May 29, 2008


Oodles of Animals. By Lois Ehlert. Harcourt. $17.

Tadpole Rex. By Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt. $16.

Jim Arnosky’s All About Manatees. By Jim Arnosky. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Colored papers in nine shapes are all that Lois Ehlert needs to create an utterly charming book about animals for kids ages 3-7. Oodles of Animals includes bugs and birds, fish and mammals, large creatures and small ones, all made from squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, diamonds, half circles, ovals, hearts and teardrops – plus a dollop (or a heaping helping) of imagination. Ehlert goes for the salient characteristics of each animal: a crocodile’s big teeth and googly eyes (never mind that real crocodiles’ eyes are rather small); a crab’s claws; a swan’s long, graceful white neck. Short rhyming comments go with each illustration: “A bat frown is a smile upside down.” “A hedgehog is prickly and small in size, like a pincushion with two beady eyes.” “Walrus skin is rubbery, and tusks rest on belly blubbery.” Everything is fun here – with the most enjoyment coming from seeing the thoroughly unrealistic but thoroughly delightful, impressionistic way that Ehlert gives each made-from-paper creature its own unique personality.

      Tadpole Rex has a personality, too – an outsize one. Kurt Cyrus’ book is set “deep in the goop of a long-ago swamp,” where an amphibian egg brings forth a tadpole with “an inner tyrannosaur.” Although tiny by comparison with the huge creatures around him, this little tadpole – after changing into a full-grown frog – refuses to be intimidated: “Bouncing around with the boldest of hops,/ Rex nearly tripped a triceratops.” The brief and amusing adventure ends with an explanation that even though the dinosaurs are long gone, “frogs of all fashions continue to huddle/ around any suitable freshwater puddle.” Rex looks a lot like modern-day frogs – except that he has teeth, as some prehistoric frogs did. By giving him a distinctive personality, Cyrus helps young readers (ages 3-7) enjoy and perhaps identify with Tadpole Rex – and that may give them empathy for modern-day amphibians, which (as Cyrus points out in an author’s note at the end) are increasingly threatened by pollution and habitat loss.

      Manatees are threatened, too – mainly by the human use of boats, whose propellers gash the marine mammals’ thick skin. Wires and fishnets also can trap and injure manatees, or even kill them if they prevent the huge animals from swimming properly or surfacing to breathe air. Jim Arnosky’s All About Manatees provides a basic introduction to these strange-looking creatures, which are distantly related to elephants. Although manatees are quite real, it is hard to imagine them if you haven’t seen them, so Arnosky’s drawings are really helpful. Even if you did see a manatee, it is unlikely that you would get close enough to observe everything Arnosky shows: the algae growing on its skin, the hairs on its back (like other mammals, manatees have hair), or the three “fingernails” on each of its feet (manatees have front feet only, with a broad tail in the rear). Arnosky explains, and shows graphically, why manatees are not attacked by the large predators among which they live, such as alligators and sharks: they are simply too big and too tough-skinned. But he also shows how human activity has killed many manatees – boat collisions, for example, can leave the injured animals unable to maneuver or dive properly, so they eventually die. Arnosky’s sensitive text and clear illustrations may help young people better respect a highly unusual animal that is strange enough to be imaginary, but that really does live and swim, especially in warm Florida waters, all year long.


Confessions of a Serial Kisser. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $15.99.

The Temptress Four. By Gaby Triana. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Better Latte Than Never. By Catherine Clark. HarperTeen. $5.99.

      It’s not quite summer yet by the calendar, but summer-reading books have sprouted faster than the spring flowers. Many, including these three, are aimed at high-school girls; and while the plots are formulaic to the point of silliness, some of the writing is bright and interesting enough to make the books worthwhile for beach or lazy-day reading. That’s the case with Confessions of a Serial Kisser, thanks to Wendelin Van Draanen’s sure stylistic hand. The book’s protagonist – 16-year-old (later 17-year-old) Evangeline Bianca Logan (how’s that for a name?) – suffers from the parental marital angst that permeates most of this genre. In the course of searching innocently (all right, fairly innocently) through her mother’s things, she discovers a cache of romance novels, which she glances at just to confirm how awful they are. And soon enough, Evangeline is hooked – not so much on the books as on the concept of being swept up in strong arms and whisked away to a land of perfect contentment where crimson kisses befuddle the senses (but not enough to lead too far; this is not that sort of book). So of course Evangeline goes in search of the perfect kiss at her high school, which leads to some really awful lip locks and some really bad mistakes (such as kissing her best friend’s crush). And all this, of course, leads to the inevitable life lessons, including one about forgiveness – even if that means forgiving her two-timing father. There’s not a shred of profundity here, but there are some neat chapter titles (such as “The Kissing Corridor,” “Plenty of Mouth to Go Around,” and “Page 143” [which starts on page 161]); and Van Draanen provides a bright, perky writing style and a soupy, love-affirming conclusion.

      The Temptress Four covers many of the same bases, but with four protagonists with “how-about-that” names: Killian, Alma, Yoli, and narrator Fiona DeArmas. They are BFFs who have just made it through high school and are on an eight-day Caribbean cruise to celebrate graduation – but under the cloud of a fortune teller’s prediction that one of them will not return. The girls experience massages, jealousy, uncertainty about the future, flirting (in which Killian and her breasts take the lead), liquor, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, and of course guys (current boyfriends and “hmm, maybes”). Fiona makes an attempt or two at showing that she has inner thoughts: “I told him all about the pastry arts program. How I was really excited about it, but that I didn’t want to be graduating so quickly because it’d mean starting to work all the earlier, but how my mother really wanted it because she had had to work so hard as a single mom, and this way, I would have it made in the shade.” That’s about as profound as the thinking gets (and the style). But there are really no depths to plumb here; and the answer to the “who doesn’t return?” question turns out to be not much of a surprise. And, of course, everyone learns a little something about everyone else, and about herself….

      And so it goes as well in Better Latte Than Never, originally published in 2003 and now available in paperback. Catherine Clark, a reliable producer of never-too-heavy teen lit, here focuses on Peggy Fleming Farrell, whose parents have named all their kids after ice-skating stars (Peggy’s little sister, for instance, is Dorothy Hamill Farrell). A two-parent family is a rarity in teen books, but in this case it’s an important part of the plot, since Peggy’s parents have grounded her for wrecking the family station wagon, and now Peggy has to work at a coffee shop inside a gas station even though she can’t drive there, and she has to pay them back for all the money from other accidents she had, and it’s all so unfair. And her father, a highly persuasive real-estate agent, decides that he wants Peggy to ice skate with him even though she hasn’t skated for years and doesn’t like it anymore. And Peggy has to go everywhere by rollerblade, which puts her in the path of a nasty dog; or by bike, enduring the indignity of dealing with inconsiderate drivers: “On my way home, an eighteen-wheeler veers into the bike lane and nearly dusts me. This town has no soul. And nobody yields to your love. Nobody yields, period.” Peggy is obviously way overdue for some good stuff to happen, but she’s stuck dealing with Kamikaze Bus Driver and her pregnant-again mother. Oh…and a robber whom she helps catch and who then starts complaining about her French accent, because he’s really…well, let’s just say that things are a little weirder in Better Latte Than Never than in typical summer-fun books, and that’s a good thing, even though it comes around at last to an entirely typical-for-books-of-this-sort question: “Evolve. Is that what I’ve been doing?”


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian—The Original Novel. By C.S. Lewis. HarperEntertainment. $7.99 (oversize paperback); $6.99 (standard paperback).

