April 25, 2013
Snippet the Early Riser. By Bethanie Deeney Murguia. Knopf. $15.99.
Ribbit! By Rodrigo Folgueira. Illustrated by Poly Bernatene. Knopf. $15.99.
Fancy Nancy: Puppy Party. By Jane O’Connor. Cover illustration by Robin Preiss Glasser. Interior illustrations by Carolyn Bracken. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The central characters in these books for very young readers practically ooze charm. And that’s not all that Snippet oozes – he is, after all, a snail, even if he does have a shell that appears to be made of patched denim. Snippet is clearly not a very realistic snail, and that matters not at all in this story of a family whose members have different waking-and-sleeping patterns. Snippet likes to get up early and start playing, but his parents and sister (each sporting a differently colored and patterned shell) prefer to sleep late. Snippet is otherwise just an ordinary snail who happens to make sculptures, play soccer with pillbugs (using them as balls), and love piggyback rides atop his parents’ shells. (Anyone who wants some facts about real snails can find them on the book’s inside front and back covers.) Bethanie Deeney Murguia shows Snippet and his family curling up for the night underneath a leaf – a place where snails really do sleep – and then shows Snippet’s vain attempts to get everyone up the next morning. Various bug friends offer to help Snippet get the family to wake up, but the suggestions by Grasshopper, Cricket, Ant and Firefly do not work, and Snippet declines Stinkbug’s offer to “stink them out.” Then Snippet, watching Caterpillar having his breakfast of leaves, has an idea of his own, and manages to get everyone up while serving them breakfast in bed, snail style. So all goes well, and everyone has a great time all day, and then – well, as the day draws to a close, it is Snippet who falls asleep while everyone else stays awake, setting the stage for a repeat of the whole process the next morning. Snippet the Early Riser has no message beyond the soft-pedaled one of accepting other people’s differing circadian rhythms, but it does not need any message – it is simply a warmly amusing tale, nicely told and very pleasantly illustrated.
However, there is a message in Rodrigo Folgueira’s Ribbit! From the way the book starts, with Poly Bernatene’s wholly apt picture of a pink piglet sitting on a rock in the middle of a pond and talking frog talk – to the consternation of all the frogs – you might expect the message to be along the lines of, “Be yourself.” But that is not it at all. Folgueira and Bernatene turn the book into a small mystery story about a very cute but apparently clueless piglet and a set of animals trying to figure out just what is going on. The raccoon, weasel and parrot who come to see the strange little pig cannot offer the frogs any clues, so the chief frog decides to pay a visit to “the wise old beetle,” who is usually unapproachable but will surely help out in this particular case. The frogs and other animals, “all talking at once,” try to explain the oddity to the beetle, who decides he had better head for the pond and see for himself what is going on. And when he arrives, he finds – nothing. The piglet is gone. Now the animals are really puzzled, but the beetle gives them an offhand suggestion that comes to them as a revelation – proving his wisdom and sending all the animals off to find out where the piglet has gone so they can join him in a hilarious final page that clearly provides the message that friendship conquers all.
The perky personality of Fancy Nancy is always front-and-center in Jane O’Connor’s books about her. But she shares the limelight in Fancy Nancy: Puppy Party with her dog, Frenchy, for whom Nancy and her parents are making a birthday party – complete with a bacon-chicken-carrot layer cake with yogurt icing and rawhide strings instead of candles. The scene of Nancy giving Frenchy a pre-party bubble bath as Mom looks on, nonplussed by the mess all over the bathroom, is delightful, and later scenes of the other dogs and people arriving for the party are almost as much fun. This is a short book and not one with a very surprising plot – the dogs will romp and play together, and of course that beautifully crafted cake is going to wind up a total mess; and that is exactly what happens. But all the guests, canine and human, are so good-natured about everything, and the pictures of the delightful sloppiness are so amusing, that dog-owning families are likely to be tempted to try a canine birthday party of their own – although perhaps one a little less exciting than this. Fancy Nancy’s perkiness shines through everything, even when she scolds Frenchy for jumping on the cake and then finds herself giggling along with everyone else at what has happened. By the final page and Nancy’s comment that Frenchy considers the party “the greatest birthday celebration ever,” readers will be thoroughly charmed – as is so often the case in stories about the très charmant Fancy Nancy and her pleasantly indulgent family.
Mustache Baby. By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Clarion. $16.99.
Destiny, Rewritten. By Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” states Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But it is a fair bet that even Shakespeare never considered the fated power of the mustache. Bridget Heos makes up for this unjustifiable omission with Mustache Baby, an absolutely hilarious book about a baby named Billy who happens to be born with a mustache – which, the nurse says, is sure to assert itself over time as a good-guy or bad-guy type. Joy Ang’s picture-perfect illustrations show just what that means, as the family watches with a mixture of hope and trepidation to see whether Billy will become a good or bad mustache-wearer. Goodness seems ahead at first, and there are multiple marvelous scenes of Billy as a helpful cowboy, a pint-size policeman, and even a pilot, sword fighter and doctor. But, alas, after a while, the ends of Billy’s mustache start to curl up, and soon he accordingly turns evil, for example becoming “a train robber so heartless that he even stole the tracks.” But just as he makes his getaway from a bank robbery (a piggy-bank robbery), Mom catches him and puts him immediately into jail…that is, his crib. Later, Heos explains, “his mother busted him out” and reassured him that “everybody has a bad-mustache day now and then.” The book ends with a very surprising playdate – but its real charm is in the way the story connects the mustachioed Billy with every toddler and post-toddler everywhere, prone to periods of sweetness and times of tantrums, occasions of obedience and others of mischief-making for its own sake. Billy, despite his appearance, could be any preschooler, and those young readers who happen not to possess a mustache of their own will nevertheless recognize their own feelings and behaviors in this charming book – provided that adults read it with them and point out the parallels.
Older kids can do their own reading about what destiny means and does not mean in the story of 11-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis, who has been told that the fact that she is named after Emily Dickinson means that she too will become a great poet. The Dickinson connection is explicit – Emily has a first edition of Dickinson’s poems in which her mother has noted highlights of Emily’s life, including the name of the father Emily has never met. But the book goes missing, and of course that is symbolic of Emily not knowing where she is in life and where she is going to go. Emily is a fairly straightforward character, accompanied in her search for the book by a more-intellectual best friend and a younger cousin with his own confirmed notions of how mysteries are solved (with Morse code, among other things). Emily also writes a series of letters to Danielle Steel, who is about as un-Dickinsonian a writer as can be imagined. The quest here is largely free of intense emotion (despite the issue of Emily’s father), and the interactions among the young protagonists are nicely handled. The chapter titles frequently deal with the “destiny” theme: “The way the tree sitters planned to change the destiny of a cluster of old oak trees,” “The odds of being dumped in front of a store that was supposed to be across town but might be here instead,” “The way standing in a shower can win you the Nobel Peace Prize,” “The acorn that was supposed to be an olive branch,” and so on. The book is, of course, a coming-of-age story and a learning-who-you-really-are story, and the comparative mildness of Emily’s search is actually a relief when compared with all the angst-fraught preteen adventures that dominate young-adult publishing nowadays. The “destiny” angle is somewhat overwrought, though, and the plotting is such that when a chapter appears called “The possibilities that appear when you least expect them to,” readers are not likely to be at all surprised. Destiny, Rewritten is a (+++) book that is pleasantly rather than frenetically paced – a plus – but has a bit too much mildness about it. For example, Emily is naïve to the point of complete innocence, but there is no problem with her going to all sorts of places unsupervised. That is, she is quite unworldly, and the world in which she lives seems rather unworldly, too. There is an inevitable and thoroughly unsurprising happy ending that readers who care for Emily will surely enjoy; it is all in line with one of Emily’s letters to Steel, which says, “everyone’s life changes in the end, leaving them happier than they ever expected to be.”
