April 24, 2008


Bow-Wow Hears Things. By Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $4.95.

Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites. By Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $4.95.

What’s Up, Duck? A Book of Opposites. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.

Goodnight Moon 123: A Counting Book. Based on the book by Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Clement Hurd. HarperFestival. $8.99.

      Books for the youngest children – newborn to pre-kindergarten age – are at their best when there is more to them than sturdiness. The whole “board book” concept requires printing on heavy stock, usually in a size that is easy for small hands to hold, and with easy-to-understand pictures and simple text. The best board books, though, go beyond the basics to amuse, entertain and, ideally, teach very young children some real-world lessons – one of which, of course, is that books are a great source of enjoyment.

      The two new board books featuring Bow-Wow, the facially expressive but almost-silent dog whose adventures generally incorporate a touch of surrealism, will be as much fun for parents as for children, because their cleverness reaches across generational lines. Bow-Wow Hears Things is especially delightful, featuring the dog (on the right side of each page) facing a little bird (on the left) that keeps making inappropriate-for-a-bird sounds, from “honk” to “tick-tock” to “oink.” After each sound, Bow-Wow looks sternly at the bird, and the single word “no” appears on the page. It is only when, at last, the bird goes “peep” – so loudly that the page’s colors seem to explode – that Bow-Wow finally replies, “Woof.” Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash perfectly blend silly amusement with the simple lesson of what a bird and dog sound like. And for parents who know the famous RCA trademark showing a dog listening to an old-fashioned victrola (thinking he is hearing “his master’s voice”), the inside front and back covers present a Bow-Wow variation on that theme.

      Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites is almost equally good, although the word “attracts” is a trifle odd and may be hard to explain (in this context) to very young children. Here Bow-Wow chases the tail of a never-seen cat up and down, in and out, over and under, eventually losing his quarry when the cat goes indoors, leaving Bow-Wow sad. Then an amusing twist ending makes him happy – very happy indeed.

      Opposites are also the subject of What’s Up, Duck? (whose title will amuse parents who remember Bugs Bunny’s famous “what’s up, doc?” line, spoken in impeccable Brooklynese). Tad Hills here uses endearing characters from his delightful Duck & Goose and Duck, Duck, Goose to illustrate such concepts as front and back, loud and quiet, and near and far. The positions assumed by the avian characters are a big part of the fun here, as in the contrast between clean and dirty and the differing poses to illustrate heavy and light.

      Goodnight Moon 1-2-3: A Counting Book is the most advanced of this crop of board books, since counting is a skill not learned by some children until almost kindergarten age. In fact, this book is recommended for up to age five. It’s only for families that have made       Goodnight Moon a part of bedtime or storytime already, because there is no story here – just a series of illustrations of numbers one through 10, plus a page labeled “100” and showing stars, with all the pages using pictures taken from the original storybook. It can be fun to add this book to Goodnight Moon to create “counting playtime,” reading the book and finding the location within it of the objects used to illustrate counting – seven socks, for example, or nine red balloons. Kids who love Goodnight Moon will find it especially pleasant to use that book as a way to learn numbers – even at bedtime, since the board book ends with a quiet “Shhhhh” and a picture of a happily sleeping little bunny.


Once Upon a Marigold. By Jean Ferris. Harcourt. $17.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street. By Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf. $15.99.

      The danger and magic of fairy tales translate at best uneasily into the modern world. Today’s writers of fairy-tale-like stories for younger readers either feel the need to set them in times gone by or find themselves using fairy-tale elements in what only seems to be a story of our everyday world.

      Of course, a really good writer can take the fairy-tale mystique and turn it inside out and every which way around. That is what Jean Ferris does in Once Upon a Marigold, which is both a sendup of fairy tales and a book that is quite true to their spirit and many of their age-old patterns. It is also a book that actually matches its marketing, which in this case consists of the cover lines, “part comedy, part love story, part everything-but-the-kitchen-sink.” Yup; that’s it exactly. It’s got a good-hearted forest troll who wants to take business away from the inept tooth fairy. It’s got a runaway little boy who comes to live with the troll and who we just know will turn out to be a prince, although we are not sure how that will be revealed. It’s got an inept king and a wicked, scheming queen and four (not the usual three) princesses: three of them safely married off and out of the queen’s way, and one considered too plain to be of interest to most eligible princes – and too interested in books, and afflicted with a strange kind of empathy/telepathy curse besides. And then there’s p-mail, the pigeon-borne missives by which the boy who doesn’t know he is a prince communicates with the princess almost no one cares about. And a blacksmith whose failed inventions now lie in pieces in the castle dungeons. And two really big dogs, and three little ones. And a ferret. But what this book has most of all is heart, and that is why – even though it does not quite end “happily ever after” – it is such a delight to read. Ferris is a whiz at creating convoluted dialogue that almost makes sense, as when Princess Marigold and the boy, Christian, are speaking, and she says, “More doesn’t mean better. Enough is as good as a feast, you know.” And Christian, thinking of his life with Ed the troll, replies, “That’s what Ed always says. Or, what he says is, too much of a good thing is as good as a feast, but that’s what he means. I think. With Ed it’s sometimes hard to know.” But the moral of the story is straightforward and, in context, absolutely right: “She said, ‘As long as we’re with each other –’ ‘We know we’re in exactly the right place,’ he replied.”

      The second novel about the Penderwick family strives hard for this sort of magic – within what is supposed to be the real world – but never quite attains it. The book’s title, perhaps intended to evoke memories of Mary Poppins on Cherry Tree Lane, is part of Jeanne Birdsall’s attempt to fuse old-fashioned values with the story of a modern family. Critics and readers longing for simplicity, optimism, non-ironic storytelling and heartwarming sweetness applauded Birdsall’s first Penderwicks novel when it appeared in 2005 and will surely give The Penderwicks on Gardam Street a (++++) rating as well. But the persistent innocence and rather cloying dialogue may become tiresome for some readers, and a (+++) rating is more reasonable. The Penderwicks’ world only seems modern: the oddly archaic language and old-fashioned attitudes make it more the stuff of fairy tales. This is a family in which the girls use “do or die” as an up-to-date expression; comment among themselves, “The mystifying Marianne who hated flannel will long linger in my memory”; and tell their father, “Not only have we sullied the family honor, we’ve hurt you terribly, Daddy.” In truth, nothing catastrophic occurs in the Penderwicks’ world, where spats come at this level: “When pushed – and Rosalind was definitely feeling pushed – she could glower as well as anyone, and the glowering bouncing around that afternoon was truly frightening.” In this story, the four Penderwick sisters, whose mother has been dead for four years, confront the possibility that their father will start dating again, and decide that would be disastrous; so they hatch a plan to keep him for themselves and away from any potential romantic entanglement. Things go charmingly awry, of course, and everyone learns a lesson or two, and the girls hatch a “New Save-Daddy Plan” to replace the old one that didn’t work, and everything turns out quite happily for everyone – a fairy-tale ending, to be sure.


Your Pregnancy Week by Week, 6th Edition. By Glade B. Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., and Judith Schuler, M.S. Da Capo. $15.95.