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian—The Movie Storybook. Adapted by Lana Jacobs. HarperEntertainment. $8.99.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian—Fight for the Throne. Adapted by J.E. Bright. HarperEntertainment. $4.99.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian—This Is Narnia; Lucy’s Journey. Adapted by Jennifer Frantz. HarperTrophy. $3.99 each.

      C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series is not really in need of a revival – it has remained popular for more than 50 years – but it is certainly getting a boost from the movie industry. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, released in 2005, was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Prince Caspian. The chronology of the movies is confusing, but so is that of the books: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first book written (1950) but stands second in the event sequence, while Prince Caspian was written second (1951) but is fourth in terms of the overall plot.. The films, of course, do not follow Lewis’ events slavishly, and the time sequencing in the Narnia books is itself flexible enough (with events in Narnia and on Earth occurring at different rates) so that the movies can make of the stories pretty much what they will.

      The film version of Prince Caspian has inspired quite a number of books, of which this crop is only a sampling. The “purest” books are two versions of the original novel, albeit with actors from the film on their covers and stills from the movie inside. The text is the same in both paperbacks, and includes the book’s original black-and-white drawings, which are less spectacular than the movie images but considerably more atmospheric.

      The other books here chop up the story, and the film, in various ways. The Movie Storybook is a thin hardcover that is just what the title says: the entire film compressed into 48 pages of movie images and connective text. This book is based on the screenplay, which is based on the novel – which means it is twice removed from Lewis’ original conception, but close to what the filmmakers created. The rest of these books are thin paperbacks. Prince Caspian—Fight for the Throne is also an adaptation from the movie screenplay, lacking any movie stills and written at about a second-grade reading level. For even younger children, This Is Narnia and Lucy’s Journey are Stage 2 books in the “I Can Read!” series, which means they are intended for kindergartners and other just-developing young readers. Scenes from the film amply illustrate both books, each of which tells only a part of the movie’s story – enough, perhaps, to whet young appetites for a trip to the film…or, even better, to get them interested enough so that, within a few years, they will want to read the original Prince Caspian novel in the form in which Lewis wrote it.


Take the Stress out of Your Life: A Medical Doctor’s Proven Program to Minimize Stress and Maximize Health. By Jay Winner, M.D. Da Capo. $20.

Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power. By Kelly Lambert, Ph.D. Basic Books. $26.

      Putting the healthcare credentials of the authors in the subtitles of these books is supposed to give readers confidence in the authors’ prescriptions. The authors’ recommendations may indeed prove effective for some people – and Kelly Lambert has certainly come up with an intellectually interesting mind-body connection – but it would be a mistake to believe that either of these books offers an easy answer to some very vexing and difficult concerns of modern life.

      When it comes to beating (or at least lowering) stress, everyone has the same basic recommendations: take it easy; slow down; don’t let little things get to you; regard frustrating situations as opportunities to practice patience, understanding and other virtues; think about whether something stressful will matter 10 years from now; go to a mental “happy place” when under stress; and so on. All these ideas appear in Jay Winner’s Take the Stress out of Your Life, and all will have value for some people under some circumstances. What Winner , a family physician and stress specialist, offers that goes beyond the standard stress-reducing ideas and techniques is a pair of CDs that you can use to guide yourself through meditative exercises that should make you feel less stressed. There are five “guided tours” per CD, with such titles as “Letting Go Meditation” and “Loving-Kindness Meditation,” and the book’s text shows how to use each CD element as a stress reducer. The CDs are a nice bonus, but the core of the book is its written ideas, and they are nothing particularly new or special. As with other frustrating elements of life – overeating, for example, or alcohol addiction – there are known ways to cope with the problem of stress, and those methods are effective…provided that a person wants them to succeed. Personal determination is ultimately what matters for stress reduction as for other physical and emotional challenges. Whether Winner’s book is a winner for you will depend on whether his style of explaining what are essentially well-known stress-reduction techniques strikes a responsive chord in you and makes you want to do what he suggests. “Turn everyday routines into special moments of relaxation,” Winner suggests at one point. “Make a bath or shower into a meditation: Feel the warm water on your body, enjoy your fingers massaging your scalp as you shampoo, notice the soap lather, and feel the texture of the towel as you dry off.” If this mindfulness regarding ordinary events attracts you, so will Winner’s book; if you find it silly or inapplicable to your life, Winner will seem simplistic. “When you have spent time noticing that all things change, the car breaking down is not the end of the world – it’s expected.” Does that sort of thinking work for you during a rush-hour freeway breakdown, or not?

      Lifting Depression deals with stress as well, but only as part of Lambert’s overall discussion of depression avoidance or cure. Lambert understands that depression is a serious condition, and she does not take it lightly or confuse it with “having the blues” occasionally. She chairs the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College and specializes in research using animals – specifically rats, whose brains resemble human brains in many ways and whose behavior led Lambert to the ideas in this book. What she found, and what she subsequently discovered in other animal research as well, is that purposeful physical activity appears to be an effective way of lifting or warding off depression. In humans, whose brains have a disproportionate number of links to hand movement, physical work involving the hands – whether ditch digging or knitting – seems to provide depression protection. This is a fascinating finding, and one that goes against the trend of therapeutic emphasis on mental activity as a way to combat depression. But there are flaws with Lambert’s concept, not necessarily for depression avoidance (she may well be right that earlier generations were less depression-prone because they had to do far more manual labor) but for depression mitigation. A person who can barely get out of bed to face the day cannot be expected to gather the internal energy to undertake manual labor; and the techniques that get rats going (food deprivation if they fail to start moving, for instance) simply do not work on humans. There are also writing flaws, from the niggling to the substantive, in Lambert’s book – and they may well call into question the accuracy of her analysis. For example, she praises Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, as “one of society’s great neuro-philosophers” for his “running commentary on the human condition,” but she refers to Hobbes as a “talking stuffed cat” – when anyone who has ever read even a single Watterson strip knows that Hobbes is a tiger. More significantly, she talks about the parts of the human brain, including the reptilian portion and “the more recently evolved mammalian brain (bringing onboard more complex responses such as parental behavior, play, and rudimentary communication)” – apparently not knowing that certain reptiles exhibit all the characteristics that she attributes to mammalian brain development (alligators, for example, guard and protect their young and communicate with them, and the hatchlings play together). What Lifting Depression offers is a very interesting alternative to the type of depression treatment that focuses purely on mental processes – and a possible new approach for people to try in an attempt to avoid becoming depressed in the first place. It is unlikely that this is the solution to depression, but it may well be a solution; and to the extent that it helps even a small number of people, it will be a large contribution to the field.


Liszt: Two-Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass, pianos. Naxos. $8.99.

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6. Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Naxos. $8.99.

      Liszt’s solo-piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies were a milestone in piano literature and in the resurgence of interest in Beethoven’s music, which Liszt tremendously admired. The transcription of the Ninth gave Liszt the most trouble, because he was so hesitant to reduce the choral passages of the finale to the notes playable on a single piano. It was only in 1865, three decades after starting his project of transcribing the Beethoven symphonies for piano solo, that Liszt finally finished that of the Ninth. In the interim, though, he had done a transcription of this symphony for two pianos, in 1851 – and that version has some interesting divergences from the single-piano version and some advantages over it. When played as well as Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass play it, the two-piano version has a fullness, an exploration of tonalities and rhythms, that the single-piano version never quite attains. Yes, it still sounds like a pale black-and-white rendition of the wonderfully colored orchestral score; and yes, the inevitable absence of the chorus in the finale seems very strange indeed in an age as familiar with the Ninth as ours is. But taken on its own, this transcription is a remarkable accomplishment. A listener can, in effect, hear the skeleton underlying the fully fleshed-out orchestral Ninth – with careful reproduction of Beethoven’s original phrasing. Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions, including this one, are still curiosities for a modern audience – there is in fact little of Liszt in them – but this particular one is especially well worth hearing.

