July 31, 2008


The Ballad of Wilbur and the Moose. By John Stadler. Robin Corey Books. $14.99.

Peg Leg Peke. By Brie Spangler. Knopf. $15.99.

The Blacker the Berry. Poems by Joyce Carol Thomas. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite! By Diane deGroat. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees: School Poems. Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Pictures by Sachiko Yoshikawa. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      It sometimes seems that publishers lavish more time and attention on children ages four to eight than on any other age group. This makes a certain amount of sense: at the start of this age range, most kids are still reading books with their parents, but by the end of it, they are reading on their own. Getting them while they’re young makes a lot of sense if you want to turn children into lifelong readers – and book buyers. All these books will move kids in that direction.

      The Ballad of Wilbur and the Moose
is a re-release of a hilarious story that went abruptly out of print back in 1989 when its publisher folded. John Stadler’s recent rediscovery of his original art made it possible to produce the book again, and it’s wonderful to have it around – it’s just so supremely silly, and who doesn’t need more silliness in his or her life? It’s one of those tales told around the campfire in the West, with old Whiskers strummin’ his banjo while singing’ about Wilbur Little, a lime-juice-totin’ pig herder who rode a big blue moose named Alvin who was once a heavyweight fighter but retired after knockin’ out everyone he fought. The two mosey about collectin’ pigs, findin’ one in a cactus and another singin’ in a saloon and another cookin’ boiled shoes and boots and – you get the idea. Despite run-ins with a dastardly gambler and some pig rustlers, Wilbur and Alvin save the day (and the pigs), with all their adventures being shown in thoroughly amusing and imaginative illustrations. It’s real good readin’.

      Peg Leg Peke
is more up-to-date in its setting, but every bit as much fun. Brie Spangler’s book is officially aimed at ages 3-6, but there is plenty of overlap in that range with the reading skills and interests of kids ages 4-8. Peg Leg is a Pekingese who broke his leg – and it hurts. It’s in a cast, so the narrator – who talks to Peg Leg throughout the book – remarks that the pup looks like a pirate. And that sets off a wonderfully imaginative journey, in which Peg Leg imagines himself with a “foofy hat,” “smashing scarf,” and of course an eye patch. And every time the boo-boo hurts, the narrator suggests another step in the pirate game – which eventually leads to Peg Leg finding a treasure that really does make him feel better. This could easily be a syrupy, overly sentimental story, but Spangler keeps the tone light both through the narrative and with her silly but endearing illustrations. It is no surprise to learn that Spangler herself owns a Pekingese.

      The Blacker the Berry
is a much more serious book and is intended specifically for dark-skinned children. Its idea is to celebrate the many shades of their skin: “I am midnight,” “the color of black dipped in red,” “my arms…as bronze and golden as the bush,” “my skin is red and my hair is red,” “it feels absolutely fabulous to be this brown,” and so on. Joyce Carol Thomas comes up with a self-celebratory poem for each child, and Floyd Cooper illustrates all of them with fine attention to both color and detail. But the book is a bit of an oddity at a time when so many people are trying, with some success, to play up the ways in which individuals of all skin colors are more alike than different. Intended to celebrate each and every shade of brown, The Blacker the Berry spends all its time making distinctions between the colors rather than emphasizing that minute (or even major) differences don’t matter (although there is one inclusive poem at the end). The book deserves a (+++) rating for good intentions and pleasant presentation, but families should consider whether it sends the sort of message they want to deliver.

      The message in Diane deGroat’s summer-camp book about her popular character, Gilbert the possum, is to face your fears and help others face theirs. Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite! – first published in 2002 and now available in paperback – finds Gilbert going on an overnight trip while at day camp, and being frightened when loudmouthed Lewis starts talking about the Camp Hi-Dee-Ho ghost. Later, spooky noises in the middle of the night – and an unexpected encounter with Lewis – lead Gilbert to understand that he is braver than he thinks himself to be. The story is simple and formulaic, earning the book a (+++) rating. Its illustrations, which reflect both the scary and reassuring aspects of its theme, are a highlight.

