October 26, 2006


Are We Out of the Driveway Yet? “Zits” Sketchbook 11. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Luann 3: Sixteen Isn’t Pretty. By Greg Evans. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

She’s Turning into One of Them! A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Nowadays there’s more solid information on what it’s like to be a teenager, or live with one, in comic strips than in news stories, books or movies, or on TV. Many of the best cartoonists working today endow their teenage characters with depth, warmth, intelligence and real-world problems and concerns far beyond what you’ll find in most other media. The very best strips make teenage angst and uncertainty amusing even as they explore some of its more serous sides.

The funniest and best-drawn teenage comic strip around is Zits, which combines the wit and cleverness of Jerry Scott (who also writes Baby Blues) with the surrealistic sensibilities and talent for exaggeration of Jim Borgman, who is also an outstanding editorial cartoonist. The 11th Zits sketchbook (there have also been five oversize “Treasury” volumes) features slices of modern teen life: everyone in the movie audiences sending and receiving text messages to enhance the experience of watching a big-budget film. It includes brilliant depictions of how teens see their parents’ concern: Jeremy Duncan, 15, cast as Gulliver, tied down by multiple Lilliputian versions of his parents, Walt and Connie, who are using strings marked “curfew,” “chaperones” and “no parties.” Parents’ feelings get their turn, too, as when Connie literally unzips teenage Jeremy to get to the little boy inside, with whom she always had such a good time. Then there’s Jeremy portrayed as actually being in the center of his own universe…letting all the knowledge drain out of his ears after finals are over…and remembering to compliment his girlfriend’s shoes – when she is barefoot. It all adds up to a near-perfect portrait of modern teenagerdom – except that Scott and Borgman make it more enjoyable than most real-life families find it to be.

Greg Evans goes more intensely into real life and real-world troubles in Luann than do the creators of Zits. Evans has, for example, dealt with teenage drinking and had a character survive cancer. But the stock-in-trade of Luann is relationships, or the lack thereof, and that is the focus of Luann 3: Sixteen Isn’t Pretty. This is actually far more than the third Luann collection – it’s just the third from Andrews McMeel. And it continues the stories of Luann, who manages to be lovable despite lengthy bouts of superficiality, and her best friends, Bernice and Delta. Luann’s slug of an older brother, Brad, surprises himself (and his family, and readers) with some genuine growth in this volume, where his story becomes intertwined with the romance of Bernice and Zane – an older, wheelchair-bound hunk who works with Bernice in a bookstore where a near-tragedy is averted by Brad’s brave action. Also in this volume, Luann’s nemesis, Tiffany – a manipulative, gold-digging, flirtatious cheerleader who is the most stereotyped character in the comic strip – gives a makeover to “nice guy” Gunther, in whom Luann really ought to be interested but never is, quite. The results are intriguing – as are all the ongoing stories here.

The best-developed of all ongoing family stories in the comics are those of the Pattersons in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. Here too are people – and they really seem like people – facing the everyday vicissitudes of life and handling them with understandable difficulty but with good humor, family solidity and a strong sense of ethics. Johnston’s juggling act with her large cast of characters is almost as impressive as Garry Trudeau’s in Doonesbury. But Johnston has none of Trudeau’s cynicism and none of his preoccupation with politics – hers is a “family values” strip par excellence. This can sometimes become a bit cloying – everyone is just so well-intentioned and well-mannered – but Johnston always stays true to the personalities she has created for her characters. She’s Turning into One of Them! focuses in large part on April, the Pattersons’ “bonus baby,” who is now 13. But there are other kids here: for example, the Pattersons’ first child, Michael, already a father, is about to become one again. And then there is the “mentally challenged” Shannon, who takes some classes with April – and who, although 15 years old, is academically and socially slow. April’s affinity for Shannon, and her increasing distance from boy-chasing best friend Becky, is exactly what Johnston’s strip is all about. It is only when Becky shows vulnerability and suffers pain that she and April become closer again – a bit treacly, perhaps, but still far more realistic than most of what passes for family life in the comics…and far more uplifting.


Journals: Frank Lloyd Wright Pocket Journal; New York Times Traveler’s Journal. Pomegranate. $14.95 each.

Postcards: Charles Addams; R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural. Pomegranate. $9.95 each.

Knowledge Cards: What Do You Know About Golf?; What Do You Know About Jazz?; Hey Bartender! Pomegranate. $9.95 each.

Holiday Cards: Charles Addams; Frank Lloyd Wright Decorative Elements. Pomegranate. $15 each.

     Have you noticed how close we are getting to Christmas and the generalized winter gift-giving season?  Are you feeling the hot breath of incipient craziness breathing down your neck as you contemplate all the people for whom you want to buy things, when you haven’t got a clue what things to buy?  Fear not: frantic times are not here yet, and you can head them off very nicely indeed with some of the thoughtful, well-made offerings of an unusually artistic California company called Pomegranate Communications.

     What makes the company unusually artistic is the way it brings genuine art into everyday life in unexpected ways.  Take the humble journal.  The Frank Lloyd Wright Pocket Journal features a beautifully embossed geometric cover design by the famed architect, plus pages with squares – one of Wright’s oft-used shapes – as background, plus a size (less than four by six inches) that makes it easy to carry anywhere.  It’s a blank book, suitable for jotting down your own artistic (or other) thoughts.  Or try the slightly larger New York Times Traveler’s Journal if peregrination is one of your preferences – or a preference of a gift recipient.  The blank pages here have standard horizontal lines, but they are far from the only feature: this journal contains itinerary pages, checklists of items to be sure to take on a trip, temperature and measurement conversions, time zones, tipping suggestions – even a dozen crossword puzzles to pass the time while stuck in an airport, at a train station or on llama back.

     Travelers looking to send home something other than scenic postcards – or people simply looking for offbeat ways to communicate a few words through the mail – can try a book of postcards by Charles Addams or a box of them by underground cartoonist R. (for Robert) Crumb.  The Addams cards, which are bound together and perforated to tear out easily, range from the seasonally touching (a valentine slipped under a door that is quintuple-bolted to keep the world out), to the gently macabre (a color portrait of the Addams Family), to the slightly weird (an orchestra with one member standing ready to push a plunger and blow the stage up).  These are certainly nontraditional greetings.  So are the Mr. Natural cards, which come boxed and which feature four color Crumb drawings and six in black-and-white.  These range from Mr. Natural doing the dishes to a card in which one of Crumb’s typical big-and-buxom babes is sitting on Mr. Natural, holding him down, while saying, “Just tell me real quick what the secret of the universe is.”  No, these are not for everybody.  Don’t ask anyone on your gift list if he or she would like these – if you have to ask, the answer is no.

     Some things that are a little more mainstream, and that make very nice stocking stuffers, are Pomegranate’s Knowledge Card decks.  They really are decks of cards – 48 per box – featuring interesting and/or little-known facts about a wide variety of subjects.  Pomegranate makes a lot of these decks.  Some new and attractive ones are What Do You Know About Golf? by William Rogin and What Do You Know About Jazz? by Michael Ehlers.  Find someone who thinks he or she knows golf and try out these questions: Who were the cleekmakers? Who was the first Olympic golf medalist?  Then find a self-proclaimed jazz expert and try these: Whose primary instrument is bagpipes? Who wrote (not performed) “Lullaby of Birdland”?  Each card gives questions on one side, answers on the other – and the jazz set includes listening suggestions, too.

     A third Knowledge Cards set could have been called “What Do You Know About Mixed Drinks?” – but Jeff Burkhart’s deck is actually called Hey Bartender!  Anyone who partakes of exotic drinks will appreciate this one, in which Burkhart (who really is a bartender) asks how a particular drink is made, then gives the recipe on the back…along with background information and mixing hints.