      Every few years, the emergence of a new, updated edition of Your Pregnancy Week by Week confirms once again that there is simply no better guide to pregnancy than this thoroughly researched, plainspoken and well written book by Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler. Although the book runs more than 600 pages, its week-by-week format and the authors’ breakdown of chapters into short sections makes it quite readable; and since it is a week-by-week guide, each week takes up only about 15 pages of text – not an unreasonable amount for soon-to-be mothers and fathers to find time to read.

      Curtis and Schuler really do see pregnancy as involving both responsible parties. Although most of the book is written from the woman’s point of view, much of the text contains information that both man and woman will want to know about; and the authors include a “Dad Tip” every now and then, specifically targeting the man. One example: “If you have pets, take over their care during your partner’s pregnancy. Change the cat’s litter box (she shouldn’t do this while pregnant). Walk the dog (the pull on the leash might hurt her back). Buy food and other pet supplies (to save her back from the strain of lifting big food bags). Make and keep vet appointments.” Clear, forthright advice, offered in jargon-free language, with explanations of why the advice is being given – this is the Curtis/Schuler style, and it is a highly effective one.

      One feature of continuing amazement in Your Pregnancy Week by Week is the update on a baby’s size and appearance – including, in almost every week, a drawing showing what the fetus looks like and what size it is. Although much of the book’s advice will be of greatest value to first-time parents, even people with several children will find it fascinating to realize what an embryo goes through as it turns into a miniature human being after beginning as an odd, tailed, almost fishlike body of cells. Yet it is the words rather than the illustrations that are most useful here: suggested exercises to do at every stage of pregnancy; nutritional information and suggestions; and a section called “You Should Also Know” that includes everything from a list of lab tests your doctor may order to a warning to “avoid anxiety-producing TV programs” about labor and delivery, because “even when the content is not sensational, we have found pregnant women who watch these television programs can experience increased levels of anxiety.”

      Curtis, a board-certified OB/GYN and father of five, and longtime collaborator Schuler in no way sugarcoat the experience of pregnancy and child-rearing. They discuss Down syndrome and other birth defects, warn that “having a baby costs money!” and suggest ways to estimate some of those costs, talk about problems that warrant an immediate call to your doctor, explain how pregnancy affects sexuality, and much more. But everything they explain is presented with a helpful, supportive spirit that soon-to-be-parents will find refreshingly honest, even when the information itself is not upbeat. In fact, Curtis and Schuler try to make helpful suggestions about what to do if the pregnancy does cause complications – for example, with a page of “Bed-Rest Boredom Relievers.” Medically up-to-date, psychologically savvy and intelligently presented, Your Pregnancy Week by Week remains the best guide available to a tremendously exciting, nerve-wracking, literally life-changing experience.


It’s Happy Bunny: Life. Get One (special edition). By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

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

      Don’t expect too much and you’re less likely to be disappointed. That could be the watchword for both these books, which are fine and amusing as far as they go – but don’t go very far. The latest It’s Happy Bunny entry from Jim Benton (actually a modified “special edition” of a book of the same title published three years ago) is yet another fairly snide, moderately amusing set of comebacks (or come-forwards, if you haven’t been insulted yet) by the sweet-looking but deeply cynical Happy Bunny. What makes the edition “special” is that it is only a partial book: six pages at the end are left blank so you can “collect signatures from your friends, so when you forget them later…you can remember who [sic] to make fun of.” That’s not only ungrammatical but also shamelessly exploitative: Benton apparently just didn’t want to create more Happy Bunny aphorisms to lengthen the book. The book also contains two pages of stickers (24 in all) that mostly repeat the sayings within the text itself – for example, “The voices in your head are not real. But they still have some great ideas.” Or: “The best things in life are free. Or at least they’re on sale.” (This appears on two stickers, which probably means something.) The main part of the book contains “Ancient Bunny Wisdom,” after a disclaimer that notes, “Any wisdom one gets from a bunny is probably not that hot. For your own safety, please do not take the advice of bunnies.” One sample of that advice: “Learn the difference between right and wrong.” (Picture shows pink, winged Happy Bunny sporting a halo.) “You’ll probably choose wrong, but you should at least know which is which.” (Picture shows all-red Happy Bunny with horns and devilishly pointed tail.) The funniest thing in the book requires the most reading, even though Happy Bunny says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover. Judge it by how many pictures it has in it.” Well, this item at least has the word “judge” in its title, so it’s probably all right. It’s a 36-box matrix called “Never judge people. Until you know how.” The six horizontal columns relate to intelligence and the six vertical ones to appearance, so you simply match “Bright” with “Totally Ugly” and find the box that says, “This person could be a huge movie star playing the bad guy.” Or match “Total Idiot” with “Totally Great Looking” and get, “This person would be a great model, and you can pay them [sic] in coloring books instead of cash.” You might create your own review of the book this way, for instance by matching “Kind of Stupid” with “Kind of Ugly.”

      There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Shell! is neither stupid nor ugly, but it’s just plain silly. It follows the same pattern as last year’s similar-format Lucille Colandro/Jared Lee collaboration, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat! And both books, of course, trace their origin to the song about the old lady who swallowed a fly, then a spider, then a bird, and so on. In the new book, she swallows a shell – why? “She didn’t tell.” Then she swallows a crab to live in the shell…a fish to catch the crab…a gull to scoop up the fish…and so on. The bewildered expressions given by Lee to the characters keep the book amusing, while Colandro maintains the increasing silliness level throughout – eventually making sure that everything inside the old lady emerges safe and unharmed. There’s not much to the book, but it’s cute enough so younger children will likely enjoy the rhyming patterns and increasing absurdity of the old lady’s appetite.


Einojuhani Rautavaara: Apotheosis (revised version of fourth movement of Symphony No. 6, “Vincentiana”); Manhattan Trilogy; Symphony No. 8, “The Journey.” New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

      Einojuhani Rautavaara is scarcely a household name, but the Finnish composer, who turns 80 this year, has been producing consistently interesting works with a strong personal stamp for decades – especially so since he began devoting himself full-time to composition in 1990. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, based in the far south of the world, may not seem to have a natural affinity for the work of someone from the planet’s far north, but it is testimony both to the universality of Rautavaara’s work and to the increasingly fine quality of the New Zealand players that this CD sounds quite idiomatic throughout. And it certainly does not hurt to have the New Zealanders led by Finnish violinist/conductor Pietari Inkinen, who is now the orchestra’s music director.

      All the works here are surprisingly accessible, flirting with tonality when not embracing it wholeheartedly, and always showing skill in orchestration, rhythmic design and pacing. Apotheosis, a 1996 reworking of a movement from a symphony that was in turn based on Rautavaara’s opera Vincent, is very melodic, with lush strings handled in ways that will remind listeners of Shostakovich (clearly an important influence on Rautavaara, who however never overtly imitates the older composer). A bubbling clarinet and lovely wind touches add to the emotional effectiveness of the work.