      And if it’s summer, school cannot be too far in the future, so this may be a good time for kids to read Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees: School Poems. This book, which gets a (+++) rating, is at Level 2 in the I Can Read! series. Its 20 poems, by various authors, cover such subjects as “Hamster Math” (one plus one equals 24); “Art Class,” which is “a feast for my eyes and my hands”; “The Eraser Poem,” which disappears one letter at a time; and “Spelling Bee” (featuring the word “tarantula”). Easy to read and pleasantly illustrated, the book should make a four-to-eight-year-old’s entry (or re-entry) to school just a little smoother and more pleasant.


Howl’s Moving Castle. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $6.99.

Castle in the Air. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $6.99.

House of Many Ways. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume III. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperTeen. $7.99.

      The release of a new book involving the wizard Howl, House of Many Ways, provides a fine opportunity to discover or rediscover Diana Wynne Jones’ other books about Howl and his surroundings – and an excuse to revisit her Chrestomanci universe as well. Jones, an Oxford-educated British author who will be 74 this year, attended lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien when she was a student, and was clearly influenced by those masterful 20th-century fantasists – whether by their teaching or by their novels scarcely matters. Jones has a sure hand in fantasy writing, which she has produced for three decades, and her stories of the wizard Howl, the girl Sophie and the wonderful lands they visit by opening the right (or sometimes wrong) doors from within Howl’s castle are especially well developed.

      Howl’s Moving Castle,
which dates to 1986 and is now available in a fine new paperback edition, has the distinction of not only starting the series of Howl-and-Sophie stories but also becoming a marvelously inventive animated film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and dating to 2004. In an interview at the back of the new edition of her book, Jones reveals that she was surprised by the means of locomotion of the castle in the film – it walks on huge legs, sort of the way Baba Yaga's hut moves in old Russian tales. Jones had thought of the castle as floating just above the ground. But Miyazaki makes the odd lurching motion of the castle into an important aspect of its personality – and yes, it does have a personality. It has one in Jones’ book, too – but a different one. So do Howl and Sophie, who are more hard-edged and in many ways more seriously flawed in the novel than in the film. The basic plot of both book and film is the same, though: young Sophie unwittingly attracts the attention of Howl and the enmity of the Witch of the Waste – who turns her into an old lady. Sophie knows that only through Howl’s wizardry will she be able to break the spell, but that requires her to find and enter the moving castle and interact with some very strange occupants, including a onetime shooting star named Calcifer. The narrative does not proceed at all in expected ways, and even though there is a happy ending (sort of), it is quite clear that there will always be fireworks when Howl and Sophie are together.

      And so it is in Castle in the Air, a 1990 “companion” to Howl’s Moving Castle that is also now available in a new paperback edition. As strange as the first book and even more amusing, Castle in the Air is a kind of Aladdin story, in which a humble young merchant named Abdullah gets stuck with a nasty-tempered magic carpet, falls in love with the beautiful Flower-in-the-Night, and then has to undertake a rescue mission to retrieve his love and quite a few other items from an evil djinn. He is helped in his quest, if “helped” is the word, by a dishonest soldier and a black cat that never hesitates to speak his mind. Oh, and he does have a genie in a bottle, but it’s a cranky one.

      And thus we come to House of Many Ways, in which we meet Charmain Baker, who is so sick of being watched all the time by her parents and so eager to work in the King’s library that she agrees to look after her Great Uncle William’s house while he is gone in the land of the elves. It turns out that William is really the Royal Wizard Norland, his house is far more than it seems to be, and Charmain needs to help out in a crucial search for a royal treasure – a state of affairs that brings her into close contact with Howl, Sophie and Calcifer. Like Howl’s castle, Uncle William’s cottage is a house in which a door can lead to many different places. Charmain’s particular door-opening involves her with a magical stray dog, a not-too-skilled apprentice wizard, and a mysterious and potent missing gift from elves known as, not surprisingly, the Elfgift. And that, in turn, brings Howl and his comrades into the picture – a picture as full of surprising twists and turns as in all Jones’ Howl books.

