January 31, 2008


Fisher-Price Infant Books: All About My Day—Baby’s First Scrapbook; Ears, Nose & Toes!—Discovering Me & My Friends!; The World Around Me—Colors, Numbers and More!; Who Lives in the Rainforest? Discovering Animals. HarperFestival. $6.99 each (My Day; Who Lives); $4.99 (Ears); $7.99 (World).

      Board books are common – usually as short versions of longer kids’ books or as spinoffs, in simplified fashion, of the adventures of popular characters from books for older children. The new Fisher-Price Infant Books series, though, is something different, designed from the ground up by a group of educators who are also firmly ensconced in the commercial world – and have a good sense both of what will appeal to adults and kids, on the one hand, and what will sell, on the other.

When a toy company (Fisher-Price is part of Mattel) gets involved in any project, there is always the danger that it will do so primarily as a marketing ploy, using apparent educational value to gets kids interested in owning a lot of decidedly non-educational playthings. Happily, that is not the case with these books, except perhaps in some very subtle ways, such as the prominence of the bright white-on-red Fisher-Price logo on all the books and the fact that these board books’ covers tie them into the trademarked Fisher-Price brands “Laugh, Smile & Learn” and “Animals of the Rainforest.”

For most parents and all infants, these commercial considerations really won’t matter, because the books are such straightforward fun – and are so well made, in age-appropriate designs. All About My Day—Baby’s First Scrapbook, for ages newborn and up, can be easily carried with the cut-out handle at the top, and is designed for insertion of baby photos on every two-page spread. This should make it nearly irresistible to parents as well as educational for infants, who love seeing themselves and develop their identity partly through perception of “self” and “other” and the eventual understanding that a picture of “me” is not “me” but a representation. No big words in this book, though, and no overt education, either – just left-hand-page observations and places to insert photos on right-hand pages. For example, “I like to splash in my bath!” (spoken by a smiling frog on the left)…“This is me at bath time” with a place for a photo on the right. Ending the book with a mirror was a wonderful idea, encouraging infants to play peek-a-boo with themselves.

Ears, Nose & Toes! is an even smaller book for the same age range. It comes with a sturdy stroller strap so it is easy to take anywhere, and it helps infants’ self-identification by juxtaposing amusing drawings of cartoon animals with photos of children. This means, for example, “two ears” on a smiling blue elephant on the left, and the same words with a smiling child on the right.

Very slightly older babies, from about six months of age, are the intended audience for the other two books in this set of new releases. The World Around Me features cleverly designed, unusually sturdy wheels that a parent (and later a growing child) can turn to find things out. For example, on a page showing a cutaway view of a piggy bank, the question is, “What color are my coins?” Turning the wheel reveals yellow, red or blue coins – with the color spelled out elsewhere on the page (a useful arrangement as kids get older). Similarly, a page shows cookies in different shapes, and turning the wheel reveals a star, circle and triangle. Who Lives in the Rainforest? uses flaps instead of wheels – in equally clever ways. A left-hand page tells a child that elephants have big, floppy ears; on the right is the question, “Do you see big, floppy ears behind the bushes?” – and they are in fact visible. Open the flap and…there’s the whole elephant! Tigers’ stripes, bright butterfly colors and more – all are first hinted at, then revealed by opening a flap. This is a very clever, highly involving approach that can help babies develop hand-eye coordination (to turn wheels or pull flaps) while teaching them about everyday items and about animals. There are lots more books like these to come – 50 are planned – and if they are all of this quality and are this lacking in overt commercialism, they have the potential to become superb entry points to reading for a whole new generation.


Everything but the Kitchen Sink: Weird Stuff You Didn’t Know about Food. By Frieda Wishinsky and Elizabeth MacLeod. Illustrated by Travis King. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Greedy Triangle. By Marilyn Burns. Illustrated by Gordon Silveria. Scholastic. $6.99.

      Look at real-life stuff from the right angles and it’s just as strange as anything in fiction. Everything but the Kitchen Sink explains why you might enjoy eating a dessert that grunts (it’s a Canadian pudding that makes a grunting sort of sound while being steamed) and feasting on mudbugs (that is what crawfish – which are not bugs at all – are called in Louisiana). This delicious compendium of little-known food facts explains what 19th-century cowboys ate (mostly beef, beans and potatoes); how much cereal kids eat (an average of 15 pounds a year); why people in Scotland always store unsliced bread with the rounded side up (a superstition says that storing it with the rounded side down means someone will die or have trouble at sea); and when potato chips were invented (in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, by a chef who was trying to get potatoes to taste bad to get rid of a complaining customer). The book’s chapters focus on specific aspects of eating – snack foods, foods around the world, food-related inventions, food names and expressions, and so on – but it’s fun simply to open Everything but the Kitchen Sink at random and read whatever you find. You might, for example, come upon a quiz asking how popular food expressions started (“chew the fat,” for example, comes from the Inuit people, who used whale blubber as kids now use chewing gum). Or you might happen upon a “breakfast brainteaser” puzzle in which you match countries with breakfasts that people eat there. Or you could learn about a South African dish called biltong, made from strips of animal buttocks that have been covered in salt, dipped in vinegar, sprinkled with pepper and coriander, then dried. One thing is for sure: you’ll learn some stuff about food that you never knew before. Whether that expands your appetite or makes you lose it altogether may depend on just where you open Frieda Wishinsky and Elizabeth MacLeod’s book.

      Speaking of looking at life from a certain angle, that’s just what Marilyn Burns does in The Greedy Triangle, which is all about a three-sided character, with big eyes and a bright smile, who gets tired of doing all the thing that triangles do: making music in an orchestra, holding up roofs, catching the wind for sailboats, and so on. Gordon Silveria’s amusing illustrations show triangular elements of life clearly and simply – and continue showing what happens after the triangle, to overcome boredom, asks a helpful “shapeshifter” for an extra side and angle to make life “more interesting.” Now a quadrilateral, the ex-triangle can become a TV or computer screen, a picture frame, a book or many other things – until, growing bored again, our friend returns to the shapeshifter for another side and angle. Now the quadrilateral is a pentagon and can become U.S. military headquarters or a section of a soccer ball. But then…well, the shapeshifter is kept busy supplying the onetime triangle with new sides and angles, until eventually something happens that leads the shape to want to become a triangle again – and to be happy about it. This is a charming math fable that never really seems like an educational book, but most definitely is one. Two end-of-book pages for adults can help turn the book into a useful teaching aid – but in fact, The Greedy Triangle teaches a great deal without any grown-up assistance. For it is not only about math but also about learning to be satisfied with what you are – and that’s a lesson that’s always in great shape.


Not a Stick. By Antoinette Portis. HarperCollins. $12.99.

Snowed In. By Rachel Hawthorne. HarperTeen. $5.99.

Babymouse #8: Puppy Love. By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

      Cuteness seems destined to become cloying at some point in children’s lives. The line will be drawn at different places for different kids, but it seems pretty clear that there will almost always come a point at which cuteness mutates into – well, something else.

