January 31, 2013


Freaks. By Kieran Larwood. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

Hold Fast. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.

      At its heart, in its soul, Kieran Larwood’s Freaks is a tale like so many others for preteens and young teenagers: a story of being an outsider, of being left out, of desperately wanting to belong, of needing a family, of eventually finding family ties with unexpected people in unanticipated ways. But this wonderful book is so much more than that, and the reason is its largest, most sprawling and powerful character. No, not Gigantus, the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with a fondness for pigeons and a dream of becoming a romance novelist.  And not even Sheba, primary protagonist of this astonishingly involving debut novel, the hairy girl with eyes that flash orange and clawlike fingers. No, the most potent character here is the city of London, specifically Victorian London, very specifically the filthy, unutterably foul-smelling, crowded, murky, horrendous-and-marvelous-at-once city so memorably word-painted by Charles Dickens and now painted equally memorably, albeit in a very different way, by Larwood.  London is everything here: the scene, the setting, the only place where this story could possibly happen. London crawls into readers’ pores, permeating the atmosphere as surely as the foul fog that permeates London itself. This is a London so crowded, so bustling, so filthy, so jammed with ne’er-do-wells, and above all so smelly, that it takes on more life than the characters who move through it – even though they are plenty lively themselves. Freaks is the story of a group called the Peculiars, “freaks” in the parlance of the 19th century, people with deformities who can make a bare-subsistence living only by putting themselves on display: tailed, dung-throwing, stinking Monkeyboy; slit-eyed ninja Sister Moon; pipe-smoking rodent fancier and trainer Mama Rat; as well as Gigantus and Sheba (Wolfgirl).  Like Dickens 150 years ago, Larwood, a kindergarten teacher on the Isle of Wight, expertly crafts just-bizarre-enough names for many of his characters: Grunchgirdle, Plumpscuttle, Sneepsnood. But unlike paid-by-the-word Dickens, with his very Victorian endless sentences combined into endless paragraphs, Larwood – who, after all, is writing for young book readers rather than adult readers of magazine serializations – keeps his communication clear and to the point, focusing on action and mystery and painting his amazing portrait of Victorian London almost as an aside.  Yet it is that picture of London that is more memorable than anything else in Freaks, for all the derring-do (and some derring-don’t) of the characters and all their admirable individuation.  The plot has Sheba joining Plumpscuttle’s freak show after being purchased from an even seedier one, then making a brief connection with a “mudlark” named Till – a desperately poor little girl who searches the filthy mud of the Thames for salable bits and pieces of what-have-you. When Till disappears mysteriously, Sheba and the Peculiars embark on a strange, twisting odyssey of detection and mystery-solving, and this scaffolding holds the plot together very neatly indeed while pulling in just enough real-world characters (notably Michael Faraday) to make the story plausible and almost possible.  In another universe, it would be possible. This is not a “steampunk” book, although steam power is important in it – instead, it is mystery-cum-alternative-history, with memorable characters in an even-more-memorable setting to which Larwood hints he will return in another book. Readers will hope so – and will also hope to see more of his character renditions, a portfolio of which appears at the back of the book as a most-welcome bonus. Freaks is a gem of a novel.

      A great city is central as well to Blue Balliett’s latest novel, Hold Fast, but this is a modern city and an American one: Chicago. Balliett, a more-polished writer than Larwood, at this stage of her career is somewhat too enamored of cleverness for its own sake: the first and last sections of Hold Fast are called “Ice,” and the other 12 have “C” titles (“Click,” “Crash,” “Cling,” “Clutch,” and so forth), with each word defined in several ways before each section.  As in her four previous books, Balliett looks into the past for elements of this one, which springs from a major diamond heist in 2003. But unlike her prior books, which at their best were fascinatingly art-focused, Hold Fast is essentially the simple story of a family sundered and eventually reunited, with passing and rather simplistic nods to causes of the day, such as homelessness, which Balliett sees (according to a note at the book’s end) as a simple matter of matching those without houses to abandoned and foreclosed buildings – a “solution” whose overwhelming naïveté is something less than charming.  The book itself does have charm, though, even if it comes across as somewhat too contrived.  The basic family unit consists of Dashel (Dash) Pearl; his wife, Summer; son, Jubilation (Jubie); and daughter, Early, the book’s protagonist. The mystery here emerges quickly, as Dash tosses out some apparently unimportant (but perhaps crucial) number problems from a poem by Langston Hughes, and shortly thereafter vanishes mysteriously, leaving behind a notebook containing various numbers and a final line, “Must research number rhythms.” The disappearance, the notebook and Hughes are all recurring themes here, along with the issues of what a home really is, what homelessness means, and how people make it through extremely difficult times. Balliett goes out of her way to show how wonderful homeless-shelter operators and volunteers are. “If one of you gets sick, we’ll connect you with medical care. Chicago HOPES, a wonderful after-school tutoring organization, keeps a room here with books and games in it, a place to get homework help and some one-on-one attention.” And so on. The good guys here are so good – and the bad ones so bad – that Hold Fast is more unidimensional than Balliett’s other books; and the ongoing advocacy, however well-meant and justifiable based on Balliett’s sociopolitical views, gives the book more of a pamphlet’s stridency than is really good for it.  The characters become types more than fully formed individuals as a result, and while they endure and overcome hardship, and Balliett pulls the plot strands together expertly, the overall feeling of this book is that it has a point to make rather than a story to tell.  Hold Fast has enough strong elements and fine writing to get a (+++) rating, but it is not at the high quality level of which Balliett has elsewhere shown herself capable – its story is the victim of its own good intentions.


The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Dutton. $27.95.

      Think about that subtitle for a moment: “How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think.”  Does that “how” seem a touch peculiar?  Brian Hare, who founded and runs the Duke Canine Cognitive Center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and his wife, Vanessa Woods, a research scientist at the center, here offer a combination of fascinating, research-based information on domestic canines with some statements that will seem beyond obvious to anyone who has ever lived with a dog: “Experiments have now shown that dogs use different barks and growls to communicate different things.” Wouldn’t you like to get a research grant to figure that out? Or to determine that “86 percent of people feel like [sic] they sometimes know what their dog is trying to communicate by barking”?

      Much of the book, though, is far more interesting than this example. Hare discusses some highly personal and very amusing experiences as he looked into Nicolai Belyaev’s world-famous domestication experiments involving foxes. He talks about testing the extremely rare New Guinea Singing Dog, which produces a sound “that has been described as half wolf howl, half whale song.”  He delves into friendliness as a survival trait, not only for dogs but also for bonobos (apes that have some dog-like characteristics).  He compares cooperative behavior of wolves and dogs in a chart that interestingly notes that wolves, even when raised by people, are relatively uninterested in cooperating with them – while dogs rely on humans to solve problems and are highly trainable. True, this is scarcely surprising information: Hare and Woods find themselves rather too surprised by rather too many things. For example, they note that puppies with little exposure to humans are nevertheless skilled at comprehending human gestures – but this is scarcely unexpected in light of the fact that dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, selectively bred again and again to be cooperative with and attuned to human behavior.

      Still, some of the research reported here is highly intriguing. In one experiment, dogs were rewarded unequally when both were asked to “give a paw,” and the one that received less gave paw more reluctantly and stopped giving the paw sooner – which could indicate that dogs possess a basic sense of fairness or objection to inequality (an intriguingly human trait, if it exists).  In another case, researchers found that dogs could identify pictures of smiling faces, not only of their owners but also of other people – but only when those people were the same gender as their owners.