     Now, what sort of seasonal greeting cards might you give people along with these many and various gifts?  Pomegranate has plenty of possibilities, some of which use the same artists who appear in the gift items – but in different ways.  Thus, the Charles Addams assortment – 20 cards, five each of four designs – features more amusingly heartwarming work than you would expect from Addams.  True, “Snowman March” could be a little spooky – all those snowmen heading in the same direction – but the snow guys don’t really look sinister.  “Inside Snowman” (who is in an apartment looking out) is wistful, “Snow Family” (including a snow dog) is cute, and “Lone Brownstone” (nicely decorated, standing amid faceless skyscrapers) is actually touching.

     If you prefer something more abstract but equally seasonal, Frank Lloyd Wright Decorative Elements presents four of Wright’s geometric shapes (five cards of each design) colored mostly in seasonal reds and greens.  Although none of the designs was created for seasonal purposes, they certainly seem right for Christmas and winter – “Oak Park Home and Studio,” for example, has a churchlike feel, while “Marin County Civic Center” looks like a tree ornament.  It’s enough to make you welcome the season instead of dreading its pressures.


The Midnight Library: Voices; Blood and Sand; End Game. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

Epossumondas Saves the Day. By Colleen Salley. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $16.

     This is trick-or-treat season, and one way of giving kids a treat is by giving them a book that tricks them – preferably a little scarily.  Of course, the fright has to be matched to each child’s age to avoid giving little ones nightmares or making sleep difficult – and to prevent older kids from dismissing stories as, well, “kid stuff.”

     The Midnight Library is for ages 8-12, and will work especially well at the younger end of that age range.  “Damien Graves” is a suitably silly/spooky pseudonym: Voices is by Shaun Hutson; Blood and Sand by David Savage (itself a pretty good name for an author of books like these); and End Game by Ben Jeapes and Robin Wasserman.  Each volume – there will be others in the series – contains three easy-to-read stories in which kids in the target age group get into shivery trouble because of supernatural happenings.  The title story in Voices has to do with the blessing – or is it a curse? – of being able to hear people everywhere talking, even when they are not talking to you.  “A Perfect Fit” is a tale of shoes possessed by some sort of evil creature – a fairy-tale theme updated to the age of high-priced sneakers.  “An Apple a Day” is about a boy’s unpleasant neighbor and his very unusual apple orchard – how unusual, the boy finds out only when it is too late.  Bad things happen to kids in all these stories – they’re not terribly frightening, but are not for squeamish or overly sensitive children.  In Blood and Sand, the title story is about two children who probe a bit too closely into the reason some sand sculptures are ultra-realistic.  “Man’s Best Friend,” one of the best stories in these books, is about a parrot that talks about death and seems capable of causing it – and a boy who figures out what is going on and is able to save his family…he thinks.  “Stranger in the House,” among the worst of these tales, is a cliché-filled story of demonic possession that has no ending except a girl’s determination – it is likely to disappoint most readers.  In End Game, the title story is about a boy who thinks how cool it would be to play “a game that manipulated reality,” but who discovers it is not so cool after all.  “The Other Sister” is about a kindhearted girl who picks the wrong person to befriend.  “Is Anybody There?” is a story of mysterious text messages that seem to be coming from a cell phone that isn’t connected.  None of these stories is especially well written or creative, but all have some chilling moments – and two more books in the series are planned.

     The danger in Epossumondas Saves the Day is more comical than real – even children ages 3-7, the target age group, will likely realize that the bad things that happen will be reversed by the end of the book.  This is Colleen Salley’s third update of the old Southern tales of Epaminondas – here transformed to a lovable possum.  It is not quite as freewheeling or fun-filled as Epossumondas or Why Epossumondas Has No Hair on His Tail, because it is significantly more repetitious – which means it will appeal mostly to kids at the lower end of the target age range.  Janet Stevens’ exaggerated illustrations, though, are as roguishly charming as ever.  The story is about Epossumondas’ birthday cake, for which his Mama needs some sody sallyraytus – the old Southern term for baking soda.  But various characters’ attempts to get the sody all end in a confrontation with a “GREAT, HUGE, UGLY LOUISIANA SNAPPING TURTLE,” until Epossumondas himself figures out how to save everyone (well, except the turtle) and get the sody back home, too.  The huge size of the turtle may startle or scare some younger readers, but after their initial shock, they should quickly realize that big bad turtles, like big bad wolves, get what they deserve in the end.


Penny from Heaven. By Jennifer L. Holm. Random House. $15.95.

House of the Red Fish. By Graham Salisbury. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.95.

     Jennifer Holm’s semi-autobiographical tale of the 1950s and Graham Salisbury’s family-experience-based story of the 1940s are both well written and both effective, each in its own way.  The fog of nostalgia, though, seems to have settled over the authors to such an extent that their plots are not quite as strong here as in their other works.

     Penny from Heaven is set in 1953, a time that inspires this sort of prose: “Every year the uncles get me a big gift.  Last year we went to the circus and then for a lobster dinner afterward.  The year before that I got a fancy dollhouse.  Frankie gets presents from the uncles on his birthday, too, but not as big as mine.”  The setting is not entirely idyllic – Penny gets those big gifts in part because her father is dead – but there is a sense that the family issues on which this book rests are far from unsolvable and all part of learning and growing up.  Penny, who is 11, isn’t allowed to go swimming because her mother thinks she will catch polio at the pool; the two sides of her family are not speaking to each other; and everyone in the Italian-American family is aware that World War II happened only a few years ago, and that Italians were America’s enemies then.  Here is a typical musing of Penny about getting older: “Twelve has always seemed pretty old to me.  The girls who are twelve are in seventh grade and worry about their hair and are always trying to borrow their older sisters’ bras.”  If these worries seem petty in comparison with preteen worries 50-plus years later, that is part of the point: every generation sees itself deluged with its own set of problems, but even rain (as the old song says) can bring pennies from heaven.  If that message seems a little too sappily sweet, so will this entire book of reminiscences.  If the message makes you think happily of a simpler time and an apparently easier life, Jennifer Holm’s somewhat rose-colored glasses will fit you quite well.

     Graham Salisbury’s House of the Red Fish is set 10 years earlier than Holm’s book, during rather than after World War II, and it is a story of people who are considered enemies during the book – not ones thought of that way in the past.  House of the Red Fish is a companion to Under the Blood-Red Sun, and is set in 1943 – a year later.  It continues and expands the story of Tomi Nakaji, Japanese-American resident of Honolulu and, in this book, the 13-year-old man of the house.  So soon after Pearl Harbor, and so close to the scene of the disaster, Tomi is (understandably) viewed with suspicion by many, and with outright hatred by Keet Wilson – son of the family for which Tomi’s mother works as a maid.  Tomi’s father is gone, arrested after Pearl Harbor, his fishing boat sunk by the U.S. Army.  Tomi does have friends as well as enemies, and he has a project: raising and repairing that boat, and symbolically raising and repairing the image of his family and of all loyal Japanese-Americans.  There is a great deal here about honor and its difficult intersection with reality, and the way large conflicts such as wars are mirrored in small feuds.  This is territory that has often been explored before, but readers interested in a particular time and place – Salisbury’s family has lived in the Hawaiian Islands since the early 1800s – will find it interestingly atmospheric.


The Temple Bombing. By Melissa Fay Greene. Da Capo. $15.95.

Praying for Sheetrock. By Melissa Fay Greene. Da Capo. $15.95.

Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake. By Trevor Dann. Da Capo. $16.95.