      Jones’ Chrestomanci series has its share of magical twists and turns, too, but it somehow never attains the heights of her Howl books – perhaps because the concept of what it means to open doors is so potent an underlying theme of the Howl novels. The stories centered on Chrestomanci, the most powerful wizard in the world (his particular world, that is), seem somehow more ordinary, revolving around an ongoing feud between the Pinhoe and Farleigh families, amid distrust of the wizard himself. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume III, combines in a single paperback the two books Conrad’s Fate (2005) and The Pinhoe Egg (2006). The first of these focuses on Conrad Tesdinic, a 12-year-old with really bad karma, and his attempts to figure out who is monkeying with fate from within mysterious Stallery Mansion – a quest in which he is aided, more or less, by his camera and a sticky cork that can summon a being called a Walker. Also in the mansion, and also on a quest, is Christopher Chant, and the two boys form an uneasy alliance to find out what is going on. In The Pinhoe Egg, Jones produces a tale-within-a-tale: the egg of the title is given to Cat Chant and hatches into a fast-growing griffin; meanwhile, the primary story is about the distrust of Chrestomanci by the Pinhoes and Farleighs. The Pinhoe Egg reveals that there are different sorts of magic, and there are some tantalizing possibilities of combining magic with technology; but the story’s combination of new characters and previously introduced ones will make it hard for new readers of the Chrestomanci tales to follow. Jones’ magic operates at a lesser level in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume III, which gets a (+++) rating.


We Are Quiet We Are Loud: The Best Young Writers and Artists in America. Edited by David Levithan. PUSH/Scholastic. $8.99.

Down to the Bone. By Mayra Lazara Dole. HarperTeen. $16.99.

      Works by young writers seem to be an inevitable mixture of freshness and predictability. Certainly that is the case in We Are Quiet We Are Loud, a collection of stories, poems and photographs by winners of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. The anger in many of the contributions is no surprise. For instance, in “I’m an American Too, Damnit!” Bill Kephart writes, “Nothing aggravates me more than the stereotypical Middle American patriot. …The people who say ‘one nation under god’ need to be taught a lesson. They need to see that atheists can be in foxholes.” The sense of loss is not surprising, either, as in the poem, “Grandma,” by Ryan Brown: “She is missing from my memories. …I have only the green of her eyes…and my mother’s tears, thick and heavy as the day she died.” But the freshness of some viewpoints here is bracing. The very last story in the book is the shortest and in some ways the cleverest. By Cate Mahoney, it is called, “To My Future Lover and Soul Mate,” and goes, in its entirety, “Hurry up.” Then there are the photos: “Outside Influences” by Kerry McDonnell, a black-and-white shot showing someone blindfolded – just the head visible – with hands reaching down from above; or “Candy Head” by Nicholas Allen, in which a boy’s head seems to pop out of a Pez dispenser. There are stories in which the protagonist seems old in experience, if not in years, such as “Asher,” in which a girl travels to Las Vegas with a boy who commits suicide there: “That was another part of my life; my past is like a long and ratty hem I’m continually getting my heels caught in.” Or “Lost Boy” by Audrey Walls: “Adam Painter is an old, old flame. His sharp features are buried somewhere within my adolescent forgetfulness, halfway faded by a handful of years.” As with practically any anthology, We Are Quiet We Are Loud is tremendously uneven, the one thing the writers and photographers having in common being an urge to express themselves. How effectively they do so is a matter of opinion – a different opinion, perhaps, for each reader. The book is certainly valuable for its insights into how creatively some young communicators strive to put their thoughts across.

