July 28, 2011


Notecards: M.C. Escher—Dreams and Illusions; The Art of Man Ray; Dard Hunter; Picasso; Picasso Folio. Pomegranate. $14.95 each (Escher, Ray, Hunter, Picasso); $9.95 (Picasso Folio).

     If all written relationships between humans are heading in the direction of text messages, something is definitely going to be lost: beauty of communication. The notion may seem quaint nowadays, and perhaps it is, but a well-delivered message has a certain eloquence that sets it apart from everything else and gets it attention that the same message would not receive if sent via E-mail, chat or text. Therefore, there remains a place for forms of message delivery that are far more personal than texting and far more likely to convey the emotional quality of a message – and simply to get noticed by standing out from the huge crowd of everyday comments sent by efficient but rather soulless everyday means.

     It is for those seeking the personal touch, the standout remark, that Pomegranate makes and sells its remarkably attractive series of art-based notecards. Beautifully boxed and filled with excellent reproductions of outstanding works of art of all types, the cards invite thoughtfulness on the part of users and will engage recipients immediately, unlike more-instant and more-ordinary types of communication. The boxed cards can also make excellent gifts, but only if the recipient is the sort of person who will genuinely appreciate both the art shown on the cards and the underlying compliment that says he or she is the sort of person who would actually use these attractive notecards to pass along his or her thoughts or wishes to others. Aside from their value as presents – for the right people – the boxed cards offer a wonderful way to express oneself not only in words but also in the selection of the particular card on which one chooses to communicate one’s thoughts.

     Thus, the cards in the box called M.C. Escher—Dreams and Illusions are for someone whose view of the world is, like that of Escher (1898-1972) himself, subtly but attractively skewed. Like the other boxed card sets, this one contains 20 cards – five each of four designs – and 20 envelopes. The four Escher works shown here are among his most famous and most intellectually intriguing: “Reptiles,” in which a flat and stylized creature emerges into three dimensions and then walks back to two-dimensionality; “Drawing Hands,” in which two hands create each other; “Ascending and Descending,” which features a staircase that goes both perpetually up and perpetually down; and “Convex and Concave,” a puzzlement of angles and directions in which up and down depend on how and from where one looks. The black-and-white cards, which like Pomegranate’s other notecards are blank inside, invite creativity in thinking and presentation alike.

     The abstract/surrealistic color art of Man Ray (1890-1976) offers, and asks for, creativity of a different type. The four images here range from the Dali-esque “La Fortune,” which shows clouds in different bright and unnatural colors floating above a desert landscape while a table of some sort (possibly a billiards table without pockets) looms in the foreground, to “À l’heure de l’observatoire—Les Amoureux,” which features giant and very red floating lips. Also here are “Seguidilla,” a study in green and brown in which six green objects seem to move across the foreground, and “Symphony Orchestra,” a riot of color and of shapes that suggest both instruments and musical notes. These cards are best for expressing ideas that are on the wild side, outré and perhaps difficult to pin down, and highly creative. In fact, the cards invite offbeat creativity in a way that no smartphone or tablet computer ever could.

     It could be argued that, as silicon-based electronic equipment represents the height of industrial design today, the elegant simplicity of Dard Hunter’s designs represents an earlier time, when books were indisputably the preeminent form of communication. The four simple, symmetrical and beautifully colored illustrations in the Dard Hunter notecard box all relate to books in some way: one is a Hunter book design, one is a design for a title page, and two are designs for book covers. The work of Hunter (1883-1966) fits more into the arts-and-crafts category than into that of fine art, but this is a distinction without difference in terms of the impact of the highly attractive designs showcased on these notecards. Floral and vegetal motifs predominate, from stylized roses to equally stylized grapes, in illustrations that invite the recipient of one of these cards to open it quickly in order to find out what treasures it contains.

     The treasures of Picasso (1881-1973) are of a very different type, with many of his works extremely well-known and many others instantly identifiable because of their style. Elements that most people associate with Picasso – such as cubism and facial views with both eyes on the same side of the nose – predominate in Pomegranate’s notecard box, which actually shows several different facets of the painter’s career: both “Portrait of Dora Maar” and “Woman Seated Before a Window” date to 1937 and are highly angular, while “Reading” (1932) is much more rounded, and “Jacqueline with Crossed Hands” (1954) features a kind of Egyptian look for the figure and big blocks of color in the background. The pleasures of Picasso are many, and in fact Pomegranate makes them available not only in a notecard box but also in a notecard folio, which contains 10 cards (five each of two designs). Here there are two early-1930s works, “Large Still Life with a Pedestal Table” (1931) and “Reclining Nude” (1932), both built around circles and ovals and both tempting the eye to see beyond their titles (the nude, for example, strongly resembles an octopus). Picasso’s art continues to enthrall and enchant. These cards offer 21st-century communicators a way to piggyback on the great works of the 20th century and produce notes that will themselves capture the imagination of the recipients – in a way that more-mundane forms of communication are unlikely to do.


Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. By Ben Loory. Penguin. $15.

     Dorothy Parker famously and scathingly said of a Katherine Hepburn performance that the actress ran “the gamut of emotions from A to B,” and at first glance a similar comment could be made about Ben Loory’s 40-story collection. But the remark would, although witty and in some ways accurate, be as unfair as Parker’s critique of Hepburn. For although it is true that the same voice undeniably produces all of these little stories, and the same sensibility pervades them, what that sensibility is is slippery at best. Loory writes in a way that invites contradictions in terms: outré mundanity, exceptional ordinariness, calm hysteria, logical illogic. His short stories – and they are very short, averaging about five pages apiece, with several only three pages long and a couple on a single page – are generally imbued with a kind of gentle surrealism. Thus, “The Martian” includes a Martian, who is never described and who hangs around doing mundane things, such as cooking; while “The Little Girl and the Balloon” involves a dream that becomes reality (a frequent theme in these tales) in a way that would be frightening if the telling were not so matter-of-fact.

     Indeed, Loory’s main stylistic characteristic is narration that is so matter-of-fact that the strangeness of his topics barely has a chance to register before the story is over. “The Ferris Wheel” seems like a fantasy/mystery until it becomes a love story with Loory’s typical dream/reality confusion; “The Snake in the Throat” is a chilling piece whose unpleasant theme is leavened by its dreamlike quality; “The Tree” is a kind of old-fashioned monster-movie story, from the monster’s point of view – assuming it is a monster; “UFO: A Love Story” is just what the title says, and includes lines that, taken out of the context of this particular tale, neatly describe Loory’s stories in general: “We don’t understand! the announcer is saying. We don’t understand what we just saw! We don’t understand what on earth is happening! We don’t know what’s real anymore!”