     How many times must we go back to the same scenes, the same places, the same stories?  It depends, of course, on both the story and the storyteller.  Some events are so indelibly imprinted on some groups’ and individuals’ consciousness – the Holocaust on Jews, for example – that it seems inevitable for people from those groups to return to those occurrences again and again, trying to make sense of them and understand why they occurred and what they meant, even many decades afterwards.

     A similar sense of inevitable return pervades Melissa Fay Greene’s books about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and its aftermath.  The Temple Bombing (originally published in 1996) focuses on 1958, Praying for Sheetrock (originally published in 1991) on what happened after the struggles of the 1960s.  These new editions show that both books are heartfelt and well written, both explore an important era in American history – and both, like the umpteen books still being written about the Holocaust, raise two unsettling issues: how much discussion of an era is enough, and how much relevance the books’ subjects have to people for whom the stories are only dim entries in history texts.

     Greene certainly does an excellent job of humanizing large-scale events. The Temple Bombing focuses on the dynamiting of Atlanta’s oldest and richest synagogue on October 12, 1958, by white supremacists and unreconstructed segregationists – whose hatred was inflamed after Rabbi Jacob Rothschild spoke out in public to defend the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.”  On the grand scale, this is a story of how Jews and African Americans became partners in the civil rights movement, and of how court cases were tried and mistried at a time of major social upheaval.  On a smaller scale, it is the story of Rothschild himself, his supporters and opponents, his faith and his doubt.  Similarly, Praying for Sheetrock is the story of McIntosh County, Georgia, in the 1970s, when a corrupt old-style sheriff and his cronies largely ignored the civil rights movement and ruled with impunity – until an unemployed black man named Thurnell Alston stood up to them.  Again, the larger issues are played out on one level while the smaller personal stories of Alston, Sheriff Tom Popell and various individuals on both sides are sensitively explored.  There is no question that the subjects of both these lengthy books (900 pages between them) are of immense importance to Greene, and that she spins her stories eloquently.  There is, however, a question of whether the books reach out to anyone not already imbued with Greene’s own spirit and temperament – and whether that matters.

     There is a somewhat analogous question about Darker Than the Deepest Sea, Trevor Dann’s thorough biography of a moderately popular musician who, like many others in the business, died of a drug overdose when very young.  This is the story of Nick Drake (1948-1974), who made only three albums and who has attained more fame posthumously than during his life.  The quality of that fame is arguable – the title track of one Drake album became a Volkswagen commercial’s soundtrack – and so are the qualities of Drake and his music.  Dann, a British music executive, is clearly knowledgeable about the field, and his research is impressive.  We learn of Drake’s well-to-do upbringing, his personal relationships, his professional ones (notably with producer Joe Boyd), and his brief performance for none other than the Rolling Stones.  We have actually learned much of this before – this is the second biography of Drake, and the better of the two.  But how many more doctors talking about a musician’s depression do readers want to hear?  How many more interviews with university tutors are needed to explain a part of a young man’s life?  Dann sheds a great deal of light on his subject – but the question remains: does Drake have a large enough fan base to justify this book, or is it supposed to reach out in some way to people who know little or nothing about its 30-years-gone subject?


Wagner: Die Walküre. Robert Gambill (Siegmund), Attila Jun (Hunding), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Wotan), Angela Denoke (Sieglinde), Renate Behle (Brünnhilde), Tichina Vaughn (Fricka). Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $26.99 (3 CDs).

It is only in the second of its four operas that Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung becomes a fully human story. In fact, it is only in the second opera that humans show up: there aren’t any in Das Rheingold. That first opera requires the audience to see the larger-than-life gods, dwarves, giants and other characters as driven by all-too-human impulses – but a direct human connection is missing (although skilled singing actors in the role of Alberich can make one).

Die Walküre, though, is the most human-focused opera in the cycle, and the one in which the gods themselves seem to be turning into vulnerable and doomed humans – something that really does happen to Brünnhilde at the end, when Wotan strips her of her powers as a Valkyrie and abandons her on the fire-surrounded rock to whatever man shall be bold enough to win her.

Aside from containing the most popular music in the Ring cycle – the “Ride of the Valkyries,” which is even more astonishing and effective in context than as a concert piece – Die Walküre contains the most famous (or infamous) incest ever set to music. The love music of Siegmund and his sister-bride, Sieglinde, is so soaring that it caused famed classical-music parodist Anna Russell to remark, “You can do anything in grand opera as long as you sing it.” And “sing it” with great fervor is just what Robert Gambill and Angela Denoke do, as the former’s search for his father (Wotan, who is also Sieglinde’s father) collides with the latter’s bitter unhappiness in her life with her husband, Hunding. The intensely human emotions swirling around the marital triangle are mirrored among the gods, with Wotan favoring Siegmund as the potential savior of the gods from the curse of Alberich’s ring; Fricka, his much-wronged wife and the guardian of marriage, favoring Hunding, the cuckold; and Brünnhilde, the rash and impetuous daughter, determined to do what Wotan wants even when Wotan commands her to do the opposite.

What a family drama this is! Wotan has fathered not only Siegmund and Sieglinde but also all the Valkyries – no wonder Fricka, a shrew if there ever was one, is determined to force Wotan to acknowledge some shred of sanctimony in marriage (even if not in his). Wotan can feel his doom, the doom of all the gods, approaching inexorably, and he knows that his craven theft of the Ring (in Das Rheingold) has set events in motion that even he cannot stop. Wotan’s role affords the most difficult acting job in Die Walküre, and if Jan-Hendrik Rootering does not quite plumb the depths of the part, he certainly sings it well. Tichina Vaughn never makes Fricka much more than a shrill conniver, but this is a particularly difficult role in which to try to garner any sympathy – and Vaughn’s vocal prowess certainly makes her a fine foil for Rootering. As Brünnhilde, Renate Behle has plenty of pluck and a voice that, if not perfectly suited to Wagner, is nevertheless effective and dramatically deployed. And in the thankless role of Hunding, so contemptuously swatted to death by Wotan immediately after Wotan allows him to kill Siegmund, Attila Jun is appropriately sly and unpleasant.

Lothar Zagrosek paces the choral and orchestral forces exceptionally well: the performance runs nearly four hours but never flags. There are multiple climaxes in this work – Siegmund and Sieglinde’s consummation of their love, Siegmund’s death, Wotan’s pursuit of Brünnhilde – but everything builds to the final scene, in which the opera ends quietly as the doomed Wotan abandons his most-loved Valkyrie daughter to the fate he has himself imposed on her. Zagrosek paces all the climaxes, including the final one, very well, drawing out the emotion of both the words and the music.

The one major flaw in this release is the lack of a dual-language libretto – not only in the box (that is understandable) but also online. Naxos does make a libretto available through its Web site – but in German only. This puts English speakers at a major disadvantage in a work whose words are every bit as important as its music: Wagner did not call his works “music dramas” for nothing. It’s worth the effort to track down a translation of the libretto – following it adds a lot to hearing this performance. It’s a shame, though, that the effort needs to be made.