      The symphonies of Carl Nielsen are well worth hearing, too, although the juxtaposition of the First and Sixth on a single CD is an odd one – it is hard to believe that these came from the same composer, even 30-some years apart. True, there are characteristic Nielsen touches in both: these are tonal symphonies that can never quite decide what key they are in (No. 1 swings between G minor and C major, and No. 6 between G major and B-flat major). The First is a fairly straightforward late-Romantic symphony (although the tempo indication of the first movement, Allegro orgoglioso, is pure Nielsen), filled with sweep and passion, with vigorous outer movements, a pastoral Andante, and a gentle Scherzo. Michael Schønwandt leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR with strength and understanding here, in a performance from 2000 that sounds as good now as it did when originally released by the Danish label Dacapo. But the reading of the Sixth, also a re-release from 2000, is even better. This is an extremely strange symphony whose quicksilver mood changes and bizarreries of orchestration keep the audience constantly unsure of what is going on and what will happen next. Nielsen called it, with supreme irony, Sinfonia semplice, because “simple” is the one thing it assuredly is not. Cheerful themes start and stop unexpectedly; outbursts from one section or another of the orchestra are common; the second movement is given entirely to wind and percussion, with the third handed to strings; and the finale is a messy masterpiece: a theme and variations in which utterly trivial tunes give way to great blasts of intensity, a strange waltz with Ivesian dissonance dominates for a while, and eventually a trumpet fanfare practically shouts, “Let’s get this over with already,” and the work ends with a raspberry on the bassoon. Some of this is laugh-out-loud music – a real rarity in a post-Haydn symphony – and some of it is deeply felt; and the way the emotions mingle is simply extraordinary. Nielsen’s final symphony is an unsettling and altogether wonderful experience, especially when performed as well as it is on this recording.


Hanson: Suite from the Opera “Merry Mount”; Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Robert Russell Bennett: Suite of Old American Dances; John Williams: Arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; Joseph Wilcox Jenkins: American Overture; Christopher Tucker; Ceremonial Fanfare; Steven Bryant: Radiant Joy; Sousa: The Washington Post March. Lone Star Wind Orchestra conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon; Richard Shuster, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ernst Toch: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Burlesken for Piano; Three Impromptus for Cello; Piano Quintet. Spectrum Concerts Berlin: Daniel Blumenthal, piano; Annette von Hehn and Julia-Maria Kretz, violins; Hartmut Rohde, viola; Frank Dodge, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

      While some American composers embrace their country wholeheartedly, others seem more uneasy or uncomfortable with it – so that American music is as likely to be uncertain and even dour as it is to be bright and uplifting. Eugene Migliaro Corporon and the Lone Star Wind Orchestra mainly favor the positive in their well-played mixture of familiar and unfamiliar works by well-known and less-known composers. Howard Hanson’s sole opera, Merry Mount, is scarcely upbeat: based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, it is about repressed lust in Puritan times that eventually leads to murder. Hanson’s suite from the opera dates to 1938; this wind-band version, created by John Boyd in 2000, retains the strong depictions of sternness and unrequited passion. The rest of the CD comprises far more affirmative music. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue gets a well-played, rhythmic performance, with Richard Shuster as pianist, in a rendition made up of the Ferde Grofé orchestrations of 1924 and 1926 – an interesting variant on the familiar full-orchestra version, although not, in truth, as effective. Robert Russell Bennett’s 1949 Suite of Old American Dances looks back enthusiastically to tunes from the 19th century. The rest of the works here are short. Joseph Wilcox Jenkins’ American Overture (1955) has folklike melodies and uses the band’s instruments well – it is an original band composition, not an arrangement. Christopher Tucker’s Ceremonial Fanfare (2004) is fairly sober – it is based on a piece Tucker wrote after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – and has a majestic feeling. Radiant Joy by Steven Bryant, written in 2006, follows Tucker’s piece on the CD and is a strong contrast to it, being very upbeat and filled with elements of jazz and pop music. The CD starts and ends with real American classics. John Williams’ 2004 arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, which opens the disk, is strong and respectful – this 18th-century British drinking song has long since become defining American music, although it was not designated the national anthem until 1931. John Philip Sousa’s 1889 The Washington Post March, which closes the CD, has been tremendously popular for well over a century, and its high-spirited two-step remains a strong affirmation of American spirit today.

      But not all composers thought of as American fit easily into the country’s musical life. Ernst Toch (1887-1964) never fully did. An Austrian Jew who fled to the United States after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Toch was musically self-taught (learning fundamentals from Mozart’s string quartets) and himself became an important theorist and teacher. Late in life, between 1950 and 1964, he crafted seven well-wrought symphonies, the third of which won a Pulitzer Prize. But even though Toch created all those symphonies in the United States, and wrote for more than a dozen Hollywood films between 1933 and 1945, his heart remained in the Old World and his music remained reflective of it. The four works performed by members of Spectrum Concerts Berlin show this clearly. The Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano dates to 1928 and is suffused with melancholy. Burlesken for solo piano is from 1923; its three short movements are more upbeat, notably its concluding “Der Jongleur.” Toch himself was an accomplished pianist, and this work shows his virtuoso interests. The Three Impromptus for Cello are quite late, written in 1963, and are one of three compressed sets of solo-instrument music – the others being for violin and viola. The Piano Quintet, which dates to 1938, is the largest work on this CD – longer than all the others combined – and the most unusual and impressive. In four movements called “The Lyrical Part,” “The Whimsical Part,” “The Contemplative Part” and “The Dramatic Part,” Toch provides power, wit and ingenuity aplenty, sustaining musical flow effectively throughout – always within a language that is essentially European rather than in any way American, for all that the piece was written five years after Toch arrived in the U.S. It is in some ways ironic that a composer who fit so uneasily into the “American music” mold is buried in Los Angeles.

May 22, 2008


Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas. By Kara LaReau. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Harcourt. $16.

Snoring Beauty. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Howard Fine. Harcourt. $16.

Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters. Lyrics by Kelly DiPucchio. Pictures by Gris Grimly. Scholastic. $15.99.

      There’s not much that’s cute and cuddly going on in these books, and that will be just fine with the kinds of three-to-eight-year-olds who will enjoy them – if you have one in the house, you know who he or she is. Take Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas – Kara LaReau could be writing a fable about the way wars get started, and maybe she is, but she underplays the grandiose theme by simply having the two ridiculous-looking characters (Scott Magoon deserves a lot of credit for their appearance) get angrier and angrier at each other as their precious vegetables disappear. Each knows that the other one is responsible, and each declares the other a sworn enemy – but before things get too nasty, LaReau reveals that neither of the characters really owns the vegetables over which they have been fighting. They both have to flee their homes – their enmity intact – but LaReau holds out the hope that eventually they will realize that they will get more to eat by cooperating and growing a garden together than by fighting all the time. There could certainly be a political parallel there, but whether LaReau intends one or not isn’t the point. What matters is that she shows how unreasoning anger can build to genuine hatred for what turns out to be no cause at all – with both sworn enemies finding themselves worse off as a result. It’s a good message for both the world at large and the school playground.

