactly the same techniques to the dinosaurs. The result is a visualization of equals, drawing readers inexorably into the isolated island world of Dinotopia with a believability that the entirely fantastic plots of the stories could not otherwise achieve. Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara is a very handsome book, of coffee-table size and with an included “Traveler’s Map of Dinotopia” from the “Global Geographic Society” that provides additional background for the story. The pictures are full of surprises. One, for example, appears to show a large and fearsomely clawed dinosaur threatening a man and a much smaller dinosaur – but the caption reads, “Bix admires the claws of Henriette, the Therizinosaurus.” The dinosaurs’ anatomy is beautifully rendered, the colors are gorgeous in indoor and outdoor scenes alike, and the book is such a visual pleasure that it is tempting just to look at it without reading it. There is a story, though, about a journey from the more-familiar realm of Waterfall City to the land called Chandara, which has been cut off from contact with the rest of Dinotopia for many years. The delights and hazards of travel get their full due here – with an approach somewhat reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires – while the maps and carefully painted scenes sweep the reader into a story whose impossibility does not deter Gurney from making it seem plausible.

      The second and concluding book of the adventures of Ilario is a fantasy, too, but Mary Gentle makes no particular attempt to render it realistic – she makes it clear that this is an alternative history. The first book of this pair, Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, detailed the early adventures of the sexually dual-nature Ilario, a would-be artist who seems male but is so fully female that he/she becomes pregnant and, at the end of that book, gives birth. The second book, Ilario: The Stone Golem, gets more deeply into court intrigue and political machinations, with the golem of the title being created in Carthage as a weapon – and painted by Ilario so he can show it to those living elsewhere. The alternative world here is being as unalterably changed by one Master Gutenberg as the real world was; and the various plots and counterplots are nothing special. The book deserves a (+++) rating for its strong style, for Gentle’s success in making Ilario an interesting character and far more than the mere King’s Freak he becomes for a time, and for involving Ilario in family issues that prove as complex and troubling as matters of state. Ilario’s hermaphroditic nature is more than a curiosity: it is crucial to the plot and the eventual resolution of the tale. Ilario proves to be, to those around him, very much a special case, not only in sexuality but also in law. The overall structure of Gentle’s story, though, is less special than its central character.


A Killer’s Kiss. By William Lashner. William Morrow. $24.95.

      Anyone familiar with William Lashner’s noir hero, Victor Carl, will understand from the start of A Killer’s Kiss that there will be no happy ending. Carl will survive – this is the seventh book featuring him, and it only makes sense to assume that there will be an eighth, although Lashner says he plans to give the character a rest for a couple of years. But it is safe to assume that Carl will be damaged both physically and emotionally by the end of the work, eventually coming to terms with yet another sorry circumstance in his life.

      This is exactly what happens. The interesting thing in Lashner’s books about Carl, a small-time Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer, is not the grand overview of the plot but the details through which things work their way to the inevitably downbeat ending. In A Killer’s Kiss, the basic story involves Carl’s former fiancée, Julia, who jilted him and married a urologist named Dr. Wren Denniston – who, we learn in the first chapter, has just been murdered. This is awkward for Carl, since Julia happens to be in his bathroom taking a shower when two detectives arrive with the information about the killing and the news that Carl, because of his prior relationship with Julia, is a prime suspect. Carl is innocent, of course, of everything except hoping to rekindle an old flame that, at least for him, has never quite gone out. Julia is hoping – well, just what is she hoping? That is but one of many interlocking and increasingly complex mysteries here.

      It is characteristic of Lashner’s particular variation on the hard-boiled detective-novel style that more is inevitably deemed to be better. If one narrow escape is good, two are better; three, better still. If one plot twist is good, two are better, three even better, and the almost uncountable number in A Killer’s Kiss the best yet. In reality, this isn’t quite true: there’s a point at which the reader comes to expect some new revelation, some new twist, some new character with some newly revealed ulterior motive at any moment – even if the specifics aren’t clear until Lashner chooses to reveal them. In this book, the linchpin of the plot is a longstanding, foredoomed-to-failure romance between Julia and a high-school sweetheart – a real Romeo-and-Juliet thing, but without the sex, which it turns out was thoroughly impossible for reasons having nothing to do with feuding families. This ultimate relationship is, unfortunately for the plot, thoroughly unbelievable, and the further Lashner goes with it – with trying to explain it, with using it to show Julia’s motivations and the impossibility of a happy ending involving her and Carl – the more ridiculous the whole thing gets.

      Not that it seems ridiculous when the bullets start flying and Carl, as if being under suspicion of murder in Wren Denniston’s death isn’t enough, finds himself in the middle of a convoluted international scheme that involves too much money, too many suspects and too many dead bodies. Lashner writes very well and keeps the pace very fast, and he has a way of encapsulating Carl’s thoughts that always keeps things interesting: “It hadn’t taken me more than a moment to realize he was a dramatic little snit, still on the stage all these years after his vomitous failure as Romeo, still playing the melancholy young man brooding on some mysterious, unforgivable event in his past, still waiting for the spotlight to come his way and give him another chance.” Unfortunately, Lashner’s characters – except for Carl himself – are far less interesting and far more unidimensional than the prose in which they are described; and even Carl, at least in A Killer’s Kiss, seems motivated so obsessively that the next story about him might well be called A Shrink’s Showdown.


The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming. By Laurie David and Cambria Gordon. Scholastic. $15.99.

The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language. By Kendall King, Ph.D., and Alison Mackey, Ph.D. Collins. $15.95.

      Every generation hands down its problems to its children in the hope that they will find solutions. Along with the problems come suggestions on how to tackle them – even if those suggestions have not, so far, gathered enough critical mass to eliminate the difficulties. These two books take on huge subjects – global warming and the increasing interrelatedness of the world – and suggest ways that the upcoming generation of world leaders may be able to handle these situations more effectively than the current one has.

