January 25, 2007
(++++) WANDA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?
There is a kind of subspecies of the book evolving: it looks like a book, in some ways it acts like a book, but it is only in part a book. It is really a kit – but not simply a kit from which you make something. You create the whatever-it-is in conjunction with the book part of this hybrid. The WandMaker’s Guidebook is a clear and unusually attractive example of the form.
This is a large-size volume – more than 10 inches wide, a foot high and one-and-a-half inches thick – but it contains only 24 pages of text. And much of the text is not written in standard format. There are pasted-in envelopes containing notes to be removed, unfolded and read, or playing cards to warn the reader about various dangers. There are drawings and photos with captions. There are lists – for example, of woods to avoid and of the “personal favorites” of Coralis, Master WandMaker and the putative author of this tome. There is a small envelope marked “Before Getting Fancy You Might Want to Read This,” inside which is a story of a wand gone awry. There are small books-within-a-book in which Coralis tells of adventures he has had. There is a map of Tibet. There is a picture of a dodo. There are plastic-coated charts of the northern and southern constellations. There are foldouts. There are brief stories of successful wandmakers and “infamous failures.” And there is, after all these items – and taking up most of the thickness of The WandMaker’s Guidebook – an actual “special apprentice wand” with a handle that unscrews.
The point of this production is to help would-be wizards learn about wands, in the context of the particular fantasy world represented by Coralis, so they can try to make one of their own. Blue, yellow and red feathers are packaged in their own compartment near the wand’s resting place, and there are four small vials of items that can go in the wand’s handle: glass beads, crystals, black sand and yellow-brown sand. The importance and power of every item are described and discussed, and in fact the entire text – no matter in what way it is presented – is designed to pull readers into the world of magic wands, helping them understand whence wands draw their power, how to harness that power, what traps to avoid in wandmaking, and what has happened to people who have followed or failed to follow the wandmaker’s art correctly.
Of course this is all arrant nonsense – in real-world terms. But The WandMaker’s Guidebook is a triumph of design, a fascinating alternative reality that fantasy-inclined readers can spend many hours exploring. It has flashes of humor – a supposed news story about wood-borer damage, a picture of a “wand” that is really a violin bow – but for the most part it takes itself (or at least takes its potential readers) seriously, as for instance in explaining the different purposes and uses of the “pendulus,” “tappet” and “forever” types of wands. Cleverly conceptualized and handsomely produced, The WandMaker’s Guidebook will be addictive for fantasy fans in general, and perhaps for would-be Harry Potters and Hermione Grangers in particular.
(++++) MUCH THAT GLITTERS
The notion of palimpsest is an old one in art and manuscripts: materials are scarce and expensive, so you take old, unwanted documents or works of art, wash or scrape off the writing or paint on them, and reuse the underlying parchment or canvas. There have been some wonderful finds because of this technique, as modern technology has made it possible to see the imperfectly erased works beneath the new ones. Now artist Robert Kushner has taken palimpsests to a new level, by using discarded Japanese screens and doors as his medium and making oil and acrylic floral paintings, often with gold leaf and glitter, on top of these “found objects.” What is new here is, first of all, the fact that Kushner does not attempt to supplant the pictures and grain of the discards, but incorporates them into his own creations; and second of all, that Kushner utilizes chance in some of his work with the discards, much as composers of aleatoric music or followers of John Cage used chance in their aural creations.
It is possible to overanalyze what Kushner does – indeed, his own essay on working methods and technical restoration issues may take away some of the magic of his creations, at least for some readers. Happily, though, the vast majority of this book is not discussion but pictures, some showing Kushner at work but most displaying the work itself. Kushner, who has “taken on the mantle of Matisse,” as Michael Duncan says in his introductory essay, has created a marvelous world of nature and beauty on the discards he uses as his medium, with pictures that partake of the Japanese sensibility inherent in the screens and doors themselves while still bringing Kushner’s own unique artistic sense to bear.
Thus, “Camellias, 2003” appears on a two-page spread as a study in browns, its flowers outlined in white or pink, their prominent stamens a delicate yellow, but the overall impression of “brownness” communicated not only by the wooden Japanese screen on which Kushner has worked but also through his use of brown for some petals and no color for others, allowing the brown of the screen itself to form the petals.
Gold is a dominant color in many of these works. “Summer Scatter, 2003,” another two-page spread on another Japanese screen, uses oil, acrylic, glitter and gold leaf to construct the delicate branches and beautifully shaped flowers characteristic of much Japanese art – but the primary impression is of the gold of the screen itself. “Mirror in Gold, 2002,” leaves the gold panel on which Kushner paints plain at the center, just as if it is a mirror, surrounding that central area with black, white, yellow and delicate pink flowers and floral outlines.
Kushner’s sensitive use of color is what makes so much of this art so striking. For example, Japanese doors become the dark green, mottled background for “Moonlight, 2003,” with the moon itself a huge golden ball above reeds; and doors are also the background for “Tulip Accumulation, 2004,” where the tulips look like photographic negatives, their petals black but outlined in the oranges, yellows, reds and pinks that, in everyday life, would be the petals’ own colors. Kushner’s work is lovely to look at and, although clearly influenced by the Japanese objects on which it is created, partakes as well of Western sensibilities and of Kushner’s own vision. The fine production quality of Robert Kushner: Wild Gardens makes it a special pleasure to explore Kushner’s flora with him.
(++++) RUNNING FROM AND RUNNING TO
Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series is a well-above-average example of the young-girl-detective genre (and if that’s not really a genre, it should be). Sammy’s tales are darker than the Nancy Drew stories to which they ultimately trace back, with threats that seem real and some genuinely bad people committing (or trying to commit) some genuinely evil deeds. But nothing in the series is as gritty as Runaway, which is a spinoff of the Sammy Keyes tales.
When it was published in 1999, Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy included a scene in which Sammy rescued a homeless 12-year-old girl who was living in a refrigerator box. Runaway is the story of that girl, Holly – of how she became homeless, how she survived without a place to live, and how she eventually, after much travail, found a family into which to fit.
To show how dark this story is: that refrigerator carton from which Sammy rescues the girl becomes, in Runaway, the first real home and apparent safe haven that Holly has known in a long time. There is no Sammy to help Holly here, but she does eventually (and very reluctantly, after a lot of understandable suspicion) find a friend; and it is through that friend that Holly is finally able to live somewhere better than a refrigerator box.
Although intended for readers ages 10 and up, Runaway will be too intense for many preteens and even some teenagers. Van Draanen avoids the easy brutality that is all too common in novels about troubled young people – there is no history of sexual abuse or physical violence in Holly’s tale – and for that very reason the story comes alive with a sense of “this could happen to me.” That’s scary.
Van Draanen’s readers, of course, are unlikely ever to experience the set of circumstances that bring Holly to homelessness: absent father; loving and well-meaning mother who develops a drug addiction that eventually costs her her home, her daughter and then her life; and a series of disastrous encounters with social-services providers, girls Holly’s own age, and older people who seem to care but really just want Holly out of their lives as quickly as possible. Still, Holly’s experiences have the ring of plausibility – Van Draanen is a meticulous researcher – and this story may well shock readers into realizing just how close they are to a situation like Holly’s, even if they will never experience the real thing.
