March 29, 2012


Magritte’s Marvelous Hat. By D.B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Michael Slack. Harcourt. $16.99.

     Very infrequently, a book appears that is so inventive, so unusual, that about all a reader can say is, “Wow.” One such rarity is Magritte’s Marvelous Hat, which takes the work of Belgian surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) as the jumping-off point for a story about a dog like no other and a hat emphatically like no other. In this book, Magritte is a canine, buying a hat from a shop called Les Chapeaux du Ciel (“Sky Hats”). Instead of settling onto Magritte’s head, the hat floats just above it – an image that makes perfect sense in the context of the real Magritte’s odd and well-known paintings of ordinary objects doing extraordinary things or in extraordinary settings. D.B. Johnson’s drawing of the hat fitting appears on a plastic overlay, so one right-hand page (with the overlay) shows the hat maker trying to put the hat on Magritte’s head; turning the overlay puts the plastic atop a left-hand page, where the hat floats as an astonished passerby looks on; and the next right-hand page (the same one as before, but now without the plastic on top) shows the puzzled hat maker in his shop. Several additional plastic overlays grace later pages, ingeniously enlivening a story in which the floating hat becomes key to Magritte creating better and better paintings and having a great deal of fun with the floating topper. But then Magritte decides the hat is a distraction – he wants to focus on painting, not play – and strange problems arise as “the colors [of a just-painted work] splashed onto Magritte’s face. And his brush unpainted the picture.” Magritte realizes he needs the hat, so he starts chasing it – and Johnson produces some wonderful scenes that show the hat just out of Magritte’s sight or reach. Then Magritte decides to lure the hat back by playing hide-and-seek with it. The “Magritte-isms” incorporated into the illustrations are just marvelous, especially those using the kind of reversals and negative space in which the real Magritte specialized: oranges float in front of a fruit-seller’s store, or perhaps are in a picture partly visible through the store’s front door; it rains only underneath an umbrella; a bird flies through a wall that encloses a gigantic green apple; two characters carry a picture frame – or is it an actual picture? – that conceals Magritte’s body but leaves his legs visible, so the frame seems to be walking; and so on. Hat and Magritte are eventually happily reunited, “and every afternoon Magritte painted a new picture better than his best.” And everyone who takes the time to look, really look, at Magritte’s Marvelous Hat will want to reread and reexamine it time and again, and is likely to conclude each time that the best word to describe the book is simply, “Wow.”

     There are “wow” elements to Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie, too. It is less amazing, less mind-spinningly entertaining than Magritte’s Marvelous Hat, but it is exceptionally clever and offers something beyond pure entertainment. J. Patrick Lewis’ book is a set of mathematical brain teasers in verse, ringing changes on poetry by Poe, Walt Whitman, Lewis Carroll, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Shel Silverstein and others. The book will be super-enjoyable for readers who know the original poems, which are not reproduced here; but even those unfamiliar with the originals will find these mathematically inclined modifications amusing, and may be inspired to seek out the “basis” poems after working on the math puzzles. And those puzzles are actually fun to do: they have to be first ferreted out of the poetry, then solved. For example, the first verse of “Emily Dickinson’s Telephone Book,” which Lewis says was “inspired by ‘My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close,’” runs as follows: “My book closed twice before its close—/ The two opposing pages/ That added up to 113—/ Were smudged around the edges.” And the entirety of “Edward Lear’s Elephant with Hot Dog,” inspired by “There Was an Old Man with a Beard,” goes this way: “When an elephant sat down to order/ A half of a third of a quarter/ Of an eighty-foot bun/ And a frankfurter, son,/ Was it longer than three feet, or shorter?” The answers to the math problems are given in small type, upside-down, at the bottom of each page, but of course one point of the book is to answer them, not just read them. Another point is to laugh: some of the poems are hilarious, with “Robert Frost’s Boxer Shorts” (which features a particularly amusing illustration by Michael Slack) perhaps the funniest. The back of the book offers brief biographies of all 14 poets whose works are gently parodied here, with excellent caricatures by Slack. The book is a bit of an odd combination, but it is such an intriguing one that it should even attract at least some of the math-averse.


Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Photographs by Rachael Hale. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

Pocket Cats #3: Feline Charm. By “Kitty Wells” (pseudonym of Lee Weatherly). Illustrated by Joanna Harrison. David Fickling Books. $13.99.

     The question will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction: dogs or cats? The reply “both are fine in their own ways” satisfies no one, or at least no one with fanatical devotion to canines or felines. Not that Bradley Trevor Greive is a fanatic: he describes himself as “prodog, not anticat.” But Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats certainly provides plenty of ammunition for those determined to fight for the bark and against the meow. Tongue-in-cheek ammunition, to be sure, but still…. The book is part putdown of cats (“cats thrive in the current climate of passive narcissism”), part celebration of dogs (“a dog will live anywhere and endure anything if it means the whole family is safe, happy, and stays together”), and part comparative analysis (“while cats have a keen sense of their own needs, dogs have a remarkable understanding of ours”). It is also a simply marvelous photographic book: Rachael Hale’s pictures are excellent, whether of dogs, cats, elephants, birds, or the occasional eye-patched guinea pig. Greive’s text comes sometimes in paragraphs, sometimes in captions, and sometimes in footnotes – which can be funnier than the main text. For example, in a section called “The Downside of Dogs,” Greive points out that “from time to time, they keep everyone awake by howling at the moon,” and then offers this footnote: “Though frankly we’d all do well to howl at the moon from time to time.” Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats was originally published in 2009 and has lost absolutely none of its charm or relevance – to the extent that this whole subject is relevant. The thing about Greive is that he manages to act as if the whole dogs-vs.-cats subject is one of tremendous importance even while making it clear that, you know, it’s not. He is also adept at giving backhanded compliments with a certain amount of elegance: “Cats are attractive to look at and, when possessed by their own frisky demons, hilarious to observe. …I hate to admit it, but there is something strangely compelling about their pompous conceits and counterintuitive mannerisms.” Greive is equally good with direct compliments – directed to dogs, that is: “Dogs are born with full hearts and open minds. …They can learn and adapt to an endless variety of new games, all of which are motivated by the desire to understand their human playmate, affirm their affection, and feel loved and valued.” The fact that Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats solves absolutely nothing in the age-old canine-vs.-feline dispute is irrelevant, since Greive clearly does not expect it to do so. What the book does is provide wonderful talking points on both sides of the unending argument, coming down clearly on one side of it but giving considerable satisfaction to the other, and offering so many splendid photographs of dogs and cats alike that only a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic on either side will come away from the book with anything less than a smile and a nice-sized helping of genuine thoughtfulness.