      “The genius of dogs is their ability to understand human communication and their motivation to cooperate with us,” the authors write. “But dogs also have biases and limitations to their understanding of how the world works.”  Well, of course; the same is true of humans.  A fascinating chart showing “dognition relative to cognitive ability in other mammals” indicates that dogs have remarkable abilities to understand an audience’s perspective, communicate vocally and with visual signs, copy others’ actions and recruit others’ help – and are at “genius” level in comprehending visual gestures and learning new words. Again, most dog owners will not be surprised at this, or at the chart’s note that dogs’ understanding of physics is “vapid.”  (So is that of most human beings.)  Indeed, Hare and Woods express an amusing level of surprise at canine behaviors that sometimes seems put on, given the authors’ involvement in serious research.  “I was shocked that dogs could be anything but beloved pets,” they write (the “I” inevitably refers to Hare, making the dual-author nature of the book somewhat awkward, if not actually suspect) – referring to dogs being unwanted predators of marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. It is hard to believe that any adult, much less a scientific researcher, can be so surprised to learn about differing cultural and practical attitudes toward canines.  Indeed, there is nothing the slightest bit unexpected in the comment, “Dogs show an affiliation toward humans that is unlike any in the animal kingdom. They prefer humans to their own species and can behave like human infants toward their parents.”  Well, yes – we humans have bred them for exactly those characteristics. What is most intriguing about The Genius of Dogs is the discussion of experiments showing that our canine companions, in addition to being artificially moved in directions that humans prefer, may have evolved on their own in ways that created increased interdependence between them and their human partners. More intriguing than the book’s somewhat awkward subtitle is the title of one chapter’s subsection: “Did Dogs Domesticate Us?” Readers of this book will find that possibility well worth contemplating.


Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath. By Tony Iommi. Da Capo. $16.

One Direction: A Year with One Direction. Harper. $10.99.

      It goes without saying that pop stars garner an inordinate amount of attention in the United States, whether or not they actually contribute much of anything to public discourse or matters of significant import. Actually, they get plenty of attention worldwide, not necessarily because of the quality of anything they do but because of their distraction quotient: many are popular precisely because they, like sports teams, give people something on which to focus other than the rituals and ruts of daily life. There is an old saying that academic politics is so vicious precisely because it is so unimportant. Similarly, the constant focus on the ins and outs of pop culture attracts so much attention because, really, it does not mean anything. And this is true both for adults and for kids. Fans of Black Sabbath are the intended audience for Tony Iommi’s chronological memoir, Iron Man, which chronicles the ups and downs of the group in totally expected and absolutely unexceptional ways. Yes, there was drug abuse. Yes, there were marital and interpersonal traumas. Yes, there was alcohol aplenty. Yes, there were accusations that group members were Satanists (does that really surprise anybody?). Yes, there were issues of loyalty to the band, management and scheduling problems, the exit of Ozzy Osbourne. Yes, there were instances of the sort of bizarre behavior that keeps people’s attention riveted on pop figures who seem to feel the need to live up to the reputation they want to have: Osbourne catching a shark when fishing from a hotel window and dismembering it in the room’s bathtub, Iommi himself repeatedly setting fire to drummer Bill Ward’s beard.  There is little real-world connection here: “We met with lawyers and accountants. That got boring because we weren’t into that stuff at all.” Well, duh. And “I could go on endlessly and just play on and on, until I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t anymore.” Well, duh, again. As for the history of the time when Black Sabbath was big, there are comments such as this about performing in Russia: “It was just at the time when they were pulling down all the statues of Lenin. The country hadn’t opened up yet; there wasn’t a McDonald’s or anything at that point.” The whole book is written at this level of superficiality, providing minimal insight into history, the band, or, lest we forget, music. It is a for-fans-only production laced with nostalgia for heavy metal and those who produced it. Nothing wrong with that at all; nothing particularly important about it, either.

      Nor is history likely to care much about One Direction and the other 21st-century boy-band groups of its ilk. But so what? The groups’ young fans care now, and now is all that matters in a “100% official” book such as A Year with One Direction.  The members of the fresh-faced, well-scrubbed fivesome (whose cover pictures make a very interesting contrast with Iommi’s) are seen and heard here in “exclusive new photos and interviews,” posing charmingly in group as well as individual pictures, with text such as: “You know One Direction love their fans because…they worry about their fans getting soaked in the rain when waiting for them…they would totally date a fan.”  There is a quiz here: “What kind of Directioner are you?”  There is a “Style File,” with the note, “No one does style like One Direction.”  There are profundities such as this from Niall, who is asked if fame is as he imagined it would be: “Yes and no. It’s much harder work than it’s made out to be.” (Iommi says something similar in his book: “Being in a band isn’t all fun, it’s bloody hard.”) And there is this revelation from Zayn: “I’m double-jointed in my thumb.”  And a big surprise from Louis: “Our diets are not great – we often go for the fast food option.”  Actually, though, the words are likely to be mostly irrelevant to the target audience for this book, since the fans will probably prefer to ogle the photos and ooh and aah over the poses than to read that “the boys are pretty much with each other 24/7, so it’s no wonder they’ve become such great friends.”  The gulf between One Direction and Black Sabbath is so deep as to be an abyss, but these respective books’ focus on personality and anecdote rather than, say, music, stands as a clear indicator of the importance of pop stardom in modern life, whether in the 1970s or today: what matters is giving people the chance to escape, however briefly, from dealing with anything in life that might be considered remotely meaningful.


Alberto Ginastera: The Three Piano Concertos. Barbara Nissman, piano; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. Pierian. $18.99.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Piano Concerto; Worldes Blis. Kathryn Stott, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.

Bartók: Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 2—Sonata for Solo Violin; Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano; Hungarian Folksongs; Hungarian Folk Tunes; Romanian Folk Dances. James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

      Those who think of the piano in the 20th century as either a vehicle for the last gasp of Romanticism (Rachmaninoff) or as an instrument whose percussive qualities were brought to the fore at the expense of its melodic and expressive ones (Cage) will have their horizons broadened by several new releases that explore less-familiar 20th-century piano repertoire – and do so very well indeed. Barbara Nissman, who knew and worked directly with Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), has long been an unexcelled interpreter of his piano music, and she has now recorded all three of his concertos on a CD that includes two world premières: of Ginastera’s early Concierto Argentino and of his vast and very difficult Second Concerto in its original version.  Ginastera was always fond of display, sometimes over-fond of it for its own sake, but the youthful ebullience of Concierto Argentino, which dates to 1935, is immediately appealing, and Nissman makes it her own from start to finish, contrasting its poetic and folklike elements with its sections of sheer bravura. It is a pleasant rather than profound work, and Nissman gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying performing it. The Concerto No. 1 (1961), the only Ginastera piano concerto with which most audiences are even slightly familiar, also gets a bang-up reading here: Nissman does not hesitate to embrace the work’s many excesses, from a Scherzo labeled “hallucinatory” to a slow movement that is not merely Adagio but “Adagissimo.”  All four movements here partake of individuality of construction and expression, and in fact they do not tie together especially well – but Nissman understands the work as a whole and provides a surprisingly unified performance. As for Concerto No. 2, Nissman restores the one-hand Scherzo to Ginastera’s intended right hand (not the left, as it is generally played) and ends the piece as Ginastera planned (not as Hilde Somer, who co-commissioned the work and was its first performer, ended it, with four additional measures that she added).  This is a big, sprawling piece, partly a homage to Beethoven and partly pure Ginastera. It is difficult to hear as well as to play, impressive rather than immediately appealing, but it repays repeated listenings, especially in Nissman’s elegant and knowing interpretation. Throughout the CD, Nissman is very ably abetted by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Kiesler. This is a student orchestra, yes, but many of these students are on the cusp of professional musical careers, and it shows in their absolute dedication to the music and their remarkable responsiveness to its considerable difficulties.  This CD is a significant accomplishment on all levels.