      Snoring Beauty is a more upbeat story and a stranger one. This is no surprise: Bruce Hale created the Chet Gecko series about a grade-school detective who loves puns as much as solving mysteries, so this picture book was bound to be way over on the odd side. And so it is, starting with the frog narrator (elegantly dressed by Howard Fine in a courtier’s costume) who is fond of such phrases as “Yada yada, hippity-hop.” This is the old Sleeping Beauty story, but Charles Perrault would never recognize it. The fairies have such names as Fleabitis and Tintinnitus, the king and queen are named Gluteus and Esophagus (which at least is better than Buttock and Gullet), the kingdom at large cares not at all about the birth of the baby princess, and the evil fairy has butterfly wings and a scowl (and smells like garlic). Thanks to a series of misunderstandings, the princess is doomed to be run over by a pie wagon and turned into a sleeping dragon that can only be awakened by a quince. And then things get even more ridiculous, as impossible as that seems. For one thing, all the fairy gifts make the princess much better at everything than anyone else – so no one wants to play with her and she grows up lonely. For another thing, when she does turn into the sleeping dragon, she snores – or rather SNORES, because she is perfect at that, too. Puns and silliness lead to an eventual happy ending that does, however, require the princess’s rescuer to wear ear plugs. The tale is hilarious from start to finish.

      There’s hilarity of a different sort in Sipping Spiders Through a Straw, whose deliciously weird Gris Grimly pictures almost upstage the twisted song lyrics of Kelly DiPucchio. Actually, their oddity is about even, which makes the book spookily delightful. Try singing “99 Bottles of Blood on the Wall,” or perhaps “Home of the Strange”: “Oh, give me a home/ where the Boogie Men roam,/ where the ghosts and the green goblins play.” And so on. Baseball fans can try “Take Me Out to the Graveyard,” and kids who enjoy old railroad songs can sing “I’ve Been Running Over Road Toads.” The words are imaginably weird and the pictures unimaginably so: the bride-and-groom insects and their little maggots in the title song, the Frankenstein monster with whipped cream and a cherry on top, the flying head with attached spinal column in “My Body Lies Over the Ocean,” and many more. Parents may find the whole thing a little gross. Kids will find it very gross – and love it.


The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! By Lisa Dombrowski. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.

      The name of Samuel Fuller is probably not the first one most people will think of when considering directors whose lifework was highly influential. But Fuller was an American original of the slam-bang sort, as the somewhat-cleaned-up subtitle of Lisa Dombrowski’s book indicates. In The Steel Helmet, the 1951 film that Fuller wrote, produced and directed and from which the quotation comes, the character Sergeant Zack, played by Gene Evans, isn’t well-spoken enough to say “you.” What he grunts is something like “yuh.”

      The Films of Samuel Fuller is the first scholarly treatment of the director’s work, and even if Fuller himself might have scoffed at the notion of there being anything “scholarly” in what he did, he would surely have appreciated the care with which Dombrowski – an associate professor of film at Wesleyan University – follows and dissects his career and gives his films all they are due and perhaps a bit more.

      Fuller (1912-1997) has a very extensive Hollywood biography, including work as a writer, producer, actor, cinematographer and production supervisor as well as director. He wrote an autobiography (A Third Face, 2002), was the subject of half a dozen biographies, and had four biographical or semi-autobiographical movies made about him: The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (1996); Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994); Sam Fuller and the Big Red One (1979); and The Real Glory: Reconstructing 'The Big Red One' (2005). War movies were his specialty – The Big Red One (1980) earned Fuller a Golden Palm nomination, and was one of several Fuller films that included a couple of events that happened to the director himself during military service.

      But Dombrowski is less concerned with writing another Fuller biography than with analyzing his films and preoccupations through the years, seeing what changed as the studio system tightened and then came apart, and finding the kernels of opinion and worldview that made Fuller unique. One such kernel is his treatment of war, which he refused to glorify. Back to The Steel Helmet: “Fuller grafted his own war experiences onto a generic foundation provided by the WWII combat film, participating in a redirection of the genre toward darker themes.” The film’s final declaration – “there is no end to this story” – is “superimposed over a shot of the bedraggled remains of the platoon [and] lacks any triumphant or redeeming element.” Fuller never lost sight of entertainment values, but he did push his audience from time to time, even including a mention of U.S. internment camps for Japanese citizens at a time when the camps were rarely discussed. Much later, in 1982, he made a film called White Dog about a murderous stray dog programmed from birth to attack black people – and went into a self-imposed 13-year exile when the movie was widely misinterpreted.

      Dombrowski traces Fuller’s visions as they emerged and solidified during times she calls “The Lippert Years, 1948-1951,” “The Fox Years, 1951-1956,” and so on. For example, the brutality of war became the brutality of the Cold War in Pickup on South Street, in which a pickpocket accidentally steals government secrets from a Communist courier. But Fuller’s harder-edged dramas were not always his biggest successes. He did especially well with Hell and High Water (1954), which Dombrowski calls “Fuller’s most conventional film.” He did less well with House of Bamboo (1955), Hollywood’s first film shot in Japan, even though, as Dombrowski says, it “represents the most nuanced blending of Fuller’s visual aesthetic with the classical stylistic conventions that governed the high-quality, A-picture output of the major studios.” Nor does Dombrowski simply make sweeping statements about the films – she backs her comments up with close analysis of scripts and individual scenes. She gives short shrift only to “The Final Battles, 1965-1997,” compressing 32 years of Fuller’s life into 32 pages. The problem for Fuller was that most of his projects remained unproduced during this time, since they tended to “ignore Hollywood’s emerging focus on the youth market and hew toward war, thriller, and biopic stories.” Still, Hollywood made quite a few war films and thrillers in this period, and Dombrowski’s failure to analyze the reasons for Fuller’s inability to get movies made is one of her few oversights. Yet he did make some movies even during this late-career period, and Dombrowski dissects them skillfully, especially when it comes to the intricacies and unusual visuals of Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1970), made for a German TV series called Scene of the Crime. Dombrowski believes that Fuller still had it, whatever “it” was, although she is honest enough to say that the tone of Dead Pigeon confused many people, and it got only limited U.S. release. It is as hard to sum up Fuller’s career and contributions as it is to sum up Dombrowski’s book without reading the whole thing – which, for students of the art of filmmaking, seems like a very good thing to do.


The Hope Chest. By Karen Schwabach. Random House. $16.99.

Warriors: Power of Three—Book Three: Outcast. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Outsiders who want very much to belong lie at the heart of both these books, despite the tremendous differences in their topics and storytelling styles. The Hope Chest is historical fiction, set mainly in 1920, when women’s suffrage was all the rage – and causing all the rage among the “Antis” who opposed the “Suffs.” To layer on an extra level of emotional complexity, Karen Schwabach makes one of her protagonists a young black girl, caught smack in the middle of the Jim Crow era while also hoping against hope that maybe people of her gender and race will one day soon get to make their voices heard at the ballot box. Schwabach gets her points across mostly through stereotypes. Eleven-year-old Violet is plucky, determined to find her older sister, Chloe, who bucked the conventions of the time and the family by moving from Pennsylvania to New York City instead of getting respectably married and settling down. Violet learns that Chloe has headed for Tennessee to fight for women’s right to vote, so she has to follow her there, where Chloe does such scandalous things as dancing with men. Meanwhile, Myrtle, who is “colored,” has to endure slights large and small. And the characters who deliver them speak mostly in clichés: “I know what it looks like to you Northerners, the way we do things in the South. Our special customs. But we have a very harmonious relationship between the races down here. Very harmonious.” Or, as the Antis discuss a way to make the upcoming vote on women’s suffrage go their way, “All we need is for the Jew to disappear for a week or so. That’ll throw the Suffs into…a tizzy.” Schwabach includes some real people in her book, although the main characters are fictional; she explains at the end which are which, and also offers background on World War I, the flu epidemic of 1918, and the timeline for the 19th Amendment (which granted women the right to vote) and beyond. She has clearly done her research, and she writes in a straightforward style that should appeal to preteens with an interest in American history; but her characters never really come alive as individual people, and it is hard to care about them in more than a generic way.