      One thing preoccupying some contributors to We Are Quiet We Are Loud is, not surprisingly, sex and relationships. That is a subject that gets book-length treatment in Down to the Bone, the first novel by Mayra Lazara Dole. Dole clearly draws significantly on her own life as a gay woman for the characters in this book – but disappointingly, she does not draw to any extent on an aspect of her life unrelated to sexuality: her publisher says she has multiple chemical sensitivities and must live in a glassed-in room. Perhaps, at another time, Dole will share what is involved in living that way – hopefully in the same fresh voice she brings to Down to the Bone. The book’s basic subject – the difficulty of being homosexual – is scarcely a new one in young-adult works, although there has been far less treatment of lesbianism than of male homosexuality, making Dole’s book a welcome addition to a small group. Dole’s descriptions of growing up are in some ways more exotic than her concerns about sexuality: Cuban-born and raised in Hialeah, near Miami, she has a strong sense of what life is like in South Florida and what sorts of people one encounters there. Most of those in the book are types rather than fully fleshed-out characters, but they are more interesting types than are found in many books for this age group. The book centers on what happens to a girl named Laura, who attends a strict Catholic school, after she is found reading a love letter – from another girl – in class. Rejection by family is bad enough, but worse is later rejection by the girl, Marlena, herself: she tells Laura that what they did together was “indecent and immoral; it’s not normal.” Now Marlena is “walking a pure path” by dating a boy, whom she plans to marry, leaving Laura to call Marlena “a friggin’ betrayer” while “punch[ing] the door over and over again till my knuckles bleed.” And things get even more intense (and melodramatic) later. Dole is deeply sincere, but her writing is not up to the task of communicating without clichés, especially when she has a character try to be meaningful: “I believe in myself and in something I call Sacred Nature. Feeling one with nature soothes me. Nature feeds all of me.” Laura stays true to her own sexual nature, after trying to become emotionally involved with boys; and she confronts her parents; and by the novel’s end she feels “warm and deeply accepted” for what she is, by those who understand her. This is the ending toward which the whole book has been pointing, and readers – whatever their sexuality – should find it a satisfying conclusion, if scarcely an original one for a teen-oriented book focused on self-discovery.


Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics. By Dagmar Herzog. Basic Books. $26.95.

Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922—The Destruction of a Christian City in the Islamic World. By Giles Milton. Basic Books. $27.95.

      Oral and anal sex are okay. Quickies are a good thing. It’s fine to read about a woman with “long legs in heels, and full breasts crowning a silky-thin, miniskirt sundress.” No, this is not Sexual Revolution stuff – it is, according to Dagmar Herzog, anti-Sexual Revolution stuff. Herzog, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a frequent writer on sexuality, argues in Sex in Crisis that the religious right has co-opted the Sexual Revolution by creating an entire industry dedicated to the idea that only heterosexual, marital sex is permissible for both religious and health reasons. And this insidious conspiracy, Herzog believes, has combined with the Bush administration’s religiously driven abstinence-only and other anti-Sexual Revolution stances to produce a juggernaut of ignorance that liberal believers in empowerment and individual choice barely understand and have found no way to counter.

      Wow. Well, Herzog certainly writes entertainingly and with intensity. “Wives are told to have sex with their husbands more often, no matter what it feels like for them. (All in the name of his sexual purity.)” Men “should practice and learn to look away immediately when confronted with a sexy image in the same way one would immediately yank a hand back from a hot stove.” Herzog finds everything being pitched by evangelicals to be insidious. For example, she acknowledges that these writers are torn, that they “want to assure men that they really have powerful sexual motors and raging ‘mustang minds,’ and yet they also want men to know that they can win the battle against improper lust.” Do internal contradictions like this dilute the, err, potency of evangelical appeals for “soulgasmic” sex? Oh, no: “These contradictions, far from undermining the power of the advice-writers’ messages, are central to evangelicism’s ideological effectiveness.” In fact, evangelicals are so effective and such a well-oiled machine that everyone else might just as well give up and march to the narrowest of biblical tunes. Herzog is right, and powerful, in showing how evangelical influence has caused enormous sexual and health problems in the United States and the world during the Bush administration. But she downplays or ignores evidence that the evangelical community seems to be, at least to an extent, withdrawing from active political involvement; and she never shows effectively how evangelically motivated narrowness of sexual viewpoints somehow magically, err, penetrates the minds (and bodies) of nonbelievers. Sex in Crisis is so hyped on its own rhetoric that it makes evangelicals seem like all-powerful demons, capable of warping hundreds of millions of minds at a single bound. True, some evangelicals might like to do that, and certainly the narrow view of sex as appropriate only within heterosexual marriage has had a political field day for almost a decade. But Herzog, seeking to make political points of her own, overstates her case to such an extent that the book would be almost comic if it did not contain so many substantial truths. Americans do remain woefully ignorant about the many expressions and complexities of human sexuality; but that does not necessarily mean that they are destined to become mindless robots of the evil evangelical empire.

