December 27, 2007


Punk Farm on Tour. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $15.99.

Big and Little. By John Stadler. Robin Corey Books. $9.99.

      It’s all in how you see things. Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s second Punk Farm book continues to play with the idea of barnyard animals as rock stars – that is, animals being a lot more than they seem to be. This is a great message for kids ages 5-8, who are a lot more than they seem to be…and know it. But this isn’t a “message” book at all, except perhaps subliminally. It’s a ton of fun. This time, when Farmer Joe heads off to a tractor convention, the Punk Farm band – Sheep, Cow, Pig, Goat and Chicken – packs up for a road trip as well. Determined to play for their fans around the United States, the animals are hampered by a messed-up, thoroughly unstylish old van and the lack of a big hit to sing. So what? They fix up and paint the van (the flames on the side are a great touch) and head off to Maine – still without a big hit to offer. Then Sheep gets an inspiration and creates a song based on the trip itself – and everyone loves it. So when Punk Farm next heads to Florida – in pouring rain – that becomes a song subject; and when the band has a flat tire on the way to Texas, that is the song topic; and when, on route to their final performance in Colorado (this band really gets around!), the van breaks down completely – well, of course that becomes the subject of their hit song for the final audience. Krosoczka’s illustrations delightfully capture the fun of the concerts and the amusing expressions of the band members. At the end, there’s a race home – the animals want to get there before Farmer Joe, to whom they are of course only animals. And they make it just in time, keeping Farmer Joe’s perspective on things intact while knowing among themselves that they are certainly not what the farmer imagines them to be.

      Things are not what they seem to be in Big and Little, either. An adorable book of foldout pages for ages 3-6, John Stadler’s story has a circus setting and revolves around something that is obviously impossible: an elephant climbing a ladder, high above the audience, and diving into an ordinary glass of water. The mouse ringmaster builds the tension higher and higher all the time, with Stadler cleverly intercutting scenes of the mouse with ones of Ellie, the elephant. That intercutting is crucial to the shift of perspective that Stadler uses to resolve the story in a very amusing finale that proves that things are not necessarily what they appear to be at all. This is not only a clever book but also one from which kids can learn something about trusting (or not trusting) their assumptions. Even after they know the trick, kids can go back through the book, again and again, trying to figure out why they believed one thing when something different was really the case. Stadler’s approach, especially his use of flaps to prevent kids from seeing the characters together until the end, makes the book not only enjoyable and offbeat but also downright clever. Both kids and parents will have fun with this one, simply by keeping the whole thing in perspective.


A Field Guide to High School. By Marissa Walsh. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Bullyville. By Francine Prose. HarperTeen. $16.99.

      There are so many major life events for which there is no guidebook. Every parent, for example, would love to have one for child-rearing – but none of the professed guides to this or that aspect of the parenting adventure combines real-world intelligence with the sort of what-the-heck sense of humor that parents must have to survive and prosper. And then there’s high school. Wow, does that need a guidebook. And now, Marissa Walsh be praised, it has one, and it’s hilarious. Okay, it’s not intended as a guide for every high-school student to follow; and it’s a novel, not a nonfictional book about how to handle this or that situation; but there’s enough truth and enough amusement in A Field Guide to High School so that freshmen really ought to read it before ninth grade – and eventually pass it along to their younger siblings. That’s part of the idea of the book, in fact: older sister Claire, super-popular high-school star and valedictorian, is graduating, and has put a lot of what she has learned (in class and out) into a guide for younger sister Andie, who is just about to start ninth grade. Claire is a great guide. In a section on social life called “Gilled Mushrooms Causing Sweating, Tears, and Salivation,” for example, she informs Andie, “Most likely you will not want to date one of the boys in your ninth-grade class. There will be fewer than five who are acceptable. And of those five, one will be ‘going out’ with someone seriously, one will be a player, and the other three will not know their asses (or yours) from their elbows. You will have a crush on a senior, as will most of the other ninth-grade girls. There will only be one who is crush-worthy and everyone will covet him, and he will only date a fellow senior.” Multiply these insights by, oh, a couple of hundred or so – involving classes, teachers, driving, the building, mean girls, and even a list of books (real books) that entering freshmen ought to try reading – and you have a short, easy-to-read guide that is packed with enough fun and, yes, wisdom so that any eighth-grader ought to pick up a copy.

      There’s wisdom in The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, too, but it’s a somewhat more self-conscious book than Walsh’s and therefore gets a (+++) rating. Aimed at younger readers – fourth-graders, more or less – it’s intended as a modern version of Aesop’s Fables, with Candace Fleming using the occurrences of today to teach lessons that are intended as timeless. There are 23 short chapters in the book, with such titles as “The Boy Who Cried Lunch Monitor,” “The Bad, the Beautiful, and the Stinky,” and “The Problem with Being Ernest.” And each chapter ends with a true Aesopian moral: “He laughs best who laughs last,” “It is wise to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow,” “One good turn deserves another,” and so on. The approach is clever, but the connections between the stories and the morals are sometimes strained, and the format seems to control the narration, making the whole book seem artificial rather than upbeat and lively. Some of the goings-on are amusing, but some of the humor may be even too juvenile for fourth-graders: “What type of birds are found in Portugal? Portu-geese.” Moral: Sometimes there’s less fun than meets the eye.

      There is no fun at all in Bullyville, which gets a (+++) rating for ages 12 and above. Francine Prose lays on the angst thickly in this book. Bart, the narrator, lost his father in the collapse of one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001; and at Baileywell Preparatory Academy – the Bullyville of the title – things get even worse. This is a school where everyone bullies or is bullied, and Bart gets his very own master tormentor in the person of Tyro Bergen, the sort of young sadist who makes you understand why Bart remembers reading books about Nazi concentration camps. The evil culture of the school makes no impression on Bart’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing anything she does not want to see (her willful blindness – or perhaps unremitting dimness – is a flaw in the novel). Bart comes to realize that he himself has impulses to be a bully; he also realizes that his way of getting even with Tyro doesn’t work; and he ends up making a connection with Tyro’s family in a touching and wholly unexpected way – but one that does absolutely nothing for the relationship between him and Tyro. There are powerful scenes in Bullyville, but the book is too preachy and feels too manipulative to have the sort of staying power that Prose surely wants it to have. It has little to teach about bullying in general, and its specifics are too carefully engineered to be fully credible even in a work of fiction.


You Can Save the Planet: 50 Ways You Can Make a Difference. By Jacquie Wines. Illustrated by Sarah Horne. Scholastic. $4.99.

Owen & Mzee: A Day Together. By Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

      The increase in awareness of the impact that humans are having on the Earth’s climate was certainly one of the major news stories and economic developments of 2007. It is therefore not surprising to see publishers starting to bring out well-intentioned books designed to involve young readers (and, by extension, their families – which, after all, have to buy the books) in concerns about climate change and ways in which humans can ameliorate their negative impact on the planet. You Can Save the Planet has an over-ambitious first half of its title but a more reasonable second half: 50 Ways You Can Make a Difference. It’s clearly written for young children (“An eco-warrior’s life is never easy”), but its advice and level of understanding are useful for older kids as well (very next sentence: “Sometimes you will need to weigh the pros and cons of an issue in order to make a sensible choice”). The book is printed in green ink (not the easiest to read, it must be said) and contains some post-consumer fiber (but only some: “a minimum of 10%”). Its seven chapters (which are followed by a list of useful Web sites) deal with such issues as “Shopping for the Planet” and “Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle.” Among the suggestions are not to waste water; to protect birds displaced by human encroachment; to reject bottled water, fast food and clothing that is dry-clean-only; to swap toys, books, games and such instead of throwing them away; to send greeting cards by E-mail instead of buying printed ones; and to recycle old cell phones, ink cartridges and computers. These are more than feel-good notions – most have real value, although not all families will accept every one of them. A political agenda does show up in some ideas, though, such as not to buy “anything that looks furry” because “an item made with fur described as imitation may not be fake after all.” Still, many of the ideas here are useful, the suggestions should at least get kids started thinking about their impact on the planet, and the statistics included among the recommendations are sobering.