      The characters in the various Warriors sagas are not human at all – these intertwined stories are about clans of intelligent cats – and it can be hard to tell many of them apart. But the central characters in Erin Hunter’s books do have their own personalities, and with the third book in the Warriors: Power of Three series, those personalities emerge more strongly than ever. The meaning of the word “outcast” is considered from many angles here. It refers to one of the three grandchildren of famed Clan leader Firestar – Jaypaw. Unlike Lionpaw and Hollypaw, Jaypaw knows about a secret prophecy that seems to promise the three young cats great power and the Clans great peril. “Outcast” also refers to the Tribe of Rushing Water, a cat group organized differently from the way the Clans are and subjected to unforeseen and dangerous pressures. Jaypaw meets the Tribe when he journeys to the mountains in search of more information about the prophecy. But when he encounters ghostly ancestral cats, from whom he seeks help, he does not learn quite what he wishes: “‘Yes.’ The old cat breathed out the word. ‘Three will come, kin of the cat with fire in his pelt, who hold the power of the stars in their paws.’” Then the ancestors urge Jaypaw to bring the Clan cats to help the Tribe, and the Tribe members themselves argue about the need for help – the Tribe is starving – and the need, perhaps a greater one, to maintain their independence and way of life. In scenes of battle and healing, Hunter continues to explore her themes of power and civilization, using cats as surrogates for human epic heroes. At the end, Jaypaw decides at last to share the prophecy with Lionpaw and Hollypaw – setting the scene for the next book, in which perhaps all three will feel like outcasts.


The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation. By Clint Willis. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $18.

Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings—The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship. By David Pitts. Da Capo. $17.

Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music. By Michael Bracewell. Da Capo. $17.95.

      Some biographies make little if any attempt to reach out beyond a core group of people who will find the subject matter instantly fascinating. These three are examples – although the best of them, The Boys of Everest, contains enough stirring adventure so it may be attractive to people interested in what sorts of people climbed the world’s highest mountain before it became a tourist destination, why they made the ascent, and what happened to them. The Chris Bonington of the title was the leader of a group of about a dozen poor and (in some cases) middle-class British men who climbed mountains with an intensity bordering on fanaticism beginning in the 1950s, in the wake of Sir Edmund Hilary’s ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953. These men – the book opens with photos of them and a list of some of their climbs and expeditions – were more daring than previous climbers, more willing to take risks and then, if they survived, take greater risks still. Only a few lived through the climbs that the group attempted into the 1980s. Clint Willis, himself a climber as well as a frequent writer about outdoor adventures and other topics, divides his book into sections called “Boys,” “Men,” “Legends” and “Ghosts” as he chronicles Bonington’s climbs, his successes and his failures. Willis never really gets to the heart of why these men left everyday life behind to try, again and again, under more and more difficult circumstances, to ascend the world’s highest peaks – Annapurna, K-2 and others in addition to Everest. Willis hints at the men’s psychology rather than trying to mine it more deeply: “…Chris did the lion’s share of the work. He did it with a growing sense of elation. He was discovering a new aspect of his genius. He had found a task that engaged his peculiar qualities: his wish for certainty and his need to have that wish thwarted, his need to recognize that life was unmanageable and his urge to try to manage it.” There is much excitement here, but the book can also be read as a chronicle of lives wasted for no discernible reason except that they were available to waste.

      Jack and Lem, the first book by journalist David Pitts, has a more limited target audience. It is essentially for people who cannot get enough of the life and legend of John F. Kennedy – and perhaps especially for people interested in Kennedy’s sexuality and his tolerance for the sexual orientation of others. The Lem of the title was Kirk LeMoyne Billings, known as Lem to his friends – of whom Jack Kennedy was one, from the time when the two boys attended Choate Preparatory School together in 1933. Lem’s homosexuality seems not to have bothered the famously heterosexual Kennedy in the slightest, even though the two men grew up at a time when homosexuality was far less accepted than it is today. Pitts describes Lem as Kennedy’s “First Friend” during the Kennedy presidency, and quotes Lem as saying – a year after Kennedy was assassinated – “He relaxed with me because I didn’t really talk to him about any political matters, or any of the matters he had on his mind all during his workweek, and I mean this from the time he was congressman on through the presidency. I don’t know that we had a lot of things in common. I guess just the fact that we’d known each other intimately for thirty-two years is a pretty strong bond in itself. …I guess, just by habit, that we continued to enjoy each other.” That about sums up what readers will learn in the book – there are no startling revelations about Kennedy, and Lem comes across as a pleasant and devoted friend who kept Kennedy’s memory alive until his own death in 1981.

      The target readership for Re-make/Re-model appears to be people interested not only in the band Roxy Music but also in the intricacies of the evolution of pop music between the Summer of Love and the emergence of punk. Both those people (well, maybe there are a few more than that) will find out in Michael Bracewell’s book a lot of what the band’s members and others involved with it thought – much of the book is in the form of interviews, interspersed with such questions as, “But would [Roy] Ascott be radical, or simply isolated?” There is the usual name dropping here: “Working alongside Mark Lancaster’s friend Roger Cook (who, like Lancaster, was at this time represented by the Rowan Gallery), [Rita] Donagh became an immediately energising presence in the Art department.” Note the spelling “energising” – this is the U.S. edition of a British book, and it makes some assumptions about underlying knowledge of its time that may be valid in Britain but perhaps less so across the Atlantic: “Behaviourism and cybernetics were regarded by many intellectuals, rightly or wrongly, as branches of an infant and not necessarily plausible science. The writings and methods of the American behaviourist B.F. Skinner, in particular, had been met with a certain amount of mistrust. Some of this was due to sensationalist mis-reporting of Skinner’s creation of experimental ‘conditioning environments’ (not least for his infant daughter).” Some of the discussions of trends in the world at large – such as Mod fashion and pop art – are intriguing in terms of the way those trends influenced pop music. But in totality, the book remains so narrowly focused that it is hard to imagine it being of widespread interest.


Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante for Violin, Double Bass and Orchestra; Andante Sostenuto for Strings; Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass; Gran Concerto in F sharp minor. Thomas Martin, double bass; José-Luis Garcia, violin; Emma Johnson, clarinet; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. Naxos. $8.99.

Zemlinsky: Three Pieces for Cello and Piano; Sonata in A minor for Cello and Piano; Trio in D minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano. Othmar Müller, cello; Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Christopher Hinterhuber, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      Giovanni Bottesini and Alexander Zemlinsky are scarcely household names, but both are worthy additions to the current rediscovery of less-known music and composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bottesini’s work is especially interesting because of its focus on the double bass, on which he was a famed virtuoso. The typical growling low notes of the double bass in its orchestral guise are rarely to be found in Bottesini’s works for this largest string instrument; nor does he use its tone to emphasize a scene of grotesquerie, as Mahler did in the third movement of his First Symphony (1888). Instead, Bottesini treats his chosen instrument as being as capable of virtuosity as any other, resulting in works that, although they occasionally lumber, for the most part show a side of the double bass that never appears in purely orchestral performances. The Gran Duo Concertante, in fact, originally showed a side of two double basses, but one of the two parts was rewritten for violin by Paganini’s disciple, Camillo Sivori, and Bottesini himself subsequently played the work with many famed violinists of his day. There is surprising lightness and grace in the double bass here, and the contrast with the violin is sonically attractive. The Andante Sostenuto for Strings and Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass are slighter but still pleasant works, the latter reflecting fine clarinet writing (Bottesini’s father was a noted clarinetist). The Gran Concerto in F sharp minor, on the other hand, is big and quite interesting as it moves the double bass into less-familiar keys and treats the orchestra as a full partner of the solo instrument rather than just a backdrop. Thomas Martin plays all the works very well indeed, ably partnered by José-Luis Garcia on violin and Emma Johnson on clarinet, and Andrew Litton leads the English Chamber Orchestra with verve and style.