The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health’s 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions. By Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., and Katherine Brooking, M.S., R.D. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.
Here we have, at conservative estimate, about the 2,345,678th diet book published in the last, say, three weeks. Except it is really not that cookie-cutter a work, or it would scarcely be worthy of notice at all – the flood of this diet and that diet and the other diet has nearly reached saturation point, and the only reason publishers are not embarrassed is that the books continue to sell to an ever-heavier nation in which people are looking, once and for all, for the simple solution to being overweight.
News flash: there isn’t one. The way you lose weight is by eating less. If you couple that with exercising more – not even necessarily formal exercise, but pretty much anything that gets you in motion regularly and keeps you there until your heart rate rises and you work up a sweat – you will do even better, because your metabolism will increase and the reduced amount of food that you eat will be processed more quickly and efficiently, and will help you build muscle rather than fat (which is simply the body’s storage place for energy not needed now but possibly required in the future).
The two registered dietitians who founded Appetite for Health – yes, one of the 2,345,678 Web sites devoted to this subject; you can check it out at www.appforhealth.com – have the good sense to address the diet issue as a behavioral one above all. And they go beyond the usual “don’t snack while watching TV” admonitions to address 101 behaviors that they deem “Fat Habits,” and then offer “Slim Solutions” to every one of them.
This approach will not appeal to everyone; for that matter, it won’t work for everyone. But it is clever, internally consistent and has the potential to help those people who do follow it take weight off and, believe it or not, keep it off. Fat Habit #80, for example, talks about living in a neighborhood that helps make you fat by being filled with “innocent-looking delis or convenient 7-Elevens [that] are just waiting to lure you in and tempt you.” This is a genuinely unusual viewpoint, and so are the recommendations that Julie Upton and Katherine Brooking make: don’t leave home on an empty stomach; keep good-for-you snacks with you to eat if you get hungry while out and about; if you know your usual route takes you past a place whose food is too tempting to resist, plan an alternative route and stick to it. This sort of creativity permeates The Real Skinny and is the best reason to read it. But the recommendations often carry the seeds of their own potential destruction – what if, for example, that much-too-tempting place happens to be next door to your office or your children’s day-care center?
Still, every listed Fat Habit, even the questionable ones, will make sense for some people. If you deliberately avoid eating fat because you think it makes you fat (Fat Habit #31), for example, the authors say to get real: “fat is essential to your health,” but you must learn which fats are good and which are not, and plan your eating accordingly. Fat Habit #39 is an intriguing one: it says that vegetarians need not be concerned about getting fat. Wrong, say Upton and Brooking: “Being a vegetarian does not guarantee you good health or a healthy weight if your calories are coming from the wrong foods.” Their Slim Solution is to count calories, eat a variety of foods, and be sure you get proper nutrition – nothing unusual or exceptional there, but the habit itself is one you would not expect to see listed.
Upton and Brooking also offer recipes and many specific suggestions about what to eat – for example, in dealing with Fat Habit #85, which relates to knowing what to do but having trouble planning how to do it. The authors also spend some time, inevitably, discussing exercise, and here the Fat Habits are not unusual at all: #89 is about not having enough time, #90 about being self-conscious, and so on. Nor are the Slim Solutions anything out of the ordinary, ranging from making good use of the time you do have to “just try something [and] you’ll feel more self-assured and more confident.” Still, if not everything in The Real Skinny is surprising or innovative, that is just the way things are: again, the only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.
“Losing weight is a relatively easy proposition,” write Upton and Brooking. “Eat fewer calories than your body requires and you lose weight. Keeping it off, however, is another story.” And that is the issue that The Real Skinny addresses, sometimes in clever ways and sometimes in mundane ones. Like other self-help books – whether related to food or to anything else – it will not help unless you bring to it an open mind and a willingness to invest time and mental energy (physical energy, too) in its recommendations. Motivation is one thing that no authors can supply. But if you are feeling frustrated at your inability to stay at a weight you find comfortable – which is different from getting to a target weight – then The Real Skinny is certainly worth reading. Search for the Fat Habits that seem most applicable to you – not all of them will apply to everyone, by a long shot – and see whether making a few changes along the lines of the book’s Slim Solutions seems to help you stabilize your weight. If so, that may be all the motivation you need to try even more of the recommendations here. Not all of them are for everybody, but there is enough good sense in the book so that most people will be able to find at least a few techniques that will be helpful in their individual situations.
The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way around the World. By Matt Gross. Da Capo. $15.99.
Otherworld Chronicles #1: The Invisible Tower. By Nils Johnson-Shelton. Harper. $6.99.
Otherworld Chronicles #2: The Seven Swords. By Nils Johnson-Shelton. Harper. $16.99.
Travelogues have a long and honorable history, as well as a sometimes checkered one (think of Gulliver’s Travels). Matt Gross, editor of BonApppetit.com and a frequent contributor to the New York Times travel section, certainly fits The Turk Who Loved Apples into the historical pattern, but readers not familiar with or enamored of the style of the Times should be forewarned that this book, broken down into a sufficient number of parts, would fit into that newspaper’s pages very well indeed; indeed, these are basically newspaper and magazine essays, modified to form a book-like connected narrative. What Gross does is elitist travel posing as “getting to know people” – travel in which he disdains tour guides, guidebooks and travel agents and uses the Internet only in limited ways. There is abundant room for First World guilt and soul-searching about Third World countries, for instance, presented in the vocabulary and the adjectival and adverbial style favored by the Times and other “high-class” media and sometimes making it seem that travel writers are paid by the word: “Spend twenty-four hours in Southeast Asia, of course, and you’ve got a history with hookers. They are tragically, stereotypically, everywhere. …They can be aggressive, bashful, bipolar, stoned, confused, haughty, alluring. …And this is only the beginning – there’s a whole rainbow of prostitutes, an infinite spectrum of the savvy and the innocent, the willing and the enslaved, the vigorous and the ailing and the desperate. …Are you supposed to be offended by the intrusion of their presence into your vacation? Or amused, as if they’re scenery in the louche, Third World atmosphere?” Much of the book is like this – very well written in a very New York if not quite New Yorker style, elevated and erudite and seeming to stand back from and examine experience even while experiencing it. It is scarcely surprising that Gross names Argentina and Vietnam as his favorite countries among the 60-plus he has visited – because of their “energy.” And it is equally unsurprising that he has little interest in returning to Germany or Croatia, which he found “boring” in their resolutely ordinary (to him) everyday pace of life. Gross says the best way to enjoy travel – and keep it affordable, although it is hard to imagine him really “roughing it” – is to make friends with the locals and let them help you with their natural hospitality and warmth. This is surely a wonderful experience when it happens, and it is surely more likely in a genuinely unplanned “losing my way” trip than in a carefully guided and managed one (although Gross never seems really to lose his way, even when he gets lost here and there). Gross is more than a privileged American – he is a privileged American journalist, frequently traveling on assignment and on someone else’s money, and all his protestations of simply being a tourist evaporate whenever he pauses for self-consideration, as when he cannot figure out what to write about Chongqing: “…I considered fleeing not just the city but the country. Could Cathay rebook me to Hong Kong or Japan? …This trip was an adjunct to an assignment for another magazine; it would barely cost the Times a thing; it would be okay.” Gross certainly writes well – in a particular style that some will like and others loathe; and whatever you may call him or he may call himself, he is certainly well-traveled and has met and written about some very interesting people. Probably The Turk Who Loved Apples will be of most interest as a book to carry along while traveling to some of the places that Gross has visited – assuming your sensibilities are more or less the same as his.
