November 29, 2007


Holiday Cards: Frank Lloyd Wright Designs; Sierra Club—Nature’s Details. Pomegranate. $15 each.

Thank-You Cards: Frank Lloyd Wright. Pomegranate. $8.95.

Notecards: Sierra Club—Wildflowers. Pomegranate. $15.

Knowledge Cards: What Did They Do? Pomegranate. $9.95.

      ’Tis the season for cards, in case you haven’t noticed. ’Tis the season for self-consciously arty cards, silly cards, family-photo cards, cards containing exhaustive letters about the rapidly passing year, tacky cards, religious cards, cards expressing almost everything except a genuine sense of serenity and peace – the aspects of the season on which all religious and nonreligious people can, one hopes, agree. All of which leads one to be thankful that ’tis also the season for Pomegranate, a Northern California company whose devotion to fine art and beauty for its own sake is scarcely to be found anywhere outside museum collections (and, come to think of it, is not always found even in them). Pomegranate makes a really huge number of cards, in an almost bewildering variety of styles, for any occasion you can imagine. What they all have in common is very high quality of art, presentation and construction. It’s a good place to go for the season’s beauties.

      Take, for example, just two of the company’s many card lines: those focusing on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and those from the Sierra Club. The 20 holiday cards in the Frank Lloyd Wright Designs collection – one of several card boxes featuring Wright’s work – come in four designs of abstract colors on an attractive silver background. These designs have a real seasonal connection: they are details adapted from Wright’s 1926-1927 presentation drawing, “December Gifts.” The designs are wholly secular, their shapes vaguely suggestive of holiday trees, ornaments, balloons, or nothing in particular at all – except a spirit of celebration. Each of the cards has the same interior message: a simple “Season’s Greetings.” Or, for something from the real world rather than the mind of a great architect, consider Sierra Club—Nature’s Details, also containing 20 cards in four designs – in this case, exquisite photos of winter scenes that are anything but traditional in the Currier-and-Ives sense. Each scene is a closeup of one of nature’s cold-weather wonders, using a different palette. “Frost on Winter Berries” is primarily green, with bright red berries just above the center. “Frost Rosettes on Creek Ice” is dark, dark blue, with white highlights. “Crab Apples in Snow” is predominantly white, with the red apples peeking through their snowy covering. And “Frosted Red Maple Leaves” is a splash of dark red. Again, every card says “Season’s Greetings” inside, and each reflects the quiet joys of a season that tends to become, for too many of us, frenetic and stressful.

      This is not to say that Pomegranate’s Wright and Sierra Club offerings are only for this time of year. There are any-time-of-year cards with similar designs as well – attractive enough to give as gifts or to use yourself throughout the year. One example is a pack of 10 small Frank Lloyd Wright thank-you cards, each bearing a dark red design on the front that is adapted from a decorative grille designed in 1895 for one of Wright’s first commissions. The words “Thank You” appear under the design, with the inside of the cards blank so you can include a brief note about what you are thankful for. Or, for even more general use, consider the beautifully embossed Sierra Club Wildflowers notecards: a dozen of them, four each of three stylized floral designs, every card highly elegant – and all of them blank inside, for any personal message you may want to send, at any time of year. One caution: the Wildflowers cards are square – one thing that makes their design unusually attractive – and that means they require additional postage (currently 58 cents rather than 41). For this sort of beauty, it seems a small price to pay.

      Pomegranate even does some intriguing things with playing cards. The company offers many dozen “Knowledge Card” decks, each focusing on a particular subject, asking questions on the front of each card and giving the answers (in brief and entertainingly written form) on the back. A single example: the What Did They Do? deck celebrates the extraordinary accomplishments of people whose deeds are far better known than their names. This deck’s subtitle, in fact, is “Big Accomplishments of Not-So-Well-Known People.” The compilation, by Steve Pastis, gives you the names of inventors, discoverers and other notable people whose lives retain more interest than their identities. It is both fun and informative to find out – among many other things – who invented the potato chip, who was the first woman to climb Mt. Everest, and who did the first drive across the continental United States (at a time when the country had only 50 miles of paved roads). This and the other “Knowledge Card” decks make wonderful stocking stuffers at this time of year – but they also make great gifts, for others or yourself, anytime. You’ll enjoy them – it’s in the cards.


How Many? Spectacular Paper Sculptures. By Ron van der Meer. Robin Corey Books. $24.99.

The Time Traveler’s Journal. By Ed Masessa. Illustrated by Daniel Jankowski and Lawrence Eddie Myers. Designed by Bill Henderson and Deena Fleming. Tangerine Press/Scholastic. $24.99.

      In this gift-oriented season, some books simply shout, “What a great present!” Some of them, like these two, are right. How Many? is one of those books that you have to see to believe – but you won’t be able to see it before buying it unless your local bookstore has a copy on display, since it comes sealed in a plastic wrapper. Request a display copy if one isn’t already available, and you’ll immediately see why the extra protection is needed: Ron van der Meer’s pop-up paper sculptures just beg to be touched, marveled at and closely examined – How did he do that? And that? And the other thing? Van der Meer has created wonderful paper figures before, in such books as The Art Pack and Monster Island, but here he has outdone himself with a series of nested and spread-out shapes that burst from the book like fireworks (they’re brightly colored enough for fireworks, too). The connective tissue for this book, although scarcely its reason for being, is counting. The idea is to count the many shapes in various ways: the total number in one construction, including those nested together; the number of a particular size or color; how many, combined, make new shapes; and so on. This is a wonderful 3D puzzle and a marvelous family activity that can occupy many a cold night or weekend. Certainly there are no age boundaries to the sense of wonder inspired by these circles, stars, triangles and more. This is a book of things to count, true, but it is also one you can count on to make your imagination soar and your sense of wonder blossom.

      The Time Traveler’s Journal is mundane by comparison, but only by comparison. Created by essentially the same team that produced the equally attractive The WandMaker’s Guidebook, this work has much the same structure: it appears to be large and thick, but in reality contains only 24 pages of text – almost none of it traditional text. There is a touch of narrative here and there, notably at the start, in the form of a letter to readers from “Lieserl – the missing Einstein.” But as you delve into The Time Traveler’s Journal, you get real and made-up photos, fold-ups and fold-outs, small envelopes into which cards and other items are tucked, alleged newspaper headlines, and much more. It’s a multimedia feast, capped by the thing that makes the book seem thick: cardboard packaging surrounding and protecting a working pocket watch called “Rewinder” that actually runs in reverse. While enjoying the watch (whose hands really do move counter-clockwise, and whose numbers are arranged backwards), you can read “facts” about the Titanic and the iceberg, the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the reason a 21st-century coin supposedly showed up in Thailand in 1983 (in a 12th-century burial site), the flaws in all supposedly scientific theories of time travel, and more. What you will not learn, of course, is how to travel in time yourself. “Lieserl” professes to have been just about everywhere (or everywhen) and to have done just about everything, but there are some secrets she simply will not share. Why, it’s almost as if time travel itself is impossible! But Lieserl asserts otherwise, and in reality, this book will let you experience time travel. Unfortunately, we travel through time in only one direction – toward the future, which inevitably becomes the present and then the past. But as long as you’re traveling that way, The Time Traveler’s Journal can help make the trip more pleasant and interesting – at least for a time.


The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. By Hugh Kennedy. Da Capo. $27.95.