      Alexander Zemlinsky is better known for operas, songs and orchestral works than for chamber music – which is not to say he is terribly well known at all, although there has been some revival of interest in his music in recent years. The chamber works on the new Naxos CD are all early – the latest, the Trio, dates to 1896, when Zemlinsky was 25 – and they do not show an especially distinctive style. Brahms is the most notable influence here, with the dark hues of the cello – nicely complemented by the clarinet in the Trio – clearly showing Zemlinsky’s debt to the older composer. The Three Pieces for Cello and Piano are slight, but they are nicely animated and lie well on both instruments. The Sonata in A minor is more interesting, showing a greater emotional range and requiring a higher level of technical skill. Its finale has themes that are reminiscent not only of Brahms but also of Dvořák – an interesting juxtaposition. The scoring of the Trio in D minor parallels that of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio of five years earlier and was in fact written after the two composers met, yet here Zemlinsky seems both to be influenced by Brahms and to be looking for ways to move beyond that influence, notably in expressiveness. The performers on the new Naxos CD play as if they care deeply about the music and accept it on its own admittedly imperfect terms – with the result that the performances sound quite committed and very convincing.


Charles Wuorinen: Ashberyana; Praegustatum; Fenton Songs I and II; Ave Christe of Josquin; Josquiniana. Soloists and Da Camera of Houston conducted by Charles Wuorinen and Sarah Rothenberg. Naxos. $8.99.

Jake Heggie: For a Look or a Touch; Gerard Schwarz: In Memoriam; Lori Laitman: The Seed of Dream. Soloists and Music of Remembrance conducted by Mina Miller. Naxos. $8.99.

      Modern American vocal music, whether by well-known or less-known composers, is something of an acquired taste – and not one that all listeners will be eager to acquire. The expressiveness of some works is impressive, while that of others is more overdone in a heart-on-sleeve way. And while some vocal works seek wide-ranging themes, others are tied to specific recent events and emerge as political statements.

      The apparently unendingly prolific Charles Wuorinen retains his trademark wit and intellect in his vocal works and produces some fascinating ones as a result. The new Naxos CD of his music includes both vocal and instrumental pieces. Ashberyana (2004) is a setting of four poems by John Ashbery for baritone (Leon Williams in this recording) and an ensemble of trombone, string quartet and piano. The vocal lines are impressive, set mainly as Sprechstimme, and, as usual with Wuorinen, the instrumental treatment is sensitive. Wuorinen conducts this work himself, and the pianist is Sarah Rothenberg, music director of Da Camera of Houston – who also plays Praegustatum (2005), a short intermezzo-like piece for piano solo, written by Wuorinen for conductor James Levine. Fenton Songs I dates to 1997 and Fenton Songs II to 2002. Wuorinen actually set the first set of James Fenton’s poems twice – this version is the one for soprano (Lucy Shelton), violin, cello and piano. Here the vocal and instrumental parts seem to intertwine – the voice becomes part of the overall sound picture but does not necessarily dominate it. The four poems in the second set are more intense and topical: two are called “Tiananmen,” which includes such lines as “you can’t tell where the dead have been and you can’t tell when they’ll come again,” and “The Ballad of the Shrieking Man,” which concludes, “we’re all together when the roof falls in.” The voice dominates here against the same instrumental complement as in the earlier Fenton set. And then there are Wuorinen’s “remakings” of the music of 15th-century composer Josquin des Prez – one for solo piano (Ave Christe of Josquin, 1988) and one for string quartet (Josquiniana, 2002). These works provide welcome musical respite from some of the harshness elsewhere on the CD, since they are tonally grounded and mostly respectful of their model – although Wuorinen has fun at the end of Josquiniana with a treatment of the song “El Grillo” (“The Cricket”), which in the original tells how the cricket sings purely for love but hints that human singers would really like to be paid.

      The nonprofit organization Music of Remembrance has a specific cause – to maintain the legacy of artists who died during the Holocaust – and so it is no surprise that the works on this ensemble’s new CD (its third for Naxos) are somber and respectful. Whether they are successful in purely musical terms will be a matter of opinion. Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch (2007) is a dramatic song cycle based on a true story of gay teenage lovers sundered by the Holocaust. Librettist Gene Scheer helps Heggie contrast Berlin in the days before World War II with the same city under the brutality of Nazism. Intended as a plea for remembrance, the work – which features baritone Morgan Smith and actor Julian Patrick – has effective moments, but it comes across as a little too obvious and self-righteous. Conductor Gerard Schwarz’s In Memoriam (2005) is quite a contrast. It is an instrumental work for cello (Julian Schwarz on this CD) and string quartet, written in honor of cellist David Tonkonogui (1958-2003), who played within and as soloist with the Seattle Symphony under Schwarz’s direction. In a straightforward meditative and melancholic way, the work makes a fine elegy for the Russian-born cellist, who died at age 45 of multiple myeloma. Lori Laitman’s song cycle The Seed of Dream (2004) returns listeners to the world of the Holocaust in a setting for baritone (Erich Parce), cello and piano of five poems by Abraham Sutzkever, written when he was a prisoner in the Vilna Ghetto. Both the words and Laitman’s music offer a mixture of intensity and lyricism, as if to affirm that if there is anything that can overcome cruelty – in the long run if not the short – then it is art. All three works on this CD are world première recordings and worthy additions to the repertoire; but none is such a standout that it seems likely to become a staple of musical programming.

May 15, 2008


Knut: The Baby Polar Bear. By Juliana, Isabella and Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Gerald R. Uhlich. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

My Bug Book; My Butterfly Book. By Melissa Stewart. Smithsonian/Collins. $6.99 each.

Fly Guy #5: Fly High, Fly Guy! By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

      Informative board books featuring adorable animals are a sure winner in most families, and Knut: The Baby Polar Bear certainly qualifies. It is the latest version of the story of the little polar bear born in Germany at Zoo Berlin and raised by keeper Thomas Dörflein after its mother failed to care for it. There was some controversy over the decision to have the bear raised by people if its mother would not do so, but none of that would be appropriate in a board book, and none of it appears here. There is a brief background explanation about Knut on the back cover, but within the book there are only heartwarming pictures with simple text – the photo of Knut side-by-side with Thomas is a real gem, as are the ones showing Knut playing in his habitat. He looks so adorable and cuddly that kids will have to be reminded that this is a polar bear that will eventually grow very large and potentially dangerous. For now, Knut looks like a teddy bear come to life.