     For something less all-encompassing and disputatious (even in fun), intended purely as a sweet little book for cat-loving young girls (up at age seven or eight), Feline Charm, third in the Pocket Cats series, fills the bill. This (+++) book continues the story of Maddy, who has always believed in magic and always wanted a cat of her own – and who finds that her tiny ceramic cats are coming to life, one by one. Like Paw Power and Shadow Magic, the first two books in the series, Feline Charm sets up a small conflict and lets Maddy solve it through her newfound magic and her connection to the now-living cats – in this case, one named Ollie. This is a ballet story: Maddy’s best friend, Rachel, is about to give it up from lack of confidence, until Maddy uses cat magic to help her. But the help is too good, as Rachel gets the star part in the ballet school’s production of The Nutcracker and has a chance to dance with ballerina Snow Bradley, while Maddy becomes jealous and flustered and gets nothing but increasing criticism from the ballet teacher. Friendship and cat magic make everything come out just fine, naturally, and if this latest Pocket Cats book adds nothing one way or the other to the never-ending dog-or-cat debate, it at least adds some pleasantly written, sweetly illustrated enjoyment to the lives of young feline fanciers.


The Rescue of Belle & Sundance: One Town’s Incredible Race to Save Two Abandoned Horses. By Birgit Stutz and Lawrence Scanlan. Da Capo. $22.

“Unsinkable”: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic. By Daniel Allen Butler. Da Capo. $16.

     Heartrending and heartstopping, The Rescue of Belle & Sundance is one of those triumph-against-all-odds tales showing that we humans can rise above our frequently quarrelsome and difficult nature and pull together to help those in need. The ones in need here are two horses that were abandoned by their owner in the Canadian Rockies in early fall of 2008. There is plenty to eat on the mountainside in autumn, but the Canadian winter comes early and brutally, and the horses were soon freezing and starving. Then snowmobilers found them – and soon, people approached the animals bringing both hay and a gun, the first in case the horses could be saved and the second in case they could not. The story told by Birgit Stutz and Lawrence Scanlan is of the immense difficulties that volunteers went through to get the horses safely down off the mountain – a feat eventually accomplished, with entirely appropriate and heartwarming timing, just before Christmas. The horses had trampled the snow around themselves into a flat area surrounded by drifts through which they could not move – effectively imprisoning themselves without food in an area where temperatures fall to 40 degrees below zero and natural predators abound. The rescuers spent a week digging a six-foot-deep, three-foot-wide passage more than half a mile long through the snow, so the horses could get away from the area where they were trapped and walk to safety – a total distance of 18 miles. Throw in an avalanche threat and the ever-present possibilities that the weather might get even worse or the horses could become too weak to walk even if the dig (called the “Tunnel of Freedom”) could be completed in time, and you have all the makings of an excitingly hopeful, danger-filled tale. Stutz and Scanlan tell it well, mixing first-person information (Stutz participated in the rescue) with profiles of the volunteer rescuers and snapshots of the work done meticulously day after day. There are real snapshots, too: more than 30 photos of the horses, the humans who helped save them, and the frozen area where the whole drama took place. Animal lovers who enjoy a story filled with tear-jerking moments (for example, the horses had to eat each other’s tails to stay alive) will get a great deal of restorative emotion, and maybe a good cry, out of The Rescue of Belle & Sundance, although the book may be somewhat too overdone and melodramatic for more-casual readers.

     The story of the sinking of the Titanic is a rescue tale as well – the Carpathia saved more than 700 Titanic passengers – but the Titanic tale is almost always told as one of disaster and perhaps engineering overreaching (although it could as easily be done as a story confirming the “black swan theory,” since the number of passengers who have died because of ship collisions with Atlantic icebergs since the Titanic went down is exactly zero). Daniel Allen Butler’s 1998 “Unsinkable,” with quotation marks in the title, has now been reissued to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster, which occurred on April 15, 1912. The book tends to fall into the “overreaching” approach to the sinking – hence the Biblical quotations as chapter headings. It includes eight pages of photos of the ship and some of its officers, and a new postscript and forward that together provide information on the latest findings and theories about the Titanic. As with so much “major disaster” writing, Butler’s book focuses on individual stories and tells the overarching tale largely through the accumulation of details from many people’s personal experiences. Sometimes Butler overdoes this, trying to get into people’s minds: “Up on the bridge Captain Smith seethed with a frustration similar to Phillips’s as he continued to stare at the light on the horizon, so tantalizingly close.” But at other times, his focus on detail provides fascinating bits of information: “Every now and then [on the day the voyage began] a tremendous blast would issue forth from the Titanic’s great steam whistles, rattling windows for miles around, the stentorian tones (the whistles were pitched at C3) letting one and all know that this was a sailing day.” The basic story of the Titanic is now so well known that few readers will find anything new or surprising in Butler’s book, but his combination of intimate detail, accurate narration and effective personalization of the tragedy remains as compelling today as at the time of the book’s original release.


My Heart Will Not Sit Down. By Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by Ann Tanksley. Knopf. $17.99.

George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale. By Margaret McNamara. Illustrated by Barry Blitt. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Crow. By Barbara Wright. Random House. $16.99.

The Winter Pony. By Iain Lawrence. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Dead Gentleman. By Matthew Cody. Knopf. $15.99.

     In picture books for younger readers and novels for older ones, some authors try to recapture the past and show what lessons it has, or could or should have, for the children of today. My Heart Will Not Sit Down is a tale of the Depression, but not a typical story of people out of work and suffering deeply through an economic collapse that still informs economic and political rhetoric in the United States. Instead, it is a story of the African nation of Cameroon, where a teacher from New York City is telling the class about his “very, very big village” of New York City and all the hardships there. One girl in the class, Kedi, cannot get the story out of her mind, and “her heart stood up…in sympathy” for the hungry children so far away. Kedi is determined to help by sending money to New York, and “her heart would not sit down” until she does something. She roams the village, asking everyone – even, shyly, the headman – for money to help those less fortunate far away across the “great salt river.” She eventually raises $3.77 – a paltry sum to New Yorkers, even in the Depression, but a huge amount to the people of Cameroon – and makes a gift of it. This really happened – not the Kedi part, not the personalization given the tale by Mara Rockliff, but the $3.77 of charity sent from Cameroon to New York in 1931. Told in straightforward words and illustrated with lovely African-inspired art by Ann Tanksley, the story makes no attempt to moralize – although the book becomes somewhat preachy in the four-page Author’s Note at the end, which talks in more detail about hunger and economic pain, in the past and today, in nations everywhere. The main portion of My Heart Will Not Sit Down is timeless in its insistence that helping each other is what makes people fully human.