      For young children, up to age six, Not a Stick is certain to be cute. Antoinette Portis, whose Not a Box celebrated young children’s imagination by showing all the things a cardboard box could be thought to be, delivers the same message in Not a Stick. Here, the adorable piglet carrying what any adult or older child would call a stick repeatedly says that is what it is not. For example, one simply drawn page shows the piglet marching along, all alone, while being told, “Look where you’re going with that stick”; the next page shows a much more elaborate drawing of the piglet in a uniform, followed by a drummer, clearly leading a marching band with an elaborate baton while innocently asking, “What stick?” The pattern continues throughout the book: “Watch where you point that stick,” with the piglet doing just that, is transformed on the next page into “This is not a stick” – it is an artist’s brush, and the easel in front of it holds Van Gogh’s masterpiece, “The Starry Night.” Like the stick itself, the story here is simple in the extreme; like the piglet, it is very, very cute; yet it has a useful lesson to teach about the power and importance of imagining things to be different from what hey seem to be in everyday terms – and much more special.

      Fast-forward to the teen years, and what’s cute about Rachel Hawthorne’s Snowed In is the generalized adorableness of the premise – as in, “Aww, that’s so cute!” The story is about 17-year-old Ashleigh, who dates guys briefly but has never had a real boyfriend; her mom, who is moving the two of them from Texas to a snowy island in the middle of Lake Michigan, just in time for winter; and a handyman and his son, who (so cute!) end up attracted to, respectively, Ashleigh’s mother and Ashleigh herself. But, see, the boy already has a girlfriend, who always calls him “my boyfriend” instead of using his name (cute?); and Ashleigh’s mother has what might be called an Ozzie-and-Harriet divorce from her father (they just got married too young, at 18, and grew in different directions, but really really really still care a lot for each other – cute?); and it turns out that Josh Wynter (cute name for a boy in a book called Snowed In, right?) is only a boyfriend because this girl, Nathalie, wrote him a note asking him when they were, like, 12 (cute!); and there’s also a guy, Shaun, who likes Nathalie but can’t do anything because she’s been Josh’s girlfriend, like, forever…and by the end Josh and Ashleigh are paired off, and so are Shaun and Nathalie, and everyone’s friends with everyone, and the only violence is a snowball fight, and even though Josh and Ashleigh get snowed in for, like, days in a blizzard, they don’t even think of doing anything physical but kiss and snuggle a little… Cute, cute, cute….cloying, cloying, cloying. There’s a line crossed here – and then crossed again and again, in fact. Snowed In gets a (+++) rating for really young teens or preteens (although it’s officially recommended for ages 14 and up). Older teens – say, around Ashleigh’s age – won’t need to rate it, because they won’t want to read it. For them it will be well past the point of cuteness.

      For kids between the Not a Stick and Snowed In ages – that is, for ages 7-10 – the Babymouse books by sister and brother Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm always offer a reliable dose of cuteness. They have moved a bit more in the direction of real-world issues lately, but in the case of Puppy Love, perhaps they have gone a touch too far. Although the book deserves a (+++) rating for its usual blend of sassiness and adorableness, it may well upset some fans of Babymouse by being the only book about her to have a genuinely unhappy ending. The story this time is about Babymouse and pets, starting as she lets a succession of goldfish die and continuing as her indulgent mom buys her a variety of other animals: hamster, turtle, ferret, hermit crab – but everything gets out of cages and escapes, even (improbably) a plant (a Venus fly trap) and a hermit crab. The book shows the animals having a great time while hidden in Babymouse’s bedroom, so kids don’t worry that they all died, but the irresponsibility of Babymouse toward living things is troubling. Then Babymouse finds a stray dog – and after many false starts (and some of her trademark unrealistic daydreaming), Babymouse actually learns responsibility and does a fine job. But then the dog’s owner returns and takes it away, leaving Babymouse with nothing – and likely leaving young readers who love animals upset. Parts of the story are cute, and Babymouse herself always is, but the book as a whole contains more upsetting ideas than in earlier entries in the series.


The Secret Pulse of Time: Making Sense of Life’s Scarcest Commodity. By Stefan Klein. Marlowe & Company/Da Capo. $25.

Sleep Deprived No More. By Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D. Marlowe & Company/Da Capo. $14.95.

      Americans are quite familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s famous comment, “Time is money.” They are less familiar with composer Hector Berlioz’ wry remark, “Time is a great teacher; unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.” Even less known is a straightforward but pithy Hindu statement, “Time is holy.” So what is time? Clearly, it depends on who and where you are and what you are doing; it also depends, as science journalist Stefan Klein points out in The Secret Pulse of Time, on when you are: “As the pace of our lives speeds up, our perception follows suit.” Klein’s very wide-ranging look at experiential time delves into what it means to perceive the passage of time, what happens in the brain that connects us to event sequences, and what unexpected correlations there are between time perception and everyday activities. For example, he writes that people concentrate better by drinking coffee because “coffee heightens the effect of noradrenaline in the brain, which results in the release of more dopamine. … People who suffer from attention deficit disorder…are among the most habitual coffee drinkers, because this disorder is caused by a weak executive function, and caffeine can compensate temporarily for this deficiency.” Klein writes with surety and finesse, and is fond of using unexpected juxtapositions to intrigue readers, as when he calls one section of a chapter “Thelma, Louise, and the Rocket.” He points out the realities of time management (“no day has more than 86,400 seconds, and we cannot focus on two things at once during any one of them”) while also exploring the oddities of time perception and management (“moving clocks run more slowly”). This is a discursive book, easily able to accommodate a Marcel Duchamp painting, a scene from the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, and an explanation of transcendence: “Paradoxically, we find ourselves able to experience the smallest possible unit of time this intensely because we feel that we are being carried beyond the limits of time and space.” Klein manages to explain how time can be money, a teacher and holy all at once, through a combination of its objective existence (however perceived) and our subjective experience of it.

The Secret Pulse of Time is an intellectually bracing book, but only occasionally a practical one. Sleep Deprived No More is far less elegantly written and far more matter-of-fact in what it seeks to accomplish – and will, at least in sections, be far more welcomed by women who are pregnant or have infants. The book’s intent is spelled out in its subtitle: “From Pregnancy to Early Motherhood – Helping You & Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.” Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, and author of several books on sleep difficulties in families, here spends almost 300 pages on a single aspect of sleep in a book intended for people who are quite unlikely to have sufficient time and energy to read it. The sleep tips and bullet-point reminders at the ends of chapters are useful and easy to absorb, but the chapters themselves tend to get more detailed than many women will find useful – so the book gets a (+++) rating. For example, a four-page Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script lists 12 muscle groups and corresponding tensing exercises, then goes through every element of what a woman should do to follow the script – including exactly how many seconds to wait between script elements. In other places, Mindell is less than helpful and less than realistic: during the third trimester, “Even just the [baby’s] usual stretching of limbs and bending of elbows can keep you awake at night. What you can do: Honestly, nothing. There is no way to settle an active baby down when you are trying to sleep. Instead, enjoy it. This is the best part of pregnancy.” (It is?) Mindell has a number of good ideas, but ferreting them out may take more time (there’s that “time” element again) than a mother or mother-to-be can spare. Stick to the end-of-chapter summations and suggestions, though, and you’ll find a lot of solid information in short, easily digestible, timely form.


Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Audra McDonald (Jenny Smith); Patti LuPone (Leocadia Begbick); Anthony Dean Griffey (Jimmy McIntyre); Robert Wörle (Fatty the Bookkeeper); Donnie Ray Albert (Trinity Moses); Mel Ulrich (Bank Account Bill); Steven Humes (Alaska Wolf Joe); Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by James Conlon. EuroArts. $29.99 (DVD).

      There is no way to create a perfect Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, since the work itself is so deeply imperfect. Dark, dour and almost entirely emotionless, lacking sympathetic characters and with few memorable tunes, it gains its power from the blatancy of its kick-or-be-kicked worldview and its unremitting attack on the excesses of capitalism. It is inevitably compared, to its detriment, with The Threepenny Opera, written at almost exactly the same time during Germany’s Weimar Republic: parts of Mahagonny predate Threepenny and parts postdate it.

      But Mahagonny does have power and a kind of surrealistic charm, and the Los Angeles Opera has put together about as effective a version of it as audiences are likely to see for some time. The key here is the realization that Brecht/Weill theater is neither opera nor musical show, but something in between – and to cast Mahagonny accordingly. Thus, musical stars (and Tony Award winners) Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone handle the primary female roles, while opera singers Anthony Dean Griffey, Robert Wörle and Donnie Ray Albert sing the principal male parts. This works splendidly, not only because the performers are so good but also because their vocal qualities are so different. They don’t quite fit together – and that is exactly right in a performance of Mahagonny.

      The work is presented essentially intact, and many potentially awkward elements of the presentation – such as a voice (Jamieson K. Price’s) announcing the opening of most scenes – flow quite smoothly indeed. The time scheme of the production is exceedingly clever, starting more or less in the 1920s and moving ahead until, at the end, we are in a modern Las Vegas-style setting, where credit cards have replaced cash and where the final placards called for in the libretto are not carried but are displayed above the stage as digital signboards. There are some misfirings – for example, the emphasis on Mahagonny’s flag (a rag in the broken-down truck seen at the beginning) works well, until there is suddenly a folded American flag jarringly used as a major prop at the work’s end. But by and large, the staging is excellent.

      So is the singing. In the role of the prostitute, Jenny Smith, created by Lotte Lenya (who was herself a prostitute before she became Weill’s wife), Audra McDonald is wonderfully sly, active and determined, and looks great in costumes that leave little to the imagination. Her voice is perhaps a shade too smooth for this role, but she uses it (and her body) so well that she becomes the work’s focus whenever she is on stage. The English translation of Brecht’s libretto by Michael Feingold is only so-so, missing out on some of the original’s bitter intensity, and some intentional oddities of Mahagonny are inevitably lost in any English-language production – notably Jenny’s “Alabama Song,” deliberately written in pidgin English to stick out in what is otherwise a German libretto. But McDonald’s way with this song and with her paean to self-reliance (that’s the “kick or be kicked” number) simply bubbles over with cynicism.

      Her naïve foil is Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy McIntyre (changed for some inexplicable reason from Jim Mahoney in the original). Griffey inhabits this part fully and is nearly ideal, in both looks and voice, as a man in far over his head in a world where only money matters – and where, fatally, he runs out of it. He is excellent in the one genuinely emotional number in the entire two hours, in which he implores the sun not to rise.

      Patti LuPone as the “widow Begbick” makes a perfect schemer, whether plotting to found Mahagonny in the first place or pronouncing sentence as its chief judge. Her two cohorts in venality, Robert Wörle and especially Donnie Ray Albert, have very strong voices and fine acting ability as well. James Conlon conducts without a trace of sentimentality – there is none in Mahagonny – and with strong emphasis on the score’s angular rhythms and music-hall vulgarity. It’s never exactly a pleasure to see or hear Mahagonny – it’s both unremittingly dark and packed with abrupt mood changes that cause it to lurch back and forth unsettlingly. And the idea that capitalism does evil things by caring only about money, not about people, is both banal and obvious (and was even when the work was written). Still, Mahagonny has power; and, when it is as well sung and presented as it is here, it makes for a splendid stage presentation that pulls you in intellectually even if it never fully engages you emotionally.

January 24, 2008


Welcome to the Nerd Farm! A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $18.95.

Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox: Dispatches from Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Edited by David Stanford. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

      Garry Trudeau may have found his calling at last – or found another one – as the outlet for the voices of American military personnel deployed in distant lands. This may surprise people who think of Trudeau only as the reliably liberal voice of the Doonesbury comic strip, which has been around for almost four decades. But Trudeau is full of surprises when you look at him and his work as a totality. He is not unquestioningly liberal: he portrayed President Bill Clinton as a waffle dripping with butter and syrup (what icon would he create for a President Hillary Clinton, one wonders?). And he is by no means anti-military – he is anti-war, which is not the same thing. Plenty of members of the military are anti-war, too, including many who are fighting.

      Life is complex, and Doonesbury is complex to the extent that it reflects life. Trudeau does not love his characters – he has said that he looks to the right characters to make whatever point he wants to make, even if that means a character dies or becomes gravely ill. The characters are a means to an end – even Michael Doonesbury, titular “star” of the strip, who (like Walt Kelly’s Pogo in the strip of the same name, which heavily influenced Trudeau) is less interesting than many of those around him. Kelly once explained that by saying of Pogo, “He’s the glue.” And so is Mike.

      The bits of life that Mike glues together in Welcome to the Nerd Farm! include the adventures of his daughter, Alex, at MIT; the emergence of perpetual bad-boy Duke from a comatose state into a new career as a Washington lobbyist; the slow recovery of B.D. from the emotional stress of war, which has cost him a leg; the breakup of the gay relationship of Mark and Chase, who were “married” by a TWA flight attendant; the move of Mike’s mother from Oklahoma, which she loves, to Mike’s home in Seattle, which she loathes; and more. Trudeau follows each piece of his many stories for a while – a week or two in newspaper time – and then shifts his focus elsewhere. He may not be attached to his characters, but it is the character-oriented tales that work best in this collection, whether they involve adjusting to college or to a move far from one’s home in one’s later years. The strictly political stuff – and there is plenty of it – just doesn’t wear well; in many cases, it is tied so closely to events of the day that it is now hard to figure out what Trudeau was talking about. Unless political cartoonists are exceptional artists – Thomas Nast in the 19th century and Pat Oliphant today come to mind – there is little interest in their work once its points are made. Trudeau is simply not at the Nast/Oliphant level (and even their works are not really effective in collections, from the point of view of content).

