February 22, 2007


Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden. By Edith Pattou. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Harcourt. $9.95.

Pirates Don’t Change Diapers. By Melinda Long. Illustrated by David Shannon. Harcourt. $16.

      No matter how charming their words and stories, some books stay with you not because of the tales they tell but because of the way those tales are illustrated. Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden takes a well-worn simile – a classroom is like a garden – and makes it fresh and attractive…because Edith Pattou never actually discusses the parallel between children and flowers. Instead, she narrates a tale in which the principal gives the teacher, Mrs. Spitzer, a packet of seeds – and Mrs. Spitzer works on planting them, tending them, providing the nourishment they need, and helping them grow in their own individual ways. “Some of the plants grow quickly, pushing upward, eager, impatient,” writes Pattou. “Some grow more slowly, unfolding themselves bit by bit.” But the key to the enjoyment this book provides is less in the clever way Pattou writes it than in the wonderful way Tricia Tusa illustrates it. Everything here has faces: the birds and insects that fly above Mrs. Spitzer, the butterflies that watch her garden start to sprout, the “weeds and pests” that threaten its growth, and of course Mrs. Spitzer’s flowers and plants themselves. Tusa creates a wide variety of wonderful expressions with just a few lines here and there. A hat-wearing caterpillar rears up (on its rear) and smiles. Flowers look around quizzically, or smile just a bit, or bear huge grins. As the plants grow, Tusa shows some of them with legs, walking about and discovering things – and showing off for Mrs. Spitzer, who sits perched on a mushroom, watching the bright chaos happily. There are delights on every page: a top-hatted turtle, a set of striding pumpkins, a snail carrying a purse in its mouth, and many more. The story here is a simple and lovely one; the pictures make Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden even more special.

      Pirates Don’t Change Diapers is a very different kind of book, with very different illustrations that are, in their own way, equally effective. This is a sequel to Melinda Long and David Shannon’s How I Became a Pirate, featuring the return of Braid Beard and his crew to find the treasure they buried in Jeremy Jacob’s backyard. They need the treasure to fix their pirate ship, which has run aground – but they face an unexpected obstacle in the form of Jeremy’s baby sister, Bonney Anne. The pirates’ noisiness wakes the baby up, and there will never be enough peace and quiet to find the loot unless the pirates manage to baby-sit. This is a deliciously silly plot, with a sort of “framing story” about Jeremy’s search for a birthday gift thrown in for good measure, and Long tells the tale with great verve. But Shannon’s pictures steal the show. There is Braid Beard’s beard, seen through the peephole in Jeremy’s front door. There is a full-page picture of Bonney Anne screaming – she and the picture are almost all mouth. On the next page is Braid Beard’s full-page reaction, with his popped eyes and six tilted teeth perfectly portrayed. The book is full of visual delights: wide-eyed Bonney Anne leading the pirate captain by his beard, three pirates covered with the strained spinach that Bonney Anne spits up, a hook-handed pirate trying to change a diaper, Jeremy and eight pirates staring in horror when Bonney Anne is temporarily missing (in a picture drawn with the nine characters circling around three sides of the page), and more. A happy ending is inevitable here, and most welcome – and the final picture of Jeremy and his baby sister, both wide-eyed, is a delightful conclusion.


Extreme Pets! By Jane Harrington. Scholastic. $12.99.

Guinness World Records to the Extreme. Compiled by Lisa L. Ryan-Herndon. Scholastic. $14.99.

      The extremes to which publishers will go to draw attention to a book – including overuse of the word “extreme” – are nothing new. Once in a while, though, the word shows up on a book that is…well…extremely fascinating, such as Extreme Pets! This is the most interesting child-oriented pet book in a dog’s age (sorry about that). Spiral bound so it lies flat and can be used for easy reference, tabbed so families can quickly locate sections called “Cold-Blooded!” and “Pocket Pets!” and “Insects!” and “Slimy Pets!” – yup, all with exclamation points – the book gives some really neat information on a wide variety of animals, plus well-thought-out, practical tips on taking care of them. Each animal gets a “Report Card” in five categories: coolness, aroma, neatness, ease of care and cost factor; and there are occasional additions – for instance, a ferret gets a C for “aroma (if you’re clean)” and a D for “aroma (if you’re not).”

      The presentation aspects of Extreme Pets! are what make it so attractive. A rather unfortunately titled but very useful “Ask the Pet Whiz” column for each animal gets into details of habits and care, while introductory information on each critter places a decided emphasis on the coolness/ickiness factor: “The MADAGASCAN HISSING COCKROACH is, without a doubt, the COOLEST COCKROACH on the planet. It’s BIG and SLOW, and it CRAWLS ALL OVER YOU! Life doesn’t get much better than this, does it?” Many parents won’t approve – they’re not necessarily supposed to, according to the text, although kids do have to get permission (and money) if they’re going to keep any of these animals at home – but the bright writing, excellent photography and well-done care hints make this book top-notch in almost every way. It even has occasional recipes for animal treats – “happy rat munchies,” for example. But be slightly cautious about accepting the book’s science at face value. In discussing the African pygmy hedgehog, for example, Jane Harrington writes, “Unlike the porcupine [sic], the hedgehog’s quills are not barbed weapons that can be shot out of its body when it’s mad.” The big problem here is not the grammar (it should be “porcupine’s”) but the science: porcupines do not shoot their quills – the quills are very lightly attached, and come off easily if the animal comes under attack. So there are imperfections in Extreme Pets! – but if you want to consider keeping a bearded dragon, sugar glider, giant African millipede, red-eyed tree frog or another of the unusual animals profiled here, this book is an excellent place to learn what you’ll need to do after you get the animal home.

      Animals appear in Guinness World Records to the Extreme as well, but as objects of curiosity and amazement – certainly not as potential pets. This entry in the multifaceted Guinness World Records series explains that the largest mammal jaw belongs to the sperm whale; the polar bear has the most sensitive nose of any land mammal; a tropical cockroach holds the record as fastest-moving insect; and the most expensive painting by an elephant sold for $39,000. There are also plenty of record-setting feats by human animals, from loudest burp to longest ear hair (several of these human records may make you prefer non-human animals). Filled with “Trivia Tidbits” and “Did You Know?” items, this book is laid out to seem as dramatic as possible, but in fact, some of its contents are fairly mundane: the Venus flytrap and related bladderwort hold the record for fastest entrapment by a plant; the “golden age” of comics “introduced a new art form that blended colorful images and short stories about fictional superheroes”; the great white shark can grow to more than 15 feet. There’s enough of interest here to earn the book a (+++) rating, but even though it’s an interesting set of records, it falls short of being extremely interesting.


Anatomy of a Boyfriend. By Daria Snadowsky. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      First love hurts. Oh yes, it is wonderful – the discovery of depths of feeling you never knew you possessed, the sharing of hopes and dreams and secrets, and the sharing of bodies, too. But when first love ends, as it inevitably does, it hurts, with a pain in direct proportion to the joys it had in full flower.