     There is much truth as well in George Washington’s Birthday, but a good deal that is invented, too, making Margaret McNamara’s book the “mostly true tale” that it says it is. Set on young George’s seventh birthday, the story pretends that George would have had a modern young boy’s hope for a special day and a party. This is untrue, but it provides the link through which McNamara explains about things that seven-year-old George probably did (check the February weather, do arithmetic lessons) and others that he definitely did not do (throw a stone across the Rappahannock River, chop down a cherry tree and admit that he did so). Each element of George’s make-believe birthday gets pleasantly cartoonish illustrations by Barry Blitt, climaxing in “a grand feast in honor of the birthday boy,” with McNamara noting that there would have been no party for George, but might have been a large family dinner. McNamara affirms or debunks each event of the day on the page where it happens, and ends the book with a page called “George Washington Tells the Truth” in which George himself supposedly writes to the reader, explaining how some myths about him got started. The book does a nice enough job of separating fact and fantasy, although younger readers may find elements of it, especially the final page, a touch confusing.

     Crow is for older readers, preteens and teenagers, and is a fictionalized account of a little-remembered but highly traumatic event: the race riots of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Barbara Wright bases minor characters on real figures of the time, and also includes fictionalized stories of some more-important real ones, such as newspaper editor Alex Manly and black Siamese twins Millie-Christine. Her major characters, though, are fictional, and are used to craft a dramatic story of a post-Civil-War time when the increasingly successful black community of Wilmington was destroyed in what came to be called the Wilmington Massacre – an event that led to deaths, exile of black leaders and sympathetic whites from town, and a decades-long resurrection of white supremacism and the Jim Crow laws it spawned. Staying reasonably close to historical accuracy in her storytelling, including referring to blacks as being Negro or colored, Wright tells the story largely through the eyes of young Moses Thomas, whose grandmother, Boo Nanny, sees signs of the coming cataclysm in a crow’s flight and elsewhere. Wright tries a little too hard with Moses, who speaks significantly better and more modern English than his elders: “I didn’t hear anything more” vs. “We gots adult talk going on here.” But by creating a character in the same age range as the book’s likely readers, Wright tries to pull young people of the 21st century into the buildup to a frightening event of the 19th. There are few admirable characters here who are not black, so Crow is clearly intended as a “lest we forget” novel; and indeed, it was not until 2006 that the Wilmington Race Riot Commission produced a report on what happened in 1898. For those who, after reading Wright’s book, want further to connect past fact with the present time, she provides a way to do so online.

     The events of The Winter Pony occurred not many years after those of Crow, but nearly an entire world away. And if the primary color of Crow is black, that of The Winter Pony is white – bleak, threatening, empty white. For this is a story of Robert Scott’s disastrous 1910 expedition to the South Pole, which he attempted unsuccessfully to reach before Roald Amundsen could get there. Scott’s failure and his death, along with that of his team members and animals, became the stuff of legend almost immediately, inspiring articles, books, remembrances of all sorts, films and even music (Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 7, completed in 1952 and based on the music he wrote for the 1947 film Scott of the Antarctic). Scott’s tremendous heroism in the face of odds that proved insurmountable, his bold attempts to salvage something from the failed expedition, and the journal he painstakingly kept almost until his last moments, created a story more touching than that of Amundsen’s triumph. The Winter Pony tells the tale from the perspective of one of Scott’s ponies, which was given the name James Pigg. The book opens with a map showing Scott’s and Amundsen’s routes, and a factual description of the background of the two explorers’ polar attempts. Then Iain Lawrence tells a story that sticks remarkably close to the facts of what happened to Scott, letting James Pigg (the real name of a real horse accompanying Scott) imagine things that no equine member of the party would have seen, much less been able to tell to anyone. Once readers accept the notion that a pony is narrating the tale, this becomes a story of tremendous hardship, valiant but desperate attempts to survive, and ultimate heartbreaking failure – for the narrator as well as the humans. The events are difficult to read about, even a century later, and Lawrence’s success at creating a personality for James Pigg makes the horse’s eventual fate all the harder to bear – indeed, harder in some ways than the fate of the humans. The book will be too intense for younger readers, but teenagers and older preteens with an interest in history and exploration will find a certain amount of uplift here despite the pervasive sense of tragedy.

     The Dead Gentleman is as fictional as The Winter Pony is factual, but Matthew Cody’s novel is also an attempt to connect events of the past with readers of the present – in this case, quite directly, since the book opens at the start of the 20th century and soon jumps 100 years ahead. In fact, the book zips ahead, back and every which way in time and space, to the point of being a dizzying ride for readers as well as for the characters. The Dead Gentleman is written in the “steampunk” genre, in which futuristic elements exist side by side with old-fashioned ones – potent weapons powered by clockwork, for example, or (as in this book) a gear-powered mechanical canary named Merlin. The canary belongs, or belonged, to the “gentleman” of the title, an elegantly dressed walking corpse whose pocket street urchin Tommy Learner picks. This gets Tommy involved with a group called the Explorers’ Society, which moves about not only geographically but also temporally, thanks to a time-travel device and portals to other worlds. This is rather a lot for even imaginative preteens (the book’s target audience) to swallow, yet it is only part of what Cody throws out. The Dead Gentleman also includes interplanetary travel, dinosaurs (even zombie dinosaurs), a vampire (nearly toothless), and much more. There is also Jezebel Lemon, a 12-year-old girl from today’s world with whom Tommy and Merlin join forces to prevent the title character from, err, conquering Earth. And the universe. This book is even more far-fetched than most steampunk and most science fantasy (it can scarcely be called science fiction, which tends to have at least some foundational believability ). Its very complexity may be somewhat off-putting, although reluctant readers who are gripped by its exciting first chapter may well find themselves eagerly devouring the rest. And they may have more to look forward to: although the book wraps up many threads satisfactorily, it reads like the first volume of a series. Its past and present are certainly not the real-world past and present, but for that very reason, some preteens may enjoy this book more than novels with their roots in things that really happened.


The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Two: A King’s Ransom. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Three: The Dead of Night. By Peter Lerangis. Scholastic. $12.99.

     If continued delivery of just what readers expect is the mark of a successful series, then The 39 Clues certainly has what it takes. The second sequence of books, Cahills vs. Vespers, is progressing steadfastly (thus mirroring the steadfast nature of the protagonist brother-and-sister team of Dan and Amy Cahill), using authors already quite familiar with what is going on – because they have contributed several 39 Clues books already. Thus, Jude Watson (pen name of Judy Blundell) produced the fourth book in the original 39 Clues series, Beyond the Grave; the sixth book, In Too Deep; and the transitional 11th book, Vespers Rising. Peter Lerangis wrote the third book in the first sequence, The Sword Thief, and the seventh, The Viper’s Nest. These are authors who are skilled enough to subsume their individual styles into the formulas required by The 39 Clues, move the plots ahead so far and no farther, create dialogue that works in context even though it is neither very individualistic not very illuminating, and provide just enough excitement to keep fans reading and encourage them to collect 39 Clues cards (six come with each book), play the online game that is connected to the series, and wait for whatever the next books will bring.