      One cartoon in Welcome to the Nerd Farm! has taken on a special life of its own: a Sunday page from October 2006 that announced the creation of “The Sandbox,” an online location at which troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their families back home – could post their feelings about what they were going through. The idea was to take military blogging outside the military itself, bringing a broader, civilian audience into the day-to-day world of the people fighting for the United States in wars far from home. This is a wonderful, tremendously sensitive idea that entitles Trudeau and Doonesbury to at least a footnote in the history of U.S. warfare. It is not, however, an idea that works especially well in book form, which is why Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox gets a (+++) rating. The difficulty is not the humaneness of the book but its mundaneness. Reading just a few entries, or parts of entries, is enough to show that U.S. soldiers and their families are just like other Americans and their families: doing their jobs, worrying about everyday details, concerned about today and tomorrow. Obviously, there is greater urgency and drama in war than in commuting to a desk job, and the horrors of war are certainly apparent in some of the Sandbox postings. But what comes through most clearly – again and again, for more than 300 pages – is that these fighters are simply people, and young ones at that. “Some of us believe in the political machines that nudge entire nations into war, and some of us just believe in ourselves and each other and doing the duty we raised our hand and swore to do.” “If anyone back home reads this: If you’re too far right to make any sense, leave me alone, and if you’re too far left to make any sense, leave me alone.” “Something dark and twisted comes into view, lying in the middle of the street, which is dirtier and more cluttered than usual.” “We walk and share our experiences and the wonderment of being in an alien place for a strange celebration, and we discuss the way that buildings and pavement and glass only make a setting.” This is incredibly powerful material – in small doses. The awful ordinariness of day-to-day war emerges, again and again, with striking clarity. But the repetitive nature of the experiences soon dulls the reader, as it must dull so many of the fighters. Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox is simply too much, even when sampled in small doses – and few readers who do sample it here and there are likely to want to go back to it later. As well-intentioned and important as the book is, it is ultimately less effective than reading the ongoing saga of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as posted at Doonesbury.com itself.


Hunter’s Run. By George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham. Eos. $25.95.

The Soldier Son, Book Three: Renegade’s Magic. By Robin Hobb. Eos. $25.95.

Voyage of the Snake Lady. By Theresa Tomlinson. Eos. $17.99.

      Every once in a while, someone comes along with a rip-roaring, thrill-a-minute SF novel that reminds readers familiar with the Golden Age of SF of just what was golden about it: a mixture of strangeness and familiarity in characters; aliens that seem genuinely strange but are fully formed characters rather than unidimensional helpers or antagonists; cleverness in dialogue; to-the-point plotting, with unexpected elements to keep the reader guessing; and enough of a twist ending to create a satisfying conclusion that does not require going on to another part of the same story in some later novel. Now three someones have produced such a book. It is Hunter’s Run, and the authors – George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham, accomplished SF writers all – have knitted it together so seamlessly that there is no way to tell where one’s contribution ends and another’s begins. The book is compact at 300 pages, containing within that length more twists and turns than do many multi-novel series. It seems to be the story of Ramón Espejo, a poor Third Worlder who has gone to another world altogether to seek his fortune on a planet known as São Paulo. The spaceships that bring humans there belong to the mysterious Silver Enye, who are among several alien races more advanced than the people of Earth. And it turns out that these known alien races may not be the oddest sentient beings around – as Ramón discovers while finding out that he is not quite the person he remembers himself to be. He initially remembers nothing, in fact; then recalls a few things; then realizes that his body does not exactly match his memory of it; and then finds out that in addition to being hunted, he is expected, indeed compelled, to do some hunting himself. The plot is so clever, the pacing so fast, that revealing too much of what is going on would spoil things. Suffice it to say that Ramón’s tale is not the “who am I?” detective story it first appears to be; that it involves everything from high-tech pain producers to knife fighting and clever use of explosives; and that it proceeds, after much danger and considerable excitement, to a very human twist that unravels what could otherwise be a very nasty conclusion for Ramón. Beneath all the action – as in the best Golden Age tales – is an underlying question: here, it is about what makes us human, and what sets us apart from others of different shapes, beliefs and attitudes. Ramón, who is in many ways a nasty piece of work, was already an outsider on Earth because of being poor and Latino; thus, he is a fine vehicle to drive reader thoughtfulness about alienness – while having nonstop adventures that make Hunter’s Run a very difficult book to put down once you start reading it.

      Renegade’s Magic and Voyage of the Snake Lady are fine books in their way, worth of (+++) ratings, but they are altogether more conventional than Hunter’s Run in plotting and characterization. Renegade’s Magic, although more than twice as long as Hunter’s Run, is merely one-third of the trilogy called The Soldier Son, a story of destiny and duty in a world where magic can be used to capture as well as captivate. The hero is Nevar Burvelle, who has been framed for and convicted of terrible crimes, and wrongfully sentenced to death by his onetime fellow soldiers. Nevar has a magical, vicious alter ego among his people’s enemies, the Speck – and Nevar is in love with a Speck woman. From these and other threads, Robin Hobb knits an exciting but essentially predictable story – can anyone doubt that Nevar will turn the magic that has enslaved him into a force that he can use, somehow uniting himself and his alter ego? This is the sort of lengthy outer-and-inner-quest novel that will appeal to fantasy-genre fans who want to immerse themselves for hours upon hours in a world filled with magical possibilities. But many other novels of this genre have similar appeal.

      One such is Voyage of the Snake Lady, which is not exactly part of a series but is a sequel – to Theresa Tomlinson’s The Moon Riders. Intended for readers ages 12 and up, the book runs nearly 400 pages but uses larger type and more white space than adult-targeted fantasies. It is nevertheless a long book to read, but fans of The Moon Riders will barely notice, because Tomlinson packs so much adventure into this followup. Voyage of the Snake Lady is historical fantasy, more or less, being set in ancient times after the fall of Troy (now known to have been a real city, although shrouded in much mythmaking). The Moon Riders are warrior women welded into a strong, self-reliant band by their leader, Myrina. After the fall of Troy, they live peacefully – but trouble is brewing, and it erupts in this book as Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, seeks revenge against them. There are battle scenes here, to be sure, but the larger issue – as the Moon Riders attempt to cope with storms, shipwreck, even slavery – has to do with the warrior band’s pride: Myrina must learn to accept help when it is needed if the Moon Riders are to survive. It is through that lesson, with the timely prognostication of Cassandra (who in this alternative history did not die at Troy), that a happy ending is eventually achieved. There is nothing profound in Voyage of the Snake Lady, but there is much that is entertaining – especially for young readers who hoped to learn what happened to these women warriors after the end of The Moon Riders.


Madison Avenue Maxi. By Elke Gazzara. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $22.

The History of Swimming. By Kim Powers. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $15.95.