      Calling modern Islamic terrorists thugs and murderers operating at the behest of an unremittingly evil religion makes many people in the largely Christian West comfortable, but admits of no discussion regarding what today’s purveyors of what they consider to be jihad want the world to look like. The Great Arab Conquests dusts off important historical events of more than a thousand years ago – events that continue to have living presence for a great many Muslims today – and shows just what sort of glory Islamic power once achieved and, in the minds of some, can and will achieve again.

      Hugh Kennedy, who has taught in the Department of Mediaeval History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for 35 years, has explored the age of Islamic preeminence before, in When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. In his new book, Kennedy tries more clearly to relate the events of the 8th and 9th centuries to more-modern European and world history. The Great Arab Conquests shows just how extensive the rule of Mohammed’s followers was: A century after the Prophet’s death in the year 632, his successors controlled more territory than did the old Roman Empire, and had conquered it in half the time. The Muslim armies destroyed or nearly destroyed the Persian and Byzantine Empires, conquered the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and moved into southern France. And they did it with more than their considerable battlefield skill – they used the resources of conquered lands to enhance Islamic and Arabic identity and asserted longstanding hegemony through widespread but largely uncompelled conversions.

      This was above all religious warfare, waged so effectively by the followers of Mohammed – who, unlike Christ, did not preach meekness or turning the other cheek – that the Muslim Empire of the year 750 remained stable for the next 300 years, even expanding a bit more through its conquests of Sicily and Crete. “The early Muslims brought with them a great cultural self-confidence,” writes Kennedy. “God had spoken to them through His Prophet, in Arabic, and they were the bearers of the true religion and God’s own language.” Interestingly, although “conquest was the prelude to conversion,” the conquerors “put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility.” Sure of their God-given religion and language, the conquerors allowed both to spread more slowly and naturally than modern would-be Muslim rulers would likely tolerate.

      Kennedy’s extensive research is impressive, but he never explicitly connects the events of more than a millennium ago to anything occurring in the modern world – although the connection is surely clear enough in the minds of those who would be kings again. Kennedy gives short shrift to the events that stopped and eventually eroded Muslim expansion, such as Charles Martel’s decisive victory for the West in 732 – admittedly a battle of which few and incomplete accounts have survived. Still, the apparent implacability of the Muslim Empire’s conquests is treated at such length here that it may be difficult for readers to understand how it could eventually have imploded; and the extreme detail of battles – when such detail is available – will likely cause the eyes of many non-historians to glaze over. This is an important book for understanding some of the history that underlies many of today’s world-disturbing events; but because it never effectively connects the dots between that long-ago time and our modern age, many readers are likely to find it wanting as they try to comprehend the unremitting enmity of some in the Muslim world toward the West.


Merry Navidad! Christmas Carols in Spanish and English. By Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. English version by Rosalma Zubizarreta. Illustrated by Viví Escrivá. Rayo/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Fartsy Claus. By Mitch Chivus. Illustrated by Mike Reed. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Every Christmas season brings some books with new angles on the holiday. Some of those angles are acute, others merely obtuse. Here we have one of each.

Merry Navidad! is a lovely idea and should be fun for families with children ages 5-10. This is not a series of Spanish translations of well-known English-language carols – it is more the other way around. Here are carols from Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Chile and other Spanish-speaking countries, most of them emerging from rural traditions that are fading but that retain long-lasting charm. These villancicos are offered in Spanish and English on facing or following pages, and arranged into such sections as “The Road to Bethlehem,” “Christmas Eve” and “Christmas Lullabies.” Each section is introduced – again, in Spanish and English – by a page explaining the traditions of the Spanish-speaking world and the ways in which the villancicos reflect those traditions. The words, by and large, are simple ones: “Bethlehem is celebrating,/ fum, fum, fum!/ What’s the reason for such glee?/ What can it be? I cannot guess…” But the words of most English-language carols are simple, too. In fact, one of the charms of this book lies in showing English speakers how similar their Christmas sentiments and expressions are to those of the Spanish-speaking world. Unfortunately for anyone tempted by the pleasant lyrics and lovely illustrations to sing along with the carols, there is no CD included with the book (that would have been a nice touch), and there are musical notations at the back for only six of the 19 songs. Still, as an introduction to a Christmas tradition with which many English speakers may be unfamiliar, and a work of gentle charm for Spanish speakers already familiar with these carols, Merry Navidad! is a lovely seasonal book.

      Not so Fartsy Claus, which is clearly supposed to be funny and offbeat but which is simply in bad taste – doubly so because it is aimed at children ages 3-7, who are likely still to believe in the physical reality of Santa Claus. Aside from winning the dubious prize for largest number of odor jokes ever in a Christmas book, Mitch Chivus’ story has little to recommend it. Mike Reed’s illustrations, some of which are genuinely funny, gain the book a low (++) rating, but the story itself is just embarrassingly bad. The premise is simple: someone leaves out franks and beans for Santa instead of the traditional milk and cookies, and St. Nick enjoys them so much that he wanders into the home’s kitchen, finds a huge pot of beans simmering on the stove, and eats the whole thing. This story is the umpteenth version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, here maximized for poopy jokes: “The reindeer eyed each other, feeling queasy and funky,/ thinking, ‘He smells like a dirty old monkey!’” Just the Christmas spirit you were looking for, right? The word “fart” appears quite a lot, and it is supposed to be hilarious that Santa’s gas is so loud that it makes a home’s windows shake and awakens two kids who have been sleeping peacefully. So they come downstairs and see him: “His beard was white, his cheeks were pink,/ and PHEW! He really seemed to stink.” The kids eventually solve Santa’s problem, using his gas to propel him on his way after devising underwear equipped with a funnel. That garment is the most amusing idea in the book. The rest of the ideas seem to have come from someone who got too much coal in his stocking over too many years. Don’t be fooled by the authorial pseudonym (Mitch Chivus = mischievous). There’s nothing playful and carefree here – Fartsy Claus is simply dumb.


Schoenberg: Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra; Friede auf Erden; Six Pieces for Male Chorus a cappella; Ei, du Lütte; Kol Nidre, for Rabbi-Narrator, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra; Moses und Aron: Excerpts from “The Golden Calf and the Altar.” Jennifer Welch-Babidge, soprano; David Wilson-Johnson, rabbi-narrator; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Reznicek: Eine Lustspiel-Ouvertüre; Theme and Variations for Full Orchestra and Bass Solo after the Poem “Tragische Geschichte” by Adalbert [sic] von Chamisso; Symphonic Variations on “Kol Nidre.” Alexander Vassiliev, bass; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Michail Jurowski. Also includes Eine Lustspiel-Ouvertüre and “Donna Diana” Overture with the composer conducting Grosses Opernorchester Parlophon. CPO. $16.99.

      That the two Austrian composers Arnold Schoenberg and Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek should both have created 20th-century works based on “Kol Nidre” is not in itself surprising: the tune sung at the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, had already been famously used as the basis of Max Bruch’s work for cello and orchestra in 1881. Nor is it surprising that the Schoenberg and Reznicek works based on “Kol Nidre” should reflect such different approaches, since these composers’ mature styles were so thoroughly distinct. Yet hearing the “Kol Nidre” works and the others on these new CDs does engender a thought of just how divergent musical language became in the 20th century, even for composers who were contemporaries: Schoenberg lived from 1874 to 1951, Reznicek from 1860 to 1945.

