October 25, 2007


The Sopratos: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Alternative Zits: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

I’m Ready for My Movie Contract: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Seniors’ Discount: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      As a comic-strip reader, where do you fall on the sweet-to-scurrilous scale? Pick your position and pick your collection – these four books pretty much span the spectrum.

      Pearls Before Swine is as dark, demented, twisted, weird and hysterically funny (if you like this sort of thing) as any comic being created today. Stephan Pastis, who occasionally draws himself as a cigarette-smoking slob (and maybe is a cigarette-smoking slob), is no kinder to his characters than he is to himself. The title of The Sopratos is, of course, a takeoff on TV’s immensely popular The Sopranos, and the cover is a delightfully doom-laden parody of the show, portraying some of Pastis’ major characters dressed as goodfellas, standing in or near a rowboat perched on the edge of a swamp, with various characters that Pastis has killed off over the years in the foreground. Longtime Pearls fans will have a great time naming all the whacked victims, from Hobart the miniature train engineer…to the pancake with a desire for friends around the world (which Pig naively sent to the International House of Pancakes, with predictably disastrous results)…to Mrs. Bootyworth, the promiscuous syrup bottle…well, you get the idea. Or part of the idea. The strips collected here include some of Pastis’ worst puns (“Pelvis has left the building”), some of his strangest concepts (Pig’s toys, the effeminate Viking warriors), and the out-and-out funniest parody he has ever done of any other comic strip: a sequence in which Rat becomes the babysitter for the Baby Blues kids – who drive a car to get beer for Rat and, among other things, blow up a gas station and run over Jeremy Duncan, the central teenage character in Zits. This is dark and thoroughly weird humor that will have you laughing out loud – if Pastis’ twisted sense of what’s funny matches yours.

      If you don’t understand what Pastis is parodying in his babysitting sequence, do yourself a favor and get Alternative Zits, which collects all the cartoons previously published in Are We Out of the Driveway Yet? and Rude, Crude, and Tattooed. You may want to do yourself the favor anyway – even if you already have the earlier collections – because Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s always-excellent strip about being a teenager and parenting a teenager is even better than usual here (and that’s saying something). The color Sunday strips really showcase the intricacies of Borgman’s superlative drawing style, and the writing by Scott – who also writes Baby Blues – is so punchy that it can practically knock you out. Take the two-long-panel Sunday offering contrasting “When Guys Hang Out” with “When Girls Hang Out.” The first panel shows guys doing not much of anything except playing and watching video games while saying, “Dude.” The second panel has five girls grooming each other – every one attending to the next one over – while talking so much that their speech balloons merge into an almost indecipherable blob. Another Sunday strip shows “Backpack Geology” – levels of compaction in Jeremy’s vastly overpacked book-and-everything-else carrier. Throw in sequences of Jeremy fantasizing about his 42-year-old guidance counselor, his mom spraying sheepdog scent in the house to cover the smell of wet teenagers, his father discovering that Jeremy’s “oldies are too new for me to have heard of them,” and many more deliciously trenchant observations of everyday life, and you have a winner all around.

      That’s “winner,” not “whiner.” If you’d rather have a whiner, check out Bucky Katt in I’m Ready for My Movie Contract, Darby Conley’s latest Get Fuzzy collection. This strip has really hit its stride, and the interactions among Bucky, Satchel Pooch and Rob Wilco are funnier than ever. Rob is still the weakest character: a perpetually dateless advertising man, he is drawn with stick-thin legs and a great deal of unpleasantly prominent body hair. He also seems to be dumber than either Bucky or the frequently dimwitted Satchel. In this collection, though, Rob’s many lacks become the basis for some excellent sequences. For example, Bucky decides to make statues of himself, so he takes Rob’s valuable Star Wars and Lord of the Rings statues (which Rob is not smart enough to keep out of Bucky’s reach) and turns them into Bucky representations – which then fall into the hands of the ferret in a nearby apartment, who uses them as voodoo dolls. Satchel, trying to help, finds Darth Vader’s head and attaches it to the only doll body he can locate in the dumpster – a Barbie. Thus is born “Malibu Vader.” Add Bucky’s obsessions with destroying beavers and eating monkeys, Satchel’s need for “doga” (dog yoga) to relieve the stress of living with Bucky, some amusing “Rejected Get Fuzzy Storylines” and post-Get Fuzzy “career opportunities” for Bucky and Satchel, and the result is – well, it’s a home in which you wouldn’t want to live.

      You probably would want to live in the Patterson home, though, since this central location in Lynn Johnston’s long-running For Better or For Worse is constantly filled with love, laughter and hints about handling real-world issues. Johnston’s skill lies in telling real-life stories in four-panel snippets that end with just enough of a punch so they work as daily strips. Her characters have no superpowers; her animals behave like animals; the worries in the strip are ones any reader might have. Johnston is perfectly capable of doing something outlandish from time to time: when teenage April, exultant at staying home alone one night, watches a super-scary horror movie, she cannot sleep even though she keeps reassuring herself that “there’s no such thing as demonic flesh-eating roach people.” Then the dogs need to go out, and after they do, guess what April sees – or thinks she sees – under the bed? There are many interconnected stories in Johnston’s strip, and because they are ongoing, collections (including this one) tend to end right in the middle of things. But the stories themselves are warm and human enough to satisfy anyone who wants a touch of sweetness in the comics: Elly decides to sell her bookstore and retire (and gets busier than ever); Mike and Deanna face the realities of being the parents of two children; Elizabeth finds herself torn both professionally and romantically; and Grandpa Jim suffers a stroke. Sensitive and loving, all For Better or For Worse strips encapsulate everyday life as some people live it – and others would like to.


The Arrival. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

The Nightmare Factory. Based on stories by Thomas Ligotti. Fox Atomic/HarperCollins. $17.99.

      When practitioners of a form start attempting stories that push the form’s boundaries, you know a certain level of maturity has been attained both by those working in the form and by the approach itself. The Arrival pushes the graphic novel farther than it has ever gone, and succeeds astonishingly well – without a single word. Shaun Tan’s gorgeous sepia-toned, oversize hardcover book is nothing less than an encapsulation of the immigrant experience – accomplished by making readers feel as confused and uncertain as immigrants to any land must feel upon arrival and while they learn their new nation’s customs. Just as words are absent from the book, it is difficult to find ones to describe it adequately. The inside front and back covers are filled with faces – 60 in all – that could be the visages of anyone, anywhere. The first page of the book looks like a passport page written in an indecipherable language. And then the story starts, as a man regretfully leaves his home city (over which there is the shadow of a huge dragon; but there is no dragon) and begins a trip on foot, by train and by steamship. The pages are marvelously varied: one two-page spread shows nothing but an enormous cloud and the ship sailing far below it, looking like a toy boat; another two-page spread is broken down into 24 separate panels, each telling a tiny part of the story. The nameless traveler eventually arrives in a city where everything is strange, from the bizarrely shaped buildings to the enormous statue of a standing birdlike figure with angel wings, holding an egg in its arms (yes, arms), to items that seem to be gigantic decorated dinner plates standing on edge. Bit by bit, by drawing pictures and enlisting the help of strangers (while dodging bits of light that seem to be dangerous, unless they’re not), the man finds a place to live (filled mostly with strangely curved pipes) and is “adopted” by an animal that looks like a small-dog-sized long-tailed whale crossed with a mouse and having a lizard’s tongue. The man searches for work, standing in front of tepees whose entrances are two-thirds of the way to the top, while ocean liners sail through the air and under arched bridges in the background. The strangeness goes on and on, unceasingly, but eventually the man does learn how to do menial labor and how to get food (such as a snakelike object with a gourd for a “head”). He encounters people who tell him their own stories, always without words, such as the ex-soldier who fought against robe-wearing giants wielding enormous vacuum cleaners and flashing death rays from their eyes. Strangeness is everywhere, with everyone, but the essential underlying humanity of people comes through again and again, until at long last the man brings his family to him and starts teaching them about their odd new home – so they in turn can help others. The Arrival goes on a touch too long and becomes a tad repetitious (in stories, not art), but it is a magnificent achievement, and one of the best graphic novels yet created by anyone.