Travels in imaginary lands have the advantage that they can be arranged just as the author wishes them to be – think again of Gulliver’s Travels – but when those lands are designed for exploration by preteens, as in the Otherworld Chronicles series, they tend to have certain predictable characteristics. In fact, much of the fun of the first two books in Nils Johnson-Shelton’s sequence comes from watching Artie and Kay Kingfisher go on predictable quests in predictable ways with some predictable results – but with everything just sufficiently skewed so that readers will not quite know what is coming next. The basic plot here is a familiar one for a modern preteen novel series, involving a video game whose setting is real in a parallel dimension of some sort (Vivian Vande Velde, among others, has used this trope successfully several times for this age group of readers). What is also familiar, with a character named Art(ie) King(fisher), is that the protagonist turns out to be a reincarnation of King Arthur, complete with nobility and quest requirements and Knights of the Round Table and all that. But these unsurprising elements are nicely handled by Johnson-Shelton, who has a good sense of plot pacing and does not delay the expected revelations – he gets them out of the way quickly so he can develop the story. The King Arthur element, for example, shows up within 30 pages of the start of the first book: “I know much about you, Arthur. You have nothing to fear from me. You are my king! You are my king and I am now and forevermore at your service!” Johnson-Shelton does a reasonably good job of leavening the adventure with levity, thanks in part to his chapter titles, most being of the “In Which” variety: “In Which Artie Wonders, What the Heck Is a Font, Anyway?” “In Which Artie and Kay Are Tested One More Freaking Time.” “In Which Artie Plays a Little Let’s Make a Deal!” “In Which Merlin Apologizes for Being an Insensitive Wizard.” And as for plot – well, in The Invisible Tower, originally published last year and now available in paperback, Artie learns of his kingly provenance and, having won the video game about Otherworld, has to find a way to save the real Otherworld, which comes complete with wolves and dragons and all those sorts of things. In The Seven Swords, the newly published second book, Artie must send his knights to find the swords of the title; he must battle giants and ogres and all those sorts of things; and he needs to deal with a few surprises, such as the fact that the Peace Sword turns out to be the weapon used by Mordred to kill the original King Arthur. There are enough twists and turns in the Otherworld Chronicles to keep the series interesting – and it is a series, not just a two-book sequence. Nevertheless, the formulaic plot elements both in “quest” terms and in “video game” terms somewhat hold back the entertainment value of Johnson-Shelton’s books. The novels are not quite romps, not quite adventures to be taken seriously, not fully innovative but not entirely derivative. They are a blend of pluses and minuses, more positive than negative on the whole, but ultimately best for readers who enjoy dialogue along these lines (Kay speaking to Artie): “Far out, Your Kingliness.”
Windows 8 Upgrade. Microsoft. $120. (Pro version with enhanced data protection and Remote Desktop Connection feature, $200.) Various discounts available.
Microsoft made a number of bold decisions, some better than others, in developing and launching its latest operating system. For the first time since the days of Windows 3.1, it probably had no choice. The world’s biggest software company is the world’s biggest because of two primary product lines: operating systems and its Office productivity suite. Both products are strongly tied to creativity using personal computers, but the move of users away from desktops and laptops has become a major and widely reported trend, with significant implications throughout the industry. Ignoring the trend would imperil Microsoft’s very underpinnings and its preeminence in the software field. But embracing it fully creates a serious problem: portable devices such as smartphones and tablets are very poor for content creation – they are small, clumsy and generally lack the power of desktop and laptop machines. Although this may not always be true – users who grow up with a significantly reduced form factor and a focus on mobility will surely learn, over time, to produce creative material with portable units of various types – for now, Microsoft cannot afford to turn its back on the desktop-and-laptop-based world in which it made its mark and where it still dominates other companies by far.
And so we have Windows 8, an operating system that tries to straddle the line between traditional and mobile computing. Like most compromises and transitional products, it is not fully satisfying from either perspective; but unlike most, it is more satisfying than not in both uses. The new operating system is designed for phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and servers, has a strong emphasis on touchscreen capabilities, and is very clearly intended primarily for non-work purposes. It is fun to use and makes consuming information more enjoyable than any previous Windows version, but it makes producing documents and presentations more difficult – relying, implicitly, on the understandable conservatism of corporations that makes them very unlikely to abandon Windows-based computing even when an operating system is not created with their needs in mind.
Microsoft can get away with this in Windows 8 and maybe Windows 8.5 (if Microsoft creates one), but probably not when Windows 9 or Windows 10 comes along – by that time, a few years down the road, either there will be a much larger move to mobile and touchscreen computing, or Microsoft will have to think more seriously about the implications of its design for the users who form the backbone of its success.
In any case, what we have now is Microsoft’s determination to maintain a single core operating system for multiple uses, and one that has a single graphical user interface (GUI). This is good for people who regularly switch among various hardware platforms and good for developers, who can create programs – which, yes, Microsoft has now joined the crowd in calling “apps” – for a single operating system and have them function on a multitude of devices. The Windows 8 GUI, called Modern (previously, and less pleasantly, “Metro”), is attractive to look at, a snap to use on mobile devices, and often very frustrating in an office environment. Its non-overlapping Start Screen windows (called tiles), which are customizable in certain ways but not in others, are clearly touch-based, as are its basic controls. The look is so stripped-down as to be sparse – which is not an issue on smartphone or tablet screens, but does make a difference on larger monitors in an office. Use of the Start Screen’s tiles is intelligent and largely intuitive on a touch basis, but clumsy and uncomfortable when using a keyboard and mouse. This is a great operating system for phone and tablet users who want to spend their time visiting social networks, going shopping, and watching YouTube videos – and it is a significantly more-secure Windows than ever, which is a major enhancement that will be particularly important to mobile users, even if they are unaware of it. Windows 8 makes it easy to find, download and install apps (which, as part of the improved security, must be Microsoft-approved), and it simply looks good enough to compete with anything running Apple or Android operating systems.
The reality is that Windows 8 is deliberately designed for information consumers, not for information creators, and it may be that Microsoft sees “knowledge workers” as a decreasing part of its market – which, statistically, is an accurate perception, since the total worldwide use of mobile devices is growing far faster than the use of any computing devices for creative purposes. Add in the fact that even though Microsoft had $18 billion in revenue from operating systems last year, that is less than one-quarter of its total revenue, and you have a good reason for the company to focus on mobile users interested primarily in entertainment rather than on office workers in creative environments – whose organizations are generally slow to adopt new operating systems anyway.
So, to be fair to Windows 8, it is necessary to look at what it does rather than what it does not do. And what it does is really very impressive. In addition to its enhanced security, this operating system boots and shuts down considerably more quickly than Windows 7 did. It allows easy connectivity – part of its overall mobile focus – so users can enter a single user name and password on Microsoft’s Live.com and have instant authentication for tablets, desktops and laptops. Windows 8 verifies each time it starts that it has not been tampered with (Microsoft calls this Secure Boot); it updates daily and automatically; and it includes antivirus software that is enabled by default.
Windows 8 largely turns its back on multitasking – a major strength of prior Microsoft operating systems for knowledge workers, but a potential confusion for people who simply want to obtain and use information simply. The tiles on the Start Screen represent installed apps; click a tile and the application fills the screen; but there is no way to see multiple apps or Web pages at the same time (although it is possible to split the screen between two apps – but only by having one app take up most of the screen and the other take up only a sliver of it). To switch applications, users return to the Start Screen and click on another tile – no big deal for mobile devices, but an irritation in an office environment. Furthermore, the new Charms feature is really oriented 100% toward touchscreens: it is a set of hidden menus accessible by swiping toward the right side of a touchscreen, but reachable with a mouse only by the awkward process of bringing the cursor to a corner of the screen, then moving the mouse downward, then clicking on whatever Charm you may want – such as the on/off/sleep control. This is an underlying characteristic of the new Windows 8 interface: to keep things simple and elegant-looking, Microsoft hides important information under multiple clicks of a mouse or multiple touchscreen layers – a minor inconvenience for smartphone and tablet information consumers but a significant one for knowledge workers.