      The new Schoenberg CD is the latest release in Naxos’ excellent Robert Craft Collection, which is showing again and again just how much mastery of Schoenberg’s works Craft has – and what excellent performances he obtains from disparate forces. This particular CD is, unfortunately, a bit of a mishmash, containing works written from 1895 to 1938, offered in no particularly clear order; and the CD suffers from some unfortunate presentation. Strictly from a musical standpoint, though, it is top-notch. Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (1903-4) is an intense, strongly Wagnerian work that Jennifer Welch-Babidge sings with understanding and intensity. Friede auf Erden (“Peace on Earth,” 1907) is an attractive piece for mixed chorus, sung with lovely sound by the Simon Joly Chorale. That group’s male voices do an outstanding job with Six Pieces for Male Chorus a cappella (1929-30), a very difficult and quite moving piece sung to the composer’s own texts. Ei, du Lütte (1895-6) functions as a sort of choral encore: an upbeat one-minute work in Low German dialect. As for Kol Nidre, for Rabbi-Narrator, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra (1938), it is a dramatic and intense work, in English, strongly narrated by David Wilson-Johnson in a text that Schoenberg altered from the traditional to reflect his own view of the words; here the strengths of the narrator, chorus and orchestra combine into a moving and intense piece. And there is also intensity aplenty in the excerpts from Schoenberg’s unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, with Welch-Babidge’s voice soaring above the grotesqueries and building brutality of the “Golden Calf” scene.

      Unfortunately for listeners not already intimately familiar with this music, this CD’s presentation is utterly unhelpful in understanding it. Craft’s notes are so detail-oriented as to be genuinely obscure, as when (to cite one example among many) he writes of one of the Six Songs, “The style is still indebted to Die Walküre, most overtly at bar 429.” Furthermore, the CD includes no texts; and while some of the words are available online through Naxos, they are offered only in German – useless for English speakers who cannot translate them on their own. The Moses und Aron words are not offered online at all, nor are the English ones for Kol Nidre. None of this detracts from the quality of the performances – just from listeners’ enjoyment of them.

      The works by Reznicek come from a different sonic world. A friend of Mahler, a colleague and occasional friend of Richard Strauss, Reznicek stuck with tonality long after Schoenberg and his followers had abandoned it. But he found his own unusual and creative approaches to music. Eine Lustspiel-Ouvertüre (“Comic Overture,” 1895) was written a year after the composer’s biggest hit, the opera Donna Diana, and partakes of some of the same lightheartedness as that opera’s justly famous overture. It has some intricate rhythms and unusual turns of phrase, all of which the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Michail Jurowski handles apparently effortlessly. It is a curtain raiser on this CD for the fascinating and offbeat Chamisso Variations (1921), which are for orchestra alone until they end with a bass singing the mocking “Tragic History” of a man having a bad hair day. (The poet’s first name, Adelbert, is misspelled in the work’s title.) The Chamisso Variations lead up to the theme of their final section rather than being derived from it; and they contain passages reminiscent of Mahler and, even more strongly, of Richard Strauss, with whom Reznicek had been having some musical quarrels. Indeed, the Chamisso Variations sound on more than one occasion like Till Eulenspiegel turned inside-out. They also contain an impressive funeral march that, in context, is wholly out of proportion to their subject matter.

      Reznicek’s handling of Kol Nidre is more serious and equally impressive. These variations, written in 1929, are so intricately intertwined that it is hard to say for sure just how many there are. The Mahler influence is clear here as well – notably in a section marked “Tempo di Ländler” – and there are also snatches of operetta-like tunes, plus allusions to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, all within a totality that sounds like no one else’s music. Reznicek is careful to give the Kol Nidre melody itself fully serious treatment, especially in the opening section (marked “Largo religioso”) and the extended final one.

      The CD contains two “bonus tracks” on which Reznicek himself can be heard conducting two of his overtures in recordings made in 1922. “Can be heard” is a bit of an exaggeration: the sound is truly execrable, and the performances have only minimal value even as historical documents, since so little instrumental balance is audible. The most interesting thing to be learned is that Reznicek significantly slowed down the last six notes of the Donna Diana overture – but whether that was how he wanted the work conducted, or had something to do with the exigencies of recording 85 years ago, it is impossible to know. Jurowski and the players of WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln serve this fascinating music much better.


Bolcom: Complete Works for Cello—Capriccio; Cello Suite No. 1 in C Minor; Décalage; Dark Music; Cello Sonata. Norman Fischer, cello; Jeanne Kierman, piano; Andrea Moore, timpani (in Dark Music). Naxos. $8.99.

Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River. Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóňez. Naxos. $8.99.

      There’s no easy way to explain what “American classical music” is. Any definition has to encompass everything from Ives to Cage to Copland – and, more to the point here, has to include William Bolcom, whose multiplicity of styles is such that he is practically a musical nation unto himself. One would be, in fact, almost as hard-pressed to identify a “Bolcom style” as to choose a single description for “American style.” Like the nation, he is all over the place. Bolcom has written only five works for cello – although his decision to call his Cello Suite “No. 1” indicates that he expects there to be more – and all are played with fervor and enthusiasm by Norman Fischer on this new Naxos CD, ably abetted by Jeanne Kierman in the pieces requiring piano. Fischer adapts, seemingly without effort, to the wide variety of styles here. Capriccio (1988) is a pleasant work containing aspects, according to Bolcom himself, of Milhaud and Brahms; yet it sounds like neither. A bit like a suite, a bit like a four-movement sonata, Capriccio has an especially attractive finale in “Brazilian Tango Tempo.” The fact that the Cello Suite No. 1 (1996) bears an actual key signature invites comparison, at least structurally, with the solo suites of Bach, but there is nothing of the Baroque about it. This is a mostly dark work, fully exploiting the lower reaches and emotional depths of the cello. It is based on the stage music for Arthur Miller’s tragic play, Broken Glass, but has little theatricality about it – although it does require considerable virtuosity. Décalage (1961-1962) comes from an entirely different sonic world – that of Pierre Boulez (again according to Bolcom). It is spare if not quite minimalist music, although not, in truth, among Bolcom’s more memorable works. Dark Music, however, is memorable, and quite unusual. Written in 1970, it combines the sonic worlds of cello and timpani; is played softly almost throughout; and has a darkly distinctive sound that is quite unmistakable – and quite unlike anything else by Bolcom. As for the Cello Sonata (1989), it is in some ways the most traditionally “classical” of all these pieces, laid out in three-movement form and being distinctly reminiscent of Brahms. The central “Adagio semplice” is especially lovely and thoroughly Romantic, although the work as a whole does not come across as sounding like anything from the 19th century. But neither does it, or anything else on this CD, have a “Bolcom sound” – each work here has one of the Bolcom sounds.