      The Nightmare Factory, although also very fine, is not at this level – partly because Thomas Ligotti’s words let the reader envision even greater horrors than the illustrators of his tales can draw. Ligotti writes effective horror fiction – just how effective is made clear by the introductions he provides to each of the four tales in this graphic novel. Unfortunately, the writers, or adapters, of Ligotti’s stories are not at his level. Stuart Moore distills “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “Dream of a Mannikin” rather effectively; Joe Harris is somewhat less adept in “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum” and “Teatro Grottesco.” The artists of the four stories – Colleen Doran, Ben Templesmith, Ted McKeever and Michael Gaydos, respectively – have widely varying styles; the combination makes the book very visually attractive. Doran has a noir approach, Templesmith a shaded one in which everything seems to be seen through mist, McKeever an angular one in which all faces and bodies are elongated, and Gaydos one that combines realism with touches of strangeness in colors and settings. But Ligotti excels at psychological horror, and the exact depiction in this book of the terrible things that happen to his protagonists renders the psychological elements less frightening – and robs the stories of coherence that they may only attain at the level of a terror dream. The Nightmare Factory deserves a strong (+++) rating for its many individually effective scenes from Ligotti’s stories; but in the end, it limits those tales by requiring readers to see them in only one way – the way of the adapter and artist – rather than in the many ways in which they can be visualized by someone who reads the originals.


Now and Forever. By Ray Bradbury. William Morrow. $24.95.

Wicked Dead #1: Lurker. By Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Nightmare Academy. By Dean Lorey. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      The closer Halloween comes, the more reason there seems to be to contemplate the fearfulness, the frightfulness, and perhaps the gentleness of ghosts. Where does “gentleness” fit in? In the works of Ray Bradbury, for example. Bradbury, who thinks in poetry but writes prose, finds a core of quiet almost everywhere – certainly in the two novellas that together make up Now and Forever. Bradbury is a curious writer stylistically: universally acknowledged for his skill in both fantasy and science fiction, he persists in blurring the distinction between the two. In this book, Somewhere a Band Is Playing is the avowed fantasy, about a mysterious town that few can find, whose inhabitants may be ghosts or something even stranger – but the story has a fascinating if downplayed set of science-fiction underpinnings. The other tale, Leviathan ’99, has all the trappings of science fiction: spaceships, comets, the infinite reaches of the universe and all that. But it is, at heart and in language, entirely a fantasy – a recasting of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into a future age. Melville’s Captain Ahab is metaphorically blind; Bradbury’s is literally blind, his sight lost to an enigmatic comet called Leviathan (= whale), which he now pursues aboard the ship Cetus 7 (whales are cetaceans). Despite the SF elements – a spiderlike, telepathic being named Quell instead of Melville’s Queequeg, a robot imprinted with the personality of a long-dead preacher – this is essentially Bradbury’s rumination on Melville, with characters talking so poetically that an occasional paragraph slips through that is written in rhyme but formatted as prose. For example, when the mad captain speaks to ghosts he thinks he sees, he says, “You are remembered, though I knew you not. Your ancient plight inspires, your nightmare’s not forgot. I keep it here kindled with my own; your ghost of outrage I give flesh and bone; your spirit war moves my arm to smite; you speak my noon and instruct my night.” An interesting homage, Leviathan ’99 is a less effective and less affecting story than Somewhere a Band Is Playing, in which a journalist named James Cardiff, vaguely dissatisfied with his life, decides to visit a small Arizona town called Summerton before a coming highway destroys it. There he finds peace, contentment, love and, perhaps, a future – likely a long, long future. Despite one discordant note – the sudden appearance and almost-as-sudden removal of a far more cynical journalist – the story dwells in beauty and mystery, flowing with the nostalgia that is one of Bradbury’s trademarks: “Inside the dim hall, Cardiff felt as if he had moved into a summer-cool milk shed that smelled of large canisters of cream hidden away from the sun, and iceboxes dripping their secret liquors, and bread laid out fresh on kitchen tables, and pies cooling on windowsills.” Bradbury’s work is itself a refuge of this sort, filled with beautiful writing that transcends any genre into which people try to pigeonhole it.

      Lesser books with a more distinct focus on fear, Lurker and Nightmare Academy both get (+++) ratings. They are well put together for their target age groups (12-and-up and 10-and-up, respectively), but neither is particularly thoughtful or thought-provoking. Lurker is the first in a series called Wicked Dead, in which four ghost girls tell stories to the rats in the walls of the deserted orphanage they haunt. This Grand Guignol setting leads in Lurker to a fairly straightforward teen terror book: 17-year-old Mandy is horrified after a classmate is murdered, and soon starts having nightmares about a killer known as the Witchman. Despite some updated touches, such as cell phones, E-mail and instant messages, this is essentially the old “when will the killer appear?” plot. His eventual appearance, which is supposed to be a major plot twist, isn’t. Perhaps the second book in this series, Torn, will be inventive as well as shuddery.

      Nightmare Academy is lighter fare, as befits a book for a younger audience, but it too is essentially a variation on a tried-and-true plot – in this case, the loner-finds-a-place-to-fit-in story. The loner here is Charlie Benjamin, and like many such fictional protagonists, he has a compensating power for his loneliness – one that he can’t control and doesn’t want. His dreams – specifically his nightmares – are so strong that they open Netherworld portals and let monsters through. Luckily, it turns out that Charlie is not really alone – there are other loners, and there’s a place for them: the Nightmare Academy of the book’s title, where they are trained to use their abilities to fight the Netherworld monsters. But it turns out that Charlie is really special: so powerful that his Academy entrance exam, designed to determine the extent of his power, creates an opening right into the Netherworld, where the usual assortment of bad beasties is plotting the usual takeover and destruction of Earth. Younger readers will enjoy meeting the Banisher, the Ectobogs, and the huge and evil creature called Barakkas. There are some genuinely amusing scenes, such as one in which Gremlins are distracted by throwing a cell phone at them – they swarm over it to try to get at the electricity captured inside. Dean Lorey does such funny scenes more effectively than scary ones, and the whole idea that Charlie must save not only the world but also his family – a typical element of books of this sort – isn’t particularly suspenseful. Still, Nightmare Academy is a great deal more enjoyable than, say, nightmares.


Hiss Me Deadly: A Chet Gecko Mystery. By Bruce Hale. Harcourt. $15.

Cover-Up: Mystery at the Super Bowl. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.99.