      Memoirs can range from the lighthearted to the extremely intense and depressing. These books may not be quite at those two extremes, but they are pretty close. Madison Avenue Maxi is a mostly cute, photo-packed story, written by former fashion model Elke Gazzara (wife of film actor Ben Gazzara), about the pet dachshund the couple reluctantly adopted when their daughter no longer wanted her. Two jet-setters who are not dog lovers seem an unlikely pair to be the owners of Maxi, but they quickly adapt to her – and she to them. The book is filled with tales of red-carpet walks, museum visits and black-tie dinners (including one with Prince Albert of Monaco), to which Maxi adds her inimitable presence. Madison Avenue Maxi is kept from complete frivolity by the story of the growing bond between dog and humans, and by the genuineness of Maxi’s and Elke Gazzara’s responses when Ben requires treatment for cancer and repeatedly asks Elke for Maxi (“my brain was always looking for a way to sneak her into the intensive care unit”). By and large, though, the book is good-hearted celebrity fluff: “Max had an exciting trip to take with our friend Nancy Merill to her home in Rheinbeck with her two bichon frise, which are slightly smaller but twice as furry as Maxi. Actually they look like little powder puffs.” And not all the attempts at seriousness work: “In addition to the human victims of 9/11, I wondered how many barking heroes were made martyrs on that fateful morning.” The book is mostly for people who, in addition to loving dogs, like hearing anecdotes of celebrity life, such as the Gazzaras’ disappointment that Maxi cannot come to Sweden, which means that Ben will go there while Elke and Maxi “wait for you in Umbria,” and besides, “Lauren Bacall also has a little dog and cannot bring hers either.”

      The world of The History of Swimming, first published in 2006 and now available in paperback, is a very different one, even though it too is largely centered on New York City. This first book by Kim Powers is an account of the life and death of his twin brother, Tim, who was younger by five minutes. Like many twins, Kim and Tim had times of almost intuitive understanding and connection – but they also had plenty of instances, perhaps more of them, of intense competitiveness and something that looks a lot like hatred. Born in Texas, both grew up to move to New York and come out as gay men. But while Kim made an adult life for himself, Tim never did, spiraling down through severe alcoholism and eventually to AIDS, which killed him at the age of 33. The History of Swimming seeks not so much to rehabilitate Tim as to explore the bond that Kim felt and continues to feel for him. It is an extremely personal book and very, very heavy going – not at all the sort of thing to read for enjoyment. At the book’s heart is a mystery of sorts: Tim, addled by alcohol, goes missing, and Kim, who has taken care of his brother during Tim’s frequent breakdowns, knows he has to try to find him. He becomes convinced that the clue to Tim’s disappearance lies in letters that Tim has written to himself over the years – letters that send Kim on a journey back to their Texas home, where he learns the oft-repeated lesson that you can’t really go home again, and that it won’t be there if you try. There is a great deal about religion in the book, as both brothers grapple with whether God exists and, if so, what that implies. There is a great deal of gay angst, too, as when Kim falls for a straight boy and, rejected, writes, “I watched The Shining and thought it was my life. I read Sophie’s Choice and thought I had it worse.” But really, neither Kim nor Tim had it (whatever “it” is) as bad as Kim thinks – their lives are ones of everyday but not extraordinary troubles, and Tim’s disaster, although real, is an everyday one as well. What is missing in The History of Swimming is perspective, a sense of where Kim and Tim fit in the world (whether there is a God watching over it or not). Kim Powers thinks he is telling a story of monumental tragedy, and so he tells it in language befitting such a high purpose. But in fact, it is a tale of pathos, told in overwrought prose.


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering”; Concerto for Flute and Strings after Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056. Swiss Baroque Soloists conducted by Andrés Gabetta. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

      With all the recordings that have been made of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – and the lesser but still substantial number made on original instruments – what could possibly make a new rendition of the cycle interesting? Superb playing? But other performances have that. Fascinating choice of tempos? There have been other such. An impeccably collaborative approach to the music? Less common, but still not unique.

      No, what sets apart these performances by the Swiss Baroque Soloists can only be called youthfulness – and the enthusiasm that comes with it. This original-instruments chamber ensemble was formed by violinist Andrés Gabetta and trumpeter Niklas Eklund in 2003. When the performances on this new recording of the Brandenburgs occurred, in 2005, Gabetta was 29 and Eklund 36. Other performers on these CDs are in the same age range. And before anyone thinks that this gives them insufficient gravitas for Bach, it is worth remembering that the Brandenburgs themselves are the work of a man in his early 30s: Bach was 36 when he dedicated the concertos to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, and had composed at least some of the works several years earlier.

      Whatever the historical facts surrounding the Brandenburgs may be, the up-to-date fact is that the Swiss Baroque Soloists handle this music as if few others have ever bothered with it. There is a freshness and delicacy to their playing that is quite remarkable, and their sense of ensemble has to be heard to be believed – how can musicians play the finale of Brandenburg No. 3 at such a breakneck pace, get all the grace notes right, and sweep listeners along without making it feel (except in the first burst of astonishment) that the work is being rushed? In general, tempos in all the fast movements here are quick (albeit not as dramatically so as in the finale of No. 3), accentuation is careful, instrumental balance is beautifully maintained, and the clarity of the presentation seems to reflect equal clarity of thought about how the music should sound. These performances will not please anyone looking for a more relaxed, more traditional approach to the Brandenburgs, but they make this familiar music sound fresh by simply refusing to be bound by the conventions under which it has been played in the past.

      This is not to say that the Swiss Baroque Soloists lack scholarship. In fact, their readings are very carefully planned. To return to Brandenburg No. 3, consider the two chords that are all Bach offers for a middle movement. Scholars have long debated what should be played here, with answers ranging from playing the chords as written to inserting a movement from another work. The Swiss Baroque Soloists, based on a practice of the time, insert a harpsichord improvisation, played with élan by Giorgio Paronuzzi (who also does an excellent job with the concerto-level complexities of No. 5 – and provides fine continuo backup everywhere).

      One thing the set unfortunately does not offer is the earlier version of No. 5, or at least the earlier version of the harpsichord cadenza from the first movement – a shame, since the earlier cadenza and concerto are very rarely heard. There was plenty of room for them – each CD, even with some extra non-Brandenburg material, lasts only 57 minutes – and the earlier version of No. 5 is even mentioned in Keith Anderson’s booklet notes. On the other hand, the extras that the set does contain are well worth having. The Trio Sonata that forms the centerpiece of The Musical Offering is handled here with seriousness, elegance and fine instrumental balance. And the Flute Concerto, transcribed by Stéphane Réty (who is also the soloist in the Trio Sonata and Brandenburg No. 5), is a fascinating alternative approach to the Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056, which most scholars believe was originally a violin or oboe concerto. There may be nothing authentic in Réty’s transcription, but the music sounds very good indeed on the flute, and this work – like the entirety of this two-CD set – shows the willingness of highly talented younger performers to treat Bach’s music as something very much alive, not at all a museum piece that must be handled with great reverence and in conformity with long-established rules.


Gloria Coates: Symphony No. 15; Cantata da Requiem; Transitions. Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Boder (Symphony); Teri Dunn, soprano, with the Talisker Players, Toronto (Cantata); Ars Nova Ensemble Nuremberg conducted by Werner Heider (Transitions). Naxos. $8.99.

Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait. Produced and directed by Mark Kidel. Arthaus Music. $24.99 (DVD).