      Insects appear less often in board books than mammals, simply because they lack the “cuddle factor.” But two new books featuring Smithsonian Institution photos get around that by focusing on how interesting everyday bugs can look in extreme close-ups. My Bug Book asks simple questions and gives the answers both in text and in pictures: “What lives underground and can lift heavy objects? A leaf-cutter ant!” Even the everyday ladybug (or ladybird) beetle and the noxious mosquito attain a certain level of grandeur when seen as closely as they are here. However, no insect in My Bug Book has the sheer visual splendor of the butterflies in My Butterfly Book, which follows the same format but includes butterflies alone. The color variations here are extraordinary, from the gray wings of the Eastern tailed blue butterfly to the brown wings with multicolored circles of the buckeye butterfly. Children charmed by these photos will enjoy looking for butterflies – these and many others – near their own homes.

      Kids slightly too old for board books will enjoy Tedd Arnold’s latest Fly Guy adventure, featuring a housefly that looks nothing like the realistic one in My Bug Book. The hero of Fly High, Fly Guy! is the pet of a boy named Buzz, whose name he can say (because flies go “buzz” all the time). This is one smart pet fly: denied the chance to go on a car trip with Buzz and the family because he might get lost, Fly Guy goes anyway – by sneaking into the trunk. He has a great time at the beach, at a museum, and at an amusement park, and of course is very easy to care for, since he eats garbage. Eventually the family – not Fly Guy – manages to get lost, and Fly Guy saves the day by finding Buzz’s home. The story is as silly and unrealistic as the board-book bug tales are serious and truthful. It can be fun for families to make room for both sorts of enjoyment.


Someday When My Cat Can Talk. By Caroline Lazo. Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures. Poems by Julie Larios. Paintings by Julie Paschkis. Harcourt. $16.

      Cats may prowl like poetry in motion, but they don’t speak in poetry – although perhaps they would if they learned to talk. The little girl who narrates Someday When My Cat Can Talk imagines a set of poetic adventures for her kitty – a secret feline life that involves nighttime travel to the major sights of Europe. The girl thinks that her cat will someday “tell me how he hopped a ship/ and where he stowed away./ He’ll cheer the wind that blew his fur/ as he sailed beyond the bay.” In her imagination, the girl sees her cat visiting England and drinking tea; bicycling through France and winning an art competition in Montmartre; seeing the stars above St. Peter’s in Rome; stopping a bullfight in Spain; listening to opera in Vienna; and more: “He’ll remember Holland’s tulips/ that the Dutch so proudly guard./ And he’ll tell me if he missed me/ and the flowers in our yard.” Caroline Lazo’s pleasant verbal fantasies are well complemented by Kyrsten Brooker’s lovely illustrations – the one of the dressed-up cat lying among the tulips is a real gem. Intended for ages 4-8, Someday When My Cat Can Talk is an especially happy collaboration between writer and illustrator. The pages of facts at the end and the map of the cat’s imagined journey on the inside front and back covers add some real-world learning to the fun.

      Cats are not imaginary creatures, of course, even if talking cats are. In contrast, everything in Imaginary Menagerie is, well, imaginary. Here are short poems about a dragon, mermaid, centaur, sea serpent – and such less-familiar creatures as the cockatrice and naga. Julie Paschkis’ paintings are a major attraction here, their colors swirling or blotched to reflect the creatures depicted, and their forms carried over into the first letter of each creature’s name at the head of its poem. The dragon illustration, for example, is all greens and fiery red- orange, and the capital D in the word “Dragon” uses the same color scheme and actually looks like an elongated version of the creature itself. Julie Larios’ poems are thoughtful musings on the creatures, such as the centaur: “Can he be half gallop, half walk?/ Half dream, half real?/ Half neigh, half talk?/ Can he be half man, half horse?/ The answer is no./ And yes, of course.” Some poems contain invitations, as in this from “Sea Serpent”: “Tonight when you sleep,/ why don’t you swim with me/ through water?” Others affirm the creatures’ natures, as in “Gargoyle”: “How can a beast speak/ with a stone tongue,/ with a stone throat?/ My mouth is a rainspout./ I screech. I shout. This book, like Someday When My Cat Can Talk, represents an especially fine melding of words and pictures. It is aimed at slightly older children – ages 6-9 – and includes a page with additional information on the creatures depicted, so families can explore these legends further if they wish.


Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. By Scott Douglas. Da Capo. $25.

Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships. By John T. Price. Da Capo. $25.

      Maybe it takes a librarian to know what makes a good book – even one about himself. Not that Scott Douglas was super-enthusiastic about becoming a librarian: “Maybe I didn’t have what it would take; maybe I wouldn’t even want to be a librarian. But, as of that moment [of receiving a grant to study library science], I didn’t really care. The tuition was free and it allowed me to put off my life choices for just a bit longer.” It turned out that library science was in Douglas’ heart, or brain, or maybe spleen, because he seems to have done just fine in the field for the past five years. And in Quiet, Please, he has produced a most unconventional memoir about his experiences. Sample chapter title: “Chapter 004.16 – GATE – The Day of the Gateway: Being How, for Better or Worse, the Computer Changed the Library Once and for All (and Why the Perverts Now Will Never Go Away).” It is typical of Douglas to take something that “everyone knows,” such as how immense changes came to libraries because of computers, and put an offbeat (or even strange) spin on it. Take his way with footnotes. Books have all sorts of footnotes to elucidate their research, right? Not this one. Here are random Douglas footnotes: “8. She was, in fact, three times the size of a normal woman.” “5. Turns out the chair really did have bugs – fleas, to be precise. …” “11. I don’t like the nickname Scooter.” “1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: dumbest name ever.” So what does all this oddball humor have to do with libraries? Quite a bit, it turns out. Douglas, a librarian at the Anaheim Public Library, has kept his eye out for strange patrons, peculiar colleagues, and – most importantly – a sense of whether public libraries still have a place in our modern video-and-Internet-saturated culture. Perhaps surprisingly for someone in his 20s, Douglas concludes that they do. They are, he finds out, a focus of a community (sometimes in strange ways), a vestige of the “melting pot” concept of American society, where people from all walks of life touch each other, even if only tangentially. Not everything in Quiet, Please is funny: one chapter is about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and how they showed the changing way we look for information. But the majority of the book is on the light side, and shows Douglas to be an astute observer both of human nature and of what libraries can (and cannot) do. “I wasn’t supposed to know people,” writes Douglas. “I was merely supposed to be their guide. The person who pointed them to the person they wanted to know.” In the case of Quiet, Please, Douglas himself is the person a reader will want to know.

      Man Killed by Pheasant is a much more conventional memoir, despite its unusual title. It turns out that John T. Price wasn’t actually killed – he couldn’t have written the book then, could he? But he did have an encounter with a pheasant that flew into his car while he was driving, flapping in his face and almost causing an accident. And that helped inspire Price to the realization that Iowa, where he has lived all his life, is not as ordinary and predictable as he had previously thought. Price’s memoir, though, is fairly predictable, and although it deserves a (+++) rating for its caring writing and patent sense of community, it does not really have many new thoughts or forms of expressions to offer. “It is often winter that is in my earliest memories of [my grandfather], after a big blizzard, like the one in 1975, when he was required to be at the Gas and Electric service garage all day and night to monitor the trucks.” “The hills, thick with ponderosa pine, and with shrubs that had turned their autumn crimson and gold, enfolded then released me into the grassy bottomlands.” “There were certainly aspects of living on a farm that Steph [Price’s wife] and I loved: the quiet days, the clear and starry nights, the apple trees from which we made pie after pie. Sometimes, though, when I was sitting alone on the porch, like right then, it didn’t take much effort to imagine evil permeating everything.” There is no real evil in the book, though, although Steph, a teacher, has a troubled student, and development has come to parts of Iowa, with all its decidedly mixed blessings. Most of the book is simply about everyday life and the moderately interesting past lives of Price’s family – a gentle, homespun story whose pleasures are of the old-fashioned sort.