      No. 13. It has to be something dark, doom-laden and special. Or maybe light, ridiculous and special. Yup, that’s it. Hiss Me Deadly, the 13th tale “From the Tattered Casebook of Chet Gecko, Private Eye,” is as strange, convoluted, pun-filled and hysterically funny as anything Hale has written to date about the bright green elementary-school sleuth and his faithful avian companion, Natalie Attired the mockingbird. Hiss Me Deadly is also the first Chet Gecko title whose reference to an old movie may not be immediately obvious to adults (at whom Hale definitely directs some of his more outrageous instances of wordplay). For instance, the referents of The Big Nap and The Hamster of the Baskervilles, two earlier titles, are obvious. Not this one: Hale is referring to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly, a film in which Mickey Spillane’s character Mike Hammer is portrayed as a sadist and the mystery he solves turns out to be an Atomic Age nightmare. There’s nothing that serious here, of course, but boy, does Hale know his noir detective films! And boy, does he love bad puns, such as chapter titles “Bad Hare Day,” “I, Chihuahua,” “Iguana Hold Your Hand,” and “Snakey Breaky Heart.” Hiss Me Deadly turns on Chet’s fear of clowns and his familial affections (he really likes his baby sister, Pinky, after all): “We’d had plenty of crime at Emerson Hicky Elementary—cheating, blackmail, vandalism, kids trying to take over the world. But no crook had made it this personal. No crook had ever picked on my family before.” So Chet has both personal and professional (so to speak) reasons for finding out who is behind a series of thefts, including one involving his sister. Along the way, he encounters such characters as a music teacher named Gustav Mauler, filling in for Zoomin’ Mayta (and not even all adults will get both those classical-music references); Luz Lipps, a flirty flying-squirrel hall monitor; a snake named Balthazar Boa (“Bal Boa,” see?); and many others. Eventually, Chet evades two iguana goons, Nose Ring and Squinchy Eye, and recovers a valuable known as – get ready for a groaner – the Flubberjee Egg (parents are going to have to explain Fabergé eggs to give kids the full flavor of that one). Chet’s a winner – 13 times over.

      Hale’s books are for ages 8-12, while John Feinstein’s Cover-Up is for ages 10 and up – and therefore takes a decidedly more serious tone. It is not intended for all readers, though. Like Feinstein’s previous books, Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery and Vanishing Act: Mystery at the U.S. Open, the new novel is designed as much to give readers some inside looks at major sports events as to interest them in mysteries. Feinstein, a longtime sports reporter and author of numerous sports-related books for adults, is more concerned with the intricacies of competitive games than with fleshing out the personalities of his rather drab detectives, teenage reporters Steve Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson; therefore, Cover-Up gets a (+++) rating. The young protagonists’ case in Cover-Up revolves around a steroid scandal that only Steve and Susan Carol can possibly expose. Okay, that’s not realistic, especially since the presence of steroids in sports is headline news almost every day, and it doesn’t take a medical professional to look at the bulk of football players to suspect chemical enhancement here and there. But that’s the basis of Feinstein’s plot. Steve and Susan Carol find themselves involved with an unscrupulous owner (again, not much news there) who is determined to cover up – until after the game – the fact that his team’s entire offensive line failed the pregame drug tests. Really, the plot is absurd, and is mostly an excuse for Feinstein to pile on effective scenes of the money, power and egos involved in the Super Bowl and the preparations for it. Steve and Susan Carol are 14-year-old stand-ins for the sports-obsessed teens that Feinstein hopes to woo with this tale. It’s a well-told story if you’re interested in lots of football minutiae from a writer who clearly knows his subject inside and out; but it’s a bit flat as a mystery, since “the game’s afoot” here refers more to the Big Game than to any sort of detective work.


Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000. Windows XP/SP2 or Windows Vista. Microsoft. $59.95.

Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000. Windows XP/SP2 or Windows Vista. Microsoft. $99.95.

      Webcams have come of age, and Microsoft, although better known for software than hardware, has had a lot to do with it. The ever-enlarging Microsoft LifeCam series offers a variety of durable, high-quality Webcams that neatly double as versatile still cameras. And as Microsoft tailors its LifeCams to different users’ preferences, it creates standards to which competitors must live up – and gives PC users camera choices for just about every configuration and price range.

      The new Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000, for example, is specifically designed for use with notebook computers, and comes with a handy carrying case so you can take it along wherever you and your computer go. It attaches neatly to the top of an open notebook, where it provides 640 x 480 video resolution and a lens that easily swivels up and down so people can see you well. And it’s not just the video that is clear: in creating a new, stylish design for this camera, Microsoft improved the audio reception of the built-in microphone. Skype and other VOIP users will especially appreciate the clarity of transmission – this is one camera that looks and sounds good, so users look and sound good, too. The Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000 also takes 1.3 megapixel still photos – not top-of-the-line quality nowadays, but better than most cell phones deliver, and in a much smaller package. The biggest question for potential buyers will likely be how closely they want to be tied to Microsoft’s online services. The camera has a wide variety of excellent supplementary features: special video effects, live photo swapping, one-button video calling and more. But all of these work through Windows Live Messenger, for which the camera is optimized. There is also an excellent one-touch blogging feature – but it is designed for Windows Live Spaces. Microsoft is at pains to show that it is moving away from the anticompetitive stances that have landed it in a great deal of legal hot water – the Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000 works very well with AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and other programs. But of course Microsoft would prefer that you use its programs with its equipment. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some potential buyers may find it a turnoff. Incidentally, the camera can only be set up using Internet Explorer 6 or later, although you can return to an alternative browser, such as Firefox, and keep it as your default after the installation is complete. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but some people may find it irritating. There’s nothing irritating about the camera itself, though: it works well, does everything it is supposed to do, and is light to carry and simple to use.

      The many Microsoft tie-ins apply to the more expensive Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 as well, so anyone upset by them with one camera will be equally unhappy with the other. But the VX-7000 packs a lot more punch than even the NX-3000 does, and that’s saying something. This is a camera that can work with any computer, a desktop as well as a laptop. In fact, it can sit on your desktop – the real one, not the virtual one and not the computer called a desktop. It has a base that is neatly designed so you can put it in on the desk and pull it into position when you wish, then simply push it out of the way. And versatility is only part of this camera’s attraction. Its video capture resolution with USB 2.0 is 1.3 megapixels – and it even attains 800 x 600 resolution with USB 1.1. Furthermore, this camera really can take high-quality digital still photos: it has a 2.0 megapixel sensor and a glass-element, wide-angle lens that provides both top-notch video quality and really nice stills. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 can actually take high-definition photos at 7.6 megapixels, interpolated; and it has a 5x digital zoom. Yet it is just about the same size as the Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000, which is not much bigger than a keychain drive. The stills are so good that you might be tempted to take the camera along sometimes just to shoot photos – but you won’t, since it doesn’t detach from its base and is therefore cumbersome to carry. Perhaps a future version will have a detachable base and will therefore function for both Web and take-along use. For now, though, what Microsoft has produced in the Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 is a top-of-the-line Webcam that is just as much fun to use offline (in the vicinity of your computer) as online. It’s as good as any Webcam on the market today – and if you like its close and seamless integration with Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Spaces and other Microsoft Webware, it’s the best Webcam you are likely to find…until, of course, the folks at Microsoft’s hardware division come up with something even better.


Rorem: Piano Concerto No. 2; Cello Concerto. Simon Mulligan, piano; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

Ries: Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 55; Swedish National Airs with Variations; Introduction and Polonaise. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano. Gävle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

      A virtuoso showpiece that never quite caught on and is only now receiving its world premiere recording, Ned Rorem’s Second Piano Concerto was written in 1951 in a style best described as eclectic. It’s quite a piece of work by any standards. The first movement, marked “Somber and Steady,” is neither, starting with broad and dramatic strokes, followed by piano chords reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s, then moving through jazz inflections, a touch of the Gershwin sound and a very long and very difficult cadenza before the end. The second movement, “Quiet and Sad,” again does not quite match its label, being songful and poetic with broad, sweeping string themes reminiscent momentarily of Dvořák and periodically of film music. The third and final movement is marked “Real Fast!” – complete with exclamation point – and is indeed speedy, with lots of brass, percussion, piano runs up and down the scales, and well-designed contrasts in speed and orchestration (such as the use of a solo violin for a brief contemplative moment). Beautifully played by Simon Mulligan, who attacks the work with the intensity it needs, and excellently accompanied by José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the concerto leaves one wondering why it hasn’t ever caught on – and whether it still might.