      One event that may or may not have been caused by climate change was the disastrous tsunami of Boxing Day (December 26) 2004, caused by a massive earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean. The event is known as the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. Its human toll was enormous – more than 225,000 people died – and the outpouring of assistance to affected countries was worldwide (more than $7 billion). Yet for many people, especially children, one of the things that brought home the macrocosmic impact of this disaster was a microcosm of its effect: the survival of a baby hippo named Owen and its development of a totally unexpected bond with a giant tortoise named Mzee. The tale was told in the news media and has been reported in several books of stunning photographs, and now there is a board book of the story available for the youngest children. Owen & Mzee: A Day Together shows the unlikely duo walking, swimming and eating together; and one wonderful photo shows the tortoise seeming to protect the hippo from sanctuary visitors who have inadvertently scared Owen. The larger issues of how the two bonded and what may happen to them in the future are absent here, as are any discussions of the disaster that brought them together. Perhaps kids enthralled by the board book will want to know more – and, when they are ready, can learn from other books about the extreme difficulties that underlie the apparently idyllic relationship of this unlikely animal pair.


Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. By Frank Schaeffer. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $26.

The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees, October 13, 1960. By Jim Reisler. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $26.

      “Fanatic” is a loaded word nowadays, but it is one that Frank Schaeffer would probably have used proudly of himself in his younger days. The lengthy title of his book says it all. Schaeffer grew up in an evangelical community that his parents had founded in Switzerland; Barbara Bush and Timothy Leary were among its well-known visitors. By the time he was in his early 20s, Schaeffer was already an experienced evangelical preacher as well as creator of two multi-part religious documentaries that are still used in numerous churches and religious schools for what some would call indoctrination and others would call strengthening of the faith. Then – and this is where Schaeffer’s story really takes off – he became instrumental in wedding (so to speak) the anti-abortion movement with American evangelism, leading to creation of a powerful political force that is still crucial in many U.S. elections. Crazy for God details all of this – and then explains how Schaeffer became disaffected, left the religious-political movement he had helped create, and decided (largely through this book) to confess his sins and get right with…well, apparently mostly with himself. Schaeffer seems at pains to declare himself a regular guy: “I was an immature asshole” appears on the same page as “Sometimes it was hell, a hell of my own making.” He takes readers through his periods of (as the section titles have it) “Childhood,” “Education,” “Turmoil” and “Peace” (the last section is a short one). But Schaeffer seems mostly to have traded one set of blinders for another. He professes himself genuinely astonished at the people among whom he lived and worked for so long: “Where we had once had art festivals, the evangelicals we were ‘part of’ wanted to ban books. Where we inhaled Altman and Bergman, they wanted to protect their children from ‘filthy movies’ and stop their teens from seeing anything R-rated at all!” This is news? Crazy for God reads like an apology, like an appeal for forgiveness to the many people Schaeffer hurt and misled through a fervor that he now acknowledges was misplaced: “Honesty is what was missing from my evangelical writing and my evangelical and secular movies.” Well, fine; but Schaeffer helped start an avalanche, and an apology to those it buried seems a touch inadequate. The best thing Schaffer’s book can do is make sure that those with far more tolerance than he had do indeed forgive him – but do not forget what he did.

      Worship can go off the track even when it has nothing to do with religion. Witness The Best Game Ever, which is written for people who want to spend almost 300 pages reliving a baseball game that took place nearly half a century ago. If you are one of them, you will be as immune to criticism as Frank Schaeffer once was to rational thought – precisely that immune, since the idolization of sports figures and of a particular game in a particular sport is merely fanaticism in a church of the playing field. Jim Reisler has written a number of books about baseball, and his love of it comes through clearly throughout The Best Game Ever. That is all well and good; it is doubtful that anyone else will ever do a better job of recounting every single play of every single inning of the seventh World Series game between the Pirates and the Yankees in 1960. Reisler is an impressive researcher: he did numerous interviews for the book and searched newspaper and broadcast accounts of the game. His reconstruction of what happened that day is worthy of a subject such as a world-changing battle. But this was not a world-changing battle: it was a baseball game. The tremendous over-coverage of every aspect of its ins and outs is completely indefensible to anyone who is not fanatically addicted to this particular sport. To those for whom even fantasy leagues and endless debates about which historical player was better than which other one are not nearly enough, this book certainly qualifies as the Bible of October 13, 1960.


Johann Strauss Jr.: Jabuka (complete operetta); Dance Arrangements from Jabuka. Thomas Tischler (Mirko von Gradinaz), Wolfgang Veith (Vasil von Gradinaz), Michael Schober (Mischa), Veronika Groiss (Jelka), Elisabeth Wolfbauer (Petrija; Annita), Helmut Josef Ettl (Bamboro); Franz Födinger (Joschko); Gaudeamus Choir Brno and European Johann Strauss Orchestra conducted by Christian Pollack. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

      Johann Strauss Jr. had almost no sense of the theater. He had a great sense of the theatrical, but that is quite another thing. Strauss was marvelous at turning waltzes into miniature playlets, making them symphonic in structure and having them appear to tell stories even as he kept them supremely danceable. But when it came to creating works for the stage, he was by and large a disaster. Die Fledermaus, his most popular operetta and by far his best, works because the whole thing is built around a party, giving Strauss numerous opportunities to create dances while tossing in some mock heroics in the scenes leading up to the on-stage gaiety. Among his other operettas, only Der Zigeunerbaron has retained a following, and then solely because its wonderful tunes make it easy to forget the tub-thumping absurdities of the story (one of the brightest, bounciest songs is about soldiers joyfully killing each other). But what about the rest of Strauss’ 16 stage works – 17 if you count the posthumous pastiche, Wiener Blut? Most dwell in the obscurity that has long claimed Jabuka, and on the basis of this work’s theatrical elements, most deserve to.

      But the music decidedly does not deserve to languish, and that makes this first-ever recording of Jabuka a significant event, and a delight to own for anyone who loves Strauss’ way with a dance and a couplet. Jabuka is also known as Das Apfelfest (“The Apple Festival”), and is about a charming custom in a Serbian town: once a year, each young boy picks an apple, takes a bite and hands it to his chosen girl. If she bites it in turn, they are betrothed. This has almost nothing to do with the plot of Jabuka, which is about two noble but impoverished brothers who come to the festival in the hope of finding rich brides and who – wonder of wonders – manage to do just that. The pairing of the operetta’s second couple, Vasil and Annita, goes off without a hitch, but the work’s complications really turn on a taming-of-the-shrew plot involving Mirko and Jelka – who cannot stand her suitor until a sudden change of heart at the end of the last act that is even more unbelievable than usual in operetta. The other major plot points involve Joschko, a bailiff whose job is to seize debtors’ property – and who loves what he does. He’s a delightful character, amoral and money-hungry, quite willing to help Mirko and Vasil land their sweethearts and then seize their castle (after posing, at their behest, as a rich magnate). This is one case in which the lack of a libretto with the recording does not matter very much: the summary of the absurd actions is quite enough to go by, and the wonderful tunes that pervade Jabuka are the reason to own the CDs (although it would be nice to know just what Joschko sings in his couplets, and just why he sneezes repeatedly in the finale of Act I). On balance, it is fine to forget the plot – Strauss apparently did, going merrily along writing delightful music while his two librettists (Max Kalbeck and Gustav Davis) fought over whether Jabuka should be an opera or operetta (with the result that it sounds like a bit of both).