      The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming talks directly to children about a problem that the vast majority of scientists see as a major element – perhaps the major element – of life in decades to come. Laurie David and Cambria Gordon, California moms without any particular scientific expertise in global warming, have designed their book to explain big issues in terms simple enough for even young children to understand. The basic scientific explanations are actually better done than some of the folksy attempts to make the science accessible: “If carbon dioxide were a pizza, then we are expecting the Earth to eat a whole pie rather than just one slice.” (Huh?) Still, the four-part structure of the book is good, dealing first with the science of global warming, then with its effects on weather, then with its impact on plant and animal life, and finally with things kids and their parents can do to help. The book is a rather odd mixture of scientific accuracy (a graph showing the Keeling Curve, one measure of carbon-dioxide concentration) with overly cute presentation (a section called “You Say You Want a Revolution?” and a photo of the Wicked Witch of the West to illustrate a page called “I’m Melting”). David and Gordon are, to be sure, undertaking a difficult task in explaining global warming and then trying to motivate kids to do something about it. Still, their choices of motivators may be off-putting for some families – quotations from surfer Laird Hamilton, actress Jennifer Garner and actor Leonardo DiCaprio? The final section of the book, “What You Can Do to Stop Global Warming,” unfortunately shows how little kids and average families can do: write to mayors urging them to agree to lower carbon-dioxide emissions; use compact fluorescent bulbs; take canvas bags to stores instead of using paper or plastic; suggest that your school use recycled paper; etc. These are good, solid ideas, but scarcely enough to make a dent in a global problem. Still, David and Gordon offer kids a place to start. Others will have to come up with bigger plans.

      The increasing interconnectedness of the world is a trend as pronounced and, to some people, as worrisome as global warming. It can even be argued that the upsurge in religiously inspired terrorist activity is in large part a reaction to the perceived homogenization of humanity. The way to handle the interconnection, according to Georgetown University linguistics professors Kendall King and Alison Mackey, is to accept it – and help your child participate more fully in the world of the future by learning at least one additional language. King, an expert in bilingualism, and Mackey, an expert in second-language acquisition, are themselves parents who are teaching their children multiple languages. In The Bilingual Edge, they offer assessment tools to help parents decide on their family language profiles and figure out what languages would be best for their children to learn. They suggest starting second languages as early as possible, and explain the difficulties parents will likely face as children get older, enter school, must do assignments and classroom work in English, and so on. They make suggestions about finding good teachers and learning programs, having a bilingual home, and more. The common thread in everything King and Mackey recommend is time – lots of time to work one-on-one with children; lots of time to speak a second language at home; lots of time to find ways to show kids that second languages are cool, so they will want to speak them even if their friends don’t. Stay-at-home parents who can devote long hours to second languages – especially parents from cultures in which English was not the primary language, and who therefore have relatives who can support efforts to keep children in touch with their linguistic heritage – will find many helpful ideas here. Time-pressed two-income families in which only one language is spoken will, unfortunately, get much less benefit from a book that adds yet another layer of expectation to children and parents who may understandably feel they have quite enough elements of life to juggle already.


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15; Boris Chaykovsky: Variations for Orchestra. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Kyrill Kondrashin. Profil. $16.99.

      It is rare indeed for a guest conductor to produce performances as finely worked, as understanding, as closely melded to an orchestra’s abilities as these. This CD is a live recording of Kyrill (or Kiril) Kondrashin’s final performance with Staatskapelle Dresden, on January 23, 1974, and it is a superb memorial to this excellent conductor as well as a testament to the power, balance and attention to detail of which this orchestra is capable. It is a testament to the audience’s quality, too: were it not for the applause at the end of each work, there would be no way to know that this was a live performance – much less one of a symphony whose extremely soft passages are among its most distinctive and important.

      Shostakovich’s final symphony is an odd one, omitting the vocal elements of his two previous symphonies; harking back in some ways to his earliest symphonic works; including bits of Mahler, Wagner and (surprisingly) Rossini; and emphasizing the quiet rather than the grandiose. Kondrashin seems to have both a visceral and a studied understanding of the work. The first movement’s soft, delicate, sardonic opening soon builds to a strong but transparent climax as quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture flicker by. The percussion is particularly good. The second movement opens in a chorale-like, sad but not deeply tragic mode, its quietude its most impressive feature – wonderfully communicated by the excellent analog recording and fine digital transfer. The brass is especially impressive as the movement becomes a funeral march. When climaxes do come, they are precisely played and overwhelming. Grotesqueries return in the brief third movement, where violins are more prominent than they have been before. And then comes the strange finale, the composer’s last symphonic movement. It grows from yet another quiet opening, as Wagner quotations (from Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde) appear and metamorphose. The first half of the movement is mostly soft, drifting without direction, but eventually the music builds to a resounding climax – at the movement’s midpoint. This is a large and dissonant section – until snare drums, which so memorably increased in volume in the Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”), here decrease in volume and take the rest of the orchestra along. In the last part of this movement, Kondrashin seems particularly aware of the utter strangeness of this symphony, as the orchestration becomes very spare and the percussion eventually leads the audience to nowhere as the music simply disintegrates. This is a wonderful reading of a very, very unusual work.

      Boris Chaykovsky (whose name can also be transliterated “Tchaikovsky,” although he is not related to the famous 19th-century composer) wrote his Variations for Orchestra specifically for the 425th anniversary of the Dresden Staatskapelle – which this concert marked. This performance was the world premiere of this large-scale piece by Chaykovsky (1925-1996). The work is in some ways as virtuosic as Bartók’s much more famous Concerto for Orchestra – quite a workout for all sections. Chaykovsky creates an interesting structure: the variations occur before the theme is heard, essentially leading up to it through a series of musical hints in which different orchestral sections receive prominent treatment. The work opens almost inaudibly – the influence of Shostakovich, with whom Chaykovsky studied, is clear here – and then swells to what sounds like a “dawn” passage, after which instruments are added gradually (the very quiet pizzicato violins are a particularly nice touch). Only after about three minutes of this 17-minute work is the full orchestra heard, as bits and pieces of the theme slowly emerge. There are several reminiscences of Shostakovich, including string figurations, the angularity of some themes, and the contrast of drama and delicacy. As the thematic fragments gradually coalesce, the excitement builds – but unfortunately, when the theme finally emerges, it is not particularly inspired. The result is a piece that comes across as more clever than profound. Still, it is quite a showcase for Staatskapelle Dresden, which plays it wonderfully well; and Kondrashin manages to make this rather derivative work sound as impressive as it possibly can.

September 20, 2007


Very Hairy Bear. By Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Harcourt. $16.

Beetle Bop. By Denise Fleming. Harcourt. $16.