      Rorem’s Cello Concerto, also here receiving its world premiere recording, is much more recent, written in 2002. It is in seven mostly brief movements. The first, “Curtain Raise,” is essentially a cadenza. The second, “There and Back,” starts and ends with timpani and is notable for a brass fanfare whose rhythm the solo cello then picks up. Next is “Three Queries, One Response,” the longest movement, featuring a broad string theme, a gentle pairing of cello and piano, some unexpected brass yawps, and a quiet cello-and-piano ending. The fourth movement, “Competitive Chaos,” is short and scherzo-like; the fifth, “A Single Tone, A Dozen Implications,” is even shorter, and requires the solo cello to hold a single note throughout while the orchestra exclaims and comments around it. The sixth movement, “Valse Rappelée,” is dissonant, not too dancelike, and is an orchestral version of an earlier Rorem dance for cello. The final movement, “Adrift,” is atmospheric and athematic, eventually simply drifting away. Wen-Sinn Yang plays well, but this is less a cello concerto in a traditional sense than an orchestral work with cello obbligato – and Serebrier and the orchestra do it full justice. Still, the work does not have the visceral appeal of the Second Piano Concerto, and is likely to take some getting used to for many listeners.

      Ferdinand Ries’ Piano Concerto, Op. 55, on the other hand, has immediate and substantial appeal. Its numbering is complicated, since Ries’ concertos were numbered sequentially no matter what solo instrument they featured – so his first concerto for piano is labeled Concerto No. 2 (his very first concerto was for violin). On that basis, this is Ries’ Concerto No. 3, or his second for piano. Numbering specifics are unnecessary to appreciate this finely constructed work, however. The strong and dramatic minor-key opening leads to a striding rhythm that proclaims the large scale of the work. The extended first movement features very good interplay between piano and orchestra. The second movement is short – really only an interlude – and is pleasantly melodic, sounding relaxed and often a bit Mozartean. The finale has a distinctly Mozartean opening theme, too, but the movement quickly becomes more intensely Romantic when the orchestra enters. The elaborate sections of the movement make the rondo theme’s occasional return a surprise. The slower and quieter section just before the coda is a surprise as well, and the intensity of the conclusion is well-handled. Christopher Hinterhuber surmounts the work’s difficulties with apparent ease, ably abetted by Uwe Grodd and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra in a strong performance that makes the general neglect of Ries seem quite unfair.

      The two other pieces on this CD, though, make the neglect a bit more understandable. Both have their moments, but both are superficial and without significant interest; even Hinterhuber’s playing seems less involved than in the concerto. Swedish National Airs with Variations was written about when the concerto was (1812). It too has a dramatic opening – reminiscent of the start of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, completed two years earlier. The variations themselves are elaborate treatments of three simple Swedish folk themes: a cradle song, peasant dance and miller’s dance. The orchestra plays strictly a supporting role in a sort of rhapsodic fantasia that is musically inconsequential but can be an attractive virtuoso showpiece. Introduction and Polonaise is a later work, from 1833, five years before Ries’ death. It has an expansive opening with considerable prominence given to horns, and thereafter meanders between delicacy and power and drifts between major and minor. It is not, by and large, a brilliant display piece except in a few sections. And Hinterhuber’s playing, here and in the Swedish National Airs with Variations, is nothing special: accurate and methodical, but not very exciting. Ries was clearly a gifted but uneven composer, whose better works are definitely worth hearing but whose lesser ones may be more effective in other hands than these.

October 18, 2007


2008 Calendars: Engagement – M.C. Escher; The Addams Family Postcard Planner; Day-to-Day – Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary; Great Lines from Great Movies; Wall – Monet; Healing Mandalas. Pomegranate. $14.99 (Escher); $12.99 (Addams); $11.99 each (Dictionary; Lines); $13.99 each (Monet; Mandalas).

      Few calendars expand your mind, entrance your senses and tickle your funnybone the way the ones from Pomegranate do. These are very well-made, durable calendars, in formats from the typical to the unusual, featuring a quality of illustration and/or intellectual piquancy simply unmatched by other companies’ offerings. Whether you prefer a calendar for the desk, the pocket or purse, or the wall, Pomegranate has something that is interesting and attractive enough to keep you involved all year.

      Among Pomegranate’s desk calendars, one of the most fascinating features the perception-challenging works of M.C. Escher, filled with unlikely metamorphoses, impossible angles, and objects that can be drawn but not created in the real world. The 2008 spiral-bound, open-flat desk calendar includes some very familiar works, such as “Belvedere” (a building that confuses inside and outside and features a man holding an impossible object), and some less-well-known ones, such as “Whirlpools” (colorful fish swimming in circles around and within upper and lower swirls that connect in an “S” shape). This calendar expands your horizons while you plan your days on the attractively ruled pages. A bonus is the small Escher illustrations that show up unexpectedly from time to time, sometimes on pages showing full months and sometimes on a single day.

      The Addams Family Postcard Planner looks like an engagement calendar – spiral-bound to lie flat, with a space for each day, and (as with the Escher calendar) featuring small Charles Addams drawings in addition to full-page ones. But its size is unusual: too small for desk use, too big for many pockets, but just right for a purse or briefcase. In fact, this calendar is only slightly bigger than a postcard – and lo and behold, it contains 26 detachable postcards featuring Addams’ inimitable characters, sometimes in color and sometimes in black and white. The Postcard Planner format is unique to Pomegranate and tends to produce love-it-or-hate-it reactions: it certainly won’t work as a full-year meeting planner (not enough space to write things), but it’s great for jotting down occasional notes, and if you enjoy Addams’ gently creepy drawings and like sending postcards, it’s a must-have.

      Pomegranate makes 366-day, tear-off-a-page-at-a-time calendars, too, and their subjects are delightfully off the beaten track. Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary sounds like a standard word-a-day calendar, but what words these are! Pandiculation! Remontado! Coacervate! Xertz! No, these are not Dr. Seuss creations – they are real English words, albeit seldom-used or obsolete ones. Each page gives you choices of what a word may mean – with the answer on the back. Or how about a language-in-films calendar, Great Lines from Great Movies? There is a quotation on each page – some familiar, many less so – and the idea is to figure out what movie it came from and who said it. “May the force be with you” is easy enough, but “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries” is not. Take as many guesses as you like – the answers are on the backs of the pages, along with information on each movie’s date, stars and plot.

      There is no plot at all to the Monet and Healing Mandalas wall calendars – just beauty. The wall format is a type of calendar that no one does as well as Pomegranate, which seems to have perfected the craft of turning wonderful art into calendar pages so beautifully printed that they are genuine additions to a room or cubicle even if you never use the date portion of each page. Monet includes a dozen masterful works, from the very well-known The Bridge at Argenteuil and The Japanese Footbridge to the truly fascinating Morning Haze, whose dim shapes are worth studying for the entire month during which the picture appears. Healing Mandalas is art of a different sort: Hindu and Buddhist groups use these representations of the universe as tools for meditation – and the Pomegranate calendar actually shows parts of the universe. These mandalas, which creators Bonnie Bell and David Todd call the “Petal Heaven” series, combine California pictorial elements with images from the Hubble Space Telescope, all within the intricate symmetry of traditional mandalas, for the sort of highly unusual visual experience that will remain attractive from the moment you first see it all the way to December 31.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Large Print Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Thorndike Press. $34.95.