     Given the earnest professionalism with which Watson and Lerangis handle their roles, it is scarcely surprising that A King’s Ransom and The Dead of Night have little individual character: they are not designed for it. The plots of both books continue the overall theme of the Cahills vs. Vespers series, in which a mysterious character known as Vesper One kidnaps members of the five branches of Cahills (Ekaterina, Janus, Lucian, Tomas and even the Madrigals, the group to which Dan and Amy belong) – then demands that the young protagonists decipher clues that will lead them to objects that they must steal in order to ransom the various victims. This second set of books strains credulity even more than did the first one, in which it emerged that practically every famous person from time immemorial was in reality a Cahill – that conceit meant that the first series of books did at least include some tidbits of history, often presented rather interestingly. Cahills vs. Vespers, though, is clearly an elaborate game from the start, since Vesper One is somehow able to kidnap all those supposedly brilliant and slippery Cahills but still needs Dan and Amy to get him the objects that he really wants.

     Believability is not the issue here, though: excitement is, and fans of The 39 Clues will get just what they expect (no more, but no less) from these two entries. In A King’s Ransom, Dan’s character darkens a bit, but he and Amy do not have the edge-of-death encounters that occur in some other books, and regular series readers will likely find some of the clues rather easy to decipher. On the other hand, the book keeps a lot of action going – with different characters in different places – before Watson pulls things together, and that makes for a somewhat new level of excitement. The plot involves Dan and Amy tracking down and stealing a map that has not been seen for more than half a century; but the specifics, as usual, are not the point here – it is the process that matters. Ditto in The Dead of Night, where a new kidnap victim turns out to be Dan’s best friend, Atticus, and parts of the book are told (a bit confusingly) from Atticus’ point of view. The presentation of clues is as well-done as usual, although readers will likely be ahead of Dan and Amy in this case: they take a surprisingly long time to figure things out. However, the usual satisfying solution of the mystery is coupled, also as usual, with the introduction of a new angle in the final pages. One consistent element of The 39 Clues is the tying together of the books, with each picking up just where the last left off and leading quite clearly to the next. Like the undistinguished style of the books, this is a tribute to the professionalism of authors who, in their other works, show a great deal more character. But what matters here is not the writers’ character but the character of Dan and Amy. And that continues to be presented in ways that fans of this ongoing series will keep enjoying, clue after clue after clue.


Wagner: Symphonies in C and E; Huldigungsmarsch; Kaisermarsch; Overture to “Rienzi.” Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99.

Humperdinck: String Quartet in C; Piano Quintet in G; Menuet in E-flat for Piano Quintet; String Quartet Movements in E minor and C minor; Notturno for Violin and String Quartet in G. Diogenes Quartet (Stefan Kirpal and Gundula Kirpal, violins; Stephanie Krauß, viola; Stephen Ristau, cello); Andreas Kirpal, piano; Lydia Dubrovskaya, violin. CPO. $16.99.

Dohnányi: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3. Aviv Quartet (Sergey Ostrovsky and Evgenia Epshtein, violins; Nathan Braude, viola; Rachel Mercer, cello). Naxos. $9.99.

     Richard Wagner is preeminent as an opera composer and is known to audiences almost solely in that role, but a new Chandos CD barely touches on Wagner’s operatic works and shows him instead as a would-be symphonist and a composer of occasional works. By no stretch of the imagination is Wagner’s symphonic output a major part of his oeuvre, but listening to it does provide a more-nuanced view of the composer and an interesting sidelight on how his contemporaries viewed him: Clara Schumann quite admired the Symphony in C and used it to spur her husband, Robert, to get going with symphonies of his own. This is Wagner’s only completed symphony, finished before he turned 20, and it conforms to classical models while showing his indebtedness to the dramatic propensities of Weber. The Symphony in E was started two years later, then abandoned, with its two surviving movements orchestrated after Wagner’s death by conductor Felix Mottl. It shows Wagner pushing symphonic forms somewhat more than in the C Major work, but also makes it clear – at least retrospectively – that the symphony could not contain Wagner’s ambitions. He did, however, put those ambitions on hold when he needed money or had a patron to praise, creating works such as the Huldigungsmarsch and Kaisermarsch for such purposes. The orchestration of the former was started by Wagner and finished by Joachim Raff; the orchestration of the latter is Wagner’s own. Both works are suitably triumphant, although the Huldigungsmarsch actually has fewer overtly martial passages than one might expect, and more of a feeling of flow from the strings. Neeme Järvi is not a particularly intuitive Wagner conductor, but he handles this particular repertoire well, with fine playing and good balance from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is only in the Rienzi overture that lusher strings and a better grasp of Wagner’s structure would have been welcome. Rienzi was Wagner’s third opera, very much in the style of Meyerbeer, and it deserves a first-rate modern performance – which it shows little sign of getting, in part because so many top-tier singers are needed to do it justice. The overture does receive fairly frequent concert performances, and it is a wonderful compendium of tunes from the opera, from a moving prayer to a march more triumphal than either the Huldigungsmarsch or the Kaisermarsch. Järvi’s reading here is a trifle bland, but well-enough played to make this Chandos CD as a whole an interesting compilation of comparative rarities.

     Nothing on the Wagner disc is as rare as what is on the new CPO release of chamber music by Engelbert Humperdinck, a composer who sits so firmly in Wagner’s shadow that he is rarely discussed in any other terms. And Humperdinck is known as a one-work composer: his opera, Hänsel und Gretel, is performed very frequently, but his five other operas are almost completely unknown, and listeners may be surprised to find out that Humperdinck ever wrote anything but the one work that is always associated with him. This is as unfortunate as a belief that Pachelbel wrote only “the” canon, when in fact he wrote many other pieces; but sometimes history is unkind to talented composers perceived as craftsmen rather than innovators in their time (thus, Pachelbel takes a back seat to J.S. and J.C. Bach, and Humperdinck to Wagner). No single release is likely to set the record straight where Humperdinck is concerned, but this very well-played chamber-music CD will certainly show that Humperdinck had a firm understanding of writing for small groups: there is nothing turgid, overdone or grandiose in any of this music. The pieces here are mostly from the 1870s, when Humperdinck (1854-1921) was young and still exploring nuances of composition; several individual movements are from works intended to be larger but never completed. Some of them show stylistic flair as well as a gift for melody, notably the Notturno of 1879, which seems a more-mature work than it is. The one full-scale early work, the piano quintet of 1875, has an exceptionally interesting relationship to Humperdinck’s sole, late string quartet, which dates to 1919-20 and was the composer’s final completed piece: the quartet’s finale is actually based on the finale of the quintet from more than four decades earlier. Both of these extended works – each in three movements rather than the typical four – lie well on the instruments and show attentiveness to formal structure (and variations on it) as well as considerable melodic gifts. None of the music on this CD will be considered “great,” and certainly none of it is groundbreaking, but all of it shows that Humperdinck was a more-considerable and more-versatile composer than his single super-popular work makes evident – and had a more-individual style than he usually is credited with.