      Daria Snadowsky’s first novel gets the pain right, and manages to get many of the joys right, too. Snadowsky’s heroine, Dominique, is a worthwhile protagonist: smart (she plans to be a doctor), self-assured and knowledgeable (in book learning, anyway). Unlike far too many heroines in books aimed at teenagers, Dominique does not have a broken family adding to her troubles. In fact, it is the happiness of her parents together that makes her own eventual broken-heartedness feel all the more acute to her – until a surprising revelation by her father helps her put that so-important first love in perspective.

      But that is how things end. They begin less well: Snadowsky is not quite sure how to get the book going, and falls back on a few too many clichés. For instance, Dom first meets her soon-to-be-first-love, Wes, when he helps rescue her after she falls in the mud. Also, Wes and Dom are of the opposites-attract type, with Wes being a track star and Dom decidedly bookish (she competes in and wins academic quiz shows). And both of them are physical and emotional virgins, with Wes specifically saying that all the action sports stars supposedly get is just so much talk – not much reality there.

      But if the first third of Anatomy of a Boyfriend reads like something often seen before, the remaining two-thirds fairly crackles with intensity. As the emotional and – especially – sexual feelings between Dom and Wes develop, Snadowsky shows the couple’s mounting passion and increasing connectedness with a great sense of style and a palpable feeling of realism. This book is targeted at ages 14 and above, no doubt because of the sex scenes, but that is also the right age range for the emotional intensity that develops as Dom and Wes scale the heights before the relationship crumbles in pain and misunderstanding.

      It is Wes – never as fully formed a character as Dom – who brings everything down, and he does so rather callously (another dip into cliché – in this case, of the boy as cad). But Snadowsky keeps the focus on Dom and her reactions, so the book’s conclusion has considerable power. Even Dom’s “fast girl” friend, Amy – another typical element in books like this – has more resonance and believability than many similar characters, and has troubles of her own that help Dom keep hers in perspective. Anatomy of a Boyfriend is not a happy book and certainly not an unflawed one, but it feels so true emotionally, and has such an uplifting-but-not-sappy ending, that teen readers – especially girls who identify with Dom – will look forward eagerly to Snadowsky’s second novel.


The New Policeman. By Kate Thompson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Swordbird. By Nancy Yi Fan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

      An Irish fairytale for musicians, The New Policeman is a complex, neatly woven, multilevel story in which Kate Thompson bites off more than she can chew but makes the digesting both easy and pleasant. The basic “quest” plot here is a staple of fantasies for both adults and teenagers (the book is intended for ages 12 and up), and the initial setup of the story is thin: the mother of protagonist J.J. says what she wants for her birthday is more time, so J.J. sets out to find her some. Furthermore, the basic fantasy premise here has often been used before: a “leak” between our everyday world and the world of magic. But despite these unpromisingly ordinary elements, The New Policeman is a delight to read, especially if you can read music as well as words. Chapter after chapter ends with a reference to music and the actual score of a song. “I suppose we’ll play a tune,” says one character at the end of a chapter, and Thompson presents the music for “The Teetotaller.” In another chapter, J.J. hears an old story; is told that “from that day to this, there has always been music in this house”; and the sheet music for “The Priest and His Boots” follows. The New Policeman is, in fact, a treasure trove of Irish folk tunes (the title tune, “Lucy Campbell,” “The Wise Maid,” “The Fair-Haired Boy,” “The Lad That Can Do It,” and many more), plus an occasional newly composed tune (“The White Donkey,” by Thompson herself). The focus on the end-of-chapter music, though, does tend to crimp some of the writing style, and the complexity of the plot melds uneasily with the musical theme: there is the search for time, or specifically for a place where time stands still; the mystery of the new policeman himself; a possible murderer in J.J.’s family background; and more. The book is well written and often exciting, and the musical selections come more and more to reflect J.J.’s feelings as the adventure progresses (for example, “My Mind Will Never Be Easy” and “Far from Home” both appear late in the book). But there may be a touch too much cleverness here for some less musically inclined teenage readers.

      Swordbird has a more straightforward presentation but a more unusual provenance. Nancy Yi Fan wrote it when she was just 11 years old, in 2004; and although English is her second language, it is the language in which she chose to create the story. Swordbird combines elements of a dream the author had about birds at war with her personal feelings about terrorism in the wake of the murderous attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Clearly the then-eight-year-old was deeply affected by the terrorism; her subsequent dream may have been the result. The precociousness of the author recalls that of Christopher Paolini, who wrote the commercially successful Eragon when he was 15. But just as Eragon was essentially a pastiche of heroic fantasies by earlier authors, Swordbird is basically a revamped fairy tale with Aesopian overtones. This does not make it an uninteresting book – in fact, the target audience of readers ages 8-12 will likely find it enthralling – but it does make it the sort of formulaic work that would garner little attention if written by an adult author. Still, taken on its own terms, without lading it with expectations, Swordbird has considerable charm. The simple story is about the peace of Stone-Run Forest – where cardinals and blue jays live together – being disrupted by an evil hawk that turns them against each other. The warring birds eventually discover that it is the hawk that is their true enemy and unite against him – only to find that he is too strong for them, and their only chance is to call upon the Swordbird, son of the Great Spirit. The Swordbird may not even be real…but of course he turns out to be real, and he does save the day, and he leaves behind this message: “Peace is wonderful; freedom is sacred.” Readers will likely wish this were more than a fairy tale.


He’s a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock & Roll’s Legendary Producer. By Mark Ribowsky. Da Capo. $18.

      The timing of this update-and-rerelease of Mark Ribowsky’s 1989 biography of famed music producer Phil Spector is so cynical that Spector himself would probably approve: the book is out the month before Spector is going to trial on murder charges that may send him to prison for the rest of his exceedingly troubled life.

      “Rebel” doesn’t seem quite a strong enough word for Spector, whose strange and reclusive life has been marked by sporadic outbursts of violence that would likely have removed him from polite society decades ago if he did not happen to have a fabulous ear for music and some astonishingly creative ideas on how to present it. Spector is the man who created the “girl group.” He produced the Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers and other chart-topping singers. He invented a new recording style for such hits as “Be My Baby” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”

      But knowing Spector – as a reader will after these 454 pages – is scarcely to love him. Now 65 years old, Spector may be brought down by something that happened when he was 61: the killing of waitress and former actress Lana Clarkson. Spector originally told police that her death at his home was an accident, but he behaved oddly, refusing to take his hands out of his pockets and exchanging words with the investigators. One of them shocked him with a stun gun – blackening both his eyes and breaking his nose.