The easiest way around the inconveniences for Windows 8 for people seeking to create information rather than consume it is simply to go to the desktop, which is still part of the operating system and easy to place as a tile on the Start Screen – then just click the tile and the desktop appears (as an alternative, you can press the Windows key + D). Yes, this move from Start Screen to desktop is an extra step, but it is a small one, and if it becomes a real irritant, there are numerous free or low-cost third-party apps that eliminate it and let you boot directly to the desktop, as in Windows 7. But unless the extra few seconds seem really crucial, there is little reason to use those apps, because the Modern interface or something very like it is the direction in which all operating systems are going. Becoming accustomed to this is a good idea – and really, an extra click or two will not slow anyone down.
What does take getting used to is what happens when you are on the desktop in Windows 8: Microsoft has eliminated the Start button, a notorious design decision that the company says is irreversible but that it really ought to rethink. There are other ways to get to all the Start functions in Windows 8; and, again, there are free or low-cost third-party apps to restore the button. But in this case, unlike the Start Screen situation, it is hard to see the benefit of living with Microsoft’s change, especially since Windows 8 no longer has controls in a consistent place. Leaving the Start button as a beacon of consistency would seem to be sensible. For that matter, additional status bars and menus would be very helpful in the knowledge-worker environment – the stripped-down presentation of information in Windows 8, while entirely appropriate for small screens and information consumers, is an ongoing annoyance on the information-creation side of things. It can be fun to discover certain unexpected features of Windows 8 – for example, if you are searching for something specific, you can simply start typing directly on the Start Screen, and the search box will open automatically. But if you just want to get down to creative work, Windows 8 does not make that easy – and is not designed to do so.
When you think about it, what Microsoft has done with Windows 8 is the opposite of what it has done in the past. Several times in recent history, it has tried to take its big-screen, office-oriented interface and modify it for use on small screens – and the results were very poor, causing many people to write Microsoft off as a major player in an increasingly mobile world. Windows 8 shows that rumors of Microsoft’s collapse were vastly premature. Windows 8 is a small-screen interface from the start, elegantly designed and fully competitive with the offerings from Apple and Google. It will be a real pleasure for phone and tablet users, unlike previous repurposed Microsoft operating systems. But this time, what the company has done is to start with a small-screen orientation and adapt it to larger screens and an office environment. That transfers the awkwardness from mobile users to knowledge workers – and, based strictly on numbers, that is the right thing for Microsoft to do. The explosion of worldwide use of mobile devices and the ongoing move toward touchscreens either in tiny phone size or somewhat larger tablet size mean that first-time users of hardware are far more likely to be information consumers than information producers – and far more likely to value simplicity and attractiveness than adaptability and multifunctional capability. Microsoft got Windows 8 right for a changing world – and of course there is nothing compelling business users and other content creators from switching to the new operating system (many are only now making the change from XP to Windows 7, having bypassed Vista entirely).
Windows 8 is not all things to everyone – and is not intended to be. Microsoft has seen the future of computing devices, a future that extends well beyond the customary notion of computers, and has taken the first step toward producing an operating system that will thrive in that future. Windows 8 works perfectly well, if sometimes frustratingly, with legacy hardware, which is what desktop and laptop computers are becoming – and it is worth remembering that all Windows operating systems are themselves built upon Microsoft’s ultimate legacy product, MS-DOS. Windows 8 has flaws and frustrations, but it shows that Microsoft has figured out where the world of information consumption is going – and has staked out a strong position there. This operating system may not be a game changer, but Windows 8 shows that Microsoft remains a game player, and is determined to embrace a future that will look very different to users from the computing past.
Offenbach: 3 X Offenbach—based on Renato Mordo’s triptych “Dreimal Offenbach,” including “Die kleine Zauberflöte” (“Le fifre enchanté” ou “Le soldat magicien”), “Die Verlobung bei der Laterne” (“Le mariage aux lanternes”), and “Die Insel Tulipatan” (“L’ile de Tulipatan”). Alfons Holte, Karl Diekmann, Gabrielle Treskow, Eva Kasper, Ditha Sommer, Erika Wien, Sanders Schier, Fritz Ollendorff, Anni Körner; Orchester der Deutschen Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Leo Fall: The Rose of Stambul. Kimberly McCord, Alison Kelly, Erich Buchholz, Gerald Frantzen, Robert Morrissey; Chicago Folks Operetta conducted by John Frantzen. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Rediscoveries of little-known music and little-known recordings can bring enormous pleasure to the very small sampling of music lovers interested in a particular niche – sometimes a niche within a niche. Or, in the case of 3 X Offenbach, two separate niches – that of the composer’s very-little-known one-act works and that of performances conducted by Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004). Kleiber was a superb conductor and a very quirky personality even by the standards of conductors, which is saying quite a bit. His entire discography, before the rediscovery of 3 X Offenbach, amounted to 12 CDs – a real shame, since his performances attained near-legendary stature and the recordings that do survive remain in many cases at the absolute pinnacle of interpretative quality. As for Offenbach, listeners who know only a few of his works are unaware that he created nearly 100 stage pieces in such well-known forms as opera and operetta and such related forms – many of them invented by Offenbach himself – as opérette bouffe, opérette fantastique, opéra comique, opéra bouffe, opéra féerie, opéra bouffes féeries, opéra bouffon, bouffonnerie musicale, saynète, revue, and pièce d’occasion. Small wonder that Offenbach’s creativity was considered supreme for a time – and not just because Orphée aux enfers was the first full-length classical operetta. Offenbach’s early music was hamstrung by a French law, not changed until 1858, that restricted musical theater works other than grand opera to three singers and perhaps some mute characters. Even after the law changed, Offenbach created many pieces in or based on this restricted mode – and they were often quite wonderful. But they are very rarely performed nowadays – which brings us to 3 X Offenbach, in which three one-act amusements, translated into German, were turned into a full evening’s entertainment by Austrian director Renato Mordo. Kleiber conducted 3 X Offenbach in his first performance at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 1962; a performance later that year was recorded; and that performance was broadcast in July 1963 – and has now been released by Profil. However, there is more to this story: the professional recording was lost, apparently destroyed, and what is heard in remastered but genuinely execrable sound on Profil is based on two amateur recordings made of the radio broadcast – except that one recorder failed part of the way through the performance, so only the second one was available for Die Insel Tulipatan. In some ways a comedy of errors, in some ways a tragedy of lost opportunity, the recording of Kleiber’s 3 X Offenbach is a delight for anyone interested in the conductor and anyone interested in less-known Offenbach sung in German. (Actually, Offenbach was German, and his works were often performed in translation. In fact, Orphée aux enfers was first heard on Broadway in German translation, in 1861.) The performances are bright, bouncy, swift (Kleiber conducts with tremendous energy), and sometimes weightier than expected (Kleiber clearly saw Offenbach as a more-substantial composer than many deem him to be). The sound restoration must have been a Herculean task, and it is sad to have to say that the result is still poor. Modern listeners unfamiliar with tape hiss and “wow” (which occurred when audio tape stretched during recording, causing distortion on playback) will soon learn what they are from this recording and will not likely enjoy the experience. 3 X Offenbach reaches out to a very small audience, but members of the group will greet it with enthusiasm.