      The Naxos CD of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Piano Concerto is a re-release of a Collins Classics disc from 1998 that captured the concerto not long after its 1997 debut – and with soloist Kathryn Stott, for whom the work was written.  If Ginastera’s piano concertos tend to be thorny, Davies’ concerto is appealingly direct and much easier to hear, with a fresh directness that nicely complements episodes of youthful enthusiasm that flow surprisingly easily from a composer then in his 60s (Davies was born in 1934).  The expansive and multifaceted first movement is succeeded by two more-direct ones, with Stott playing them all with attentiveness and intelligence, and Davies himself leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with skill and very fine attention to the details of orchestration that he, after all, knows inside-out.  Also on this CD is a re-release of Davies conducting Worldes Blis, which he wrote from 1966-69 as a combination of medieval plainchant with 20th-century expressionism. Despite its partial foundation in the vocal sphere, this is a wholly orchestral work, its six continuous movements adding up to symphonic length although the work has more the character of a neo-Baroque suite (the slow and very expansive first movement takes up nearly half its total length, a weighting more or less along the lines of what a Baroque Ouverture would receive). Originally released by Collins Classics in 1993, this is a well-recorded performance in which Davies shows himself an adept handler of a fine orchestra where his own music is concerned; and the music itself has a considerable degree of emotional communicativeness.

      Worldes Blis is not a piano work, and neither is the first and most-intriguing piece presented on the second CD of Bartók’s violin-and-piano music by James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong. That is the Sonata for Solo Violin of 1944, which – like Davies’ Worldes Blis – harks back to earlier times, being highly influenced by Bach’s solo-violin works. This is Bartók’s final completed work, and it is dense and difficult, quite different from the contemporaneous Concerto for Orchestra, making significant demands on performer and listener alike. Although not particularly melodious, or even tonal, it is tightly structured and carries the listener along effectively when it is played as well as Ehnes plays it – he has a natural affinity for Bartók’s music and displays it adeptly again and again in this work and others. The Sonata for Solo Violin employs a full range of violin techniques as well as a full range of compositional ones, and emerges as a major, if little-known, work within Bartók’s oeuvre. The rest of the works on this excellent CD do include piano, with the Third Sonata of 1903 presenting a particularly happy melding of Bartók’s emerging personal style with various throwbacks to an earlier, Brahmsian sensibility. Ehnes is perfectly complemented here by Armstrong, the two performers taking the lead in the sonata at different times with a collaborative feel that seems effortless even though the manifest difficulties of the music mean that cannot be the case. The three remaining pieces here are lighter and far more influenced by folk music – of which, in fact, they are arrangements. Indeed, they are arrangements of arrangements, Hungarian Folksongs and Hungarian Folk Tunes being taken from Bartók’s For Children, while Romanian Folk Dances transcribes a work of the same name that Bartók wrote for solo piano. These three encore-like, suite-like pieces show Bartók’s in-depth attention to folk music while also showcasing the ability of Ehnes and Armstrong to lighten up considerably after the complexities, for violin and piano alike, of the two sonatas that occupy most of the CD.


Dvořák: Symphony No. 6; Janáček: Idyll. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4, “Symphonie Concertante”; Concert Overture. Louis Lortie, piano; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Clementi: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Overture in D. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

      The symphonic canon is expanding nowadays, with performers more willing than in the past to program little-known works and audiences more amenable to experiencing symphonies with which they are not familiar. This opens up new vistas in both the concert hall and the recording studio, allowing worthy pieces that have been somewhat to totally neglected a chance to shine forth on their own terms and possibly capture their own places in the standard repertoire. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 is close to doing just that, garnering more performances and recordings all the time and being more-often appreciated for its fine construction, gorgeous slow movement and very Brahmsian musical approach. Yet the attention this work is getting is also somewhat curious, because few conductors seem willing to play it as the composer intended, preferring to tinker constantly with its tempos rather than let the music unfold expansively and impressively, as Dvořák wished. Gerard Schwarz is less self-indulgent than many conductors of this work, but he too gives in to the unfortunate impulse to play with tempo markings that Dvořák plainly indicated should not be altered – with the new Seattle Symphony performance making unwonted changes in the first movement and, even more startlingly, in the finale, in which Schwarz refuses to accept the Allegro con spirito designation and instead creates a contrast between too-fast sections and too-slow ones. This is really too bad, since the orchestra plays well, with more warmth than usual, and the middle movements are by and large quite effective. Furthermore, the pairing of the symphony with Janáček’s Idyll is a genuinely interesting one: Janáček was strongly influenced by Dvořák, and this early work – written in 1878, when the composer was 24 – shows that influence more clearly than most.  Schwarz lets Idyll, unlike the symphony (which was written two years later), unfold and progress naturally, and if Janáček’s suite-like work never attains the stature of Dvořák’s, it is a very pleasant and well-orchestrated piece that, like the symphony with which it shares this Naxos CD, deserves to be heard more often.

      The four symphonies of Karol Szymanowski continue to exist on the fringes of the standard repertoire, the composer never having quite come up with an individual and fully satisfactory organizational approach to these large-scale works – even though each of the four contains intriguing elements. Szymanowski was strongly influenced by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Reger, Scriabin and musical Impressionism, and his symphonies tend to hold a somewhat uneasy mixture of these elements without finding a way to integrate them thoroughly. Nevertheless, when they are as well-played as on the new Chandos disc featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner, they are certainly worth more attention than they generally receive. No. 2, in B-flat, dates to 1909 and opens, intriguingly, with a violin solo. It has an unusual two-movement form, as Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 was to have more than a decade later, with a passionate first movement and a second movement, in theme-and-variations form, that evokes both Reger and Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica – a rather odd mixture.  Symphony No. 4 is quite a late work, dating to 1932 (Szymanowski died in 1937), and is known as “Sinfonia Concertante” because of its inclusion of a prominent piano part (handled very ably by Louis Lortie on the new Chandos SACD).  The work is dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein – hence the piano – and effectively integrates the instrument into the overall argument, although the cooperation and contrast between soloist and orchestra are less impressive than in, say, Brahms’ very symphonic Piano Concerto No. 1.  The early Concert Overture, in E, dates to 1905 and shows Szymanowski effectively using the orchestra in a shorter and tighter work, with considerable Wagnerian influence.  Nothing in these pieces vaults Szymanowski to the first tier of composers, but all show him to be a meticulous craftsman – if one who never fully escaped his many influences.