October 19, 2006


Everyday Mutts. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My! A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

America Gone Wild! By Ted Rall. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

     From the gentle to the insidious to the pointed and nasty, comics and their cartoonists have been taking the medium far beyond the frequent tame wasteland in which it has long languished.  Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts is the closest current strip to the spirit of warmth and tenderness that many comics readers fondly (if rather inaccurately) remember.  McDonnell himself is a connoisseur both of comics and of art in general, often presenting amusing parodies of this work or that at the start of his Sunday strips.  Everyday Mutts, the latest oversize “Treasury” collection of McDonnell’s work, is unusually generous to the artist, with only two (instead of three) weekday strips per page, lovely full-color and full-page Sundays, plus a few of McDonnell’s sketchbook pages and specialty drawings.  Earl the dog and Mooch the cat remain at the center of this thoroughly lovable strip – the kids’-book picture of them as big-eyed babies topped with whipped-cream hats is priceless – but the large supporting cast is marvelous, too.  Among the highlights are the “Mutts Summer Book Club,” some wonderful Sunday tributes to the old Popeye strip, and of course McDonnell’s trademark sentimental elements, from Guard Dog’s yearning to be unchained to the heart-tugging “Shelter Stories” promoting adoption.  One extra-special color Sunday page features Frank, owner of Mooch (to the extent that one ever owns a cat), relaxing while reading a book of classic comics, whose characters appear in black-and-white scattered through the large central panel – including Ignatz of Krazy Kat tossing his traditional brick at none other than Mooch himself.  Just lovely.

     Stephan Pastis has neither the artistic skill nor the warmth of McDonnell – hey, Pastis started out as a lawyer, after all – but he does have a delightfully skewed sense of humor that makes Pearls Before Swine a consistently entertaining bit of bizarrerie (look it up).  Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My! is mostly made up, as “Treasury” books usually are, of previously published strips, but this second Pearls in “Treasury” form is enlivened by occasional commentary from Pastis (a technique he picked up from Scott Adams of Dilbert, who first brought Pearls to widespread attention).  A back-of-the-book section called “The Good, the Banned, and the Ugly” presents some previously unpublished strips in unedited form, but in truth, they are not much stranger than the ones that made it into newspapers.  Who but Pastis would send his character, Pig, on a date with a girl who works for an Internet service provider and whose face periodically turns into a pop-up ad promoting, among other things, Viagra and nude girls?  Some Pastis puns still confuse readers, but at least he takes the blame and explains what he meant.  Readers really should forgive him: no one else would have Rat place an eBay order and accidentally receive the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh.

     Pastis’ occasional frays into politics are nothing compared with the work of Ted Rall, for whom vehemence and political intensity are a daily diet.  Rall is one of the most controversial cartoonists working today, because of his take-no-prisoners style of satire.  He is as cuttingly personal when taking on politicians as Thomas Nast was when attacking Boss Tweed.  Rall, in keeping with our times, is far less erudite and far more willing to flail about to make a point, and his art often looks like the sort of thing you would see spray-painted on a wall.  But that’s the point: Rall wants to shock, to inflame, to make people pay attention to things they would just as soon ignore.  For the first 40-odd pages (some very odd) of the 168-page America Gone Wild! Rall discusses some of his more controversial strips and the reactions to them – one of the more printable ones being, “You are so ugly and mean spirited I hope someone puts a bullet in the back of your head.”  Rall refuses to see Pat Tillman, the NFL pro killed in Iraq, as a pure patriot.  He attacks widows who exploited their husbands’ deaths on September 11, 2001, as “terror whores.”  After news comes out that a 20th hijacker missed one of the planes, Rall does a strip called “Jihad Slacker.”  He shows Ronald Reagan in Hell, which Reagan is told is actually “Heaven…after your budget cuts and privatization.”  Rall even shows how “the logic of preemption allows one to justify the invasion of the least threatening place on earth, Greenland.”  Rall is a cartoonist you turn to for outrage – although, interestingly, some of his most effective work is slightly more soft-pedaled.  One of the best cartoons here, “Freak-Show Politics,” shows the media focusing on flag burning, abortion and cloning while America’s real problems – represented by a man saying he has lost his job – are ignored.  Rall is, if nothing else, very, very hard to ignore.


Ruff! Ruff! Where’s Scruff? Written by Sarah Weeks. Illustrations and paper engineering by David A. Carter. Harcourt. $13.95.

My Little Yellow Taxi. By Stephen A. Johnson. Red Wagon/Harcourt. $19.95.

     Participatory books for young children are some of the most cleverly designed in the business.  It often seems that the younger the target audience, the greater the effort made to reach it.  When the attempt works, as it does in both these books, the result is pure enjoyment – for children and parents alike.

     Ruff! Ruff! Where’s Scruff? is accurately subtitled, “A Lift-the-Flap Pop-up Adventure,” which means its movable pages make things happen in several directions.  Sarah Weeks keeps the story very simple, as she should for the target age range of 2-5.  But David A. Carter’s paper work is extraordinarily complicated – not in use (kids will find it extremely easy to use), but in design.  This is the second collaboration of Weeks and Carter, and is even cleverer than Who’s Under That Hat?  This time, Weeks starts by explaining that Scruff has just rolled in mud, “so now I have to clean him.”  But Scruff can’t be found.  He must be somewhere, but where?  The narrator asks cows, pigs, sheep, ducks and rabbits if they have seen Scruff, but all the animals say no.  Kids will know better – the joy of discovery, of finding something that the book’s narrator does not know about, is a big part of the charm here.  Whenever a child lifts a flap – opening the door to the pigs’ sleeping area, for example, or moving aside the heads of lettuce where the rabbits are hiding – Scruff pops up somewhere.  The dog’s location is not always obvious – it’s lots of fun for a young child to say “there he is!”  But a little looking always reveals Scruff’s hiding place – until, at the end, the narrator gives up, and the reader lifts a flap shaped like a bale of hay to reveal Scruff right where he should be: in the bath.  This is a great read-to-me book for young children, and one in which it is really fun to participate

     My Little Yellow Taxi takes participation to an entirely more complex level.  Intended for ages 3-7, it is Stephen A. Johnson’s third book of building, fixing up, and high-level creativity in high-strength cardboard.  Like My Little Red Toolbox and My Little Blue Robot, Johnson’s new book is a study in interactivity.  My Little Yellow Taxi – which, by the way, actually contains a removable taxi of the famous but now discontinued Checker Cab type – offers a series of interactive features related to getting a taxi ready to go on the road.  Among the 16 play-along elements are such operational items as putting gas in the tank (without having to worry about the cost of fuel!) and checking the oil, plus such comfort-and-convenience items as adjusting the rear-view mirror and opening and closing the door.  It’s hard to explain what Johnson’s books are – they lie somewhere between pop-ups and construction projects.  Whatever you decide to call them, they are very well illustrated (the detailing of the taxi is impressive, and so is the detailing of every individual part), very sturdy, and very capable of standing up to the repeated uses to which they will undoubtedly be subjected.


2007 Calendars: Engagement – Dilbert; Day-to-Day – Duh!; Cartoons from “The New Yorker”; Space; Teacher’s Sticker-a-Day; Tangram Magnetic Puzzle-a-Day. Andrews McMeel. $12.99 (Dilbert); $11.99 (Duh!, New Yorker); $13.99 (Space; Tangram); $9.99 (Sticker).

     Andrews McMeel is the feel-good calendar company, offering a catalogue replete with jokes, well-known comic-strip characters, uplifting quotations, self-help, and even – here and there – some insight.  If you don’t feel good very often while working at your desk, it’s worthwhile giving up a little of your desktop to display a calendar to help lift your spirits.  If you like to track your appointments on paper, in an open-flat, spiral-bound engagement calendar, consider using one that reminds you of how funny the office (okay, other people’s offices) can be.  That would be the Dilbert Engagement Calendar, which for 2007 features Wally, the master of laziness, on the cover, saying, “I used the week to develop some new coffee-slurping noises.”  How’s that for being successfully passive-aggressive?  And if your boss notices you reading the Scott Adams cartoons – Wally teaching Asok to avoid work by walking briskly and pretending to be angry, Alice enduring a performance review, Dilbert pointing out that the company’s core competence is “sitting around a brown table” – you can simply start writing notes in the space on the left-hand page, or tracking meetings or phone calls on the right.  See?  You’re working!