     That, in a nutshell, is what Loory does with these short-shorts: he makes it hard to understand what is happening (even when he describes events carefully), and he blurs the line between real and not-real. He is well aware that this is a science-fictional device: a one-page story here is called “On the Way Down: A Story for Ray Bradbury.” But even though Loory shares some of Bradbury’s penchant for blurring reality and dream, he is nothing like Bradbury as a stylist. Bradbury’s prose often reads like poetry, while Loory’s is quite straightforward even when dealing with sensibilities that are distinctly odd: “The television thinks it knows better than the family that’s sitting there staring at it. Why do they watch this garbage? it thinks. It’s so empty – so stupid, so dumb.”

     Loory divides this book into three sections of 13 stories each, plus an appendix containing a single tale (the longest in the book), and there are some thematic differences among the sections (the first being, by and large, the least interesting). But despite this superficial organization, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is really all of a piece: strange, skewed, oddball, and frequently puzzling. The stories are not really profound: they go by so quickly that they scarcely have time to be profound. But they are almost all unusual and interesting, and some are thought-provoking, such as “The Magic Pig,” in which a pig statue miraculously appears on a dining-room table, perhaps proving the existence of God, but all the man whose table it is can tell the pilgrims who show up to wonder at the miracle is, “I believe something happened, yes…but I don’t know what it was, or why.” Readers may not know exactly what happens, or exactly why, in many of Loory’s stories, but that something happens, they will be quite certain.


Warriors: Super Edition #4—Crookedstar’s Promise. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $17.99.

Warriors: SkyClan & the Stranger (Manga Book 1): The Rescue. By Dan Jolley. Art by James L. Barry. Tokyopop/HarperCollins. $6.99.

Seekers #5: Fire in the Sky. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $6.99.

     The world of Erin Hunter just keeps growing. Indeed, readers can now visit the worlds of Erin Hunter. Her animal-adventure stories continue to revolve primarily around the cat clans of the many Warriors book series, but her Seekers books about bears have also taken on a life, and a popularity, of their own.

     Hunter is not really one person but four: authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Tui Sutherland, and editor Victoria Holmes. But even with four people contributing, the Warriors and Seekers series are impressive achievements for their sheer scale, if not always for their plotting or characterization. Various Warriors series intersect others or serve as sequels or prequels, while adventures in one series may parallel or help explain adventures in another – or may exist largely independently. The very thick Super Edition books, the fourth of which runs 500 pages, deal with events that predate those in the original Warriors adventures, which were published earlier; they therefore serve as a sort of introduction to the Warriors world. But they are written for readers who already are familiar with the various cat clans and the ways the cats interact with each other – that is, for existing fans of Warriors who are looking for a sort of story-before-the-story. Crookedstar’s Promise follows a familiar type of plot: the hastily made promise that turns out to have far-reaching repercussions. The story turns on a cat named Stormkit at birth but renamed Crookedkit and abandoned by his mother after he is disfigured. Later, growing strong but remaining damaged, Crookedstar sees in his dreams a cat that promises him the leadership of RiverClan if he pledges undying loyalty to the clan. The promise seems harmless, even beneficial, but of course turns out not to be; and a prophecy that Crookedstar will be betrayed by those closest to him endangers not only RiverClan but also the entire balance among the four clans. The book is neither better nor worse than others in the Super Edition series, and will please fans wanting to learn more about this sort-of-prehistory of the clans.

     Crookedstar’s Promise includes at the end a manga adventure written by Dan Jolley, with art by James L. Barry. This is the team that is producing manga books about the Warriors world – another “line extension” of sorts for the cat clans’ fans. Some of the manga books stand alone, but others come in series, with the latest of them, The Rescue, being the start of a new manga sequence called SkyClan & the Stranger. Actually, the series is new, but the story, as so often in these books, connects to what has come before. It is the tale of a new SkyClan (the fifth cat clan, now being reconstituted after a long period in which it did not exist at all). Leafstar, the clan leader, ends up here with kittens – and she and they find themselves trapped in the home of a “twolegs” (human), along with a cat named Harry who is perfectly happy being a housepet. Or so it seems: Harry eventually helps Leafstar escape and rejoin her clan, than shows up there himself to join the warrior cats, and then – well, then the stage is set for the next manga book.

     Meanwhile, over in Seekers territory, the fifth volume of the bears’ quest tale, originally published last year, is now available in paperback. Kallik, Toklo and Lusa here make it onto the sea-ice, accompanied by Ujurak the shapeshifter. But the ice proves more dangerous than they anticipated, and the weather colder. Much of the book is the adventure of the cubs upon the ice and into the frozen wilderness of the Arctic. It is a tale of survival, of a constant journey against self-doubt and difficult odds, and of a spiritual encounter: they are reassured at a crucial time by a mystical star-bear. The book reads like a buildup to a climax, which indeed it is: the sixth book in the Seekers series, Spirits in the Stars, concludes the cubs’ adventures while opening up new vistas for them (a second Seekers series is in the works). The Seekers books are not as immediately appealing as the Warriors ones, which gain much of their impact from the contrast between the intense lives of the warrior cats and the easier ones of the cats known in everyday life to the “twolegs” who read the books. The whole Seekers series is more wide-ranging, but the bears are not as well differentiated as the cats in Warriors, and bears are a less-familiar animal in any case, so this series is somehow more distancing than Warriors. It does have considerable adventure and some good scene-painting, though, and young readers who have become involved in it will not be disappointed with Fire in the Sky or with the series’ climax in Spirits in the Stars.


Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000. Windows 7/Vista/XP or Mac OS X v.10.4-10.6. Microsoft. $39.95.

Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 3000. Windows 7/Vista/XP. Microsoft. $19.95.

     While some celebrate the alleged “death” of the PC and others bemoan it, Microsoft’s hardware division goes right on creating products that make the PC experience better – and at increasingly reasonable prices. Desktop and laptop users alike – and make no mistake, there are plenty of them, more than enough to keep PCs a vital part of business and home use for years to come – have a number of ways to improve on the standard keyboards that come with their machines or are built into them. Keyboard design is something of an afterthought for most original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), with the occasional added function (accessed with a “function” key), extra bar or button (such as Lenovo’s “ThinkVantage” bar), or pointing device (the “pencil eraser” that IBM put amid the G, B, H and N keys) being more or less the extent of manufacturers’ creativity. Keyboard improvements simply do not sell more computers for the OEMs. But that opens a market opportunity for Microsoft, which has been rolling out top-quality keyboards and keyboard-and-mouse combinations for years.

