April 26, 2007


The Invention of Hugo Cabret. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $22.99.

      This is one of the best books in years for readers ages 8-12 – but to get them to pick it up, you’ll have to deal with the heft factor. At 534 pages, the book looms like a Dostoevsky novel when first seen on the shelf. But it is nothing of the sort – it is not, in fact, a traditional book in any sense. Brian Selznick, an award-winning illustrator of children’s books, has come up with an entirely new way to tell a tremendously engrossing story. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a bit like a traditional novel (but not really), a little like a graphic novel (but not quite), and a smidgen like a picture book (but not to a great extent). It is something new – which is what “novel” means, after all – and it is simply marvelous.

      Here is how Selznick tells the story: page after page consists of wordless drawings that advance the tale in important ways – and are beautiful to look at. Several hundred pages here have no words on them at all. When pages do have words, the words often fill no more than a couple of lines of type, although occasionally there are full pages of text. The text pages are interspersed with additional drawings that illustrate what is going on but do not in themselves advance the story. And the entire book looks something like a film strip, with black borders around all pages and a pacing that reflects the language of film as much as that of traditional narrative.

      This is more than mere cleverness. Film plays an important role – a crucial one, as it turns out – in the story of street urchin Hugo Cabret, who lives within the walls of a train station in France in 1931 and keeps the station’s clocks running on time. An orphan whose uncle (who is supposed to manage those clocks) has mysteriously disappeared, Hugo is in constant fear of being found living on his own and sent to an orphanage, so he keeps very much to himself – except that he is engaged in a great project: rebuilding a strange automaton that his father had once found. To get the parts (and food – Hugo cannot cash his uncle’s paychecks), Hugo steals. In particular, he picks up small mechanical toys from a stand in the station, until one day he is discovered…setting in motion a series of amazing revelations that continue to unfold right through to the last page of text, when readers finally learn (in a wonderful piece of sleight of hand) what the book’s title refers to.

      Automata are important not only within the book but also to its genesis. Parents unsure whether their kids will take to this work ought to have an online look at an automaton now kept at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Selznick provides the URL in his Acknowledgments after the story: www.fi.edu/pieces/knox/automaton. A quick trip to this site ought to be enough, all on its own, to enrapture potential readers and pull them into this book. The story here, for all its Dickensian elements, is ultimately a delightful and uplifting one, and the way it is told is simply amazing – magical in all the right ways. And “magical,” as readers will discover, is just the right adjective to describe The Invention of Hugo Cabret.


Skulduggery Pleasant. By Derek Landy. HarperCollins. $17.99.

      When a nattily dressing, grinning skeleton that throws fireballs is the good guy, you know you’ve stumbled into a really weird novel. Watch that stumbling, though – you might fall all the way under Derek Landy’s spell.

      Landy is an Irish screenwriter of mostly forgettable horror films, but you won’t soon forget Skulduggery Pleasant (although you may forget the spelling of the character’s first name, which is the same as the word “skulduggery” but is mighty tempting to spell with a second “l”). This is Landy’s first book and the start of a trilogy, and it’s a wild ride from start to finish, featuring the ghostly…err, skeletonly sorcerer of the title, who was inconveniently dispatched some time in the past by an enemy whom he has returned to confront, and a 12-year-old girl named Stephanie Edgley who, it turns out, has a few tricks (as well as honest-to-goodness human skin) up her sleeve. Her name’s not that easy to spell, either, although it’s less important than the name she eventually chooses for herself…

      This is mostly a romp: good guys, supremely evil guys whose existence and machinations threaten the very fabric of the universe, and all that. But there’s more to it, mostly in the form of knife-edge humor. The good forces of magic are threatened as much by their own bureaucratic bungling as by evil; sorcerers’ bags of tricks include one that always works but that has unforeseen consequences that continue for even-sorcerers-don’t-know-how-long; a couple of typical indestructible magical objects are key to the adventure, the problem being that they have to be destroyed; and so on. Skulduggery himself is vain to a fault and not nearly as competent as he thinks he is – although still darned good in a fight (well, some fights). He drives around in a Bentley, of all things – the car gets rather spectacularly taken out of action early in the book (to re-emerge later). And it’s hard to tell whether he’s revealing deep mysteries to Stephanie or just kidding. For instance, when he brings Stephanie to a mysterious tailor shop in a rundown neighborhood, Skulduggery tells her, “Surface is nothing,” which turns out to be important. He also tells her about the “very special clientele” this tailor serves, including “an eight-armed octopus man. …There’s a whole colony of octopus people.” Stephanie is taken aback – “Really?” – and Skulduggery says, “Good God, Stephanie, of course not. That would be far too silly.”

      This is not all fun and word games, though. The dangers faced by Stephanie and Skulduggery are pretty intense. A young (apparently young) woman called Tanith Low (surely in homage to author Tanith Lee) is first seen facing down a monstrous troll beneath Westminster Bridge in London – but then finds out, when she later joins in as Skulduggery’s ally, that there are far more dangerous things to fight. One of those, as it happens, is betrayal: a big reason this book works so well is that Landy keeps you guessing about who is on which side. Oh, the main good guys and bad guys are clear enough, but throw in some self-interested types and an out-and-out betrayer or two and you have a real thrill ride. And it is, mind you, but the first of three. This is one trilogy whose first part makes the second and third seem well worth waiting for.


Women Who Dare: Marian Anderson; Margaret Mead; Women for Change; Women Explorers. By Howard S. Kaplan (Anderson); Aimee Hess (Mead); Sara Day (Change); Sharon M. Hannon (Explorers). Pomegranate. $12.95 each.

      The excellent Women Who Dare series from Pomegranate and the Library of Congress continues its explorations of outstanding women and outstanding photos in these four books – although one of these, on Marian Anderson, is unlike the others in most ways except format: all these hardbound works are brief (64 pages apiece) and small in size (about six inches square).

      Each book contains more than 40 photos that do much of the storytelling of some remarkable women of the past. The authors subsume their personal writing styles within a kind of institutional narrative that makes up in clarity what it lacks in fervor. Aimee Hess is from the Library of Congress Publishing Office, while Sara Day and Sharon M. Hannon are freelancers who have previously done Library of Congress work. Howard S. Kaplan is the first man to write a Women Who Dare book and the first author not associated directly with the Library of Congress: he is a poet and the author of a number of books for adults and children. And this is only one difference between his book and the others: in his alone, the majority of photos come not from the Library of Congress itself but from other sources, most notably the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

      Readers may not care about differences among the books, though, since all flow from essentially the same idea – that women, some famous and many others less-known, have made huge and frequently unacknowledged (or at least under-acknowledged) contributions to American and world life and culture.

      Marian Anderson and Margaret Mead are household names nowadays, but the details of their stories are not particularly familiar, and these attractive little books fill in their biographies quite effectively. The photos of Marian Anderson at age one; of her first accompanist, William “Billy” King; and of her vocal instructor, Giuseppe Boghetti, who called her “the world’s greatest singer,” are among the many that help humanize an icon of the music world and a celebrated civil-rights pioneer. And although Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies are themselves studied frequently, her baby photo (she was nicknamed “Punk”); the picture of her mentor, the enormously influential anthropologist Franz Boas; and the photo of Mead on crutches made from canoe poles by the Manus people after she broke an ankle in 1929, show Mead as a vulnerable human being as well as a dogged pursuer of field studies of many groups of people.