It should be pointed out that Van Draanen’s main plot device – Holly determinedly keeps a journal of everything, no matter what happens to her, and her entries make up the book’s narrative – is a little too facile, straining the book’s hard-won credibility. Still, the journal approach, even if unrealistic, is highly involving, and young readers who are drawn into Holly’s world will find that her writings make her a flesh-and-blood character with every bit as much solidity as Sammy Keyes has ever possessed.
(+++) SHORT AND SWEET
The Dog: Is a Paw a Foot? By Kris Hirschmann. Scholastic. $3.99.
Ghosthunters No. 3: Ghosthunters and the Totally Moldy Baroness! By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $4.99.
Rainbow Magic: The Weather Fairies. No. 6: Storm the Lightning Fairy. By Daisy Meadows. Little Apple/Scholastic. $4.99.
Books need not be weighty to be fun. Sometimes it helps if they are not weighty, if they are trying to get kids interested in facts rather than escapism. Take the case of the instructive canines in The Dog: Why Are Dogs’ Noses Wet? and The Dog: Is a Paw a Foot? These brief paperbacks from Scholastic’s “Artlist Collection,” one about dogs’ physiology and the other about measurement, use a wide variety of adorable puppies and dogs to explain (in Noses) why dogs drool and why they howl at the moon (or seem to); and (in Paw) to discuss smaller vs. bigger, longer vs. shorter, and other elements of measuring things. Although neither book runs more than 32 pages, there is room for humor: “You might not think a dog whistle makes noise, but we think they sound like the inside of a tuba!” And: “Is it better to be long or short? It depends. A long leash is always better than a short one. But short toenails are definitely the way to go.” Most of the subject matter in the books is serious, but it is kept interesting by having it presented from a dog’s viewpoint. Thus, from Noses, “Ears…do a lot more than just listen. We dogs use our ears to talk, too.” And from Paw: “We dogs think that standard measurement units make lots of sense.” Even in Paw, there are dog facts in addition to measurement information, with the two cleverly interrelated, as in an explanation of what the Iditarod race is and how far dogs pull a sled during it. In both books, the basic information is simple and factual, but the dogs make it special – and interesting.
Sometimes, of course, short books are brief simply because they are light reading, and do not need many pages to tell a story. Cornelia Funke’s Ghosthunters series is a cut above many silly sequences because Funke writes so well, but even as the books start to become somewhat standardized – which is what happens in the third entry, on the Totally Moldy Baroness – Ghosthunters remains paced cleverly enough to make a fast read fun. By now, these books have settled into a pattern, as ghosthunters Hetty Hunter and Tom, aided by a helpful ghost called Hugo, answer someone’s call for assistance and find themselves battling a ghost that is described by various acronyms. In this book, the bad Baroness is a GHADAP (GHost with A DArk Past), a subspecies of HIGA (HIstorical Ghostly Apparition), and of course is difficult to defeat, and of course is defeated. It’s all done quickly and amusingly, with a touch of scariness here and there.
Even quicker are the seven books of The Weather Fairies series, the newest being the sixth, Storm the Lightning Fairy. The thin plot has friends Rachel and Kirsty helping fairies recover their lost magical objects – feathers from a weathervane – which have been stolen by Jack Frost in the usual bid for power and mischief. Actually, it’s Jack’s goblins that do the thieving, and they’re much better at getting the fairies’ power sources than at using them (they always mess things up) or holding onto them (Kirsty and Rachel always outthink them). After the girls help Storm, they are warned that Jack Frost himself will come if they keep outwitting his goblins – so there’s the plot of the upcoming final book in this easy-to-read series.
(++++) SMOOTH AND SWEET MAHLER
Gustav Mahler made his famous comment, “My time will yet come,” some 50 years before it did. When Mahler’s time finally arrived, thanks to Bruno Walter’s persistent advocacy through the decades and Leonard Bernstein’s flair and showmanship in the 1960s, it came with such strength that Mahler’s music – especially the symphonies – rapidly became part of the standard orchestral repertoire. The results are frequent performances and lots of recordings – so many that it is reasonable to ask why another one is necessary. The answer, in the case of James DePreist’s version of Mahler’s Fifth with the London Symphony, is that conductors not usually thought of as “Mahler specialists” (that is, ones other than Walter, Bernstein, Haitink, Tennstedt and a few others) frequently reveal things in this music that listeners may not have heard before. There may be lots of Mahler out there, but there is still more to be discovered in his complex, variegated music.
DePreist, now 70 years old, made his debut with the London Symphony only in April 2005, and recorded this Mahler Fifth at the end of that month. So one would not expect perfect rapport between conductor and orchestra; and indeed, there is a greater feeling of mutual respect here than of easy familiarity. This is particularly clear in Part One of the symphony – the first two of its five movements. DePreist insists on some rubato in the first movement, just when the music gets speediest, and the orchestra seems to go along reluctantly, although the playing is never less than smooth. The second movement, the most intense of them all, is simply too well-mannered here – DePreist never asks the orchestra to cut loose, and it does not. And the slowdown at the very end is an unnecessary bit of attempted drama.
But this performance really hits its stride in Part Two (the symphony’s third movement) and Part Three (movements four and five). These sections are simply outstanding. Mahler feared that the third movement would be played too fast, and DePreist understands why it should not be: his pacing is leisurely, expansive, yet highly dramatic. The optimism of this movement contrasts strongly with the funereal and agonized elements of Part One, and if the difference is less clear than it could be here, that is only because Part One could have used extra intensity. Part Two is as sunny as anyone could wish. And Timothy Jones’ solo horn playing is excellent – as indeed is the solo trumpet work of Maurice Murphy in Part One. In fact, the brass and percussion are the strongest parts of the orchestra in the first three movements, playing with vigor, intensity and fine tone throughout.
The strings finally come into their own in Part Three. DePreist makes the lovely fourth movement, scored only for strings and harp, very sweet indeed; there is not a trace of bitterness here, as there sometimes is in other performances. And the finale, which can sometimes seem a disappointment after the vigor and grandeur of all that has come before, here becomes the symphony’s capstone, as Mahler intended. The more-or-less-conventional form of this rondo (the only movement with its basic tempo indications in the traditional Italian rather than in German) is coupled with structural complexity and thematic reminiscences that DePreist brings out very effectively. And when the brass choir enters at the end, the effect is both joyful and filled with high drama. Because of the somewhat weak Part One, this is not the very best Mahler Fifth available; but because of its many excellences, it is a most worthwhile addition to the still-growing Mahler catalogue.