     The latest keyboard-plus-mouse offering, Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000, offers users something genuinely new, and of increasing importance as people spend more time connecting wirelessly and becoming ever more aware of their vulnerability to data capture by thieves and hackers. This well-designed combination product has built-in encryption technology – using the 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). The idea behind this technology is to prevent data theft while information is transmitted between a keyboard and the computer itself. The technology is incorporated into the unit’s design and requires no special actions by the user; its very transparency is a major benefit, since it simply resides within the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000 and is seamlessly integrated into its operation. The keyboard has some other attractive features, too, including a particularly comfortable palm rest whose texture makes long hours of keyboarding a lot less demanding on a user’s wrists, and a series of hotkeys that can provide one-click access to programs whose icons reside in the taskbar. By themselves, though, these nice-to-have elements would not be enough to make the keyboard stand out – it is the AES technology that does that.

     The accompanying mouse is especially nice to have because mouse and keyboard together require use of only a single USB port for their wireless connection. This means that the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000 actually frees up a port for users who have needed two separate ones for a keyboard and a mouse. (Not everyone has a USB hub, after all. And even people who do may appreciate getting one port back.) The Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000 does not actually require use of the Wireless Mouse 2000 with which it ships, but if you use a different mouse, you will need to go back to separate ports for keyboard and mouse. The mouse, like the keyboard, has some attractive features that would not make it a must-buy but are certainly nice to have. Chief among these are the rubber side grips, which make it easier to hold the mouse for extended periods (with either hand: it works equally well for righties and lefties). Microsoft has been incorporating these rubber grips into more of its mice, and they are a good idea – one of those small incremental improvements that collectively make a product just a little better than the competition. The mouse also uses Microsoft’s BlueTrack technology, which is a big help if you use it on an uneven surface or on almost any surface at all. The mouse’s best feature, though, is its integration with the keyboard through a single USB port. The sort of technology that Microsoft has put into the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000 would have cost quite a bit more just a few years ago, had it been available at all; but the combo unit’s $39.95 price makes the AES encryption and various nice-to-have features much more accessible to many more people. At a time of increased concerns about the various ways in which data can leak or be stolen, the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000 is worth serious consideration.

     What it does not offer, however, is a fully ergonomic experience. The palm rest is comfortable and very pleasant to use, but the overall keyboard design is a standard one. In truth, not all computer users like ergonomic keyboards, so it is just as well to keep them as specialty items rather than make them part of a package with other significant features, such as the encryption technology built into the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 2000. For those who do like a full ergonomic keyboard experience, though, the Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 3000 is an excellent and very reasonably priced choice. This is not a wireless keyboard but a cabled one, which makes sense for an ergonomic unit: you might be tempted to move a wireless keyboard to your lap or some part of a desk or table where its use would be less than ergonomically sound, but a cabled keyboard must stay within a certain distance of your computer. This is a Windows-only keyboard, which is unfortunate for Apple users; but if you do run Windows, it is a very good, straightforward, easy-to-use and easy-to-get-used-to product. It has the gently wavy curve typical of ergonomic keyboards, and also has a design that is higher at some points than at others, making extended use easier on the hands and wrists. The design incorporates such neat features as a contoured key bed that is supposed to minimize finger effort when striking keys, single-key access to media controls and calculator, and a more space-saving design than ergonomic keyboards had in the past. Also, the keys themselves are all the same size as on other keyboards; and they appear in their expected places, making adjustment to this keyboard a lot easier than adaptation to ergonomic keyboards used to be. The whole experience of using the Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 3000 is a comfortable one: the keys lie easily beneath your fingers, the keyboard design helps your wrists stay in natural positions, and the result is overall ease and pleasantness of use. It remains true that many people will continue to prefer traditional keyboards, out of familiarity or for other reasons; but if you do want a well-priced, well-designed ergonomic keyboard, the Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 3000 is well worth considering.


Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6; Andante Tranquillo and Scherzo. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $12.99.

Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume 1—Symphonic Dances; Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2; Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak. WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).

Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 9. Royal Norwegian Navy Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.

     Fine performances of familiar and less-familiar music are the hallmarks of these recordings. The re-release of Douglas Bostock’s Carl Nielsen cycle concludes with very well-played and idiomatic versions of Nielsen’s first and last symphonies. No. 1 is essentially Romantic in approach but less so in scale: it is smaller and less grandiose than many other works of its time – it is roughly contemporaneous with Brahms’ Fourth and Mahler’s First. Among its more interesting characteristics are its typical-for-Nielsen uncertainty of keys (G minor and C major), its interesting interpretative conceptualization (the first movement is marked Allegro orgoglioso), and a scherzo whose rhythmic swing presages Nielsen’s later symphonic writing. None of this, however, prepares listeners unfamiliar with Nielsen for his Symphony No. 6, whose composer-given title of “Sinfonia semplice” may have been Nielsen’s idea of a joke: the work is anything but simple and is nothing like his first five symphonic entries. First performed in 1925, the symphony has many elements of deviltry, some of warmth, and a few of outright oddity – notably in the finale, which sounds like a pastiche of musical forms and ends with a bassoon figuratively thumbing its aural nose at the audience. This is a very odd and very intriguing work, and Bostock does a fine job of letting its often-contradictory elements come to the fore at appropriate times. Also on the CD is Nielsen’s very early (1887) Andante Tranquillo and Scherzo, an attractive little work for strings that marked the composer’s public debut – with Nielsen playing the violin in the orchestra that first performed it.

     Unlike Nielsen, Edvard Grieg was no symphonist, although he did write one work in that form (which he suppressed but which is still played from time to time). Grieg was essentially a miniaturist, and even his longer pieces, such as the well-known Piano Concerto, tend to sound like enlargements of beautifully formed small pieces, artfully strung together. Norwegian violinist/conductor Eivind Aadland, who grew up near Grieg’s villa in Bergen and has performed chamber music with pianists using Grieg’s own piano, has a longstanding interest in his country’s folk music, which was a major influence on Grieg and appears in a variety of guises – some clear, some less so – in Grieg’s music. Aadland is therefore an excellent choice for Audite’s planned cycle of all Grieg’s symphonic works, and the first volume is everything a listener could hope for. Aadland makes the most familiar music seem remarkably fresh, such as “Morning Mood” at the start of the first Peer Gynt suite, by emphasizing the folkloric elements and bringing out the middle voices as prominently as those of the main theme. There is lightness and transparency in all the music here, even when the works are weighty, as is the bleak Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak for winds and percussion (which Grieg also wanted played at his own funeral). The rhythms of the Symphonic Dances snap along very effectively, and the contrasting moods of the short works that make up the suites from Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt are beautifully communicated. Aadland has a sure sense of just how much emotion to wring from this music – and not wring: “The Death of Åse,” for example, is rendered all the more effective by being played without the hugely swelling intensity that most conductors bring to it. It becomes a tender and lovely lament, not a deep tragedy, and that is entirely appropriate, since Peer Gynt is a picaresque satire, not a Shakespearean exploration of humanity’s depths. Aadland is a remarkably fine exponent of the Grieg works heard on this SACD, which boasts exceptionally clear sound that further enhances the conductor’s approach. If the other discs in this series are at the same high level, these SACDs will be must-haves.