      Did he have it coming? Freelance journalist Ribowsky’s detailing of Spector’s life makes the events of 2003 seem, if not exactly expected, not exactly surprising either. Spector had a habit of terrifying people he worked and lived with – musicians, friends, family – through strange behavior that often involved firearms (he once held the Ramones at gunpoint). He regularly found ways to punish people whom he considered insufficiently loyal (Darlene Love and Sonny Bono, among others). At one time “the butt of the straight world’s derision,” Spector consistently proved his musical and production abilities to a skeptical industry, being dubbed “the bona-fide Genius of Teen” by Tom Wolfe.

      Ribowsky’s biography travels the standard route of celebrity bios, digging up some information on Spector’s roots, throwing in some pseudo-psychological speculation on the ways in which family events may have affected his personality, and then focusing primarily on the celebrities with whom Spector interacted. Actually, this is a name-dropping book in which names deserve to be dropped, since Spector was involved with so many top rock artists at one time or another. Then, in five chapters newly added for this reissue, Ribowsky considers what happened in 2003, starting by noting that by the 1990s, Spector’s “legend…was complete. The Phil Spector model of dark, demented, isolated, creepy-cool had crusted into a virtual background soundtrack for a legion of artistes, auteurs, authors, and music industry social climbers.” Spector himself seems to have degenerated into self-parody, or maybe just moved farther in a direction he was already going – “creepy” barely begins to describe some of the behavior Ribowsky discusses. Whatever happens to Spector in the legal system, it seems that his own system of cushioning weird behavior with musical success failed him some time ago. It’s been said often (indeed, too often) that the line between genius and madness is very thin. If Spector was, in his field, a genius – and Ribowsky considers him one – then he crossed and re-crossed that line many times. Maybe one time too many.


Wagner: Siegfried. Jon Fredric West (Siegfried), Heinz Göhrig (Mime), Wolfgang Schöne (The Wanderer), Björn Waag (Alberich), Attila Jun (Fafner), Gabriela Herrera (Forest Bird), Helene Ranada (Erda), Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde). Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $35.99 (4 CDs).

      Siegfried is the least frequently performed of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle. This excellent new version led by Lothar Zagrosek makes it clear why that is so – and why it shouldn’t be.

      There is no question that Siegfried, dramatically speaking, is lacking. There are only eight characters, and only one – Siegfried himself – is human by birth. Most of the opera consists of conversations, some of them reminiscences (to explain what has gone before in the cycle), some of them anticipations (the most notable being Mime’s plans to destroy Siegfried, Siegfried’s ability to hear what Mime is thinking, and Siegfried’s striking down of Mime after hearing those thoughts). There are individual moments of high drama, as when the spear of The Wanderer (Wotan) is broken by Siegfried’s re-forged sword, Nothung – whose re-forging itself is a high point of the work. But there are far more situations in which characters talk (and talk and talk) at each other, as when Mime and The Wanderer ask each other three questions (giving the audience important background information, but offering nothing very interesting dramatically). Furthermore, Siegfried himself is rather bland – famed classical-music parodist Anna Russell described him as “very strong, very brave, very stupid” – especially when his character is contrasted with the tremendous human drama of his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde, in Die Walküre, and the world-spanning intensity of the multifaceted duplicity of the characters in Das Rheingold. Both those operas are performed as standalone works far more often than Siegfried is; and the final and longest work of the Ring cycle, Götterdammerung, is also done on its own more often than the third installment.

      Yet this is a highly important opera, and not just as a necessary placeholder between the destruction of the Volsungs and disobedience of Brünnhilde in the second work, and the downfall of the gods in the fourth. Jon Fredric West’s strong tenor voice makes Siegfried more sympathetic than he sometimes is – a naïf, yes, but one with a sense of unfulfilled destiny that is tearing at his innards. Tenor Heinz Göhrig is as sly and unctuous as can be in the role of Mime, while bass Björn Waag makes a suitably evil mastermind as Alberich, whose brief appearance here foreshadows what will happen in the fourth opera. Wolfgang Schöne has a somewhat thankless role as The Wanderer – this is a very difficult part to handle, being neither sympathetic nor particularly noble. But Schöne’s voice, a strong bass, makes a good contrast with that of fellow bass Waag in the Wanderer-Alberich confrontation; and Schöne effectively communicates the role of a god whose power is waning. Fafner’s power is doomed as well, of course, and yet another bass voice (this is a very deep opera, vocally speaking) puts that across quite well: that of Attila Jun, who also did a fine job as Hunding in the Stuttgart company’s Die Walküre (Jun has a good sense of the vulnerability of villainy).

      The darkness of Siegfried is partly explained by the minimal use of female characters. Soprano Gabriela Herrera makes a fine, light-toned Forest Bird, albeit one with less-than-perfect enunciation; and contralto Helene Ranada as Erda is appropriately fed up with The Wanderer in their brief confrontation scene. But they are forces of nature, not people. It is soprano Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde – appearing only in the final half hour of this four-hour opera – who is the most crucial to the plot and whose vocal lines, intermingling with Siegfried’s, are the most welcome (as well as the most portentous). Gasteen manages, in her relatively brief part, to run through a greater tangle of emotions than Siegfried encounters in the entire opera. Just as she is turned into a human by Wotan’s decree, and comes in this opera to accept her fate, so her emotional intensity makes Siegfried seem fully human for the first time – just when it is almost too late for both of them.

      Siegfried is in some ways an opera that is more effective in recorded form than on stage. It is notoriously difficult to produce it as Wagner originally intended, and attempted updates border on the ludicrous (the booklet cover for this CD set, taken from the Stuttgart Opera production, shows a modern-dress Siegfried and Brünnhilde in what appears to be a very large, very white suburban kitchen). The soloists and Stuttgart chorus and orchestra make a very strong case for the underlying musical drama and intensity of Siegfried – a stronger case, perhaps, than was made on stage when this top-notch performance was recorded live, with an audience that is not always as quiet as it ought to be, in October 2002 and January 2003.

February 15, 2007


Bone, Book Five: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #5: Can Adults Become Human? By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

      You get the feeling that many series authors simply coast from one book to the next. But not all do. Some make a strong effort to produce book after book of the same quality as their first – and even to open new vistas to readers to keep them coming back, volume after volume.

      Jeff Smith’s nine-volume Bone series is a prime example of outstanding consistency – one of the many ways in which this tale of three cousins cast into a land not their own, a land on the verge on a devastating war, is remarkable. Originally published as a comic-book sequence, the Bone tales are in the midst of receiving outstanding presentation, including top-quality production and beautiful reproduction of Steve Hamaker’s coloring, from Scholastic’s Graphix line. In fact, with Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border, the series is right smack in its midst – this is the fifth of the nine books. And it goes in a different direction from all the others, but a direction that is absolutely typical in the sort of epic story that Bone has by this time become. In an epic of fellowship – yes, it is all right to think of Tolkien here – some members of the group inevitably become separated from others and have their own adventures, with everyone eventually reuniting. This fifth book is the first one in which major characters are missing: Gran’ma Ben and Thorn, who have been revealed as the last of the Valley’s old nobility; Phoney Bone, the avaricious and always-scheming cousin whose misdeeds brought the Bones to the Valley in the first place; and Lucius, innkeeper of Barrelhaven and stalwart defender of the old Harvestar royal line. This is also a book in which Smiley Bone’s ever-cheerful ways and rather silly grin take a dramatic turn in a serious direction. And it is one in which numerous new characters emerge – principally the title character (a huge mountain lion of ambiguous loyalties whose name, when correctly spelled, is Roque Ja) and a large group of orphaned baby animals, loosely led by three little possums who have shown up in far less important roles in earlier books. This fifth book is filled with unexpected discoveries, revelations of deep and surprising information, highly unlikely (if temporary) alliances, and sudden bouts of violence and intensity. There is no way to enter the Bone saga with this book – it leans too heavily on what has gone before – but for those who have followed Bone from the start, this fifth volume starts to answer some crucial questions while opening up whole new lines of inquiry and uncertainty. The Bones still have far to go on their increasingly richly detailed journey.