There is enjoyment as well in Leo Fall’s The Rose of Stambul, but here too the pleasure will reach out to a limited group – although not because of the Naxos recording, whose quality is quite good, and not because of the English-language 2011 performance by Chicago Folks Operetta, which is also very well done and in which the translation (here from German) does no harm to the work. The issue here is simply that this work by Fall (1873-1925) is not very substantial. Fall was scarcely the only composer of his time to be fascinated by the “exoticism” of life in Turkey at the time of the Ottoman Empire, which was in the process of collapse when The Rose of Stambul was first produced in 1916. No less than Sir Arthur Sullivan had used a very similar setting in his last completed stage work, The Rose of Persia (1899; libretto by Basil Hood). But while Sullivan’s work nicely balanced its exotic setting with some very Mikado-like machinations and confusions, Fall’s – with libretto by Robert Bodanzky (1879-1923) – essentially has only one very weak plot point: Kondja Gul, daughter of Kemal Pasha, is ordered by her father to marry Achmed Bey, but is in love with French poet André Lery, whom she has never met – and who turns out to be Achmed Bey’s nom de plume. The comedy, such as it is, comes from Kondja’s simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the same man. There is the usual “second couple” of operetta – Midili, one of Kondja’s companions, and Fridolin Müller, timid son of a German businessman. There is some moderately amusing business in Act III, set in “The Honeymoon Hotel” in Switzerland, where everything is eventually worked out. But other scenes, such as the wedding night in which Kondja locks Achmed out of the bedroom and flees, carry neither pathos nor much fun. And the underlying premise of The Rose of Stambul, about the confinement of women in the Ottoman realm (Stambul is another name for Istanbul) and their inability to act, think or love as they wish, is belied by what actually happens, when both Midili and Kondja leave the harem and head for Switzerland without any apparent difficulty. There are overly silly scenes for Fridolin – in one of which he dresses as a woman and sings falsetto, and in another of which he repeatedly insists that his new bride, Midili, call him “snookie.” And while there are some memorable numbers in The Rose of Stambul, including one with the neat translation, “Love filled with fire and passion unfolds in a magical way./ Love in the Viennese fashion is what we should practice today,” Fall belabors the good tunes and repeats them so often that they start to lose their charm. The singers are fine in this performance, and John Frantzen keeps the pace up and the plot moving forward. But The Rose of Stambul is just too frothy to have much staying power. In its time, it was immensely popular; now, however, it comes across as a period piece that contains some amusing moments and some pleasant music, but not enough of either to make it seem a significant rediscovery.
April 18, 2013
Tiptoe Joe. By Ginger Foglesong Gibson. Illustrated by Laura Rankin. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
A Special Gift for Grammy. By Jean Craighead George. Illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Harper. $17.99.
Splat the Cat: The Perfect Present for Mom & Dad. By Annie Auerbach. Cover art by Rob Scotton. Interior art by Rick Farley and Joe Merkel. HarperFestival. $4.99.
The Berenstain Bears: We Love Our Mom! By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The Berenstain Bears: We Love Our Dad! By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
There is something particularly loving about springtime, when the world grows green and flowery – and although there are specific “love” holidays in the form of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, they are scarcely the sole expressions of caring and warmth in a season in which the days grow longer and move toward the sultry. Books for children ages 4-8 seem especially open and unaffected in this season. Tiptoe Joe, for example, is not tied directly to any specific holiday or occurrence, but it is a very loving and very cute book all the same. The title character is a huge brown bear wearing a perpetual smile and a pair of sneakers. He looks just ridiculous enough to bring a smile to any young reader’s face – and when he waves directly to readers, breaking the so-called “fourth wall” that normally keeps characters boxed within a book, he is altogether winning. The story is super-simple: Tiptoe Joe meets several other animals and tells each to “come with me./ I know something you should see.” And each animal – donkey, rabbit, turkey, moose, owl and beaver – duly follows along, making more noise than does Tiptoe Joe himself (although not too much more). And the surprise that Tiptoe Joe eventually reveals to them all is as adorable and sweet as can be.
A Special Gift for Grammy is a much more complicated and thoughtful book for the same age range. It is about a boy named Hunter who gives his grandmother a gift: a pile of stones that he has picked up, one by one, from the road. Hunter’s father asks what they are for, and Hunter says Grammy will do “what everyone does with a pile of stones.” His father agrees – and so does Grammy after she asks the same question and gets the same answer. What is neat is what Grammy does do with the stones – or rather what other people do with them in their interactions with her. The stones turn out to be very useful to a number of people, in some straightforward but also very clever ways. And at last there are just six small stones left. When Hunter returns to Grammy’s house, he figures out what five of the six represent – and then Grammy figures out how to keep those stones very close to her heart. And the very last stone? Grammy and Hunter enjoy that one together in an ending that makes perfect sense and lovingly cements a tale of multigenerational understanding.
Books targeted specifically at Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are often more straightforward than this. Splat the Cat: The Perfect Present for Mom & Dad works equally well for either “parental” day or for both – or, really, for neither, since Splat says he is simply making his parents a present “to show how much he loved them.” But the gift-making becomes competitive when Splat’s sister and brother decide to make presents for their parents, too, and Splat thinks that theirs are better than his. All three kittens are soon going back to work to make ever-better gifts, and then even better ones. But before things get completely out of hand, the three decide to make a present together – and, not surprisingly, create something elaborate that incorporates everything that have previously made. What this turns out to be is a homemade fish tank filled with objects created by the three kittens (Splat makes the fish) – and what the kittens then end up with is a hilarious conclusion in which some nearby seagulls find the tank so realistic that…well, let’s just say that the tank doesn’t last very long, and the three downcast kittens are left sighing, “Awww…” But at the very end, everyone is happy again, because Mom and Dad are delighted with the present (or what remains of it), and even more delighted with the thoughtfulness of the kittens who made it for them. A page of stickers provides extra fun in a book whose amusing silliness never displaces its underlying warmth of spirit.
Two new Berenstain Bears books are targeted directly at Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and are typically straightforward (+++) celebrations of wholesomeness, Bear Country style. The books are all about everyday family things that Mama Bear and Papa Bear do for their cubs. Theirs is a very traditional family: Mama cooks, sews clothes, heals minor injuries, does the laundry, gives baths and reads stories; Papa plays sports, pulls the kids’ sled, carries the cubs on his shoulders, and tells “funny stories and corny jokes.” In the Mother’s Day book, the cubs, inspired by a visit to their grandparents and a view of the older bears’ scrapbook, make a similar book for Mama, including pictures of “all the things that Mama would want to remember about her cubs growing up.” And of course Mama says it is “the most wonderful Mother’s Day gift I have ever gotten!” The cubs think of making a scrapbook for Papa, too – but Father’s Day comes later than Mother’s Day, and Brother Bear reminds Sister Bear that they “just gave Mama an album like that.” So the cubs, noticing that Papa is always doing work around the house, decide to make him “gift certificates” that he can redeem to have them do the chores. They follow him around, taking note of the many things he does, and give him a day off for Father’s Day – but it isn’t quite a day off, because the cubs can’t really get things done as well as Papa does, and they keep needing his help. This does not bother him at all: “I’m getting bored just watching TV. It’s more fun doing things with you.” So everyone works together, and then plays together, and Father’s Day proves to be as big a success as Mother’s Day was. As always, the Berenstain Bears books are old-fashioned and perhaps a little too perfectly pulled together for all tastes, but kids and parents who like the characters will certainly enjoy joining them for this latest seasonal celebration.
The How-To Handbook. By Martin Oliver and Alexandra Johnson. Zest Books. $10.99.