     Naxos’ Sousa series is already a must-have for those who enjoy the music of the March King. And while Sousa’s works are in many ways quintessentially American, the ninth volume of the series has a distinctly Norwegian touch, being played not by the Royal Artillery Band (which Keith Brion led in the first eight volumes) but by Kongelige Norske Marines Musikkorps, the Royal Norwegian Navy Band. And a top-notch band this turns out to be, with a very strong military orientation among its 29 members and a long history of excellence in performance (the band was founded in 1820). Certainly Sousa did not write only military music, but when he did – as in the U.S. Field Artillery March (1917), heard on this recording – he offered bands a real chance at grandeur, which the Norwegian ensemble fully embraces. Indeed, although this march is now the official march of the United States Army, Norway’s navy-band members make it their own with tremendous spirit and excellent playing. They do an equally fine job with the other marches on this CD: From Maine to Oregon (1913), Flags of Freedom (1918), The Man behind the Gun (1899), The Chantyman’s March (1918), Harmonica Wizard (1930), and University of Illinois March (1929). Most of the titles show the overt American focus of these works, but this recording confirms their universality and considerable attractiveness. And the CD, like other entries in this excellent series, also includes some of Sousa’s non-march music: the overture to The Charlatan (a musical show from 1898); Nymphalin (a salon piece from 1880 in which Sousa includes a lovely violin solo, here played affectingly by Sarah Oving); The Dwellers of the Western World (a three-movement suite from 1910 depicting American Indians, European settlers and America’s African population); The Lily Bells (an 1895 arrangement of a charming love song from an 1880 Sousa comedy); and When My Dreams Come True (a 1929 set of variations on popular songs of the day, one of which is “He’s Going to Marry Yum Yum” from The Mikado). Forthright and mostly good-humored, Sousa’s very American music has continued appeal even in our more cynical age, and Brion’s conducting of the Royal Norwegian Navy Band makes it clear that it has international appeal as well.

July 21, 2011


So Sweet! Cookies, Cupcakes, Whoopie Pies, and More. By Sur La Table. Andrews McMeel. $15.

The Evil Garden. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

Why We Have Day and Night. By Peter F. Neumeyer & Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

Manglo Saxon: Marvelously Mangled Meanings for Well-Worn Words. By R.S. Young. Pomegranate. $12.95.

     A book need not be weighty in size or number of pages in order to be weighty in content. Indeed, the latest cookbook from Seattle-based Sur La Table could be very weighty indeed for anyone who might decide to try all 50 recipes within a very short time span. But resist the temptation – or, better, spread it out over time, to get the full flavor of enjoyment of this delicious little set of recipes. Everything here is indulgent – for as the book’s introduction points out, “sometimes a homemade sweet and a glass of milk are all it takes to remind us that life does have sweeter moments.” The really nice thing about the recipes here is how much they vary in complexity. Sugar cookies and lemon bars are on the simple side – the latter being easier than most people may suspect. Rocky Road Cupcakes and such specialized whoopie pies as Oatmeal Raisin with Orange Cream Cheese, or Kahlúa and Cream, are on the more-difficult side, but well worth the investment of time. The book makes it clear that deliciousness can easily be a family endeavor: “Children will love being little helpers by peeling and mashing the overripe bananas for this recipe,” one page notes. The chapter on doughnuts is especially interesting, because all the recipes call for baking rather than deep-frying these tasty snacks. And some of the recipes are really creative, such as Blueberry Buttermilk Doughnuts or Maple and Bacon Doughnuts. The one important element missing here is a count of calories and fat calories per serving of these sweet treats. Perhaps Sur La Table thought the numbers would make the recipes less delightful; and perhaps that would be so. But healthful eating does require a sense of balance as well as a sense of taste – and if people are going to indulge themselves with the various forms of deliciousness here, it would be better if they did so in the full knowledge that a little of these scrumptious items goes a long way.

     It should be no surprise that little books from Pomegranate have the elegance and élan of the company’s many fine-arts offerings – this is a publisher that brings care and quality to everything it produces. A number of its productions showcase the inimitable work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000), whose highly detailed crosshatch drawings are typically set in vaguely Edwardian times and show mayhem of many sorts being visited upon a wide variety of characters. The Evil Garden (1965) is typical Gorey, and typically delightful for those with an appreciation of his macabre sense of humor. It begins with a dual-language pun, the book purporting to be “Eduard Blutig’s Der Böse Garten” in translation. The German “blutig” translates as “bloody,” but the same word with an umlaut – blütig – would mean “flowered,” and Gorey was surely aware of this. (And the purported German title just as accurately translates as “The Garden of Evil,” with Gorey surely aware of that as well.) Typically for Gorey, the book starts with an assemblage of innocent-looking people – five adults, two children and a baby – about to go into a garden whose entryway proclaims, “Eintritt Frei!” (free admission). Almost everything is white in the illustration before the people enter, but things get steadily darker thereafter, as “Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,/ Is coming nearer on the path,” and then “The gorgeous flowers have a smell/ That causes one to feel unwell.” And things get steadily more bizarre: a giant moth, a people-strangling snake, huge flying bugs, a deadly bubbling pond, until eventually “the sky has grown completely black” and the few remaining visitors realize there is no way out. And so the book ends – leaving just enough to the imagination. Or maybe just a bit too much.

     Gorey’s imagination is shared with that of Peter F. Neumeyer in Why We Have Day and Night (1970), and a finely wrought collaboration it is. This is a brief explanation of – well, just what it explains is open to interpretation. This book begins with illustrations that are nearly the opposite of those in The Evil Garden, with everything black except for the white lettering and white crosshatched outlines of some children and a cat. These white-on-black pictures are among Gorey’s most unusual – and they are wonderfully contrasted with his more typical black-on-white ones as the children try to figure out why everything has become dark. For instance, the kids ask, “Could a squirrel have chewed a wire?” And Gorey shows a squirrel doing just that in the upper-right-hand-corner of the page – in black-on-white mode. These kids seem to understand that they are drawings – at one point, they wonder, “Did the ink spill?” (And, again, a tiny picture at the top of the page shows ink being spilled.) Explanations and drawings become increasingly fanciful: Eyes bursting? Still sleeping? Kids turned into snails? “Aren’t we born yet?” But finally, one child remembers what happens when the sun goes down – and recalls his father explaining nighttime by using a bug and an orange. Except that the boy misremembers the explanation, resulting in a suitably Gorey-esque conclusion consisting of two entirely black pages. Words and illustrations meld wonderfully here.