     Of course, engagement calendars take up a little more desk space than day-to-day ones, so maybe you would prefer something like Duh! The Dumbest Things Ever Said or Done.  The out-and-out jokes here are not the funniest items – it’s the reality stuff that gets you: George W. Bush reminding C students that they can become president, or a store offering to sell stereo equipment for “299 bananas” (meaning dollars), then being forced to sell it to people who brought in 299 pieces of fruit.

     Not quite intellectual enough for you?  Then consider Cartoons from “The New Yorker,” that magazine repository of all things high-toned.  Here are the usual subjects – money, sex, love, health, etc. – in typical New Yorker style, which means gunfighters arguing whether a garment is a shawl or a poncho, and dogs discussing whether it’s better to blog or just keep barking.

     Prefer something more uplifting?  You can lift your senses through the office walls and ceilings and all the way to the stars with Space, an assemblage of gorgeous photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Voyager and Viking missions, and other robotic spacefaring explorers.  The calendar includes important space-related anniversary dates, information on planet and star activity, and captions that not only explain what the photos are but also show why Earthbound astronomers consider them important.  For example, the Orion nebula, which is 1,500 light-years away, is one of the closest celestial regions where stars are being actively formed.  Not a bad piece of information – and there are plenty more here.

     Prefer something more interactive?  The Teacher’s Sticker-a-Day and Tangram Magnetic Puzzle-a-Day calendars will engage both your brain and your hands.  Sticker-a-Day makes a great gift for a favorite teacher, or you can use it yourself for your own kids at home – or for lightening up office life.  Each page contains – in addition to basic date information – removable stickers that you can use to compliment someone’s work, dress up a memo or invitation, or just for fun.  Hmm…might be a stretch to send back a memo to a colleague with a caterpillar sticker bearing the word, “Creative!”  But remember: these are fine for home or school even if they don’t fit your particular workplace.  As for the Tangram puzzle calendar, it’s wonderful anywhere – if you don’t mind getting pulled into spatial-awareness problems that are a lot harder than they look.  Although often used by teachers and counselors in schools and therapy, Tangram puzzles can be just plain fun.  The calendar includes seven magnetic pieces that you have to arrange into a different shape each day.  Look simple?  It’s not – don’t be surprised if you find yourself turning to the included puzzle solutions.  But better to try the puzzles out with colleagues or even the boss – relaxing everyone and doing some networking at the same time.  The result could be a year that’s just a little more interesting than it would otherwise be.


Life As We Knew It. By Susan Beth Pfeffer. Harcourt. $17.

The Gateway Trilogy, Book Two: Winter Door. By Isobelle Carmody. Random House. $16.95.

The Magician Trilogy, Book One: The Snow Spider. By Jenny Nimmo. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

     There’s nothing enjoyable about winter in any of these books, which use it for purposes from science fiction to fantasy.  The best novel here, and the only one that stands on its own, is Life As We Knew It, which posits a bit of scientific absurdity but then handles the consequences with chilling (literally chilling) realism.  Susan Beth Pfeffer, author of more than 70 books, here imagines a meteor striking Earth’s moon with enough force to knock the moon into a closer orbit – with disastrous consequences for Earth’s weather.  It is best not to examine the premise too carefully, because it doesn’t stand up scientifically; but what Pfeffer really wants is a way to get into a story of unanticipated disaster and the reaction to it of ordinary people.  The book is told as the diary of a girl named Miranda, who – with her mother and two brothers – lives through the lunar disaster, then tries to survive after volcanic eruptions and other disturbances have occurred and the Earth has settled into a deep, gray winter.  It’s literally gray – the snow isn’t white anymore, and there is a lot of it – and everyday life becomes a series of harrowing struggles, never more so than when a flu epidemic hits and there is not much anyone can do but hope that some people will survive.  Miranda is realistic enough to be depressed and unhappy much of the time – and worried about her father, whose new wife was due to have a baby around the time of the catastrophe.  And Pfeffer is a good enough writer to leave plenty of loose ends at the novel’s conclusion – as would be expected in the diary of a teenager (Miranda turns 17 during the book).  The oft-anticipated predatory behavior of humans after a disaster is absent here, perhaps unrealistically, as everyone hunkers down and tries to make it through just one more day.  This is truly a winter’s tale.

     Winter Door and The Snow Spider are, respectively, the second and first parts of fantasy trilogies, and are more formulaic than Pfeffer’s SF novel.  Winter Door starts with the worst winter on record – though it does not compare with Pfeffer’s creation – and begins with one foot planted firmly in reality: Rage Winnoway is worried about her mother, who has still not fully recovered from a car crash, and is also increasingly worried about the school bully, Logan.  But this book keeps its other foot firmly in fantasy, with Rage concerned about the effectiveness of the healing magic she has found, and disturbed because her only friend, Billy Thunder, has – again – turned into a dog.  This is a story of two worlds, as was the first book of this trilogy, Night Gate.  Rage is having dreams about a threat, unnatural creatures seem to be lurking in the woods, and even the snow seems somehow abnormal.  It goes without saying – but Isobelle Carmody says it anyway – that Rage’s dreams are true and that there is again a threat that Rage must counter, even at high personal cost.

     Personal cost is a mainstay of fantasy, and it appears as well in Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, originally published in England in 1986.  Here we have a traditional fantasy plot: a spell has been cast on Gwyn’s family, and Gwyn may be able to break it with magic – if he truly has magical ability.  Gwyn, who somewhat resembles a young Harry Potter (Gwyn is nine), has no real friends to turn to; even his parents are distant, ever since the mysterious disappearance of Gwyn’s sister, Bethan.  Nimmo is most effective at portraying Gwyn’s loneliness, which only becomes more acute after five gifts from his grandmother reveal that he does indeed have magical prowess.  His ability makes Gwyn more isolated than ever – there are no good friends versed in magic here.  But there is plenty of wonder, including the spider of the title, whose name is Arianwen and who spins magical cities and flying ships.  A strange young girl named Eirlys (“snowdrop” in Welsh) also figures in the wintry plot, which comes to a climax with a frightening rescue scene that hints of what is yet to come as The Magician Trilogy continues.


Gilgamesh: A Verse Play. Poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa. Concept and dramaturgy by Chad Garcia. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

     The world’s oldest known narrative, Gilgamesh is a magnificent story of gods, men and god-men, of friendship and triumph and death and despair, of the search for immortality and the consequences of finding it.  It is also a tale whose story of a great flood drowning all humans, except one favored couple and the animals they saved, is eerily parallel to the biblical tale of Noah’s ark.  This 4,000-year-old epic is storytelling on the grandest possible scale.

     Gilgamesh: A Verse Play is, in contrast, modest in scope and in accomplishment.  It chooses only selected episodes from the epic, focusing attention on the friendship of Gilgamesh and the wild man, Enkidu, and what happens when that friendship is sundered by Enkidu’s death.  In its structure, it brings an intimacy to the story that is out of keeping with the tale itself, but it also brings dramatic cohesion to a work that, in its original form, sprawls – albeit magnificently.

     This play will be enjoyed most by those who like Yusef Komunyakaa’s language and the choice ways he turns phrases, as when half-god Gilgamesh – in his arrogance, early in the tale – speaks with his mother, Ninsun:

Ninsun: You used to venture/ to the edge of the woods/ and return with the most/ wounded bouquets.

Gilgamesh: A king does not pick flowers/ especially a king who is part god.