(+++) ONE OF POSTERITY'S ALSO-RANS
The neglect of composers after their death – the judgment of musical history – is not always easy to understand. Leopold Mozart gave up his composing career to manage the future of young Wolfgang, but the father did leave behind some very fine music that deserves to be heard more often, from his Toy Symphony to a well-wrought horn concerto. Ferdinand Ries, once Beethoven’s secretary, created eight interesting symphonies that are now rarely performed. Anton Rubinstein wrote six well-crafted symphonies, plus five substantial piano concerti, but all have been consigned to near-total oblivion.
Rubinstein’s case is somewhat parallel to that of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814-1865). Rubinstein was universally acknowledged as a great pianist in his own time, but his showy compositions did not do well when he was no longer around to play them. Similarly, the great violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim considered Ernst the best violinist of Joachim’s time, which is quite an endorsement. But later generations had little interest in music that Ernst had composed largely for his own use. This new CD of Ernst’s music argues that while total neglect of this composer is unfair, it is in some ways understandable.
Ernst modeled himself on Paganini, but sought greater lyricism and more depth of emotion than that ultra-virtuoso was known for. Still, Ernst’s fame rested on his playing, not his compositions – which he wrote to showcase his particular technical and expressive strengths. Now, 140-plus years after Ernst’s death, when we have only the music itself, it is fair to say that while it has moments of beauty and sections of extraordinary virtuosity, it does not wear particularly well. It draws attention to technique, not emotion or even structure. Ilya Grubert – whose 1740 Guarnieri violin once belonged to Henryk Wieniawski – plays with tremendous style and panache; he is certainly as good an advocate for Ernst’s music as it is likely to get. For the most part, though, the pieces themselves do not have much to offer. The Fantaisie Brillante is a Liszt-style exposition and expansion of two pieces from Rossini’s Otello, and is an effective showpiece. The Elégie is a pleasant, mildly melancholy meditation. Of the two concerti – the one called Concertino is actually longer – the F sharp minor alternates demanding and lyrical sections but offers little of interest thematically. The D major is more interesting, opening with an orchestral tutti that resembles those in Paganini’s concerti and continuing on a moderately grand scale – although the finale is lacking in tunefulness. The most interesting work here is Rondo Papageno, because it is a pure showpiece and it is almost possible to imagine Ernst himself romping through it. Based loosely on Papageno’s song from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, it features some attractive writing for an actual flute plus some violin imitations of the instrument (through clever use of harmonics). Ernst’s music is far from great, but it does have its moments, and Grubert – with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky providing excellent orchestral accompaniment – certainly makes the most of what is there.
January 18, 2007
(++++) FAIRY TALES WITH ZING
Gail Carson Levine is best known for Ella Enchanted, but her six “Princess Tales” are every bit as enchanting and at least equally clever. This new book collects them all.
Written between 1999 and 2002, the “Princess Tales” are anything-but-typical recastings and reconsiderations of familiar and less-familiar fairy tales. The first of them, “The Fairy’s Mistake,” is a deliciously skewed version of the old story of the good and bad sisters who are respectively rewarded and punished for the way they respond to the request of an old lady – a fairy in disguise – for a share of their food. Yes, the good girl produces jewels when she speaks, and a prince falls in love with her and asks her to marry him; and yes, the bad girl speaks toads (and insects and reptiles and more, in Levine’s version). But what makes Levine so different from other retellers is that this is, for her, only the starting point. It turns out that the good girl is made miserable by her gift, while the bad one turns her punishment to her advantage – and the fairy is simply furious at how everything works out. Eventually, all does turn out well – Levine makes the sisters twins, which helps a lot – and the fairy ends up punishing herself by spending seven years flying without landing at all. We learn this in “The Fairy’s Return,” which is an update and sendup of the tale of the sticky golden goose whose master ends up with a parade of people trailing behind him, all stuck together, thus making a princess laugh and winning her hand. Except that in Levine’s version, he has won her heart already, and even after the goose trick, the king won’t let him marry his daughter until the lad accomplishes several seemingly impossible tasks – with which the fairy helps him, thus regaining her self-confidence.
This is wonderful stuff. Intended for ages 7-12 – and unfortunately bearing a cover whose photo of a very young girl may turn away older readers who would otherwise enjoy these stories quite a bit – The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales succeeds in part by applying just the tiniest bit of logic to some of the old stories. For example, in “For Biddle’s Sake,” which partakes of “Rapunzel” and other tales, we have a girl accidentally transformed into a toad by a misguided spell cast by the fairy with whom she lives. Now, this girl – named not Rapunzel (a green known as rampion) but Parsley, for the equally green food she most loves to eat – thinks through her predicament and realizes something important. Obviously, as a human, she cannot do magic, since (as the fairy has told her) only magical creatures can do that. But now that she has been transformed into a toad, isn’t she a magical creature? This provides the key to the eventual happy ending of the story.
Yes, all six tales end happily, including “The Princess Test” (which is “The Princess and the Pea” taken to ridiculous lengths); “Cinderellis and the Glass Hill” (in which Cinderella is a boy and something of a crackpot inventor, except that his inventions save the day); and “Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep” (in which Levine applies logic to what Sleeping Beauty and the residents of the castle would look like and smell like after a hundred-year slumber). Filled with wit and silliness, often in equal measure, Levine’s “Princess Tales” are all stuff and nonsense – but as in the original stories they expand and lovingly parody, there are bits of wisdom lurking amid the amusements, too. This collection is, to put it plainly and simply, enchanting.
(++++) ANIMAL WISDOM
Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship. By Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Scholastic. $16.99.
From the greatest of subjects to the smallest, it sometimes seems that we humans learn best and learn most when animals teach us.
Old Turtle was an outstanding and deservedly award-winning book when first published 15 years ago. The new Scholastic edition, which reproduces Cheng-Khee Chee’s watercolors with exceptional sensitivity, is an excellent reissue. This is one of the very few books about God that is genuinely nondenominational and may be moving even to nonbelievers. It works so well because Douglas Wood tells his story through animals – and through inanimate objects, such as rocks and breezes. It is a simple story, being a parable and a tale of Aesop rolled into one. All the beings of the world debate the nature of God, each arguing that God is like the being himself, herself or itself. The mountain envisions God as a high, snowy peak; the star as a twinkling and shining in the far distance; the antelope as “a runner, swift and free”; and so on. And they fall to arguing, and the argument gets louder and louder, until a seldom-heard voice commandingly tells them to STOP! Surprised, they do – for this is the voice of Old Turtle, who rarely says anything. And Old Turtle tells them they are all correct, and that a new race will appear on Earth that will reflect all the aspects of God. And so humans come into the picture – except that they too fall to arguing, fighting and eventually devastating their planet and all its inhabitants. So the voice of Old Turtle is heard again – and the book comes to a tremendously hopeful, heartwarming and upbeat conclusion that readers will wish could be true. And perhaps it can be – if religion, so frequently turned to such evil and exclusionary purposes, can be harnessed to the notion of something greater than all people and greater than all forms of worship put together…the way Old Turtle harnesses it.