     Manglo Saxon is nearly all words – although there are a few doodle-like cartoons here and there – and American readers should be warned that this is a highly British book, whose occasional notes “to the puzzled American reader” do not go nearly far enough to explain all the puns and portmanteau-word explanations that R.S. Young has developed. But it is worth taking the time to comprehend what is going on here, because what ensues is hilarity. Young has taken the opposite tack of those who think words should be spelled as they sound. Manglo Saxon suggests that words should have meaning in accord with the way they are actually spelled – with some vowel sounds and accentuation altered to make things “clear.” At its best, this produces considerable amusement. “Helpmeet,” for instance, is “a spicy seasoning blend” (“help meat”). “Underground” is “inadequately crushed” (that is, not ground enough). “Illegal” is “a diseased bird of prey” (an “ill eagle”). So much for the relatively straightforward. But then there are the watch-your-pronunciation entries, such as “hospital” meaning “equine saliva” (as in “hoss spittle”) and “Pontiac” being “a French bridge fetishist” (“pont” being “bridge” in French, in a portmanteau with “maniac”). There are also words that require readers to know some Britishisms without being given an explanation, such as “verger” being “a roadside vendor” (Americans talk about the side of the road; in British English, that is the verge). Then there are the punning groaners, including “vanish” being “somewhat like a van” and “servile” meaning “to behave like a flight attendant” (“serve aisle” and perhaps also “serve vile,” if Young is trying for commentary here). Spellings may trip up American readers from time to time: “yoghurt,” the British spelling of what Americans call “yogurt,” is “an injury sustained while practicing yoga,” but really needs that central “h” to make sense. On the other hand, “hamlet” as “a small pig” works on either side of the pond. Each reader of Manglo Saxon will come up with his or her own favorites. How about “yammer” as “a vendor of sweet potatoes” (that is, yams)? Or “cantankerous” as “an adjective describing an inability to tether a vessel to the seabed” (as in “can’t anchor us”)? Or “malingering” meaning “pointlessly hanging around a shopping arcade” (that is, “mall” + “lingering”)? Or “Fahrenheit” as in “a long way up” (“far in height”)? Manglo Saxon is a small book and a short one, but it is packed with enough amusement to keep readers and language lovers thoroughly amused (and, for American readers, occasionally befuddled) for many pleasant hours.


Scholastic Guide to Grammar. By Marvin Terban. Scholastic. $9.99.

Fly Guy #10: Fly Guy vs. the Flyswatter! By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Scholastic is a publisher that takes itself very seriously – some of the time. Best known to most young readers as the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, Scholastic has long been, as its name implies, a learning-oriented publishing company as well. But its entertainment titles are at least as popular as its more traditional reference works for young students. Still, those reference works continue to be published, and many of them are very fine indeed – such as Scholastic Guide to Grammar, which only slightly overstates the case with its subtitle, “A Compendium of Every Rule You Could Ever Possibly Need.” Leaving aside the question of what student would deliberately buy a book chock-full of rules (parents, teachers and tutors, and well-meaning gift-giving relatives, are more likely purchasers), Marvin Terban’s book is well and (mostly) clearly written, filled with examples of what the various rules are and how they work, and packed with enough humor to (one hopes) prevent young readers’ eyes from glazing over. Okay, they may glaze over anyway, but at least Terban is trying to make things interesting as well as clear. For example, he explains that you should “use a comma at the end of the first part of a direct quotation that is broken up in a sentence” – which is correct but rather dry. Then he offers this example: “‘Come to my house for lunch,’ Lorraine told Rozzie, ‘but please leave your gorilla at home, because it scares my goldfish.’” English grammar is so confusing that even Terban, who here styles himself “Professor Grammar, The Expert” and is portrayed as a cartoon character, slips up from time to time. For instance, he says, “Always capitalize organizations and institutions,” giving as one example “Library of Congress,” but then writes, “Do not capitalize words like library, institute and society without the specific names in front.” So is “Library of Congress” correct, given that it lacks specificity before the word “Library”? Yes, it is, but the explanation is not entirely clear. Of course, some parts of the language itself are not entirely clear: “Hundreds of words in English end with the letters –able or –ible, and there’s no good rule that will help you decide which ending to put on which word.” But Terban’s sense of humor helps even here, as he produces an entire paragraph crammed with –able and –ible words and finally recommends checking a dictionary or spell-checker. Scholastic Guide to Grammar covers quite a bit of territory: parts of speech, sentences, paragraphs, spelling, capitalization and punctuation. The chapter called “Getting Your Message Across” helps pull everything together nicely, and includes such helpful (and, as elsewhere, frequently amusing) examples as sentences containing two homonyms apiece: “Flee, oh tiny flea, before you get squished.” In fact, one of these sentences neatly sums up the book’s approach: “To lessen the difficulty of the lesson, add humor to it.”

     Still, Scholastic’s humor in a reference book like Terban’s is nothing like the humor in a purely-for-entertainment book like the 10th in Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy series. These short and highly amusing books are all about a very smart fly that is the pet of a boy and can say the boy’s name: Buzz. The plots tend to be very simple, but Fly Guy vs. the Flyswatter! is, for this series, more complicated. Fly Guy accidentally goes to school with Buzz (the fly has been eating the messy remains of food in Buzz’s backpack) – and it happens to be the day of a field trip to a flyswatter factory. And the factory just happens to feature a man dressed up as a huge fly – and a robotic flyswatter that goes berserk when Fly Guy rescues the swatter’s next would-be victim and flies all around the factory. The plot is predictable, sure, but its working-out is hilarious, and young readers will surely agree with the class’s end-of-book proclamation, “Best Field Trip Ever!” Oh – and the book is grammatically correct, too. As if anyone will notice.


Mistwood. By Leah Cypess. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Nightspell. By Leah Cypess. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Fallen Angel 2: Eternity. By Heather Terrell. HarperTeen. $8.99.

The Amanda Project, Book 2: Revealed. By Peter Silsbee. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Fly Trap. By Frances Hardinge. Harper. $16.99.