      Parents with children ages 3-7 have two great ways here to charm and enthrall their kids with stories about nature: a narrative way and a pictorial way. Very Hairy Bear is the narrative, and it is a marvelously poetic one – without containing any of the simple rhyming poetry usually used in books for children in this age range. Instead, Alice Schertle offers such lines as: “Each summer,/ he’s a sticky, licky honey hunter,/ with his bare nose deep/in the hollow of/ a bee tree.” It’s free verse with enough occasional rhymes to give it a particularly pleasant lilt: “He eats the berries and the bushes, too./ He’s a very full/ berryfull bear.” Schertle’s description of the bear’s activities closely tracks what real-world bears do, so this book is instructive as well as enjoyable. But if the narrative romanticizes without anthropomorphizing, the lovely pastel-and-pencil illustrations by Matt Phelan do more: they make the bear look like a huge, roly-poly dog with a perpetual faint smile and thoroughly endearing habits – the picture of the blue-faced bear lying on its back in the blueberry patch, with berries stuck on the ends of its claws, is a particular delight. Phelan also gives character to the supporting cast of animals, such as fish and squirrels. The narrative starts “deep in the green gorgeous wood” and continues through the seasons, ending with the bear going to sleep for the winter with “his shaggy, raggy/ very hairy/ bearpaws/ on top of his nose.” It’s a treat for any time of the year.

      Beetle Bop, in contrast, has no real story. Denise Fleming simply describes these insects, using more-traditional rhyming poetry to talk about “brown beetles,/ green beetles,/ not-often-seen beetles.” It is the visual impact of her book that is the point: not only “brown” shown in brown and “green” in green, but also the words “not-often-seen” shrinking from a large “n” to a much smaller one. And the pictures in this book are quite amazing. Created by pouring colored cotton fiber through hand-cut stencils, they show all sorts of beetles in all sorts of situations – including danger (a bird and a frog are shown as they are about to eat some). There are flipping beetles and flying beetles, beetles hiding in a crack just beyond a child’s toes, glowing beetles and crashing beetles, beetles of all colors and many sizes, tumbling all about: “Bark beetles,/ sand beetles,/ fill-up-your-hand beetles.” This book is a riot of color and a celebration of the beauty of nature – a feast for kids’ eyes that will hopefully serve as an introduction to insects as an important element of the Earth’s bounty. Fleming points out at the end, in a page that parents can read to and interpret for young children, that beetles “are one of the largest groups of animals on Earth. Some are pests, some are friends.” The ones Fleming portrays in Beetle Bop seem not only friendly but also quite magical.


F Minus. By Tony Carrillo. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

Brevity 2. By Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

Monkey Business: Another Cartoon Collection by The Flying McCoys. By Glenn and Gary McCoy. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      The single-panel cartoon is as venerable as they come: the very first continuing comic, Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, was single-panel. Single-panel strips today have evolved into something between editorial cartoons and traditional sequential, multi-panel strips that build to punch lines. Close to Home and The Far Side are the prototypes of the modern single panel – and all the cartoonists in these three collections derive their humor from the same mixture of surrealism and the incongruity of everyday modern life.

      F Minus is frequently clever, relying as much on Tony Carrillo’s pointed writing as on his art, which has an old-fashioned look to it. Carrillo’s panels are long – each will fit into the space of a traditional newspaper multi-panel strip – and Carrillo generally takes good advantage of this letterbox format. For example, one panel shows the traditional castaway on a tiny desert island, thinking the single word, “Figures…” – as a boat carrying a large tiger drifts in from the far right side of the panel. Carrillo’s humor runs to the decidedly odd. A man gives his wife flowers and a card that reads, “Your pros still outweigh your cons. Happy anniversary.” An executive emphatically cancels his appointments by bricking up the door to his office. Two normally dressed people wander into a panel in which all the other characters wear only undergarments, leading to the logical question, “You folks ain’t from around here, are ya?” A perfume salesman recommends a fragrance to a customer with the pitch, “Nothing is more romantic than a gift that says, ‘I want you to smell like this.’” A man observes, “There goes the neighborhood,” as all the other houses go by on trucks. A child’s backpack bears a sticker saying that his parent is employee of the month at the office. These are all skewed versions of everyday life. The best of them require a little thought before you get the joke – which makes it funnier when you do figure it out.

      The Brevity panels by Guy & Rodd (as they sign themselves) are more immediately clear, and are in the more-traditional square format. The second Brevity collection is as consistent as the first, with an ongoing “a little bit beyond Close to Home” approach. In one panel, a film credit reads, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film. Except the ones we ate.” A poodle looks in a mirror and exclaims, “My God, I am one of those foofy little dogs.” A penguin says to another, “I wish that camera crew would leave so we could start partying again.” A baby in a crib says to another, “Hey kid, what are you in for?” There are recurrent parodies of Sesame Street (in one, kids descend through Oscar the Grouch’s trash can and find him living in a palatial underground home), Star Wars, American history and life in Hell (in one panel, the demons buy Satan a fur coat as a gag gift). And some stuff is strange just for the heck of it, such as “fortune kung pao broccoli,” invented “before cookies became the norm,” and the original title of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, “War & Peace & Cabbage.” Some of the humor misfires by being juvenile or simply unfunny, but a lot of it is on target.

      The Flying McCoys also uses square panels, drawn in a different style from those of Brevity – with more-exaggerated appearances of the characters. But the humor is in a similar vein. Monkey Business is an all-color collection – a nice touch, since the color emphasizes the weirdness. Among Glenn and Gary McCoy’s ideas are a true “gated community,” in which every person has a gate around himself or herself; “barnyard awareness ribbons” for animals (a tuxedo-clad pig wears one for swine flu, an elegantly clothed chicken sports one for bird flu, and so on); and a couple whose appearance matches perfectly, but for different reasons: her shirt says “baby,” with an arrow pointing down, while his says “beer.” Some of the puns are really groaners: “A reptile dysfunction” refers to a snake that won’t get itself up for the traditional snake charmer. But some ideas are genuinely clever, such as a “jog-thru window” at a health store (that one might actually catch on). And then there are the bits of social commentary, as when a doctor tells a patient, “True, laughter is the best medicine, but it’s not covered by your HMO.” The appeal of Monkey Business – and of Brevity 2 and F Minus – will depend on how closely the cartoonists’ sense of humor matches your own. If none of these books seems the slightest bit funny to you, you can always look for Blondie or Beetle Bailey.