      The influences on the music of Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) are quite clear: Haydn, Beethoven and a touch of Schubert. Clementi is best known as a performer, teacher and manufacturer of the finest pianos of his time; his status as a composer has long been low, thanks largely to the simple (if nicely proportioned) works he created for piano students, which remain popular and useful today.  Clementi did know how to write orchestral music, though, including half a dozen symphonies, and while none of them will challenge the works of the composers who influenced him, several are quite interesting in the way they balance Italianate sensibilities against the predominant Viennese orientation of the most-prominent Classical-era symphonists.  Nos. 1 and 2 get strong, straightforward performances from Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia on a new Naxos CD, and if neither work is particularly distinguished for tunefulness or any unusual approach to structure, both are superficial in a pleasant way and clearly constructed by a solid if not particularly inspired composer. The Overture in D, like Szymanowski’s Concert Overture, provides a chance to hear how the composer handled a shorter-form piece for full orchestra, and with Clementi as with Szymanowski, there is something to be said for brevity: the Clementi work has a level of compressed effectiveness that the somewhat discursive symphonies lack.  Hearing Clementi’s symphonies may simply lead many listeners to a greater appreciation of the brilliance of greater composers; but these pieces are worthy in their own right, and surely deserve at least occasional performances that allow concertgoers and home listeners alike to expand their aural horizons by sampling some not-quite-mainstream works.

January 24, 2013


Scholastic “Discover More”: Disasters. By David Burnie. Scholastic. $15.99.

Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals. By Heather L. Montgomery. Scholastic. $6.99.

These are discovery books with attitude. The attitude is that human beings’ judgment and knowledge are preeminent, except when Nature decides to do something different. The books are serious and meant to be taken seriously, although there is a certain level of hubris associated with both of them, as if capturing disasters within the pages of a book somehow renders them more comprehensible, and describing animals as “wacky” somehow reflects something significant about the animals’ appearance or their place in the ecological web of life.

But of course that is over-analyzing books that are basically meant to be gawked at and then read for solid, useful information that young readers really will find fascinating, giving them a wider perspective on the world in which we live.  Disasters is a big splash of a book, with text snippets, diagrams, statistics, charts and photographs scattered all over its pages, showcasing sections labeled “Disastrous weather,” “Unstable earth,” “Troubled waters,” “How people cause disasters” and “The threat from space.”  All four of the old “elements” get their due: air (tornadoes, hurricanes), earth (earthquakes, landslides), fire (volcanoes) and water (floods, tsunamis).  The large photos, which take up two facing pages, are by far the most dramatic element of the book, showing, among other things, Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, a lava river around a soon-to-be-destroyed home, a sinkhole as deep as a 20-story building is tall, a man and his livestock marooned on a tiny piece of land during a flood in Pakistan, and much more.  The text is packed with useful and intriguing information, including the difference between ordinary waves (formed when wind blows across the water surface) and tsunamis (caused by undersea earthquakes); the causes of pandemics (a full-color picture of a mosquito, magnified 100 times, is amazing and scary); a threateningly fiery view of the sun (explaining that it will eventually swell and wipe out all life on Earth); and so on. A picture of three enormous simultaneous lightning strikes in South Africa is a visual highlight; pictures of weather scientists at work (including one showing the hyper-armored Tornado Intercept Vehicle) put the study of disasters in perspective; and the book is packed with data on the toll of everything from the “killer cold” of snowstorms and blizzards to the effects of global warming.  The layout is busy, even chaotic, with boxes, small and large pictures, graphics, pages laid out sideways, arrows, and multiple type styles all competing for a reader’s attention. The result is a rather frenzied appearance that actually goes well, in a somewhat overstated way, with the book’s topic – and that helps it fit into our media-saturated, highly visually oriented age.  The disasters discussed here are nothing new, with the possible exception of global warming, but the presentation is designed to showcase them in a newly intense way, not with an eye on prevention (since few of these events are preventable) but with the aim of titillating the reader and perhaps getting him or her to tune in more closely to the world at large.

Tuning in is of a different sort in Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals, another picture-heavy foray into the world of science. The hyped elements of layout are even stronger here. For instance, a discussion of the Shocking Pink Dragon Millipede from the jungles of Thailand includes not only a huge blowup of the creature but also the words “CRAZY COLOR” (in shades of pink), “FOUND!” and “OUCH!” (this last one with an explanation that millipedes are not dangerous to people but that the related centipedes can deliver a painful bite).  The creatures shown and discussed in these pages really are amazing in many ways, even if they are “wacky” only by inappropriately applied human standards. And the information given is solid and often very intriguing. But the layout may take some getting used to, except for those interested primarily in the “ick” factor. “SUPER SNOT” and “SLURP TIME” appear on a page about velvet worms, “SUCKING SNOUT” on one about seahorses, “FRANKENSPIDER” and “DINO SPIDER” on one about the Ayewa hooded spider, “UP THE NOSE” on a page about leeches, and so on.  It happens to be true that, for example, glassfrogs are so named because “you can SEE RIGHT THROUGH TO THEIR GUTS!”  But the necessity of being quite so emphatic is a bit hard to fathom.  Still, the surprising and highly unusual traits of these co-inhabitants of our planet make up for the excesses of the presentation (which, however, mean that this book will be of interest to younger readers than will those in the Scholastic Discover More series).  Seeing the patterns of stripes on frogfish – each set of swirls as unique as human fingerprints – is quite something.  Looking into the huge eyes of a tarsier, examining a close-up view of the horns and mouth scales of Matilda’s hooded viper, and observing in magnification the gigantic jaws of the black warrior wasp – these are experiences that make this book very worthwhile indeed.  And the facts, including ones about scientists studying these creatures, are highly involving even without the hectic layout – for instance, the story of the discovery of the Tennessee bottlebrush crayfish, and the fact that two new types of crayfish are found every year in the United States.  A book that succeeds almost in spite of itself, Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals (“new” in what sense, anyway?) is wackier than the animals it depicts, but if its rather frantic presentation gets young readers more interested in the underlying science, then the design will have served a decidedly non-wacky purpose.


Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life. By Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O. Avery. $26.

      A whole-body and holistic approach to heart health directed specifically at women, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book offers an extended prescription for better cardiac health from the Director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Steinbaum views the cardiovascular system in the context of the overall body, which includes the mind, and is well aware of the psychosomatic elements involved in heart disease – “psychosomatic” not indicating “imaginary,” which is a popular misunderstanding of the word, but meaning “mind-body connected.”

      Convinced that many women’s heart problems indicate lives that have gone out of balance, resulting in symptoms ranging from chest pains, fatigue and panic attacks to vaguely described “heartsickness,” Steinbaum urges women to use their hearts to keep their cardiovascular systems healthy. Of course, the body uses the heart constantly in a purely physical sense, but Steinbaum goes beyond that. She wants women to adopt a diet that is good for the heart, yes, and to exercise regularly, but she also wants women to practice better stress management and focus on enhancing interpersonal relationships in ways that enhance heart health.  Her end-of-chapter summaries, which can easily be read and understood before looking at the chapters themselves, neatly encapsulate her recommendations. “Chronic stress is one of the biggest heart disease risks for women,” she points out in one summary (this is true for men, too). “I would like you to start your very own Heart Book, in which you will record the details of your lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise and sleep, as well as the story of your life,” she suggests at another point – the idea being to get more in touch with your total being, body and mind, to help pinpoint why you may not be feeling your best.  “It is more important to be fit than skinny,” she comments in the summary of another chapter, adding, “Remember that the next time you decide to starve yourself and skip the gym!”