      The performers here, a number of them students at Christian Pollack’s opera class at the Vienna Conservatory, have pleasing voices and a pleasing manner of delivering their lines and relating to each other. The orchestra, assembled especially for this performance, plays Strauss idiomatically and with enthusiasm, and the Gaudeamus Choir Brno handles the choral parts with aplomb. Pollack again proves himself a marvelously adept conductor of this era’s music – his recordings sparkle like champagne. And there is a wonderful bonus after the 90-minute Jabuka: an additional 45 minutes of Strauss dance music based on tunes from the operetta, previously released on various CDs and now available all together in this highly appropriate context. All seven pieces are played by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice), with Pollack conducting five of them: Das Comitat geht in die Hoh’! Polka schnell; Tanze mit dem Besenstiel! Polka française; Sonnenblume, Polka-Mazur; Jabuka-Quadrille; and Jabuka Potpourri No. 1. The other two works are conducted in much more foursquare fashion by Johannes Wildner: Ich bin dir gut! Walzer and Zivio! Marsch. Even in those two, though, Strauss’ music shines, as indeed it does throughout Jabuka, despite the fact that the operetta, as a theatrical work, is such a confused mishmash that its obscurity is – on that level – entirely understandable.

December 20, 2007


Parade of Shadows. By Gloria Whelan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Man with the Red Bag. By Eve Bunting. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $15.99.

      Here are a couple of mystery-adventures for preteens and young teenagers in which the settings are at least as interesting as the characterizations. Readers ages 10 and up with a yen for travel – and ones who have tried it and liked it – will enjoy the exotic time and place of Parade of Shadows and the less unusual but equally mysterious locations of The Man with the Red Bag.

      Gloria Whelan’s book is set in the Middle East – not the war-torn Middle East of today, but the more exotic locale of 100 years ago. Parade of Shadows is nevertheless a political book of sorts, since there were just as many undercurrents and crosscurrents in Istanbul, Damascus and Palymra in 1907 as there are in the region today. Julia Hamilton, Whelan’s restless 16-year-old heroine, visits all those cities and more on horseback after a trip across Europe aboard the famed Orient Express. Yes, this is the train made notorious by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and since used as the setting for scads of lesser mysteries. But the mysteries Julia encounters appear mostly after the train ride, as she meets the companions with whom she is traveling on an expedition led by her father. Julia’s mother has been dead 10 years, and her father has steadfastly refused to let her join him in his travels – until now. His own motivation becomes one mystery among many, with others revolving around a British horticulturist, a French collector of antiques, and an attractive male student whose manner, like those of the other expedition members, conceals secrets. The book is a journey of discovery for Julia: “I slipped out for some air and, walking a short distance from the celebration, fell at once into the emptiness of the desert. In London I rarely saw the stars, and then only the bright ones. In the desert the sky was populated with countless stars and looked like a great black tent pricked all over to let in the light of some night sun.” Most of what Julia discovers, alas, is how duplicitous people can be, and how difficult it can be to decide whom to trust. She even comes to question whether her father is telling her the truth – rightly, as it turns out. Parade of Shadows is carefully researched and deals on the level of individual human beings with important political currents in the years leading up to World War I. It will be of most interest to readers already fascinated by this historical period – others may find its lengthy discussions of the issues of that day rather tedious.

      The Man with the Red Bag is a less ambitious book. Eve Bunting’s tale of 12-year-old Kevin Saunders’ cross-country bus trip is set at a time with very different political and social problems: the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is nine months later when Kevin joins his grandmother for a sightseeing trip – and spots an exotic-looking stranger named Charles Stavros, who is carrying a red bag that he holds close all the time, and to which he even talks. Stavros has a sinister look about him, and Kevin is sure he is up to no good – so he resolves to keep an eye on him, for the sake of the security of the country (and to satisfy his own curiosity). The Man with the Red Bag combines sightseeing at the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore with the mystery on which Kevin is focused. There turns out to be a 9/11 connection to the red bag after all, but its contents are – not surprisingly – very far from terrorism, with Bunting using the whole story as a sort of moral warning against profiling people based on how they look and the odd ways in which they seem to behave. This is a naïve message in the real world, though, and young readers of this book may wonder why in real life they have been learning to focus on strangers’ unusual appearance and behavior – while Bunting is arguing that such observation is meaningless.


The Rune of Unmasking, Book Two: A Dark Sacrifice. By Madeline Howard. Eos. $14.95.

The Midnight Library, Volume VII: I Can See You. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99.

      There is something satisfying about variations on a theme. In heroic fantasy, you know what the elements will be: good guys, bad guys, a quest, great daring, and eventual triumph of good over evil – but only after much pain and sacrifice. Madeline Howard’s The Rune of Unmasking trilogy has more of a feminist (or perhaps post-feminist) slant than most heroic fantasies, but it otherwise contains the usual ingredients. Like a well-wrought set of variations on a theme in music, Howard’s books let readers know where they stand at all times while keeping things interesting by being just unpredictable enough so you do not know precisely what will happen to precisely whom at precisely which instant. What happened in the trilogy’s first book, The Hidden Stars, was the discovery of a prophecy. There had been a great war between wizards and mages that ended with them destroying each other, followed by the rise of a dark empress-goddess named Ouriana; and then portents revealed the existence somewhere of a young girl destined to end Ouriana’s evil reign. A Dark Sacrifice focuses on the search for the princess by the band of heroes formed in the first book – and the growing toward adulthood of the princess herself. The vaguely medieval setting, the use of magic combined with old-fashioned weaponry, the names of the characters – all are typical of this genre. So is the writing: “She found him indescribably loathsome: his wide, sneering mouth and aggressive nose; the thick fingers, curving nails, and silvery fish-scale backs of his hands. Yet, it was more than physical deformity that made him hideous. Had that been all she would have pitied him, but every instinct told her there was mental and spiritual deformity as well.” Readers fond of strong female characters in a world of familiar heroism will fine Howard’s writing and pacing effective.

      The Midnight Library is for younger readers – preteens and perhaps some young teenagers – and consists of three unconnected stories per book. The cover story in the latest volume, I Can See You, in which the “Damien Graves” pseudonym is assumed by Shaun Hutson, is about a game played outdoors at night – a game that, unsurprisingly in the context of these books, proves deadly to basically nice kids. “Picture Perfect,” the second tale, has identical-twin protagonists named Jake and Brandon Taylor. They have a grandaunt named Lucy who is a mysterious character and in whose house they find an old mural, which they uncover when helping to strip old wallpaper. It would have been better, much better, to leave it covered… And then there’s “True Colors,” in which Carrie Peterson buys a magazine from a mysterious old lady. It comes with a free gift: a mood ring that reflects Carrie’s moods a little too well, almost as if it is creating them. You get the idea – the frights are mild and mostly predictable, the characters indistinguishable from each other, and the book designed for quick reading if you’re after a mild rush of fear.