      Manhattan Trilogy is the most recent piece here, finished in 2004 and first performed in 2005. It opens with “Daydreams,” which is brooding, then gently meandering, featuring effective solo violin and flute touches. Then comes “Nightmares,” a quick movement of building intensity, more disturbed and dissonant than “Daydreams” but more dramatic than frightening. Last is “Dawn,” an impressionistic movement filled with wistful and hopeful elements that ebbs and flows until it eventually more or less evaporates. The suite is effectively orchestrated and packed with notable instrumental touches: winds, bells, harp and more.

      Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 8 dates to 1999. A lot happens in its half-hour length. The first and longest movement swells and rises in intensity, and structurally (like Apotheosis) handles its string passages a bit as Shostakovich handled his. The movement grows largely by adding instruments to its thematic groupings, although the effect is very different from that of a Rossini crescendo: the music becomes increasingly passionate until its climax, then fades slowly. The second movement, marked Feroce, is short and intense, with lots of brass and percussion, and leads immediately into the atmospheric third movement, which opens with solo horn playing over spare-sounding violins. The pacing here is slow, but the constantly varied instrumentation keeps the music interesting. The finale opens with bells that intone a message of solemnity; then the movement grows in intensity and strength to a powerful conclusion – evidence that Rautavaara’s popularity, which is currently increasing, deserves to grow still more.


Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major; Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, op. 134. Sergey Khachatryan, violin; Lusine Khachatryan, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Tango Notturno: Tangos by Arno Babadjanian, Fareed El-Atrache, Unto Mononen, Jacob Gade, Carlos Gardel, Anibal Troilo, Matos Rodriguez, Kurt Weill, Astor Piazzolla, Hans-Otto Borgmann and Anselmo Aieta. Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano; Tango Ensemble conducted by Serouj Kradjian. CBC. $16.99.

      Both these CDs are packaged to play up the performers at least as much as the music, and indeed the performers are rising stars in their respective fields. For those who come to the CDs purely for the music, though, the performances fall a bit short of star quality.

      Franck’s Violin Sonata was written when the composer was 64 and practically oozes maturity and beauty. Perhaps this is why 23-year-old Sergey Khachatryan and his 25-year-old sister Lusine seem a trifle ill at ease with it. The first movement sounds a little tentative, as if the Khachatryans are trying to figure out where to take it while they are playing it. Its lovely flow is never as smooth as it could be. The second movement is more effective, despite some screechy violin tone. The third is gentle but a bit hesitant, without much sense of ensemble – it sounds as if the Khachatryans are playing apart rather than genuinely communicating through their instruments. The fourth movement opens with good sweep, but some of the violin notes are slurred, and the piano seems more an accompaniment than a genuine partner. This is certainly not a bad performance, but neither is it one that has successfully plumbed the depths of the music.

      The Shostakovich is much more successful. The odd sonorities of the first movement come through well, and here the separation of the voices of violin and piano actually serves the music. The angularity and intensity of the second movement are effective, and Sergey Khachatryan’s pizzicati are particularly well done. In the extended finale, the performers go in their own directions much of the time; but, again, that works in this passacaglia – which is a variation form – as it does not in the longer lines of the Franck sonata. There is a thinness of the overall sound in this movement that works well, and the two “cadenza” variations – one each for piano and violin – are handled with aplomb. Shostakovich was only a bit younger when he wrote this work – he was 62 – than Franck was when he composed his sonata. Perhaps the performers are simply more comfortable with Shostakovich’s extreme chromaticism and ventures into serialism than they are with Franck’s broader concepts and thoroughly Romantic mood.

      Isabel Bayrakdarian has done a considerable amount of opera singing, and her husband, Serouj Kradjian, has been piano soloist with a number of orchestras. Their collaboration on tangos – 11 with lyrics, five instrumental and one with instruments and wordless voice – has many interesting spots, but becomes a bit dull after a while, simply because of the rhythmic similarity of most of the pieces. Imagine an entire CD of minuets by the greatest minuet composers and you will get the idea: what works wonderfully by itself is less effective when it is one item out of 17. Nor is Bayrakdarian’s voice ideally suited to this music: it does not have the smoky, sultry lower register that would fit most tangos ideally. Still, she uses her voice very well, effectively modifying her delivery for the different emotions of these pieces; and the ensemble under Kradjian plays with great spirit – especially Fabián Carbone on bandoneon (Carbone and Kradjian share arranger credits on the CD).

      Despite its humble origins in the 19th-century bordellos of Argentina, the tango can communicate a wide variety of emotions, as is clear from several samples here. Astor Piazzolla pretty well defines the extremes. His “Che Tango Che” is a hot and intense listing of everything the tango can do (“grated, gashed, ground and grilled…who raped me, who corrupted me, who dumped me…”). His “Rinascerò” has intensity of a far different sort, being an affirmation and plea for rebirth in the year 3001. Some of the other tangos have a great deal to offer as well, including two famed instrumental ones: Jacob Gade’s “Jalousie” and Matos Rodriguez’ “La Cumparsita.” Occasional parallel subjects crop up: Unto Mononen’s “Satumaa” and Kurt Weill’s “Youkali” are both about magical lands far across the sea, but Mononen’s work offers at least a shred of hope and calm, while Weill’s is steeped in despair. In totality, the works are of uneven quality and interest, although any tango lover will likely find at least some of them appealing. The full hour-and-a-quarter CD, though, turns out to be a bit much.

April 17, 2008


When Ruby Tried to Grow Candy. By Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Bringing In the New Year. By Grace Lin. Knopf. $15.99.

      Sometimes a wonderful adventure can lie just next door, or in the midst of a real-world celebration. Kids ages 4-8 will find When Ruby Tried to Grow Candy delicious, partly because of the surreal elements of the story (which is a bit like a leftover scene from Alice in Wonderland) and partly because Valorie Fisher illustrates it so delightfully with photo collages that also include drawn elements. The tale seems to be a mystery as it begins: what’s really going on in the peculiar house next to the everyday one where Ruby and her family live? It’s an odd place, to be sure, with crooked windows and a sloppily patched fence and gloom that seems to hang over it even when it is sunny at Ruby’s home. And this mysterious place belongs to a woman named Miss Wysterious. It’s all almost creepy – but not quite, as Ruby discovers when she climbs the fence in search of a ball she has lost. Miss Wysterious, it turns out, grows a very…special…garden, in which teacups, umbrellas and playing cards sprout from trees (part of the fun of the book lies in studying the pictures to find out just how much is going on). And although outwardly stern, Miss Wysterious gives Ruby a chance to try to grow something she really likes, such as…well, candy. “It doesn’t always work,” Miss Wysterious says. “Socks, for instance. Shoes grow like weeds, but I’ve never been able to sprout a sock.” Ruby, it turns out, has a natural affinity for this sort of magical gardening, and she and Miss Wysterious work very well together in a world in which the plants grow ever odder and the delights of the drawings become ever more intricate (be sure to check out the face of the sun, which changes as the book progresses).