In modern music, and perhaps especially in modern American music, it is mighty hard to tell where one genre leaves off and another begins. The matter becomes even more complicated as American music is increasingly played in Europe and elsewhere – to the point that the venue for which the music is written seems as much a determining factor in what kind of music to call it as is the structure of the music itself.

Gloria Coates, who will be 70 this year, certainly seems to use traditional “classical” forms, but most of her music does not sound “classical” in any traditional sense. Neither her Symphony No. 15 nor Transitions, both of which have their world première recordings on this new Naxos CD, really lives in the sound world of the concert hall. Both are three-movement works using the forces of a symphony orchestra – indeed, Coates expanded Transitions (1984) into her Symphony No. 4, “Chiaroscuro.” But what unites the works is nothing thematic, harmonic or rhythmic, but what might be called “Gloria glissandos,” of which Coates is inordinately fond and which she uses again and again to create a sonic background that is also, in her music, the foreground. The pervasiveness of these glissandos results in music that always seems to be yearning to go somewhere, but never actually goes there – an unusual sonic world that seems not quite to fit into the concert-hall environment. Coates deliberately includes little bits of classical works in her pieces, although they may be played backward or only in part and are not easily heard: there is a touch of Mozart in her Symphony No. 15 and of Purcell in Transitions. But it is the sonic experience of both works, not their structure, that is likely to please listeners or dismay them.

Coates, born in Wisconsin, has lived in Europe since 1969, and it is interesting that both Symphony No. 15 (written in 2004-5) and Transitions are performed by European ensembles – it is hard not only to tell what sort of music this is but also whether it ought to be called American in the first place. Cantata da Requiem is a live recording, too, but this time from North America, although not the United States. This is fairly early Coates, from 1972, and has a direct emotional appeal and impact that the purely orchestral works on this CD lack. In alternating German and English passages, ordinary people living during World War II contemplate their lives, their world and the meaning of what is occurring. The final, desperately hopeful thought – that a future of peace could mean that “all these sorrows were not in vain” – erupts with affirmative tonality that is immensely striking and tremendously moving. The work’s musical genre becomes thoroughly irrelevant.

Jazz is considered the quintessential American musical form, but it is interesting that Mark Kidel’s documentary, Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait, features a performance by the Zawinul Syndicate at The Point in Cardiff, Wales. Zawinul’s contributions to music are undoubted, but as with Coates, it is hard to know exactly how to classify what he produced. Coates works more or less in classical forms and Zawinul – who died last September – worked more or less in jazz. But his music is usually, and more accurately, described with such words as jazz fusion incorporating electric keyboard and synth. The visceral appeal of this music is in the end what matters, and that it certainly has, as Kidel’s thoughtful documentary shows. Kidel is fond of getting close to Zawinul and the others shown on this DVD, including Sabine Kabongo (vocals), Nathaniel Townsley III (drums), Amit Chatterjee (guitar), Linley Marthe (bass) and Manolo Badrena (percussion). This gives the film both immediacy and intensity, nicely complementing the improvisational feel of the musicians’ performances and especially the flair that Zawinul brought to the keyboard both as composer and as player. Zawinul’s music is not aimed at the concert hall, and its intimacy makes it somewhat far-fetched to imagine it being played there. But given the blurring of boundaries in modern American music, anything is possible. That is one message that both Coates and Zawinul convey forcefully.

January 17, 2008


Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy. By Matthew Reinhart. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $32.99.

      And you thought the Empire had been destroyed. Nope – it is growing all the time, and is worth more than $6 billion already (on an initial investment in the $400 million range). This is, of course, the Star Wars empire, not the Galactic Empire created within the Star Wars universe and overthrown by the good guys in the third movie made, which was actually the sixth in the event sequence

      Okay…step back a moment. The Star Wars saga – that is, the saga of the six films, not the saga told by those films – now spans 30 years, and it is so complex that a good business-school case study could be made of it. But the movies’ story of good vs. evil is at its heart so simple that even young children can and do relate to it – and it is at such children, ages seven and up, that Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy is aimed.

      Make no mistake: the book is a purely commercial endeavor, intended to cash in on the continuing popularity of the Star Wars franchise while giving it greater appeal to children who were not even alive when most of the films were made (only two of the movies are less than seven years old). But even for adults, it’s worth embracing your inner child and getting this book if you enjoy the Star Wars films – because the pop-ups are remarkably cleverly done, the information surrounding the pop-ups gives considerable insight into the worlds envisioned in the six-movie series, and parents will likely find any thoughts of crass commercialism quickly drowned beneath a tide of nostalgia.

      You will not see anything really new in Matthew Reinhart’s book, but you will see Star Wars characters and settings in a way that literally leaps off the page. There are three dozen pop-ups here, and they meticulously render the features of the good guys (Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan), the bad guys (Palpatine, Darth Vader, Count Dooku), and of course the robotic sidekicks (C3PO and R2D2, nearly the only characters to appear in all six films). There’s a kind of innocent fun to the whole book – and indeed to the whole Star Wars series, which is remarkably bloodless in its violence. And there is something refreshing in seeing characters who never really came alive on screen, such as Padmé Amidala, in a three-dimensional setting in which their intended importance comes through more clearly than it ever did on film.

      This is a souvenir book, akin to the glossy programs once sold in movie-theater lobbies for films as varied as Gone with the Wind and Around the World in Eighty Days. Reinhart does tell the films’ stories, does explain the characters, and does give more background on the universe of Star Wars than moviegoers will necessarily have picked up on their own (although fanatical fans will not find anything here that they did not already know). The cute and clever touches, from the intricacy of the pop-ups to the positioning of enemies on facing pages to the “working” lightsabers, simply make this very well-produced book into an even better souvenir of an especially long-lasting and beloved fictional universe.


Parenting After Divorce, 2nd Edition. By Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D. Impact Publishers. $17.95.

      It is a given that no under-200-page, under-$20 book can possibly explore all the ins and outs of parenting during and after a divorce. But given that caveat, Philip M. Stahl does a remarkably thorough job in the second edition of Parenting After Divorce. Stahl, an Arizona-based child-custody expert, trains psychologists, attorneys, judges and other professionals who work with divorcing families, and is himself a specialist in high-conflict divorce. This lets him put together a primer of sorts for parents who are contemplating divorce – so the interests of their children can be protected afterwards. Make no mistake: Stahl’s focus is on the kids, not the parents – the book is actually dedicated “To the children of divorce,” and Stahl’s entire orientation is the safety and well-being of children.

      This is not to say that he ignores parents; that would be impossible. But his primary concern about adults is that they handle themselves in such a way as to minimize negative effects of the divorce on their children. For example, Stahl acknowledges the difficulties inherent in forgiving an ex-spouse, but nevertheless urges divorced parents to do so, because “you’ll go a long way toward keeping your children out of the middle and [will] model for them healthy skills of conflict resolution.”

      The centrality of children is apparent everywhere in this book. Stahl creates a “Bill of Rights” for children of divorced parents. He analyzes three forms of post-divorce parenting styles – cooperative, conflicted and disengaged – in terms of their impact on kids. He strongly recommends creation of a “Parenting Plan” that includes a philosophical statement, schedule, financial section, and segment on communication and conflict resolution. For many divorcing couples, the detailed sample agreement, offered as an appendix, will in itself be worth the price of this book.