A Big Treasury of Little Animals. Photographs by Phoebe Dunn. Text by Judy Dunn Spangenberg. Random House. $10.99.

Fly Guy #4: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Fly Guy. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

      Six sweet animal stories dating back as far as three decades are collected in A Big Treasury of Little Animals. The oldest is The Little Duck, originally published in 1976. The others are The Little Lamb (1977), The Little Rabbit (1980), The Little Kitten (1983), The Little Puppy (1984), and The Little Pig (1987). All follow the same approach: a young child encounters a baby animal, helps it grow, and bonds with it. Animals that belong in the wild, such as the duck, are returned there, while domesticated ones, such as the kitten and puppy, become loved members of the family. The text by Judy Dunn Spangenberg is straightforward, formulaic and a little syrupy; it is the photos that are the big attraction here. Phoebe Dunn was famous for her pictures of children and animals, and this collection shows why. She beautifully captures a little girl in the tall grass, one eye visible as she looks around, the other hidden by greenery. She shows a puppy buried up to its head in leaves, a kitten climbing out of a dresser drawer, and the endearing ugliness of a just-hatched duckling, with consummate artistry and loving skill. The scenes of a family visit to a grandfather’s lakeside home, of a kitten climbing into an old-fashioned can of flour and knocking it over, of a mother rabbit scrunched down on the straw in her hutch, look like Norman Rockwell visions of times long gone. Indeed, they are so different from what many families experience today that it is a good thing to have photographic evidence of these sylvan and home-focused scenes, just to prove that they did exist. A Big Treasury of Little Animals will be a real treat for very young children, who may not even care about the stories as they look at the wonderful pictures. Slightly older kids should enjoy finding out where the animals came from and how the families in the book interacted with them. But after a while, these lovely little scenes are likely to be found lacking by kids seeking something with a bit more of an edge.

      At that point, they may gravitate to the Fly Guy series, which is just edgy enough to be fun and just funny enough to keep young readers interested. The fourth book in Tedd Arnold’s sequence is loosely based on the old rhyme, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.” But it’s actually less grotesque. The original rhyme explains that the lady swallowed this after that after this after that, each animal bigger than the one before, always with the recurring chorus, “Perhaps she’ll die.” Then the rhyme ends with her swallowing a horse: “She’s dead, of course.” This is apparently too upsetting, or insufficiently politically correct, for modern kids…or something. In any case, Arnold doesn’t go nearly that far. He has Buzz, the boy who has adopted Fly Guy as a pet, visit Grandma – and of course Fly Guy goes along, too, only to get knocked by accident into Grandma’s mouth and down her gullet. Fly Guy is starting to fly out when Grandma starts swallowing other things: spider, bird, cat and so on. She is about to swallow a horse when Fly Guy cries, “BUZZ,” and of course Buzz recognizes his name, and Fly Guy flies out of Grandma, and everything else comes out, too, and everything ends happily – if ridiculously. Kids who know the original nonsense rhyme will enjoy this book more than ones who have never heard it. Parents, refresh your memory (or find the original on the Internet) and help your children get more fun from Fly Guy!


Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Do Bears Sleep All Winter? By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Roberto Osti. Scholastic. $6.99.

The Biggest Pumpkin Ever. By Steven Kroll. Illustrated by Jeni Bassett. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $4.99.

Pumpkin Heads! By Wendell Minor. Scholastic. $6.99.

      The weather is still warm in much of the Northern Hemisphere, but as the calendar moves inexorably toward colder times, kids can look ahead with these three paperback reissues, which offer facts and fun for fall and beyond.

      Do Bears Sleep All Winter? was originally published in 2001. Like all the entries in the excellent Scholastic Question and Answer Series, it offers 48 pages of a Q&A format in which Melvin and Gilda Berger explain a series of basic scientific facts. This volume is an unusually narrowly focused entry in the series, though: kids will have to be especially interested in bears to want to read this much information about them. It’s likely that most children will be interested in the answer to the title question: yes, bears do sleep all winter, although they sometimes are awakened by noise or other disturbances. And the Bergers’ followup explanation that bears do not truly hibernate – that term indicates a much deeper winter sleep, from which it is almost impossible to awaken an animal – is also of general interest. But much of the book is filled with details that only ursine enthusiasts are likely to want to learn about: how quickly cubs grow, how long they stay with their mothers, whether bears can run downhill without falling, how long ago the first bears appeared on Earth, where Asiatic black bears spend most of their time, etc. For those who do have a strong interest in these large mammals, the Bergers’ book – nicely illustrated by Roberto Osti – can help welcome in colder weather.

      For many children, the thing that most clearly indicates autumn and the coming of winter is the approach of Halloween. Two short paperback reprints are packed with seasonal enjoyment. Steven Kroll’s The Biggest Pumpkin Ever, originally published in 1984, is a charming story of two mice who fall in love with the same pumpkin – for very different reasons. One of them waters and cares for it so it will grow large enough to win the local pumpkin-growing contest. The other waters and cares for it so it will grow big enough to make a wonderful jack-o’-lantern. With all the watering and all the care, the pumpkin grows to be enormous – and when the two mice figure out what has happened, they work together to make both their visions for the pumpkin come true. It’s a cute story, amusingly illustrated by Jeni Bassett, and the page of foil pumpkin stickers included in the book is a nice bonus.

Speaking of pumpkin visions: Pumpkin Heads! is chock full of them, as Wendell Minor imagines a huge variety of carved pumpkins being displayed in all sorts of settings. Originally published in 2000, Minor’s book features only a few words, in large and easy-to-read type – plus illustrations of a cowboy pumpkin, cat pumpkin, surprised pumpkin, balloon pumpkin, snowman pumpkin, scarecrow pumpkin, and many more. These are drawings, not photos, but they may very well give kids some ideas about making their own unique jack-o’-lanterns as the weather turns chillier and Halloween beckons.


Franz von Suppé: Fatinitza. Stephanie Houtzeel, mezzo-soprano; Steven Scheschareg, baritone; Zora Antonic, soprano; Christian Bauer, tenor; Bernhard Adler, bass-baritone; Gerhard Balluch, actor; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Vinzenz Praxmarer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

      If you know history, know operetta and know German, you’ll have an absolutely wonderful time with this complete recording of Fatinitza. If your knowledge in any of the three areas falls short, however, the entire production will fall a bit flat. Or more than a bit.