     The standalone novel sometimes seems an endangered species these days. With fewer and fewer young people reading for pleasure – or reading traditional books at all – publishers seem more determined than ever to produce books in series, so that those who do choose to read will get lots more of the same once they decide they like a particular author or story line. The multi-book series is especially popular in the fantasy realm, with Mistwood and its followup, Nightspell, being typical of the genre. Leah Cypess imagines a young girl named Isabel who can shift to animal form or to wind or mist, and who has such comic-book superheroic characteristics as super strength and super speed. Isabel is the incarnation of the immortal Shifter of Samorna, but knows nothing of who she is or of her destiny to protect the realm when it is in danger. Typically for novels for teens – Cypess’ are intended for ages 13 and up – there are romance elements intertwined with the fantasy adventure, as (in Mistwood) Isabel is wrested from the forest by Prince Rokan, used by him to protect himself at court, and eventually forced to figure out where her loyalty and her heart really need her to go. The book is all about using and being used: “These weren’t the people she was meant to protect. They had fooled her into thinking they were, even after she should have known better, but that didn’t matter anymore. She didn’t have to care about what happened to them. She didn’t have to care about what happened to anyone.” But of course Isabel does care, and thus this tale of a sort-of-goddess is also a coming-of-age romance, as are so many modern fantasies. “‘Legends don’t laugh, or argue, or make sly remarks. Legends don’t want and need and feel,’” she is told at one point; but of course Isabel does all these things and yet is the Shifter, complete with uncertain loyalties and a gradually expanding understanding of the extent and limitations of her power. Eventually Isabel’s choices prove terribly difficult (not surprisingly), and “what she should have done, and what she did, were two different things entirely.”

     And this sets up Nightspell, which is in part a sequel and in part a companion book. Many of the underlying themes are the same here, but this is actually a more intriguing book, since the setting is genuinely new – not something one can often say about a modern fantasy. Cypess here creates a place called Ghostland that is aptly named, for ghosts “live” side by side with the living, and the strange palace court sleeps away the day in order to hold parties every night. This is a family story, of a brother and two sisters, with the focus primarily on the sisters – one of them trapped in Ghostland and the other determined to rescue her, but not by paying the price of betrothal to the realm’s undead prince. The whole issue of ghosts and the living is intriguingly handled, alongside the quest of Darri to find and somehow save her sister: “She missed Callie so much it was like an ever-growing hole somewhere inside her.” Underlying all the machinations in Ghostland is the ghosts’ determination to wreak vengeance on those who killed them. Discussions tend toward the bizarre here, as when Darri asks Kestin, the prince, for details of who killed him and how, and how he felt after learning he was dead. The mysterious Guardian turns out to have a crucial role in Ghostland, and so does Clarisse, a major character from Mistwood whose appearance here is a key element tying the books together. Cypess brings this book to a satisfying (and suitably heart-wrenching) climax, then tacks on an ending that is just upbeat enough to make readers wonder whether she may have some other “companion” book in mind.

     As a sequel, Eternity is more straightforward. It is simply a continuation of the story begun in Fallen Angel, in which Heather Terrell introduced Ellie and Michael and had them fall in love even as they discovered their superhuman powers. Yes, this is yet another romance replete with supernatural elements, although here the characters are angels (not necessarily good angels) rather than, say, vampires or werewolves. Very loosely based on biblical Apocrypha, Terrell’s tale of half-human, half-angelic beings called Nephilim is filled with typical high-school worries and concerns as well: “I painted on my smile as I walked down the hallway toward my locker, where Michael was waiting, and kept my lighthearted banter going for a while once we met.” The book’s opening gives promise of something offbeat (“The end of time does not start as, well, apocalyptically as you might think”), but once the story itself begins, everything is pretty much as expected, with the usual teen trials, uncertainties and tribulations that just happen to be set against an incipient Judgment Day and an ongoing battle between the ultimate forces of good and evil. Much of the dialogue is on the unintentionally laughable side: “‘Ellspeth, we have been waiting for you so that we – fallen and Nephilim alike – can win back our place on earth and in heaven. And take our place as benevolent rulers of humanity.’” And there is something hilarious as well about a book in which one sentence says that an angel has appeared by direct order of “the Maker, God, Yahweh, the Creator – whatever name you’d like to give to Him,” while two sentences later the writing is about “that intangible, slightly mischievous quality that I first saw in the Tillinghast gymnasium.” If Terrell followed through on the hints of humor, Eternity would be a more interesting book; as it is, she wants it taken seriously as a supernatural adventure, with the result that it seems just like all the other please-take-this-silliness-seriously teen-oriented fantasies out there.

     The second book in The Amanda Project series is a straightforward sequel as well. The concept here is that the fictional Amanda herself is writing stories that will gradually reveal who or what she is. Thus, this book’s cover gives the authors as “Amanda Valentino and Peter Silsbee” (the first book “co-credited” Melissa Kantor). There is nothing unusual at all about having a book series written by different authors; The 39 Clues pretty much perfected the technique. The Amanda books clearly draw on that series in more ways than one: here too there is readership participation – through codes that are scannable on mobile devices and through a Web site. And here too there are implications that there are strange doings afoot – mysterious and perhaps even supernatural – with Amanda at the center of them. But who or what is Amanda, exactly? That is the central question here – unfortunately, not a particularly interesting one. Protagonists Hal, Callie and Nia continue in Revealed to follow uncertain trails and possibly false (or possibly true) clues, while worrying about whether they could be targeted in some nefarious way if they are not careful (in this book, the vice principal is attacked, and a note from Amanda is found in his car; and the friends discover a locked box that may perhaps contain important information – but of course they cannot open it). Naturally, Hal, Callie and Nia (none of whom has any distinct personality) must continue to do English papers, history tests and the like as they try to unravel the Amanda mystery. The whole book proceeds simultaneously on these two levels, the mundane and the mysterious, but unfortunately neither level is particularly creative or particularly interesting. Some humor here and there would have helped leaven the ongoing earnestness, but there is none to be found: readers are supposed to become seriously involved in the whole Amanda Project, not take it lightly. Those who are serious about it will find pretty much the same approach in the second book that there was in the first.

     For readers slightly younger than teens, starting around age 10, humor seems a more acceptable part of fantasies, sequels included. Fly Trap is a followup to Fly by Night, in which young readers first met Mosca Mye, an orphan who finds her way quite effectively through various devious doings; Saracen, a guard goose; and con man Eponymous Clent. In the first book, the trio managed to start a revolution, sort of by accident, and much of the plot turned on 12-year-old Mosca’s ability to read – a rare and dangerous gift in a world where books are considered dangerous. It is Clent who first introduces Mosca (and Saracen) to a world of crazed dukes and double-crossing criminals; and Clent’s own loyalty, to Mosca or anyone else, is never to be taken for granted. In Fly Trap, Clent and Mosca (and Saracen) are stuck in a strange town called Toll, whose personality changes every night. There is plenty of deviousness to go around in Toll, and there are some old enemies resurfacing, and there is a kidnapping to be prevented, and some Luck to be stolen – and, in general, all the elements for a nicely handled picaresque novel. Fly Trap is not quite as entertaining as Fly by Night, having some of the feeling of revisiting people and places that were unusual the first time but seem a trifle less exceptional the second. But this lengthy (nearly 600-page) book, whose British author really does have a way with words, flows well simply because the writing is generally so stylish: “And a tale he told, of Mosca Mye, with much flash and flourish, a tale that took all dangers and made them magnificent as djinn, a tale that gilded each sickening gamble with a dashing nonchalance.” Young readers who, like Mosca, love words for their own sake, will surely enjoy this chance to revisit a land and a time where books really matter – more than they often seem to matter in the real world today.