      Bringing In the New Year offers delights of a different kind. This is the tale of one family’s preparations for the Lunar (or Chinese) New Year – currently the Year of the Rat. It is designed for slightly younger children than Fisher’s book – the target age range here is 3-6 – so it emphasizes large illustrations (including one attractive foldout) and a minimal number of words. Parents can add to the story by using the inside front and back covers, which show specific elements of the celebration that appear within Grace Lin’s illustrations (spring lantern, decorated kumquat tree, symbolic sun, etc.). Lin also offers a more-adult end-of-book explanation about the Lunar New Year rituals that she shows quite simply within the book, thus giving parents a chance for further enjoyable talks with young children. For there is nothing troubling or threatening in this celebration or this book: everyone smiles while sweeping the old year out of the house, decorating to welcome the new one, and eventually – after suitable rejoicing – shouting “hooray!” as the lucky dragon awakens and brings in a new and (one hopes) happy year. Whether a family already celebrates the Lunar New Year and wants to introduce it to a younger child, or celebrates the solar New Year (starting January 1) and wants to enjoy a different sort of celebration vicariously, this book will serve as a fine and upbeat introduction to Lunar New Year customs.


Shoes, Chocs, Bags, and Frocks. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Great Sex after 50! And Other Outlandish Lies about Getting Older. By John McPherson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

      Here, just in time for any event for which you need to bring a little gift that is allowed to be humorous and offbeat, are two small-format hardcover books that quietly poke fun at some seemingly inevitable elements of life. Shoes, Chocs, Bags, and Frocks is intended for women, and is more overtly (although gently) humorous than several similar books written by poet Giles Andreae under his pen name of Edward Monkton. Other small-format Monkton books have sometimes failed to make it clear whether they were serious or all in fun, but there is no doubt this time, as Monkton meanders merrily along, offering cute little black-and-white drawings of things about which he waxes amusingly ecstatic on facing pages. For example, there is a picture of a very-high-heeled open-toed sandal on the left, beneath the headline, “My ‘Killer’ Heels,” accompanied by this text on the right: “When I wear my Killer Heels, men will GASP with passion, lust and longing, and girls will SIGH with envy and despair. For I shall be the total QUEEN of HOTNESS, and they shall be my faithful, humble slaves.” Or Monkton offers a picture of “The ‘Lovely’ Hats” (four of them, each with the word “lovely” on it), to go with this text: “When I am in charge everyone who is lovely will get a BIG HAT. That will be THE LAW!! This book takes just a few minutes to read, but that short time will be most enjoyable for any woman whose tastes run to some of the finer things in life as Monkton sees them.

      What John McPherson sees in his Close to Home single-panel comic is peculiarity everywhere. Great Sex after 50! celebrates some of that oddity – the part relating to getting older. McPherson’s characters are never attractive, but the situations in which they find themselves are often very funny. Here is a panel in which a family gives Dad a birthday party – complete with balloon vultures floating over the cake. And another party, featuring a book in extra-large type – one letter per page. And a salad-bar scene in which a man asks a woman to look for his dentures in the huge soup tureen. There’s the four-night-a-week polka party created by parents trying to get adult children to leave home for good; the newly installed pacemaker that changes the TV channel when its recipient gets the hiccups; the thoughtful wife who bakes her husband’s daily pills into peanut brittle so he won’t forget to take all of them; and many more examples of things that probably aren’t true but just possibly could be – if not in your home, then somewhere close to home.


Wicked Dead #3: Snared. By Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Warriors: Power of Three—Book One: The Sight. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $6.99.

My Sister the Vampire No. 4: Vampalicious! By Sienna Mercer. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

      From a publishing standpoint, a series is a good idea: readers who like the first installment are likely to stay with later ones, and may pass the series along by word of mouth to their friends. From an author’s viewpoint, a series is also a good idea: if it catches on, it can provide certain publication of many books of the same sort over a period of years. From a reader’s point of view, though, series are more of a mixed bag: they can go on and on and on; not all installments will necessarily be equally interesting; and there is inherent repetition in characters and plotting. One solution to this – for publishers, authors and readers – is simply to move on to another series. And that is quite easy to do in books for young readers, since series now come ready-made for a wide variety of age groups.

      The Wicked Dead series, for ages 12 and up, is really two series in one. The first is a framing story about ghost girls in a crumbling orphanage, “living” out their petty rivalries even though they are no longer alive. Part of what they are compelled to do, for reasons unknown, is to tell stories – which may (or may not) give them a way out of their entrapment and help them escape the equally ghostly and very nasty Headmistress. Each book of this series – the first two were called Lurker and Torn – is a story told by one of the ghost girls. Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton’s stories tend to be overlong, predictable and not especially horrific, but they are always fast-paced. The one in Snared is about a teenage girl on vacation who sees a really hot guy in the house next door and befriends him – only to learn that he is permanently grounded by two guardians. They are clearly the bad guys of the story – until it turns out that they aren’t, and the heroine (like all the basically nice but overly naïve protagonists of these stories) faces an awful fate.

      The many Warriors series are for younger readers – Power of Three targets ages 10 and up – and are all variations on the same theme: cats as epic heroes, forming their own society within which they compete and cooperate. The first Powers of Three book, now available in paperback, centers on three kits of the ThunderClan: Hollypaw, Jaypaw and Lionpaw, all of them grandchildren of the great ThunderClan leader, Firestar. The Sight is about a mysterious prophecy that seems to include all three Firestar descendants, and about problems that are spreading within the Clans and may threaten the very Clan structure itself. There is not much individuality among Erin Hunter’s many cat characters, except for those central to each book’s plot. But Hunter’s pacing is quick; her use of cat enemies is convincing within her fantasy world; and her continuing focus on honor and camaraderie fits right into the traditional mold of epic fantasy.

      Still-younger readers, ages 8-12, will enjoy the supernatural hijinks of My Sister the Vampire, which is all about two 13-year-old almost-twin sisters who were separated when they were one year old and have now found each other again. They’re not exactly twins, since Ivy is a vampire and Olivia isn’t, but since rediscovering each other, they have become as close as sisters can be – which means the prospect of being separated again (the core of the plot of Sienna Mercer’s latest series installment, Vampalicious!) is just too much to bear. So Ivy and Olivia decide they won’t let it happen. That means they have to solve a mystery about their biological father, Charles Vega, before he moves to Europe and takes Ivy with him. And that means that each girl has to impersonate the other, which leads to some amusingly awkward moments, as when non-vampire Olivia gets a “bloody cane” (which looks like a candy cane) from her father and has to think quickly to avoid eating it, while vampire Ivy has to consume a tofu steak – which, luckily, is served with “a red wine reduction sauce that tasted surprisingly like blood.” The first three books of this series – Switched, Fangtastic! and Re-Vamped – established the sisters’ relationship and laid out some of the mysteries of their life. Vampalicious! solves one big mystery, involving their birth, and leads to a reconciliation with their father: “For the first time, there weren’t any secrets to keep the three of them apart.” The series could end on this happy note – but will it? Time, Mercer and the Holiday Bat will tell….


Clark Gable: Tormented Star. By David Bret. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $26.