      More than 80 years ago, another empire was on the march, and it represented a far greater threat to life in the city of Smyrna, Turkey, than evangelicals do to life today. Historian Giles Milton, in a book whose title must have given him and his publisher tremendous pleasure (“Milton’s Paradise Lost”), looks back at what happened in Smyrna in 1922 and what lessons can be drawn for the modern world from those long-ago events. What happened was horrific: the city, a multicultural haven for Greeks, Armenians and Jews despite its location within Muslim Turkey, was invaded and nearly destroyed by Turkish troops seeking revenge for the Greek invasion of Turkey three years before – an invasion countenanced by the powers of the time in the wake of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Although humiliated and defeated during the Great War, Turkey would not allow reestablishment of a Christian Empire in its region, and fought back against the Greek invasion so successfully that Greece was beaten. Then Turkey, led by the revered Kemal Ataturk (then known as Mustafa Kemal), turned its forces on Christian-majority Smyrna. Greek troops retreated, and the European and American warships nearby were under strict orders not to intervene as the Turkish army burned the city, killed at least 100,000 people, turned half a million into refugees, and left the survivors desperate and impoverished. This was a horror of the 20th century – one of many – but it is one that has been little reported until now. Milton’s book, clearly aimed at Western audiences, emphasizes the multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence within Smyrna, giving short shrift to Turkish beliefs – reasonable at the time – that the city could be seen as an outpost of the resurgent Christian Empire that the victors in the Great War made it clear they wanted. First-person interviews and extensive use of primary sources make the story of Smyrna in 1922 come alive in Paradise Lost. But the title, however attractive to author and publisher, is a misnomer, making it seem as if Smyrna was a perfect city – a gross overstatement. That the Turks were vicious, brutal and unprincipled in what they did to Smyrna is clear in this book; that they felt sufficiently aggrieved to overreact is less so. That the Western powers, notably including England under Lloyd George, were outmaneuvered both on the battlefield and in peace talks afterwards, is certain. Whether there are lessons in all this for today’s world is less than sure: Milton ends his book with signs both of reconciliation and of continued Greek-Turkish enmity. Paradise, it seems, has yet to be established.


Buxtehude: Harpsichord Music, Volume 2 — Arias: More Palatino with 12 Variations; Suite in G minor, Fugue in C major; Courant Zimble with 8 Variations; Canzonetta in G major; Suite in E minor; Canzona in G major; “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren.” Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord. Naxos. $8.99.

Hummel: Grand Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra; Weber: Andante e Rondo ungarese; Berwald: Concert Piece; Carl Heinrich Jacobi: Introduction and Polonaise; Elgar: Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra; Gershwin: Summertime (arranged by David Arnold). Karen Geoghegan, bassoon; Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch. Chandos. $18.99.

      There are some CDs – such as these two - that you buy for the mixture of music, not for one or more specific pieces. The Buxtehude CD is the second Naxos re-release of recordings made by Lars Ulrik Mortensen a decade ago and originally released by Dacapo. It is just as beautifully played as the first volume, and confirms just as strongly what a wonderful composer for the harpsichord Dietrich Buxtehude was – despite the fact that he is not usually associated with that instrument. The two sets of variations on this CD are especially interesting, showing Buxtehude to have been quite at home in an entirely secular environment (More Palatino was a student drinking song) and quite capable of tangling and untangling pretty much any type of melody. The two four-movement suites once again show Buxtehude’s typical structure for music of this type: a more-extended Allemande followed by a shorter Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. And the shorter individual pieces, including one of the chorale Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, show the composer in something closer to free-range mode, following no required format but taking the music where it wants to go (and where he wants it to go). It is also interesting here to listen to Buxtehude’s well-constructed forays both into minor keys (the two suites and Courant Zimble variations) and into major ones (especially More Palatino, in a very bright C major).