      Women for Change and Women Explorers tell the stories of less-famed women whose commitment to change frequently came in group action rather than as individuals. The first book includes missionaries, advocates of equal rights and economic independence, opponents of unsafe working conditions and more. The second focuses more on specific people, telling the stories of such women as Gertrude Bell, who explored the Middle East and is seen in a photo riding between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”); Ida Pfeiffer, who journeyed around the world in 1846-8 and had to dress as a man in China so she could walk about freely; Harriet Adams, considered the foremost woman explorer in the United States in the early 20th century – she was the most prolific woman writer ever for National Geographic; and many more. These books, individually and combined, go a long way toward redressing the male focus of the majority of books on society and those who further and challenge it. And all are at least as fascinating to look at as they are to read.


How to Save Your Tail* (*If You Are a Rat Nabbed by Cats Who Really Like Stories about Magic Spoons, Wolves with Snout-Warts, Big, Hairy Chimney Trolls…and Cookies Too). By Mary Hanson. Illustrations by John Hendrix. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

The Pig of Happiness. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

      One of the cleverest variations on fairy tales in recent years, How to Save Your Tail (even without the asterisk and lengthy subtitle) is tremendous fun from first page to last. Mary Hanson tells the story of a book-loving rat named Bob and the two cats who capture and plan to eat him – Brutus and Muffin. Bob’s problem is that he’s not only a dedicated reader (he is caught when distracted by seeing a new book) but also a darned good baker: he lives in the royal palace and is waiting for his butter cookies to brown nicely when he spots the book and the cats pounce. And that’s the setup for a story that’s part Arabian Nights and part fairy-tale anthology. For Bob temporarily placates Brutus and Muffin with the fresh-baked cookies, then gets them interested in listening to stories of the rat family tree (which is helpfully provided at the start of the book, in one of John Hendrix’ many highly amusing illustrations). It turns out that Bob’s family has participated in stories that sound suspiciously like well-known fairy tales, but with quite a few twists. There’s “Sherman and the Beanstalk,” in which the giant is a rampaging cat whose most valuable possession is a magic spoon that makes it possible to bake truly scrumptious goodies; “The Three Rats,” which involves the “wolves with snout-warts” of the subtitle; “The Chimney Troll,” a delightful reimagining of “Rumpelstiltskin”; and more. The final story may be the most topsy-turvy, inside-out version of “Cinderella” ever – and Bob’s eventual escape is neatly handled, too. How to Save Your Tail is intended for ages 6-10, but adults really ought to take a peek at it. It’s as delicious as Bob’s cookies.

      The Pig of Happiness is less of a book – it’s more of an extended greeting card – and it exists purely for the sake of cuteness, which is enough to get it a (+++) rating. Edward Monkton (pseudonym of British poet Giles Andreae) simply postulates a single pig with a “DISTASTE for the MUMBLING and GRUMBLING that is the Natural Way with pigs,” and who therefore decides to become the Pig of Happiness, a sort of porcine super-emotional-hero who stands for “everything that is LIGHT and BEAUTIFUL and TRUE and WONDERFUL.” This turns out to mean merely that the Pig of Happiness is nice to the other pigs, which eventually leads them to be nice to each other, which eventually results in all the niceness and happiness overflowing to the sheep and even, to some extent, to the chickens. The message is too cutely delivered to be heavy-handed, but it’s still pretty simplistic: be nice all the time and those you are nice to will also become nice and bring niceness to others. It’s a lovely little fairy tale that you can read in about five minutes, then pass along to someone else, who can pass it to someone else, until eventually you’ve spread piggish happiness EVERYWHERE. If you say this will happen when pigs fly – well, we can always hope it’s a bit sooner….


From the Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Living Well with Heart Disease. By Kathy Kastan, L.C.S.W., M.A.Ed. Da Capo. $25.

To Die Well: Your Right to Comfort, Calm, and Choice in the Last Days of Life. By Sidney Wanzer, M.D., and Joseph Glenmullen, M.D. Da Capo. $24.

      Doctors are no longer doctors: they are “health professionals” or “members of your care team.” The objective of medicine is not to treat diseases but to treat people; holistic approaches are encouraged (within insurance-company limitations). And there are no such things as “patients” anymore – there are only patients with descriptors, including “menopausal patient,” “end-of-life patient,” “patient undergoing chemotherapy,” and so on.

      Thus, medical self-help books are no longer general care manuals. Now you find your identity within the patient universe and select books in your niche accordingly. This is by no means a bad thing – the more specifically a book can address your particular concerns, the more useful you will find it – but it can be a bit disconcerting. From the Heart, for example, is not about living with heart disease but about women living, and “Living Well,” as the subtitle has it, with heart disease. The focus is understandable: author Kathy Kastan has been there, in the most personal way possible. She developed debilitating chest pan at age 42, needed emergency heart bypass surgery, discovered after the surgery that she could barely function, and found help through a group called WomenHeart. The organization not only aided her but also, some time later, nominated her as its president, and she is now spreading its message – through From the Heart, among other venues. Kastan’s message is that the heart requires emotional as well as physical recovery from heart disease, and must turn for its emotional needs somewhere other than the traditional medical establishment, which focuses on healing the body. Through her own experience and those of the many other women whom she interviewed for this book, Kastan goes beyond the typical heart-health manual (know your risk factors and the warning signs of heart problems and take steps to avert cardiac trouble or prevent its recurrence) into areas that traditional medical books cover perfunctorily if at all: effective relaxation techniques, health-insurance problems, body-image uncertainty, worries about having sex after a serious cardiac event, and how to allay concerns of family members and friends even as they look for ways to help you. There is no particular reason for Kastan’s ideas to apply only to women, and the book tries to do a few too many things in a single volume (she barely scratches the surface of employment, insurance and Social Security issues). And her final chapter, on how to advocate for change, is more institutional than personal and realistic. As a whole, though, From the Heart will be a useful resource for women who feel alone and emotionally vulnerable because of heart disease.

      As Kastan reminds readers repeatedly, heart disease is not a death sentence. But every patient – every person – confronts death eventually: medicine and one’s own body can, after a time, do no more to prolong life. End-of-life planning is no longer a socially taboo subject, partly because of well-publicized situations in which the process goes horribly wrong (the Terry Schiavo case was one) and partly because good estate planners bring up end-of-life issues as matter-of-factly as they discuss living trusts. The issue of dying as one wishes, however, is a very complicated one, with doctors trained (and, in many cases, both legally and morally obligated) to sustain life, and with patients and their families often reluctant to face end-of-life decisions even if they have been willing, in calmer circumstances, to create directives and instructions about what to do (or not do). To Die Well takes a reasonable and reassuring approach to all the uncertainties of the inevitable end, although its stands will certainly not please everyone. Sidney Wanzer is a leader of the right-to-die movement, and as such is a forceful advocate not only for making death comfortable but also for hastening it under some circumstances. Joseph Glenmullen is a psychiatrist, and his focus is on the emotional turmoil surrounding end-of-life decision-making. Together, they knock down the straw man of “prolonging life at all costs” that used to be the norm in medical practice, suggesting palliative care instead when there is no hope of recovery (although the moment at which hope disappears is not always possible to determine – and for some people, such as the highly religious, may never come). The authors then discuss hastening death in some cases, pointing out that this is not akin to suicide, since it is the disease rather than the patient’s actions that have brought the person to the brink of death and made death inevitable. Some will consider these doctors’ arguments sophistry and argue about the “slippery slope” we supposedly start down, individually and as a society, when we presume to say at what point death is 100% inevitable. In the real world, though, where patients and their families must confront unending, excruciating pain that can be almost as difficult to observe as to endure, readers are likely to find To Die Well a calming aid in what can be the most difficult time of life: its end.