Twice Upon a Marigold: Part Comedy, Part Tragedy, Part Two. By Jean Ferris. Harcourt. $17.

Genius Squad. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

      There are limits to what you can do with a sequel. You have to keep the main characters from your original book, and have to continue the original plot – otherwise, to what is the sequel being written? You can introduce a few new characters, but they should not overshadow the ones whose tale you are continuing from before. And unless you want to create an ongoing series, you really do need to wrap things up satisfactorily by the end of your sequel.

      So whatever the luster of an original book – and Once Upon a Marigold shone unusually brightly – the sequel is likely to be a bit dim. And so it is with Twice Upon a Marigold, a book that would not have needed to be written had Jean Ferris allowed a happily-ever-after in her earlier work. Once Upon a Marigold was a wonderful sendup of fairy tales, and it also was a fairy tale, complete with troll, unrevealed prince, eight-foot-tall palace guard, evil queen, and beautiful daughters (plus one, Marigold, considered less beautiful). It had delightfully bent language, lots of inventiveness (such as “p-mail,” carried by pigeons), and a thoroughly satisfying ending in which the evil queen went over the castle wall and into the river while trying to prevent hero and heroine from marrying. Yay! But…Ferris, perhaps too kindheartedly, allowed the queen to wash ashore far downstream, still alive. And so readers, naturally enough, wanted to know what happened next. And so Ferris, naturally enough, wrote Twice Upon a Marigold. And it, naturally enough, comes nowhere near the earlier book. Queen Olympia had, in the first book, kept good King Swithbert under her thumb with potions. Now the queen is simply evil, screaming at everyone constantly, and Swithbert is weak and boring, acquiescing in everything up to and including his own imprisonment. Marigold and Chris – now married, and now queen and king of the land next door – have become largely colorless, and so susceptible to Olympia’s aura of evil that they bicker and pick at each other. Ed (Edric in the first book), the four-foot troll (three-foot-four in Book One), has achieved his aim of getting into competition with the Tooth Fairy and plays only a small role in the sequel. There are a few new characters – Lazy Susan, who learns how not to be lazy; Wendell, an inept wizard who rides an elephant; and Stan Lucasa, a chef and dressmaker who turns out (not very amusingly) to be on the verge of turning into a famous personage. But mostly this story is Olympia’s, and she is such an unendingly unpleasant character that you just want her over and done with – which, however, all the other characters agree must be done without violence. Ferris does eventually get to that “happily ever after” here, thank goodness, and the quality of her writing keeps the book flowing better than it would in less-skilled hands. Marigold’s thoughts sum it up best: “Sometimes things work out the way they’re supposed to, even if at first it seems like they haven’t.” True – but sometimes it’s better to have that happen in one book than in two.

      Genius Squad is only the second of what could become many books indeed – and here, too, the creativity of the initial volume, Evil Genius, has largely worn off. Actually, it wore off part of the way through the first book, when Catherine Jinks changed that novel from the story of a young genius being trained to be evil in a school that offered such instruction – quite an offbeat idea – into one of the boy, Cadel Piggott, being in danger and needing to be rescued before he could enter a life of evil. Oh, now that’s original. Genius Squad takes the formulaic part of the first book even further into uncreativity, placing Cadel in foster care to await the trial at which he will have to testify against jailed evil genius Prosper English. Readers of the first book, who may wish to see Cadel back at the Axis Institute for World Domination, will have to be content here with his meeting the Genius Squad of the title: the group approaches him to do a little genius-level thinking about how to stop an evil project. Cadel is so bored that he agrees, even though he has (well-founded) misgivings. So we meet new characters, explore new plots, and have Cadel’s supposedly secret whereabouts discovered. And then (not surprisingly at all) Prosper English escapes, and he is a nasty piece of work who is determined to recapture his son, Cadel – who, however, turns out not to be his son after all. By the end of Genius Squad, Cadel finds himself within a real family for the first time (a heartwarming but thoroughly conventional ending), and the stage is set for the next book, Genius Wars. The problem with all this is that the manufactured excitement and unending derring-do have been done many times before, by many other authors, and the “genius” angle is really a rather minor one. There is nothing wrong with Genius Squad as an action-adventure book for preteens and young teenagers, but there is nothing really special about it either – and it doesn’t take a genius to see that.


Mozart: Così fan tutte. Janice Watson and Lesley Garrett, sopranos; Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; Christopher Maltman and Sir Thomas Allen, baritones; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. Chandos. $29.99 (3 CDs).

      Here’s a delightfully bouncy, well-sung and thoroughly enjoyable version of Mozart’s quintessential “battle of the sexes” opera – and a recording that raises anew the old question about performing opera in translation. This was the norm until just a few decades ago: operas were done in the language of the place where they were staged. Some works continue to be heard in translation a great deal of the time even today – Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) comes immediately to mind, but there are quite a few others. And yet original-language productions thoroughly dominate opera houses now, which makes sense both musically (the words that the composer set are the ones that inevitably work best with the music) and practically (the advent of surtitles made it easy for audiences to follow what is being sung, albeit with some distraction from the onstage activity).

      So opera recordings in translation are something of a throwback, or a niche market. Chandos dominates the field for English speakers with its “Opera in English” series, which includes some 50 releases. Some are decidedly odd – the complete Ring cycle, for example – but others, like the new recording of Così fan tutte, work rather well. The reason, oddly enough, has little to do with singing and a great deal to do with the recitatives and asides that move the plot along. In the arias and choruses, it is not especially easy to hear the individual words much of the time, no matter the language in which they are sung. But when it comes to stage whispers, between-aria plots and remonstrations, and other texts that keep the story flowing, the use of English works just fine. This is true even though the translation used in this recording – a revised version of one made in 1890 – often does not follow Lorenzo da Ponte’s original very closely. It gets the sense of the libretto right, though, and that is what matters.

      As for the performance, it is a lively and highly enjoyable one, featuring male leads who sound surprisingly alike despite their different vocal ranges (tenor Toby Spence as Ferrando and baritone Christopher Maltman as Guglielmo). Their sweethearts’ voices and vocalizing are more distinctive, with soprano Janice Watson suitably over-dramatic as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Diana Montague more flighty as Dorabella (despite her lower vocal range). One of Mozart’s marvelous “in” jokes in this opera is the initial “wrong” pairing of tenor with mezzo and baritone with soprano – so that, when the ladies unknowingly swap partners, the audience hears the expected tenor-soprano and baritone-mezzo mixes (which are then re-sorted to the vocally “wrong” arrangement at the end). The plot to show that “they all do it” (or “they’re all like that,” or “all women behave that way,” or any of the other inadequate translations of the opera’s title) is wonderfully engineered by Sir Thomas Allen, who sounds anything but world-weary as Don Alfonso, and Lesley Garrett, whose singing and acting as Despina make her seem a brighter and often more attractive character than either of her mistresses. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts with great verve and keeps the proceedings moving at a headlong pace, despite his unfortunate decision to drop a couple of numbers to make the recording “closer to a stage performance.” Leaving out parts of recitatives – when the translation makes them understandable to listeners – is at best an odd decision. Dropping the men’s Act I duet and Ferrando’s aria “Ah lo veggio” makes even less sense: this is scarcely justified on stage and not at all in a recording. Still, Mackerras has a fine sense of the score, of pacing and of Mozartean performance techniques, and gives this opera of hilarious mixups a quick and light presentation that accentuates its situational levity without losing sight of its underlying message of forgiveness for a form of betrayal that, Mozart and da Ponte slyly suggest, is inherent in female (and human) nature.