      Bassoonist Karen Geoghegan’s new Chandos CD is intended as much to profile her as to focus on the music – the works she plays are all over the place in length, approach and musical interest. This CD is determinedly serious, as if Geoghegan and Chandos intend to put to rest forever the bassoon’s reputation as the clown of the orchestra. In truth, if that is their aim, they protest too much. Numerous composers have treated the bassoon very seriously indeed – Vivaldi, for example, wrote three dozen concertos for it – but there would have been nothing wrong with including a humorous vignette or two along with the serious works on display here. What listeners get instead is a variety of largely unfamiliar music, very well played by Geoghegan and with top-notch accompaniment provided by Benjamin Wallfisch and the Orchestra of Opera North. Hummel’s Grand Concerto is the longest and most substantial work on the CD, displaying the composer’s typical galant style and offering a particularly infectious final Rondo. Weber’s Andante e Rondo ungarese, a much shorter piece also written in the early 19th century, and Berwald’s somewhat later Concert Piece, are both tuneful and pleasant, with Weber’s offering more lyricism and Berwald’s presenting some interesting modulations. The Introduction and Polonaise by bassoonist/composer Carl Heinrich Jacobi is more of a virtuoso showpiece, filled with trills, high-register notes and considerable decorative figuration. In contrast, Elgar’s Romance is songful and heartfelt, showing a side of the bassoon rarely seen. The final work on the CD, an arrangement of Gershwin’s iconic song “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, is the least successful, since the bassoon does not really approximate the human voice here or explore the emotions of this work – a clarinet would have worked better. Despite this rather downbeat ending, though, Geoghegan’s CD shows her to be an intelligent, sensitive player who has fine breath control and can handle a wide range of repertoire for her instrument. If there is a followup CD, it would be nice to hear her enjoying a few touches of the bassoon’s lighter, more comedic side.


Classical Archive: Alexis Weissenberg; Sviatoslav Richter; Tatiana Nikolayeva. Medici Arts DVDs. $19.99 each.

Stockhausen: Helicopter String Quartet. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

      What might the Ampico and Welte-Mignon piano rolls have been transformed into 100-plus years later? Those were the famous rolls used in player pianos and giving us glimpses of the artistry of composer/performers of the very early 20th century. The inherent fascination of hearing legendary pianists and composers performing has long made the rolls – or rather the recordings of them, from vinyl to CDs – a particularly attractive niche product for serious classical-music lovers.

      Now it seems that there has been a transformation, of sorts, of the Ampico and Welte-Mignon approach. It comes in the form of Medici Arts DVDs that show significant performances by famous artists of the mid-20th century, capturing them in ways that audio recordings alone do not. These DVDs too are destined to be niche products, but for listeners with an abiding interest in classical music and the musicians of the past 50 years, they will be highly attractive.

      The Alexis Weissenberg DVD, which runs a generous 150 minutes, is in some ways the most fascinating. It includes a 1965 film of the pianist performing Stravinsky’s Petrushka Suite, in which Weissenberg – for video reasons – performed on a specially built silent piano, listening to his actual performance while “playing” the silent instrument’s keys. Bonus material explains why this was done and how the film was made – and the Stravinsky performance itself is extraordinary, no matter how it was captured. There is a wealth of additional music here as well: Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, a Rachmaninoff Prelude, some short works by Chopin and Bach, and a full-length performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto that was broadcast in 1969 (featuring Orchestre National de l'ORTF, conducted by Georges Prêtre). This DVD is not just for Weissenberg fans – it is a fascinating study of classical music as video.

      The Sviatoslav Richter DVD is harder to watch but almost as interesting, in its own strange way. Richter hated being filmed and agreed to this 1989 recording only after insisting that no camera could be in his line of vision. He also demanded that lighting be restricted to a single 40-watt bulb focused on the music, not on him. The result is an almost surrealistic viewing experience, with Richter playing three Mozart sonatas and 13 Chopin Études. There is very little of Richter visible – indeed, very little of anything – so this DVD is mostly a curiosity. It is also short, at 90 minutes, and that is with the inclusion of bonus performances of Chopin and Rachmaninoff from 1969 (Richter’s earlier versions of the Études, Op. 10, Nos. 4 and 12, is stronger).