      Virgil Thomson’s sound is somewhat easier to identify, particularly in his scores to the two New Deal propaganda films, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). Forthright, easy to follow, gently witty and ironic, Thomson’s music could be called proto-Copland: it in fact influenced Copland’s later use of folk motifs and simple, approachable harmonies. It is unfair to judge Thomson, whose opera Four Saints in Three Acts is deliciously anarchistic, by these establishmentarian scores for movies designed specifically to promote Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans and policies. There are a few interesting pieces here: “Cattle” and “The Homesteader” from Plow are especially good, and that film’s finale, a sad habanera that accompanies the exodus of settlers from farms devastated by the huge dust storms of the Depression, is effective. But in the absence of visuals, the majority of the music for Plow, and practically everything in River, falls rather flat. Plow is the story of the transformation of the Great Plains from grasslands to huge wheat fields, of the hopes tied to farming, and of the environmental destruction that resulted from misuse of the land – problems that the New Deal promised to correct. The River is essentially an argument for taming the Mississippi – it advocates dam building and flood management that have proved, decades later, to be disastrous. Naxos has made the films, with these same well-crafted performances by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóňez, available on DVD, and that would probably be a better choice for anyone interested in seeing the context within which Thomson created this music. On its own, the CD gets a (+++) rating, as much for its historical interest and the implicit warning about government hubris that it contains as for any significant value of the music itself.

November 21, 2007


Going Postal. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $24.95.

Making Money. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $25.95.

Thud! By Terry Pratchett. HarperTorch. $7.99.

Wintersmith. By Terry Pratchett. HarperTeen. $7.99.

      Terry Pratchett really has no right to be this good. His satire, often scathing but rarely mean-spirited, drips from all the books of his Discworld series like a thread connecting them all. And if you don’t think a thread can drip, you don’t know Pratchett, creator of luggage that irritatingly follows you around wherever you go on its own (many) little feet.

      From the single notion of Discworld – a flat planet that moves through space carried atop the backs of four unimaginably gigantic elephants, which in turn ride on an even more unimaginably gigantic turtle – Pratchett has spun so many different webs that it is amazing that even he can keep all the characters straight. Or crooked, actually – most of them are skewed one way or another, the good guys endearingly so and the bad guys…also endearingly so. In Pratchett’s world, which of course is recognizable just under the surface of the stories as our own, everything that happens makes a weird kind of sense through its convincing narrative impossibility.

      Thus, in Going Postal, Pratchett introduces swindler Moist von Lipwig (weirdly appropriate names are a Pratchett trademark), who is about to hang from the neck until dead for his crimes – when the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, the fascinating cesspool of a city where many Pratchett tales take place, decides instead to give him a job: to revivify the moribund postal service, which is clogged with decades-old mail, a headquarters building teetering on collapse, and mail carriers ranging from the senile to the unhealthily obsessed. Guarded by a huge golem that will prevent him from shirking his duties, Moist gives the job a go, even though it means confronting the current super-fast communication method of choice in the form of the Grand Trunk clacks communication monopoly, headed by the power-and-wealth-obsessed Reacher Gilt (another great name). Oh, and in the midst of everything, Moist hears the mail talking to him…

      Well, Moist eventually does his job so well that the post office is humming along just fine – a bad thing in Pratchett’s world, where, as so often in our own, no good deed goes unpunished. Ankh-Morpork’s ruler, Lord Vetinari, decides that Moist is ready for an even greater challenge, so in Making Money Moist is given the opportunity to…well, make money. Literally make it. Lord Vetinari puts him in charge of the Royal Mint, which insists on such outmoded approaches as manufacturing pennies that cost more than a penny to make (why, that’s true in the U.S. as well!). Meanwhile, next door at the Royal Bank, an analogy machine called the Glooper has scientifically established that one never has quite as much money at the end of the week as one thinks one should. This is the bank whose elderly head, Topsy Lavish (those Pratchett names!), has been keeping two loaded crossbows on her desk, and whose chief clerk who may be a vampire, or perhaps something a great deal more destabilizing. Soon Moist is saddled with as much trouble as money, which is really saying something for someone in charge of the Royal Mint. Along the way, Pratchett introduces such concepts as the god-of-the-month club: “We pick a god and believe in him, or her, obviously, or it, although we draw the line at the ones with teeth and too many legs, er, and foreign ones, of course…”

      Pratchett’s stylistic mastery and oddity show itself in everything he writes. Between Going Postal and Making Money, he turned out a neat book called Thud! – now available in paperback. This one swirls around one of Pratchett’s recurring characters, Sam Vimes of the City Watch, who gets to solve all sorts of deadly and puzzling and funny murders. The one here traces to the ancient enmity between trolls and dwarfs: influential dwarf Grag Hamcrusher has been stirring things up among the smaller citizens of Ankh-Morpork, until one day he is found bashed to death, with a troll club nearby. A setup? Obviously. But who set up whom, and why? The quest for answers leads Vimes into a mine network beneath the very streets of Ankh-Morpork, and then to the fabled Koom Valley: “You couldn’t make plans for Koom Valley. It’d laugh at them. It would push them away, like it pushed away roads.” Fortunately, non-planning is one thing at which Vimes – who refuses to believe in the supernatural entities that nevertheless believe in him – proves quite adept.

      And speaking of adepts, elsewhere on Discworld lives witch-in-training Tiffany Aching (yet another of those marvelous Pratchett names), whose adventures with the Wee Free Men (six-inch-tall, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding blue characters also known as Feegles or Pictsies) continue in Wintersmith, now available in paperback. Like the two prior Tiffany tales – The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky – this one is intended for younger readers, ages 12 and up, which in Pratchett’s mind means that it considers altogether more serious subjects than he handles in his books for (alleged) adults. Among the issues in Wintersmith are loyalty, willingness to serve without material reward, and the consequences of making something right that you have, however inadvertently, thoroughly messed up. What Tiffany has messed up is the sequence of the seasons themselves: the spirit of Winter has become so entranced by her that he intends to turn himself into a human and stay around all year long. The Wintersmith’s main problem is unresolvable naïveté – his attempts to make himself a man are touchingly silly. But his cold passion is real enough, and dealing with it requires Tiffany to develop some of her witch skills (which are not at all what you might expect) quite quickly, while relying on help from the Wee Free Men and other friends. Terry Pratchett’s mind is a vast and wonderful thing, encompassing within it so many other vast and wonderful things that it is always a bit of a shame to have to put one of his books down. Fortunately, it seems that there are always more yet to come.


Night Shift: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 23. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Cubes and Punishment: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

      You have to hand it to Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott: they’re not content to rest on their laurels. Baby Blues has been a delightful family strip for the better part of two decades now, but writer Scott and artist Kirkman continue to find new ways to highlight the everyday lives of parents Darryl and Wanda and kids Zoe, Hammie and Wren – and, in so doing, highlight every parent’s life. Here are the highs, the lows, even the in-betweens (although there are not many of those, either in Baby Blues or in real life). And here is just enough exaggeration to keep things fresh, funny and always new – which is, come to think of it, sort of like life with kids, if you take just a slightly skewed look at it. Night Shift, the 23rd Baby Blues collection, includes one of the strip’s most delightful sequences, in which Zoe and Hammie ask for every toy in the world for Christmas – and get them! In your dreams, you say? Well, of course it’s a dream; but much as in Dickens’ perennial A Christmas Carol, it’s a dream with a purpose, leading the kids to realize that they don’t want everything after all: “YAY! SANTA DIDN’T BRING US EVERYTHING WE ASKED FOR!!” There’s even a neat twist ending to the whole tale – a small marvel of panel-by-panel storytelling. And there’s plenty more here, much of it relating to mom Wanda: “There’s multitasking, and then there’s Wanda-tasking,” comments Darryl in one strip. In another, Wanda offers “really effective birth control” to three young women simply by trying to take care of all her kids at once while saying, “You know, being a parent is actually a lot harder than it looks.” There’s also Darryl realizing he is “at the bottom of the technology food chain” when he can’t set up his cell phone – but Wanda can do one thing, Zoe the next, Hammie the one after that, and baby Wren the final item. Darryl also has one of those everything-goes-wrong days at the office, stops during his homeward commute, buys a flowering plant for Wanda, gets a huge hug, and thinks, “Take THAT, world!” And all this is not to mention the antics of the kids. Zoe argues with Wanda about what to wear, explaining, “If I don’t disagree with somebody first thing in the morning, I feel weird all day.” Hammie sits at a full refrigerator, asking, “What is there to eat besides everything in here?” And Wren learns how to pick her own clothes: she chews on whatever Wanda dresses her in, crying until she finds an outfit whose taste she likes. See? Just like your own family – but a lot wittier, and adorably drawn.