      Aside from its high level of consistency, the Dear Dumb Diary series by Jim Benton has little in common with Bone. Yes, both are told through pictures and narrative together, and yes, both have plenty of humor, but Benton’s books are funny throughout, and make no attempt to be anything but amusing. Like the four previous books, the fifth starts with Jamie Kelly warning people not to read it and promising that “everything in this diary is true, or at least as true as I think it needs to be.” Then Jamie details yet another round of her trials and tribulations at Mackerel Middle School, including her feelings about gorgeous and otherwise perfect Angeline – whom Jamie came reluctantly to respect in Book Four, but of whom she now says, “when she stands next to something, she has a way of making it look less pretty by comparison. Which, when you think about it, is a form of vandalism that sadly, our legal system has no penalty for yet.” A lot of this book, though, is about adults rather than fellow students, with Jamie speculating on their bodily functions, the reasons they lose their fashion sense, the ridiculousness of the diets they go on, what the Mean Office Ladies do when they’re not in the office (“out pricing a new cauldron or something”), and why – to get to the heart of it – “adults are not fully formed human beings.” There is a delightful twist here, in which Jamie is forced to speculate that she and Angeline may end up being related to each other – and that’s the sort of thing that keeps fans of this series coming back for more. Can Adults Become Human? is fun and funny and worth a (+++) rating. There is – consistently – nothing deep in it.


17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore. By Jenny Offill. Pictures by Nancy Carpenter. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Babymouse: Heartbreaker. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

      It’s okay to be bad – as long as you’re only mildly bad, in an endearing way, in a book. Real-world kids should not try any of the things that the narrator of 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore tries, on pain of…well, on pain of not being able to do stuff anymore. The narrator of this book is charmingly mischievous, full of ideas that just happen to be very bad concepts for other people (stapling her little brother’s hair to his pillow, gluing his bunny slippers to the floor) and for herself (walking backwards all the way to school, doing a report on beavers instead of the assigned one on George Washington). The point of this book is that adults just don’t get it – the narrator is clever, with an offbeat approach to life, one of those souls said to march to the beat of a different drum. She just tends to overdo things a bit: after the beaver report, she tells the class that she personally owns a hundred beavers; after trying to walk backwards to school, she decides to try to walk backwards from school as well. The reactions of those around her – her mom, the crossing guard, her brother, even the dog (in whose bowl she washes her hands) – are funny, if predictable. But this little girl isn’t predictable, and that’s what makes Jenny Offill’s story – and the perfectly appropriate illustrations by Nancy Carpenter – so much fun. But it’s not for parents of kids who are a bit too much like the book’s heroine, or for kids more likely to emulate the girl’s antics than to find them funny. After all, no one (except the star of this book) really wants to freeze a fly in an ice cube. Right?

      Babymouse, the amusing creation of the brother-and-sister team of Matthew Holm and Jennifer L. Holm, doesn’t really want to be bad, either. She just has a tendency to daydream, which means she often misses the school bells, which means her teachers end up asking, “You’re saying a frog tricked you into kissing him and he turned into a snake and then a snail and then a spider who was a spider-prince, and that’s why you’re late for class?” Babymouse: Heartbreaker is the fifth book in this series, and the best so far. Yes, there are the usual daydreams – Valentine’s Day is approaching, so Babymouse has all sorts of pseudo-romantic, fairy-tale-like dreams – but this time, the “reality” story is as interesting as what happens in Babymouse’s mind. She tries to negotiate the all-too-real world of a dance that she wants to attend but to which she hasn’t been asked, and she learns that she can do the asking – or even go on her own. Furthermore, Babymouse here develops a genuinely snippy relationship with the book’s unseen narrator, who is something of a character himself (or herself). During one daydream, the narrator asks, “Wait a minute. Didn’t we have a Babymouserella fantasy in the first book?” And Babymouse replies, “Yeah, well, I never even made it to the dance last time!” (That’s true.) Later, Babymouse criticizes the narrator for not understanding why everyone in another daydream is asleep under a curse, and the narrator says, “Sorry. I thought this was ‘Snow White’ by mistake.” When Babymouse practices not calling her non-boyfriend, the narrator asks, “How’s that working for you?” and Babymouse says, “You know, maybe you should practice not calling me, smarty-pants!” The result of all this back-and-forth is a silly story that works its way unexpectedly to a happy ending and a final dig at the narrator: “You know, you really need to get a hobby.” Babymouse can be just as peevish as she wishes if she has further adventures as good as this one.


Help, I’m Knee-Deep in Clutter! By Joyce I. Anderson. AMACOM. $15.

      All get-yourself-organized books share the same primary flaw: they are useless unless someone wants to get organized – no book can create the basic motivation. All these books then share the same secondary flaw: no single system will work for everyone, which means that any particular book’s approach will be useful for some (already motivated) people but not for others (and certainly not for people who are unmotivated to dig themselves out).

      Far too many of these books – including good ones like Joyce Anderson’s – undercut their value by over-promising. The cover of Help, I’m Knee-Deep in Clutter! offers this subtitle: “Conquer the Chaos and Get Organized Once and for All.” And then there is a starburst in the lower right-hand corner that promises a series of “Simple, Painless Routines!”

      Wrong. Like any recovering addict, someone who is perpetually disorganized will not be transformed into a super-neatnik “once and for all” by this book – or any other. And getting organized – if you are a disorganized person – is by no means “simple” or “painless.” In fact, disorganization provides psychological benefits to some people – without which they would indeed clean up their act. Consider one of Scott Adams’ surreal peripheral characters in his Dilbert comic strip: the “Cluttermeleon.” This character keeps a cubicle piled high with a huge mass (and mess) of material at all times. Then, when an unwanted intruder (say, the boss) appears, the Cluttermeleon becomes invisible against the messy background. Adams is no psychologist, but he here hits on a psychological truth of the benefits of clutter to the clutterer – a corollary of which is that only when a disorganized person decides there will be more benefits to eliminating clutter than to keeping it will he or she be ready to tidy everything up.