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

      Here’s a real rarity: a Well-Tempered Clavier that you can listen to for the sheer enjoyment of it, not with the feeling of hearing an obligatory-to-listen-to great work or enduring an academic exercise. The Well-Tempered Clavier, in truth, is an academic exercise, but there are occasional performers who manage to make it more than that through skill of playing and, it seems, almost by willing a connection between the music and a modern audience. Wanda Landowska was, famously, one such. Canadian organist and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour is another.

      Most people think little of tuning, or musical temperament, these days. Attending an orchestral concert and hearing the musicians tune up beforehand is about as much exposure as most listeners have. The oboist, who has hopefully shaved his or her double reed to a perfect A of 440 Hz, sounds the tone, the other musicians match it and tune accordingly, and that is pretty much that. In Bach’s time, though, there were competing schools of temperament, some based on precise mathematics and some on the feeling or sound of the music an instrument tuned with them would emit. In some systems, particular keys simply sounded better; under certain systems, specific keys were virtually unusable – they would sound horribly “out of tune.” Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was designed to showcase the advantages of one particular system – well temperament – by demonstrating how fine-sounding preludes and fugues could be written in all major and minor keys on an instrument tuned in this manner. Students could learn these pieces while exploring the advantages of this type of tuning, which is pretty close to the one generally used today.

      The specific instrument for which Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier is not known. The work generally lies well on the harpsichord or clavichord, but some pieces – notably the fugues in A Minor and B-flat Major – seem to require a pedal harpsichord or organ. The solution found for Luc Beauséjour’s recording is an elegant one: his harpsichord was built in 1985 expressly to try to reproduce the sound that Bach was seeking in his works. It even includes the ability to set the tuning A to 392, 415 or 440 Hz.

      The prowess of the harpsichord designers will matter far less to listeners than Beauséjour’s technical abilities, which are considerable. He does more than play the music accurately – he plays it with an understanding of the various sounds of which a harpsichord is capable, and with a keen ear for matching those sounds to the character of particular preludes and fugues. Thus, he accentuates the recitative-like structure of the prelude in E-flat Minor, emphasizes the melodic nature of the one in F-sharp Major, and gives high dignity to the one in B-flat Minor. He follows that one with an equally dignified fugue in the same key, and in fact Beauséjour’s handling of all the fugues is exemplary – he makes the entries of three, four, even five voices crystal clear, fully exploring Bach’s contrapuntal genius while treating each fugue as a separate, self-contained entity rather than merely one in the series of 24.

      Especially at Naxos’ low price, it would be very hard to beat this performance. Hopefully Beauséjour, having mastered the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, will go on to record the later Book II as well.

April 19, 2007


Dragon’s Keep. By Janet Lee Carey. Harcourt. $17.

Princess Pigsty. By Cornelia Funke. Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer. Translated by Chantal Wright. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

      Perfectly coiffed golden hair, an elegant royal demeanor and an ever-present longing for Prince Charming are nowhere to be found in these two books, one for teenagers and one for younger readers; and both books are the better for what they lack.

      Dragon’s Keep is a first-rate adventure about a princess born with a horrible deformity: the ring finger of her left hand – her wedding finger – is a dragon’s claw. She is born at a time when dragons still roam and threaten the land, and she witnesses the grisly depredations of the great winged beasts firsthand. She is also aware of a prophecy involving the giving of a talon, breaking of a sword, and ending of a war; but neither she nor anyone else knows what this soothsaying – which comes from none other than Merlin, although this is not an Arthurian tale – could possibly mean. Rosalind (or Rosie) is princess of Wilde Island in the year 1145, and her way proves a tangled one indeed, as her mother, Queen Gweneth, tries methods both magical and mundane to get rid of the curse of the claw. But magic proves too weak, and the simplicity of the knife endangers Rosie’s life, for the claw, it turns out, is intimately tied to her very being. Just how intimately becomes clear when Rosie confronts one dragon and is carried off by another. She learns the reasons for the dragons’ continuing attacks, for their hatred of humans, and she learns that the race of dragons is dying – and why. And while living at Dragon’s Keep, she soon finds herself with divided loyalty, just as her body is divided. As she learns the dragons’ language and seeks to help their young survive – not always successfully, as in a harrowing chapter about a flood that threatens dragons and humans alike – she finds out more and more about her own origin as well. When Rosie’s deeply buried secret is at last revealed, it makes perfect sense – but Merlin’s prophecy remains unfulfilled and in many ways oblique. It is to Janet Lee Carey’s credit that she eventually weaves a thoroughly satisfactory, even thrilling, end to the story, without quite tying up every loose end. Prophecies, it seems, do not always turn out entirely neatly. But Dragon’s Keep does.

      There’s nothing neat at all about Princess Pigsty, which will delight young readers with its story of Princess Isabella, youngest child of the king and queen, who proclaims that being a princess is “boring, boring, boring” and says that she wants to blow her own nose, make her own sandwiches and, above all, get dirty. Her crown gives her headaches, her dress makes it impossible to climb trees, and “princesses don’t even pick their noses,” Isabella complains to her father. Finally, the king has had enough, and banishes Isabella to the kitchens to do all sorts of messy jobs – which, it turns out, she loves to do. Well, thinks the king, if that didn’t teach her a lesson, perhaps a little time in the pigsty will – and he sends Isabella there. And she does learn a lesson – several, in fact: that pigs like potatoes, and are smart, and that it’s a shame to eat them. The king refuses to let Isabella leave the pigsty if she won’t act like a proper princess, and that’s just fine with her – but not, it turns out, with the king, who misses her and eventually persuades her to come back to the castle and even wear her crown occasionally…and who agrees, in turn, to listen to what she has learned and never again force her to have her hair curled. Written with Cornelia Funke’s usual flair (as aptly translated by Chantal Wright), and endearingly illustrated by Kerstin Meyer, Princess Pigsty is a wonderful reminder that princesses – some princesses, anyway – can be people, too.


I Am a Strange Loop. By Douglas Hofstadter. Basic Books. $26.95.

      Oh my, this is a wonderful book. And oh my, it is a strange one. And oh yes, it is loopy. And it turns on itself and eats its own tail (and tale). And it harks back to Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Gödel, Escher, Bach, written in 1979 and every bit as fresh and astonishing today – yet it explores different regions and different elements of philosophy, and is a much more personal and emotionally involving work than that earlier masterpiece.

      Hofstadter teaches at Indiana University – Cognitive Science; no surprise there – and is partly a philosopher of science, partly a scientific philosopher, partly (maybe mostly) a wide-ranging intellect who sees in mathematics and its rules a systemic structure that can be used to explain, if not always elucidate, many decidedly non-mathematical concepts. Maybe even the soul. The problem – and it is a joyous one to have – is that it is so difficult to write about this book. Only Hofstadter’s own words seem adequate to explain what the book is about, and only all the words will really do, so the book loops back on itself as the best explanation of what it is about, and that is scarcely the strangest loop of all here.

      Gödel, Escher, Bach was self-referential, too, and was actually structured as a complete (closed) circle, the end leading back to the beginning – a form that had certainly been used before (by James Joyce, for example), but a particularly appropriate one in a book about mathematics (and, among other things, circular reasoning). I Am a Strange Loop is less elegantly put together – it meanders a good deal more – but it encompasses even wider subjects. At bottom, it is about selfhood: what it means, how it arises, and how the physical brain relates to the nonphysical concept of “I” (which may be equivalent to the soul or not, but certainly appears integral to it). In searching for the meaning of “I-ness,” Hofstadter delves more deeply into his personal life than he has before, specifically in discussing his younger sister, Molly, who from birth could not speak or understand language; and his wife, Carol, whose consciousness Hofstadter considers to have fused with his own in important ways before as well as after her death from a brain tumor in 1993. These two women, their brains imperfect or damaged in deep-seated ways, provide occasion for many of Hofstadter’s musings on what it means to be an “I.”