      Like Baby Blues, Scott Adams’ Dilbert has been around for nearly two decades. But there’s nothing adorable about Adams’ drawing style, and never has been, as will be clear in Cubes and Punishment, the 30th Dilbert collection – which contains quite a few older cartoons, in which the characters look different from the way they do today. Unfortunately, this is a lazy collection, and therefore gets only a (+++) rating – and receives that solely because of the trenchant observations of corporate life with which Dilbert is always filled. The book’s subtitle is “A Collection of Dilbert Comics on the Theme of Unusual Workplace Cruelty,” but there is actually nothing cruel (or unusual) in what is portrayed here, and there are no comments by Adams to offer readers some insight into why he did certain strips the way he did them. Although this is an oversize “Treasury” book, it is likely to be treasured only by readers who have discovered Dilbert fairly recently and have not had a chance to see how far the strip has come since it started out. The book’s chapters stay more-or-less focused on specific characters – the Pointy-Haired Boss, Dilbert, Dogbert, and so on – but there is no real theme here (the subtitle notwithstanding), and the book is really just a bunch of reprints of strips about the Kafkaesque oddities of office life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Pure Dead Frozen. By Debi Gliori. Knopf. $15.99.

Muddle Earth. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      Series creators sometimes go out in a blaze of glory – or, in the case of Pure Dead Frozen, a blaze of Gliori. Other times, they try their hand at something new and merely sputter and fizzle, as in Muddle Earth.

      Better things first: Pure Dead Frozen is a gliori-ous conclusion to a six-book series about the thoroughly weird and thoroughly delightful Strega-Borgia family of Scotland, and if you think “gliori-ous” is a bad pun, stop reading right now, because this is an author who explains some of the terms she uses with a section at the end of the book called a “Gliossary.” The themes and characters of the other five Pure Dead books – Magic, Wicked, Brilliant, Trouble and Batty – all get pulled neatly together in Pure Dead Frozen, a nonstop farce in which, among many other things, a demon steals a human child that promptly pees, poops and vomits all over him, including once in a revolving door, as Gliori keeps score: “Babies, 3; Demons, 0.” Let’s see…there’s a wolf invasion of the Strega-Borgia family home, in which the wolves turn out to be good guys; there’s a timely intervention by a relative who has been dead for several hundred years; there’s a premarital split between the local teenage dragon and her intended, the Sleeper (a Loch Ness Monster type), that almost destabilizes the universe by allowing S’tan, master of Hades, to recover a bauble that controls all time; there is the reappearance in all his evil of the black sheep of the family, Don Lucifer di S’Embowelli Borgia, except he’s more of a black rat, having received a rat’s snout in an earlier book, which is removed in this one through the potent but unregulated power of two-year-old Damp Strega-Borgia; there is a hilarious falling-in-love scene that Gliori takes from love at first sight to honeymoon within just a few words while making it thoroughly believable, even though it occurs in the midst of a siege; and there’s so much more than the only way to describe the book fully is to read it from cover to cover. Which you really should do. Debi Gliori is one twisted writer – twisted in all the right directions. The scene in which S’tan is force-fed a substance that renders him docile is priceless. And the one in which the Sleeper functions as a fire hose. And the one in which – oh heck, there are lots of priceless scenes, and all for the price of $15.99.

      It is reasonable to have high hopes for anything by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, creators of The Edge Chronicles (seven volumes available in the U.S.) and Far-Flung Adventures (three volumes so far). In both those series, Stewart’s amusingly offbeat character delineations work beautifully with Riddell’s fascinating, astonishingly detailed drawings, which look as if Gustav Doré did them after a sugar binge. The illustrations are first-rate in Muddle Earth, too, but the story is a huge disappointment – so much so that the book deserves a (+++) rating if you have never seen Riddell’s art before and are swept away by it here, but only (++) if you have been enchanted by it in other, much better contexts. Not one single character in Muddle Earth ever really engages the reader – a fatal flaw. We are supposed to empathize with young Joe Jefferson, unceremoniously dumped into Muddle Earth thanks to a summoning by the thoroughly incompetent wizard, Randalf. But Joe is unremittingly stupid – a no-no if one wants young readers to ally themselves with him – and repeatedly fails to see what is going on around him. He learns early on that Randalf is not a real wizard, but never makes use of the information – and eventually declares that he will always think of this self-absorbed lazy braggart as Randalf the Wise. He lets himself be decked out in junk that supposedly goes with his new designation as Joe the Barbarian. He meekly lets himself be shackled when one thoroughly feckless character says he really needs to allow it. And much more. The book is an obvious – too obvious – sendup of heroic quests and, of course, of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Randalf instead of Gandalf and all that). A few elements, such as the Perfumed Bog and the pink stinky hogs that live there, are well done. But most of Muddle Earth just isn’t funny. Stewart and Riddell seem to have tried too hard here – they have done much better elsewhere.


Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World. By Juliana, Isabella, and Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Gerald R. Uhlich. Scholastic. $16.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

      What is the right way to treat animals that, left on their own in the wild, would surely die? The question raises serious issues of animal husbandry and of the interaction between people – who go to great lengths to preserve weaker members of their own species – and other living things. It was raised in poignant form in two Hatkoff family books about an orphaned baby hippopotamus named Owen and the giant tortoise named Mzee with which the hippo bonded. But the issues were fairly straightforward there: Owen had been left orphaned by a devastating tsunami, and the ability to rescue him was to an extent a stand-in for attempts (not all of them successful) to rescue the tsunami’s human victims. The case of Knut, a polar bear cub at a zoo in Berlin, Germany, was different. Knut was born to a captive polar bear at the zoo – another cub born at the same time died within days – and became the special project of chief bear keeper Thomas Dorflein. Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World is packed with photos of the adorable bear cub and filled with information about the relationship between Knut and Thomas. But there was controversy about saving Knut, and none of it appears here. Some self-proclaimed animals-rights groups argued that if Knut’s mother could not or would not care for him, that was just nature’s way and should be allowed to take its natural course. This turned into a larger argument about zoos and human-animal interaction in general – a subject admittedly not appropriate for a book of this sort for young readers. But because the book omits even a whiff of controversy, focusing on the so-cute bear cub and his delightful-looking interactions with Thomas and with zoo visitors, it does run the risk of anthropomorphizing the cub and making some young readers think, wrongly, that polar bears are basically huge teddy bears. In reality, if all this leads young people to support efforts to save polar bears – which some scientists believe are threatened by global warming – it will be all to the good. But Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World does seem a touch too sugar-coated to give readers an accurate impression of these animals, despite the three pages of further information on polar bears offered at the end.