The seriousness and intensity of Old Turtle is remarkable, but its charm is not diminished by the importance of its message – thanks to Wood’s matter-of-fact narrative and the great beauty and warmth of Chee’s watercolors. But Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship is in many ways more remarkable still – and not just because of the wonderful photos by Peter Greste. This is a real-life, real-world story: the second Scholastic book about the apparently unprecedented friendship between an orphaned baby hippopotamus named Owen and a 130-year-old giant tortoise named Mzee. Owen was the sole survivor when the tsunami of December 26, 2004, wiped out the group of 20 or so hippos in which he was living. Captured and moved to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, he formed an immediate and surprising attachment to Mzee – a real-life Old Turtle who, after some initial bad temper, accepted the young hippo and became Owen’s protector and tutor. The photos in this new book detail the astonishing growth of this unlikely friendship – a sequence showing how each animal tries to get the other moving is really amazing. In the simple, straightforward text, we learn something even more astonishing: tortoise and hippo communicate with sounds that neither species normally makes – they seem to have developed their very own “language of friendship.” This book is gently instructive in its display of exceptional accommodation between two extremely different species (and why cannot humans, who are all the same species, do likewise?). But it is also instructive in another, less happy way: as he grows, Owen is not behaving like a hippo, and seems to think of himself as some sort of giant tortoise. For example, he eats what Mzee eats (which is not what hippos would usually eat), and when Mzee was under veterinary treatment, Owen formed a new friendship with yet another giant tortoise, Toto. So now humans face the difficult decision of whether the amazing Owen-Mzee friendship can and should continue – and, if so, how to let it continue even as Owen grows so large that he could easily hurt Mzee unintentionally. This story is far from over, and if its remarkable upbeat aspects now have a cloud hanging over them – well, that too is something from which we humans can learn.
(++++) GIRLS OF PLUCK AND POWER
Beka Cooper, Book I: Terrier. By Tamora Pierce. Random House. $18.95.
Heroines who grow and grow up during their books, who survive and prosper through brains rather than beauty (even when they have the latter), who make mistakes and pay for them and emerge stronger as a result, and who above all remain true to their own inner cores – these are the central characters in Flora Segunda and Beka Cooper: Terrier.
First-time novelist Ysabeau S. Wilce (what an enchanting name!) and longtime Tortall chronicler Tamora Pierce are equally adept in these novels at creating central characters who rise above formula, and plots with sufficient intricacy to keep readers turning pages – in Pierce’s case, a lot of pages (nearly 600). Wilce has a very strange imagination indeed: her protagonist, whose actual name is Flora Fyrdraaca (think “firedragon”), lives in a house of 11,000 rooms, which shift at random. Those confusingly mobile staircases in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are nothing compared with Crackpot Hall, which is presided over by Flora’s commanding mother (commanding indeed: she is Commanding General of the Army of Califa). Flora’s father, Poppy, is quite ineffectual, and Crackpot Hall is a mess because the Butler who used to take care of it, Valefor, has been banished. Why? Well, Flora Segunda is an immensely and delightfully complicated novel, with secrets within secrets and machinations within machinations. The title itself is a plot point: it seems there was once another Flora, who was captured in war along with Poppy, but who was not ransomed when Poppy was. It takes some time to figure out what is going on here, and it is time well spent. Wilce blithely tosses out amusing and portentous echoes of other supernaturally inclined works, such as a book called the Eschatanomicon, which the Butler – whom Flora finds while being somewhere she should not be – gives to the girl (“he reached up and plucked Something from Nothing”), and whose wonderful title echoes that of the dread Necronomicon invented by H.P. Lovecraft. The Butler, Valefor, wants Flora to restore his power so he can make everything tidy again at Crackpot Hall (yeah, right), and he has some insights into the Fyrdraacas that are just a little too knowledgeable. Oh, and then there is the red dog…well, there is actually a lot in Flora Segunda, and just about all of it is wonderful, including the chapter titles, such as “Nausea. Discussion. Tea. Sigils.” and “Ambushed. Gramatica Exclamations. A Coyote.”
What Flora eventually learns is this: “Nothing is stronger than your Will. …No one can take you from yourself, Flora, unless you allow them to.” And this is what Rebakah Cooper, called Beka, learns as well in the first book of her adventures – which is Tamora Pierce’s 15th tale of the medieval realm of Tortall. This novel takes place early in the human era of Tortall, specifically in 246 H.E., when Beka is a rookie member of the Provost’s Dogs – the nickname the people of the city of Corus give to the Provost’s Guard. The Dogs are law enforcers in a world of magic, and their rookies are deemed Puppies. Once accepted by the Dogs, Beka asks for duty in the Lower City, where she was born – a rough area whose veteran Dogs, Mattes and Clary, are none too happy about their new assistant. This could be simply a police procedural in medieval guise, but of course Pierce makes it much more. She gives Beka a magical power that does not in itself seem like much but that quickly brings Beka into contact with more magic than she can handle. Beka is a listener: she hears the information that flows like air through the Lower City, whether whispered by people, by pigeons or by ghosts. And it is through this listening that Beka learns of a terrifying threat to the order the Dogs are sworn to uphold: a brutal someone, or something, that is orchestrating a crime wave while frightening the entire population into submission and silence. Beka comes across as quite human – she says of a boy, “He makes my skin, my peaches, and my other parts tingle in an agreeable way,” and comments elsewhere, “I hate it when people talk about me whilst I’m in the room.” But she is first and foremost a Provost’s Dog, or is becoming one – and it is the way she handles herself in her first case that earns her the admiration of the residents of Corus, who give her the compliment of calling her Terrier. There will be further Beka Cooper adventures, further challenges, further nefarious doings, and further chances for this Terrier to grab evildoers and refuse to let go. Good thing, too: this first Beka book, for all its length, will leave readers wanting more.
(+++) WORK WRECKERS
Bosses have feelings, too. So it seems only fair that Gini Graham Scott, author of A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses (not to mention A Survival Guide for Working with Humans), has now turned the tables (or the desks) and produced a book designed to help bosses handle those people who are usually referred to politely as “problem employees.”
Scott’s books can be counted on to be plainspoken, packed with anecdotes designed to illustrate her points, filled with “take-aways” that summarize each chapter, and written to be as easy to read as possible. They can also be counted on to be a bit blithe and facile in their recommendations, as if workplace problems are really pretty obvious from Scott’s lofty height and are also, when you come right down to it, pretty easy to solve. It therefore helps to read, absorb and even enjoy Scott’s examples of horrible workplace behavior without necessarily accepting the apparent ease of making things better. Her recommendations are usually solid enough, but she tends to toss them out as if they are no big deal – even though, in our litigious society filled with protected classes and aggrieved people of all sorts, making any personnel change can be a monumental struggle.
Give Scott credit: she does not tell bosses that problem employees are invariably idiots who just happen to have gotten hired. In fact, toward the end of A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell, Scott warns bosses that a pattern of employee troubles (real or perceived) may indicate difficulties with the boss himself or herself. Still, the bulk of this book is devoted to workplace jerks of many kinds, and Scott does her usual clear job of showing who they are and how toxic they can be.