Liō: Making Friends. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Here are a couple of very different books whose positioning in the real world has a certain unreal feel about it. The How-To Handbook is, on the face of it, as real-world as they come. It is a very short (128-page) guide to doing all sorts of things that are part of everyday life but that young people – and, to be honest, allegedly full-fledged adults – may not know how to do…or how to find out how to do. What is the right way to catch a spider without harming it or yourself? How do you pitch a tent? What if you need to tie a bow tie? Is there a good way to pop a pimple? What do you do if you have a ring that just won’t come off? What is the best way to wash a car? Fold a fitted sheet? Unstick chewing gum? Extract a splinter? Make your own trail mix? Officially targeted at teenagers, The How-To Handbook is one of those items at which adults, if they are honest with themselves, will want to sneak an occasional peek. Martin Oliver and Alexandra Johnson boil down the information here to bare essentials, including very useful diagrams (for wrapping a package, for example) in addition to lots of purely illustrative pictures that break up the text and keep the overall feel of this essentially serious book on the light side. What gives the whole thing a slight air of unreality is the juxtaposition of such different information, all of it treated in matter-of-fact snippets. There are, for example, two pages on how to chop an onion – with six helpful illustrations and a warning box about paying attention when using sharp knives. Later, there is a single page on how to take a pulse to find out whether someone is alive or dead – and to determine how seriously injured the person may be. From pulses to produce, the information is given in a straightforward, accessible manner, but the amount of space devoted to each item seems a trifle odd when looked at from an “importance” perspective – fixing a flat bike tire, for example, gets four full pages, with diagrams, and involves 22 separate steps, while “help a choking victim” gets one page, four steps and no pictures. Of course, the real world itself is not always perfectly balanced, to put it mildly. So at least in some sense, the highly useful information in The How-To Handbook is simply presented in a way that reflects the organization, or disorganization, of everyday life.
The extent to which Mark Tatulli’s pantomime comic strip, Liō, does or does not take place in some sort of real world, is another matter altogether. And it is part of what makes this often-dark strip so much fun. Tatulli plays with reality constantly here, and plays with concepts as well: the new Liō book, Making Friends, actually has the title character assembling buddies by manufacturing robots. Many elements of Liō clearly take place in a real world of sorts: Liō encounters bullies, goes to school, has homework, lives with his father (whom Tatulli usually shows with one toe protruding through a sock), and has an unrequited crush on a girl named Eva Rose. And many of the odd elements of the strip are clearly intended to occur in the strip’s “real world”: Liō’s pet cephalopod interacts with many people, his father comforts him when one of Liō’s destructive robots self-destructs, dad insists Liō wear a helmet before taking off using his homemade jet pack, and Liō’s favorite TV channel – the Weird Kid Television Network – can be viewed by anyone so inclined. But what about items in Liō that cross some clear but unspecified line? How about the bomb that Eva Rose arranges to have dropped on Liō on his birthday (she is upset when it doesn’t go off)? Liō as Pied Piper, rescuing seafood from a restaurant – with lobsters, crabs and other water dwellers following him out the door? Liō selling tickets to kids for a climb up the magic beanstalk – while the giant stands menacingly behind him? Liō aboard a giant ant, leading other giant ants to a picnic? Liō being picked up and menaced by an angry plant that he is about to attack with weed killer? Liō driving a jingle-jangling truck with a brain mounted on top and being followed by eager zombies waving money? Liō taking payment from a witch to use his jet pack to fly around trailing a sign that says “Surrender Dorothy”? Liō’s “undead bunny” stuffed toy swallowing a bully whole and then needing “alka-tummy” for an upset stomach? How much of this happens in the world of father, school, stores and restaurants, and how much is entirely in Liō’s head? Tatulli isn’t saying, which is all to the good, because in addition to the many oddities of Liō, trying to figure out just what sort of reality, or alternative reality, or unreality the strip occupies is a major reason for reading and enjoying this very unusual comic creation.
Who Was Dracula? Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood. By Jim Steinmeyer. Tarcher/Penguin. $26.95.
Whether they are old, ugly and deeply evil or young, attractive and ambivalent in their loyalties and concerns, all modern-day versions of vampires ultimately take their cues from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. Whether today’s vampires are created in the mode of Stoker’s or deliberately developed in a different direction, Stoker’s character looms over them all. But where does Stoker’s vampire come from? That is the question that Jim Steinmeyer, author of several books about stage magic and stage history, sets out to answer in Who Was Dracula?
Many people today know that there was a historical figure called Dracula, a 15th-century ruler who was named Vlad the Impaler and known as “Dracula” (“son of the dragon”) and feared or celebrated widely – depending on which side you were on – for his bloodthirsty cruelty and his method of disposing of enemies by impaling their bodies and putting them on display. But a direct line from Wallachian prince Vlad Țepeș to Dracula cannot be drawn, Steinmeyer argues, because Stoker used the long-ago ruler’s name but grafted onto it characteristics of celebrities of the 19th century.
Stoker’s Dracula, says Steinmeyer, is “a pastiche of living historical characters,” specifically including poet Walt Whitman, playwright Oscar Wilde, famed stage star Henry Irving (whose biography Stoker wrote), and shadowy mass murderer Jack the Ripper. Using Stoker’s own notes and information on the history of the theater in Victorian London, examining the events in Stoker’s own life before Dracula and while he was creating the novel, Steinmeyer fascinatingly traces the creation of the book’s central character as an amalgamation of real-life but larger-than-life personalities. He also points out one of Stoker’s greatest accomplishments, which has allowed Dracula and vampires in general to be differently interpreted and reinterpreted for more than a century: Dracula, an epistolary novel, contains very little information about its title character, which means that a great deal about who or what Dracula is must be left to the reader’s imagination – an imagination that conjures up greater depth and more horrors than Stoker himself would have been able to present in his writing (which, as Steinmeyer points out, has a number of generally-agreed-upon flaws).
Steinmeyer’s theatrical knowledge and interests skew his analysis of Stoker and Dracula, but Stoker was, in fact, a man of the theater, and a great deal of what Steinmeyer argues or unearths makes sense. He points out, for example, that the Dracula with whom most people today are familiar is not Stoker’s but the character at the heart of a British play of the 1920s. Stoker’s own character, for all his comparatively small role in the book about him, is considerably deeper and stranger than most readers of Steinmeyer’s book will realize.
Steinmeyer is at times too determined to be scholarly in Who Was Dracula? The result is a style that tends to lurch and even bore: “The noted Dracula researcher Elizabeth Miller has demonstrated how Van Helsing’s account was completely drawn from [William] Wilkinson’s book and four other sources, as noted in Stoker’s papers, and then stitched together with assumptions.” Or: “The store consisted of many of the finest hand-painted drops, the most artistic castle interiors, cityscapes, and gardens, props, armor, platforms, and walls. It was the work of the finest scenic painters in the world, the designs of the finest technicians, the pictures that had formed the frame for Henry Irving’s artistry.” Much of this level of detail will be utterly fascinating for readers interested in theater history but decidedly less so for those looking for a greater focus on literary history and on Dracula in particular.
Some theatrical details, though, are telling and distinctly humanizing, such as the story of Irving’s love for his dog, a terrier named Fussie that died backstage after falling into an open trapdoor while trying to get a ham sandwich out of a coat that a workman had dropped on the floor. “Only after the performance did they break the sad news, each man removing his hat and bowing his head as poor Fussie was handed over to Irving.”
Scattered throughout the book are details about Stoker’s own life and career and how his creation of Dracula fit into them, plus considerable information on the people from whom Steinmeyer believes Stoker pulled together the character of his most famous literary creation. Not all of this will be equally enthralling to readers, but the portions of the book directly devoted to Dracula will be, such as the fact that Stoker singlehandedly created virtually all the elements of vampire lore that seem so familiar today – what vampires must do to continue to exist, the underlying sexuality of the vampire’s bite and the “spreading moral pestilence” it represents, how vampires can be destroyed, and much more. Also of considerable interest will be Steinmeyer’s information on Stoker’s original, more-elaborate ending of the novel, and on the inconsistencies within the book. Like Dracula itself, Steinmeyer’s book is sometimes overdone and not always elegant in style, but there is more than enough fascinating material in it to make it a highly worthwhile read for anyone wanting to know more about the real-world connections of the most famous vampire of them all.
Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century. By Marc Schoen, Ph.D., with Kristin Loberg. Hudson Street Press. $25.95.
Here is the latest repackaging of old wine in new bottles, old advice in new form, old thinking in new guise – yet done with enough élan and stylishness to make the whole presentation attractive and to refresh some ideas that have been around for quite some time. Marc Schoen, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, focuses in his classes on mind-body relationships and performance under pressure. Extending those notions to life outside the university, he talks in Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You about the often-invoked fight-or-flight response, here called Survival Instinct, and the fact that it is ill-suited to the modern world. Our bodies, integrally designed to perceive physical threats and automatically alter somatic processes so those threats can be faced head-on or escaped, nowadays exist in a nearly perpetual state of threat-related arousal, because so many events of everyday life are perceived as dangerous in non-physical ways – and our hormonal and nervous systems have no way to distinguish emotional or mental discomforts from genuine life-or-death emergencies.
This perception is nothing new; it underlies many studies, medical and self-help and pop-culture, of stress, relaxation, hormonal balance, and so forth. But Schoen and Kristin Loberg – whose specific contributions to the book are not enumerated, but presumably involve making the whole thing coherent and as presentable as possible – come up with some new ways to evaluate the state of chronic discomfort that they call “agitance” (the word itself being one of those new elements). There is, for example, the “agitance checklist” of 32 questions designed to measure “activities or behaviors that typically stoke” this state of perpetual, albeit often low-level, discomfort. The questions are perfectly reasonable: “Do you find it difficult to slow down?” “Are you uncomfortable in idle time without structure?” “Do you find it difficult to turn off your mind at bedtime?” “When you think about food, do you find yourself wanting to eat, even though you aren’t hungry?” And so on. A losing score on this test is 31% – that is, if you answer yes to 10 or more questions, “your agitance is increasingly more [sic] palpable” and you are heading for physical or mental discomfort, if you are not there already.
Schoen dresses up his discussion of this sort of imbalance with recent research, and it is this that lends Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You a somewhat updated feel while clothing it in medical terminology. For example, Schoen says, “A great way to illustrate the limbic brain’s overpowering quality is to consider post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and then cites research showing “an exaggerated amygdala response” with a “diminished cerebral or prefrontal lobe response” in PTSD sufferers, coupling this with the very well-known finding that many people say they would rather face a cancer diagnosis than speak in front of a large group. Elsewhere, Schoen writes of the inflammatory response – which has been repeatedly linked to a host of bodily ills, including cardiovascular disease – and explains how the “conditioning of maladaptive habits…can actually occur…at the cellular and biochemical levels.” Schoen’s discussion of inflammation is in fact balanced – he points out that it is a way the body mounts defenses against attack, although his way of putting this is rather inelegant: “So the intentions of inflammation are salubrious.” But his basic point is that the mind-body connection has fundamental flaws nowadays for people who live, as so many of us do, in a constant state of at least low-level anxiety – and that the resulting “agitance” has become a foundational problem of everyday life.
What to do about it? That is the key here, as in all the other studies of similar issues: the prescriptive part of books like this is even more important than the descriptive part. Schoen offers “fifteen proven ways to help you gain control of your agitance,” and like the recommendations in other “slow down and take it easy” books, they are attractively presented – but rather more difficult to put into practice; just how difficult will depend on each individual, of course. The 15 ideas are to take periodic technology time-outs, stopping all interactions with work-related technology regularly; valuing and tolerating imperfection; limiting sensory input by periodically “focusing on stimulating one or two sensory channels at the same time”; calming down at bedtime; slowing down in general (“S-L-O-W Down” is the way Schoen puts it); ending procrastination; no longer trying to get everything done; accepting and embracing uncertainty; letting go of anger; keeping a regular schedule; enlarging one’s comfort zone; learning to “take a breather” using “the Schoen Breath Technique”; delaying gratification; practicing just hanging out; and exercising. There is considerable overlap among many of these recommendations, and in a number of cases a presentation designed to sound new is just a repackaging: the Schoen Breath Technique, for example, is simply the well-worn notion of controlled breathing. To Schoen’s credit, he says again and again that his recommended approaches need not be time-consuming, and need not all be done in order to reduce “agitance.” He also shows ways to “manage your discomfort by boosting your tolerance for it” if “you’re already in the red zone” – notions such as identifying things for which you are grateful and engaging with a social network. And he dresses these concepts up in language with a vague New Age feel: “The Creation of Alignment” and “Achieve Duality” are two subheads in a chapter called “Taking the ‘Dis’ Out of Discomfort.”
There is nothing wrong and a great deal right in much of what Schoen recommends. And his underlying analysis is certainly reasonable: “As long as our survival instinct rushes to stand up and shield us from anticipated emotional pain, we find ourselves entrapped by our instinctual primitive responses, such as anger, paralysis, overeating, illness, aggression, and withdrawal.” But Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You overreaches both by trying to handle all those negative elements at one time and by attempting to come across with a revelatory approach that is really nothing particularly new or special, however useful it may be for those who are able to practice it (and it is not as easy to put into practice as Schoen suggests). A well-meaning book with some good advice, Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You has an unnecessarily negative title – its positive-sounding subtitle is actually more indicative of Schoen’s approach and attitude, and the book might have been more attractive if it were called Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear. The title, though, is a marketing decision; the contents are an authorial one. And Schoen’s contents, however carefully presented and cleverly labeled by him and Loberg, are ultimately not revolutionary or even particularly unusual. His ideas are good, but they have been good when offered by other authors in the past and will be good when they are no doubt offered by still others in the future. Choosing Schoen’s particular presentation of these concepts will therefore be a matter of whether or not you like his style, not whether or not he has something genuinely new to say.
Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium. Windows 7 or 8 or Mac OS 10.6 or later. Microsoft. $100/yr.
The advent of Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Office 2013 means that we have arrived at yet another of those crossroads that most home and small-business computer users would just as soon avoid – but that are an inevitable effect of progress in the world of computer software. Some might prefer the neutral word “development” to “progress,” arguing that what is newer is not necessarily better; and that is a worthwhile philosophical point – but it does not apply to Microsoft's new Office products, because what is new in them is better in many, many ways. There are, however, frustrating decision-making necessities before you can get to all the good new elements.
Microsoft is now migrating its venerable Office suite to a subscription model rather than the now-old-fashioned physical-product model, at least in the developed world. The subscription model has its own perfectly satisfactory history, having been used successfully for many years by, for example, computer-security companies: any individual or business using Symantec’s Norton Internet Security or Norton 360, for instance, understands the arrangement perfectly well and will have no problem with it. It simply means that instead of installing software from a physical medium, you download it and have it set up from “the cloud” (that rather silly but now-ubiquitous way of referring to Internet-based storage and operations). Your usage of the software is tracked online, you get notice when your subscription is about to expire, and you sign up for another year of usage to guarantee seamless continuing operations at your location.
As Microsoft handles this subscription system, there is a lot more to it. Microsoft provides the full Office experience – every single component of the suite – to PC-using subscribers; promises to provide ongoing free upgrades to Office during the subscription term; includes 27 gigabytes of cloud storage through its SkyDrive system (the seven gigs that anyone can have for free, plus an additional 20); provides 60 minutes per month of free international Skype calls to landlines in most countries, and to mobile phones in seven places (Canada, China, Guam, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Singapore and Thailand); and lets you install Microsoft Office 365 on up to five computers – a cost per computer of just $20 a year if you use all five installations.