      There is nothing real or realistic at all in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat! – one of several recent books to produce variations on the nonsense song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” The original song ends with the old lady swallowing a horse: “She’s dead, of course.” But that seems a bit too gruesome and final for Lucille Colandro, who has the old lady cough up everything she swallows – the bat, an owl, a cat, a ghost, a goblin, some bones and a wizard – at the end. Not surprisingly, it’s all a trick-or-treat tie-in, although the book will be fun, especially for small children, at any time of year. Jared Lee’s illustrations are right in the spirit of the story, with the ghost looking surprised while being swallowed and scared when the goblin is swallowed next, the old lady howling after swallowing the owl, and so on. The book is completely inconsequential, but it’s fun to read and fun to look at.


Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope. By Jenna Bush. HarperTeen. $18.99.

Kids Are Americans Too. By Bill O’Reilly and Charles Flowers. William Morrow. $24.95.

      One way to judge the value to your family of a celebrity-written book is by simply imagining it to have been written by someone completely unknown. It’s possible that a celebrity’s name will get you to read about a subject you would not otherwise consider – and that may be a good thing – but when it comes to books that are trying to teach something or help families understand the world better, a celebrity byline is useless if the content is drivel. It often is – although not in these two books. True, the celebrity angle makes the books seem to be more than they are; neither is the last word on anything, and neither really breaks any new ground. But – case in point – in Ana’s Story by Jenna Bush, if the author’s name is what gets families to read the harrowing tale of an abused 17-year-old single mother who is HIV-positive, and then to do something to help the Anas of the world, the celebrity author will have done a great deal of good. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. Several months after the book’s publication, when all the fanfare about the president’s daughter’s book tours (during which many questions had nothing to do with the book itself) has died down, we are left with a harrowing piece of nonfiction that, unfortunately, adds very little to the debate about HIV, poverty, and the scarcity of health resources in the poorer countries of the world. This is a short book – the pages number 290, but the margins are wide and many pages are half blank or filled with irrelevant photos – but an affecting one. The bickering relatives, uncaring judicial system and strong determination of Ana as a single mother add up to a story of woe and power. Unfortunately, it is more than a twice-told tale. Entrenched ruling elites, official corruption, indifference to the plight of the poor, lack of interest in or understanding of serious diseases, and diversion of resources (including foreign aid) to line the pockets of thuggish leaders are facts of life and death in countries throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. The personal details of Ana’s life are well communicated by Jenna Bush, who writes in a simplistic style that should help the book reach out even to young readers. But there is no tidy ending here, as Bush herself points out; and there are no suggestions that are likely to prevent other stories like Ana’s from being written again and again by other well-meaning celebrity and non-celebrity authors, year after year after year.

      Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, has suggestions galore. Kids Are Americans Too is the acerbic journalist’s take on the rights and responsibilities of children in the United States. With fewer than half the numbered pages of Jenna Bush’s book, it has far more actionable ideas and far more direct relevance to today’s children – but that is not to say that all readers (by a long shot) will agree with the ideas and suggestions here. O’Reilly and coauthor Charles Flowers are at their best in punchy descriptions of events that kids could justifiably think of as ancient history, such as the creation of the U.S. Constitution: “While they were Founding, the Fathers included brilliant thinkers, pains in the butt, more than one certifiable drunk, heroes who stood against the majority on principle, athletes (some of whom were skilled at chasing skirts), and speakers who could make the walls shake.” Kids Are Americans Too is also good at avoiding spoon-feeding information to young readers, encouraging them to learn things for themselves. For example, one 11-year-old who wants to go hunting with his father is told to look up the local laws that govern the subject in his state – and given a quick course in the difference between nationwide and local lawmaking. O’Reilly warns that “usually, you kids don’t win” in matters of individual vs. group rights, such as wearing a T-shirt with a political statement that offends someone else in your class. He tosses out quizzes with wonderful wrong answers: “Many laws that affect you are…about as sane as Simon Cowell’s comments on American Idol.” And he is up-front about his own attitudes: “I frequently rant and rail against court decisions that—IN MY VIEW—are ridiculous, dangerous, or just plain wrong. (Don’t get me started!)” The result is a wide-ranging but superficial look at various aspects of American law as they apply to kids. At one point, O’Reilly writes, “So where are we? Hard to say.” That is in reference to a specific situation, but it also applies to the book as a whole. There are well-made points here and bright writing throughout, but Kids Are Americans Too is scattered, trying too hard both to seem “with it” for young readers and to propound a specific view of constitutional and other legal issues. It’s a better jumping-off point for further discussion than guide to everyday life – although if it does lead to further discussion about legal and constitutional issues, it will have accomplished something worthwhile for the work of any author, celebrity or not.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Vonk. PentaTone. $11.99.

Gang Chen and Zhanhao He: The Butterfly Lovers—Concerto for Violin; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto. Gil Shaham, violin; Jonathan Fox, gu ban; Nella Hunkins, cello; Ta Jin, flute; Gulia Mashurova, harp; Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui. Canary Classics. $16.99.

      There is at least as much attention on the performers of the music on these CDs as there is on the music itself. Listeners interested in particular performers’ styles will generally give the recordings higher marks than those seeking enlightenment from the music; but both the CDs are more than respectable performances on all levels, and both showcase some interesting aspects of the performer-recording relationship.

      Hans Vonk conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2002, when he resigned as his medical condition – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – continued to worsen. Vonk (1942-2004) had never before been music director of an American orchestra: he had led ensembles in Holland and Germany before taking over in Missouri. PentaTone is releasing eight CDs intended collectively as Vonk’s legacy – four this year and four next year. Vonk’s Bruckner Fourth shows just how much of his European experience he was able to bring to the United States, and how much did not translate readily. The Saint Louis Symphony sounds superb in this live recording from April 2001, with the brass choirs amazingly full and the sheer volume of sound quite astonishing. And Vonk’s attention to detail – the tiny solos that repeatedly peek out from the great masses of sound that Bruckner called for – is impressive as well. Yet the performance can scarcely be called a great one. The strings are full, but without the organ-like warmth of sound that top European orchestras seem to supply on demand and that is necessary for the best Bruckner. The performance has clarity but is somewhat lacking in drive – at the very end, for example, even the audience seems unsure that the music is really over, since the conclusion is far from decisive. The playing is mostly excellent (despite one brass miscue near the end of the scherzo), but the performance is not an idiomatic one. It is hard to know whether Vonk had little new to say about this symphony or whether the musicians could not quite say it. In either case, what this Bruckner Fourth shows is that Vonk was able to get the Saint Louis Symphony to play with huge, impressive sound, pulling all Bruckner’s themes together effectively; but the result was more a performance to admire than one to love.