      But I Am a Strange Loop is far from a memoir. Hofstadter thinks in outré concepts that have a weird underlying clarity, and there are plenty of them here. Consider, for just one example, the “careenium,” a “metaphor for thinking about the multiple levels of causality in our brains and minds” in the form of a frictionless pool table on which innumerable tiny marbles called “sims” bounce around incessantly – except that they occasionally stick to each other in clusters called “simmballs” (Hofstadter loves to use bad puns – just in case the reader misses out on, in this case, the symbolic nature of this imaginary system). Hofstadter makes his “careenium” increasingly complex – and then turns quite serious in observing how a modern physicist would consider the concept from a reductionist perspective, compared with how most people would see it in everyday macrocosmic terms. And then he formulates the question (actually based on one uttered by someone else in a different context): “Who shoves whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the careenium?” His answer – his suggestion, rather – leads only to further questions, for that is Hofstadter’s way. And the whole “careenium” episode takes up fewer than six pages in a 400-page book – giving some indication of just how deep (and wide, and broad) Hofstadter’s thinking is. This is an intellectually bracing book, filled with big and small concepts, with big and small joys, with echoes and with fascinating photos and drawings and with extremely complex ideas rendered, if not necessarily clear, certainly endlessly fascinating in their convolutions.


Stuff: The Life of a Cool Demented Dude. By Jeremy Strong. HarperTeen. $15.99.

Replay. By Sharon Creech. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

      Sometimes it’s the way a story is presented, more than the story itself, that pushes a book into over-the-top success. Both Stuff and Replay – the former for teens, the latter for preteens – take familiar story lines and make them unfamiliar (and a great deal more entertaining) by presenting them exceptionally cleverly.

      Stuff is a typical broken-home, get-the-girl-of-your-dreams story: Simon, the hero (“Stuff” is his nickname), lives with his dad, whose new girlfriend is becoming irritating by her mere existence – and by moving into Simon’s home with her own daughter; and Simon has decided to break up with his girlfriend, Delfine, to pursue someone else – a gorgeous new student named Sky. Nothing special there, and nothing special in the complications that Jeremy Strong introduces, such as Delfine’s aggressive brother, who may beat Simon up if he initiates a breakup. But what pulls the book several notches above the ordinary is how Simon tells his story. First of all, he uses a lot of stories-within-the-story, all of them amusing: “My Frog Experience,” “My Running Away Story,” “A Short Note about Cuckoos.” Second and more important, Simon is a cartoonist for his school paper, and is about to get in trouble because some characters in his strip are based closely on real people at the school – portrayed less than flatteringly. From these threads emerges a graphic-novel-within-the-regular-novel called “Skysurfer,” with the idealized Sky as heroine and such characters as “La Trifle, a huge, jellified slob of a monster”; secret agents Trash and Grabbitt; Punykid and his father, Gormless; Drooling Dorkoids; and so on. Reflecting, commenting on and advancing the real-world story, “Skysurfer” appears within the narrative periodically, always bringing a breath of very fresh (and very funny) air to a story that certainly has its moments – but needs some comic-strip chaos to make it flat-out hilarious.

      Replay, originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, also has a typical story: Leo feels like a nobody in his large family, so he imagines himself in various attention-getting roles, such as hero or tap dancer. He finally gets a chance to be the center of attention when the school decides to put on a play called “Rumpopo’s Porch,” but things don’t go quite the way Leo expects. Again, this is nothing special – just a tale of learning about yourself and fitting in. Sharon Creech elevates it above the usual, though, by arranging the whole book as a play, starting with a list of characters (“cast list”), presenting dialogue in script format, and actually including “Rumpopo’s Porch” as an appendix – artfully pulling the novel’s world and the real world closer together. The very short chapters – 38 of them in 180 pages – are structured as brief scenes, with such titles as “The Attic,” “Tapping,” “Tryouts,” “Goals,” “Agony” and “Worries.” The playlike structure means everything is in present tense: “All the way home, Leo can’t get that picture out of his mind.” “Leo is struggling through deep snow in dense woods. The bitterly cold winds howl around him, blowing snow into his face, obscuring the path.” Add to this some very humane treatment of some issues of genuine human warmth – notably the family’s reticence about one member who, after a quarrel about her “unacceptable” boyfriend, ran away – and you have a book that rises above its ordinary elements to provide a well-above-ordinary reading experience.


Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. By Justin Marozzi. Da Capo. $18.

Napoleon and the Hundred Days. By Stephen Coote. Da Capo. $15.95.

      The reprinting of these very fine biographies as paperbacks provides an opportunity to appreciate, once again, just how good they are. Tamerlane is the story of a conqueror on the scale of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, who eventually imposed his rule from Syria to India, as far south as the Mediterranean and as far north as Siberia. But his vast empire crumbled within a few decades of his death, and while he became the symbol of newly independent Uzbekistan in 1993, he remains virtually unknown in much of the rest of the world. His name was Temur (or Timur), but a childhood accident left him lame, so he was known as Temur the Lame, which eventually was corrupted to Tamerlane. Scholar-traveler Justin Marozzi uses the standard, though incorrect, name in his book’s title, but calls the conqueror Temur throughout the text, which consists partly of studies of Temur’s life and many campaigns, partly of Marozzi’s own explorations of the remnants of Temur’s empire in Uzbekistan (formerly Samarkand) and elsewhere. The travelogue portions of this book take readers from a brick kern in the roadside Uzbek village of Khoja Ilgar to the splendid Gur Amir mausoleum and the dark, hidden stairway beneath it that leads to the crypt where Temur’s remains – exhumed and examined by a Soviet archeologist in 1941 – actually lie. The scholarly parts of the book range even more widely, both in geography and in time. Much of Marozzi’s analysis is taken from 15th-century Syrian chronicler Ibn Arabshah – with Marozzi spending a good deal of time attempting to debunk Arabshah’s writings, which were fanatically anti-Temur. If Europeans and Americans know this ferocious military genius at all, it is through Christopher Marlowe’s sprawling and intermittently brilliant play, Tamburlaine the Great. Marozzi’s book shows Tamerlane as much more of a real-world figure – although quite as fearsome as Marlowe makes him out to be.

      British biographer Stephen Coote’s Napoleon and the Hundred Days is jam-packed with background even before it starts its main narrative about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and fast march through Europe and to Waterloo. Coote is quite even-handed in showing Napoleon’s genius while analyzing not only how his return from Elba failed but also why. Along the way, Coote offers a series of fascinating views of Napoleon from famous and less-famous contemporaries (one nobleman in England persisted in deeming Napoleon “a bully and a thief”). The gossip of the time is particularly intriguing, such as Josephine’s attacks on Napoleon’s virility after their divorce and before he fathered a child with Marie-Louise. As for the battle of Waterloo itself, Coote wisely keeps his discussion short – many other books have treated this subject at great length – and focuses on the aftermath, including Napoleon’s attempt to flee to the United States. Especially intriguing here is Coote’s assertion that Napoleon was, in a sense, the originator of an economic European Union – designed to defeat the British by concentrating economic power on the Continent. As well-written and fast-paced as a novel, Napoleon and the Hundred Days is a first-class read.