There are five sections of the book – bad attitude, incompetence, personal issues, trust and honesty, and communication – plus a sixth, summary section. Within her five main parts, Scott deals specifically with such well-known types as the prima donna, the “arrogant a**hole,” employees protected by the big boss, sensitive souls, people with drug and alcohol problems, flat-out liars, and more. Scott gives an example of the behavior of each type, then asks the reader what ought to be done. The suggested solutions fall into a pattern: fire the offending person, talk to him or her, meet with others in the company affected by his or her behavior, and so on.
Sometimes Scott’s ideas make really good sense. For instance, one case deals with a male Hispanic employee (one of a close-knit employee group that may take offense if anything bad happens to any of them) who grabs a provocatively dressed non-Hispanic woman worker inappropriately. Scott shows how this could work out: the boss immediately and completely supports the woman and then asks her advice on what to do about the man who grabbed her. It turns out she wants him reprimanded but not fired, so the boss does as she suggests and everything turns out well; neither the man nor anyone in his group is offended or quits. This is a good solution if you can arrange it. In other cases, though, Scott describes a situation resolved only by factors that a boss cannot influence. For instance, the company’s top salesman is so nasty and demanding that he reduces clerical staff to tears, causes some people to quit and leads others to try to sabotage him – a dangerous situation for the company if there ever was one. But he is the top salesman. Scott has no specific recommendation here, but acts as if she does, explaining that eventually the salesman lost some deals and learned humility. Fine, but no boss taught him humility – or respect for others.
Even if Scott’s solutions are not always satisfactory, her detailing of the office chaos caused by all sorts of “employees from Hell” is useful for helping managers see that they are not alone, that others face similar difficulties with some workers, and that there are things that a boss can do to handle the occasional super-troublesome person. The key word there is “occasional.” If these people show up on the payroll more than occasionally, it’s more likely the boss than the employees themselves who are at fault.
(++++) FOUNTAINS OF YOUTHFULNESS
Bax: Sonata for Viola and Piano; Concert Piece for Viola and Piano; Legend for Viola and Piano; Trio in One Movement for Piano, Violin and Viola. Martin Outram, viola; Laurence Jackson, violin; Julian Rolton, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
The works on these CDs – all but one – were written when the composers were in their 30s or younger. Many are “learning” works, at least to some extent, and yet all show considerable mastery of form and instrumentation. And all are somewhat outside the main set of works for which the composers are best known today.
Schumann wrote all three of his string quartets in June and July of 1842, when he was 32. They were part of his attempt to move beyond the piano works to which he had previously devoted himself – he wrote a piano quartet and piano quintet in the same year – and they represented Schumann’s assiduous study of older models, notably those of Haydn, Mozart and especially Beethoven. The models show through here and there: the monothematic first movement of the second quartet, for example, echoes Haydn, while the scherzo of the first quartet is reminiscent of the music of Schumann’s friend, Mendelssohn. But the expressiveness of the themes is clearly Schumann’s, as is the balance among the four instruments. Careful tone blending is important in these works, which frequently show Schumann’s attentiveness to counterpoint – for instance, at the very start of the first quartet, where instruments enter one after the other in imitation. The Fine Arts Quartet – Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello – plays the works with sensitivity, apparent ease and a fine sense of give and take (perhaps not surprisingly: all the players except Gandelsman have been with the group for more than 20 years). The variations making up the second movement of the second quartet are a highlight, as the players expertly rebalance themselves for each new treatment of the theme. Schumann’s quartets are not exactly neglected but are not heard especially often. The Fine Arts Quartet makes a strong case for all of them.
There is less of consequence in the works on Naxos’ new CD devoted to Arnold Bax. But the focus on the viola makes this release especially interesting. Bax, born in 1883, wrote his Concert Piece in 1904 and his Trio in 1906 (thus, both are works of his 20s). His Sonata dates to 1922 (his 30s). Only the lovely Legend, which ends with great serenity and is Bax’s last completed work for viola, was written later in life (in 1929, when Bax was 46). All these pieces owe their genesis to famed violist Lionel Tertis, who in the early 20th century urged young British composers to write music for his often-neglected instrument. Tertis gave the first performance of Bax’s Concert Piece; and Bax, as pianist, actually recorded his Sonata with Tertis in 1929. The Concert Piece, Sonata and Legend all lie very well on the viola, and all give violists a chance to express far more moods than the serenity or gentle melancholy to which other composers frequently confine them. The first movement of the Sonata has a very unusual beginning, and its scherzo is especially difficult, full of pyrotechnics usually associated with the viola’s smaller cousin, the violin. The Sonata is the most substantial piece here, but none of these works has quite the scale and sweep of Bax’s Viola Phantasy, which he originally designed as a concerto. Still, within the chamber-music realm, they are all effective combinations of virtuosity and reflective moods. Martin Outram plays his 1628 Hieronymous Amati instrument with finesse, and Julian Rolton accompanies him with sensitivity and fine style. They are joined by violinist Laurence Jackson in Bax’s early Trio, which fits the viola less well than the other works here (Bax said the part, which lies high on the instrument, could alternatively be played by a clarinet). The virtuosity of the piano part and the prevalence of Irish folk tunes make the Trio a light and interesting conclusion to a showcase of less-often-heard works by a composer best known for his tone poems and symphonies.
January 11, 2007
(++++) DICKINSON, WELL SEEN
The World in a Frame. Poems by Emily Dickinson. Drawings by Will Barnet. Pomegranate. $30.
This is a book of style, beauty and grace that will bring great joy to any lover of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Will Barnet’s illustrations of
The World in a Frame contains 46
In a similar vein, Poem 535 opens, “Two Butterflies went out at Noon—” and Barnet shows, quite appropriately, two butterflies, wings spread, flying above
Barnet’s illustrations have a great deal of power, and will help readers see the poems in new ways – or intensify their previous views of them. For Poem 783, which opens, “The birds begun at Four o’clock—“ Barnet creates a bare landscape over which a large flock of black birds is flying, as Dickinson stands in the right foreground, facing the birds (so her features are unseen), her stylized black shape complementing the stylization of the birds she is observing. Just how well Barnet empathizes with Dickinson is clear throughout this book, and indeed from its front cover, which shows the poet in profile, sitting, eyes closed, with shelves of books behind her and two on the table before her – her left hand resting gently on one of them. It is a lovely, evocative picture, and turns out to illustrate, not at all surprisingly, Poem 604, which opens, “Unto my Books—so good to turn—” The World in a Frame is a book to which it is good to turn again, again, and yet again.
(++++) FLAT-OUT FUN
Stanley Lambchop’s adventures started 42 years ago, but he’s still the adaptable and adorable preteen he always was. The Flat Stanley Collection includes paperback editions of four of the six Flat Stanley books: the original Flat Stanley (1964), Stanley in Space (1990), Invisible Stanley (1996) and Stanley, Flat Again! (2003). It’s flatness for which
It is the utter silliness of the Stanley Lambchop stories that makes them so endearing, as Stanley and his parents – along with Stanley’s brother, Arthur – take all the weird stuff that happens to Stanley in stride.