     Nor is chamber music considered a particular forte of Ernő Dohnányi, who is almost a “one-piece composer” as well: this piano virtuoso’s Variations on a Nursery Tune, for piano and orchestra, is the only piece many listeners will know. The new Naxos CD, featuring excellent playing by the Aviv Quartet, shows Dohnányi’s chamber music to as good an effect as the CPO disc shows Humperdinck’s. And Naxos also pairs an early work with a later one: Dohnányi (1877-1960) wrote his first quartet in 1899, his third in 1926. Not surprisingly, the earlier quartet, which is in four movements, is more derivative – specifically of Brahms – than original or nationalistic: Dohnányi never explored the folk-music influences of Hungary in the ways that Bartók and Kodály did, although there is certainly some Hungarian flavor to Dohnányi’s tunes. The first quartet is highly expressive in late-Romantic style, with a very heartfelt slow movement. The third quartet is a more sophisticated work both structurally and harmonically. The melodies are pleasantly effective, and they percolate neatly among the instruments; and this three-movement work has an especially interesting central movement whose unusual tempo designation is Andante religioso con variazoni. This quartet also shows some awareness of the bypassing of tonality in which other composers were involved, although it can scarcely be deemed a forward-looking work in that regard. Both these chamber pieces show a sure sense of craftsmanship and an understanding of the needs of small-ensemble composition, and the disc as a whole – like those devoted to Wagner and Humperdinck – offers strong evidence of the value of looking beyond the standard repertoire and beyond the standard way of thinking about individual composers.

March 22, 2012


Under Construction. By Paula Hannigan. Illustrated by Heather Brown. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Chomp! By Heather Brown. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

Bugs. By Shannon Chandler, Heather Brown, Paula Hannigan, and Jeffrey Charles Cole. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Anyone who doubts that books can be made interactive needs to take a look at the works produced by Heather Brown and others for Accord Publishing. These are sturdy, inventively conceived and cleverly produced short books for pre-readers and the youngest readers – and they not only invite but also require a child’s participation in their stories. Accord calls Under Construction a “Silly Slider Book,” but it is really not silly at all – just ingenious. The book opens up from the bottom rather than from one side. The middle portion of each part of every page is a sliding panel that changes the picture and reveals more or less of the text when a child moves it. The top of the first vertically opening page, for example, says, “The UNDER CONSTRUCTION sign goes up…” while the sliding panel is in its lower position; slide the panel up and the words disappear while a crane wielding a wrecking ball gets taller. The bottom of the page shows the wrecking ball at work when the sliding panel is in lower position; move the panel up and the words, “And a wrecking ball swings to clear the way” appear, while parts of the knocked-down building show at the bottom, where the panel had previously covered them. The book is a gimmick, but it is not only a gimmick, because its design involves children from the first page to the last, and there really is a narrative here about how old buildings are taken down and new ones – in this case, a toy store – are built to replace them. A simple story told with a design that is anything but simple, but that is intuitive for young children and makes the reading experience a lot of fun, Under Construction is ingeniously involving.

     Chomp! is what Accord calls “A Pull-tab Book.” It contains only one tab, not the multiple ones usually found in tab books, but the use of that one tab is unusual and very intriguing. This is a smaller-format book than Under Construction, in traditional board-book size, with a toothy crocodile on the cover. The cunning part of this book’s design is that the pull tab is used on every page of Chomp! to help create what the few words describe. What the tab does is open and close an upper and lower set of teeth – which are made to fit different animals by use of different-size, differently shaped cutouts. Thus, “Polar Bear Yawns” shows a bear with eyes closed and oval-shaped mouth that seems to yawn when the tab is pulled; “Shark Chomps” has a much larger oval cutout, so pulling the tab makes it seem that a really big mouthful of teeth is opening and closing; “Lion Roars” also has a large cutout, but the expression on the lion’s face makes it seem to be letting out a loud sound when the tab is pulled and the “teeth” open and shut. The tab does the same thing for each animal, but the cleverly designed illustrations make it seem as if there are many activities here, not just one.

     And then there is the lenticular animation that Accord uses in books such as Bugs. Lenticular printing is nothing new – its modern form dates back to the 1940s – but it still has the power to intrigue and involve by making still pictures seem to move. Instantly recognizable by the vertical black lines on plastic that are an integral part of the printing process, lenticular pictures create the illusion of three-dimensionality and motion. That means, in Bugs, that when a closeup of a garden shows happy-looking caterpillars crawling on foliage, with the text saying, “Caterpillars MUNCH on tasty leaves,” there is one caterpillar, shown through lenticular printing, that seems actually to chew a leaf as the reader moves the page back and forth. And for “Butterflies DANCE through the air,” there is a scene of multiple butterflies, with human-looking faces, in the air above flowers – plus one that, through the “magic” of lenticular printing, appears to flap its wings and actually fly (how slowly or quickly depends on the speed with which a child moves the page back and forth). From hopping grasshoppers to load-carrying ants, Bugs shows cute-looking insects going about their lives, and encourages kids to become involved, in a small way, in what all the little creatures are doing.


The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition: The 150 Best-Buy Schools and What It Takes to Get In. By Robert Franek, Laura Braswell, David Sollo, Seamus Mullarkey, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $21.99.

     It would be nice if there were a universally agreed-upon method of valuing a college education. For example, you could establish a baseline lifetime income for a high-school graduate with no college, then rank colleges based on how much money beyond that level their graduates, on average, earn – factoring in each college’s costs. If two colleges’ graduates earned, over a lifetime, three times as much as the high-school graduate, but College A cost less to attend than College B, then College A would be the better value, q.e.d.

     Unfortunately, no such method exists, and it is doubtful that one could ever be created, since so many values of a college education are unquantifiable. What about colleges that emphasize social cohesiveness and good works after graduation, whose graduates would likely earn less because they would go into nonprofit or low-paid work? What about non-economic values in general – how could anyone measure the way a college instills or reinforces them? What about the old idea, admittedly now archaic if not quite obsolete, that college should “complete” a person, turning him or her into a more fully aware human being? Is that in any way measurable?