      The plainspoken advice is actually nothing particularly new and is certainly not limited to women, but Steinbaum’s way of delivering information is upbeat, intelligent and well-informed, as one would expect (or at least hope) from an attending cardiologist.  She acknowledges that it is one thing for her or anyone to prescribe lifestyle changes, and another for people to accomplish them: “Compliance, or ‘sticking to it,’ is one of the most difficult issues to tackle when it comes to changing your lifestyle habits.”  But she keeps coming back to what she says (perhaps rather naïvely) will make the difficulties easier: “getting to know yourself.”  For example, when it comes to exercise, she says that everyone has an “exercise style.” One person may be an “obsessor,” who needs “a routine that will keep you exercising after the initial thrill wears off” and must also “guard against overdoing it at first and injuring yourself.” Another person may be a “variety lover,” and “Variety Lovers get bored easily, so they absolutely need to mix things up if they are going to make exercise a regular part of their lives.”

      By presenting straightforward medical advice in an attractive verbal package, and returning again and again to the issue of stress – identifying it and learning to control it – Steinbaum gives women a series of road maps for improving their everyday lives and, in so doing, their cardiac health. Indeed, there may be a few too many of those maps – she has one for many elements of life. For example, she offers a guide to five “stress management types,” including “the deliberator,” “the quantifier” and “the pragmatist,” with suggestions on how to decide which one you are and what to do about your particular style. Taking all the self-tests Steinbaum offers – and taking the many medical ones that she also discusses, which are entirely ordinary and would be recommended by any competent modern cardiologist – requires considerable time and attention (worthwhile if you can manage your life and insurance accordingly).  Indeed, a few of the self-tests, such as “your pleasure style,” are genuinely innovative.

Steinbaum’s overall recommendation is that women “de-stress by taking your life back,” which is an excellent prescription but by no means as easy to do as she suggests. A few of her notions of what to do are downright quirky, such as singing a theme song to yourself – one that “expresses how you feel, or how you want to feel, during stressful situations.”  The song is supposed to provide “courage, motivation, and a better attitude,” and Steinbaum says this works for her. But she notes elsewhere that what works for one person does not necessarily work the same way, if at all, for someone else.  Still, it is hard to argue with her assertion that “health care is self-care” (one chapter title); and she certainly makes some intriguing points, sometimes almost as asides (as when she remarks that she can tell from heart monitors when a patient had sex, but sex does not increase heart rate as much as exercise and therefore “does not count as your cardio”).  At more than 370 pages, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book is lengthy, and it is information-packed to such an extent that readers cannot simply enjoy the chatty sections – some of the material here really requires close, careful reading (and rereading). The strictly medical material in the book is unexceptionable and unexceptional, but its equal emphasis on whole-person wellness is unusual and attractive, and its slightly odd elements actually make it more enjoyable to read (for instance, Steinbaum’s display of an echocardiogram includes a note that the heart shown is that of her physical therapist).  The book is sometimes an uneasy mixture of the medical/scientific and the chatty/informal, but readers who enjoy the eclectic style will find much here to enjoy and much to learn – and may even be inspired to take some good-for-their-heart actions that more-straightforward books would not lead them to try.


One Came Home. By Amy Timberlake. Knopf. $16.99.

Gingersnap. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      Books for modern young readers that are set in the past frequently offer drama on two separate levels: the story itself and its context. Readers not only need to relate to and understand the characters but also have to absorb the historical period in which those characters live and the story occurs. The protagonists of these books often have more-modern sensibilities than young people of times past would actually have had, but the authors make some attempt to recapture the sense of long-ago days through scene-setting if not necessarily through dialogue.  Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home, for example, dates back to 1871. Set in Wisconsin, it is the story of 13-year-old Georgia (Georgie) Burkhardt and her search for her sister, Agatha – who is presumed dead. Agatha had left town along with “pigeoners,” followers of the huge flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons that actually darkened the sky in the 19th century. Shortly afterwards, remains – partial remains – had been returned to town, wearing Agatha’s dress, and the family is sure she is gone; but Georgie’s heart tells her otherwise. Armed with self-confidence, a strong belief in her sister, and a not-inconsiderable talent with a rifle, Georgie sets out to learn what really happened.  Of course, had Agatha actually been dead, the story would collapse of its own weight, but it turns out that Georgie’s instincts have served her well, and after a series of adventures involving travel and counterfeiters, she eventually learns that Agatha is indeed alive – and finds out who had been wearing Agatha’s dress and had been buried. Georgie is an attractive character, although her transformation from frontier-hearty young lady to someone who eventually decides no longer to shoot (which was virtually a necessity back then) is a touch too modern in sensibility. The other characters are primarily foils for Georgie, never really coming into their own as individuals. And the historic events – involving not only passenger pigeons but also the great fires of October 1871, which not only hit Chicago but also affected parts of Wisconsin – are used as plot movers but not really integrated into events. However, there is a certain level of exotic interest associated with the setting and the time, and Georgie is an interesting enough character so that preteen and young teenage girls are likely to find her worries, concerns and determination enough to carry the book.

      Gingersnap is set much later, during World War II – but that is as remote a time for today’s young readers as the 19th century. And this is an urban rather than rural tale, whose protagonist, Jayna, decides to go to Brooklyn from her small home town in upstate New York after her brother, Rob, goes missing in action and is presumed dead. Before he reported for duty, Rob had told Jayna about a small blue recipe book containing a name and address in Brooklyn – and Jayna, whose nickname is Gingersnap, thinks the book may have something to do with a grandmother about whom they know nothing. Jayna takes the book along on her journey, and also takes her turtle, Theresa – and is accompanied by a ghostly voice that guides her and helps her when she runs into trouble, as she does several times (including, at one point, losing Theresa). The inclusion of the ghost strikes a somewhat jarring note in what is essentially a realistic story of a young girl trying to cope with wartime and family losses, but it is no less unrealistic than the use of various soup recipes that help propel the plot (Jayna makes great soup). From “Don’t-Think-About-It Soup” with its piles of onions, to “Hope Soup” (chicken soup with noodles), to “Good Luck Soup” (lots of potatoes), to “Family Soup” (for the happy ending, made with franks and beans and bacon and other hearty ingredients), the soups pace Jayna’s adventures and carry readers along with her and with events. And Jayna’s nickname turns out to be an important clue to what she eventually learns about her family. As for the ghost – and Rob – what happens to them is neatly tied into the book by Patricia Reilly Giff, a highly adept writer who knows how to pull plot strands together skillfully even when those strands are, like the ones here, a touch too far-fetched.  Jayna/Gingersnap is so likable and plucky a character that the less-than-believable elements and coincidences of the book do not matter much, actually giving it a kind of old-fashioned charm that goes well with its old-fashioned setting.


Peanut. By Ayun Halliday. Illustrated by Paul Hoppe. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Kyong Mee Choi: The Eternal Tao. JulieAnn Zavala, mezzo-soprano; Brad Jungwirth, baritone; Samantha Stein, Allison Hull, Jeff Jablonski and Chadley Ballantyne, chorus; Ensemble Del Niente conducted by Michael Lewanski. Ravello DVD. $24.99.

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare’s Memory. Navona. $16.99.