The Stanley Lambchop books are intended for ages 7-10, but they may be even more fun for a younger age range, perhaps 5-8. The reason is that everything is so good-humored that kids in the 9-10 age range will probably find Stanley and his family silly in the “I don’t want to read this” mode instead of silly in the “this is funny” mode. The books partake of the sensibility of the 1960s, even though three of the four in The Flat Stanley Collection are of far more recent vintage.
Kids who do read the books will find that as much of the fun comes from the byways of the stories as from the main plots. Take that book that Dr. Dan consults. In Invisible Stanley, it tells him that in “
(+++) FOLLOWUP MYSTERIES
The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. By Jaclyn Moriarty. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
Vanishing Act: Mystery at the
It’s arguable whether there are second acts in life, but there are certainly second acts, and third ones, and more, in writing. Come up with something that works, and an author will be tempted – nay, urged by his or her publisher – to produce more of the same. As in moviemaking, a return to the tried-and-true formula tends to become, well, formulaic, although fans of original books (or movies) can often be induced to return for follow-ups that are, at best, not quite as good.
Both these books are all right, and existing fans of the authors will enjoy them, but neither book is likely to create a stampede of new readers. The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is the cleverer of the two, being written entirely in diary entries, letters, E-mails and similar forms. Designated a “companion” book to Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Year of Secret Assignments, which used the same kind of format and was highly original in doing so, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is a case of more of the same. Much more, in fact – it runs nearly 500 pages. Bindy is that super-wonderful high-school girl that everyone loves to hate, and everyone does. It’s easy to see why: she has such a perfect, and perfectly nasty, way of encapsulating everyone in her orbit. One example: “A group of people were [sic] standing by the window at the far end of the room. Six people. Toby, Emily, Briony,
Vanishing Act is mercifully shorter, at fewer than 300 pages, and is a fast read for preteens and teens interested in sports – specifically, tennis. It is a sequel to John Feinstein’s first murder mystery for young readers, Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery, which was a fast read for preteens and teens interested in sports – specifically, basketball. Feinstein’s niche is certainly clear enough. The first book was about an attempt to fix the championship game at the NCAA Final Four. The two crusading teen journalists and aspiring sportswriters who uncovered that plot, Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson, find themselves investigating a kidnapping in Vanishing Act. A young Russian tennis star, and potential superstar, suddenly disappears in a way that seems impossible. The teens aren’t the only ones on this case – there’s a media frenzy, which Feinstein handles knowledgeably, and professional journalists as well as law-enforcement personnel are on top of the story. The eventual plots-within-plots unraveling is clever, but it is also highly manipulative on Feinstein’s part. Feinstein is a longtime sports writer and author of sports-related books for adults, and he clearly loves the games he portrays. But readers may feel he doesn’t play entirely fairly with them.
(+++) HOW MUCH PROTECTION IS ENOUGH?
Norton Confidential. Windows XP. Symantec. $49.99.
It is no longer necessarily true in the world of software that you get what you pay for. The economics of the Internet has turned on its head the old notion that something you get for nothing is worth exactly what you paid for it. There are excellent free programs available online to protect you against viruses, alert you to attempts to take you to a fraudulent Web site instead of a real one, warn you that a site you have already reached may not be what it pretends to be, and much more.
All this puts a company such as Symantec in a quandary. The firm sells top-notch security products that are, taken individually, not significantly superior to similar software that is available for free. And improved security by other software companies – notably Microsoft – has the effect of poaching on Symantec’s protective turf, even though that is unlikely to be the reason Microsoft and other firms are making their products safer to use.
Symantec is handling this new reality several ways: by improving its products regularly (good idea), by bundling multiple products together into suites that handle many functions and interact seamlessly (good idea), and by creating new standalone products designed to provide even further security enhancements (so-so idea). Norton Confidential is an example of a new standalone Symantec product that does just what it claims to do, does it well, and may nevertheless not be worth anything like its $50 price – or, indeed, worth any price at all.
Norton Confidential provides online transaction security. It protects users against phishing (redirection to phony sites designed to resemble real ones); validates the security of sites that ask for personal financial data; protects against criminal programs that capture personal information during online transactions; and secures passwords and login information. These are all excellent goals, and Norton Confidential seems to do everything it says. That’s “seems” because it is impossible to prove a negative – if your data are not stolen by crimeware, you cannot know if any theft attempt was ever made and, if so, what blocked it.
The difficulty with this program comes down to cost, on two levels. One is the cost of installing it: it requires 125 megabytes of hard-disk space, which may not be much nowadays but is still nothing to ignore. The other is the actual out-of-pocket cost: the $49.99 price buys the initial software and a single year of updates, after which you have to pay again to keep Norton Confidential effective. For many users, that will simply be out of line. Consider that you can get a huge amount of self-defense against illegitimate sites by simply looking at the URL before entering any information – to make sure it starts with https instead of just http. That costs exactly nothing. Then consider that features in Internet Explorer 7 and, even better, Firefox 2.0, provide warnings if you may be going to a fraudulent site – at a cost of zero. Then look at security features available through, for example, Google, which (again) can alert you if a site’s legitimacy is questionable, at (again) no cost. And there are a number of freeware and shareware programs available to provide still more levels of protection. But those programs are of variable quality, and that is ultimately where Symantec’s advantage lies. If you do not understand (or want to learn) how to set higher security levels through your browser or Internet search program; if you do not know how to tell good free offerings from bad, and do not want to be bothered to track down and regularly maintain and update the best software available online; then you can turn to Symantec, a company known for the quality of its products, and buy Norton Confidential to protect your data in many ways through a single program. That’s the selling point here – not officially, to be sure, but in reality.
If you are careful and attentive, you don’t really need Norton Confidential for a high level of security when you are online, whether you are doing financial transactions or not. But if it gives you greater comfort than existing programs you probably already have (IE, Firefox) or already use (Google), if you would rather have Symantec keep its electronic eye on sites than keep your organic eye out for https in the URL, then you are the target market for Norton Confidential. What Symantec is selling here is not unique functionality but a unique level of user comfort.
(++++) DANCE THROUGH THE AGES
Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 2. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.