      First, history. The operetta is set during and after the Crimean War, and if you don’t know something about that mid-19th-century conflict between Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the character parodies here will make little sense – especially those of the buffoonish General Timosey Kantschukoff (Steven Scheschareg) and the Turkish governor, Izzet Pascha (Bernhard Adler), who picks and chooses among Western and Islamic customs as he pleases, including (for example) joyfully drinking champagne because he proclaims that it is not wine but soda water.

      Second, operetta. Only if you know its standards will you see the highly amusing ways in which Suppé tweaks them. For example, the traditional “second couple,” a more-amusing counterpart to the “first couple” – lovers who eventually overcome hardships to be united – consists in this operetta of General Kantschukoff and someone who does not exist: Fatinitza. That’s right: the title character of this work does not exist – it is a nom d’amour assumed before the operetta begins by Leutnant Wladimir Samoiloff (Stephanie Houtzeel) to facilitate a liaison with the young wife of an old diplomat. And notice who plays Wladimir: a mezzo-soprano. Yes, the lead in this work is not the traditional tenor but a female in a trouser role – a highly unusual bit of casting (even the famous Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is only a bit player, not the lead). So the “man” in the second couple is a woman playing a man – who spends much of the work disguised as the nonexistent Fatinitza, thus becoming a woman playing a man disguised as a woman. This is very Shakespearean but scarcely typical of operetta.

      Third, German. Fatinitza is dialogue-heavy, and much of the story advances either through discussions or through melodrama – with a speaker (often Gerhard Balluch, who skillfully juggles multiple roles) talking as music plays. The booklet with this CPO release provides only a brief and not entirely accurate plot summary in English, and no information on finding a dual-language libretto – which is scarcely easy to locate. For anyone who lacks at least a fair grounding in spoken German, most of what happens in Fatinitza will be simply unintelligible.

      Yet many operetta lovers will still want to own this beautifully sung and very well recorded performance, in which Vinzenz Praxmarer made his debut as an opera conductor (he was 27 when the recording was made last year). The work is, after all, a rarity, and it contains some truly delightful music. There is no overture to Fatinitza – just a brief prelude – and no big waltz (another unusual aspect of the work), although the one that does appear briefly in Act II is lovely. The most memorable tune here is a march – and Suppé, who knew a good thing when he had one, uses it repeatedly, both with words and orchestrally, and includes it in the work’s finale. There is a sly reference to Die Fledermaus, which had its triumphant première just two years before Fatinitza opened in 1876, in the love duet that opens Act II – in which Wladimir and Lydia (Zora Antonic), who have been kept apart because Lydia is the niece and ward of General Kantschukoff, affirm their feelings while in Izzet Pascha’s harem, where they have been brought after being kidnapped while Wladimir is disguised as Fatinitza. (The stage business in this operetta must be great fun.) There is an amusing and still-pertinent satire of the role of the foreign correspondent in the first aria of Julian von Goltz (Christian Bauer), who is both a reporter and a go-between for the lovers – and who provides some crucial coaching in Act III. There is a kind of “confusion quartet” for Kantschukoff, Wladimir, Lydia and Julian; a funny “silver bells” sextet in the harem, in which Julian and Izzet Pascha sing along with the latter’s four wives; a complementarily sad “bells” aria with which Lydia opens Act III, which takes place after the war – when Wladimir is missing and, she fears, may be dead; and a Terzett near the end of Act III in which Suppé expertly moves from joy to a “tick-tock” rhythm to martial elements, including a repeat of part of his excellent march tune.

      Fatinitza has not worn particularly well, because of its dated plot (which includes a couple of sections intended to be performed in blackface – unimaginable today) and a very complex story that simply cannot be followed if you don’t know the language. But Suppé’s music is charming, his tweaking of the conventions of his form is amusing and expertly done, and even if a large-scale revival of Fatinitza is highly unlikely, it is good to have it available on CD in a performance as fine as this one.

September 13, 2007


Liō: Happiness Is a Squishy Cephalopod. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

Yarns and Shanties and Other Nautical Baloney: The 12thSherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      There’s nothing else quite like Mark Tatulli’s Liō in the comics. That’s probably a good thing if you like old-fashioned family-style comics. But it’s a very unfortunate thing if you’re looking for cartoons that turn most “family” comic-strip conventions on their heads (and inside-out). Liō is a visual strip – very few words, and none spoken by the central character with the oddly spelled name that is rendered unpronounceable by that mysterious accent (LEE-oh? Lee-OH? LY-oh? Ly-OH?). Tatulli uses Liō to put forth some very black humor and some very strange panels. The title of this first collection, for example, parodies Charles Schulz’s famous “happiness is a warm puppy,” and one Liō strip features the kite-eating tree from Peanuts spitting out a mangled kite and then, later, Charlie Brown’s familiar shirt. Another strip has Liō putting up a “Beware of the Dogwood” sign after a tree spits out a human skull from a knothole. Then there’s the time Death shows up at the door of the house where Liō and his father live – but it’s just to play cards with the boy, a mummy, a zombie and Bigfoot. There’s a Sunday strip in which Tatulli has Liō walking sideways and upside down on staircases – it turns out he’s at a museum and has been inside one of M.C. Escher’s famous perspective-jolting works. There’s a strip in which Liō gets a puppy – to his father’s delight, since the boy usually favors squid and reptiles – and then Liō presents the neatly wrapped, adorable pup to a huge snake for the snake’s birthday. No, Tatulli does not show what happens next – this strip forces readers to connect the bizarre dots on their own, as when Liō’s father appears to eat spaghetti from a huge bowl, makes an unpronounceable noise, and we see the boy reading a book called “Raising Earthworms for Fun and Profit.” There’s a great single-panel Sunday strip in which Liō, unlike a famed Ingmar Bergman character, defeats Death in a board game – because they’re playing “The Game of Life.” And there are parodies of other strips, as when Liō accidentally wanders into the Mary Worth stage set, takes a time machine to 1911 and lands in a Krazy Kat scene that also includes the Yellow Kid and other characters, and walks into his kitchen to discover a monster about to eat a Dagwood sandwich that includes Dagwood. Tatulli knows family-style comics well – his own Heart of the City is a pleasant if conventional one – and so he knows just what you can and cannot get away with on the comics pages. In Liō, he keeps drawing stuff that you can’t get away with…and getting away with it.