      The methods of presenting dramatic events to an audience are thousands of years old, dating back to Greek theater and beyond. But they are not immutable. Modern-day storytellers, aware of changing consciousness and changing tastes in today’s audiences, are constantly seeking new ways to put their ideas across effectively. The new methods may take some getting used to for those accustomed to traditional ones, and in truth many of the new approaches are experimental and will likely not survive long. But concepts that build on existing dramatic methods do have a good chance of adapting to modern ways of thinking and being taken to heart by today’s audiences. Take the graphic novel, for example. An amalgam of traditional storytelling with comic-book illustration – although the illustrations are generally done with greater care and attention to detail than in most comics – graphic novels are proving a durable form and an effective way of communicating in book format with young people living video-saturated lives. They are an entertainment medium, but some creators want them to be more – for example, Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe. Their graphic novel Peanut (the title is actually a very realistically drawn peanut) tackles the serious subject of peanut allergies and related health crises in the context of a typical high-school story about the new kid wanting to fit in even if that means creating a fictional persona. The story as a whole is a sort of “girl who cried wolf” tale in which Sadie, the protagonist, wants so badly to be noticed and accepted at her new high school that she invents a peanut allergy and uses it as a conversational gambit with just about everyone – students, teachers and administrators. Sadie goes to great lengths with her story, even ordering an “allergy bracelet” online and wearing it at school (while of course concealing it at home).  The story arc is predictable: she will be exposed as a fraud and ostracized. And that is what happens, when she eats something that a teacher believes (wrongly) to contain peanuts, and the teacher panics – along with everyone else – and paramedics rush to the scene, and soon Sadie is exposed as a pathetic fraud.  But Halliday and Hoppe handle the situation skillfully enough so that readers sympathize with Sadie’s plight even while disagreeing with the actions she has taken. It is hard to fit in at a new school, it is difficult as a teenager to change peer groups, and it is tempting to find something to make yourself stand out even if that requires a “little white lie” that you are sure will never be exposed.  Sadie more than gets her comeuppance – although her boyfriend and her mother do give her considerable empathy and understanding after getting over how upset she has made them. The story itself is rather too obvious for its own good, but Halliday and Hoppe deserve credit for effectively tackling a serious subject – or rather two serious subjects, health emergencies and fitting-in angst – in a new medium.

      Just as graphic novels build on traditional novels and comic books, some modern sort-of-operas – Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre comes immediately to mind – build on musical stage works of the past while forging new forms of dramatic communication. The Eternal Tao is in the Ligeti tradition, to the extent that a work revised as recently as 1996, as Ligeti’s was, can be said to have a tradition. Kyong Mee Choi uses the trappings of opera to communicate here, but this work is correctly dubbed a “multimedia opera” because of the way it employs its musical and stage forces.  Everyone is a part of the whole, yet this is not simply an ensemble piece, because the elements themselves are used in different, nontraditional ways. The vocalists are as important as a trio of dancers (Allison Anich, Mei-Kuang Chen and Natalie Williams) but not more so; there are no grandstanding operatic arias or big ensembles here; and the work’s constant flux is reflected as much in the lighting and choreography as in the music. Kyong Mee Choi is not only the composer but also the work’s visual artist, choreographer, director and producer, a multiplicity of roles that could easily make this come across as a “vanity” production. But that is not its effect, and the reason is its thematic material. A novelistic treatment of individual lives with a single person assuming all those creative and production roles might not work and would likely seem arrogant, but The Eternal Tao is a presentation based on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, an endlessly fascinating 2500-year-old work whose 81 short poems observe the human condition without imposing any particular patterns or sets of strictures (or structure) on people. The Tao Te Ching can be interpreted in a nearly infinite number of ways, and has been, and the choice of it as the basis for this “multimedia opera” is a particularly happy melding of subject matter with presentation.  This is experiential opera, placing the Tao Te Ching in a modern context (and with distinctly modern-sounding music) but being careful not to impose a set of required emotional or analytical responses on the audience – doing so would be out of keeping with the spirit of Lao Tzu. The use of video and electronics as well as traditional elements of opera staging makes perfect sense in this context, and while The Eternal Tao is a lot to absorb and is scarcely the sort of operatic work to which lovers of traditional opera will immediately gravitate, it is a piece in which form and function work particularly well together, jointly forging a work that partakes of numerous traditions without being wholly dependent on any one of them.  It has a combinatorial newness even though none of its individual elements, taken on its own, is particularly revolutionary.  And it is quite effective in presenting the rather rarefied, difficult-to-pin-down-precisely atmosphere of Lao Tzu’s masterpiece.

      One genius whose works have invited new forms of presentation almost since they were created is William Shakespeare, and the Shakespeare Concerts series, which began in Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin islands in 2003, is but one recent attempt to find new or additional ways in which the Bard of Avon can connect with the audiences of today. The atmosphere of Shakespeare’s plays is actually established in part through music – there are songs throughout them, and instrumental music is frequently called for – so the concept of this concert series is right in line with Shakespeare’s own intentions.  The composer most associated with the series is Joseph Summer, and Navona’s new CD devoted to the Shakespeare Concerts series intelligently focuses on Summer’s works – including the title piece, a string quartet that, although brief, is the longest work presented here. Eleven of the 12 tracks on this CD are by Summer; the 12th, The Earle of Oxfords Marche, is right out of Shakespeare’s time, being a harpsichord work by William Byrd (1540-1623). Summer’s melding of old and new is quite apparent and skillfully handled, and includes songs relating to the plays (“Full Fathom Five,” “He Shall with Speed to England”), settings of a number of sonnets, and pieces that do not use Shakespeare’s texts but that fit the overall ambience of Shakespearean presentation very well indeed (“On the Death of a Fair Infant,” with words by John Milton, and “Leda and the Swan,” with words by William Butler Yeats).  Summer composes music that is accessible and not highly individuated – he subsumes personal style into the material he is creating, which in the case of Shakespeare-linked works makes a good deal of sense.  The Shakespeare settings here all come from the sonnets, The Tempest or Hamlet, and it would be nice to hear music that casts a somewhat wider net among Shakespeare’s plays – and is drawn from less-known or more problematic ones, such as Measure for Measure or King John. But perhaps that will come in future CDs – just as the Shakespeare Concerts series has evolved and developed since its beginning, so may Navona’s issuance of discs based on it. The notion of using music to explicate and enhance Shakespeare’s words is certainly nothing new – Shakespeare himself, after all, did just that. But Summer’s treatment of this material is new, and it is easy to see how it can bring Shakespeare to a 21st-century audience in some very interesting ways.


Tartini: Sonate piccole, Volume One—Nos. 1-6. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Telemann: Fantasies for Viola Solo. Firmian Lermer, viola. Paladino Music. $18.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume III—RV 485, 502, 474, 480, 495 and 475. Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; L’Aura Soave Cremona. Naïve. $16.99.

      There is simply no end to the treasurable music of the Baroque era. What is not already well-known seems just a short way away from being discovered or rediscovered, and what has not been performed anytime recently will surely show up in the concert hall or recorded form quite soon. That so much excellent music has essentially lain fallow for such a long time is an accident of history, now corrected through interest in historic performance practices and a renewed level of attention being paid to composers of Baroque times other than Bach and Vivaldi (but still including them).  The case of Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonate piccole for solo violin is instructive. Tartini (1692-1770) is nowadays known almost solely for his “Devil’s Trill” sonata, but there is a great deal more to him and his music than that. A very highly regarded violinist as well as much-admired composer, Tartini in his later years set about creating a cycle of sonatas for violin solo, and ended up writing 30 of them – creating a six-hour grouping that, taken collectively, is the largest integrated work ever written for the instrument. And the sonatas are far more than dry studies: each is carefully structured and elegantly constructed, with virtuoso elements kept at the service of poised and effective music-making. At least that is so in the case of the first six, which are excellently played by Peter Sheppard Skærved on a Toccata Classics CD that is the first volume of the first-ever complete recording of these works. Skærved has a fine sense of Baroque style and an understated virtuosity that fits these pieces very well. He is suitably upbeat, even celebratory, in the major-key works (Nos. 1 in G, 3 in D, 4 in C and the somewhat more understated No. 5 in F); and he brings tenderness and slight melancholy – but only to an appropriate degree – to those in minor keys (Nos. 2 in D minor and 6 in E minor).  A full hour of solo-violin music can be a lot to listen to, but just as with Bach’s solo-violin works, Tartini’s encompass such a wide range of moods and techniques, and contain so much that is interesting both technically and emotionally, that they are a pleasure from start to finish.