      Anderson certainly deserves credit for her own attention to detail. An organizational specialist and former public-school librarian, she breaks down the clutter problem into three parts, 23 chapters and no fewer than 121 “steps,” plus an extensive yearly checklist. Readers who do not find the table of contents daunting will have the opportunity either to read the book sequentially or to turn immediately to a chapter focusing on their particular problem area: “basement, attic, and garage,” or “entertainment center,” or “clothes and accessories,” or “bedrooms—kids,” which are wisely separated from a chapter simply called “bedrooms.” Everything in Anderson’s book is a checklist – a single “step” inevitably has many, many substeps. Under “basement,” for instance, the second step is “the fun house in the basement,” which contains five items to check off as you do them – and the fifth item, “set up the lounge area,” contains 15 bullet points of items to include in your setup.

      The constant checklists can become wearing very quickly, as can the perky subheads of the steps. Under “bathrooms and linen closet,” for instance, the third step, “the beauty counter,” has the subheads “makeup station,” “bathroom beautification” and “bathing beauty,” each of which has a separate extensive checklist. Yet there is something attractive in being told, step by step by step, exactly what to do as you organize, so you know at all times just what you have accomplished (but don’t look ahead at all you still have to do – that would be demoralizing). Anderson’s book is best for people with a few specific “problem areas” – its prescriptive minutiae make it tough going if you try to start at the beginning and do everything the author suggests, right through to the end. For people who are most comfortable taking very specific instructions (“clump the lipsticks together and the eye shadows together,” or “repair or throw out old piano and guitar sheet music that is torn or has missing pages”), Help, I’m Knee-Deep in Clutter! may be a fine guide to getting organized at last. But even for such readers, the process will be neither simple nor painless – nor guaranteed to succeed “once and for all.”

(+++) TO BE OR…

Being. By Kevin Brooks. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

      The word “being” has different meanings as a verb form or a noun. As the former it means “existing.” As the latter, it means some sort of creature, as in the phrase “human being.” Kevin Brooks chooses his title well: it partakes of both the word’s meanings.

      Being is, more or less, a who-or-what-am-I story in the mode of such films as The Bourne Identity. The narrator tells another character, “My name’s Robert Smith. I’m sixteen years old. This morning I went into the hospital for an endoscopy. When I woke up, I was lying on my back in a strange room. I was blind and paralyzed. Conscious but unconscious. I was surrounded by men with guns. A man in a white coat cut my gut open and there were inhuman things inside me.” And there is the plot in a nutshell: Who or what is Robert Smith? And what is going on with and around him?

      Brooks, whose novels are always intense (Martyn Pig, Candy, The Road of the Dead and others), keeps the heat turned up high this time. The mystery of what’s inside Robert is solved, at least in part – by Robert himself – fairly early in the story, but then he takes off to learn the why for the rest of the book. “This was the real world. This was reality. This was Essex, England. This wasn’t a story. It wasn’t a fantasy, for God’s sake.” So Robert says, and so he wishes, but his discoveries argue that, at the very least, Essex is a lot stranger than he ever thought it was.

      Like other Brooks characters, Robert is a foster child, abandoned by his mother as an infant – or at least that is what he thinks he remembers. Brooks keeps Robert’s understanding of reality tantalizingly shifting, as he starts to question who everyone is. His quest to comprehend brings him to a woman named Eddi Ray, who turns out to be a petty criminal with some expertise in disguise, fake IDs and the like – very helpful for someone in Robert’s position, since a lot of people are looking for him (ostensibly on a trumped-up murder charge, but in reality, he senses, for something more sinister than mere murder). But because Eddi is a thief, and in fact picked up her set of clients by turning in her former boyfriend, Robert does not dare trust her…except that he must trust her, at least for the time being….

      Brooks does a top-notch job with the developing relationship between Robert and Eddi, and the confusions and eruptions of danger as Robert tries to figure out exactly what is going on and why. Unfortunately – and readers are likely to be quite disappointed when it happens – Brooks eventually begs the question, begs pretty much all the questions, by creating a conclusion that is fraught with his trademark violence but that ultimately resolves nothing at all. The buildup and pacing of the book are so effective that the final non-resolution is all the more disappointing. Fans of Brooks’ writing will be carried along by his usual headlong pace and clearly delineated characters. But in the end, Being proves to be less than it was capable of being.


The Show I’ll Never Forget: 50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Concertgoing Experience. Edited by Sean Manning. Da Capo. $16.95.

      Here’s a fascinating idea that, for most readers, will become tedious long before the end – if they even bother to read through the entire book. Sean Manning delivers exactly what his book’s title promises: 50 writers’ reminiscences of the most memorable concert each has attended. The word “concert” refers specifically to popular music or jazz: not one writer here remembers a classical concert, which is the result of the particular writers selected by Manning and their particular predilections.

      There are actually 49 concerts discussed here – two writers attended one of them together and apparently both found it their most memorable experience – and they are arranged chronologically, from 1955 (Miles Davis) to 2005 (Metric, whose performance gets the two-writer treatment). There is enough overlap of time frame to make it surprising that only one writer chooses each performer (with that single Metric exception). Lynne Tillman picks a 1965 Rolling Stones performance; Rebecca Brown chooses a Beatles concert the same year. David Gates picks James Brown in 1968; Gene Santoro chooses Jimi Hendrix that year. Bruce Bauman picks Television in 1975; Karen Karbo chooses the Sunshine Festival the same year. It’s almost as If Manning went out of his way to choose writers with different tastes – or writers who would agree to pick different favorites.

      This leads to the question: for whom, other than Manning and the writers, is this book intended? The approaches are all over the place. Linda Yablonsky writes movingly of a 1970 Nina Simone concert and of the death of her, Yablonsky’s, father. Tracy Chevalier discusses his Queen fandom in writing about a 1977 performance. Elizabeth Crane offers a kind of coming-of-age story intertwined with a Billy Joel concert in 1978. Holly George-Warren uses a 1989 Van Morrison concert as the springboard for a piece about herself, her partying and her own days playing in bands.

      Almost all the pieces here are at least intermittently attractive. But, again, at whom is the book aimed? Are there putative readers out there who are fans of this particular group of 50 writers, or even of 40 of them, or 25, or 10? Are there people who are equally interested in reading reminiscences of concerts by Led Zeppelin (1973), the Horslips (1980) and Beck (1994)? Manning provides no connective tissue, simply offering an introduction that is his own most memorable concert (R.E.M., 2004). It’s hard to get past the idea that this book is essentially 300 pages of self-indulgence, giving popular-music writers a chance to talk about all the great bands they’ve seen plus a chance to pump themselves up a bit on the coolness scale. The writing ranges from the mediocre to the quite good, and it’s likely that fans of any of the people or groups mentioned will enjoy a chapter here and there. But there’s no cohesion to The Show I’ll Never Forget, and it’s unlikely that many readers will find more than a fraction of the book worth their time.


Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sergey Khachatryan, violin; Orchestre National de France conducted by Kurt Masur. Naïve. $16.99.

Saint-Saëns: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Suite for Cello and Piano. Maria Kliegel, cello; François-Joël Thiollier, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      There are gems to be found in the less-known works of well-known composers – and if many of them turn out to be only semi-precious gems, they still sparkle, all the more so for their relatively infrequent performances.

      None of the pieces on these CDs is heard particularly often. The first Shostakovich Violin Concerto is the most likely to turn up in concert, but its prodigious technical difficulties and the lack of super-virtuoso opportunities for the violin soloist – who must play like the dickens despite the work’s structure more as a symphony than a traditional concerto – have limited its appeal. In fact, Shostakovich himself did not find concertos particularly appealing: among his 150-plus works, there are only six, including two each for violin, cello and piano. The comparative rarity of performances of the violin concertos makes Sergey Khachatryan’s excellent readings all the more welcome. The first concerto’s structure will be familiar to anyone who knows Shostakovich’s typical approach to symphonies: moderately paced first movement, scherzo, slow movement and quick finale. Dating to 1947-8 and written for David Oistrakh, this A minor work ranges from a chamber-music feeling to contemplative sections to a sardonic finale that sounds at times like folk music gone mad. Khachatryan’s playing is exemplary throughout: he follows the work’s changing moods with near-intuitive grace and style, as Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France provide effective backup and support.

      Written 20 years later than the first concerto and also intended for Oistrakh, the second concerto, in C-sharp minor (an unusual key for such a work), is more classically conceived than the earlier work. It is in the traditional three movements, has a spare and sad feeling, and includes some self-quotations, to which Shostakovich became prone in his later works. Khachatryan takes a very different approach to this concerto than to the first one, allowing the music to breathe more deeply and attain a level of melancholy that does not approach the tumultuous sounds of the first concerto. The result is a very effective performance of a work that, although interesting, is not quite at the pinnacle of Shostakovich’s creativity.

      In the case of Saint-Saëns’ concertos, it is the five for piano and the first of the two for cello with which the composer is most closely identified. In general, Saint-Saëns’ chamber music involving strings gets less attention than it deserves (although still more than his works for two pianos and piano four hands). Maria Kliegel and François-Joël Thiollier make a strong case for the two cello sonatas and the early five-movement suite – although the skill of the playing does not disguise the fact that these works, for all their pleasantries, are not among the composer’s most inspired. The first sonata, in C minor, dates to 1872 and actually has little that is pleasant to offer. It was written at a time of personal turmoil for the composer and national trouble for France: Napoleon III and his entire army had been captured by Prussia at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. The sonata is interesting for its focus on the lower tones of both cello and piano. The second sonata, in F major, is much later, written in 1905, and has a four-movement structure that includes a scherzo with variations (an unusual and interesting movement), a highly lyrical slow movement, and a bright and brisk finale. It has been denigrated when compared with the first sonata – much as the second cello concerto has been deemed inferior to the first – but Kliegel and Thiollier make a very strong case for this later work, especially the great beauty of the slow Romanza.

      The cello-piano suite is the earliest piece here, dating to 1862, and is generally light and pleasant. Saint-Saëns includes a touch of a waltz, some hints of Spanish music, a slow movement of moderate intensity, and a fugal finale – nothing in great depth, but everything skillfully constructed. Kliegel and Thiollier give the work its full due: it is by no means great music; but, like the cello sonatas, it is effective when well played and deserves to be heard more often.

February 08, 2007


The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. By David Elkind, Ph.D. Da Capo. $24.

      It is not news that many of today’s middle-class children are over-scheduled, over-regimented, over-directed and right in line with their parents for being over-stressed. The drive to succeed starts early, as parents measure their own success by how well their children do in school – including what preschool they get into – and how many activities they participate in, and how well they can (when they get older) prepare a résumé for college (that’s essentially what an application is nowadays).

      What’s lost in all this rushing about, writes David Elkind, is an essential component of childhood. Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, is no turn-back-the-clock reactionary, urging parents to forgo modern conveniences and have their kids grow up with no more than empty boxes with which to play. But he understands the value of those boxes – and wooden blocks, and many other traditional but now-neglected toys – and wants families to know that what kids need for better social development is not more things but more time to play on their own and interact with their peers.

      Peer interaction in what Elkind calls “kinship play” is one of four types of play that Elkind believes all children should have the chance to experience. Kinship play involves self-initiated games (not playing board games or other prearranged ones) with other kids of similar age and skill level. There is also “mastery play,” which is what every parent encounters with a very young child who bangs on everything he or she can, using every object he or she can grab. Often maddening to parents, this is an essential form of play for helping kids learn differences among objects and the different effects that objects have – a wooden spoon banged on a high chair does not make the same sound as a wooden spoon banged on a metal pot. Stopping this sort of play and trying to “calm down” young children, especially with TV or videos, invites passivity and slows developmental awareness.

      “Innovative play,” writes Elkind, goes a step beyond “mastery play” and involves a child moving beyond what he or she has learned – for instance, mastering the ability to climb up the steps to a slide and then go down, then innovating by climbing the slide itself. And “therapeutic play” is crucial for coping with life’s stresses. A perfect example is peek-a-boo, which young children love – and which teaches them that a parent does not disappear forever simply by going out of sight.

      The key to all four types of play, writes Elkind, is that they are unstructured – or, more precisely, structured by children themselves, not by adults or by creators of TV shows, board games, dolls, etc. Elkind urges parents to reduce TV viewing time and encourage kids to make up their own plays and make-believe dramas; to make playdates with children of similar ages and let the kids decide on their own what to do; to take children to a park or lake, interact with them, and encourage them to explore the natural world. He also recommends not buying too many toys – a few are fine, but overwhelming kids with a huge variety of toys reduces the time they spend with any specific one, thus reducing the creativity of their play. And, not surprisingly, Elkind urges parents not to over-schedule kids: free time is not an unaffordable luxury, he argues, but a basic requirement for healthy development and children’s eventual ability to grow into creative, expressive and imaginative adults. The Power of Play is unlikely to make a big dent in many families’ frantic lives; but to the extent that its well-reasoned arguments make parents stop, think, and perhaps consider rebalancing their children’s hyperactive schedules, it will offer a worthy alternative to the all-too-crazed round of rushing hither and thither that defines so many childhoods today.


The Cat in the Hat Party Edition. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $8.99.

The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats. Introduction and Annotations by Philip Nel. Random House. $30.

      Has it really been 50 years since Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat took the world of dull “early readers” by storm and single-handedly (or single-cattedly) changed the way books for young children are written? On the one hand, the book seems as fresh, offbeat, surrealistic and funny today as if it had been written only yesterday. On the other hand, it feels as if it has always been around, an integral part of American culture (and world culture, too). Theodor Geisel is one of the few authors of whom it can be said, “He changed everything.” And he did – a return to the days of Fun with Dick and Jane and similar books for young readers is utterly unthinkable now.