Microsoft Office 365 installs easily, runs quickly, includes all functionality from the previous iteration of the suite (Microsoft Office 2010), and is specifically designed to integrate with Windows 8, whose overall look and color scheme it shares. The new suite works on touch-screen devices, such as tablets and laptops running Windows 8 (another part of the integration of Office with Microsoft’s latest operating system). And it springs from an underlying assumption that the future of productivity lies in multiple places rather than a fixed office: users get to stream a full-featured version of Microsoft Office 365 to any Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC that does not have the suite installed if they want to work at remote locations or on unfamiliar computers. This is the first Office that goes everywhere, anytime.
But. Ah yes, the notorious “but” that makes decision-making on new software products so frustrating. How much creative developmental work do you actually do in multiple locations? If the answer is “a lot,” Microsoft Office 365 makes a lot of sense; if the answer is “none” or “not much,” the picture changes. How many computers do you need to have running Office all the time? If the answer is four or five, Microsoft Office 365 is a great choice; if the answer is one, maybe not. How comfortable are you with long-term commitment to Microsoft’s suite? If you have already used it for years and have upgraded whenever a new version has come out, Microsoft Office 365 may be ideal; if not – or if you are considering alternatives to Microsoft’s products, such as Google Docs – you may not want to lock yourself into the subscription model, which exists from a business standpoint largely so people will lock themselves into it long-term. How many components of Microsoft Office 365 do you already use regularly or have definite plans to use in the future? If you use essentially the whole suite – which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access – then Microsoft Office 365 may be just what you need. If not – well, you cannot customize the installation of this version of Office, and you will pay for and get everything in it if you are using PCs. And what if you do not use PCs? Well then, are you committed to Office for Mac? How committed? Microsoft Office 365 is not quite the same for Macs as for PCs: it omits OneNote, Publisher and Access and does not offer the streaming feature (although there are workarounds for it). Is that all right with you?
A more-general question is this: do you actually create, or intend to create, significant content on tablets and other portable and/or touch-screen devices? If so, Microsoft Office 365 can be a great productivity booster; if not, it may well be more than you need – or simply not the right software at all. Let’s be realistic about this. The vast majority of users of mobile devices – smartphones, tablets and all the rest – want to consume information, not create it. Small-screen, highly portable devices are ideal for observing things, looking at things, checking in with people, staying connected while on the road, and so forth. Indeed, Great Britain’s Institution of Engineering and Technology has encapsulated the appeal of mobile devices in general by saying that the billion-dollar-a-year telecommunications industry is driven by “an array of technologies, resulting in the average mobile being used to take photos, play music and games, send emails, download maps, watch video clips, all as well as talking and texting.” There is nothing in that evaluation about any significant sort of creativity or business applicability.
The fact is that current and planned mobile devices are far from ideal for producing reports, brochures, spreadsheets, newsletters and anything else that may be important for your business or family. For the vast majority of genuine productivity, a full-featured computer (desktop or laptop) remains a far better choice than the latest portable gadget, and is likely to retain its primacy for some time to come.
Microsoft is playing it smart with Microsoft Office 365 by making it compatible across multiple platforms and focusing on several next-generation elements of connectivity, such as touch screens. Microsoft is also being cagey about this, boosting its corporate image as well as its positioning in the increasingly mobile world of developed countries by taking one of its two primary moneymakers (operating systems being the other) and adapting it for all sorts of mobile applications. But from the point of view of many individuals and families, and emphatically from the point of view of many businesses, Microsoft is getting ahead of things here – not ahead of itself, but ahead of many of its loyal customers. Microsoft Office 365 can do lots of things extremely well – and look good doing them, by the way – but it is ahead of its time in terms of how people create things, although not in terms of how they consume them.
This is nowhere clearer than in the method by which Microsoft Office 365 saves whatever you make with it. The default “save” option is to the cloud, to SkyDrive; hence that 27-gig total of storage space (and you can buy more, of course). You can save what you create on a local computer, but the whole point of the mobility emphasis of Microsoft Office 365 is that your documents, brochures, spreadsheets and all the rest will be stored online and accessible on any device, anywhere, anytime, by anyone authorized to gain access through your account. How comfortable are you with that? This is a serious question for many individuals and families as well as for virtually all businesses. By now, it has become commonplace to store backups online, and there is clearly a rising comfort level about that level of dependence on “cloud computing.” But how comfortable are you putting, say, all your company’s strategic plans and projected financial data on SkyDrive? With the ever-increasing sophistication of hackers, individually and in groups; with DDoS attacks proliferating; with supposedly secure sites of all kinds turning out to have backdoor vulnerabilities; with ubiquitous elements of Internet communication, such as Java, being found to have enormous security holes; with all this and more, just how dependent on Internet storage and retrieval are you comfortable being? Of course, you can opt for local storage of whatever you create with Microsoft Office 365, but that defeats a major purpose of this redesigned software suite: collaborative tools that simplify multi-location work both by people who travel from place to place and by multiple individuals in different locations.
Microsoft clearly sees a subscription model for a full-featured Office suite, with multi-device compatibility and cloud storage, as the future; and it is probably right about all that, even though such a future is not here quite yet. In fact, Microsoft has not stopped selling packaged versions of Office altogether; yes, there is a Microsoft Office 2013. You can buy, for example, Office Home & Student 2013 for $140 and install it on a single local computer. This is down from the three installations permitted with Office 2010, but at least Microsoft has abandoned its original, much-discussed and understandably much-maligned consumer-unfriendly position that a single installation would be the only one allowed, even if you switched computers or your hard drive crashed. The packaged versions of the software, though – which also include Office Home and Business 2013 for $220 and Office Professional 2013 for $400 – are clearly heading toward becoming legacy products, and are really not good buys unless you have very specifically limited, single-computer needs for Office. Furthermore, the packaged versions will not get the promised automatic updates that are potentially a very valuable feature of Microsoft Office 365; and the only packaged version that includes all the programs that come with Microsoft Office 365 is the overpriced Professional product.
Well, what if you opt for Microsoft Office 365 and discover, as your year’s subscription nears its end, that you have not used a lot of its features and are no longer enamored of the suite? What happens to all your work? That is a concern that sounds like a bigger deal than it is: if you let your subscription lapse, you lose access to the components of Microsoft Office 365 but not to whatever you have created with it – you will still be able to get to and open your documents with a boxed version of Office, through Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, or even through a competitor such as Google Docs. Still, if this happens, it will likely be a significant inconvenience, especially if you have used the default storage setting and kept your creations online.
Therefore – and here we are at the crossroads – you really do need to try to project your likely use of the components of Microsoft Office 365 into the future; the extent to which you are comfortable with cloud storage and multi-location creative work; the chances that you will do creative things on a wide variety of devices now or in the near future; and the depth of your commitment to the entire Office experience. Until you do that analysis for yourself, your family or your business, you will not have a good handle on how useful Microsoft Office 365 will be in your everyday life now and, presumably, when you re-subscribe to it in years to come. The bottom line is that Office remains the best, most full-featured productivity suite anywhere, and its newest iteration really is its best yet, with wonderfully seamless functionality, an attractively coordinated appearance, tremendous capabilities within every single component, and collaborative elements that significantly exceed anything Microsoft has offered before. Microsoft has a clear road map of the future of Office, and Microsoft Office 365 shows the way admirably. However, the future toward which Microsoft Office 365 points – one in which mobile devices are founts of creativity and cloud storage is simple, safe and tremendously secure – is not here yet, and it is by no means certain that that particular future will be the one that emerges in the next few years. If you agree with Microsoft’s vision of where office and personal productivity is heading, then you absolutely will not go wrong with Microsoft Office 365. Just be sure that you do agree that this approach is the future for you, your family or your business before you make the commitment to begin annual subscriptions to a product that intends to be the foundation of pretty much everything you create for a very long time to come.