      There is never a shortage of biographies of dead celebrities – who can no longer speak up on their own behalf (or file libel suits). David Bret is a significant contributor to the genre: he has written about Edith Piaf, Tallulah Bankhead, Maria Callas, Joan Crawford, Rudolph Valentino and others. Unfortunately, he is a terrible writer, and one whose work in Clark Gable: Tormented Star appears never to have seen the hand of an editor. In writing about the early talkie The Painted Desert, Bret says, “Complicating matters is Bill’s love-interest Mary-Ellen (a wildly over-the-top performance from weepies queen, Helen Twelvetrees), who also happens to be Jeff’s daughter) [sic] and Jeff’s thuggish factotum Rance Brett (Clark), who is also sweet on her.” This appears to mean nothing at all, and it is by no means an isolated instance of incomprehensibility. “While working with Clark in The Secret Six she [Jean Harlow] had become involved with MGM executive Paul Bern. Known as ‘Little Father Confessor’ on account of his puny build and fondness for listening to other people’s problems – though not always helping them to resolve them or indeed facing up to his own troubles – German-born Bern (Paul Levy, 1889-1932) was Irving Thalberg’s right-hand man.”

      Built largely around name-dropping and plot descriptions of Gable films, Bret’s book offers little insight into Gable the actor or Gable the man. What supposedly made Gable “tormented” was the fact that he was bisexual – or at least Bret says this was a fact, although he supports the statement with little more than backdoor gossip, and certainly never shows any way in which Gable was clearly “tormented” by his sexuality. If there is evidence supporting Bret’s thesis, it is hard to extract from his prose, which becomes babble even when he describes well-known movies, such as Gone with the Wind: “Rhett does have a bad reputation. He was expelled from West Point, though we are not told why, none of his family have anything to do with him – and he once ‘ruined’ a girl by taking her out, without a chaperone, then refusing to marry her!”

      It’s very hard to figure out what Bret is trying to accomplish with this book, other than the obvious goals of titillation and making money. The whole thing is just plain sloppy: how many ways is it possible to misspell “Encino”? (Bret offers “Encinal” and “Elcino.”) And at the end, Bret turns genuinely nasty, questioning the paternity of Gable’s son, John Clark Gable (born four months after his father’s death), and impugning the morals of Gable’s widow, Kay (his fifth wife; he was her fourth husband): Gable’s son “was baptized John Clark and because he did not resemble Clark – lacking the large ears and melon-smile inherited by Judy [Lewis, Gable’s daughter with Loretta Young] – there have always been rumors that he was not Gable’s child at all.” This is typical of Bret’s writing: a bald and unsupported assertion, unattributed and unrefuted, involving people no longer around to defend themselves. Clark Gable: Tormented Star turns out to be tormenting mostly for readers who have to endure Bret’s tabloid incoherence.


Mendelssohn: String Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 6. New Zealand String Quartet: Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

      This first volume of a planned set of all the Mendelssohn quartets showcases some remarkably intuitive playing, which includes fine ensemble work and a very natural-sounding ebb and flow of the musical discussion among the members of the New Zealand String Quartet: first one comes to the fore, then the next, and it all happens as naturally as if the musicians had been playing in this configuration all their lives rather than for a “mere” 14 years.

      The fluidity of the musical discourse is put to particularly good use in these three Mendelssohn quartets, which range from the bucolic to the most relentlessly driving music the composer ever wrote. In fact, most listeners would do well to hear this CD on three separate occasions, so different are the emotions the works convey.

      Quartet No. 1 in E flat major, actually the second that Mendelssohn composed, is the gentlest of the three and the sweetest (the second subject in the first movement is actually marked dolce). Written when Mendelssohn was 20, it exudes pleasantries throughout, not only in the well-known Canzonetta that takes the place of a second-movement scherzo, but also in a structure that has the finale conclude with the same coda used in the first movement – a knitting-together that seems not in the last forced. Here the New Zealand String Quartet plays with unobtrusive precision, providing just enough energy to keep the music flowing but not so much as to overwhelm its underlying placidity.

      Quartet No. 4 in E minor – this was the third composed; the publication-vs.-composition numbering is as confusing for the quartets as for the symphonies – is a strong work that shows significantly more maturity than does No. 1. The E minor quartet dates to Mendelssohn’s 28th year and was written shortly after his marriage – in the same key as his Violin Concerto. This is a passionate quartet, in which episodes of grace and tranquility abound – but only for purposes of contrast. The second and third movements are reminiscent of the mood of other Mendelssohn works – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Songs without Words, respectively – and the finale ends with a hard-driving coda that the New Zealand String Quartet plays con fuoco, as it is marked, without overdoing the intensity or overstating the emotionalism.

      But the one performance on this CD that is truly brilliant is that of the sixth quartet, in F minor – one of Mendelssohn’s last compositions, written four months after the sudden death of his adored sister, Fanny, and only two months before his own. This is a work of almost shocking drama, the unceasing intensity of its first movement being insufficient to communicate the composer’s pain – so that he keeps the same key for the second movement, building an edifice of unremitting sorrow that is only partly relieved by the lovely, resigned Adagio. Just as listeners catch their breath, the finale redoubles the sense of tragedy and the work rushes to a dark-as-can-be conclusion. The New Zealand String Quartet does not let up for an instant throughout the 25 minutes of this quartet, digging ever-deeper into a well of emotion and interpretative mastery to produce a truly stunning performance. Listeners be warned: the CD places this work first, but few will want to listen immediately to Quartet No. 1 (placed second) after hearing Quartet No. 6. Yet it is safe to say that those who hear this first installment of the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle will be waiting eagerly for the next.

April 10, 2008


Jeremy and Mom: A “Zits” Retrospective You Should Definitely Buy for Your Mom. By Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

      Here, just in time for Mothers’ Day – okay, too early, but who’s counting? – is an oversized “Treasury” collection that is really worth treasuring. Most of these thick books of comic-strip reprints simply reproduce the contents of previously issued, smaller collections, adding a little value by showing Sunday strips in color rather than black-and-white. But not this time: the value added here comes both through the selection of the strips themselves – all of them featuring the trials and tribulations of 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan and his long-suffering mother, Connie – and through commentary by the strip’s creators, writer Jerry Scott and artist Jim Borgman.

      The comments provide real insights into Zits, which is one of the consistently funniest and consistently most heartwarming strips around. No, that isn’t a contradiction, and the remarks by Scott and Borgman show why. Borgman explains, for instance, that “I try to draw Jeremy almost the same height as his parents to suggest a figurative competition for dominance. Walt [Jeremy’s father] generally wins by a hair, literally.” Read this, then pick a strip showing all three characters – there are plenty to choose from – and lo and behold, the characters’ proportions make perfect sense.

      Or find out just why the writing in the strip seems so right all the time. Scott explains that he based one Sunday strip “on the famous Serenity Prayer used in many twelve-step programs. …Ever notice the disturbing similarities between parenting and recovery?”

      Or discover which strips the creators themselves think were especially successful. In one, there are 15 panels, only six of them containing words – the rest of the sequence is extended, awkward silence depicting, says Scott, “one of those one-way conversations every mom has had with a teenager.” Borgman calls this strip “one of my all-time favorites.” Or check out the not-especially-funny-but-especially-touching kitchen scene in which Jeremy and Connie tease each other. Borgman notes, “It’s easy to do the sarcastic stuff. Capturing the warmer, playful moments is tougher.” And Scott says, “I love this strip. It’s not the funniest one I’ve ever written, but I think it’s the first time that we showed Jeremy and Mom being playful.”