      The Cat in the Hat Party Edition is the latest reprint of the 1957 Random House original, and comes with a brightly shining hardcover binding. There isn’t much of a “party” about the book except for the title – this edition simply contains a “birthday card” postcard pre-addressed to the Cat and designed to help support literacy in local communities. That is a party piece for parents, not kids. But the book itself remains very much for children…oh, what the heck, and for parents, too, since today’s parents almost certainly knew it when they were kids, and today’s kids seem highly likely to pass it on to future generations. If your well-worn edition of The Cat in the Hat is a little too well-worn, the new edition is a good excuse to buy the book again. You can never have too much of this particular Cat.

      In fact, parents, there’s now a Cat in the Hat just for you: The Annotated Cat, which contains the complete Cat in the Hat and the entire sequel, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back – but which presents the books in a decidedly unchildlike way. This is really a book about where the Cat stands in history, how Dr. Seuss came to write the Cat tales, and how the art in the books fits in with Dr. Seuss’s adult-targeted drawings, from his ads for Flit insecticide to his anti-Hitler cartoons from World War II. Philip Nel has gathered a wealth of information here (some of it previously published in other Random House books about Dr. Seuss and his work). Nel is an associate professor of English at Kansas State University and the author of, among other things, a reader’s guide to the Harry Potter books (nice work if you can get it!). What readers of this book get is a great deal of perspective on the Cat books, such as a well-done discussion comparing the end of the first book (will the kids tell their mother what happened?) with the famous story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” – which Dr. Seuss once said was the best children’s book he had ever read. Nel’s prose tends to be a bit on the academic side, but it’s fun to follow the in and outs of the Cat books as he takes adults through them. One example: “An exclamation point appears only on the title page of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, and not on the cover itself. Discrepancies between Seuss’s covers and title pages are rare but not unheard of.” And Nel gives examples. This is not a book that celebrates the sheer joy of the Seussian cats. It is a book for the adult joy of learning more about these much-loved books than you ever realized was there to learn.


Skybreaker. By Kenneth Oppel. Eos. $6.99.

Sandstorm. By Ted Simmons. Cypress Publications. $13.95.

      Skybreaker is the sequel to Airborn, a fast-paced adventure that takes place in an alternative world in which dirigible-like airships, rather than airplanes, rule the skyways. Airborn introduced cabin boy Matt Cruse and heiress Kate de Vries, and the fascinating and dangerous winged mammals called cloud cats. There was adventure aplenty in Airborn, including pirates, a crash landing and some scientific explorations. Skybreaker has its share of adventure, too, being focused on a ghost airship: the Hyperion, which vanished 40 years before the time of the story, carrying a huge amount of wealth. Pursued by treasure hunters since its disappearance, the Hyperion has never been found, but Matt and Kate – and a mysterious gypsy girl named Nadira who tags along with them – are determined, for reasons of their own, to locate it. Matt is no longer a cabin boy but a student at the Airship Academy. Along with Kate, he boards the Skybreaker, whose new engines can take them 20,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. If that number is reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, it is surely intentional, since Skybreaker uses many of the storytelling techniques that Verne pioneered in the 19th century. There is budding romance between Matt and Kate – interrupted by a kiss between Matt and Nadira that Kate witnesses – and there are strange and deadly animals called aerozonans (squid-like beasts with electric tentacles, reminiscent of Verne’s giant squid) that must be overcome before the Hyperion can be located. Skybreaker is somewhat oddly structured: the opening and closing pages are fast-paced, but much of the middle meanders through subplot after subplot. It is less overtly thrilling than Airborn, even though pirates do reappear here. Considered primarily as a mystery rather than a tale of wonder, Skybreaker is effective, but it will probably appeal mostly to readers of Airborn who want to know what happened next to Matt and Kate.

      If Kenneth Oppel takes readers to an alternative world, Ted Simmons journeys to one that is all too real – although it seems otherworldly enough. Sandstorm is set in Iraq during wartime – not the current war, but the 1990 war that presaged the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was the war in which Iraq invaded Kuwait and the first President Bush sent U.S. troops to repel Saddam Hussein’s forces – but not to depose Hussein or march into Baghdad. Simmons does not tell a geopolitical story, however. He tells a personal one, of 16-year-old Jeff Conners, who is caught in Kuwait when the Iraqis attack. It is only after being in the country for a year and a half that Jeff has a traditional meal at an Arab house, because “Americans in Kuwait usually stick together.” And it is during Jeff’s visit to that house that the invasion begins. Jeff, unable to reach his father, must cast his lot with the Kuwaitis. They seem almost impossibly noble: “We are not martyrs. We want to live to see our country returned to us.” But they are also gutsy, fast-moving and willing to protect Jeff as long as he does not endanger them. Everywhere he goes, Jeff encounters people who help him – even when he makes mistakes that do endanger them. Jeff learns, in a few harrowing days, how to survive and get to his father in Saudi Arabia; for example, he helps figure out where he and a companion can find fresh water in the desert. And Jeff does survive, and grow, and learn a great deal about himself – and somewhat less about the land in which he has his adventure. Sandstorm is fact-based fiction by an author who knows whereof he writes: a technology manager for an oil company, Simmons was in Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded. The descriptive passages of the book ring true, but the characters, including Jeff, are more types than fully formed individuals. Still, this short novel packs a lot of intensity into a mere 130 pages.


SMARTS: Are We Hardwired for Success? By Chuck Martin, Peg Dawson, Ed.D., and Richard Guare, Ph.D. AMACOM. $21.95.

      Here’s the latest 12-step program designed to solve a life crisis – in this case, a work crisis. Or maybe not so much solve a crisis as prevent one. Business strategist and syndicated columnist Chuck Martin joins forces with two doctors from the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders (CLAD) at Seacoast Mental Health Center in New Hampshire (psychologist Peg Dawson and neuropsychologist Richard Guare, who directs CLAD) to assemble a list of 12 executive skills that anyone can use to determine his or her strengths and weaknesses in workplace situations.

      There is nothing new about a by-the-numbers approach, and there is not much new in some of the skill sets the authors identify. The 12 skills are self-restraint, working memory, emotion control, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, defining/achieving goals, flexibility, observation and stress tolerance. The definitions of some skills are self-evident – flexibility, for example, is the ability to revise plans when setbacks occur or new information becomes available. Other definitions are a bit less obvious – planning/prioritization has to do with the ability to develop a way to reach a goal while knowing the key interim steps on the way to that goal.

      What’s really helpful here is Appendix B, a 15-page self-test that lets you determine where your strengths and weaknesses are and – equally important – lets you find out the strengths and weaknesses of people with whom you work (assuming you can get them to take the test, perhaps by persuading Human Resources that it should be made mandatory for productivity-improvement purposes). The reason Appendix B matters so much is that only identification of a person’s executive skills can make it possible to place that person in positions where he or she will do well. For example, it is crucial to have a team that includes members who are good at task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization and time management (among other things). Overloading a team with people skilled in one of these areas but not others is a recipe for failure: having several people who are good at getting things started, but not one who can organize tasks and move them ahead through proper prioritization, guarantees that a project will not succeed.