Leonard Bernstein’s reputation as a ballet composer rests largely on the wonderful ballet scenes in West Side Story (1957), choreographed by Jerome Robbins. But that was actually Bernstein’s third collaboration with Robbins – and there were to be a total of four. Andrew Mogrelia and the Nashville Symphony offer top-notch performances of the first and fourth Bernstein-Robbins ballets: Fancy Free from 1944 and Dybbuk from1974. (The other Bernstein-Robbins collaboration was Facsimile in 1946.) Fancy Free is the better known of the two works here, and Mogrelia’s bouncy performance shows why. The ballet’s structure is symphonic, the action is easily understandable (three sailors on shore leave looking for women), and the music’s jauntiness and extensive piano parts lend it immediate attractiveness even for listeners who do not know the plot. Dybbuk is another matter. It is a dark story that combines a Jewish legend with a broken promise of marriage, and has a peculiar ending in which the heroine decides to die rather than marry someone other than the now-dead lover who had possessed her demonically. The music is more complex structurally and orchestrally than that of Fancy Free, with well-developed contrasts between tonality and atonality and impressive use of percussion. And the inclusion of baritone and bass voices intoning Jewish rituals as part of a plot that revolves around misuse of the mystical Kabbalah lends the work a sense of exoticism. But this is music that is interesting rather than compelling: individual numbers may be poignant and lovely (“Leah—Maiden’s Dance”) or intense and dramatic (“Exorcism”), but the work as a whole is choppy. Even Mogrelia’s fine performance does not lend the ballet a must-hear quality. Bernstein made two separate suites from Dybbuk, and the music does seem to work better in smaller doses.
Smaller doses of dance music were the norm in John Dowland’s time, which was also Shakespeare’s time (the composer lived from 1563 to 1626, the playwright from 1564 to 1616). About five hours of Dowland’s music have survived, and lutenist Nigel North offers one-fifth of it – mostly in the form of paired pavans and galliards – in the second volume of Naxos’ planned series of all Dowland’s works. This CD is entitled “Dowland’s Tears,” and that is quite an apt description, since the dance forms that Dowland used were so often turned by him toward the melancholy side. Dowland’s music very often reflects his personal motto, Semper Dowland Semper Dolens – “Ever Dowland, ever doleful,” or simply “Dowland is always doleful.” The motto itself is the title of the final work on this CD, and “Dowland’s Tears” is the title of another piece here (in North’s own arrangement). The best-known work on this CD is the “Lachrimae Pavan” (“Tearful Pavan”), which was Dowland’s most popular composition in his own time. North’s playing is sensitive and expressive throughout, and the lutenist does not make the mistake of trying to turn these brief pieces toward tragedy: even at their quietest and darkest, they are fuller of melancholy than of pathos. North does a good job of juxtaposing works of contrasting or complementary character, and his booklet notes offer a clear explanation for the thematic similarity that listeners will hear again and again. But playing this CD straight through is a bit unfair to Dowland, whose works were not written to be heard at such length – with Dowland as with the Bernstein of Dybbuk, listening to less music at a time will likely provide more enjoyment.
January 04, 2007
(++++) SPOOK TALK
The Last Apprentice: Curse of the Bane. By Joseph Delaney. Illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
When a first-time author produces something exceptionally good, it is reasonable to ask what he is going to do for an encore. It’s hard enough to come up with one good book – harder still to create a second.
So Joseph Delaney is an author worth celebrating. His first book – The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch, which is now available in paperback – was scarily effective both in words and (thanks to Patrick Arrasmith) in illustrations. And it was genuinely unusual in many elements of its plot, since it was a book in which the spook – or rather the Spook – was the good guy. Intended for ages 10 and up, the book managed to provide enough scares – and, what is more unusual, enough humor – to attract readers into their teens. Delaney’s idea was that Spooks are protectors, human beings whose purpose is to get rid of the various evils stalking isolated villages. Old Gregory is the Spook in Revenge of the Witch, but he really is old Gregory, and is aware that his time is drawing to a close. So he must train an apprentice, and sooner rather than later. And he tries to do so 29 times, but every would-be apprentice is too frightened or incompetent to become the next Spook. Some, in the midst of their training, become too dead – this is not a job to be taken lightly. The last apprentice Gregory tries out is Thomas J. Ward, and Revenge of the Witch is the story of the start of Tom’s education in the ways of Spooks and the things they guard against.
This sounds fairly conventional, but Delaney’s strong writing and willingness to toss some humor about make the book a cut above similar ones. Gregory, for example, warns Tom against all girls, especially ones with pointed shoes – but then Tom meets Alice, who is not only nice to him but also an expert in the uses of plants, some of which can be valuable in Spook work. Also, Tom needs to learn some mighty interesting lore: the differences between ghasts and ghosts; what a boggart is, and how to bind one; and the symbols used to indicate various degrees of danger – for example, a witch is symbolized by a large O, with a subscript of M (malevolent), B (benign) or U (unaware, and thus potentially the most dangerous of all). While learning all this arcane information, Tom helps Gregory deal with a truly malevolent witch, and Alice helps Tom – provoking Gregory’s statement, “some clever women are dangerous.”
But the danger Tom faces in Curse of the Bane is more immediate than Alice’s possible future – she may become a witch herself. Early in Curse of the Bane, Tom must defeat a boggart on his own for the first time, and a very nasty piece of work the creature proves to be. Also here, Tom learns something about Old Gregory’s background, and the reasons the Spook warns Tom against pretty women. But there is much more here: Delaney succeeds in this sequel by ratcheting up the fright level (abetted once again by Arrasmith’s excellent illustrations) and pulling in danger from additional sources. The Bane itself is a creature living in the catacombs of a cathedral, but the church powers-that-be do not want the Spook – whom they deem evil – to do anything to dispose of it. At the end of the first book, Tom worries that winter is getting longer and the dark stronger, and the tale of the Bane indicates that that is so. The danger of the Bane is that it can take over and corrupt people’s minds, so Tom cannot be sure who is on what side. So when a priest warns Tom against Old Gregory, who is supposedly in league with the Devil and can therefore conquer lesser devils such as boggarts, does this mean Gregory is evil? Or is the priest evil? Or is the priest wrong? Or under the Bane’s control? To make matters still more complicated, Alice resurfaces and is a big help to Tom once again – but at the cost of a desperately dangerous deal with the Bane. Curse of the Bane is deeper and more profoundly frightening than Revenge of the Witch, which was plenty scary already. And it clearly paves the way for a third Last Apprentice novel. Joseph Delaney is proving himself a writer to be reckoned with – repeatedly.
(++++) THE FILM'S THE THING
Roger Ebert remains the one movie critic whose work you can enjoy nearly all the time, even if you disagree with his opinion. He is such a good writer that you can wade at random into this huge tome of his latest reviews – and it really is huge, at just under 1,000 pages – and inevitably find a bright and pithy encapsulation of some film or other.
Ebert’s putdowns are especially cutting: Napoleon Dynamite has “a kind of studied stupidity that sometimes passes for humor”; The Promise “is pretty much a mess of a movie” whose computer-generated graphics seem to have been “done with a dial-up connection”; Twisted “walks like a thriller and talks like a thriller, but squawks like a turkey.”
Ebert brings the same pointed style to his comments on movies that he actually likes, and that is a big part of the charm of his writing. Of Lord of War, a gun-trafficking film that gets three-and-a-half stars, he notes that the arms dealer “argues that his products kill fewer people than tobacco and alcohol. He has a point, but it’s more fun and takes longer to die that way.” The hero of another movie with the same high rating, the “surprisingly insightful” The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “is one of those guys who life is a work-around. What he doesn’t understand, he avoids, finesses, or fakes.” As for the hero of the four-star Grizzly Man, Ebert says he is “balanced somewhere between the grandiose and the manic.”