      Let it be noted that the creators’ comments do not appear on every page and do not take up most of the space when they do appear. A number of pages contain no comments at all – just the strips themselves. And with or without commentary, those are wonderful: Jeremy’s touching birthday-cake tribute to his mom, which he promptly spoils by mentioning that she is 45 years old and plopping a handful of candles in the middle of the cake; Jeremy trying to use “smoke and mirrors” (which Borgman literally shows) to avoid discussing the rating of a film he wants to see; Scott making (and Borgman depicting) the connection between herding livestock and trying to get a teenager going; and much, much more. In fact, Borgman says – in what could stand, if it were a bit shorter, as a motto for the entire strip, “We receive an uncanny number of e-mails and letters from readers telling us that what we drew in Zits just happened in their house. It leaves us all a bit baffled – we sure don’t know how we’re doing it, either. Maybe this stuff is so universal that we can’t help but hit you where you live.”

      And that means that any mom of a teenager – or a soon-to-be teenager, or a former teenager – will find Jeremy and Mom a far more enjoyable Mothers’ Day present than the typical extremely predictable, boring and tasteless brunch (which, not surprisingly, gets its comeuppance in the book).


Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI. By Melissa Stewart. Smithsonian/Collins. $16.99.

Volcanoes. By Franklyn M. Branley. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Collins. $16.99.

Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf. $16.99.

      All these books do a very good job of communicating facts to preteen and younger readers, but they go about what they do in very different ways. Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI takes an inherently interesting subject and dresses it up with lots of pictures, Web links, and interviews. Volcanoes uses illustrations rather than photographs and provides simpler text for younger readers. And Pale Male takes a true story and presents it as a narrative that reads like fiction – with illustrations that make it seem to take place in its own world.

      Because earthquakes and volcanoes are related phenomena, it makes sense to include both in the same scientifically oriented book. Still, Melissa Stewart’s explanation of what these geological events have to do with each other appears only in a transitional section of Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI – essentially, this work is two books in one, the first one on earthquakes (ending with an interview with a Smithsonian Institution geologist) and the second on volcanoes (ending with an interview with a Smithsonian Institution geographer). The earthquakes section not only shows the devastation wrought by quakes but also offers some matter-of-fact photos that are fascinating in their own way, such as one showing villagers in India walking past a crack in the earth caused by a quake. In addition to information on what earthquakes are, why they occur and where they are most likely to happen, this section lists the 10 deadliest quakes in recorded history, speculates about whether animals know when an earthquake is coming, and explains why it is so hard for scientists to predict quakes – although instruments to detect them have been around since the days of ancient China. In the section on volcanoes, there are excellent pictures of volcanoes and lava flows, plus a discussion of the Volcanic Explosivity Index, a close look at lava (including information on different types), a list of the 10 deadliest known volcanic eruptions, and an explanation of why volcanic ash is a danger to airplanes even though pilots cannot see it. The text is straightforward and to the point, with “Smithsonian link” suggestions for further information and lots of interesting tidbits of information.

      Volcanoes is designed to give some of the same information – mostly on the volcanic side, although there are brief mentions of earthquakes as well – to children ages 5-9. To that end, this book – written at Stage 2 of the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science series – is more in “story” format, opening with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and then discussing the effects of some more-recent eruptions. When Franklyn M. Branley moves into the scientific sphere, he comes up with fine age-appropriate explanations, as when he says that Earth’s layers of solid rock “are broken into huge sections called plates. ...Under the plates there is very hot rock. The plates move on the hot rock, which is soft like dough. They don’t move much, only about as fast as your fingernails grow. But they keep moving year after year after year.” The illustrations by Megan Lloyd do not come close to the photos in Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI in terms of showing the devastating effects of volcanoes and earthquakes, but Lloyd’s clear diagrams of the processes that cause volcanic eruptions will help young children understand these vast geological events. The end-of-book “erupting volcano” project can be an enjoyable hands-on supplement to the text.

      Janet Schulman takes an even stronger “storyline” approach in Pale Male than Branley and Lloyd do in Volcanoes. Schulman’s book is about a red-tailed hawk that built a nest atop a very fancy and expensive building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan – provoking the ire of the buildings’ residents but the joy of birdwatchers and, eventually, of New Yorkers at large. Schulman’s story is focused on the bird and its progeny – short shrift is given to the wealthy building residents who complained about the feathers, bird waste and remains of dead animals dropped in front of their homes – and Meilo So’s lovely watercolors turn the story into a celebration of nature and the natural world existing in an unexpected place and overcoming many obstacles to survival. The hawks, Schulman writes in one of many instances of anthropomorphizing, “were true-blue New Yorkers – tough, resourceful, and determined to make it in the city.” This book is not, it could be argued, an entirely fair presentation, but it certainly reflects accurately the things that happened when the building owners tried to oust Pale Male and his mates after they had lived on the roof for nine years: there were protests organized by the Audubon Society, the noise from cars and trucks was incessant, traffic was blocked, and the owners finally capitulated and let the hawks come back (after building a contraption below the nest to catch the birds’ garbage). Clearly, the idea is that preteens will read the book simply as a tale of nature triumphant over nasty people, while their parents will presumably enjoy its political viewpoint: Schulman writes that the birds were evicted “during a time when many conservation and wildlife laws were being relaxed by President George W. Bush’s administration.” Yet the one-sidedness of the narration is somewhat overdone, and for that reason the book gets a (+++) rating. The story of Pale Male really is inspirational – enough so that it does not need to be nudged into the spheres of politics and implied class warfare.


The First Year: Heart Disease—A Patient-Expert Walks You Through Everything You Need to Learn and Do. By Lawrence D. Chilnick. Da Capo. $16.95.

Puppy Chow Is Better Than Prozac: The True Story of a Man and the Dog Who Saved His Life. By Bruce Goldstein. Da Capo. $25.

      Both these books contain lifesaving information, presented in both cases by people with firsthand knowledge of their subjects. But the tone of the two books is worlds apart. The awkwardly titled-and-subtitled The First Year: Heart Disease, which actually has not one but two subtitles (the second being, “An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed”), is a thorough, to-the-point guidebook that starts with day-by-day information, then has chapters numbered by the week, and then moves onward through Month 12. A lot of the basic information here can be gleaned from the end-of-chapter “In a Sentence” boxes. The one for Day 1 reads, “Although you may have inherent risks for heart disease, your contributing risk factors can be controlled and diminished if you take responsibility for this task.” For Day 6, “Recovering from a heart attack requires a mixture of physical and emotional rehabilitation; however, more than anything, it requires motivation and willingness to modify your negative health behaviors.” For Month 2, “You have a second chance to rebuild your life and body, and to begin you must take inventory of the risk factors and negative behavior to begin creating a plan.” These examples make it clear that the counting of days, weeks and months does not refer literally to a specific day, week or month after a diagnosis of heart disease, and that the underlying message from Lawrence D. Chilnick – who had a heart attack at age 48, the same age at which his mother had had one – is to take heart disease seriously and take control, to the extent possible, of elements of your life that contribute to it. Chilnick does not pretend that this is easy – it may be tremendously hard to stop smoking, for example, and may seem nearly impossible to limit stress in your life. But it is even harder to have a heart attack and know that you could have done something that would have made it less likely. Chilnick provides a lot of material that is readily available elsewhere, such as a Body Mass Index table in a section warning against obesity. But he also provides a first-person experience of living with heart disease, and helpful information on life-changing elements of it – for instance, the potential difficulty of air travel when you must carry multiple medicines with you at all times. Heart-attack patients and their families are likely to find Chilnick’s personal experiences especially useful, such as “My Story: Rehab Reality” and his discussion of “Returning to Sex and Intimacy.”