Desperate Households: A “Stone Soup” Collection. By Jan Eliot. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

The Enchanting Rose: A Collection of “Rose Is Rose” Comics. By Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      The American family comes in goodness-knows-how-many forms nowadays, and there are comic strips that celebrate just about all the forms that there are in the real world. Stone Soup, though, tries a little too hard to make its multiply blended and highly complex arrangements warm as well as funny; and Rose Is Rose, which was a wonderful look at a much more traditional family when it was created and drawn by Pat Brady, has deteriorated into a pale, imitative copy of itself in the hands of Don Wimmer.

      Desperate Households is the second Andrews McMeel collection of Stone Soup, and comes a full decade after the first (in the intervening years, there have been four collections published by Four Panel Press). The new book’s title is not promising – the whole “Desperate Housewives” thing is tremendously overdone – but Jan Eliot does create some interesting character comedy in this all-color collection. You do, however, have to work a bit to keep the characters straight. Two sisters live next door to each other. One, Val, is a widow with two daughters: 13-year-old Holly and nine-year-old Alix. The three of them live with Val’s mother – who is also the mother of next-door neighbor Joan, who is divorced and has a four-year-old son, Max, by her first husband. Joan has remarried; her new husband is named Wally. Also living in their house is Wally’s nephew, Andy (whose parents, we learn at the end of this collection, are divorcing). Val is dating a police officer named Phil, with whom she gets back together in this book after they broke up sometime in the past because he was worried about dating a woman with two children. The ins and outs of all these characters – and occasional walk-ons, such as Simon the hairdresser and Andy’s girlfriend, Chelsea – make for a very busy strip. But most of what actually happens is pretty straightforward comic-strip stuff: Holly and Alix call each other names; the adults try to get away for a while without the kids; Holly develops an online advice column and, in another sequence, gets poison ivy; Val loses her job, but is eventually rehired; Alix and Max get muddy; Val’s dog thinks amusing dog thoughts; etc. Individual strips can be quite funny – the best sequence has Alix, who has read Tom Sawyer, “helping” Holly (who has not read it) with a book report. Most of the humor, though, is either strained or fairly straightforward.

      Don Wimmer is straining to keep Rose Is Rose going, but the strain is showing, and that’s a real shame. Readers encountering the strip for the first time in The Enchanting Rose will find it anything but enchanting, probably worth a (++) rating at most. Readers who knew the strip when Pat Brady drew it may rate it higher for old times’ sake. Unfortunately, those times really are old: all Wimmer can do is recycle elements that Brady created, while frequently getting the context wrong. The family here is super-traditional: married parents with one child and a kitten. What Brady did was make the ordinary extraordinary by showing the Gumbo family getting great pleasure out of each other and all the little joys of life: sunsets, fireflies, flowers and so on. Then Brady personified a few offbeat things: down-to-earth Rose has an imaginary alter ego, a sexy biker chick; her son, Pasquale, has a “dreamship” that he climbs into when sleeping, plus an actual guardian angel to watch over him. Unfortunately, Wimmer takes the extraordinary elements and makes them ordinary. Rose’s inner biker shows up too frequently, and in ways that make no sense (while Rose admires a lovely view, for example). Pasquale’s guardian angel turns into a huge and menacing form for entirely trivial reasons – for instance, to cool hot cocoa. And Wimmer has decided to play up some of the strip’s weakest elements, such as Pasquale’s boring, one-dimensional cousin Clem, who hogs everything but otherwise has no personality at all. Rose Is Rose was wonderful when it celebrated ordinary family life in far-from-ordinary ways. Under Don Wimmer, unfortunately, the celebration itself has become ordinary – and barely celebratory.


The Art of the Flute—Mozart: Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K. 448, arranged for two flutes and piano by Elisabeth Weinzierl and Edmund Wächter; Kuhlau: Grand Trio in G Major for two flutes and piano, Op. 119; Françaix: Le Colloque des deux perruches, for flute and alto flute; Saint-Saëns: Tarantelle for flute, clarinet and piano, Op. 6; Poulenc: Sonata for flute and piano. Wolfgang Schulz, flute and alto flute; Matthias Schulz, flute; Peter Schmidl, clarinet; Madoka Inui, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

The Art of the Cello—Hummel: Grand Sonata in A Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 104; Haydn: Trio No. 1, in G Major, for Flute, Cello and Piano; Chopin: Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 65. Franz Bartolomey, cello; Madoka Inui, piano; Monika Guca, flute. Naxos. $8.99.

      In the pantheon of orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic is in the very top tier, and many would name it the greatest orchestra of all. Its astonishingly smooth sound comes in part from the longevity of service of many of its players: it is not unusual for someone to spend two or three decades, or more, with this orchestra. A top-notch Naxos series featuring some of the Vienna Philharmonic’s leading players provides rare insight into how this orchestra performs as superbly as it does.

      The Art of the Flute features Wolfgang Schulz, who has been the orchestra’s principal flautist since 1970, when he was only 24. His son, Matthias, plays with the Vienna Philharmonic, too (as well as with other orchestras). Together they trip through music of varying quality, giving all of it the best possible opportunity to enchant listeners. Mozart’s Sonata K. 448 sounds delightful, if a bit odd, in this arrangement, in which the piano is relegated to a secondary role. Any solemnity of the second movement disappears behind brightness, and the finale percolates prettily as the flautists display superb breath control. In Friedrich Kuhlau’s Grand Trio, the first movement flows very well, with the flutes sometimes in unison and sometimes finishing each other’s phrases, and the piano being an equal contributor to the effects; the second movement aspires to some emotional depth (it is marked “Adagio patetico”), but proves only touching and pleasant; and the finale is full of bounce and light, with Johann Straussian verve to the rondo theme. Pianist Madoka Inui deserves a special mention here for keeping her Bösendorfer – typically a resounding, dominant instrument – well under control.

      Jean Françaix’ “Colloquy of Two Parrots” is an oddity, filled with amazing intertwining that is kept interesting – for a while – by the instruments’ different ranges and their similar but contrasted thematic material. But the sameness of tone, albeit in different ranges, ultimately catches up to the piece, which is a curiosity that seems more enjoyable to play than to hear on CD. In contrast, Saint-Saëns’ early Tarantelle is great fun, filled with bounce and lovely themes, with something of a perpetuum mobile feel to the piano part and a pleasantly lyrical central section. The flute and clarinet parts lie quite well on the instruments. And Poulenc’s Sonata is quite interesting. The first movement is harmonically intriguing, with underlying seriousness, good flow and ample ornamentation; the second movement is thoughtful, with the piano given some prominence; and then the finale sweeps all darkness away in a bright display piece – although it does dip into the minor. The Schulzes, father and son, play with tremendous panache and full understanding of the differing styles of these works, handling all of them virtuosically and with careful attention to the composers’ individual approaches.

      The Art of the Cello features another long-serving first-chair player: Franz Bartolomey, who has been the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist since 1973, when he was 27. The interesting thing about this CD is that two of the three works that Bartolomey chooses to play are far from being showpieces for the cello: the Hummel focuses more on piano and the Haydn more on flute. Hummel’s Grand Sonata opens with a dark-hued, emotional movement that effectively counters the accusation that this composer was inevitably superficial. The second movement, a lovely Romance, features a pop-style tune that in fact is similar to the tune of a Belgian hit song from the 1970s; here Hummel has the piano dominate as the cello winds around it. The piano dominates even more in the finale, placing the cello in so subsidiary a role that Bartolomey plays a more cello-centric version of the movement here, developed by noted 19th-century cellist Friedrich Grützmacher. The overall impression left by this piece is one of shared virtuosity in which the cello takes a back seat to the piano more often than not.