      In a different way, you’ve got to admire what violinist Gil Shaham has done to make sure his own recordings are presented just as he wants them to be: he has started his own CD company. It is called Canary Classics, both for the canary’s sweet voice and because “canar” is the Hebrew word for violinist. Shaham himself is firmly at the center of the company, as is clear from the new release pairing a well-known European violin concerto with one that is extremely well-known in China but rarely heard in the West. The Butterfly Lovers is not about the passion of lepidopterists. It is a programmatic concerto in one movement, based on an ancient legend of separated lovers who, able to be united only in death, are transformed into butterflies. Written in 1959, initially celebrated with great enthusiasm but subsequently reviled during China’s Cultural Revolution, The Butterfly Lovers – separated from its social and political roots – turns out to have many endearing elements and a fascinating blend of the West (most violin techniques, sections marked with traditional Italian tempo indications) and East (use of Chinese instruments and a Chinese approach to percussion). From Shaham’s gently undulating opening, this completely tonal concerto features music so romantic and swooning that it often sounds like a film score. The violin swoops easily from intensity to lovely floating tunes, and if some effects are a little trite (grand and portentous timpani, an overdone triumphal section), others are fascinating: a resounding gong, a poignant violin solo reminiscent of Lehár, an intertwining of violin and cello, lovely periodic flute solos, and percussion sounds dominated by a castanet-like clacking rhythm on the clappers of the gu ban. Shaham receives superb orchestral support in this concerto from the Singapore Symphony under Lan Shui: violinist and orchestra intertwine as beautifully as do the butterfly lovers in the legend.

      The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto has high points as well but is, all in all, less successful. There is an oddity in the recording here: when playing without the soloist, the orchestra sounds full and strong, but whenever Shaham plays, his violin is so firmly front-and-center that the orchestra seems to have retreated to a different room. This creates some real peculiarities of sonic balance. In the performance itself, the first movement is impressive, as Shaham takes a very capital-R Romantic view of the music, with lots of rubato (although not a lot in any one place). The result is an interesting performance but not a particularly perceptive one. The second movement, rather oddly, is not very small-r romantic, although it does sound pretty. And in the finale, Shaham could perhaps have used someone else as the boss to tell him to watch his playing. The fast passagework is rather slurred and sloppy, and the movement as a whole is more superficial than it needs to be. This is by no means a poor performance – and the orchestra, when playing in the clear, is really excellent – but this is not a CD to buy for Shaham’s Tchaikovsky. It is, however, one to buy in order to become familiar with the fascinations of The Butterfly Lovers.

November 15, 2007


And When She Opened the Closet, All the Clothes Were Polyester! A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $8.95.

Beowulf. Story adapted by Stefan Petrucha. Artwork by Kody Chamberlain. HarperTrophy. $8.99.

Miki Falls 3: Autumn. By Mark Crilley. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Vampire Kisses 1: Blood Relatives. By Ellen Schreiber. Art by Rem. Tokyopop/Katherine Tegen Books/HarperTeen. $7.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #3: Mary Anne Saves the Day. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.

      A picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words on its own. In the right combination, though, words and pictures can have a good deal more value than either does separately. The best comic-strip creators understand this intuitively, which is how they become tops in their field. Bill Amend’s long-running FoxTrot, now a Sundays-only strip, gets its final collection of dailies in And When She Opened the Closet, All the Clothes Were Polyester! It’s a last chance to appreciate the strip’s clever daily writing and understated visual portrayals of the interactions and peculiarities of the Fox family. Instead of the usual 128 pages, this book runs 168 – and includes Amend’s subtle farewell to readers, in which his characters say there’s no way the cartoonist will break “the fourth wall” by talking directly to the readership…by which means, of course, Amend breaks it. The antics of genius preteen Jason remain central here – in one strip, he decides to sell directions to a lemonade stand so he can make money as a middleman; elsewhere, he becomes involved in “World of Warquest” in his own inimitable style. But all the Fox characters will be sorely missed – Sundays-only strips lack the continuity that has long been Amend’s forte.

      The other books here are graphic novels, and never mind the academic distinctions between them and comics – the different visual impact is clear enough. Beowulf will dismay purists, but in fact it is a highly impressive interpretation of the famed Old English epic (although the cover wrongly calls Beowulf “the world’s first – and greatest – hero,” a designation more properly belonging to Gilgamesh, whose tale is more than 3,000 years older). Stefan Petrucha gets a surprising amount of the context of Beowulf right: the poem was written when Christianity was still trying to displace older religions, and that is in part what it is about – and Petrucha maintains both the Norse elements (forms of heroism, funerals, the notion of “Wyrd” as Fate) and the Christian ones (the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain, going on the attack “cloaked in the hatred of God”). Kody Chamberlain’s moody illustrations, in dark hues throughout, beautifully capture the worldview of the Beowulf poet and help readers envision a people for whom heroism is the only hope of escape from darkness. Besides, Beowulf is a tremendously thrilling story – it fits the graphic-novel format surprisingly well.

      The four-part Miki Falls tale by Mark Crilley takes on a darker and more intense tone in Autumn, with the result that this is the best of the books so far. The more absurd elements of the story – Miki’s boyfriend, Hiro, is a Deliverer, his job being to preserve the finite amount of love in the world – are downplayed here except to serve as the background to the threats that Miki and Hiro must face. That makes this book more of an adventure tale and a story of determined young love. Intended for ages 13 and up, the story has a fair degree of emotional intensity and several scenes of Miki and Hiro living together, albeit apparently quite chastely. They receive help in their quest to be together and be left alone from two sources, one of them quite unexpected; and as the story deepens, so does Crilley’s art. Practically every page has broken panels, eyes looming in the background, or other effective visual touches that both advance the story and intensify it.

      There’s less intensity in the first graphic novel based on Ellen Schreiber’s Vampire Kisses series, which so far has grown to four books and targets the same age group as Miki Falls. But the art by Rem (who uses a single name) does a fine job of visualizing the main characters, especially goth girl Raven and her handsome vampire boyfriend, Alexander. This tale is mostly a setup for what comes afterward – we meet the main characters and get capsule pictures both of them and of what they want from each other. The manga drawings here, like Crilley’s, partake strongly of original Japanese mature-comic art, but have a few twists of their own. And the character-development sketches at the end are a real bonus, showing which cast members looked right to Schreiber in the first place and which ones went through a series of redesigns.

      For younger graphic-novel readers, Raina Telgemeier’s series based on Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club continues to be a treat in its third volume. Here the art is much simpler, the story structure closer to that of comic books, the panels arranged more regularly than in graphic novels for teens. The baby-sitters here are seventh graders and are as busy sorting out friendship issues as they are making money by helping parents with younger children. A huge fight among the members of the club is the impetus for the events in Mary Anne Saves the Day, but by the time the book ends, everyone is back together and the club’s membership has actually grown by one person. The simplicity of Martin’s narration works well with the directness of Telgemeier’s illustrations – there is nothing done here for the sake of art alone; everything advances the story. Words and pictures – in all these books, worth more together than apart.


Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. By Pauline Kiernan. Gotham Books. $19.99.

      The fact that Shakespeare had a dirty mind is scarcely unknown. Even middle-schoolers performing a truncated version of Twelfth Night have been known to titter when the unctuous Malvolio, reading a forged letter that he thinks comes from the woman he desires, examines the penmanship, sounding out a specific part of the alphabet letter by letter: “These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus she makes her great P’s.” But the nervous laughter is quickly controlled: that couldn’t mean what we think, could it, even if “and” is pronounced “n”? After all, this is Shakespeare. But yes, that’s exactly what it means.