      Stahl is given to provocative chapter titles: “Your Child Is Not a Percentage,” “Children Aren’t Property.” He uses the titles to encourage parents (and force them if possible) to refocus outside their own anger and disappointment with each other – so they pay attention to how their disintegrating relationship affects their children, and how it will continue to affect the kids if the parents fail to handle divorce the right way.

      There is, of course, no single “right way” that will work for everyone, but Stahl provides some guidelines that make an excellent starting point. He offers suggested schedules under which parents have their children for different periods, explaining which approach may be best for a child who is used to a single primary parent, which is good for a younger child with two relatively equal homes, and so on. He discusses developmental needs at kids’ different ages, making suggestions about ways to arrange or modify a parenting plan to accommodate a child’s physical and emotional growth. And he eventually comes around to a chapter whose title neatly encapsulates his attitude toward divorcing parents and their kids: “Taking Care of Yourself…Or You Won’t Be of Much Use to Your Children!” This is only a seven-page chapter, but it shows that Stahl is well aware of parents’ need to focus on themselves as well as their children – provided that they put the wellbeing of their kids first.

Parenting After Divorce may be a short book, but it is a densely packed one. The new edition gets into additional detail on working with a difficult co-parent, handling a long-distance parenting relationship, and dealing with the courts. Stahl’s straightforward, no-nonsense advice to parents comes across as a kind of tough love – designed to make it clear that what children need, after a divorce as well as before, is love, plain and simple. Divorce is already quite tough enough on them.


Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story. By Kim Powers. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $25.

Jack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of “On the Road.” By Paul Maher Jr. Thunder’s Mouth Press/Da Capo. $16.

      The pursuit of literary figures of the recent past is a touch ghoulish for anyone not actively engaged in it. The idea of rooting around in the lives of authors to dig up this minor fact or uncover that small truth is, if not unseemly, certainly of very limited interest. Kim Powers’ fascination with both Truman Capote and Harper Lee, with both In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird, is what led him to create Capote in Kansas. Powers’ work will be of interest only to others sharing his twin obsessions – those who enjoy Capote’s and Lee’s books as books will find little to engage them here, and those fascinated by one author but not the other will not find much to attract them. Nevertheless, Powers’ approach is a fascinating one, and for those who do share the intensity of his (admittedly narrow) interests, Capote in Kansas will be a fine ghost story of the read-by-the-fire-on-a-cold-night type. Powers casts the book as a novel, not a memoir, and this is precisely what gives it its power. He imagines a lot of communing with the dead by both Capote and Lee, who were next-door neighbors in childhood and whose influence on each other was undoubted but unmeasurable. Lee was Capote’s assistant as he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, but the two subsequently had a falling out and stopped speaking to each other. Powers’ conceit is that they continued to communicate – that Capote sent Lee a series of mysterious packages in the last decade of his life, and that the two shared secrets under the prodding of the ghosts of the Clutter family, whose murder Capote had explored in his book. There are many, many things in Capote in Kansas that never happened, from Capote and Lee bar-hopping together to Capote calling her from his deathbed to make a final confession. And the use of ghosts is a device that becomes creaky after a while – doubly creaky, since Powers also has Lee involved with them, in a sense, by writing letters to her dead brother. Known elements of the writers’ lives flit through the book alongside invented ones, and only a true aficionado of both Capote and Lee will know which is which. But then, the book is really written for such aficionados, for only they are likely to care about Powers’ unusual combination of highly specific facts about the writers with overarching fiction about their relationship.

      Jack Kerouac’s American Journey is written as history, not fiction, and is not as interesting a book as Capote in Kansas. But it has the advantage of being as factual as Paul Maher Jr. can make it. Maher has made a career out of Jack Kerouac, writing his biography and editing a collection of interviews with him. Those not immersed in Kerouac scholarship may wonder what all the fuss is about; so may those who have read On the Road and, having read it, had little additional concern with the story of how it came to be written and who the person who wrote it really was. These interests, though, are precisely the ones that Maher has, and Jack Kerouac’s American Journey is written for people who share them. It is an insider’s look at an author who was a self-professed outsider, focusing on Kerouac and other members of the so-called Beat Generation as they traveled, argued philosophy and wrote. And wrote and wrote – much of the book is based on letters, notebooks and journals. On the Road is 50 years old now, and its continued relevance to anyone other than scholars of the mid-20th century is debatable. More debatable still is the value of exploring the details of the lives and personalities of the people who were in Kerouac’s orbit as the book was created. It takes a certain fanatical devotion to Kerouac and the Beats to analyze their world to the extent Maher has done. Only those who share the fanaticism will want to join Maher on Jack Kerouac’s American Journey.


Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition. Windows Vista or XP/SP2. Symantec. $99.99.

      The first thing that longtime users of Symantec’s Norton programs will notice about the box of the new Norton SystemWorks is an absence: no date. The components of this longtime leader in the computer-tuneup field carry a 2008 designation – Norton AntiVirus 2008, for example – but the suite as a whole does not. Interesting? Yes. Meaningful? We shall see what happens to Symantec’s business model…

      What happens inside the new Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition is certainly meaningful – although, in truth, not significantly different from what this top-notch product did in 2007. The refinements here are just that; there are no significant additions to the product and no major changes in the way it works. This does not indicate stagnation, however, because the new Norton SystemWorks operates more quickly and efficiently than previous editions, and one of its refinements – which stops viruses and spyware based on code behavior, even before malware fighters have located definition specifics – is especially useful. Furthermore, there is a new emphasis in the latest Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition: it is positioned as a backup tool, not just a way of fine-tuning your computer for faster, more efficient performance. It includes Norton Save & Restore 2.0, a nifty and now-improved utility that handles backup, system-failure recovery and other functions smoothly and with minimal user effort. The one-step wizard for this utility is new (and a welcome simplification), and the backup search function has been improved to make it easier to find and recover specific files.

      Norton Save & Restore 2.0 is included only in the Premier version of the new Norton SystemWorks, which is really the only version most consumers and small businesses should consider buying. It is also the only version offering system-restore capability in case of a catastrophic crash – the worst possible computer problem, and the one against which families and small businesses should be most careful to protect themselves, despite its unlikelihood. The two less-expensive versions – Norton SystemWorks Standard, $69.99, and Norton SystemWorks Basic, $49.99 – are too bare-bones for most users. Both include One-Button Checkup, a useful feature that finds and corrects many niggling computer irritations; Norton Cleanup, to remove cookies and temporary files (although you can do that fairly easily without this software); and System Optimizer, for improving functionality through a single screen of Windows settings. The Standard version adds Norton AntiVirus 2008, a fine program that does a good job of intercepting threats to your computer or network. But really, it is only when you add the backup, restore and protective features included in Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition that there is a compelling reason to buy the product.