      Bruce Goldstein’s approach in Puppy Chow Is Better Than Prozac could not be more different. This is a 100% first-person account, and it is a harrowing one. Goldstein was a twentysomething advertising executive in New York City when he developed significant symptoms of manic depression – now usually called bipolar disorder. In a chapter called “Sunday Afternoon with Satan in Central Park,” for example, he remembers, “I saw Lucifer, the fallen angel, surrounded by flames. …I thought of all the evil in the world. The wars. The manslaughter. I tried thinking of something else – anything else – but I couldn’t change the channel. I couldn’t shut it off. Something much larger was forcing me to think these horrible things. ‘Get outta my head! Get outta my head!’ I pleaded. I looked up in the sky for hope. But all I saw were gargoyles.” Doctors treated Goldstein as his condition is usually treated nowadays, with drugs, but the medicines left him feeling as if he was “pulling myself out of a chemically unbalanced coffin.” And his severe mood swings never really let up – until, after a series of misadventures that he shares in detail, he listens to one piece of advice from his psychiatrist that he has previously ignored: to get a dog. Putting aside all the understandable worries – he can’t even take care of himself, so how can he take care of another living thing? – Goldstein gets a black Labrador retriever puppy (symbolically taking to himself “the Black Dog,” which is what Winston Churchill called depression). He eventually names the dog Ozzy, after a serious of hilarious getting-used-to-each-other incidents before the pup has a name at all. The chapter titles of the book chart Goldstein’s progression, from “Moping Manic on a Moped” and “Mom, I Don’t Want to Go to Life Today” to “Tour of Doody,” “The Summer of Puppy Love” and so on. The eventual ending of the book, in which Goldstein meets the woman who will become his wife – making sure she knows all about his bipolar disorder and the now-110-pound-Ozzy – is almost ridiculously tear-jerking, and at the same time so life-affirming that it is tempting to recommend that everybody with a mental disorder rush out and get a dog immediately. But that is not Goldstein’s point at all: he tells the story of what worked for him, not what will necessarily work for others. But he tells it with such heart that it is impossible not to wish for an Ozzy for everyone.


X-Rated Blood Suckers. By Mario Acevedo. Eos. $7.99.

The Undead Kama Sutra. By Mario Acevedo. Eos. $13.95.

      It didn’t take Mario Acevedo long to go from mediocre to mighty good. His first book, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, never quite knew what it wanted to be. It was about a vampire detective who became undead after something horrific that happened in Iraq, and who soon found himself trying to solve mysteries back in the U.S.A. while constantly fighting his urge to drink human blood. Despite some titillation value – which brought to the fore the sexuality inherent in vampire lore since the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if not before – the book simply tried to do too much, exploring Felix Gomez’s thoughts and past, pulling in non-vampiric supernatural beings without alerting the reader in advance, and never making much sense of the “I need blood but won’t take it” concept, which became merely a device to keep Gomez’s powers weak so he could be repeatedly ambushed and beaten up.

      Wow, did Acevedo improve with his second book, X-Rated Blood Suckers! He dropped the “drink or not drink” idea, replacing it with Gomez’s weary realization that, as a predator, he has no choice but to find prey. He gave Gomez a dose of smarts – he still gets into lots of trouble, but not because of the unremitting dimness that initially made him a less-than-attractive protagonist. And he gave Gomez a sexual focus that not only provides titillation but also gives the books about him some connective tissue. Gomez simply seems to attract sex-tinged cases with more than the usual dose of weirdness. X-Rated Blood Suckers begins with him being hired by porn star Katz Meow (real name: Wilma Pettigrew) to find out who killed her porn co-star, Roxy Bronze. Acevedo throws out coincidence after coincidence to get the story moving – his plots still tend to show their seams – but this time, the holes in the story serve to get it moving rather than to slow it down as it goes. (For instance, it turns out that Gomez encountered Roxy well before her porn days and has pleasant memories of her kindness.) Gomez’s powers have good and consistent value here: he can hypnotize humans and put them to sleep or find out whether they are telling the truth, and his kundalini noir – “that black serpent of energy that animates the undead” – gives him a variety of warnings, although they are not always useful. Gomez finds himself doing the bidding of the shadowy Araneum, which acts to preserve vampires by preventing humans from learning of their existence; he gets entangled with a local vampire biggie who is also a suspect in Roxy’s murder; and there is even some speculation about a land grab as a murder motive, in Chinatown style. Gomez is still working to balance his vampirism with some distinctly human urges: “Okay, so it was creepy of me to hypnotize a woman and think about copping a feel. But I’m a vampire, not a Boy Scout.” But he’s basically a good guy, perhaps a little light in the brains department (like many fictional detectives), who finds himself in over his head (also like many fictional detectives) but eventually claws his way to an understanding that some things can be even more dangerous than vampires.

      And at the very end of X-Rated Blood Suckers, he gets a new assignment from the Araneum – which brings him (and readers) to The Undead Kama Sutra. Actually, it also brings him (and readers) back to The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, whose sprawling plot is quickly disposed of at the start of the new book, which places Gomez with the dying “Gilbert Odin, or, rather, the alien who masqueraded as my abducted and long-deceased friend from college” (which should give you some idea of just how convoluted Acevedo’s first book was). “The last I’d seen of Odin was years ago,” Gomez says, “after he’d hired me to investigate an outbreak of nymphomania at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado. He knew the nymphomania was caused by a special isotope of red mercury leaking from a UFO the government had squirreled away, but he hadn’t bothered to fill me in. I had to uncover that on my own.” The description is far more coherent than the book was – but never mind; here it is a jumping-off point for a much better and more tightly written story. The Undead Kama Sutra is, on one level, an aliens-want-Earth-women story like those prevalent in bad science fiction since time immemorial. It is also, on another level, a sendup of those stories. It revolves in part around a doomed airplane flight that is missing two passengers who were supposed to be aboard; in part around a stunning and deadly vampire sexpert named Carmen; and in large part around a mysterious and elusive man named Dan Goodman. Acevedo has become sufficiently adept stylistically so that he produces more than a few good lines: “Sex was just another language that existed between the undead. Undead friends with undead benefits.” “Vampires are immune to many human afflictions but, unfortunately, alcoholism wasn’t one of them, and many vampires found themselves on skid row.” Eventually Gomez has to deal with a “repulsive dwarf [that] belonged in a freak show from hell,” and an out-of-this-world situation that is sure to be central to Acevedo’s next book – which, if his writing and plotting continue to improve, is likely to be even better than this one.


Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16. Capella Augustina conducted by Andreas Spering. CPO. $16.99.