What They Found: Love on 145th Street. By Walter Dean Myers. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. By Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Knopf. $16.99.

Red Glass. By Laura Resau. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

      People outside the mainstream are just like people inside it. In fact, the distinction between “mainstream” and “outside” gets harder to make in the United States as general tolerance of people with non-mainstream skin color, sexual orientation and ethnicity increases (despite some strong and notable backlash). These three books appear to target audiences within audiences: teens or preteens, but specifically ones who are “different” from the majority in one way or another.

      What They Found: Love on 145th Street is a followup to Walter Dean Myers’ 145th Street: Short Stories. The new book, for ages 14 and above, is also a series of stories, the focus here being on the ways in which young black men and women find love. There is some neat intertwining, as Myers uses a beauty shop as the central storytelling locale and the source of some everyday tales of love. But the book’s style, although clever, is less the point than its content. Myers wants to demonstrate that love shows up in the unlikeliest of places. There is love at a funeral, as the wife – now widow – of the deceased realizes that his love will always be present for his family. There is a single mother, struggling with day-to-day life, who is helped by a painting to see herself as deserving of love – including love for herself. There is love far from 145th Street, in the story of a corporal fighting in Afghanistan. There is humor here, too, some of it rough and some reflected in such chapter titles as “The Man Thing” and “Society for the Preservation of Sorry-Butt Negroes.” It takes a certain worldview, and perhaps (even in relatively enlightened times) a certain skin color, to appreciate all the nuances of this book – a limitation for some, a likely source of pride for others.

      Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, also for ages 14 and up, is not a sequel in content, but is a followup to Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s first team-writing effort, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. The new book, in place of the earlier one’s he-said-she-said format, offers multiple viewpoints that collectively explore the complexities of the relationship that Naomi and Ely have had since they were kids. Naomi wishes they would end up together, but Ely is gay, so that won’t happen, and the two decide to create the no-kiss list of the title to indicate people who are hands off (or lips off) for both of them. Of course, the list doesn’t quite work out: Ely kisses Naomi’s boyfriend, and a series of revelations and misunderstandings leads to a complete breakdown in the Naomi-Ely friendship – which the two then painstakingly repair as they work their way back toward a more knowing version of what they once had together. The convolutions are a bit much here, and the sexual exploration will not be to all tastes, but the story is well told and the varying viewpoints add additional interest.

      Red Glass, the second novel by Laura Resau, features someone who is an outsider not by skin color or sexuality but simply by geography. Like her first book, What the Moon Saw, this tale is about finding yourself by finding the place where you belong and the people with whom you fit, no questions asked. But of course you must ask many questions to get to the no-questions-asked stage, and Sophie asks lots of them in Red Glass. A fearful child herself, she wants to know why almost-six-year-old Pedro was carrying the business card of Sophie’s stepfather, who does not know him, when Pedro tried to sneak across the Mexican border into the United States. Pedro is the only survivor of the group that tried the border crossing, which included his parents; he is dehydrated and hospitalized at the start of the novel, and is too young to understand much of what happened. He comes to live with Sophie, her parents and her aunt Dika – a refugee from the war in Bosnia (there are lots of refugees in this book – Resau tends to hammer her points home). Intended for ages 10 and up, Red Glass may be too harrowing for some preteens and too one-sided for older readers. Resau, who is not Latina but who lived in Mexico for two years and now teaches English as a Second Language, clearly loves Mexico and the people who live there, and feels the plight of would-be Mexican emigrants strongly. But in her eagerness to tug at readers’ heartstrings, she tends to pull a little too hard.


Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with Artists and Outlaws in New York’s Rebel Mecca. By Ed Hamilton. Thunder’s Mouth Press/Da Capo. $16.95.

Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. By Julian Dibbell. Basic Books. $15.95.

      The artistic impulse is old and, one hopes, undying, but its manifestations change, and there is scarcely any contact between the old-style artistry of Ed Hamilton’s book and the newfangled stuff that underlies Julian Dibbell’s. Legends of the Chelsea Hotel is strictly a nostalgia piece, and aimed at a very narrow subset of the artistic world. This is a New York City book through and through, because even though some of the names in it have resonance far beyond the Big Apple – Bob Dylan, Thomas Wolfe, Madonna, Sid Vicious – Hamilton’s work is about New York and the people who practice a very old-fashioned style of bohemianism there. Thus, it is the tale of Stanley Bard, who has managed the Chelsea Hotel since the 1950s (taking it over from his father, David Bard) – and who was recently forced out by his partners so the hotel can be gentrified, bringing an end to the freewheeling existence that Hamilton chronicles. The hotel has been a place like something out of La bohème, filled with creative people who were often late with the rent but could be counted on to be starving artists with style. If anecdotes about this sort of living are your cup of tea (or perhaps your glass of absinthe), you will find plenty to enjoy in Hamilton’s book. If you find the constant inward focus and holier-than-thou attitudes of some of these artistic types pretentious and self-important, if you are unconvinced that there is something inherently noble in the starving-artist lifestyle (especially when practiced in New York), then you are not in the spirit of the book and will find it overblown and, what is worse, a bore.

      In that case, you may prefer Play Money, which focuses on the far more modern artistic endeavors of a) succeeding in the virtual world and b) making money. Dibble stumbled into his commercial role more or less by chance, he says. He claims that all he really wanted to do was sit in his living room killing lizard men in a kingdom within the virtual world of Ultima Online. These virtual worlds, and the avatars and evil creatures and landscapes of which they are made, are elements of modern artistry every bit as significant today as the words of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were when the Chelsea Hotel was at its peak. Ultima Online is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG. First released in 1997 and largely responsible for popularizing the MMORPG genre, it retains a strong following in its newer incarnations even though it is not as well known or popular as, say, World of Warcraft. Dibble’s point in Play Money is that these games have their own virtual economies (in addition to existing in the real-world economy, in which players pay monthly fees for the privilege of “inhabiting” the virtual worlds). Dibbell discovered that players who did not want to work and fight their way up through a game’s various levels could be induced to pay real-world cash for virtual-world implements that would advance their quests. How Dibbell turned this discovery (which, it should be noted, he was scarcely the first to make) into actual real-life money (but emphatically not millions of real dollars) is the subject of his book, which contains little bits of economics, technology and law and which introduces such characters as a person whose sole job involves scanning eBay listings to find undervalued virtual assets. This is artistry of a sort, or at least craftsmanship; it is also, at least as explicated in Real Money, no longer really what is going on – since the book details Dibbell’s experiences in a time period ending in April 2004. The years since represent multiple generations of Web design and development, including the emergence of technologies and forms of role-playing undreamed of in those ancient days of three-plus years ago. Still, Dibbell’s book is fun as history of one sort, just as Hamilton’s is fun as history of a different sort. But in the long run – and even in the short-to-medium run – both their worlds are, well, history.


Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle. Andrea Meláth, mezzo-soprano; Gustáv Beláček, bass; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

Respighi: Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows); Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions); Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

      Of all the works on these two CDs, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle was written earliest, yet sounds the most modern. Ever since its first performance in 1918, it has been a wonder and a puzzlement. It takes the old legend of Bluebeard, who married and killed his wives, and turns it into symbolist poetry and an inner drama in which all the wives – four of them – are still alive at the end, to the unknowable extent that they ever were. The opera is all dialogue between Bluebeard and Judith, his latest wife; nothing happens except that Judith opens seven doors and says she sees many things beyond them – but the audience sees nothing. The words are all-important here, which is why the new Naxos recording, despite its many musical pleasures, is ultimately unsatisfying. There is no libretto; very few listeners are likely to know Hungarian well enough to understand what is being said; and the included synopsis is rendered meaningless by the fact that what happens on stage is almost irrelevant to what this opera is about. The performance itself is well above average, with Andrea Meláth especially good, her Judith coming across as more powerful than Gustáv Beláček’s Bluebeard almost to the end, and her voice considerably stronger as well (probably because of the miking: Beláček is sometimes overmatched by the orchestra, while Meláth is not). Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony do a fine job with the music, especially the dark and ominous beginning and the huge orchestral climax before the opening of the seventh door. The one-act, one-hour opera requires the two performers to declaim in a manner that is not quite melodrama, not quite Sprechstimme, and that both singers handle comfortably. As for what this version of the Bluebeard myth really signifies, it is hard to escape the notion that when everything means something, nothing means anything. Librettist Béla Balázs, in seeking profundity, merely created obscurity – certainly for non-Hungarian speakers. Bartók’s music, though, is as much a character as either Judith or Bluebeard, and it is every bit as odd and disturbingly effective today as it was in 1918.

     The three works by Ottorino Respighi are far more straightforward; they are also far less interesting. Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) dates to 1925 (although it was not performed until 1927) and was in fact not written about church windows: the four movements’ titles were added after Respighi finished the suite. The work is pleasant and, as usual with Respighi, cleverly scored. The gently nostalgic first movement, “The Flight into Egypt,” and dramatically warlike second one, “St. Michael the Archangel,” sound best as interpreted by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic. The third movement, “The Matins of St. Clare,” drags, and the finale, “St. Gregory the Great,” never really builds to an impressive climax. Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions) was written in 1928, after Respighi made a trip to Brazil, but this performance never quite takes off. The first and longest movement, “Tropical Night,” should sound more sensuous than it does here; the second, “Butantan” (the name of a research facility where dangerous snakes were raised) is never quite sinuous or menacing enough. “Song and Dance,” the finale, is pleasant, but this performance does not break free into the sort of abandoned joy associated with Brazilian rhythms. Nor is there a sense of delight in Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra, written the same year as Vetrate di chiesa. The suite’s four movements are based on piano pieces that Rossini called Les Riens (“Trifles” or “Nothings”), much in the manner of Respighi’s 1919 ballet, La boutique fantasque. Unfortunately, Rossiniana is not as charming as the earlier work, and Falletta fails to evoke more than occasional joy from it. The one thing missing most on this CD is lightheartedness – a quality that would enhance all the pieces here, including the one whose movements’ titles make it seem to be related to sacred matters.

December 13, 2007


Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages. By Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., Ph.D. Illustrated by Luis V. Rey. Random House. $34.99.

      If you know someone who is serious about dinosaurs – really interested in what they were, how they lived, and what we know and don’t know about them – you can scarcely find a better gift for him or her than this hefty, scientifically accurate, meticulously researched, lavishly illustrated volume. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., a leading authority on tyrannosaurs and the founder and director of the Earth, Life & Time Program at the University of Maryland at College Park, here combines his own knowledge with that of 33 other top paleontologists to present a book about dinosaurs that is truly…well…encyclopedic.

      Younger children will want to start with the pictures: Luis V. Rey is one of the foremost dinosaur illustrators working today, and what he shows is absolutely marvelous – and in line with the best science currently known. It is also often very surprising. For example, his drawing of what Deinonychus – believed to be one of the smartest dinosaurs – could have looked like makes the creature’s head resemble that of a huge turkey, but with numerous super-sharp protruding teeth. Fanciful? Only to an extent: there is no way to know what soft tissues coated dinosaur skulls, since soft tissue does not fossilize, so this carnivore could have looked much like this – or not like this at all.

      It is the combination of carefully marshaled knowledge with free-ranging speculation that makes Dinosaurs such a fascinating book – and not only in the illustrations. The chapter on “Avialians (Birds),” for example, begins by explaining that “to modern scientists, an animal is a dinosaur if it is a descendant of the most recent common ancestor of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus. …[O]ne of the most important discoveries in paleontology of the pasty forty years is that birds are descendants of the most recent common ancestor of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus. In other words, birds are dinosaurs!” This leads to a discussion of flight and feathers (wing and tail), and an aside that is as interesting as anything in the chapter’s main argument: “[S]ome people mistakenly think that marine reptiles like plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs were ‘seagoing dinosaurs.’ Others say that there were no marine dinosaurs. Both groups of people are wrong!” Holtz, of course, then goes on to explain why.

      Even these short excerpts from the text show that this is a plainly written but not simplistic book, rife with exclamation points but well grounded in the findings of modern scientists. The contributions by people other than Holtz himself tend to be more soberly written, but each takes up only a page and deals with a specific subject. Readers interested in a particular focus will find these sections fascinating; others can easily skip them. What no one should skip are the information on finding, classifying and assembling dinosaur fossils; the illustrations showing just how big various dinosaurs were; the “cladograms” showing the relationship among different dinosaurs of similar types; and the wonderfully speculative pictures showing how dinosaurs may have lived, reproduced and interacted. Would-be paleontologists get a fantastic bonus at the end: a multi-page dinosaur genus list in which Holtz tries to arrange all known dinosaurs into appropriate groups. New discoveries of dinosaur species continue to happen regularly – the very recent discovery of a dinosaur that apparently ate low-lying vegetation the ways cows do today occurred too late to be included in this book – so the end-of-book list is certainly not graven in stone; nor are this book’s chapters the last word on anything, since this field is ever-expanding. But Holtz provides such a firm grounding in the world of dinosaurs that an interested reader could certainly use this book as the basis for a long-term study. Or just read the book for fun – it’s equally good, and equally fascinating, on that basis.


Mister B. Gone. By Clive Barker. Harper. $24.95.

The Dark Sacrament: True Stories of Modern-Day Demon Possession and Exorcism. By David M. Kiely and Christina McKenna. HarperOne. $25.95.

      Demons are an ideal subject for horror, being bundles of uncontrollable evil with vast if ill-defined powers to harm humans and their world. But Jakobok Botch, the “Mr. B” in the title of Clive Barker’s new novel, turns out to be somewhat endearing – disgustingly so, it is true, but endearing nevertheless. The book is structured as his (not really “its”) memoir, supposedly written in the mid-15th century, and the connective tissue of the novel is provided by Mr. B’s continual demands that the reader burn the book. Again and again, he orders, cajoles, begs, wheedles and threatens the reader in an attempt to get the book burned – a narrative device that is interesting the first few dozen times but wears thin thereafter, especially since it becomes pretty clear to any careful reader (long before Barker intends it to) why Mr. B would want the book burned. The idea here is that Mr. B will tell the reader snippets of his life story to induce the reader to burn the book. It is a story that starts in the ninth circle of the “Demonation,” a place that one would expect Barker to describe in detail but that, unfortunately, he never really talks much about. It seems to be much like Earth, but uglier and filthier; certainly there is no sign of eternal hellfire, or the eternal cold imagined by Dante when he created the concept of the circles of Hell. The way Mr. B leaves for the upper world, the people he encounters there (some of whom seem more demonic than he), and the adventures he has, make up the bulk of the book. Barker has written masterful horror before, but he is not at his best here, perhaps because he wants Mr. B to be both sympathetic and deeply evil. At one point, for example, he has Mr. B bathing in a tub of babies’ blood, then tries to create a grotesque comic scene by having him found out because he had a hole in his baby-collecting sack and left a trail to his hiding place. This doesn’t quite work. Nor does his relationship with Quitoon, a more-powerful demon who accompanies him for many years and whom Mr. B is surprised (as the reader will not be) to discover that he sort of…loves. The last part of the book, involving Johannes Gutenberg’s discovery of the printing press and the negotiation (not battle) between demonic and heavenly forces over the spoils of the world-changing forces thus unleashed, has effective parts but is mostly rather silly. The problem with Mister B. Gone – whose title, incidentally, makes little sense – is that Barker never quite balances horror and the supernatural against mundane affairs and humor. The book is written well, but to little purpose.