      The question nowadays is whether it pays to buy tuneup software at all. There is plenty of good freeware available to handle many of the functions of Symantec’s products, and there is a level of detail within SystemWorks that novice computer users will find off-putting (despite the much-improved interface of the last few years). On balance, there is a strong argument to be made that Norton SystemWorks is a worthwhile purchase, especially for home networks and small businesses, simply because it aggregates so many functions into a single package and lets you use most of them simply and efficiently. With the importance of computers today for so many homes and virtually all businesses, a $100 investment in this software – plus some time spent to learn its ins and outs – really is money well spent.

      This is not to say that Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition is without irritations. It provides protection for only one year – after that, you need new software or have to pay for further upgrades. Symantec says it runs faster than ever, buts its full scan still takes quite some time, and its memory usage – which Symantec says is 69% less than the industry average – is still significant. It also retains its annoying habit of requiring you to reboot after it downloads certain (but not all) updates. Unlike Microsoft and other software makers, Symantec does not always offer a “restart later” option for some downloads – just a box stating that you must reboot, even if you are in the middle of a project. The way around this occasional but extremely frustrating occurrence is to run Live Update at your convenience, not automatically – and accept the possibility of having to reboot every time you run it (since you will not know in advance whether the updates to be downloaded will require a reboot). This is one of the last remaining vestiges of the earlier Norton product line, which tended to run your computer rather than run on it.

      But these minuses are, all in all, small ones beside the big pluses. One really important advance in the new Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition – and the probable reason that the suite is incrementally improved rather than overhauled this year – is that the software works smoothly and easily with Windows Vista. This is no small feat: delays in widespread adoption of Vista are tied to numerous companies’ problems getting existing software to work with it, or getting new software (or upgrades) that will function properly in the new environment. Symantec has this problem licked – an impressive technical achievement, even if not one whose difficulty will be obvious to most users.

      On balance, even without the 2008 date on its box, the new Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition is indeed a suite for the new year, providing the best set of computer tuneup tools around in a seamlessly integrated package that is reasonably easy to use and very effective in protecting user data and keeping Windows machines – Vista as well as XP with Service Pack 2 – functioning at the highest possible level. It’s still the gold standard in utilities.


Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes; Danses concertantes; Scènes de Ballet; Variations; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Philharmonia Orchestra, Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft; Mark Wait, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 3. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

Cimarosa: Opera Overtures, Volume 2—L’Armida immaginaria; Oreste; L’Italiana a Londra; Artaserse; Alessandro nell’Indie; La donna sempre al suo peggior s’appiglia; La Circe; Il fanatico per gli antichi Romani; Giannina e Bernardone. Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

      Naxos, a company with an apparently endless appetite for exploring the classical repertoire in depth, here offers continuations of three series, each of them promising to be definitive in its own way – and two of them absolutely top-notch.

      The latest entry in Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection is the ninth devoted to the music of Stravinsky. Strictly speaking, the CD is not new – everything on it was previously released either by Koch or by MusicMasters. But the compilation is new, and adds to the ever-increasing breadth and depth of this composer’s works as explored by Robert Craft, his greatest living exponent. The CD is rather coyly titled “Later Ballets,” which is accurate but slightly misleading, since these are by no means Stravinsky’s latest ballets. And there are a few other minor quibbles as well: for example, Craft’s performance of Jeu de cartes is not quite as upbeat and enthusiastic as it might be, especially in the rather heavy-handed opening. But by and large, these are excellent readings of works not often heard in the concert hall. Jeu de cartes, Stravinsky’s only ballet without slow music, includes a “where did that come from?” quotation from Rossini and effective rhythmic writing. Danses concertantes is even more upbeat (unusually for a wartime work: it dates to 1941-2), with different but equally interesting rhythmic effects. Scènes de Ballet, Stravinsky’s only work written for Broadway, is rather brash and even vulgar, with a conclusion that doesn’t seem to know when to stop (perhaps intended to sound that way). Variations, on the other hand, is compact and difficult, its notes clear but its twelve-tone structure requiring several hearings before a listener is likely to get a sense of its carefully organized form. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, which became Rubies from George Balanchine’s ballet Jewels, is the earliest work on this CD, written in 1929, and seems to sum up the exuberance of the Jazz Age in its final days. All the ensembles respond precisely and skillfully to Craft’s direction, and Mark Wait’s pianism in Capriccio is flamboyant and fun-filled.

      There is virtuosity of a different sort in the third volume of Nigel North’s exploration of the lute music of John Dowland. North, who plays a modern nine-course lute based on a 16th-century model, is a remarkable performer, beneath whose hands the instrument sings with a surprisingly wide variety of emotions. For his latest CD, North assembled seven miniature dance suites, beginning each with a pavan (the longest movement), continuing with a galliard, and concluding with an almain (usually the shortest movement). The individual dances vary widely in length, from about a minute to seven minutes, and their moods range from melancholy to lighthearted. Not all are equally distinguished, but some are quite unusual, such as “Galliard on a Galliard of Bachelar,” in which Dowland uses another composer’s dance as a jumping-off point for a brief but wide-ranging fantasy. It is easy, when listening to this music, to imagine yourself transported back to Shakespeare’s time – he and Dowland were contemporaries – and to plays that used the music of Dowland and other composers to set the mood and enliven the proceedings.

      There is plenty of liveliness in the music of Domenico Cimarosa as well, but there is a great deal of repetitiveness, too, so the second volume of his opera overtures gets a (+++) rating despite fine playing by the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under Kevin Mallon. Listeners who bought Naxos’ first volume of Cimarosa overtures, played by the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia under Alessandro Amoretti, will likely notice something familiar in Volume 2 – indeed, several things. The reason is that Cimarosa regularly reused themes, sections, even whole overtures for different works; and since there is a certain sameness (albeit a pleasant one) to much of Cimarosa’s music, even some overtures not performed before in this series tend to sound as if they were heard already. Four of the nine overtures here are cast as three-movement mini-symphonies; the other five are single movements, but often contain a slower middle section and faster conclusion anyway. Among the single-movement overtures, L’Armida immaginaria is light and scurrying, while Oreste starts with trumpets, drums and a fanfare and becomes dramatic. Artaserse is unusually interesting, with a halting opening that leads to a strongly striding theme, a dip into the minor, and effective timpani use. La donna sempre al suo peggior s’appiglia (“Women Should Be Taken at Their Worst” – some title!) is in typical scurrying-slow-scurrying form, while Giannina e Bernardone is jocular and speedy, with a pleasant oboe tune and a broad second theme in the strings. Among the three-movement overtures, L’Italiana a Londra (“The Italian Girl in London”) has a nicely flowing first movement; Alessandro nell’Indie (“Alexander in India”) has an emphatic opening and fanfares in the finale; La Circe features some interesting orchestral flourishes and a stop-and-start theme in the finale; and Il fanatico per gli antichi Romani (“The Fanatic for the Ancient Romans”) is distinguished by a graceful second movement with a touch of melancholy. None of the overtures contains music from the operas, so the works were readily interchangeable for Cimarosa’s purposes. Unfortunately, they also sound largely interchangeable to modern listeners.