     Komunyakaa and his collaborator, Chad Garcia, retain one of the heroic deeds done by Gilgamesh and Enkidu after the two find each other and fight to a standstill: they attack and destroy the monstrous forest guardian, Humbaba.  But the other major deed of the two heroes, their killing of the Bull of the Gods, is omitted, presumably to keep the focus tight.  The bull attacks in the first place because Gilgamesh has refused to become the consort of the goddess of love, and it could certainly be argued that the introduction of that element would complicate this play unnecessarily.  Still, the omission will be obvious and disappointing to those familiar with the story.

     Komunyakaa and Garcia use three choruses to help move the action ahead and provide linking material, and the approach works well.  They allow Gilgamesh a soliloquy after Enkidu’s death, in which the line “And I sit here” is repeated again and again, like a death-bell tolling – to fine effect.  And they retain some of the fascinating characters of the original, such as the temple priestess who literally seduces Enkidu to leave the wild; the mountain guards, Scorpion Man and Scorpion Woman; and Siduri, “a barmaid/ at the brink, between/ worlds,” who helps the hero on his quest for eternal life.  They also retain, although without its original wry humor, the story of Gilgamesh’s failure, when the herb of eternal renewal that he finds is eaten by a snake, which from that time is eternally renewed by shedding its skin.  This is a respectful adaptation, its free verse free-flowing, but it is an adaptation without grandeur.  It does, however, approach pathos from time to time, as when Gilgamesh, defeated in his quest and back home with Ninsun, hears her say, “Sometimes we learn the music/ of our hearts too late.”  And he replies, “But it would be worse/ if we never learned it.”  This is not Gilgamesh the epic, but it is a worthy variant of the story.


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 9. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     In Marco Polo’s latest volume of the works of Johann Strauss Sr., we find the composer at the top of his form – attuned equally to the musical styles of the day and to its political realities.  Nearly every work on this CD is a winner, filled with charm and gaiety and that unique Straussian lilt that set his works apart from those of his contemporary and sometime rival, Joseph Lanner.  Yet there is more than music here: there is a touch of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid-1800s.  Again and again, we find these Strauss pieces prepared for and dedicated to a Habsburg nobility increasingly interested in distracting the populace from the revolutionary currents taking form in Europe by encouraging people to dance, celebrate and make merry at every opportunity.

     Thus, the majestic Huldigungs-Walzer (“Tribute Waltz”) was a homage to newly installed Emperor Ferdinand I; the Grazien-Tänze (“Dances for the Graces”) were dedicated to the wife of the powerful State Chancellor, Prince Metternich; the Philomelen-Walzer (“Philomel Waltz”) was dedicated to a princess who was a fine singer and known as the Nightingale of Baden, her home town; and so on.

     Even more interestingly for modern listeners, many of Strauss Sr.’s works drew heavily on the favorite operas of his time – and on other then-well-known music, too.  Musikalischer Telegraph 5, by far the longest work on this new CD, shows this especially clearly: it is a potpourri that starts with Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra overture, ends with a touch of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and in the middle tosses out bits of Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Hèrold, Auber, Mozart and a number of Strauss Sr.’s own works.  It sounds a bit like the sort of thing Peter Schickele came up with when he created “P.D.Q. Bach,” but it is so tuneful, fast-moving and elegantly structured that it comes across as a tribute, not a parody.

     Other, shorter works here focus on themes taken from individual composers and developed in Straussian style.  The Furioso-Galopp, on themes by Franz Liszt, is especially effective, as are two galops based on music from Meyerbeer’s famous Les Huguenots.  (Speaking of the place where politics and music intersect, one of these is called the “Ghibelline Galop,” because Viennese censors would not at first let Meyerbeer’s work appear until the libretto was revised and the title was changed to The Ghibellines in Pisa.)

     Of the remaining three works on this 10-track CD, the “Wings of Mercury Waltz” is the only disappointment – it is simply ordinary, if pleasant enough.  The “Indian Galop” has nothing to do either with India or with American Indians, but is simply a somewhat exotic-sounding quickstep.  And the Gedanken-Striche Walzer (“Dash Waltz”), whose name was picked by the audience that first heard it, is smooth, cheerful and effective – three adjectives that not only describe Strauss Sr. at his best but also apply to the excellent playing that his works consistently receive at the hands of Christian Pollack and the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina.

October 12, 2006


Engagement Calendars: The ECOlogical Calendar; B. Kliban Cat Calendar; GoreyRARE: Thirty-Two Little-Known Works by Edward Gorey; Robert Bateman: Animals of the World. Pomegranate. $16.99 (ECOlogical); $14.99 each (all others).

365-Day Calendars: Shakespeare’s Insults; Latin for the Illiterati; The New York Times Crossword Puzzles; M.C. Escher. Pomegranate. $11.99 each (Shakespeare; Latin); $12.99 each (Crossword; Escher).

     With so many people keeping track of appointments on cell phones, personal digital assistants and laptop computers, it’s fair to ask what a desktop engagement calendar still adds to one’s life.  The answer, at least in the case of Pomegranate calendars, is: beauty, interesting information, something offbeat for every day, or some combination of these.  Beauty, to be sure, is not enough when it comes to spiral-bound engagement calendars, although it can be for wall calendars.  Desktop planners take up valuable work space and need more than attractiveness to justify their existence.  So the question is what you want from a calendar that will cover, when left open, some 112 square inches of your desk.

     If you want a calendar to help transport you away from the office, to help you see yourself in the context of the world and the universe, to assist you in understanding that ticking-clock time is only a small part of the progress of the year, then consider The ECOlogical Calendar, in which every two-page weekly spread gives a cross-section of that time of year, with annotations explaining what is happening to planets, stars, meteorological phenomena and more.  This calendar is similar to Pomegranate’s wall calendar of the same name, but takes up much less space.  However, if you want it for planning purposes, look at it carefully before buying: right-hand pages list the days of each week, Monday through Sunday, but do not say Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on; and the amount of room in which to write is limited.

     The B. Kliban Cat Calendar has charms of a very different sort, but it too has design elements to think about before purchase.  Kliban’s cats spread out all over the pages, in bright colors: packed like sardines, or searching for dropped keys, or barbecuing pineapples using “mousquite charcoal.”  You needn’t be a cat fancier to find these offbeat illustrations charming.  But here’s the rub: each week is split between two pages, with Monday through Wednesday on the left and Thursday through Sunday on the right.  And because of the design, Wednesday has almost no space in which to write anything.  Be sure your work style will let you enjoy this layout.

     Somewhat more conventional in format are the GoreyRARE and Robert Bateman calendars.  True, some two-page spreads have weeks on both sides, without illustrations; while elsewhere, some weeks appear on the left and some on the right.  But each day has equal writing space, and the layout makes these calendars easy to use for tracking appointments, meetings, phone calls, and so on.  GoreyRARE is a gem, featuring almost three dozen of the artist’s ever-slightly-askew views of whatever world he was living in, all with outstanding use of crosshatching and highly detailed portrayals of some characters who are very strange indeed.  From “The Pedalling Palludinis” (a color portrait of the riders of what seems to be a bicycle built for seven) to an Escheresque scene in which a huge plant peeks out of a doorway, outside of which stands a four-legged skeleton, while a dreamy-eyed woman stares out a window that is surrounded by plumbing, these unusual drawings show Gorey at his best.  As for Bateman, he is at his best in the beautiful nature paintings presented in his 2007 calendar – each accompanied by his brief explanation of what occasioned a work (“one winter day I observed this pair of Canada geese as they lifted off”) or what gives it meaning for him (“the jaguar…stands as a symbol of the disappearing rainforests”).  Bateman says his calendar can be used for “a journaling of thoughts and nature observations” as well as for tracking appointments – a thoughtful suggestion.