      The purpose of The Dark Sacrament, on the other hand, is explicit: to show that demons exist in the modern world, continue to possess humans, and can be expelled by knowledgeable and trained representatives of organized religion (demons seem not to attack atheists). The book is in many ways more frightening and more humorous than Barker’s, including stories ranging from one of a woman told by her evil, dead grandmother to kill her boyfriend, and one of a little girl who hears a ghost sorting videos in the next room. The cases are treated by one of two exorcists: Canon William Lendrum, a Protestant, or Father Ignatius McCarthy, a Roman Catholic. The Dark Sacrament is structured as if David M. Kiely and Christina McKenna know the exact actions and innermost thoughts of everyone they profile: there are long dialogue scenes that include the precise words spoken by demons to the people they are possessing. And there is never more than a passing mention of possible non-demonic explanations for the occurrences. The woman with the evil grandmother, for example, had two suicide attempts, an eating disorder and depression so deep that it required hospitalization before she was possessed. Nor is there ever any questioning of the power of organized religion. “It is wonderful to participate in such a healing victory,” Canon Lendrum says after treating the girl with the ghost and the videos. “Experiencing the power of God’s love in these situations is something neither I nor those afflicted ever forget.” This is no doubt true for Lendrum and for people whose beliefs allow him to soothe them. It was no doubt true for McKenna, who claims to have had a six-week paranormal experience at age 11 that was resolved by an exorcist (Kiely, her husband, is a freelance writer of biographies, crime novels and mysteries). But readers who do not already believe in demonic possession as strongly as the authors do will find nothing in The Dark Sacrament to change their views. Indeed, the precise recounting of people’s words and thoughts makes the book read more like a novel than a work of nonfiction, and the unquestioning acceptance of organized religion’s version of spirituality guarantees the book an audience with a narrow, if strongly held, set of beliefs.


A Taste for Rabbit. By Linda Zuckerman. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Hungry. By Alethea Eason. HarperCollins. $15.99.

      The idea of a world populated by animals rather than humans is nothing new – it dates back at least to Aesop’s fables. The idea of rabbits as intelligent creatures with their own society is nothing new, either – Watership Down made the notion famous. What Linda Zuckerman does in her first novel, A Taste for Rabbit, is take these previously used ideas and twist them around a bit, producing a fresh look at what it means to be human, even if you are not human-shaped. In Zuckerman’s world, foxes are civilized and are the dominant species. Like humans in our own world, these foxes eat other animals with lesser brainpower; they are especially fond of rabbits, to the point that the foxes are actually dependent on a steady supply of rabbits for food (there is something of a parallel here to humans and cows – at least in much of the world outside India). But then comes a time when rabbits are nowhere to be found: it turns out that they have escaped the foxes’ dominion and established their own society far away. Now what? Obviously, the two societies are destined to collide, and Zuckerman makes sure they do through the time-tested approach of having members of the two societies become friends. In a strict predator-prey relationship, this would be impossible, but A Taste for Rabbit works on the assumption that the foxes are not merely predators – they are intelligent creatures who have ordered their society as best befits them, and they are unaware (until the events of this book) that rabbits are more than…well…dumb animals. Zuckerman arranges for a fox named Harry and a rabbit named Quentin to become friends, and of course both are young, earnest, well-meaning and vaguely aware that the world is out of balance. A Taste for Rabbit is told in chapters, usually alternating ones, focusing on the two friends (with an occasional chapter focused on another character), but the actual narration is third-person: Zuckerman tells what happens to Harry, Quentin, and the two of them together, but the story is not really told from their points of view (which might have made it more interesting – but also more adult than the book is intended to be). Eventually, Harry and Quentin learn that it can be better to trust one’s hereditary enemy than to accept unquestioningly the ideas of one’s own kind – a worthwhile lesson that turns out to extend not only to foxes and rabbits but also to other species.

      But what about a species that is truly alien? That’s what Alethea Eason introduces in her first novel, which is as amusing and frothy as Zuckerman’s is serious and thought-provoking. The basic subject matter is the same – intelligent species eating each other (or not) – but one of the species in question in Eason’s book happens to be Homo sapiens. A novel for middle-schoolers (ages 10 and up), Hungry focuses on a sixth-grader named Deborah, who is just starting to notice boys – especially one particular boy, Willy, whose has curly red hair and radiates coolness and is Deborah’s closest friend. Not that way, at least not yet – but there are certainly possibilities…until Deborah’s parents tell her to turn Willy into lunch. Or dinner. Whatever. The point is that Deborah and her parents are tentacled aliens, and they can eat humans, but not human food. “I wished I could eat like a normal human girl and drink sodas and milk shakes and find out what pizza tasted like,” moans Deborah. “My ski cap began to rise. Dad put his hand on top of my head and gently pushed my tentacles back down.” See, human food will kill Deborah’s family – at least they say they think it will, and as her dad points out, they can’t take the chance of finding out. So what’s a middle-school alien girl in a human overskin to do? Does she help with the invasion scenario (that’s what she and her parents are supposed to be doing on Earth), acknowledging herself as Dbkrrsh of the House of Mpfld, or does she shame her species by trying to stay plain Deborah Jones of Earth? The answer is a little long in coming, and the eventual use of a deus ex machina (actually alien ex machina) is a bit disappointing, but hey, at least Earth is saved at the end. For the time being, anyway.


The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist. By Reviel Netz & William Noel. Da Capo. $27.50.

Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind. By Paula Kamen. Da Capo. $26.

      The Da Vinci Code was fiction. The Archimedes Codex is fact – although some aspects of it read like fiction. The codex is a palimpsest, a manuscript with a new layer of text written over an old one that has been scraped or washed off. The new text is a set of prayers in Greek, written by a monk around the year 1200. The underlying text is what remains of a copy of the papyrus scrolls onto which Archimedes wrote many of his most important discoveries before his death in 212 B.C. The tale of the palimpsest really does read like an adventure story: discovered in Istanbul, partially transcribed in 1906, then stolen or lost, missing until around 1930, bought by a French traveler in an antiques shop, kept in Paris for seven decades (although one page that had been torn from it was analyzed at Cambridge University in England in 1971), and eventually sold in 1998 for $2 million. The authors of The Archimedes Codex are intimately involved in figuring out what it says: William Noel is Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, to which the codex is on loan, and Reviel Netz is a specialist in ancient science and professor of classics and philosophy at Stanford University. Unfortunately, since this is a book of fact and not fiction, it is not as neatly paced as a novel and may not produce knowledge of much interest to the casual reader – although it will be enormously exciting to historians and mathematicians. Just to cite one amazing example, it seems from the codex that Archimedes developed a form of mathematics that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz discovered (or, it now appears, rediscovered) and called The Calculus nearly 2,000 years later. But to get to the discoveries and understand their significance, readers must wade into discussions of the medieval origins of mathematical symbols, the development of abbreviations by the copiers of old manuscripts, and a great deal of theoretical math. The elegance of Archimedes’ reasoning will be readily appreciated by mathematicians, but not by everyday readers, who are unlikely to understand exactly what the authors mean when they write, “Consider that each treatise by Archimedes contains at least one…moment of magic [in its proofs] and you can begin to see the measure of the man.” Unfortunately, this book, for all its fascinations, does not make it easy for the non-specialist to see what that measure is.