The Tin Roof Blowdown—Large Print Edition. By James Lee Burke. Wheeler Publishing/Thomson Gale. $33.95.

      Everyone knows what large-print books are for. They’re to allow elderly readers and others with failing eyesight the chance to enjoy a small selection of moderately popular, moderately interesting works. The books are found in special sections of stores and public libraries, often out of the way of the “regular-print” books of which they are a small subset.

      As happens so often, what “everyone knows” turns out to be wrong. Super-popular books as well as the less successful ones that publishers call “midlist” titles are increasingly available in large print – and the format turns out to have a reach far beyond what has been seen as its traditional purview.

      These two top-notch recent novels are excellent cases in point. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is, of course, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s tremendously popular saga of the young wizard and his mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort. A book of grand sweep and considerably more darkness than the six that came before – although the mood of the series had already been becoming sadder, more adult and more overtly frightening – the seventh book presents all-out war between the forces of good and evil magic, and is highly intriguing in the way it deepens some one-dimensional characters by making them more recognizably human. This is certainly true of Dumbledore, the apparent paragon of virtue right up to his death at the end of the sixth book, who turns out to be deeply flawed and motivated by a level of selfishness not seen before in the series. More interestingly, it is true of Snape, who is in many ways the most fascinating character in the series and in its conclusion, even though his appearances in the final book are limited. The scene portraying the dying Snape’s need to gaze into Harry’s eyes before breathing his last is the closest Rowling has come to writing tragedy. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is flawed: not everything is satisfactorily explained (how does the Sword of Gryffindor end up in the Sorting Hat at a crucial moment?), and not all fates are satisfactorily sorted out (why didn’t someone squash that noisome pseudo-journalist, Rita Skeeter?). But it concludes the series in a highly satisfactory way.

      The Tin Roof Blowdown is part of a series, too. It is James Lee Burke’s 16th Dave Robicheaux novel. The world-weary Vietnam vet with a love-hate relationship with the city of New Orleans is instantly familiar to Burke’s many fans. So is the novel’s structure, in which Robicheaux and his equally angst-ridden friend, Cletus (Clete) Purcel, are caught in the middle of the good and the bad, the powerless and the powerful, and have to sort everything out while solving a variety of crimes. What makes The Tin Roof Blowdown special is its setting: New Orleans after its devastation by Hurricane Katrina. The descriptions of the city’s near-destruction, of the bodies scattered about through the fury of Nature (which Burke nicely contrasts with the fury of human-on-human violence), of the unending devastation through which Robicheaux and Purcel move as they seek in their small way to right some wrongs, are frightening and deeply moving. Indeed, the city and the hurricane are characters at least as strong as any of the mere humans here. Yes, there are flaws in the book, as Burke lets himself get a touch too carried away with the intermingling of real world and fiction. He descends at times into a near-diatribe against the federal government, for example, while giving a pass to New Orleans and Louisiana officials who in fact were just as incompetent and corrupt as the feds. But Burke’s occasional overstepping of the bounds of high-quality fiction writing does not make The Tin Roof Blowdown any less dramatic – and the eventual climax knits together the various plot strands with Burke’s usual skill.

      As different as they are, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Tin Roof Blowdown work remarkably well in these high-quality large-print editions, which include the novels’ complete texts and even the attractive Mary GrandPré illustrations for Rowling’s work. In many ways, the differences between the books are what point the way to the enlarged role that large print can assume and is assuming. Rowling’s books, although written for a young audience, have attracted people of all ages – but why not let young people who have difficulty reading try them in large-print format? Why not use large print for students struggling with English as a second language – so they can see the words more easily and progress more quickly from page to page, obtaining a feeling of accomplishment sooner? Younger readers given a choice between standard-print and large-print books find large print easier to read – which means that less-skilled readers of any age are more likely to make their way through fast-paced, exciting novels like these if they see them in large print rather than potentially more intimidating standard print. Both Rowling and Burke are experts at pacing their books, but both do dwell at times on descriptions and background information – elements that may slow down less-nimble readers. Large print helps by making the pages go by more quickly (interestingly, although these large-print books are longer in page count than the standard-print ones, they do not have significantly more heft). Letter and word-recognition skills for slower learners and non-native English speakers can be improved by the use of larger text, and people of all ages are more likely to enjoy reading lessons (and to comprehend what they are reading better) if they can see the words more clearly and go through the books with greater ease. Large-print books will continue to play an important role for older adults and people with visual difficulties. But as more and more titles become available, having greater appeal to a wider variety of ages, the large-print books have the potential to expand into new and increasingly diverse areas. You might even say their future is being writ large.


Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Diary of a Fly. By Doreen Cronin. Pictures by Harry Bliss. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $15.99.

Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Do Tarantulas Have Teeth? By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Jim Effler. Scholastic. $6.99.

      As wonderful as real-world animals can be, there’s nothing like fictionalized and anthropomorphized critters to attract the attention of children – especially young ones. Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary is a particularly charming multigenerational story of humans and humanlike mice sharing the same house without ever quite interacting – until the very end of the book. The first part is about Mary and her family – and a mouse and hers – living parallel lives, which include going to school in matching dresses and learning many of the same things (drawing, reading, counting and singing) in somewhat different ways (Mary shakes musical rattles; the mouse clashes the tops of acorns together). Mary and the mouse discover each other by accident one night, but they never really become friends: Mary’s parents have warned her about mice carrying diseases and biting, and the mouse’s parents have warned her about sneaky humans and their mousetraps. So girl and mouse merely see each other once in a while – and miss each other when both grow up and move away. And then Mary and the mouse both have daughters (parents: don’t spoil the story by pointing out the impossibility of this happening at the same time, because of differing lifespans!). The pattern repeats itself – until one marvelous night when human and mouse daughters both break through their species’ fears and prejudices at exactly the same time. Beverly Donofrio’s wonderful writing and Barbara McClintock’s charming illustrations make this impossible fairy tale a delight from start to finish.

      Diary of a Fly is fun in a very different way. Doreen Cronin does give her heroine human characteristics, but she merges them with real-world fly facts in a manner that emphasizes the humorous incongruity of the story – which Harry Bliss illustrates to make it even more enjoyable. This is a fly who goes to school, worrying before the first day that she may not fit in because she may be the only one who likes regurgitated food – and is delighted when she finds out that everyone likes regurgitated food. This fly learns the hard way about flypaper, when 87 of her 327 siblings get stuck to it. She gets a science assignment to “observe something creepy,” so she picks a human first-grader – who, she concludes, is “disgusting” but who doesn’t taste too bad. She makes an “All About Me” book that traces her life from egg to maggot to “first day with a head” and beyond. And so on. Cronin neatly works facts into the story – flies beat their wings 200 times per second and fly at an average speed of 4.5 miles per hour – but her main purpose is clearly amusement. Check out the inside front and back covers, which show, among other things, “Great-great grandmother with Babe Ruth” and the fly’s friend, spider, who is “soooooooo good at soccer!”