Wagner: Parsifal. José van Dam, John Tomlinson, Matthias Hölle, Siegfried Jerusalem, Günter von Kannen, Waltraud Meier; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin and Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Warner. $39.99 (4 CDs).

     One of the best recordings of Wagner’s final opera is available again, thanks to Warner’s reissue in its Teldec Opera Collection of Parsifal conducted by Daniel Barenboim – a 1989-90 recording first issued in 1991. Parsifal is and always has been a strange work, its text so overladen with myth and multiple meanings and controversies that the music tends to get lost in examinations of the libretto and arguments about it. This is a tremendous shame, since the music is utterly sublime, quieter and more elegant and ethereal than anything else Wagner wrote. The plot draws very heavily on central tenets of Christianity, yet Wagner – who, as usual, did his own libretto – studiously avoids mentioning Christ, referring only to “the Redeemer” and “the Savior.” Wagner himself wrote that the work was intended to elevate religious symbols above the literal (as organized religion would have them) into the realm of the figurative – a difficult philosophical concept that seems to fit the very difficult music, even if it is hard to say exactly how.

     But the music, so much of it quiet, is the glory here, and much of the Barenboim-led performance is glorious indeed. Barenboim’s tempos tend to be slow, but not overly so (some conductors really drag the music); and the orchestral detail is very well brought out, despite a recording that was mostly made at a low level (listeners will find that volume settings high enough to bring forth the softest sections are uncomfortably high for the loudest ones).

     The singing ranges from quite good to excellent. As Amfortas, José van Dam eloquently conveys spiritual sadness and suffering with rich, steady, burnished tones. Siegfried Jerusalem’s voice is sometimes pushed to its limits, but he makes a fine, youthful Parsifal, with especially clear phrasing and enunciation – a big help for those who know enough German to follow the singers, since this re-release contains no libretto, although its summary of the action is good. The booklet offers the URL of a Web site where it says the full libretto in German and English can be found, but the site seems to bring it up only in German; however, there are various places to get the libretto with English translation – www.rwagner.net is one example.

     In the crucial role of Kundry, Waltraud Meier plumbs the depths of a part that she has sung many times: her sound is sometimes poignant, sometimes haunting, and always effective. Matthias Hölle is a little weak in the part of Gurnemanz – John Tomlinson, who here sings Titurel, might have been a better choice. But Hölle brings understanding and fine detail to his singing, even if he lacks some vocal color and heft. As for Tomlinson, his Titurel is excellent, well characterized and well sung. Not so the Klingsor of Günter von Kannen – he is not nearly challenging or nasty enough, although his sheer vocal quality is very high. Indeed, this whole Parsifal is exceptionally well sung, with the male voices in the Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin worth singling out for the quality of their work in the Grail Temple scenes.

     Parsifal is not one of Wagner’s more popular operas, and Wagner himself did not even call it an opera but “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.” The slow pacing of the story, very long passages of extreme quiet and delicacy (including a Prelude that can easily put a listener to sleep, and perhaps is intended to lull people into a suitably dreamlike state for appreciation of the action), and stereotyped characters – as well as the strong, if not always coherent, religious theme – have kept Parsifal from the sort of success enjoyed by the Ring cycle. This is above all a rarefied work, undoubtedly a masterpiece, but a difficult and very lengthy one (the Barenboim performance lasts nearly four-and-a-half hours). In some ways, Parsifal is better heard in a recording than seen on stage, where its absurdities can clash with its sublimities. In the best recorded performances, the only thing a listener encounters is the sublime; and that is the preponderance of what this excellent re-release has to offer.


Alfredo Casella: Symphony No 3; Elegia eroica. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

Ernst Krenek: Symphony No. 4; Concerto Grosso. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Alun Francis. CPO. $16.99.

Echoes: Classic Works Transformed—Music of David Schiff, Bright Sheng, David Stock, John Harbison, Samuel Jones, Aaron Jay Kernis and Gerard Schwarz. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

     The Romantic era is not the only musical period in which significant rediscovery is in progress. The so-called “modern” era (say, from Mahler onward) has become far more readily accepted in concert performances and recordings, with the result that there is increasing interest in offering some works outside what could be called the “modern mainstream.” The symphonies of Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) are examples, and Naxos has now made all three of them available – the first “Casella cycle” ever recorded. The final symphony, written on the eve of World War II in 1939-40, was composed for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony and requires considerable orchestral virtuosity. Structured in the traditional four movements and running the traditional length of a Romantic-era symphony (about 45 minutes), Casella’s Third is a throwback in some ways, its melodic and harmonic worlds largely harking back to the 19th century. It is also a work of considerable emotional scope – again, in line with symphonies of the previous century. The symphony is very well-wrought, and it certainly contains elements showing that Casella was not unaware of 20th-century musical developments. It would be overstating to say that this is a great work, but it is an impressive one, and the emotional content of the Andante molto moderato, quasi adagio slow movement is particularly affecting. Francesco La Vecchia conducts the symphony with considerable empathy, and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma plays it very well. The ensemble also does a fine job with the extended lament from 1916, Elegia eroica, which Casella said was written in memory of a soldier killed in war – this is distinctly a work of World War I. The single soldier referred to by Casella is intended to stand for all Italian soldiers who had already died in the “Great War,” and the piece is a suitable lament, conveying strong emotions through well-controlled orchestration and a pervasive sense of solemnity.

     Only a few years separate Casella’s Elegia eroica from the Concerto Grosso, Op. 25, no. 2 by Ernst Krenek (1900-1991), but they were years of considerable musical as well as geopolitical turmoil: Krenek’s work dates to 1924, a time at which serialism and atonality were rampant and neoclassicism was on the rise. Krenek himself was in a kind of neo-Baroque period in the 1920s, and this work was decidedly part of it. The title is in no sense ironic: Krenek here revives the form of the Baroque Concerto Grosso, which was the “concerto for orchestra” of its time, and produces a pleasant and elegant work that gives particular prominence to a solo violin (Volker Worlitzsch), viola (Dimitar Penkov) and cello (Nikolai Schneider) while also requiring virtuosity from the NDR Radiophilharmonie as a whole. The orchestra faces even more challenges in Krenek’s Symphony No. 4 (1947), which here receives its world première recording. Krenek wrote eight symphonies, five of them numbered and the other three given titles; but the Fourth was long thought to have been lost – until it was rediscovered five years ago by the Krenek Institute. This is a very complex work that juxtaposes tonal and atonal elements and includes harmonic and other compositional techniques that combine elements of the 19th century with ones of the 20th. It is in some ways a hodgepodge, as if Krenek had not fully assimilated all the forms and approaches that he uses or to which he alludes; in other ways, it is a fascinating mid-20th-century look at all the influences on which a composer could draw. Very difficult to play and not always easy to listen to, it gets a rousing reading under the baton of Alun Francis – but as interesting as the work is, it seems unlikely to become a staple of concerts or recordings anytime soon.