      A full hour of Telemann’s solo-viola music is quite something, too. Perhaps the most prolific composer of all time, Telemann was a real advocate of the viola – his Viola Concerto, probably the first one ever written, remains a favorite of students, professionals and audiences. For his 12 Fantasies for Solo Viola, Telemann essentially created a dozen mini-suites of three to six movements apiece, with many of those movements lasting less than one minute and few lasting as long as two: the 44 tracks on the new Paladino Music CD by Firmian Lermer take just 66 minutes. But what a wealth of invention is here! Telemann uses all the dance forms of his time, sometimes in slow pace and sometimes in fast, and combines them with string techniques ranging from lovely legato passages to pizzicato, martellato, double stops, wide leaps, quick changes of pace and rhythm – all while taking full advantage of the viola’s tuning a fifth below that of the violin, giving this music richness and depth of sound beyond that of solo-violin music.  Lermer, who produced the CD himself (and who also contributes some rather bizarre, self-indulgent booklet notes), is a fine stylist, paying tremendous attention to details of Telemann’s poised and elegant writing and to the ornamentation that is integral to music of this time.  The performances are thoroughly idiomatic throughout, and the four minor-key Fantasies (No. 3 in B-flat minor, No. 6 in A minor, No. 9 in E minor and No. 12 in D minor – note how Telemann spaces them evenly for maximum contrast with the major-key works) have just enough of an inward-looking feeling to balance the eight major-key ones. This CD is both a delight to hear and a fascinating exploration of solo works that, although they are miniatures, are pieces of some depth.

      Less profound but no less enjoyable, Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos, of which there are more than three dozen, are consistently delightful in their insistence on treating the solo instrument as a virtuosic woodwind, not the clownish amusement it was to become in later times. The third volume in Sergio Azzolini’s cycle of the bassoon concertos – using his own critical edition of the works – is every bit as expressive and elegant as the first two. Here he offers RV 485 in F, 502 in B-flat, 474 and 475 in C, 494 in G, and 480 in C minor.  All treat the instrument in much the same way, requiring considerable virtuosity and a command of its full compass but eschewing display for its own sake – although some of the finales certainly have their breathtaking moments. In fact, knowing when to take a breath during some of these movements can be a challenge, but it is just one of those that Azzolini overcomes with élan. His period-instrument playing is elegant and assured, and his command of the power of the bassoon and of Vivaldi’s musical structure is first-rate. He brings a suitable level of emotion to the one minor-key concerto here, and enough ebullience to the others to keep any listener bubbling happily along with the soloist and the excellent accompaniment of L’Aura Soave Cremona. Of course, Vivaldi – like Tartini – was a famed violinist, but Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos show that he was as adept in writing for this instrument as for his own, and hearing the works performed with as much skill and sensitivity as Azzolini brings to them is a great pleasure and is strong testimony to the enduring power of the best Baroque music.

January 17, 2013


The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

Infestation. By Timothy J. Bradley. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Shaun Tan is one of the cleverest and most original artists currently working in children’s books – and that is not the only area where he works: film and other media attract him, too. The Bird King is a series of disconnected, frequently haunting and always fascinating sketches by Tan, interlaced with his own commentary on how he works and where his ideas come from.  Tan is a fantasist above all – even the section devoted to drawings he made from life shows elements of the fantastic seeping in, as if there is something remarkable just around the corner and just beyond every ordinary person’s eye, with Tan able to see it clearly. Tan draws grotesques that are somehow not frightening, such as “Neighbourhood Watch,” a huge creature with vaguely dinosaurian body and long horns but a somewhat benevolent expression in its single gigantic eye; “The Water Woman,” who poles a boat through the air while a cloud sheds raindrops into a large vase aboard her craft; “The Thing in the Bathroom,” a vaguely ghostlike creature with huge head, tiny arms and visible internal organs; and many more. His “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” showing a boy (likely Tan himself) leading an array of fantastical beings (and presented in two versions, one of them on the cover), is insightful and delightful in equal measure.  And then there are drawings that are simply bizarre, such as “Proud Parents,” showing a mechanical whale-like thing with an electrical cord coming out of its toothed mouth…the cord plugged into a bell-shaped object with tiny wings and an egg visible through a sort of faceplate. Tan’s drawings are very difficult to describe but not difficult at all to react to: they are visual puzzles that seem to tell stories even when no story has yet been officially built around them – journeys out of Tan’s unconscious mind for everyone interested in fine art and thoughtful illustration to absorb and enjoy.

      There is enjoyment to be had in Infestation as well, but the pleasures of this (+++) book are strictly those of observing a formula neatly applied and worked through by author Timothy J. Bradley.  Here the strange creatures are decidedly frightening: large and aggressive ants the size of human beings, which are even more of a threat than the human characters, who are no prizes themselves. The setting is absolutely typical for this sort of book: an isolated, hard-to-reach place called the Reclamation School for Boys, complete with nasty instructors and brutal bullies. The book is a sort of cross between Holes and the still-scary 1954 movie Them, but without the panache of either.  The dialogue tends to be unintentionally funny: “Another problem? Another one? You mean besides being stuck in this jail for kids in the middle of the desert? Besides the giant earthquake? Besides being chased by huge, mutant, man-eating bugs?”  Well, yes, there are indeed other problems; without them, there would be nowhere for Infestation to go.  Where it goes is into traditional escape-from-terror mode: “Either the bugs catch up to us, or the engine overheats, and then the bugs catch us. Either way, we’re dead.”  The human characters are so venal and dull that some readers may find themselves rooting for the bugs – which, however, do not win, although the end of the book makes it clear (typically for this sort of thing) that they have not exactly lost, either. Infestation is supremely silly and not nearly as scary as it wants to be, except for those with entomophobia. But it is a quick read for those looking for modest chills that cannot possibly be taken seriously.


Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. By Jeremy Dean. Da Capo. $26.

      Habits are necessary. Going through everyday life largely on autopilot makes it possible for us to handle routine matters – and many of the elements of everyday life are routine – without a tremendous amount of thought or angst. Psychologist Jeremy Dean does not give this particular extreme example, but it is worth thinking about: what if you had to contemplate every step you were about to take, thinking about which muscles you needed to use and how you needed to get them to work together to move you forward? You would never go anywhere. The scenario is absurd, of course, because once people learn to walk, they just do it. Walking is not exactly a habit, but considering this extreme example sheds light on Dean’s views about how habits operate and what functions they fulfill.

      There is nothing bad about habits, but there are bad habits – ones we would like to break. Smoking, eating unhealthful food, failing to exercise, and a host of other behaviors to which we are habituated may be ones that we know are bad for us or that we simply want to change for reasons of our own. But changing habits is hard – and Making Habits, Breaking Habits is intended to show why. Dean explains that habits generally form unconsciously, and that this is a good thing – he may not use the “walking” example, but he does point out that we do not necessarily want to think deeply about looking both ways before crossing a street.  Dean says that about one-third of our waking hours are ruled by habit – probably a conservative estimate for at least some people. And because habits do fulfill useful functions, changing them is difficult – harder, in fact, than creating new, better ones.