      Sherman’s Lagoon is a more conventional strip, but it certainly has its own share of bizarre elements. In Jim Toomey’s 12th collection, the characters and their quirks are well-established, and the fun comes from the variations that Toomey finds in their relationships. Hawthorne, the money-hungry, scheming hermit crab, opens an old-fashioned general store offering “the service of yesterday with the prices of tomorrow.” Fillmore, the intelligent but feckless turtle, explains about kelp being a “super food extraordinaire,” then notes that he never eats it because “it’s disgusting.” Sherman the shark makes a typical mistake (for him) by brushing his teeth with Preparation H. Ernest, computer hacker, tries to explain a spreadsheet to Sherman, who decides that “basically, it’s like a waffle iron.” In fact, computer humor pervades Toomey’s strip: Sherman’s wife, Megan, finds a red spot on a fin and searches for online medical help, finally deciding just to buy a red-spotted blouse that’s on sale; and Ernest struggles to play chess with Fillmore, using standard pieces, while the Internet is down (“how do these things move – are they battery powered?”). Toomey has a knack for blending absurdity with character comedy – and his humor remains just skewed enough to lift Sherman’s Lagoon above most other weird-ensemble-of-characters strips.


Goodnight Moon 123: A Counting Book. By Thacher Hurd, based on the book by Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Clement Hurd. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Math Fables Too. By Greg Tang. Illustrated by Taia Morley. Scholastic. $16.99.

      This year marks the 60th anniversary of the wildly popular Goodnight Moon, still one of the gentlest and most thoroughly delightful bedtime books ever written for very young children – newborn to age five. Now Thacher Hurd, son of the illustrator of Margaret Wise Brown’s book, has created an ideal counting book for kids who already know the original work inside-out and will love seeing its illustrations in a new context. Hurd presents elements of his father’s illustrations and pairs them with number-related text taken as closely as possible from Brown’s words. Thus, the book starts with “one quiet old lady whispering hush,” showing the woman in her rocking chair, and then moves to “two little kittens,” “three little bears sitting on chairs,” and so on. The higher numbers vary more from the original than do the lower ones: Brown never put “six bowls of mush” in the room, or “nine red balloons.” But it scarcely matters, since (for example) the bowl of mush is shown exactly as the elder Hurd originally drew it – but six times. This book can become an enjoyable game for parents and young children: go back and forth between the counting book and the original Goodnight Moon, seeing which things really were in the room and which show up in larger numbers in the counting book. Attaching the beauty and simplicity of Goodnight Moon to basic numbers may help young children see that arithmetic can be beautiful and simple, too.

      Greg Tang takes a different, equally valid and equally enjoyable view of numbers for slightly older children, ages 3-6. His Math Fables is a classic of its kind, and his new Math Fables Too follows in the earlier book’s footsteps (do books have footsteps?). Tang’s books offer instruction in mathematics and more: “3 dolphins started foraging/ along the ocean floor./ But stonefish hiding in the sand/ soon made their noses sore,” he writes, explaining in the next rhyme that stonefish have painful stings and are very well camouflaged – thus teaching numbers and marine biology within just a few lines. Tang’s work deals with number groups as well as the numbers themselves, and Taia Morley’s illustrations help make this clear. For example, Tang’s poem about “4 herons” explains how herons lure fish with bait; specifically, “3 herons used a feather and/ another 1 a twig,” which is just what Morley shows. Among the other animals here are koalas, bats, whales, and even Egyptian vultures: eight of them (variously grouped as 4 and 4, 5 and 3, 1 and 7, and 6 and 2) attempt to open ostrich eggs by throwing stones at them – something these birds actually do. Tang’s books are special because they not only teach math but also put it in a real-world context and give interesting information about non-mathematical subjects as well. Math Fables Too is the eighth Tang math book and, like the original Math Fables, can be an excellent point of entry to a series that eventually takes kids all the way to problem-solving and multiplication – and up to age 13.


Growing Vegetable Soup. By Lois Ehlert. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $10.95.

Bow-Wow Orders Lunch; Bow-Wow Naps by Number. By Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $4.95 each.

      These decidedly nontraditional board books go well beyond expectations for children up to age three. They’re not merely easy to hold – they’re clever, well written, informative and just plain fun.

Lois Ehlert’s 1987 Growing Vegetable Soup is a particular delight as a lap-size board book. The youngest children will be charmed by the simple story of planting and growing vegetables from seeds – a tale complemented by Ehlert’s usual distinctive illustrations. There are no people visible at all here – just hands, tools and plants. Parents can explain what is going on while children enjoy the cleverness with which Ehlert portrays the growing cycle (water, for example, is shown as a series of blue and green dots emerging from a stylized red-and-orange watering can). Parents will be helped in their explanations by Ehlert’s inclusion of small-type labels for everything. You don’t have to know what a corn seed or broccoli sprout looks like, because Ehlert does, and she labels them clearly. And as they and the other vegetables grow, she shows what the various plants look like and explains what each one is (including a weed). Growing Vegetable Soup would actually work as a simple gardening guide as children get older, since it shows plants’ appearance, the tools needed at various stages of the planting and growing process, and what to expect to see in the garden as vegetables grow toward maturity (squash buds and blossoms, for example). On the back cover, Ehlert provides a three-step process for making vegetable soup, with details on washing and cutting, getting ready, and cooking. So this book, which starts as a simple picture book for the youngest children, can stay with them as they grow and become interested in helping out in the garden and the kitchen. If it inspires lifelong enjoyment of vegetables, so much the better.

Food is also the subject of one of the two brand-new, traditionally sized Bow-Wow board books – the one that focuses on understanding patterns. Bow-Wow Orders Lunch features the adorable, nonspeaking sort-of-Scottie watching the creation of a large sandwich, starting with bread, then cheese, then more bread, then more cheese, and so on – until two slices of bread are added one after the other, and Bow-Wow sits silently watching until one slice is removed and the pattern continues correctly with cheese and bread alternating. Then the sandwich is topped off with a sausage; we see Bow-Wow’s previously unseen tail wag; and on the final page, both Bow-Wow and the sandwich are gone. It’s an amusing story, in keeping with Bow-Wow’s silent and endearing personality, and it’s a pleasant way to show children up to age three something about patterns.