      Martin, Dawson and Guare deserve credit for showing how their system works in both positive and negative ways. For example, if you are strong in emotion control, that means you stay cool under pressure and are resilient when problems arise; if you are weak in this area, that means you are hypersensitive to criticism and may lose your temper easily. Self-analysis – using that valuable Appendix B – can provide real insights into how you work best and why certain tasks seem consistently to cause you problems.

      The organization-wide applicability of the ideas in SMARTS is less certain than the usefulness of the concepts to individuals. Even if you do manage to use Appendix B throughout a division or in your own department, and even if employees answer all the questions honestly instead of providing the answers that they think will garner them advancement or better assignments, the reality is that hiring is not based on a system like the one in SMARTS, nor are team assignments. It is naïve in the extreme to believe that this particular 12-step program – whatever its theoretical potential – has significant real-world likelihood of changing corporate decision-making for the better.


Notes from the Midnight Driver. By Jordan Sonnenblick. Scholastic. $16.99.

      This is a polarizing book. It’s not intended that way, but it’s one of those books that some readers will take to immediately, while others will quickly find it intolerably sweet and will stop reading long before the end.

      There’s one character in Notes from the Midnight Driver who is dynamic and often laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not the book’s protagonist and narrator, 16-year-old Alex Gregory, and that’s part of the difficulty with Jordan Sonnenblick’s novel. Alex is a typical troubled teen, with girl trouble and family trouble and growing-up trouble. His parents are separated and his father is living with Alex’s former third-grade teacher, of all people, and Alex is simply furious, so one night, having done too much underage drinking, Alex takes his mother’s car to go tell his father off face to face…and promptly crashes, ending up in court, where he is sentenced by Judge Trent to community service.

      The particular form of service involves visits to a senior center, where Alex is supposed to spend time with an irascible and generally difficult resident named Solomon (Sol) Lewis.

      It’s obvious where this is going to go. The Alex-Sol relationship will be super-difficult at the start, then rocky for a time, but after a while a sort of mutual respect will develop, and then Alex will come to regard Sol as a father figure (replacing his own now-absent father), and then Sol will die at the end – but his legacy will live on in what Alex has learned from him. This is, in fact, exactly what happens, yet this detailing of the plot will not spoil the book at all for readers who like this sort of thing – because what matters here is not so much what happens as how it happens. Sol is one of those marvelously crusty characters who steal every scene in which they appear. Fluent in Yiddish, especially Yiddish insults, he baits and bothers Alex constantly, until Alex senses what is good and true in Sol beneath all the bluster, and the two develop a mutual understanding that is literally lifelong (well, as long as Sol’s remaining life, anyway).

      The predictability of the book’s plot is what will turn off some readers; the cloying elements in the relationship of Alex and Sol will turn off others. But the essential humanity of the connections that develop between these two lonely people will be very attractive to some teens, and the way in which Sol and Alex bond (especially after they discover their mutual love of music) will make the book a winning tear-jerker for others. Notes from the Midnight Driver will not please everyone, but those whom it does please will find it very moving indeed.


Orff: Carmina Burana. Marin Alsop conducting soloists, choruses and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Stravinsky: Pastorale; Histoire du Soldat Suite; Three Pieces for Clarinet; Pour Picasso; Pribaoutki; Berceuses du Chat; Renard: Burlesque in One Act; Two Balmont Songs; Three Japanese Lyrics; Scherzo à la Russe; Song of the Volga Boatmen. Robert Craft conducting soloists, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Philharmonia Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      Marin Alsop’s new recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a wonder: the best Carmina Burana by anyone in years, if not decades, and the best recording of anything that Alsop has made to date. The work is a near-perfect fit for Alsop’s style: she is especially attuned to 20th-century music, and she handles episodic works particularly well. Abetted by excellent soloists and several top-notch choral groups, and blessed with what may be the clearest sound yet to come out of Naxos, this Carmina Burana is a joy from start to finish.

      Everything is audible here: the last quiet reverberation of percussion, the contrast between different types of drums, the quietest passages and the loudest. The singers, including soloists and choruses, actually seem to understand the words they are saying and the subjects they are singing about – a significant contrast to the going-through-the-motions approach in so many Carmina Burana performances. The Highcliffe Junior Choir sings clearly and with verve; the Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus has heft as well as clarity; and the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus is simply wonderful, belting out the many full-choral sections of Orff’s work with intensity and enthusiasm. Baritone Markus Eiche, who has the most solo work to do, has a strong, fine voice whose tone he changes according to what he is singing about. Soprano Claire Rutter can be plaintive when called for and operatically effulgent when, in “Dulcissime,” she needs to be. And tenor Tom Randle does a fine turn (so to speak) as the goose roasting on a spit. But it is Alsop’s marvelous direction that keeps everything so well-paced and interesting, as she brings out instrumental as well as verbal highlights of the music while amply contrasting the different individual pieces and entire sections. It is a bravura performance on all levels.

      Nitpick alert: there are a few minor missteps. The “ha, ha” at the end of “Ego sum abbas” sounds thrown away; Eiche sounds menacing rather than seductive in “Circa mea pectora”; and the repeat of “O Fortuna” at the end does not have quite as much intensity as this chorus does at the beginning. But, again, these are minor flaws in a major success. Naxos is to be commended for providing full texts and translations, too – although a printing error in the booklet leaves one page blank (again, a minor matter: listeners will be able to find all the words). Alsop’s Carmina Burana is the one to have if, for some reason, you do not yet own this work. If you already have a version, or several, you will nevertheless want this one as well – it’s that good.

      Robert Craft is always good in his Stravinsky performances, and the latest CD in Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection is no exception. This is a decidedly odd disk, though, with no noticeable rhyme or reason to the program. One would expect Craft to offer a complete recording of Histoire du Soldat, Stravinsky’s tale of a soldier and the Devil, but here we get only the music – no dialogue. Renard is offered complete, however, with words in English (Stravinsky wanted this work performed in the language of its audience). The rest of the pieces here are quite short – for example, Song of the Volga Boatmen runs less than 90 seconds, and Pour Picasso less than 30. The various pieces are scattered throughout the CD, in no way united by date of composition, form of music or much of anything else except that they are by Stravinsky. The result is a grab-bag of a CD with many delightful moments but the overall feeling of being a bit of a mishmash. Vocal and instrumental soloists, and the various orchestras and orchestra members, all perform well under Craft’s highly knowledgeable direction. And his booklet notes are, as always, intelligently written, if at times a touch esoteric. This is a CD that will be most enjoyed by dyed-in-the-wool fans of Stravinsky, Craft or both. Casual listeners may find its lack of apparent organization a trifle off-putting.