      The Haydn is light and poised music in which the flute usually comes to the fore. The cello rumbles along in the first movement, anchoring the other instruments – but the very full sound of Bartolomey’s 1727 David Tecchler cello makes this part more prominent than it might otherwise be. The second movement opens like a piano sonata, but flute and cello soon join in; delicacy is the main effect here. The finale flows pleasantly but is marred by a series of foot thumps – presumably from the flautist, since they appear only in this piece (and can be heard to a lesser extent in the first and second movements as well). The piano tends to take the lead as this movement progresses gracefully.

      It is in the Chopin sonata – a late work whose first performance Chopin gave (without the first movement) at his final Paris concert, and a work played for him on his deathbed, two days before he breathed his last – that Bartolomey’s cello takes clear command. This seems surprising in music written by one of the major piano virtuosi of the 19th century, but in fact Chopin wrote this work to keep the instruments balanced in partnership (although the extended first movement, nearly as long as the other three put together, does contain some characteristic Chopin piano runs about two-thirds of the way through). This sonata is somber and intense from the start, the first movement somewhat episodic but very emotional. The second movement, a scherzo, is not light but dramatic; its trio has lovely flow in which the cello leads. The slow and surprisingly short third movement is soulful and longing, really exploring the cello’s emotional side. The finale opens with ebullience and charm, after which songfulness dominates. There is even a dancelike section – which, like everything on this CD, is handled by Bartolomey and his chamber-music partners with great style and a hearty helping of the famed Vienna Philharmonic sound.

April 12, 2007


Diego. Concept and illustrations by Jeanette Winter. Text by Jonah Winter, translated into Spanish by Amy Prince. Knopf. $15.99.

The Adventures of Max and Pinky: Best Buds. By Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf. $12.99.

Clancy, The Courageous Cow. By Lachie Hume. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Short books for young children can teach small lessons or big ones – or big ones that only seem small. Diego teaches on many levels, none of them overt. A beautifully illustrated, straightforwardly written book about a young Mexican boy named Diego – with text on each page in both English and Spanish – it tells the story of Diego Rivera, one of the world’s great artists and arguably Mexico’s greatest. There is nothing at all preachy about the story, which begins in Diego’s birth village, where his twin brother died before the age of two and where Diego himself soon fell ill. The book tells of the Indian healer with whom Diego went to live, of his life with her in the mountains, and of his growing fascination with animals and nature. And then, bit by bit, it shows him becoming an artist, until at the end he is painting, all around Mexico, the huge murals for which he became world-famous. Attractive simply as a short, bilingual biography, Diego also carries with it some important life lessons about persevering through hardship, discovering what matters to you, and finding a way to follow your dream.

      All Max and Pinky dream about is having fun together (well, Pinky also dreams about marshmallows). Best Buds is all about the everyday adventures that bald-headed Max and Pinky the pig have, sometimes together and sometimes separately – but especially on Saturday, when they are always together and doing something special. Until one Saturday, that is. On that day, Max can’t find Pinky anywhere, and imagines him lost in the woods or (in the funniest of Maxwell Eaton III’s many funny pictures) carried away by bunnies. Then Max, by looking closely at the rear end of an amusingly drawn polar bear that has somehow wandered into the story, gets an idea of where Pinky may be. Hint: marshmallows are involved. A simple story of friends having fun apart but, even more enjoyably, together, Best Buds offers the youngest readers a pleasant lesson in the ups and downs – mostly ups – of close friendship.

      Clancy, The Courageous Cow has one lesson practically built into its title: it is about courage. Lachie Hume’s first book is on the strange side – for one thing, Clancy is a bull, not a cow, as the story line makes clear – but its heart is very much in the right place. It’s about being different, and having the courage to stand up for yourself if you are. Clancy is a Belted Galloway, but he was born beltless – he is solid black – and so he has never quite fit in. And the Belted Galloways have problems: every year, one them wrestles the champion of the Herefords to decide which herd gets the best grass; and every year, the Herefords win, which means they get the best grass, which means they grow even stronger, which means they win the next year, too. But Clancy, being black and beltless, is hard to see at night, so he sneaks into the Herefords’ field and eats high-quality grass, grows bigger and stronger than any other Belted Galloway, and gets a chance to prove that the belt isn’t what makes the Galloway. And there’s more: he meets a Hereford whose coloration doesn’t fit into her herd, so after Clancy proves his wrestling prowess, there is a we’re-all-in-this-together ending that produces one mighty strange-looking calf. Told very amusingly, and with silly illustrations that often repeal the laws of perspective, Clancy, The Courageous Cow is simply packed with lessons about tolerance and the advantages of being different – but it is written with such a light touch that kids can simply enjoy the story for its own sake. And that’s fine, too.

(++++) FILM BILE

Your Movie Sucks. By Roger Ebert. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

      Roger Ebert writes so well that it is as much fun to read his praise of a film he likes as it is to read him tear apart one he despises. Okay, almost as much fun. When Ebert really lets loose at a piece of cinematic garbage, there’s an extra fillip of joy in reading how this skilled wordsmith comes up with just the right descriptions of all the horrible things perpetrated on the moviegoing public.

      Your Movie Sucks is the second collection of Ebert’s really nasty reviews, and it’s just as good as the first, which was appropriately called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (tell us how you really feel, Roger!). There is actually something sad about all the money wasted on really bad films – and often all the talent wasted, too, although some of the films discussed here don’t include much talent either in front of the camera or behind it. But the sadness stays well below the surface through much of this book, because there is also a certain joy in reading the many ways Ebert can eviscerate a film that he really, really, really hates.

      For instance, Ebert casts his review of A Cinderella Story in the form of a letter to a 14-year-old boy who was quoted in a Wichita newspaper as no longer paying attention to critics: “This is a lame, stupid movie, but Warner Bros. is spending a fortune, Byron, to convince you to see it and recommend it to your mom and [sister] Jasmine. [But] this review is a splendid review because it lets you know you’d hate A Cinderella Story, and I am pretty much 100 percent sure that you would.”

      Of course, Ebert doesn’t need stylistic cleverness when he simply wants to take a bad movie apart: “Pearl Harbor is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours. …The film has been directed without grace, vision, or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialogue, it will not be because you admire them.”

      Your Movie Sucks is arranged alphabetically, so you can quickly see whether one of your own personal favorite stinkers is discussed here. Or you can have fun (more fun than actually seeing these movies, as Ebert had to) by opening the book at random. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: “There is not a character in the movie with a shred of plausibility, not an event that is believable, not a confrontation that is not staged, not a moment that is not false.” The One: “The movie offers brainless high-tech action without interesting dialogue, characters, motivation, or texture. In other words, it’s sure to be popular.” In Blade: Trinity, “Dracula is some kinduva guy. Played by Dominic Purcell, he isn’t your usual vampire in evening dress with overdeveloped canines, but a creature whose DNA seems to have been infected with the virus of Hollywood monster effects. …He doesn’t suck blood; he vacuums it.” Swept Away “is a deserted island movie during which I desperately wished the characters had chosen one movie to take along if they were stranded on a deserted island, and were showing it to us instead of this one.” The Village: “Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It’s because if you knew them you wouldn’t want to go. …To call [the secret that is eventually revealed] an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes.” And on and on Ebert goes, eliciting laughs and gasps and the occasional “ooh” or “aah” when he makes a particularly telling point. Your Movie Sucks is testimony to the tremendous amount of misuse of capital – financial and human – in the film industry, and to the tremendous service provided by Ebert and other critics in wading through all this muck to point everyday moviegoers in the direction of the occasional gems that they might otherwise overlook. As Ebert writes about Snow Day, in a comment that has distressingly wide applicability, “What a thoughtless place is Hollywood, and what talent it must feel free to waste.”


Fire Star. By Chris d’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $15.99.