     Well, the valuation task may be impossible, but that has not stopped The Princeton Review from attempting one. Its methodology may be arguable, and The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition should certainly not be the sole guiding force for families looking for the “right” college (there are in fact numerous “right” colleges for practically every student); but this book is a good place to start, or continue, a search for an optimal match of student with school. Because valuation of colleges is inherently subjective, the methodology here – which is “based on institutional data and student opinion surveys collected from 650 colleges and universities the company [Princeton Review] regards as the nation’s academically best undergraduate institutions” – is not necessarily the best possible, and in fact is not presented in detail; readers essentially have to take the book’s authors’ word that this is a suitable way to measure the relative value of colleges. Furthermore, one has to accept on faith that the 650 schools from which these 150 are selected are the only ones worthy of consideration – a somewhat dicey assumption, since there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. None of this invalidates the information here, but all of it shows that this book is a resource for families and students, not the resource.

     So what does the book conclude? The top 10 private schools are Williams, Swarthmore, Princeton, Harvard, Rice, Pomona, Washington/St. Louis, Yale, California Institute of Technology, and Hamilton, in that order. The top 10 public schools are University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, New College of Florida, State University of New York at Binghamton, University of Wisconsin/Madison, College of William & Mary, University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Washington, and University of Texas/Austin, again in that order. Some elements of these lists may surprise families that have begun a college search: CIT but not MIT; SUNY/Binghamton, but not other well-regarded campuses, such as SUNY/Buffalo; two Florida schools in the “public” list (the state is not generally considered especially strong in education). Other entries are no surprise, since they appear in just about every “best” list created by anyone; here the schools were chosen “based on 30 factors covering academics, costs, and financial aid.”

     The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition also lists 10 tuition-free schools: the five U.S. military academies plus Berea College, College of the Ozarks, Deep Springs College, Cooper Union and Webb Institute. These are scarcely practical for the vast majority of people: the schools get vast numbers of applicants and have very specific orientations. For example, Berea will not admit students whose parents can afford to send them elsewhere; Deep Springs has only 26 undergraduates; Webb is only for students of naval architecture and marine engineering, and has just 80 undergraduate students. Still, learning about these colleges is interesting, and they will clearly be right for some people. The same may be said about all the other schools here, with one important and rather troubling caveat. Although the private colleges generally cost well over $40,000 per year, they gain “best value” status in part because of their generosity with need-based financial aid. Indeed, one excellent element of the book is its listing of students’ average indebtedness at graduation. What is troubling is that all these schools make a major effort to admit students whose families cannot afford the cost of attending, by giving out many full scholarships. Of course, there are families at the other end of the income spectrum who presumably pay, and can afford to pay, the schools’ full costs. But what of the families in the middle? These schools tend to discriminate, however unintentionally, against families that manage to get by in life but that are neither wealthy enough to pay in full nor financially challenged enough to be entitled to strings-free assistance. Those are the families whose children emerge from college with huge debt burdens, or who cannot consider many of these schools at all because of the cost. The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition does not discuss this issue, which is a societal one rather than one for a guidebook. But a book called The Best Value Colleges for Those Who Are Neither Wealthy Nor Qualified for a Free Ride would really make a lot of sense.

     As for this book, it does show some signs of haste in assembly. For example, the state-by-state index shows both Wesleyan College (Georgia) and Wesleyan University (Connecticut) as being on page 356 (the latter is actually on page 358). And some text about the University of Virginia states, “Students on the stately and historic campus of the University of Virginia enjoy world-class academic runs about $10,500 for residents of Virginia…” These typos and editing errors are not major, but they may serve as a useful reminder of the inevitable imperfection of any guide to the “Best” this or “Best” that, colleges included. There is no perfect system for evaluating colleges and universities – ultimately, every family has to value them by deciding what its own values are and then spending the necessary time looking for schools that are as close to congruent with them as possible.


Z Is for Moose. By Kelly Bingham. Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Silly Doggy! By Adam Stower. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Pretty Penny Cleans Up. By Devon Kinch. Random House. $16.99.

Ichiro. By Ryan Inzana. Houghton Mifflin. $19.99.

     Ah, to be young enough to be wooed with picture books! Adults lose something when they pass beyond the illustrated wonders intended for children up to around age eight: the best illustration-focused books have a level of cleverness that can surpass that of most books created merely with words. Take Z Is for Moose, for instance. It is the funniest alphabet book in who-knows-how-long – although it is only for kids who know the alphabet already. Kelly Bingham’s great concept and Paul O. Zelinsky’s absolutely marvelous illustrations combine for a foray into utter ridiculousness that also manages to be an affirmation of friendship. You know something is different here not only from the bizarre title but also from the cover picture, in which one of Moose’s antlers is pushing Zelinsky’s middle initial off the page while an irritated-looking Zebra looks on. Zebra is in charge of this alphabet project, and everything starts off simply enough: “A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat.” But the next page says “D is for Moose,” with Moose smilingly posing on a stage from which a duck has apparently just been ejected – and with Zebra (dressed as a sports referee) telling Moose, “You are on the wrong page.” An apologetic Moose walks off, banging into Elephant (the “E” animal), and then starts showing up in all the wrong places. For example, he takes up most of the “H” page, not only blocking a hat but also blocking the words “H is” and “Hat” (only the word “for” is clearly visible). Moose interferes with a cone of Ice Cream, appears on the label of a Jar, and even tucks himself into the pouch of a mother Kangaroo. Eventually, of course, we get to M – which is for…Mouse. “I’m sorry. We decided to go with the mouse this time,” explains Zebra, but Moose is hysterical and frantic, trampling N, O and P into unrecognizability and completely messing up the Queen (“Q”). Then he starts doodling on the R and S pages, and then he attacks Zebra as the alphabet progresses, and then he just becomes sad and sobs – leaving Zebra to come up with a totally improbable but highly satisfying conclusion. The book is so funny and so clever that parents and kids will want to read and re-read it – as Bingham anticipates, since she ends it with Moose asking to do it all again and Zebra agreeing. Delightful!

     Silly Doggy! is just as absurd in its own way. The inside front cover sets up the story: animals have escaped from the zoo. As Adam Stower’s narrative begins, Lily is looking out her bedroom window at “something wonderful in her garden.” She “had ALWAYS wanted one.” So she gets dressed, rushes outside, and happily exclaims, “DOGGY!” But…umm…this is no dog – it is a huge brown bear. No matter: “Lily thought he was lovely.” She ties her scarf around his neck, and the bewildered bruin follows Lily around, even into the house – where Lily’s busy mother does not notice exactly what the new “dog” really is, but does tell Lily that “Doggy must have a home of his own, with someone who must be missing him.” Lily agrees to make a “Found” poster for the “very silly doggy,” explaining just why he is silly – which leads to a series of wonderfully absurd pictures in which Stower shows Lily trying to teach the bear tricks as he eats the ice cream from a cart in the park, displays the ways in which the bear is “terrible at playing fetch,” and shows the “silly doggy” wriggling in the tub (which is smaller than he is) as the little girl bathes him. “Lily hoped no one would see” the poster, writes Stower, but of course someone who is searching for the missing zoo animals does see it, and poor Lily is left without her “Doggy.” But there is a happy, and happily weird, ending, when Lily wakes up the next morning and finds a…err…Kitty. Silly Doggy! is indeed silly, but its affirmation of the power of childish imagination and childish acceptance of the odd is simply wonderful.