Ebert seems genuinely to like movies, seeing them as an extraordinary form of entertainment that can, at times and in the right hands, be something more: a teaching tool, a source of deep emotion, a bit of connective tissue between the audience and the world at large. His disgust with low-rated movies comes from their being poorly made films as much as from their being badly written and acted. During his negative take on the one-star A Lot Like Love (“a romance between two of the dimmer bulbs of their generation”), Ebert mentions walking across a college campus with “a kid who confessed he was studying philosophy” simply because he found it interesting. “Yes! I said,” writes Ebert. “Yes! Don’t treat education as if it’s only a trade school. …You have long years to get through, and you must guard against the possibility of becoming a bore to yourself.” What other film reviewer writes anything like that?
Ebert is certainly no bore to himself, but it is only fair to point out that he sometimes seems a bit full of himself. He knows a great deal, and he knows that he knows. He cannot simply have fun with Yoda’s speaking style when writing about Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. He must say that Yoda’s speech “reminds me of Wolcott Gibbs’ famous line about the early style of Time magazine: ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.’” This is Ebert really flaunting his urbanity. He does so often in the final 200 pages of the book, which contain a number of elements worth reading and considering, such as his list of the 10 best films of 2005, and some of lesser value, such as celebrity interviews and reports on film festivals. But even if you skip those entire 200 pages, Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2007 contains nearly 800 others filled with bite, bounce, wit and oodles of movie-industry knowledge. It’s a great guide to films to rent or buy, but it’s also something even more valuable: a really good read.
(+++) ONE MAN'S BLACK ARTS
At some point in the future – the near future, one hopes – artists will be judged entirely on their work and the impressions it makes on viewers, not on their backgrounds and interests, and certainly not on their skin color. But we are not quite at that point yet, so this excellent study of David Driskell’s considerable artistic accomplishments is built around the fact that Driskell is an important proponent of African American art, is himself African American, and is an academic advocate of African American studies.
With an artist as good as Driskell, this is something of a shame, because his works can and do stand on their own, making a strong impression even if you know nothing of their provenance. Yes, some of his scenes clearly focus on African and African American experiences, but just as many are decidedly race-neutral. The wonderfully multicolored “Antique Rocker” of 1978, for example, is an acrylic-on-canvas painting that makes a very strong visual impression, while “The Beautiful Dust” (1980, egg tempera and collage on paper) is one of several works in which a sun rises above abstract landscapes that are vaguely and effectively evocative.
Art historian Julie McGee, who spent more than a decade teaching art history and Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, clearly admires Driskell to the point of hagiography. McGee has assembled a thorough and fascinating book that focuses as much on Driskell the man as on Driskell the artist, with numerous photos of Driskell complementing the self-portraits, and with lengthy discussions of Driskell’s prestige in areas from the academic to the political (he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton in 2000). And the book is very handsome to look at, including excellent reproductions of nearly 200 color and black-and-white images.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Driskell is not a household name, so the target audience of this book – which contains a great deal of writing about Driskell in its 216 pages – would seem to be mostly in academia or in areas where people focus on artists specifically because of their relationship to the African and African American experience. And this is too bad. It is probably naïve to hope that art can always transcend racial boundaries, but it certainly can do so in some cases, and Driskell’s happens to be one of them. The ambiguous skin color of Christ in the oil painting, “Behold Thy Son” (1956), matters not at all: this is a striking image that reaches into and beyond religious feeling. The unusual and lovely “Winter Tree” (1962, encaustic on canvas) is a semi-abstract piece that enthralls simply because it is. The more overtly political and “black” works here, such as “Of Thee I Sing” (1968, acrylic and collage on Masonite) are actually less effective than, for example, the lovely “House in Hyattsville” (a 1978 watercolor), which reaches out to people of every skin tone and every political persuasion. David Driskell is a remarkable artist – a remarkable African American artist, yes, but in this case (and in perhaps a great many cases), the qualifier limits the man unfairly.
(+++) EXPECTED MAGICS
The Will of the Empress. By Tamora Pierce. Scholastic. $8.99.
There is so much magic out there (in books for young readers, anyway) that you would think it would take more forms. But no – much of it takes the typical pseudo-Arthurian, pseudo-Tolkienian or pseudo-science-fictional forms that seem to be default settings for even the best novelists writing for young people.
Certainly both Carol Hughes and Tamora Pierce have pacing and style to spare. Hughes’ Jack Black & the Ship of Thieves was a taut thriller with some genuinely unusual elements. Pierce’s many novels and novel cycles, including the Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens books, are filled with wonder and interesting characters.
But both authors’ new books fall a little flat. There is a sense in which they are retreads, either of approaches that have gone before or of earlier novels. Thus, Dirty Magic features a strange, pale girl in a military uniform who brings the hero, Joe, into a parallel world where trench warfare is largely conducted by frightening self-propelled tanks. The book’s cover, by Jon Foster, encapsulates that world neatly, but the world itself is not especially interesting. Yes, there is a quest here, both for a way to bring peace to the warring armies in the “nearby” world and to find Joe’s sister, Hannah, who is in that parallel world and whom Joe needs to rescue. Ho-hum. No, the book itself is not ho-hum reading, since Hughes writes well and the basic story is exciting. But the ideas underlying it are ho-hum. Here, for example, is what one bad guy tells Joe in an attempt to lure him to his (the bad guy’s) side: “We’re very alike, you and I. I understand you. We want the same things. We appreciate the same things. We treasure the same things. I want you to be my student, my heir, my closest ally. There is no reason to create an empire if there is no one to share it with. Think of the machines we could create!” Now, how many bad guys, in how many books, have said essentially the same thing? That’s the problem with Dirty Magic: it’s all-new, but reads as if you have read the same thing many times before.
In the case of The Will of the Empress, which is now available in paperback, you have read the same thing before – or much of it, anyway – if you are a fan of Pierce’s works. Here the reader meets – or, more likely, re-meets – the four mages of Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens: Daja, Briar, Tris and Sandry. The four have grown up since the earlier books and have grown apart, but now all are thrown together into another quest, at the behest of Sandry’s uncle. This is a magic-vs.-magic book, in which the four onetime friends are in jeopardy because of the machinations of mages working for the Empress of Namora. Can Sandry get the four working together again so they can defeat the Empress? Well, of course she can: she is captured and separated from the others, who naturally unite to save her. And Sandry herself is scarcely helpless: “Sandry gathered up a blanket of her power and flung it over them all. It separated as it draped over each person, trickling down into that man’s or that woman’s clothes. Threads in their garments broke free and linked themselves together. With her magic to shape them, the fibers sped as garments unraveled and rewove. She was so angry that her will did not falter once…” By the end of the book, it is not surprising when one of the friends comments, “We remade us.” And so they did – in writing as stylish as Pierce usually provides. But the quality of the writing in The Will of the Empress and Dirty Magic is not quite enough to conceal the fact that both books are rather tired in the innovation department.