Odalisque: Book I of The Percheron Saga. By Fiona McIntosh. Eos. $14.95.

      Sometimes a heroic fantasy intended for younger readers can be more enthralling than a well-written one aimed primarily at adults. Fire Star is the third Chris d’Lacey book about of a world of dragons, potent polar bears and Arctic mysteries – and the power of stories. This is the world of The Fire Within and Icefire, and it is a very rich one indeed. Nominally intended for ages 7-10, d’Lacey’s latest book runs a whopping 549 pages, which is quite a bit for most readers in that age range to handle (although the type is on the large side). In this case, though, the book is worth its length, as d’Lacey uses it to return his hero, David Rain, to the Arctic – fresh with a contract for a new book that he is writing. But this is not an Arctic of mundane dangers, as the book’s frightening opening scene makes clear. Yes, there are bears, and there is danger from them; there are men, hunters, and there is danger from them. But there is also something else – a shapeshifter, a not-bear that can look like a bear and that seeks a certain bear talisman with an intensity bordering on fanaticism. As David writes about bears and dragons and the Fire Star of the title, he realizes that his fiction is becoming real, or reflecting the real, and that an old and implacable foe, Gwilanna, is coming back: “My writing is the key,” he realizes. True, but the key to his writing may be Gadzooks, the small and reasonably cooperative dragon. And the relationship between dragons and bears, one of longstanding enmity, may be the key to unraveling what is happening – that, and the Fire Star. Included here are “A Close Encounter of the Dragon Kind” (one chapter title), a vision of birdlike spirits with fire in their mouths, the creation of a “natural healing dragon,” and various other wonders. And there is enough depth to the characters to keep the purely human element of the story interesting, as when David is told: “You tapped into the universal auma of the north… You’re a loose cannon, David…. Discipline and patience are not your strengths.” Eventually – but be disciplined and patient enough to read the book to find out what happens eventually. It’s a more-than-worthwhile literary journey.

      Fiona McIntosh is an old hand at heroic fantasy, and with Odalisque she embarks on a new trilogy, The Percheron Saga. It’s going to be a good one – and also a reasonably standardized one, which is why this is a (+++) book (although McIntosh’s fans will surely rate it higher). McIntosh slices and dices all the traditional fantasy elements here: palace, harem, an outsider whose protection is fatefully withdrawn, defiance, and a role for the gods themselves. The hero, Lazar, captured by slave traders, fights his way to freedom and a high position under the Zar of Percheron, Joreb. But when Joreb dies and his 15-year-old heir, Boaz, takes the title of Zar, the ambition of Boaz’s mother – a former harem slave – comes to the fore and threatens Lazar, and perhaps Percheron itself. Then a new girl, Ana, is brought to the harem, destabilizing things further by captivating both Lazar and Boaz; and then the gods themselves get into the act as they prepare for a battle of their own; and everything becomes intense and complex and very well-written – and very familiar to anyone who has done any heroic-fantasy reading. This is a fine book for a hearty helping of exoticism – but it is a typical helping, with McIntosh effectively mining the many clichés of the genre without making any attempt to rise above them.


Bipolar Kids: Helping Your Child Find Calm in the Mood Storm. By Rosalie Greenberg, M.D. Da Capo. $26.

      If you have a child with bipolar disorder – still sometimes called manic depression – you definitely want Dr. Rosalie Greenberg in your corner. The clinical case histories she discuses show her to be a thoughtful, concerned and adept psychiatrist, not bound by any specific set of rules except to help her young patients. As past president of the Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation, Dr. Greenberg has a strong commitment to understanding this disease and doing a better job of treating children who have it.

      But which children have it? Diagnosis is complicated, since the symptoms are not necessarily the same as in adult bipolar disorder. And how is it best treated? Dr. Greenberg has a psychopharmaceutical orientation – she is concerned more with finding the right drugs to administer than with looking for alternative, non-drug treatments. And yet she writes that “a major part of our job as doctors, therapists, or parents often boils down to ‘professional listening.’ Do a child’s words indicate that he’s more angry than usual? That nothing seems to please him? That things that once made him happy no longer do? …The small change of daily life is what determines one’s repository of psychological wealth – and what gives me significant clues to a child’s state of mind.”

      Everything Dr. Greenberg writes is calm and reasonable, but life with a bipolar child – or one with any serious mental or emotional condition – does not give parents much time for reasonableness in coping with “the small change of daily life.” Dr. Greenberg is, if anything, too reasonable. She explains, for example, the diagnostic possibilities inherent in the way a child throws a temper tantrum. If the child tells her mother such things as, “You’re mean, stupid and very ugly. You never listen to me,” then she feels she is a victim. But if she says such things as “I wish you were dead. I wish a car would run over you and kill you,” she feels her mother is the problem and is directing her rage externally. True and very helpful – if you are a doctor who is present during the tantrum and can see past the emotion and out-of-control hurtfulness to the underlying words. But for the parents of this hypothetical child, or the many real children with bipolar disorder, how in the world can this information be used? It is in this way that Dr. Greenberg falls short – not in caring or in skill, but in real-world connectivity.

      Actually, that is too harsh – Dr. Greenberg certainly does tell parents what real-world solutions and approaches are open to them and their children. And parents fortunate enough to be working with Dr. Greenberg or an equally empathetic therapist will find this book a useful reference work. But most parents, especially ones unsure where to turn, will get less from it. Consider, for example, Dr. Greenberg’s oh-so-reasonable Q&A section about inpatient hospitalization. It starts with a matter-of-fact statement that “if there is an acute emergency, police generally take the youngster to the nearest psychiatric emergency screening center or to the local emergency room.” Contrast the wealth of fears and worries attacking the family at that time with the deliberate blandness of Dr. Greenberg’s prose and you see the disconnection between her writing and what families experience in the situations she describes. The questions and answers themselves often gloss over very serious problems: “With privacy concerns paramount these days, hospitals typically do not allow visits to inpatient units because it might violate patients’ rights to confidentiality.” In real life, that means families must admit a deeply distressed, even potentially suicidal child to a psychiatric hospital without being allowed to see it first – a hugely traumatic decision to which Dr. Greenberg gives short shrift.

      Bipolar Kids is a thoughtful, comprehensive and caring book, and even poetic at times, as when Dr. Greenberg talks about how Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Alone” may “ring eerily true to bipolar kids,” with its tolling lines, “And all I loved—I loved alone.” But parents, the people who will read the book, may wish that more of the author’s considerable skill at dealing with medical and pharmaceutical treatment of bipolar children could be used to help families, as well as children, “find calm in the mood storm.” After all, it is the families that must live with their bipolar children day in and day out.


The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. By Allan M. Brandt. Basic Books. $36.

      Tobacco is bad. Bad, bad, bad. It does bad things to people. Bad things, bad things, bad things. Big Tobacco is bad, bad, bad. It cleverly sells its bad products that do bad things to people. The United States is bad, bad, bad for allowing tobacco to be grown, harvested and sold. The people who grow, harvest and sell it are bad, bad, bad, too, unless they are victims of bad, bad, bad Big Tobacco.

      This is what Allan M. Brandt (rhymes with “rant”) serves up for 600 pages in The Cigarette Century, and it becomes tiresome very quickly. The fact that Brandt is so right about so much and has done such excellent research to back up his points is what gives the book a (+++) rating. But for anyone other than an anti-tobacco advocate looking for specifics to fill out a column or include in a court case, this book plods. And plods and plods and plods – even when Brandt writes of interesting subjects. One of the most intriguing historical elements in the marketing of cigarettes, for example, is the involvement of a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, in helping American Tobacco push its product. Bernays, self-styled as the first “counsel on public relations,” used psychological and pseudopsychological concepts such as the group mind and herd reaction to create events that the mass media of the 1920s would consider to be news and would cover as such. His approach was brilliant, successful far more often than not, and if it proved not to have much staying power as media and the consumer society both grew more sophisticated, it certainly worked in its time. Bernays is due at least grudging respect – some might accord him actual admiration for his techniques, if not for the products they pushed – but Brandt will have none of it: what Bernays did was bad, bad, bad.