     Pretty Penny is a much more serious child, and Devon Kinch’s books about her – of which Pretty Penny Cleans Up is the second – are more didactic, being intended to give young readers basic lessons in making, handling and saving money. The books (the first was Pretty Penny Sets Up Shop) are nevertheless fun as stories, thanks in part to Penny’s pet pig, Iggy, and in part to the amusing nature of the settings within which the money lessons are taught. In Pretty Penny Cleans Up, Penny’s friend Emma has spent her allowance and cannot afford a ticket to an upcoming concert, so she and Penny brainstorm about ways to make some money. Their idea is “La Perfect Pet Salon” for dogs, which they can, luckily, set up with some of the apparently infinite castoffs from Grandma Bunny’s ever-full attic (this is scarcely realistic, but it does move the story along). Before opening for business, Penny teaches Emma – and readers – the book’s main lesson, called the “Pretty Penny Saving Setup.” It involves dividing all earned money into three categories, keeping different amounts in different places: 70 cents of each dollar for everyday expenses, 20 cents for long-term saving and 10 cents for charity in a sort of “self-tithing” arrangement. Parents who do not approve of this system will need to have an alternative ready to discuss, since the money distribution is the heart of this book. Once Penny and Emma agree to it, they open for business, and immediately get a series of customers (apparently without advertising their services – again, this is scarcely realistic but is key to the story). The girls offer such amusing doggy “fur cuts” as the Punk, the Modern and the Regal, and soon find they “have five dogs and one cat to pamper.” At this point in most kids’ books, there would be a huge mess for the girls to try futilely to control, but not here: true, “wet dogs are everywhere,” and Kinch writes that “Penny is in a panic,” but the resourceful Iggy quickly comes to the rescue and “gets busy cleaning up” so Penny and Emma can focus on bathing and pampering the pets left in their care. Everything works out just fine, with Kinch showing the salon’s ledger and again emphasizing the importance of using the “Pretty Penny Saving Setup” before both girls buy tickets to the concert. The Pretty Penny books can easily be criticized as overly simplistic about money matters, but there are so few works available to show kids ages 4-8 anything at all about how money works that Kinch’s stories – which are fun to read and pleasantly illustrated as well as informative – are most welcome.

     Illustrations decline as drivers of most books for older readers, but not all: graphic novels are so popular precisely because they are picture-driven. But the pictures alone are not enough: in this form, a coherent story is equally important. And it is in the story elements, as well as to an extent in the graphic ones, that Ryan Inzana’s Ichiro falls somewhat short. This (+++) book is large in size and handsomely produced, and Inzana tries to deal with important subjects in it, but neither his narrative nor his art is quite equal to the task. The title character is a “wasian” – white Occidental father, Asian (Japanese) mother – who has been raised by his mom in New York City; his father died in military service, and Ichiro never knew him. Ichiro has a Granpa Benny in Brooklyn – an embittered, anti-immigrant complainer – and a grandfather in Japan whom he does not know, but with whom he is going to stay while his mother undertakes a temporary teaching job that she hopes will become permanent and allow her and Ichiro to move back to Japan. Ichiro’s story is a standard one of being caught between two worlds and not knowing where one fits in, but Inzana takes it further by introducing a third world, that of the gods, and having Ichiro inadvertently tumble into it and become trapped there. Before that, though, his Japanese grandfather gives him a history lesson about the end of World War II, the belief in the emperor as a god, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the history of the kamikaze fighters used in the war’s last days, and the horrendous effects of radiation poisoning – all contrasted with, among other things, modern video-game “wars.” This is the most affecting and intense section of the book, with the best use of color: throughout Ichiro, Inzana uses color sparingly, with some pages in black-and-white, some with tinges of red, and occasional bursts of yellow, brown or orange. The color use is effective but not systematic; for example, when Ichiro finds himself in the world of the gods, there is not a significant change in the overall color scheme. The wonders and worries of that world are not very well communicated. Some characters resemble those brought so brilliantly to life by Hiyao Miyazaki in films such as Spirited Away, but neither the drawing nor the characterization here is particularly gripping. Ichiro eventually learns, “You gods aren’t any better than us humans,” and is told by the god to whom he is speaking that the immortals are in fact worse: “Instead of serving as an inspiration to you humans, we offered a mirror of your imperfections.” Ichiro eventually returns to the human world, supposedly wiser and supposedly better equipped to handle whatever the future brings. But the book’s optimistic ending seems forced, and although the art work throughout is well done, it is not particularly distinctive. Ichiro simply tries too hard to do too much – it has well-done moments but is not, as a whole, especially compelling.


In the Beginning, There Was Chaos: “For Better or For Worse” 2nd Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $25.99.

     Lynn Johnston’s reconsideration of the early years of her For Better or For Worse comic strip continues in her second “Treasury” volume much as it began in her first, Something Old, Something New. The approach in the second book is the same as in the first: Johnston polishes early strips, improves the sometimes clumsy art that she created in the strip’s early years, and adds some new sequences to take the story in somewhat different directions or flesh out some characters or plot points to which she had paid scant attention in the original originals.

Johnston’s early strips were frequently funnier than her later ones, albeit more superficial; indeed, not all readers necessarily enjoyed the complex, interwoven and often rather dour plot elements of the later strips, which followed aging characters of multiple generations through life, love, disease, old age and death. In the Beginning, There Was Chaos, a handsome hardcover book with more than 400 oversize pages, again gives Johnston’s fans – including ones whose newspapers decided not to carry the “restarted” strips that she offered to papers after she stopped drawing For Better or For Worse in 2008 – a chance to look back on the comic’s early years and relive a family-oriented strip that gained considerable depth and intensity over a run of nearly 30 years.

     The strips in In the Beginning, There Was Chaos date to 1981-83, not long after the strip began to be syndicated in 1979. As in the previous “Treasury,” Johnston includes a host of personal revelations (“Of all the household chores, I hate ironing the most”); discussions of which strips are directly based on incidents in her own life (“The dialogue in this strip went exactly as written, except that I kept the punch line to myself!”); photos of herself and her family taken at the time the strips were drawn; and notes on which strips had an “advocacy” element (“Strips like this one were done to support all the smart, productive, and caring moms I knew who were struggling to stay sane”). Johnston reminisces about her feelings about being a housewife part of the time and a cartoonist the rest: “When we accept the role of Mom, we become a nurse, a psychologist, a short-order cook, a laundress, and an alarm clock. Our day seems to belong to everyone else, and there’s rarely time for makeup and hair spray.” And she shows how she worked these thoughts into the strip: the “rarely time for makeup and hair spray” comment accompanies a sequence in which cartoon Elly, Johnston’s alter ego, asks her cartoon husband, John, whether he ever looks around to see if he would rather be with someone else, someone who can “look glamorous before 10:45 a.m.” Elly really is an alternative-reality creation, not Johnston herself, and that is another interesting thing to learn from this book: “The character ‘Elly’ is not me. She is someone I MIGHT have been, given other circumstances. My real life wasn’t nearly as plausible as Elly Patterson’s.”