      What, then, is the measure of Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, who died a suicide at the age of 30, in 2004? Paula Kamen, a commentator and longtime friend of Chang – whom she had known since they were in college together – sets out in Finding Iris Chang to discover what lay behind the apparent perfection of Chang’s life. That perfection, Kamen reasons, could not have been real, since Chang committed suicide (there were rumors that she was murdered, but there is no evidence of that). And sure enough, Kamen finds out things about Chang that the author herself never wanted revealed – most notably that she struggled with bipolar disorder, likely connected with numerous miscarriages caused by her inability to carry a child to term. Mental illness is more stigmatized in the Asian community than in many others – witness the discussions, after the fact, of the mental state of Seung-Hui Cho, the Korean who killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech last year. Chang was at pains to conceal her psychological problems; Kamen professes herself shocked at the lengths to which Chang went “to appear perfect.” Kamen also reveals that Chang’s son was born to a surrogate mother. These and many other revelations will be at least mildly interesting to fans of Chang’s work, but they are really irrelevant to the quality of the work itself – and unnecessary to understand and be moved by what Chang left behind. Unlike paparazzi-attracting celebrities who spend much of their time acting famous, Chang was quite private about many of the details of her life that Kamen ferrets out and reveals. Although the book is written sensitively, with Kamen expressing considerable affection for Chang, there is a certain unpleasant sense of voyeurism about Finding Iris Chang that makes it seem less a work of friendship than one in which a friendship is, after the fact, exploited.


Norton Internet Security 2008. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $69.99.

Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $39.99.

      It has become an old argument, but it is an ongoing one: why pay for computer protection when you can get it for free? Some argue that it gets harder every year to justify spending significant amounts of money to fight viruses and protect yourself when browsing the Web, because there are better and better antivirus programs available every year without cost, and more and more built-in browser features that keep you safe. Symantec, though, keeps upping the ante for the free and built-in products by giving its admittedly not inexpensive protective software more and more features and making its programs work better and better all the time. Where things stand now is that you can get many (but not all) of the features of Symantec’s products for free or for less money than it will cost you to buy the Norton product line. But you cannot get seamless integration of all the functions, along with ease of use and ease of updating, in the freeware world. It is an individual decision how much the functional simplicity and high quality of the Norton products are worth.

      If you do decide to buy Norton Internet Security 2008, you need to know one limitation: it can be installed on a maximum of three computers. As for Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware, it can be installed on only one machine. And while both products include free updates, they remain free for only one year – so the cost of these offerings actually buys you only a single year of protection (although you can, of course, pay extra to continue getting updates in future years).

      During that one year, though, Norton Internet Security 2008 and Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware will keep your computing remarkably safe – and will make you feel safe while working online or offline, which itself is worth something. Note that you do not need to buy both products: Norton Internet Security 2008 includes all the functions of Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware. If you buy only the antivirus program, you get software that is remarkably effective at blocking viruses (including those from E-mail and IM programs), blocking worms and Trojan horses, stopping online tracking software from following you around the Web, preventing spyware from hijacking your computer and turning it into a “zombie” that (without your knowledge) passes along spam and malicious messages, and getting rid of malware contained in downloaded files. That’s a lot of protection, and Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware provides it simply, constantly and in the background. The software has some neat tweaks for 2008, such as “Symantec Threat Interceptor Browser Defender,” an awkwardly named feature that makes sure malicious code cannot reach your computer even if it shows up on a legitimate Web site that has been compromised; and a home-network mapping feature that lets you see all the computers and devices on your network and identify anything unauthorized. Everything works well, installs easily (provided you have 300 megabytes of available hard disk space), and operates more quickly than in earlier years despite the inclusion of additional features.

      All this adds up to quite a lot of safety, but there is even more in Norton Internet Security 2008 (which takes up 350 megs). It includes additional protection that kicks in when using a wireless connection, plus a setup that only allows authorized programs to contact the Internet – thus preventing anything malicious that does somehow get past other defenses from getting back online and causing mischief. The big additional benefit of Norton Internet Security 2008, though, is the protection it provides for online bill-paying, shopping and investing. It inspects Web sites to be sure they are what they claim to be, thus preventing phishing, and its “Identity Safe” feature stores confidential data and lets users decide how much information is shared with which Web sites (it can also automatically fill in Web forms, a timesaver if not exactly a security element). The features, some enhanced and some new, work efficiently and more quickly than in past versions of this software, and provide a level of online confidence that for some families will, in and of itself, be worth the price of the product.

      It is worth repeating that most of the features of Norton Internet Security 2008 and Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware are available elsewhere for less or no money. Grisoft’s AVG Free Edition 7.5, for example, is a very good antivirus program; the Firefox browser and Internet Explorer 7 (to a lesser degree) include anti-phishing features and data protection; banking and investment sites build in their own identity-protection features; and major Web E-mail programs by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! include some protection against malicious message attachments. It is also worth pointing out that no software, Symantec’s included, is or can be guaranteed to be 100% effective (although a neat Symantec feature can actually detect emerging spyware and viruses whose signatures are not yet confirmed). However, as more and more of family life migrates to the computer, as more and more homes have their own networks, as quick and seamless integration of protective functions becomes ever more important (so users do not have to spend their time doing multiple updates and making sure that free programs work properly together), the cost of a one-stop solution becomes increasingly attractive for many home and small-business users. On that basis, the price of Norton Internet Security 2008 or Norton AntiVirus 2008 with Antispyware will quickly seem like money very well spent.


Hummel: Le retour de Londres—Grand Rondeau brilliant; Variations and Finale in B flat major; Oberons Zauberhorn; Variations in F Major. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Gävle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 10; Overture in F Major. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

      Two of the major post-Beethoven musical figures were both born while Mozart was still alive; yet both were touted for a time as towering composers and worthy Beethoven successors. Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) and Louis (or Ludwig) Spohr (1784-1859) knew each other’s music; Spohr certainly thought well of Hummel’s. Hummel was a friend of Beethoven and was Haydn’s successor as Kapellmeister to Prince Esterházy in Eisenstadt. He was also a piano virtuoso of very considerable skill, with much of his writing for piano designed to demonstrate his own abilities as a performer. Christopher Hinterhuber plays four “showcase” works on this new Naxos CD – and the pieces confirm that Hummel, although scarcely the great composer he was once thought to be, never deserved the obscurity into which he later fell, and is worthy of the somewhat tentative revival of his music that has taken place in recent years.