      This is one author who never loses his focus. Brandt is the Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, as well as a professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard, and he clearly has tremendous skill in looking backward to find out how we got to where we are today. But he also wears anti-tobacco blinders. The evils of tobacco were trumpeted even when Sir Walter Raleigh first brought it to England – but so were its pleasures; and pleasure-seeking humans, certainly abetted in our own time by profit-seeking corporations, let the pursuit of short-term enjoyment overcome any concerns they might have had for long-term health. It could even be argued that the government was and remains complicit in this: people who die younger require fewer government services in old age, and many state governments are currently depending for their own plans on a regular flow of funds from tobacco settlements – funds that will come from future cigarette sales.

      Brandt has done a fine job of gathering information on what major tobacco firms were doing, versus what they were saying, for much of the past century; but little of what he presents is really new. And he trots forth oft-heard arguments about the tobacco companies’ focus (surreptitious at some times, more overt at others) on getting young people to smoke, especially poor young people in Third World countries. Again, this is correct, but it is scarcely news; and when Brandt trots out the expected photos of very young Third World children smoking, it is hard to avoid questions that Brandt never bothers to ask: Where are the parents? Where is the countervailing adult influence? What really motivates these children to light up for the camera – advertising, movies, the camera’s presence?

      Even seemingly innocent photos are treated less thoughtfully than they could be. There is, for example, a picture of the famous smoke-blowing Camel billboard that was prominent in Times Square in New York City until the mid-1960s. Brandt dutifully notes how often it blew smoke and when it was taken down. But he never asks how much pleasure the sheer audacity of the thing brought to millions upon millions of viewers – without leading them to smoke. There is no absolute link between Big Tobacco’s pushing of its products and the sales of cigarettes – the companies only wish there were! Brandt would be more effective if he turned what is clearly an excellent mind more in the direction of nuance. Yes, nuance – not even the story of tobacco and Big Tobacco is as entirely one-sided as The Cigarette Century would have you believe.


Schoenberg: Herzgewächse, op. 20; Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21; Four Orchestral Songs, op. 22; Chamber Symphony No. 1 (original version), op. 6. Eileen Hulse, soprano, with members of the London Symphony Orchestra (Herzgewächse); Anja Silja, Sprechstimme, with members of the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Pierrot Lunaire); Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano, with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Four Orchestral Songs); Twentieth Century Chamber Ensemble (Chamber Symphony No. 1). Conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Serebrier: Symphony No. 2 (Partita); Fantasia for Strings; Sonata for Violin Solo; Winterreise. José Serebrier conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Gonzalo Acosta, violin (Sonata for Violin Solo). Naxos. $8.99.

      Between these two CDs lies nearly a century of innovation in classical music, from Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906) to Serebrier’s Winterreise (1999). Although the disks are no survey of the 20th century and come nowhere near to encompassing all its trends, countertrends and would-be trends that went nowhere, they are interesting examples of some of the directions in which musicians tried to go, with greater or lesser success, during the past 100 years.

      The latest entry in Naxos’ excellent Robert Craft Collection focuses mostly on vocal music, and it is fascinating to see how Schoenberg developed within three consecutive opus numbers. In Herzgewächse (1911), which translates more or less as “Heart’s Foliage,” the delicacy of instrumental writing is impressive, while the singing is largely Romantic in style – albeit with sudden leaps to the extreme top of coloratura-soprano range. A year later, in Pierrot Lunaire, there is no singing at all – only the famed (and often parodied) Schoenbergian Sprechstimme, which sounds quite dramatically different from traditional classical singing when Pierrot Lunaire is heard immediately after Herzgewächse. Sprechstimme represented a genuine advance by Schoenberg (although it has roots in Wagner), and the composer used it quite effectively in his settings of 21 moon-related poems. The careful, minimalist accompaniment in Pierrot Lunaire reflects the flickering moods. The first set of seven poems is relatively simple. The darker second set is more vocally and instrumentally demanding, with some dramatic effects: “Gallows” is cut off abruptly after just 18 seconds, and while “Beheading” lasts more than two minutes, its second half is all instrumental. The third set is even more intricate than the second, but ends in tranquility. As original as Schoenberg’s vocal and instrumental settings are, they are also reflective of the time in which he wrote – the piano part at the end of “Parody,” for example, sounds like nothing less than a work by Charles Ives.

      Four Orchestral Songs is only one opus number after Pierrot Lunaire, but it came four years later – in 1916, the middle of World War I. In these songs of very dark sentiment there is strong contrast between the long lines of the vocals, which in some ways hark back to Herzgewächse and earlier songs, and the fragmentary nature of the instrumental accompaniment. It is a shame that non-German speakers will never get the full force of this CD: Naxos makes the German texts available online, but without translation – a serious omission where these works are concerned.

      The fascinating Chamber Symphony No. 1 does not quite fit with the other pieces here, but Robert Craft does a superb job with this very difficult work for five strings and 10 winds. The complexities for the players are considerable, but those for listeners are less so, since Schoenberg wrote this piece in 1906, well before delving into full atonality. The symphony sounds somewhat like an extension of Wagner in places, but the instrumental combinations and striking rhythms are Schoenberg characteristics even in this relatively early work, and its overall effect is very impressive.

      José Serebrier’s Symphony No. 2 dates to 52 years later – 1958 – and was the composer’s first commission: he wrote it at age 19. Despite forays into atonality, it represents a different direction in 20th-century music from Schoenberg’s. This is well-structured, strongly rhythmic, often dancelike music with some clear influences of other composers: Copland seems to hover over parts of the first movement, while Mahler’s grotesqueries appear to have influenced the second, whose drum rolls and percussion are impressive. Although the second movement is designated “Funeral March,” it is actually less marchlike than the third, in which atonality is prominent. The final “Fugue” sounds more like Gershwin’s Cuban Overture than a Bach fugue, building to an apparent climax that is followed, after a pause, by a trivial flute-and-percussion tune that leads to the actual conclusion. It’s a witty and well-wrought piece.

      The Fantasia for Strings of 1960 flows well, moving easily from mood to mood, with a section juxtaposing pizzicato and legato playing being particularly effective. The Sonata for Violin Solo is less listenable: it has no real structure, but explores various tempi and bowing techniques more in the mode of a fantasy than that of a sonata. It doesn’t really sustain too well – as sections start, they rapidly devolve – but this piece is worth hearing because it was Serebrier’s very first composition: he wrote it at the age of nine.

      By 1999, as the 20th century wound down, Serebrier had passed his 60th birthday, and his Winterreise shows more maturity and command of orchestral forces than anything else on this CD. This piece is a revision of the composer’s 1991 Violin Concerto, with some very clever and interesting touches – notably the inclusion of quotations from much older winter music by Haydn, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky. Serebrier conducts his own music with the same attentiveness and skill he brings to that of other composers, and in this piece in particular, the effect is as bracing as the wind on a bright, cold winter day. And it is interesting to observe that 20th-century classical music, which developed in part by rejecting older forms, had by century’s end become accepting enough of old styles to allow Serebrier to include direct quotations of much earlier classical pieces in this work – and to make them his own.