     Unlike engagement calendars, 365-day ones have no reason for being other than enjoyment.  Each weekday, Pomegranate gives you something else to contemplate – with a single page for both weekend days.  Shakespeare’s Insults is a perennial charmer, if “charmer” is the right word: “Not Hercules could have knocked out his brains, for he has none,” wrote the Bard of Avon in Cymbeline.  Best not to say these out loud while at work – although if you work in academia, the temptation may occasionally prove overwhelming.  As for Latin for the Illiterati, it may be a bit of an acquired – or rarefied – taste, but there are so many delights in this compendium of Latin phrases and comments that even the non-scholar (and non-lawyer) will find much to enjoy.  This is by no means all erudition: you can invite a colleague out for an after-work drink by saying, Bonum vinum laetificat cor hominis (good wine makes men’s hearts rejoice), and develop quite an interesting relationship if he or she accepts.

     Shakespeare and Latin both find their way into The New York Times Crossword Puzzles now and again, and if puzzles are a way you keep your mind nimble – and manage the down time that is inevitable during any work day – this calendar will be a year-long delight.  One of its best features is that it progresses as the week goes on: Monday’s puzzle is fairly straightforward, Tuesday’s is harder, Wednesday’s more difficult still, and so on.  Plan to take the Saturday-Sunday puzzle page home – it’s the toughest of all.  And if all these verbal gymnastics – Shakespeare, Latin, crossword puzzles – make you long for a much more visual calendar experience, you can scarcely go wrong with the new M.C. Escher offering, which includes a generous selection of details from his woodcuts, watercolors, pencil and ink drawings, and more.  Actually, there is verbiage here, too: each weekend page includes an excerpt from Escher’s writings, revealing some of the thinking that went into his art and artistry.  The whole calendar is a feast for the intellect – sure to help keep you sharp throughout 2007.


Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $26.95.

Coraline. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrations by Dave McKean. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. By Neil Gaiman. Pictures by Dave McKean. HarperTrophy. $7.99.

     Neil Gaiman is a continuing astonishment.  Not fully satisfied with producing super-successful novels, such as Anansi Boys and American Gods, he persists in creating marvelous short stories and poems as well.  Fragile Things is his latest gift to readers – and the particular astonishment here is how much strength Gaiman finds within the notion of fragility.  He tells readers so: “The peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how very strong they are.”  But more importantly, this amazing tale spinner shows readers the strength that underlies delicacy.

     True, this is not a new concept.  Ask any scientist familiar with eggs, and he or she will point out that these containers of life are really amazingly tough in their own way.  Or listen to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which gives the lie to the notion of the easily breakable human heart: “Hearts do not break – they sting and ache.”  Yet Gaiman demonstrates again and again, in works from the emotional to the sarcastic to the science-fictional to the indescribable, that apparent fragility is by no means the same as actual fragility.

     Sometimes the protection of what is fragile comes at a cost, as in “How Do You Think It Feels?” – in which a gargoyle is created to protect a man’s heart rather than a cathedral, and does so somewhat too successfully.  Sometimes the heart’s fragility is merely the flip side of its durability, as in the very strange “Harlequin Valentine,” where reality and commedia dell’arte intersect through a peculiar form of cannibalism.  Cannibalism in the flesh appears in this book, too, in “Feeders and Eaters,” which originated as one of Gaiman’s nightmares and shows how thoroughly the author’s own fears can be transmissible to readers.  Gaiman has other nightmares in Fragile Things, too: “Other People” is a snake-eating-its-tail story of Hell, in the Fredric Brown mode; “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” is both a horror story and a highly unusual abduction tale, if “abduction” is the right word; “The Problem of Susan” is a sensitive but still horrific reconsideration of a significant flaw in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; and “Keepsakes and Treasures” is violent and deeply disturbing on multiple levels.

     Gaiman is a fluid stylist with the rare talent of creating empathy for his characters even in a very short tale.  He also has a seriously skewed imagination that can unite the most unlikely themes: “A Study in Emerald,” the lead story in Fragile Things, would be a masterpiece of its kind if it were possible to figure out what its kind is.  It is no less than a joining of the ultra-rational world of the Sherlock Holmes stories with the tales of gibbering, utterly irrational fear from beyond the stars created by H.P. Lovecraft.

     Rather oddly, some works in Fragile Things are for children, or occasioned by Gaiman’s relationship with his own kids: “Locks,” a retelling of a retelling of the Goldilocks story, and “Instructions,” which tells you what to do if you ever find yourself inside a fairy tale.  It seems worthwhile to remember that what Gaiman considers appropriate for children is not necessarily what most parents would want to give their kids.  Think, for example, of Coraline, a creepily scary 2002 novel that Gaiman said could be read by kids as young as eight.  Hmm.  Probably not.  This is a book in which the young title character innocently enters a chilling world of otherness in which a being claiming to be her “other mother” insists she stay – and have her eyes replaced with buttons, as the other being’s eyes are.  Coraline’s parents disappear, the “other mother” turns out to have engineered several successful entrapments before going after Coraline, and the whole scenario – abetted by Dave McKean’s ghoulish illustrations – plays out as something scary enough to give most younger children nightmares lasting well into adolescence.

     Yet it is worth noting that Gaiman and McKean can collaborate on an amusing, offbeat book that is thoroughly appropriate for kids as young as five – and has only a hint of darkness at the end.  That would be The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, first published in 1997 and now available in a new paperback edition.  This book shows Gaiman filtering autobiographical elements (which he explains at the end) through the unique distorting lens of his mind.  It’s a simple enough story, and an amusing one: a boy trades his father (who never pays much attention to anything) for two goldfish, but when his mother insists he reverse the trade, it turns out his father has already been traded for something else, and then for yet another thing, and so on.  The boy, dogged by his little sister, has to walk farther and farther to reverse all the exchanges and try to get his father back.  The siblings have several adventures along the way, with the little sister usually getting the better of her older brother – a state of affairs that leads to a final McKean illustration that is the only piece of looming fright in the book.  Elsewhere, the illustrations are harmless but downright strange – stranger than the story, in fact.  They spill over into each other, and the words flop from picture to picture, and tiny bits of realistic drawing keep encountering outright absurdity (such as the Queen of Melanesia, who makes a cameo appearance wearing an entire sailing ship).  This book is about as close as Gaiman and McKean are ever likely to get to a romp.

     The bottom line to all this is simply enough stated: Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller – 31 times in Fragile Things, many times in earlier books, and certainly (one can confidently predict) in the books he has yet to write.


Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. By Leo Lionni. Knopf. $16.95.

Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences. By Richard Wilbur. Harcourt. $10.95.

     Reprints provide a wonderful opportunity to reassess a work for children, seeing whether its style and message retain their effectiveness after a few years or many.  Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse, first published in 1969, has held up very well indeed.  It’s one of Leo Lionni’s charming and charmingly illustrated stories, whose lovely collage artwork gives the simple tale greater style than the words alone possess.  Actually, in this case, the words themselves are pretty good: Lionni tells of a real mouse who is always chased and who constantly risks mousetraps when all he wants is a few crumbs of food…and a wind-up mouse who can move only when the humans wish, but who is constantly cuddled and cared for at those times, welcomed with warmth and joy as a beloved toy of a girl named Annie.  Alexander, the real mouse, becomes very friendly with Willy, the wind-up mouse, but a little jealous as well, wishing he too could be a wind-up toy and “be cuddled and loved.”  It turns out that there is a way to do just that, through the offices of a magic lizard, so Alexander sets off to find the lizard and do what he must to get his wish.  But the wish changes form when Alexander finds out that Willy and a number of other old toys are going to be thrown away – because Annie got a lot of new toys for her birthday and wants to play with them now.  This realization causes Alexander to change his wish – and there is, after some age-appropriate drama, a happy ending and a celebration of friendship.  Kids and parents alike will enjoy both the gently uplifting message and the wide variety of art, from the broom with which Alexander is chased to the dark but full-moon-illuminated night during which Alexander rushes home after making his wish.