      Le retour de Londres—Grand Rondeau brilliant is the latest work here, dating to 1833, and is quite impressive. A sweeping, emotional introduction gives way to a rather trivial rondo theme that is varied in a wide variety of ways, from grand and moving to decidedly perky. The Variations and Finale in B flat major of 1830 also begins with a slow introduction, followed by a symmetrical and rather gentle theme in ¾ time that Hummel pulls apart and elaborates in more ways than the basic theme would seem to support. Oberons Zauberhorn (1831) is a fascinating work and a strange one. Purely on its own, it is an impressive dramatic fantasia built around a horn call and including, among other episodes, an unusually dark and dramatic section about two-thirds of the way through. But this work was never intended to be heard without context: it is an interpretative tribute to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Oberon, which is built around a horn theme (but not Hummel’s horn theme) and which features similar episodes (but not using Hummel’s music). It is, in effect, Hummel’s interpretation of the mood of the opera, making references to Weber’s work without actually quoting much of its music. For those who know Oberon, Hummel’s piece will be all the more fascinating. Not so the final work in the CD, though: the Variations in F Major (1820) are workmanlike but not particularly distinguished. However, they do clearly show Hummel’s place in musical history, since the theme itself is distinctly Mozartean, featuring interesting ornamentation and considerable poise and balance. Hinterhuber plays all this music with a great deal of panache, and Uwe Grodd and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra provide absolutely wonderful backup: detailed, enthusiastic and very well played.

      Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie bring enthusiasm and intensity to Spohr’s music on their new CPO recording, and the SACD sound is outstanding: warm and bright by turns, with excellent detail. But the music of Spohr, who was for years touted as a successor and/or alternative to Beethoven, does not hold up particularly well. Spohr’s Symphony No. 3 of 1829 was the first symphony he composed after Beethoven’s death and was widely viewed at the time as showing a new and different direction for the symphony. In retrospect, there is less to it. It is in C minor, the same key as Beethoven’s Fifth, and uses that key to create a sense of seriousness and intense purpose from the beginning. The opening of the first movement is quite dark, and the movement is pervaded by melancholy throughout. The second movement is gentler and well orchestrated, but there is nothing profound about it. There is no lightening of the mood in the third movement, which has rhythmic vigor and strength and some good wind writing. The finale features artful themes that are not particularly attractive or distinguished, although the second theme has nice lilt, and a fugal passage in the development is well constructed. The symphony as a whole leaves the impression of careful, even cautious workmanship.

      The Symphony No. 10, Spohr’s last, is in some ways more interesting. Spohr disavowed the work but did not destroy it, and it turns out – surprisingly – to have charms that hark back to Mozart and Haydn. The first movement has fairly light themes and a more classical structure than would be expected in 1857. The second movement is gentle, with transparent scoring and an untroubled feeling. The third movement is Haydnesque in its use of a start-and-stop theme (although the scoring is clearly post-Haydn), while the contrasting middle section flows pleasantly. The finale also features some thematic hesitation, but is basically broad in structure – and the work as a whole comes across as an attractive throwback, as if Spohr, near the end of his life (and already past the point of being considered some sort of successor to Beethoven) no longer had anything to prove.

      The final work recorded here was written earliest, in 1819, although it was not published in Spohr’s lifetime. The Overture in F Major makes a good encore or curtain-raiser, with a portentous and darkly ominous opening giving way to a driving, well-shaped faster section that builds to a potent stretto at the end. Spohr was once so admired that there is a line in The Mikado about “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” It turns out that that level of admiration was overdone – but there are elements of Spohr’s music that continue to communicate effectively today.

December 06, 2007


The Gilded Bat. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Wuggly Ump. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

How to Understand, Enjoy and Draw Optical Illusions. By Robert Ausbourne. Pomegranate. $14.95.

M.C. Escher Kaleidocycles. By Doris Schattschneider and Wallace Walker. Pomegranate. $24.95.

      Looking for an unusual stocking stuffer for someone who thinks he or she has everything? Or perhaps a more substantial gift for the same sort of person? Just how offbeat are you willing to be? Here are two small items and two larger ones that are highly unusual – and almost certainly not things that even a picky gift recipient will have seen before.

      Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was an artist whose extraordinarily careful style and attention to detail were inevitably put at the service of subject matter that was a trifle…err…weird. The Golden Bat and The Wuggly Ump are eerily delightful little books that show Gorey at his best, which means at his strangest. The Golden Bat is a ballet story – a very peculiar one, indeed. It starts when a little girl named Maudie Splaytoe is found to be fascinated by a dead bird (this is typical Gorey humor). She learns ballet in a tale sprinkled with realistic pictures of dancers at practice combined with thoroughly offbeat specifics of Maudie’s advances: “She was given her first solo as the Papillon Enragé [“angry butterfly,” superbly portrayed by Gorey] in a revival of Golopine’s Jardin de Regrets. Throughout all her professional progress, though, “her life did not cease to be somewhat dreary” – and Gorey’s blacks and grays beautifully show the dreariness. There is no happy ending here – this is Gorey, after all – but Maudie’s eventual exit, which makes the book’s title clear, represents the sort of grim humor that Gorey fans (and people who do not yet know they are Gorey fans) will find irresistible.

      The Wuggly Ump is grimly humorous in a slightly different way. There is more brightness in the drawings, and the tale is told in the sort of singsong poetry that immediately identifies this as a children’s book. But it is a Gorey children’s book, which means you just know the three wholesome kids seen at the start are going to come to a bad end – and that the Wuggly Ump will have something to do with it: “It eats umbrellas, gunny sacks,/ Brass doorknobs, mud, and carpet tacks./ How most unpleasing, to be sure!/ Its other habits are obscure.” The reader will no doubt guess the other habits well before the end – and see them, in Gorey’s inimitable style, at the end.

      Too grim? Or perhaps not a big enough gift, since the Gorey books are stocking-stuffer size? Consider, then, How to Understand, Enjoy and Draw Optical Illusions, a fascinating and very colorful exploration of pictures that seem to be one thing but in fact are something else. Robert Ausbourne does not merely explain how illusions work (although he does that, and quite clearly). He shows readers exactly how to create 37 of them, each with step-by-step instructions that are a breeze to follow and lead to some truly fascinating completed projects. Ausbourne never takes himself or his subject too seriously (“Serious artists should know where the point end of a pencil is”), but he takes his instructions seriously, and that is what matters. From broken lines that seem not to join (but do), to shapes that look three-dimensional when drawn but cannot be created in a three-dimensional world, Ausbourne shows why the eye is tricked by careful but simple drawings – and how to trick it.

      The great modern master of this sort of trickery was M.C. Escher (1898-1972), who is legendary for his impossible buildings, metamorphoses of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional ones and back again, and staircases and waterfalls in which it is impossible to tell what is down and what is up. A fantastic gift for a very special person is M.C. Escher Kaleidocycles, in which mathematician Doris Schattschneider and graphic designer Wallace Walker go several steps beyond Ausbourne’s drawn illusions to show readers how to produce 3D objects whose even divisions of the plane form the basis on which Escher created many of his most famous works. The 48-page book contains more than 80 reproductions and diagrams of kaleidocycles, which are closed-chain solids with four identical triangular surfaces that can cycle endlessly through a center hole. These are wonderful to learn about and even more delightful to construct. M.C. Escher Kaleidocycles includes 17 geometric models, each of them die-cut and scored for (relatively) easy assembly. Six are geometric solids, which are highly interesting in themselves; the other 11 are kaleidocycles. This and How to Understand, Enjoy and Draw Optical Illusions are “project” books at their best: unusual, very informative, packed with science and – above all – a great deal of fun. In fact, if you can’t think of an appropriate recipient for them, why not get them for yourself?