Bow-Wow Naps by Number is an equally enjoyable way to teach counting up to 10. Here the sleepy dog, soundless as always, goes through interesting dreams: one bone, two angry-looking penguins that keep the bone from him, three hills over which he runs, four sausages hanging from the sky, and so on. The penguins are a recurrent irritation – they reappear for numbers six and nine, in the latter case chasing Bow-Wow into wakefulness. Then he falls back asleep with a dream of a perfect 10 – bones, that is. This entirely wordless book manages to teach, present a plot, and let Bow-Wow end up dreamily satisfied, all within a mere 18 board-book pages. It’s a real winner – as Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-Wow books always seem to be.


The Confessional. By J.L. Powers. Knopf. $16.99.

Blood Brothers. By S.A. Harazin. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

First Light. By Rebecca Stead. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      Why, exactly, do teenagers and preteens read novels? There is no single or perfect answer – if there were, you can bet that every author and publisher around would be creating things that addressed that specific need. But in general terms, it is legitimate to ask whether young readers want escape from mundane reality (through traditional fiction, fantasy, science fiction, whatever) or reinforcement of real-world issues when they pick up a novel. Certainly for teens – and increasingly for younger readers as well – there seems to be a belief among authors and publishers that readers want more real-world issues in their books and less escapism, of whatever sort. All three of these books have reality at their core.

      In J.L. Powers’ debut young-adult novel, The Confessional, the issues are racial, political and religious. Set at an all-boys Catholic school on the border between Texas and Mexico, the book focuses on a Mexican terrorist attack on the U.S. and its consequences in a multicultural microcosm. Those consequences prove dire: arguments between Mexican and American students, already a normal part of the school day, become understandably more heated after the attack. One boy ends up in the hospital after things get physical, and the next day the town learns that there has been a murder. Powers spreads the reader’s sympathy rather thinly by having half a dozen boys, rather than one or two, become the center of the book: bits of the narrative are presented in different voices. The book’s basic point is mundane: everyone is guilty of something, and everyone should be more tolerant of everyone else. This applies not only to issues of immigration but also to those of sexual orientation. The book is largely about clichés and how they permeate interpersonal relationships; for example, one boy says, “I can’t imagine being Mexican. I mean, you’re either wealthy – and that’s practically nobody – or you’re living in some disgusting shack in the Juárez hillsides.” There is no artificially upbeat ending here – one of the ways in which the book mirrors the real world – but Powers also offers no particular solutions beyond the watery one of mutual tolerance.

      Blood Brothers is a debut novel, too. This one is about the bad effects of drugs, and if that’s not a thrice-told tale, what is? S.A. Harazin’s angle on this is the way drugs can affect and undermine even the closest friendship – again, scarcely a new theme, but one that can be effective if well handled. Harazin’s central character, Clay Gardener, is a 17-year-old hospital orderly who helps out in the emergency room. Clay’s best friend, Joey, is admitted with a suspected drug overdose, and there’s a chance that Clay will be blamed for Joey’s condition, potentially ruining both their lives – because there’s evidence that the two fought over a girl. Clay decides to do enough detective work to defend himself and find out what really happened to Joey, who has never been much of a partygoer. But Clay can’t get the people who may know what happened to open up. A lot of the book involves Clay coming to terms both with himself and with the harshness of the real world: he remembers building a time machine with Joey when they were 11, eating nachos and drawing “pictures of aliens, flying cars, and computer-controlled buses,” but he also knows about dying and death from his emergency-room work. And in the course of his investigation, he learns about PCP and its highly dangerous, even fatal, effects. Joey’s inner strength – unsurprisingly, more than he knew he had – eventually pulls him through to an optimistic if not exactly happy ending.

      The Confessional and Blood Brothers are both intended for ages 14 and up, but real-world concerns permeate even novels for younger readers, such as First Light, which is for ages 9-12 and is yet another debut novel. In keeping with its attempt to reach younger readers, it is less gritty and more adventure-oriented than the books for older ages, but it has a very serious subject at its core: global warming, and its potential effect on everything on Earth – things with which we are familiar and things with which we are not. The familiar here is in the person of Peter, son of a scientist who has received funding to study global warming in Greenland. The unfamiliar is in the person of a girl named Thea, who lives with her people deep underneath the arctic icecap and who has never seen the sun. The book is structured as a mutual search for answers: Peter’s takes him closer and closer to Thea’s world, while Thea’s drives her closer and closer to the unseen surface and thus to Peter. This kids-from-two-worlds story is a very old one, and Rebecca Stead does not always handle it elegantly. For example, Thea and her people speak English and, it turns out, originally came from England, where they were persecuted because they were thought to be witches. Somehow their language has not changed during their years beneath the ice, so Peter and Thea’s people can converse quite well. There are some standard clash-of-culture issues here, including a generation gap between Thea and the older members of her group, but eventually everyone reaches an understanding, and various adjustments are made as Thea’s under-ice world melts – although adjustments may be harder to make in the real world if global warming progresses as many scientists fear it may.


Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. By Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. Basic Books. $25.

      The societal pendulum is starting to swing from concerns about improving opportunities for girls to improving them for boys. The many recent advances in women’s lives, and the lives of their daughters, have occurred at the same time as the development of significant problems involving boys and young men. There seem to be no barriers to what girls can do and are doing these days: outnumbering boys at college, going to any graduate schools they wish, moving into the highest echelons of corporate management, becoming engineers and astronauts and flight commanders, and generally working hard and getting ahead. Many boys, on the other hand, seem to be drifting, lacking in motivation and a work ethic, preferring video games to intellectual pursuits, ceding higher grade-point averages to girls, and becoming less committed to everything from work to family life.

      The ways in which the boy-and-girl trends are related are complex, but the fact that they are related is in little doubt, and more and more educators and doctors are speaking out to express concern about what is happening with (or to) boys, and to suggest what can be done. Leonard Sax, a family physician and psychologist who founded and runs the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, thinks he has found five factors responsible for boys’ comparative lack of motivation: 1) Children are now taught reading and math very early, even in kindergarten – putting boys, who tend to mature more slowly, at a disadvantage, since young boys need a multisensory, hands-on form of learning and are not getting it. 2) Male-oriented video games are causing loss of drive, disengagement from the real world and reduced interest in the opposite sex. 3) Prescription drugs for attention deficit disorder are four times as likely to be prescribed for boys as for girls – and may be damaging the part of the brain responsible for helping turn motivation into action. 4) Environmental estrogens, from plastic bottles and food sources, may be lowering boys’ testosterone levels and slowing their biological and psychological development. 5) Our cultural shift toward equalizing opportunities for women has resulted in a devaluation of such traditional male values as motivation and responsibility – leaving young men without positive role models.