      For a full book of facts about real-life creatures, including insects, the latest reprint from the excellent Scholastic Question & Answer Series is a particularly interesting place to turn. The reason is that Do Tarantulas Have Teeth? focuses on poisonous creatures – including some with which many kids will be familiar (tarantulas, king cobras) and many that they may learn about for the first time (the blue-ringed octopus, whose poison is more deadly than that of any land animal and which kills more people than any shark; the bulldog ant of Australia, which grows up to a full inch long, attacks in huge numbers and doesn’t let go). Like Melvin & Gilda Berger’s other 48-page books in this series, this one – originally published in 1999 – contains some really fascinating tidbits: honeybees kill as many people in the United States each year as all poisonous snakes put together; in ancient Rome, some prisoners sentenced to death were covered in honey and left near a hive of wasps, which killed them by stinging; the great general Hannibal once won a war by using poisonous snakes – he threw jars of them onto the decks of enemy ships, panicking the sailors so much that they surrendered. The Bergers correctly put dangerous animals in perspective – only one-fifth of all types of snakes are poisonous, and only one-quarter of the poisonous ones can kill people; and humans are not the main target of any poisonous creature in the world. Still, there are plenty of real-world chills in this book, and Jim Effler’s illustrations give kids and parents a clear idea of what to watch for – and watch out for.


The Land of Elyon: Into the Mist. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $11.99.

Annals of the Western Shore III: Powers. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Harcourt. $17.

      It can be hard for an author to let go of an extended story, so readers cannot always be sure when a multi-book series is finished. The Land of Elyon was a trilogy that started exceptionally well but went downhill – and now has a fourth book in the form of a prequel. In the trilogy itself, the first book, The Dark Hills Divide, is a fascinating story of a 12-year-old girl named Alexa Daley, who finds a way to get through the wall that surrounds the town of Bridewell – and who then encounters talking animals, a two-foot-high man and other fascinating creatures, with whom she becomes friendly and goes on adventures. This was Patrick Carman’s debut novel, and it was especially noteworthy for its strength of characterization – a feature that largely fell by the wayside in the second book, Beyond the Valley of Thorns (a quest to free a land from ogres and their evil leader), and the third, The Tenth City (a nonstop action book in which most of the problems are resolved rather too easily). Now comes Into the Mist, a prequel to the trilogy, with different central characters: brothers Thomas and Roland Warvold. Readers of the first three books will immediately recognize the boys’ last name: Alexa was walking with a man named Warvold, builder of the wall around Bridewell, when the man suddenly died and Alexa’s adventures began. The boys are less interesting than Alexa and not as well individualized – their different names and the differing tattoos on their knees are the main things setting them apart. Raised in a horrible orphanage, their past a mystery, the boys find danger everywhere as they make their way through the land. It turns out that Roland is destined for adventure at sea and Thomas for adventure on land – and their knees help them survive, as when they find themselves at scary Wakefield House and realize that, if they put their knees (and, figuratively, their heads) together, they can figure out what to do. Carman’s Land of Elyon books originated as bedtime stories for his children, and all of them, including this fourth one, are adventuresome and unchallenging enough to fill that role for other kids as well. Into the Mist is not particularly inventive, but it has enough adventure to charm many children and will be an easy read for most middle-schoolers.

      Ursula K. Le Guin has a unique and finely honed style that she has polished in more than 40 books, and she always searches for grand themes that reach beyond the basics of her plots. Annals of the Western Shore is not among her most inventive series, but it does have a number of interesting elements, and its apparent conclusion in Powers will allow Le Guin to revisit this world in the future if she chooses to do so. In the first Annals book, Gifts, feuding families have strange powers that they use to fight each other, such as the ability to strike someone blind or set a fire by pointing to a spot. This is a fascinating premise that turns into a mild Romeo-and-Juliet story as a boy, Orrec, and a girl, Gry, flee their homes in the Uplands together rather than use their powers for harmful purposes. In the second book, Voices, the focus shifts to a 17-year-old girl named Memer, who lives in a home where books are hidden from the city’s occupiers, who hate reading and have banned it; the book ends with the city returned to its rightful rulers and Memer looking ahead to a better – and different – life. The books’ connection is the presence in Voices of Orrec and Gry, who come to the city from the Uplands and bring the people poems and stories. The third book, Powers, features a young boy named Gav, who has a photographic memory for book pages and can also “remember” things that have not yet happened. As in the previous books, tragedy forces Gav into the wider world, and he goes on a journey of self-discovery to find out where he truly belongs. The main theme here, as in many other Le Guin works, is where the individual fits in society – and, in the case of Powers, there is a specific focus on slavery and freedom (and what those too-easily-bandied-about words really mean). Powers is a well-constructed book that will appeal to many middle-schoolers and at least some high-schoolers as well. But its slavery-and-freedom theme is rather hackneyed (despite all Le Guin’s attempts to make it less so), and the characters do not have the emotional depth of others Le Guin has created. Still, the pacing is good, and the unusual powers of Gav, like those of others in this series, help keep the events interesting.


Encounters with the Strange and Unexplained. By Matt Hoyle. Andrews McMeel. $24.95.

Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality. By Mike Sager. Thunder’s Mouth Press/Da Capo. $16.95.

      Truth is slippery. It has to be interpreted in order to be presented – and that inevitably exposes it to the interests and biases of the interpreters, as in these two books. Encounters with the Strange and Unexplained has a title that is a bit of a cheat, since photographer Matt Hoyle did not actually have any encounters with strange and unexplained phenomena. What he had was encounters with people who claimed to have encountered such phenomena – and Hoyle went out and photographed the people, usually in or near the place where the phenomena supposedly occurred. The photos themselves are top-notch, and this handsome oversized paperback book showcases them beautifully. Atmospheric, penetrating, beautifully framed and distinctively lit, Hoyle’s portraits are always interesting and sometimes stunning. But they have nothing directly to do with what the book promises to deliver. Each two-page spread of the book features a wonderful Hoyle photo and a brief description of what the person pictured – identified only by first name and location – claims to have seen or experienced. Thus, we see Fran of Lincoln, Rhode Island, a statuesque woman wearing a veiled black hat and an old-fashioned red-white-and blue dress made of elegant fabric, sitting in front of a picture of Abraham Lincoln; and the text has her saying that her house “is full of love,” but strange things happened after “a paranormal group visited,” such as her being unable to shut off the water in the bathroom. Ed of Everglades City, Florida, seen at night, leaning in toward the camera and shining a flashlight at it, tells of being 13 and hearing “a god-awful sound” and “footsteps, too, like a squishing noise,” and then seeing a strange five-foot-tall creature. Denise of Seekonk, Massachusetts, seen in bed in a dimly lit room, half sitting up, with a puzzled-to-frightened look on her face, talks about seeing the “ethereal form” of her ex-boyfriend, who had recently committed suicide, “like a cloud of milky energy.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of these stories – and no reason, on the basis of this book, to believe any of them. As a photographic study of a wide variety of people, Encounters with the Strange and Unexplained is excellent. As a book about what it claims to be about, it is guilty of false self-promotion.

      There are no pictures – except word pictures – in Mike Sager’s Revenge of the Donut Boys. But many of those word pictures are quite vivid. The 17 essays here, mostly from Rolling Stone (where Sager was a contributing editor) or Esquire (where he is currently a writer at large), are written in a sure-handed magazine style in which a focus on details of people’s external lives is used to help readers infer things about their internal ones: “Dave smiles, tiptoes, putting down the box, moving into the living room, where he begins alphabetizing his CD collection across the fireplace mantel.” The subjects are wide-ranging within the realm of popular culture and what may be called “unusual and offbeat Americans.” Celebrity-focused pieces deal with Roseanne Barr’s multiple personality disorder and rapper Ice Cube’s rise to fame. Pieces that might be called “extraordinary lives of ordinary people” include one on sexually adventurous, mostly middle-aged couples who attend swingers’ gatherings (this piece has the unfortunate title, “Deviates in Love”), and one on would-be movie stars Lynn Clark and Steve Bean. The title story is about kids stealing cars – sometimes kids so young that one handles the steering wheel while another works the pedals. There’s a piece on a 92-year-old resident of Sun City, Arizona, who has an Alzheimer’s-afflicted girlfriend, and one called “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman,” whose main point seems to be that being beautiful and being empty have a lot in common. Sager doesn’t exactly look down on his subjects, but he tends to look at them a bit sideways, as if using peripheral vision to avoid seeing their essential flawed humanness face-to-face. He observes their lives keenly and writes what he sees clearly and effectively (he’s a onetime Washington Post reporter). But he is irritatingly unwilling to take a forthright stand on anything he observes – while often seeming to smirk condescendingly at the people he watches so closely. In a magazine context, where these pieces appeared months apart and in the midst of many others, the approach probably worked better than it does in the book, where Segar’s parade of subtly judgmental stories becomes tiresome after a while.


Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Stokowski: Symphonic Syntheses of Wagner—Das Rheingold: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla; Tristan und Isolde: Symphonic Synthesis; Parsifal: Symphonic Synthesis from Act III; Die Walküre: Magic Fire Music, Ride of the Valkyries. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

      The idea that a recording from 1974 could sound as good as just about anything produced with equipment made 30 years later is a difficult one to believe, but PentaTone’s SACD release of Sir Colin Davis’ rendition of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which dates to January 1974, shows that it is possible. PentaTone has remastered and is releasing in original four-channel form a number of recordings made by Philips in an astonishingly high-quality analog format that never caught on in the market at the time. In this particular case, the combination of the excellent original recording, the conductor’s attention to detail, and the still-amazing use of symphonic form by one of the great masters of orchestral color combine to produce a genuine sonic spectacular.

      No matter how many times you have heard Symphonie Fantastique, this SACD will be sonically revelatory. In the first movement, the very soft opening, the contrasts between piano and forte passages, the intensity of the sforzandi and the propulsive motion of the music in Davis’ well-chosen tempi add up to an experience both warm and exciting. The brass is exceptionally good – the Concertgebouw had the best brass section in the world in this era – and strings, winds and percussion are all outstanding as well. The second movement features superb harp clarity and a lovely waltz tempo, with a truly dizzying speedup to a swirling conclusion. In the third movement, the solitary winds are as impressive as the silences between their notes. The pacing lulls the listener, but angst clearly lurks just below the peaceful surface, as Davis makes sure that the timpani at the end sound like both an approaching thunderstorm and a foreshadowing of the “March to the Gallows” that is to follow. In that movement, the deep-throated timpani and snarling brass are highly dramatic – but the clarity of the bassoon line is equally impressive. The first section sounds positively eerie when its repeat begins, and Berlioz’ brilliant use of orchestral sonorities is as clear as it has ever been. The grotesqueries of the finale sound marvelous, too, with the winds very pointed from the start and the various instrumental outbursts having genuine shock value. The bells here are unusually reverberant – they sound like real church bells, not orchestral bells. And details not usually heard in this movement come through clearly – a brass accent here, a pizzicato there. The whole work builds to a frantic finish that is likely to leave a listener breathless. This is not a perfect recording – indeed, it has to be said that it often sounds better than it feels, being somewhat lacking in the depths of emotion that Berlioz was trying to plumb. But it is certainly a feast for the ears.

      The words “sonic spectacular” might have been invented for Leopold Stokowski, who was determined to deliver just that in the concert hall – and in recordings as well. The controversy over Stokowski’s arrangements of other composers’ music is certainly understandable when one realizes that he even changed the musical voicing and instrumental emphasis of that master of orchestration, Richard Wagner. How well Stokowski did it can be judged in José Serebrier’s third Naxos CD presenting his arrangements and transcriptions. There can scarcely be a better advocate for what Stokowski did than Serebrier, who worked with the older conductor for years and thoroughly understood his conducting and compositional methods. Many Wagner purists will likely be upset by this CD, but other listeners will likely be delighted – especially those who are not thoroughly familiar with the operas. For Das Rheingold, Stokowski adds even more brass and percussion to a concert version of the finale originally prepared by conductor Hermann Zumpe. For Tristan und Isolde, he creates a three-movement suite by using Wagner’s own concert version of the Prelude and Liebestod for the start and finish, and interpolating Liebesnacht music in the middle. This is a particularly effective piece, with Stokowski making changes with a light hand and Serebrier conducting with especially intense feeling.

      From Parsifal, Stokowski made an arrangement of crucial music from the final act, but excluded the Good Friday Spell that Wagner had already arranged in a concert version – resulting in an interesting but rather unbalanced piece, at least for those who know Wagner’s last opera. The most “Stokowskian” music here is in his two arrangements from Die Walküre. For the Magic Fire Music, he transfers vocal lines to individual instruments or whole sections; for Ride of the Valkyries, which one can argue is already quite noisy enough, Stokowski doubles some instruments and eliminates some lines so others can come through more strongly than Wagner planned. Indeed, except for the Tristan sections performed as Wagner wrote them, none of this music is entirely Wagnerian; but whether Stokowski had unforgivable hubris in making these arrangements, or was successful in adapting them to concert halls so more people could have a chance to hear them, each listener will have to judge on his or her own. Certainly the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gives these works everything it has to give, and Serebrier’s intense, committed performances show that he, at least, has deep respect for what Stokowski wrought.

October 11, 2007


Catching the Moon. By Myla Goldberg. Pictures by Chris Sheban. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

I Love My Pirate Papa. By Laura Leuck. Illustrated by Kyle M. Stone. Harcourt. $16.

      Here are two deliciously watery fantasies for families with kids ages 3-7 – books that parents can enjoy as much as their children will. One is more poetic, the other more rollicking, and both feature a nice touch of unreality.

      Catching the Moon lends a bit of surrealism to the notion of fishing. The never-named Fisherwoman sits on the pier at night, a surprisingly cooperative mouse tied to the end of her line, trying to catch – what? Well, Myla Goldberg explains, there is one night each month when there is no moon – a night when the Man in the Moon travels. And he shows up at the Fisherwoman’s door, offering her sea-cucumber sandwiches (“she certainly didn’t suppose she’d find them so delicious”). The Fisherwoman and the Man in the Moon are quite a pair of characters, shown so delightfully in Chris Sheban’s watercolors that it is hard to decide which one belongs more firmly in the land of fairy tales. (And don’t miss the mouse’s expressions, which are wonderful.) It turns out that the Fisherwoman and her mouse friend have been angling for the Man in the Moon all along, because the woman’s house – and those of all her neighbors – flood at high tide, which “won’t stop gobbling until our shacks and our piers are nothing but wormy old driftwood!” The Moon, of course, controls the tides. Does the Fisherwoman, whose neighbors think her night fishing with a mouse indicates that she has “become old and sea-addled,” realize that she has in fact befriended the Man in the Moon? Goldberg cleverly leaves the question unanswered as she gives her story a gentle tidal pull toward a wholly satisfactory and rather touching conclusion. Read this one at night – it’s a lovely little bedtime tale.

      Things are considerably more bouncy in I Love My Pirate Papa, in which a little boy lives and loves the pirate life, described in doggerel by Laura Leuck: “I get to walk along the plank and leap into his lap./ I’ve learned the letter X because he lets me read his map.” Kyle M. Stone’s acrylic-and-mixed-media illustrations are a big part of the fun here, showing the boy swinging from a rope, riding (with a toy sword) atop a huge treasure chest, participating in a belching contest with the crew, and getting ready for bed and his bedtime story – about Captain Hook. These pirates generally look mighty scruffy, and they even fight (a bit) over their loot, but there’s clearly a soft side to all of them, not only when they burp together but also when the boy’s eyepatched dad flips the patch up to reveal a perfectly good eye underneath it – the better to read with (the Captain Hook book has a heart as well as a hook on the cover). It would have been easy for Leuck to turn the whole story into a boy’s fantasy, but no: it does not turn out that a child, happy in his warm home, has imagined all this; the book ends with the boy falling happily asleep in the pirate ship. This could make a good bedtime story for an active child – but it’s just as much fun to read at any time of the day.