     Krenek was far from the only composer looking back as well as ahead in his works. A new Naxos CD called Echoes deliberately mixes the old and new in ways chosen by conductor Gerard Schwarz, whose Concerto for Brass Quintet and Orchestra (after Handel) is the longest work here and the climax of a CD that includes six other compositions in which contemporary composers consider and reconsider older models. The choice of those models is as interesting as some of the works themselves. David Schiff (born 1945) bases Infernal on Stravinsky; Bright Sheng (born 1955) bases Black Swan on Brahms; and David Stock (born 1939) takes Plenty of Horn loosely from Jeremiah Clarke. But the models, or initial influences, of the other composers are a bit more surprising. For John Harbison (born 1938), Rubies is “after Thelonius Monk”; for Samuel Jones (born 1935), Benediction is based on the only piece for which Peter C. Lutkin (1858-1931) is known today, The Lord Bless You and Keep You (which virtually every church choir sings). The seventh work on this CD, and the only one not written in 2006, is Musica Celestis (1991) by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960) and is simply designated “version for strings” – Kernis originally wrote the work for string quartet. All the pieces on this CD are short; only the Schwarz concerto lasts more than 10 minutes. The composers use their models in many different ways, sometimes seeking similar sonority, sometimes using the older composers’ harmonic language, sometimes creating something new that is based at best loosely on what was written before. Except for the theme of transformation of older composers’ works for the 20th and 21st centuries, there is nothing in particular that unifies this disc, which is best regarded as a sampler of the styles of some rather well-known contemporary composers. The CD gets a (+++) rating for exposing listeners to an uneven but mostly worthwhile set of short works that collectively show the many ways in which today’s composers build on, or around, the legacy of those who came before.

July 14, 2011


Magnetic Notepads: The Addams Family; Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $7.95 each.

Arcimboldo Block Puzzle. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

David Sheskin’s Artful Animals Memory Game. Pomegranate Kids. $13.95.

     If you’re going to take notes – real, handwritten notes, not ones on a smartphone or a tablet, laptop or notebook computer – shouldn’t you do it in style? And if your style tends to the, shall we say, outré, shouldn’t you be able to accommodate your, ahem, peculiarities with something appropriate on which to jot down this or that? The folks at Pomegranate would clearly answer “yes” to both those questions (or however many questions are buried in those sentences). For amid the company’s fine-arts offerings and elegantly crafted books, there are a few notepads that ought to be odd enough for just about any taste. Take, for example, The Addams Family magnetic notepad. Its 70 lined pages neatly showcase, at the bottom, one of the drawings by Charles Addams (1912-1988) of his eponymous, ghoulishly adorable (or adorably ghoulish) family – which also appears in all its glory (if that’s the right word) on the notepad’s cover. The self-adhesive magnet makes this a neat notepad to stick on the refrigerator – especially useful if someone in the family who is not an Addams Family fan is trying to lose weight (scare them right off, it will). In truth, Addams was a subtle artist who preferred to imply grisly things rather than show them: a look at the Addams Family characters makes it instantly clear what they could do without actually showing you what they do do. In fact, the Addams clan seems positively harmless beside the far more elegant Edwardians of Edward Gorey (1925-2000), who visit mayhem upon one another in quite exemplary ways, then pop back indoors for a proper cup of tea (which, however, is as likely as not to be poisoned). There is a fine Gorey magnetic notepad available from Pomegranate, too, in exactly the same format as the Addams notepad, but this time with a Gorey drawing settled mischievously (or perhaps ominously) at the bottom right-hand side of each lined page. Gorey’s characters’ expressions are quite marvelous: when you see their faces at all (you often don’t), their wide-eyed look is one of amazement, fear, wonder, horror, expectation or uncertainty, or some mingling of those emotions with a few other unnamable ones. The elegance and care with which Gorey created his drawings pus them well beyond any standard of cartooning: Addams can readily be described as a cartoonist, but Gorey cannot be so easily pigeonholed. One thing is for sure about these offbeat and highly attractive (if somewhat bizarre) Pomegranate notepads: they are intended for adults, not for children.

     Ah, but Pomegranate has some oddities for children, too. Other firms’ kids’ lines do not challenge young people’s minds and perceptions the way Pomegranate’s does. Take the Arcimboldo Block Puzzle, for example. Pomegranate has a series of these puzzles, which draw on the company’s excellent fine-arts offerings for adults, but in a child-friendly way. The works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), however, are very different from most fine art, and this puzzle is accordingly a little, well, strange. Arcimboldo used assemblages of fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish and books to create his portraits of people and mythical characters – that is, each character is made up of parts, each of which is recognizable as, say, a grape or a tree root. Arcimboldo influenced Salvador Dali, among other 20th-century painters, and it is easy to see why. It is also easy to see how fascinating his portraits are when incorporated into Pomegranate’s block puzzle. There are 12 blocks that, when arranged properly, make six different pictures. Four of them represent the four seasons, and each of those contains objects associated with each season – spring flowers and autumnal fruits, for example. This makes the seasonal portraits somewhat easier for kids to create than the two other puzzles, “Flora” and “Vertumnis (Emperor Rudolf II),” which are both well-known in adult art circles but may be a bit, well, puzzling for kids. No matter – the puzzles of this puzzle are well worth puzzling out, and the quality of reproduction of Arcimboldo’s work is quite high for this medium. But Pomegranate does not look only to the past for child-oriented fun. David Sheskin’s Artful Animals is very up-to-date indeed – it is one of a series of memory games incorporating paired cards and an interesting little booklet. Sheskin’s gently whimsical animals appear in A-through-Z form (although not all letters are represented) in the booklet, which contains small pictures duplicating those on the cardboard cards. The cards themselves – 72 in all, which means 36 pairs – are meant to be matched: kids turn all of them face down and pick two, keeping the pair if they match and returning them to the face-down position if they don’t. Then the next player does the same thing, with the eventual winner being the one who holds the most matching pairs. The game is simple and straightforward, but also challenges memory (and in that respect can be useful for memory-challenged adults as well as for children). As for the booklet, it offers some genuinely interesting information: “Octopi can deliver painful bites laced with venomous saliva” and “Ostrich eggs weigh three pounds,” for example. Education, fun and art, all packed neatly together – Pomegranate has a winner here.