Haydn: Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 9 and 11. Sebastian Knauer, piano; Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl. Naxos. $8.99.

      The appropriate use of period instruments – or, more often, reproductions of period instruments – is by no means settled. It is certainly true that the compositions of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and many other composers were written for instruments different from those customarily heard today. It is true that some of those earlier instruments present challenges both for players and for modern audiences accustomed to greater evenness of sound. And it is true that it is very difficult to locate some older instruments, much less find someone to play them – and questionable how much they add to a performance (is an ophicleide really needed for Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture?).

      Performances nowadays are something of a hodgepodge, some of them using period instruments while others do not, with resulting effects being very varied: Beethoven’s piano concertos sound quite different on a fortepiano from the way they sound on a modern concert grand. Capella Augustina specializes in using period instruments, and that means it looks for a mid-19th-century sound for Brahms’ two orchestral serenades – resulting in performances that are sonically out of the ordinary. Furthermore, this is a chamber-sized group – about three dozen players – and these serenades are more often played by full symphony orchestras (although the first was originally conceived as a nonet). Capella Augustina brings greater clarity to the serenades than they usually receive, and lets the inner voices sound as clearly as the ones carrying the principal themes. Andreas Spering’s approach also makes some structural elements especially clear. For example, he favors broad tempos for the first three movements of the first serenade, which take up more than two-thirds of the time of the entire work. This makes the symphonic elements of these movements stand out. Then, for the final three movements, Spering bounds and bounces along, lightening the mood considerably – and showing, intentionally or not, that the first serenade in some ways does not hang together particularly well, despite the charms of its individual parts. The second serenade always comes across as darker than the first, although both are in major keys, because the second dispenses with violins – bringing voices that are usually in the middle, notably clarinets and violas, to the fore. Here Spering and Capella Augustina maintain lightness and careful balance throughout, giving the work – which is less monumental than the first serenade – more the feeling of chamber music. The extent to which these performances sound like those of the period of the serenades, both of which were first performed in 1860, is not entirely clear, but these readings are consistently interesting and successful on their own terms.

      The period-instrument issue is somewhat more consequential when it comes to Haydn’s keyboard concertos. There is no question that Haydn’s earlier concertos were written for the harpsichord. At least some of his later ones were written for fortepiano, since they contain dynamics that cannot be attained on the harpsichord. But it is common for all these works to be played on a modern piano, and that leads – as in the case of the new CD featuring Sebastian Knauer and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl – to some inevitable inelegance of balance. Knauer plays these works with a light touch, but delicacy on a modern piano does not always blend well with Haydn’s transparent scoring, with the result that there are occasional sonic imbalances throughout the CD – even though Müller-Brühl conducts skillfully and makes the orchestra a strong partner in the performances (this used to be a period-instrument ensemble, under the name Capella Clementina, but it now performs on modern instruments). Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, in particular, would likely sound better on a harpsichord or even a fortepiano. No. 9 – whose authenticity is not certain – fits the piano reasonably well, and No. 11, probably Haydn’s best-known keyboard concerto, fits it even better (and was clearly written with some type of piano in mind). Knauer’s playing of the minor-key Adagio of No. 9 – a movement as long as the concerto’s other two combined – shows the piano to good advantage. But the speedy movements, although well played, are less satisfying. The Presto finale of No. 3, for example, never really trips as lightly as it would on a harpsichord; and while the famous Rondo all’ungarese that concludes No. 11 has plenty of verve and bounce, its notes blend sonically in a way that is characteristic of a modern piano but not especially Haydnesque. These are fine performances for listeners who enjoy hearing Haydn on modern instruments, but these concertos happen to be works in which older instruments would add more to the character of the music.

April 03, 2008


The Dads’ Book for the Dad Who’s Best at Everything. By Michael Heatley. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Moms’ Book for the Mom Who’s Best at Everything. By Alison Maloney. Scholastic. $9.99.

      These short (120-page) hardcover books, illustrated with 1940s and 1950s clip art, have a bit of an identity crisis: they are filled with a mixture of useful and useless information, and don’t seem to be sure where to come down on the overall usefulness scale. They are fun and easy to read, and they contain some genuinely helpful material, but they are more than a little odd in the way they mix the good stuff with other things that range from the silly to the strange. Oh, and the “best at everything” part of each title really should read “wants to be best at everything,” or at least at a whole lot of things.

      The book for fathers, for example, explains how to make a bow and arrow and an oven-baked pizza, how to teach a child to ride a bike, how to build a kite, how to go camping, and what you can do if your child wants a pet and you need something that is low-maintenance. The instructions and recipes are straightforward and useful if they happen to deal with things you’d like to do, but other sections will throw your kids a curve. The one on “easy” pets, for example, starts by suggesting a pet rock and then moves into such ideas as buying an ant farm, raising tadpoles in a pond in your back yard, or getting a snake. Much of the book seems to be about young children, but there is also a three-page chapter on teaching a child to drive, which includes such statements as, “Praise is the key. Encourage all the things your child does right and keep the edge out of your voice when he or she makes a mistake.” Also here are brief discussions of such subjects as neighborliness (“Whether you get along with your neighbors or not will determine how you approach your relationship with them once you have a child”) and two-family vacations (“Going on vacation with another family has its advantages and disadvantages”); a list of “Ten Things Fathers Wish They’d Known” (No. 9: “I wish I’d known that children might listen to words but pay more attention to actions”); and much more. Everything is brief and easy to read, including the lists: famous fathers (“father of modern science – Albert Einstein,” “father of puppeteers – Jim Henson”); Ten Top Gifts for Dads (pretty stereotyped, including “gift certificate to your favorite steakhouse” and “taking you fishing”); and Dad’s Dream Cars (mostly sports cars and the Hummer H2 – how typecast is that?). And the pages are sprinkled with quotations about fatherhood, such as Bette Davis’ “If you’ve never been hated by your child, you’ve never been a parent.”

      The Davis quotation is in the book for mothers, too, and this book’s format is much like that of the book for fathers – and stereotyped in many of the same ways. Here is information on getting the kids to bed; arranging birthday parties and dinner parties; “Ten Excuses Not to Do Housework” (none of which is, “your father is doing it – we take turns”) plus “Ten Housework Shortcuts” and suggestions on how much to pay kids for helping out; and lots of recipes: several different cakes, shakes and smoothies, various sandwiches, etc. Then there is a chapter on “‘My Time’ for Moms,” which suggests getting a haircut or taking a bath, plus ones on “Heroic Moms” (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Josephine Baker and others) and “Record-breaking Moms” (they hold such records as heaviest baby born, lightest surviving triplets, oldest woman to give birth, and so on). To a certain extent, everything in both these books can be looked at as being written in good fun, and the old-fashioned illustrations encourage that view. But the books seem to be intended as gifts to be given by kids to their parents – likely for Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day – and in that sense, the reinforcement of stereotypes in both books seems at best inappropriate. If these are not intended as child-to-parent gift books, it’s hard to see who would buy them and for whom. There are some neat ideas and tips in both books, but if you know enough to skim them before purchasing them, you’re probably already too wise a parent to need much of what they offer.