Spells & Sleeping Bags. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Last Apprentice, Book Two: Curse of the Bane. By Joseph Delaney. Greenwillow/HarperTrophy. $7.99.

The Last Apprentice, Book Three: Night of the Soul Stealer. By Joseph Delaney. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Magic can be a great deal of fun, if it’s the kind practiced in Bras & Broomsticks, Frogs & French Kisses and, now, Spells & Sleeping Bags. Sarah Mlynowski’s teen-witch stories have plenty of heart and amusing complications to go with the hocus-pocus. The newest book is a summer-camp story, and it starts with Rachel and her younger sister, Miri – who is also a witch – heading off to camp together. Rachel has gotten over her jealousy of Miri, whose powers emerged at a much younger age, and is just settling into her own abilities – which sets the stage for funny magical mistakes ranging from the predictable (she zaps away her own clothes) to the unpredictable (she tries to split a bunk bed into two separate beds and instead splits it down the middle, so it collapses – luckily, while unoccupied). Rachel, who has just finished ninth grade, gets to deal with everyday camping problems (voracious mosquitoes, kids who pee in the lake) and everyday teenage trouble (a major crush on a boy named Raf, who is also at the camp). Oh, and her stepmom sends her care packages of feminine-hygiene products. And there’s a traitor – okay, a typical camping arch-enemy – in Rachel’s bunk, making her life miserable. And Rachel makes a Best Friend Forever, but her BFF gets kicked out of camp. And through all this, Rachel is learning how to use her magic and learning what magic won’t do: “If there’s ever been a time when I needed Miri, it’s now. Not because she’s a witch. Because she’s my sister.” The book does get more serious toward the end, with an identity exchange and family crisis intruding into the lightheartedness; but the eventual resolution is upbeat, and the overall feeling is light, frothy and warm.

      On the other hand, there are the books of The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney. Brrr. The second volume, originally published in England in 2005 and in the U.S. last year, is now available in paperback. It continues the adventures of Thomas Ward, apprentice to the Spook, who is not a scary character but a protector against scary characters. And those characters can be chilling indeed. Curse of the Bane focuses on a frightening creature living in the catacombs of a cathedral. But the church powers-that-be do not want the Spook, whom they consider evil, to do anything to dispose of it. The danger of the Bane is that it can take over and corrupt people’s minds, so Tom cannot be sure who is on what side. And there are other dangers. Winter is getting longer and the dark stronger in this book, and a girl named Alice, who helped Tom in the series’ first book, Revenge of the Witch, reappears to help him again – but at the cost of a dangerous deal with the Bane.

      The story moves onward and becomes darker still in Night of the Soul Stealer. The Spook is sure that Alice – who comes from a family of witches – cannot be trusted, partly because he knows secrets that he is not yet willing to share with his apprentice. But when the two go to the Spook’s winter house on a moor called Anglezarke, Tom starts to figure out some of those secrets on his own, and be exposed to parts of others. They are not mere arcana – although the theft of a grimoire from the Spook’s home is an important element of the story. These are very real, very immediate dangers, partly in the form of dangerous witches; partly because of a necromancer named Morgan; and partly because of an evil creature called the Gorgoth that surely cannot be real – or can it? The coldly atmospheric illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith add to the sense of foreboding in these books and deepen the story, which can easily go four books more – since Tom mentions toward the end of Book Three that he has four more years of apprenticeship before becoming a Spook himself. Alice retains her importance and is clearly bound to Tom in important ways – although, with Tom and Alice both being 13 and with Delaney’s books aimed at readers ages 10 and up, there is no overt romance. Tom’s tangled family relationships get some level of resolution in Night of the Soul Stealer, but the result of that is the opening of new mysteries – or rather the expected opening of them in the next book, since these mysteries reside in trunks that at this point remain shut. The terrors – some of them quite scary – are sure to mount as Tom’s apprenticeship continues.


This Is as Bad as It Gets. By Voutch. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned on “Jerry Springer”: A “Close to Home” Collection. By John McPherson. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

      Here we have a skewed French view of everyday life and a skewed American view of everyday life. If the French book proves somewhat more sophisticated, the American one is certainly more over-the-top – as its title and cover drawing suggest.

      The cartoons by Voutch – a Paris-born cartoonist who uses a single name – were originally published in France between 1997 and 2000, but their slightly weird worldview (akin to what Americans regularly encounter in The New Yorker) shows few signs of age. Voutch’s art is a big part of the single-panel cartoons’ attractions. For instance, there are two men tied tightly to a railroad track, with one telling the other, “You are beginning to get on my nerves, Maloney, you and your eternal optimism.” But the men are quite small, in a drawing that shows them in a mountain pass, the track invisible as it goes around a curve a few feet away – so you don’t know just how close a train might be. Then there’s the small man kneeling atop a hill to which he has flown by helicopter (it is visible in the background), praying, “O Almighty, reduce my enemies to dust. As well as some of my friends. I have too many.” Voutch tackles many subjects, but he does have some recurring themes, such as clones. One example features two identical men at a restaurant table, where one is telling the waiter, “And exactly the same thing for my clone.” This works for an American audience, but not everything does. One panel features a goose beside a farmer who is holding a force-feeding gadget as the goose says, “I’m warning you. I’m writing a tell-all book: names, places, dates, everything.” If you don’t know how pâté de fois gras is produced, this falls flat. Then there is the family near a plaque on a barren landscape, where tanks are in the background, with the father saying, “I was closest. I guessed 1644 and the correct answer is 1944.” This could be a critique of Americans’ lack of knowledge of history, including D-Day, but in fact it is more general – yet it will only work for people who do know at least a little about World War II. Some Voutch works are mundane, some hard to figure out, and some silly: large landscape picture with small dog embracing smaller cat in the foreground and saying, “And the other problem, my love, is that you, too, are a male.” Or: two hermit crabs on the ocean floor, with one saying, “OK, Venice it is. But I’m warning you: It’s far.” Some of this is genuinely sophisticated humor; some is just trying to be.

      There’s nothing sophisticated at all about John McPherson’s Close to Home, the perennial sendup of a wide variety of uniquely American foibles. McPherson does have a tendency to seem to repeat himself – you may not have seen the specific cartoons in his latest collection before, but you’ll get the feeling that you have seen many like them, and you’ll be right. Still, McPherson’s determinedly ugly people doing unerringly weird things are often very amusing. In the new collection, which is entirely in color (a feature that does not make the people any more attractive), you will find the office pool that will award a worker $200 if he eats every bit of crud from inside the break-room microwave oven; the suburban Trojan horse used by adult children to get their parents to allow them to move back home; the “Duct Tape Diet,” which simply involves putting duct tape over your mouth; the super-large coffin for the man who suffered all his life from claustrophobia; the accused polygamist who ends up with three of his mothers-in-law on the jury; the nervous speaker at a nudist convention, who calms himself by imagining audience members with their clothes on; the “Share-o-Matic,” to force siblings to cooperate with toy use at playtime; the two people who do so well in marriage counseling that they end up embracing passionately on the floor while the counselor vainly tries to distract them; and many more situations and characters that probably don’t exist, but maybe do. McPherson doesn’t exactly have his finger on the pulse of the everyday world, but he has it on the pulse of some everyday world. Much of the fun is in figuring out just how close to home his cartoons really come.