      Sax offers a provocative set of arguments, not all of which are easy to accept. Does microwaving food in plastic rather than glass containers really put a boy’s endocrine system at risk? Are tooth sealants, now applied routinely to children’s teeth to prevent decay, a possible systemic problem for boys, since they may contain phthlates – whose supposed dangers are by no means proven? Just how cautious must parents be in raising their sons?

      Some of Sax’s recommendations for remedying the problems he identifies are broad and entirely ordinary: know what is going on in your child’s school; band together with other parents to attempt to have changes made if the educational experience is unsatisfactory. Other ideas will strike parents as weird and, depending on where they live, impractical: get rid of video games, then take your boy to a motocross track, rent him a motorbike, and let him race in the real world. Still others, however well-intentioned, are simply impossible for many families: strengthen the bond between generations, in part by arranging all-male retreats through a place of worship, the Boy Scouts or year-round competitive sports.

Parents concerned about their sons will find food for thought – not all of it, admittedly, palatable – in Sax’s analysis of the demotivation of boys. But they will not find a cure for the problem here, unless they accept all of Sax’s analyses unquestioningly and are willing and able to devote huge amounts of time and energy to implementing ideas that are stated with certainty and a sense of general applicability – even though the source and extent of the motivation problem are not really certain, and Sax’s proposed solutions may be helpful in some cases but surely not in all.


Carl Michael Ziehrer Edition, Volume 5: Operetta Overtures—Ball bei Hof; Das dumme Herz; Der bleiche Zauberer; Der Fremdenführer; Der Schätzmeister; Der schöne Rigo; Die drei Wünsche; Manöverkinder; Ein Deutschmeister; Ein tolles Mädel; König Jérôme. Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

      The few people outside Austria who still remember the name of Carl Michael Ziehrer (1843-1922) know him almost exclusively as a dance-music competitor of the Strauss family. He was certainly that – at one time, many musicians in Eduard Strauss’ orchestra balked at going on an extended tour with him and defected to Ziehrer, calling themselves “The Former Eduard Strauss Orchestra” until Strauss got an injunction against use of the name. But Ziehrer was, in fact, a fine musician in his own right, though not as skilled as the Strausses. He served three times as a military bandmaster, and his music often has a military feeling to it that differentiates it from the more freewheeling rhythms of Strauss family music. Still, much of Ziehrer’s music is charming – and he was more than a dance-music composer. He also competed with the Strausses – and later with Franz Lehár, with whom he became friendly even though Lehár was 27 years younger – in operettas. Yet this is the first CD ever released devoted entirely to Ziehrer’s operetta overtures.

      Ziehrer deserves better, and Christian Pollack – an outstanding interpreter of the light music of Ziehrer’s era – gives him his very best, thanks to beautiful playing by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra. Thanks belong too, of course, to Ziehrer, whose operetta overtures are in many ways more attractive than his dance works, which are often rather formulaic. There is one real gem on this CD: Die drei Wünsche (“The Three Wishes”), a 1901 work that for a time held its own against nothing less than Lehár’s The Merry Widow, has an overture that really sparkles. It starts with a flourish reminiscent of Suppé, moves into particularly bouncy dance tunes, then presents an unusually affecting waltz – all in clever, well-thought-out orchestration.

      There is plenty to like in most of the other overtures here as well. The earliest, König Jérôme (“King Jerome”), dates to 1878. It is very tuneful and smooth, and features a simple waltz that is one of Ziehrer’s loveliest. The latest work here is Manöverkinder (“The General’s Children”), from 1912, which is episodic and predictably martial, including nice harp touches and a waltz in which sighs are practically audible. It is one of four works given world première recordings on this CD.

      Das dumme Herz (“The Stupid Heart” or, perhaps more forgivingly, “The Foolish Heart”) is also a world première. It has an upbeat start, uses a solo violin in ways reminiscent of Lehár, and includes nice percussion touches – but its large-scale waltz, despite being in three-quarter time, is rather foursquare. The third world première is Der bleiche Zauberer (“The White Magician”), which is quite short and contains effects that, in Mozart’s time, had been considered “Turkish.” The fourth world première is Der schöne Rigo (“Charming Rigo”), orchestrated by Pollack himself (the original orchestration is lost). Here the tunes tumble one after the other and the waltz, like many of those by Ziehrer, has a slight flavor of Lehár.

      There are two other works here that are premières of a sort. Ball bei Hof (“Ball at the Court”) includes a lovely slow waltz that, yes, sounds a bit like something by Lehár – plus another, gentle one with a violin drifting above the orchestra. This is its first complete recording. Der Fremdenführer (a mouthful for English speakers that translates as “The Leader of Foreigners” – that is, “The Tourist Guide”) is here recorded for the first time in its original form. It is more complex than many of the other overtures here. It starts with a repetitive tune, then a dramatic flourish, and then a rather silly tune that dips into the minor; then it builds in dramatic intensity, leading to a sentimental waltz featuring bird calls similar to those in several famous Strauss waltzes.

      The three remaining works are pleasant, if not particularly distinguished. Der Schätzmeister (“The Pawnbroker”) has a strong, fanfare-like opening, but its waltz has the “oompah” rhythm of Ziehrer’s lesser efforts in this form. Ein Deutschmeister, whose title refers to a famed regiment of which Ziehrer was bandmaster, features a military-sounding snare drum and trumpet calls. And Ein tolles Mädel (“Crazy Girl”), which has a military plot – a girl bets that she can go unrecognized as a female if she spends a day as a soldier in the men’s barracks – has nice harp and triangle touches, including some in a waltz section.

      Ziehrer was not a composer at the level of the Strauss family – who in 19th-century Vienna was? – but he does not deserve the obscurity into which he has fallen. Pollack makes a particularly strong case for Ziehrer through these operetta overtures. Now, how about a complete Ziehrer operetta?