     Richard Wilbur’s drawings are simpler and more amusing than Lionni’s, and his poems reach for a wider age range through their puns and word play.  But Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences, originally published in 2000, seems a trifle stale and a little too slick for its own good: “What is the opposite of fleet?/ Someone who’s slow and drags his feet./ Another’s an armada that’ll/ Engage the first fleet in a battle.”  Or: “I wonder if you’ve ever seen a/ Willow sheltering a hyena?/ Nowhere in nature can be found/ An opposition more profound:/ A sad tree weeping inconsolably!/ A wild beast laughing uncontrollably!”  Wilbur seems so fond of his cleverness that he creates a book whose intended audience is difficult to discern: “The opposite of doughnut? Wait/ A minute while I meditate./ This isn’t easy. Ah, I’ve found it!/ A cookie with a hole around it.”  Give the book a (+++) rating for sheer bounce and liveliness, but thumb through it carefully before buying to decide if you and your family will enjoy this sort of thing.


God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. By Charles Allen. Da Capo. $26.95.

     Written with a scholar’s eye for detail and a popular historian’s flair for the dramatic, God’s Terrorists does a remarkable job of exploring and elucidating the story of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, his fanatical followers, and the ever-increasing fanaticism of those who expanded and precision-honed Wahhabism after its rise in the 18th century.

     This is an excellent book of history but a very poor guide to policy, even though it is for policy guidance and information that most readers are likely to turn to it.  For Wahhabism pervades Saudi Arabia and the terrorists it has spawned, including the followers of al Qaeda; and it underlies the Taliban in Afghanistan and its collaborators and supporters in Pakistan.  Allen forthrightly says, “This history offers no solutions,” and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect policy suggestions from an academic, no matter how skilled a historian he may be.  Yet at a time when Wahhabi-fueled jihad is among the greatest destabilizing forces facing humanity, it seems not unreasonable to expect an expert in the rise, spread and development of that force to have some ideas regarding any possibility of countering it.

     Were the spread of terrorism not so urgent an issue, it would be unfair to criticize the book for what it is not.  Yet were that issue not so important, it is questionable that this book would have been published at this time and have risen quickly to best-seller status in England, a country whose growing Islamic population certainly contains a small but significant number of Wahhabi followers committed to destroying the land where they live and the people with whom they interact daily.

     Allen shows with clarity and care how Wahhabism, originating as a reform movement not unlike Puritanism (which was responsible for some excesses of its own), spread from the Arabian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent.  It was in the 1920s that Wahhabi leaders helped the Saud clan rise to power, creating the super-strict Islamic society of modern Saudi Arabia and indirectly sowing the seeds of hatred in such followers as Osama bin Laden, whose rage is directed as much (if not more) at modern Saudi Arabian rulers as at the West.  It is crucial for anyone trying to understand Wahhabism to realize that this is a movement dedicated to what its followers see as a purified form of Islam.  All who oppose Islamic purity, including Moslems deemed moderate by the West but considered apostates by Wahhabi followers, are appropriate targets for death in holy war.  Wahhabism truly believes that God (Allah) is on its side, and only on its side, and that all who say otherwise are by their nature opposed to Allah and worthy only of death.

     Allen’s book makes these points through exhaustive research and academically careful explanations of who did what to whom, when and why.  This can make for an unpleasantly didactic style at times: “The pusillanimity of the Government of Bengal in failing to order the disarming of the sepoys in Dinapore and in turning its back on Commissioner Tayler’s actions has to be set against the shared determination of the Governor-General of India and Lieutenant-General of Bengal not to further alienate the Indian public, which for the most part had watched the [Sepoy] Mutiny unfold from the sidelines, waiting to see which way the struggle went before coming forward to profess loyalty to the winning side.”  Allen’s balance and care in presenting the various elements of Wahhabism’s rise and spread is admirable, and his knowledge of the 18th- and 19th-century events crucial to the group’s spread is encyclopedic.  But his book is not an easy read, and although historians may welcome its perspective on the development of a dangerous, fanatical cult whose strength continues to surprise Western policymakers, the general reader is likely to find the level of detail excessive and the deliberate lack of attention to the modern consequences of Wahhabism’s spread quite frustrating.


Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Casebook No. 1: The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas. By Tracy Mack & Michael Citrin. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

The World of Eldaterra, Volume 1: The Dragon Conspiracy. By P.R. Moredun. Eos/HarperCollins. $7.99.

     New worlds open up in the 19th century in both these series starters – worlds with a whiff of reality, or what we think is reality, but with just enough difference to carry along the plots and the characters swept up in them.

     The concept of Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars is a clever one.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually created the Irregulars in the original Sherlock Holmes tales: street urchins who helped Holmes by going places where he, for all his mastery of disguise, would be noticed.  The boys – six of them – appeared in A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Crooked Man, and the name of their group was later adopted by numerous gatherings and clubs of Holmes fans.  Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin are creating a series telling “previously untold” Holmes stories from the perspective of the urchins – and, of course, targeting readers of around the Irregulars’ ages, which is to say preteens.  Mack and Citrin (who, incidentally, are married) bring some very clever twists to their first case, The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas.  They even make it a point to reach out to girls, by having a young gypsy named Pilar join the Irregulars and provide crucial help to Holmes.  The authors retain some of Holmes’ character, including his having little use for women or girls, but they eliminate elements that are not politically correct, such as his addiction to cocaine.  Also, to keep the focus on the Irregulars, Mack and Citrin have Holmes make some errors that the original Conan Doyle character would not have made – an irritant to anyone familiar with the Holmes stories, perhaps, but not to the intended audience for this book.  The book is over-clever in parts, though, notably in an introduction by its purported “real” author, whose name is revealed through a series of capital letters inserted into the pages at intervals – but who could not possibly have been privy to all the events of the story, as those events themselves show.  As for the circus-death mystery itself, readers will likely connect the dots well before Holmes does (Conan Doyle would have shuddered).  But the book is nicely paced and atmospheric, and its appendices are fun – especially the introduction to Cockney rhyming slang, which receives some use within the story itself.

     The World of Eldaterra features late-19th-century investigators, too, primarily Chief Police Inspector Corrick and his Belgian assistant, Inspector La Forge.  But the murders that these characters are looking into in the year 1895 start to come into focus only in 1910, when 14-year-old James Kinghorn discovers the entrance to an older world than our own – called, of course, Eldaterra (not a very creatively chosen name).  The story actually starts in 1910 and flips back and forth between that year and 1895, as the human characters uncover a frightening conspiracy and find themselves in the midst of beings such as the magically endowed Frau Colbetz, a wizard named Sibelius (presumably no relation to the composer), and such creatures as warrior dwarves and “parlanimals” (two of whom James befriends).  The Dragon Conspiracy feels more like a series setup than a fully realized story in its own right, and P.R. Moredun writes as if his adventure could tip over into humor at any time (why name a character “Herr Dorpmuller”?).  Also, some of the supposedly intense magical elements come across as hokey, such as a poem whose final line’s meter is completely wrong: “One step forward if one steps away/ The path lies here and there one goes/ But in this emptiness one must stay/ To work in silence and shadows.”  Still, there are undeniably exciting moments here, and if the complex plot begins to fit together better in later books, The World of Eldaterra may reach an appreciative audience.  A wait-and-see attitude is in order.