      The analyses in books of this type generally make a great deal of sense, and Dean’s certainly do.  (He runs a Web site called Psyblog, intended to interpret complex research in simple terms so people can make use of it.) Dean argues convincingly that habits are essentially automatic pilots, taking us through elements of everyday life that we must negotiate regularly and on which we need not expend too much mental energy because we are habituated to handle them.  So far, so good; but for this very reason, because habits do make things easier, it can be very difficult to change them.

      The prescriptive part of self-help books is where many of them fall down. Dean’s is better than most. He explains many ways to create new, positive habits: start with a small behavioral change rather than trying a major one; break a bigger change (such as healthful eating) down into small parts; build on existing positive or neutral habits to add new ones – for instance, if after work you wash up and change clothes, add “jog for 15 minutes” to the routine, so you are expanding it instead of trying to create something altogether new; create or join a support group; repeat the new habit as often as possible, until it becomes ingrained and automatic (like other habits); avoid being too hard on yourself if this process proves difficult – negative self-talk will only make it harder.

      But if the key to creating new habits is attention and repetition, the key to breaking unwanted ones is something else – and here Dean is less helpful. He admits that breaking bad habits is harder than creating new ones (which makes sense: our minds, as Dean shows, are hard-wired to create habits, not to dismantle them).  But his idea of breaking a bad habit by not inhibiting it – thinking of it as a kind of flow that will continue no matter what, allowing you to substitute something else but not to stop the flow altogether – is psychologically and theoretically sound but not terribly helpful in practice.  In addition, some of the research examples that Dean cites in discussing habits are interesting in themselves but not particularly useful for people trying to change their forms of habituation. For example, he cites a study on the roots of creativity in which one group thought of love, one thought of sex, and one (the control group) thought of neither. Those who thought about love did best on creative-thinking problems; those who thought about sex did best on analytical ones. Dean points out that the experiment was really about the balance between abstract and concrete thought, and then gets into a discussion of how we think about time, and it is all quite interesting – but not readily applicable to the underlying theme of the book, at least from a self-help perspective.

      Actually, the book reads like one in which Dean primarily shares his own fascination with a variety of research projects of various kinds, pausing occasionally to relate this study or that back to the whole issue of forming and changing habits.  And there is nothing wrong with being a bit discursive, especially when the underlying material is as interesting as much of it is here. But readers looking for somewhat more-focused and more-pointed answers to their questions about managing and changing their own habits may find Making Habits, Breaking Habits a bit less than habit-forming.


Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $16.99.

The Resisters 3: Titan Base. By Eric Nylund. Yearling. $6.99.

Horse Diaries #10: Darcy. By Whitney Sanderson. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Random House. $6.99.

      Some series of books for young readers give the impression that they can and will go on forever. Wendelin Van Draanen’s stories of youthful detective Sammy Keyes show no sign of flagging, and Sammy’s many fans will certainly lap up each new adventure as it becomes available – even if, in truth, some recent ones are less interesting than many of the earlier entries.  Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City is the 16th of these books, and despite its rather lurid title, is primarily about Sammy trying to answer some mysteries about her own life – and doing so in Las Vegas.  Sammy, you see, has family issues, like not knowing who her father is or why her mother has kept his identity secret all this time, and what her mother’s intentions are regarding Sammy’s boyfriend’s father (would she really marry him?). And Sammy has peer issues, too, many of them centering on Heather Acosta and Heather’s mother, Candi (“a liar and a thief and a sneak and a coward”), and grandmother issues as well; and eventually she realizes, “I was an emotional mess, and now I was a muddy mess, too.”  The climax here has Sammy not only finding out who her father is but also meeting him (after deciding she doesn’t want that guy to be her father, for reasons that seem sensible at the time).  There is a big confrontation with her “diva” mother, too, and eventually Sammy decides that “I’ve finally, finally gotten back to an edge of reality,” and everything is neatly buttoned up at the end – a Van Draanen specialty in these books, although she never buttons things too tightly to prevent the next volume from emerging.  Sammy’s grandma gets the sum-up line here: “What’s a little trouble with a heart as big as yours?” And that, in fact, is a pretty good summation of this entire series to date. Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City is not one of the series’ best books, but its unusually strong focus on Sammy herself and on her family situation makes it a nice change of pace from the more-usual mysteries in which she is helping other people handle their problems.

      There are no ongoing family issues in the continuing saga of The Resisters, which is about Ethan Blackwood and his squadron, fighters for Earth against the invasion of the evil alien Ch’zar. This is pure adventure material, science fiction on the surface but not particularly scientific underneath. It is mostly about how kids are better able to fight the aliens than adults, and in fact if Ethan and his friends do not prevent the bad guys from finding the Resisters’ secret base, the Ch’zar will not only discover it but also absorb all the adults into the Ch’zar collective mind. Yes, this is absurd and silly, but the point here is adventure, not a plot that bears too-close examination.  This is the third book in The Resisters saga, which is unlikely to go on as long as the Sammy Keyes works – it has been rather creaky from the start – but which is easy to read and fast-paced enough so it will attract young readers interested in the trappings of SF if not in the more-serious and more-complex issues that better books in the genre raise.  The main issue in Titan Base is simply survival and fighting back in the face of “Ch’zar mental domination.”  Ethan has an important realization here about Ch’zar mental powers: “The real question was how they’d been able to resist the strength of that pull at all. If he and [his sister] Emma had the sensitivity to hear it…that meant they were somehow interfering with the alien collective hive mind.”   But the knowledge does not seem helpful, and eventually, after a series of near-escapes and non-escapes, Ethan concludes that “the human race was doomed.” But of course it isn’t, and two similar but not-identical letters sent to Ethan and Emma by their parents (the one significant family connection here) hold an important clue that the brother and sister figure out by comparing the differences between their two notes. Anyway, the result of all this is yet another difficult-but-inevitable triumph of brave Earth kids, and the promise of more fights to come as the series continues.

      The ongoing Horse Diaries sequence, now at its 10th entry, is different from those featuring human protagonists in ongoing adventures. Each book in this equine fantasy series is about a different horse from a different time period, and each is narrated by the horse.  Darcy opens in 1917 in Ireland and is told by a gray Connemara pony with silver dapples. A speedy, tough workhorse, Darcy carts peat from a peat bog and explores the rugged Irish countryside with Shannon McKenna, oldest daughter in her human family. But as usual in these books, the everyday life of a horse is only part of the story.  The tale also involves the Irish Republican Army and a dangerous health condition that almost claims pregnant Mrs. McKenna’s life in an incident that ends happily – thanks to Darcy’s abilities. As usual, some attempts are made to create a setting appropriate to this particular horse’s time and place: “Any passerby who saw us emerge from the bog would probably think they’d seen the dreaded kelpie or dullahan of ancient lore.”  Also as usual, there is a concluding section – after the end of the story – with additional facts about Connemara ponies and the history in which they belong, including a brief look at the Irish Potato Famine and at famous real-world Connemaras. Like the other books in this ongoing sequence, Darcy is complete in itself and aimed entirely at young readers who are fascinated with and by horses of all sorts. There is enough genuine history here to give the book some educational value, but its main reason for being is adventure from an equine perspective – and a chance for young horse lovers to meet yet another type of horse with which they may not before have become acquainted.