      And then there’s the wonderful Sonnet 129, which opens with “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action.” That’s pretty plain even if you only hear “spirit” as meaning something, well, spiritual; but the fact that it also means “semen” isn’t exactly a secret. And the poem’s concluding angry/wistful/thoughtful couplet – “All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/ To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell” – is marvelously effective even if you are unaware that “hell” can be a pun on women’s genitals.

      But these are but the tip, so to speak, of the iceberg, as Pauline Kiernan shows in her meticulously researched and very well written Filthy Shakespeare. How many modern scholars – and high-school and college students – have tried to understand why lower-class audiences sat still for Shakespeare’s soaring rhetoric when there was some fantastic bear-baiting going on nearby, and an entertaining drawing and quartering of a petty criminal happening just down the street? One answer, as Kiernan amply shows, is that the plays were so packed with sexual puns and out-and-out graphic nastiness that it was worth staying through the highfalutin poetry to get to the naughty bits. (A lot of the poems, not just The Rape of Lucrece and the tremendously popular Venus and Adonis, were packed with naughty bits, too.)

      Kiernan offers a by-no-means-comprehensive set of examples of Shakespearean lines “pertaining to” 23 elements of human sexuality. So far are we from Shakespeare’s unashamed bawdiness that only a few of Kiernan’s chapter titles can even be included in a family-oriented publication: Erection, Ejaculation, Transvestite, Lesbian, Homosexual, Brothels, Impotence, Virginity, Pimps (and not all self-proclaimed family publications will even want to print all of those). It’s worth remembering – and Kiernan reminds you, in case you have forgotten – that Shakespeare’s very name can be a rude sexual pun. It was probably psychologically inevitable, as well as good for theater audiences, that he include the sort of stuff extracted by Kiernan in this book.

      So here you will find a clear answer to the question sometimes bruited about by less-aware scholars: did Hamlet have carnal knowledge of Ophelia? You bet. After Hamlet says, “I did love you once,” Ophelia replies, “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” That is, “in deed, my lord,” the deed they did being quite clear enough. But of course Hamlet’s sexual confusion, shown powerfully through his railings at his mother, is obvious enough in the play (and parsed quite thoroughly by Kiernan). How about Antony and Cleopatra, where the latter’s line, “Husband, I come,” has an obvious double meaning? Or Troilus and Cressida, in which the latter’s line to her uncle, Pandarus (whose name means “pimp”), is also pretty direct if you focus on it: “You bring me to do – and then you flout me too.” There is little question of what this pimp brings Cressida to do before he scoffs at her.

      It is interesting that Shakespeare did not confine his strong sexual language – some of it very strong indeed – to lower-class characters, who usually speak in prose. There is great poetry in many of these lines, and great tragedy (King Lear’s comments on women are vulgar in the extreme, showing the depths to which his mind has become unbalanced). There is plenty that seems to titillate in this book – the plethora of four-letter words outdoes anything in any rap song – but what turns out to matter most is the use to which Shakespeare put the crudest language he knew. It is always employed in the service of characterization, not merely to get a low laugh (in contrast to, say, the Ben Jonson who wrote Bartholomew Fair, a hysterically funny play in which smut is there entirely for its own sake – even the title, pronounced “bottle-mew fair,” can be read as a pun). Get past the extremely crude language here, which does become repetitious after a while, and what you find is yet further evidence, if more is needed, of the profound genius of the greatest writer the English language has produced.


I Never Saw Paris: A Novel of the Afterlife. By Harry I. Freund. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $23.

Deadline. By Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      These books, one for adults and one for teenagers, get (++++) ratings because of what they try so hard to do: find ways of dealing with death without being unutterably morbid or traditionally religious. Given some of their flaws in plotting, pacing and overall structure, they would receive (+++) ratings if they had a more conventional underlying subject. But the sheer boldness of what they are attempting to do bumps them up to something approaching must-reads.

      I Never Saw Paris starts when five people die: four strangers on a New York City street corner and a driver, asleep at the wheel, who ploughs into them and kills them all. We never see the accident – only the aftermath, as the narrator of the story, deceased businessman Irving Caldman, observes the scene while floating into the presence of the angel Malakh. Now, here’s where Harry I. Freund’s novel starts to get interesting (and this happens within just a couple of pages): Malakh is a bureaucrat, one of an angelic group dedicated to processing souls into the afterlife so they can be judged and assigned to be where they belong. Caldman is accompanied by a personal shopper, a grandmother and housekeeper, a young interior decorator who is gay, and the elderly concentration-camp survivor who killed them all. Freund does not intend at the start for these people to be more than types, but what happens as the book goes on is that he forces readers to see them – all of them – as more than the sum of their appearances and life histories, which each must recount in detail to Malakh (who of course knows all about them already). The five souls prove recalcitrant for various good and sufficient reasons that Freund brings neatly into the plot, and Malakh, an impatient and plainspoken sort, tries to force things along by bringing other angels to visit the group and even through a divide-and-conquer strategy: “Why don’t the two of you submit to the judgment, let the others take their sweet time? Why should you suffer? I’m going to help you here, Essie, what do you say?” But the five souls have bonded in death as they never would have or could have in life, and each speaks up forcefully in areas of his or her particular knowledge or expertise, and Malakh gets more and more frustrated, until he (it?) finally brings in some real heavy artillery – resulting in an ending that is patently absurd, but emotionally quite satisfying. Wry, humorous, yet with thoughtfulness underneath, I Never Saw Paris overcomes its own silliness through bright writing and the sheer humaneness of its message.

      Chris Crutcher’s Deadline is in some ways the opposite of Freund’s book. Freund requires his characters to try to cope with immediate and unexpected death. Crutcher writes about spending a year dealing with the knowledge that you are going to die. Ben Wolf, high-school senior, gets the bad news when he goes for his track-team physical – a never-specified aggressive blood disease will claim his life within a year. In the first and most crucial of several implausibilities of the plot, Ben decides to forgo treatment and not to tell anyone about his disease – nor to allow his doctor to tell anyone. Relying on being 18 and therefore legally an adult, and on the fact that he lives in a very small town, Ben strong-arms the doctor into keeping quiet and letting him simply take nutritional supplements and lead as normal a life as possible. The disease cooperates, staying dormant until Ben works through all his major desires before it starts to weaken him. This bare-bones plot outline makes the book sound much worse than it is; to make it sound worse still, it could be mentioned that Ben encounters, in his dreams, a spiritual entity called “Hey-Soos” who may or may not have something to do with Jesus and may or may not be an aspect of Ben’s own personality. But the thing is that the absurdities of Crutcher’s framework matter much less than the inventive and meaningful way he uses his plot. Ben, a virgin, sets his sights on a particular girl and does have sex with her (apparently only once); then he and she become emotionally entangled in a very meaningful way, and he learns a deep secret that she has kept for years. Ben encounters the town drunk, tries to reform him, and learns a series of secrets – each more powerful and disturbing than the last – about him. Ben bonds deeply with the football coach (he has improbably become a football star after deciding he has nothing to lose by trying), and plumbs his depths. There is less depth to Ben’s brother, Cody, until a neat twist ending, and there is very little to Ben’s parents, except for his mother being so far around the bend that she is practically in the next county. But Ben, in uncovering so many depths in so many others, becomes a deeper person himself (even when he treats some of those others, notably his girlfriend, very shabbily). And this is why, when Ben gets no reprieve at the end, readers are likely to celebrate as much as mourn him – which is a heck of a reaction for Crutcher to have managed to create.