     Although Johnston puts these early strips in context, some of the ancillary material she includes is charmingly (some might say irritatingly) outdated – for example, the newspaper story about her from September 21, 1981, which begins, “Lynn Johnston could be the envy of the coffee klatsch. Sure, she cooks and cleans, mops and shops, just like the rest of us. She even has a career she pursues every morning from nine to noon. But, unlike the rest of us, Lynn literally gets to tell the world about it.” That sort of prose has certainly lost its charm, but Johnston’s own has not, whether she is writing about spice cake from a favorite bakery whose name she included in one Sunday strip or discussing another Sunday’s “trip to the dump” panels in the context of her own family’s adventures with discards. Touchingly, she tells about the gooseneck lamp that her father found at a dump one time and kept for 40 years, after which it passed to Johnston’s brother, who still uses it. “Touching” is, in fact, an apt word for the quality that made For Better or For Worse so special and so popular for so many years. The strips in In the Beginning, There Was Chaos may not have the polish of those of later years, and the story lines may not be as fully integrated as they later became, but this collection shows clearly just how, and why, so many readers were touched so often by Johnston’s take on everyday family life.


Norton 360, version 6.0. Windows 7/Vista/XP 32-bit. Symantec. $89.99.

     Few people at Symantec today likely remember Peter Norton, who sold his business to the company more than 20 years ago (in 1990); but the Symantec products bearing Norton’s name are the mainstay of the company’s consumer line and the software for which Symantec is best known. Today’s Norton products are also far more versatile and far more capable than Peter Norton’s were – and far, far easier for non-technically-inclined people to use. And Norton 360, version 6.0 may be the easiest of all.

     This new version of Norton 360 is the most comprehensive install-and-that’s-all protective software suite you can buy. Essentially, it is an enhanced version of Norton Internet Security, selling for $20 more on the same subscription basis (usable for one year on up to three computers) and adding two primary things to NIS: backup and tuneup. The backup addition is simple enough: purchasers get two gigabytes of hosted, secure online storage, plus the ability to keep backed-up data on local drives, network drives, or removable media. Two gigs is not very much these days, and this amount is readily available elsewhere for free – from the Mozy division of EMC Corporation, for example. Spending an extra $10 for the Premier edition of Norton 360 ups the amount to 25 gigs; but you can get 25 gigs for free with Microsoft’s SkyDrive, so the value here is arguable. And using either version of Norton 360, version 6.0 creates a quandary, because the online storage disappears if you do not renew your license in one year – you are essentially locking yourself into Symantec’s servers or self-creating the need to find a different form of cloud backup in 12 months. It is hard to see this enhancement as a major selling point.

     The tuneup features, though, are another matter. Norton 360, version 6.0 automatically runs enabled tuneup tasks during a computer’s idle time. This means the software continually defragments hard drives (that is, performs disk optimization) and gets rid of unneeded Windows and Internet Explorer temporary files – small issues in themselves, but ones that grow over time and can eventually slow down responsiveness. Users can tell the software to clean up Internet Explorer history and broken Registry entries automatically as well, or can run these tasks on demand. Norton 360, version 6.0 also includes a very good startup manager, which lists all programs that launch automatically at boot and reports how much of the computer’s resources each uses – making it easy to turn off automatic launch of any unnecessary or resource-hogging program, or to set it for delayed start to speed boot time. Also very helpful is a diagnostic report that checks the status of various elements of the computer, including the operating system, hardware and network connectivity; if problems are found, the software helps you fix them.

     Do these tuneup features, plus the backup provision, make Norton 360, version 6.0 a better buy than Norton Internet Security 2012? The answer depends on each user: someone who will not use the added elements will be fine with NIS, while someone who will use them frequently will prefer Norton 360, version 6.0. Another reason to opt for Norton 360, version 6.0 may be the interface. Although NIS has been simplified significantly over time, with the latest version offering the simplest presentation yet (including in-depth features hidden in a drop-down menu – easily accessible if wanted, but not intrusive), Norton 360, version 6.0 has an even cleaner basic screen presentation. The main window has four large yellow icons labeled “PC Security,” “Identity,” “Backup” and “PC Tuneup,” with a message under each title – and almost all the time, that message will be the single word protected. The previous version of Norton 360 had a main window with black background and dark-colored icons that were less easily readable. Also, the way options show up on the main screen has been tweaked: they now slide in at the side instead of coming up from below. That is a minor change, but the super-simple interface is not – at least not for users who just want to install the software (installation, by the way, is done easily and quickly) and then let the default settings in Norton 360, version 6.0 handle security.

     Those default settings are quite robust. The elements they manage include Norton’s self-healing installer, which can stop malware on an already-infected computer from hindering installation; an excellent firewall; highly effective cleanup of malware threats; Norton Insight, a database that helps identify known good or questionable programs and warn about ones that hog resources or are likely to crash; excellent antiphishing capability that can even identify sites too new to appear in a database of known frauds; the Identity Safe password-management and form-filling feature; Norton Management, which makes it easy to handle licenses for all protected computers online if you use multiple Norton products; and more. But all these features are essentially the same in Norton 360, version 6.0 as in the latest version of Norton Internet Security. And users considering buying Norton 360, version 6.0 for its tuneup features should know that similar software is available for free: Piriform, for example, makes both the excellent Speccy for system analysis and Defraggler for disk optimization.

     As so often these days with Norton products, the decision comes down to cost and convenience. Norton Internet Security does almost everything that Norton 360, version 6.0 does, but the new Norton 360 has a simpler and cleaner main screen and several additional elements built in. Both security suites integrate all their elements flawlessly and run efficiently in the background without requiring any significant user input – although users who do want to tweak things certainly can. Many of the functions of both suites are available elsewhere for free, but freeware programs can interfere with each other, offer little or no support (Norton users get free assistance throughout the license term), and require users to update them individually rather than through Norton’s automatic live-update feature. Norton 360, version 6.0 offers tremendous peace of mind at a reasonable price, if scarcely a low one; users who do not need its added elements or will not use them often will be more than satisfied with Norton Internet Security 2012. No one will go wrong with either.