      The name of Tatiana Nikolayeva is less known than those of Weissenberg and Richter, but the importance of her lengthy (164-minute) DVD cannot be overstated. She performs Shostakovich’s complete 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 – a cycle that she inspired and, in 1952, premiered. This DVD captures her playing 40 years later, in 1992; indeed, this cycle was the last work Nikolayeva played on stage before her death in 1993. Her thoroughly assured manner, her intimate familiarity with the music, her superb technique and fine sense of style, make this performance memorable on a strictly musical basis, not just as a historical document. But it has importance as history, too – and a short bonus documentary offers Nikolayeva performing some additional Shostakovich.

      The DVD of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet has historical importance almost in spite of itself. Seventy-seven minutes of the 113-minute CD are taken up with a film by Frank Scheffer, documenting a month of preparations for the work’s debut at the 1995 Holland Festival. The quartet, one of Stockhausen’s typically grandiose concepts, was written for the Arditti Quartet, and gets its name because each of the quartet’s members played while flying in a different helicopter – their sound being sent to a central location and mixed there. Stockhausen tells Scheffer about the genesis of the work (the composer dreamed of musicians being able to fly), explains how the score is intended to imitate birds flying in different formations, and discusses ways in which the music is designed to mingle with the sound of the helicopters. The quartet’s members – violinists Irvine Arditti and Greame Jennings, violist Garth Knox and cellist Rohan de Saram – certainly give the work their all and seem (in the performance seen after Scheffer’s film) to be thoroughly involved in what they are doing. Whether this is performance, or art, or “performance art,” is a matter of (probably endless) debate. Certainly this work and this DVD will be of no interest to anyone with notions of conventional musical boundaries. Fans of Stockhausen and of the outré in general, though, are likely to find it endlessly fascinating.

July 24, 2008


The Black Death: A Personal History. By John Hatcher. Da Capo. $27.50.

Blood Roses. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $15.99.

Evernight. By Claudia Gray. HarperTeen. $16.99.

      So sweeping was the devastation of the Black Death, which killed more than one-third of the population of Europe, and so remote is its time in the mid-14th century, that it has never been easy for lay readers to comprehend just how significant its impact was on the people affected by it. Now John Hatcher, chairman of the history faculty at the University of Cambridge, has come up with a remarkably effective way to connect the 21st century with the 14th: through a semi-novel called The Black Death: A Personal History. Although carefully researched and filled with the insight of a skilled historian, the book relies for its effect on a series of entirely made-up scenes in which the common people in the parish of Walsham anticipate, cope with and survive (or do not survive) the coming of the plague. Recent studies have affirmed the unsurprising conclusion that the Black Death did not strike everyone with equal force – that it was most devastating to those already in poor health, which means the peasantry. These are the very people of whom virtually no records remain – they were illiterate and far too preoccupied with daily life, even in non-crisis times, to be concerned with posterity (except, in a limited way, through their children). Yet these are the people at the heart of Hatcher’s book – and if their names, dialogue and feelings are wholly invented by the author, they are at least created by someone whose familiarity with the time gives all the events the ring of truth. So we have villagers concerned, before the disease strikes, about “the cowardly and heartless actions of foreigners who had left the sick to die alone and the dead to be buried without funeral rites and ceremonies… Such behavior was un-Christian, unforgivable, and a risk to the eternal peace of the soul” – until the villagers find themselves practicing it themselves when their time of trial comes. We have insights into the petty politics of minor feudal officials, such as the reeve out for his own good despite the pestilence; and we learn about attempts to keep life more or less normal – such as through periodic court hearings where women are (for example) fined for bearing illegitimate children. Hatcher provides a fully realized societal portrait, showing where Walsham’s stability came from and how it was shattered by the Black Death – whose most lasting effect was the destabilization of the entire feudal system, since laborers became more valuable after so many of them died. The Black Death: A Personal History is a most unusual work of scholarship in the trappings of a novel – and it makes readers feel surprisingly close to the millions of unknown people who perished from the dread disease so many centuries ago.

      Blood Roses,
too, is not exactly a novel, being a series of short tales of transformations as strange and troubling as any in the real world. Death haunts here as well, at least from time to time, as in “My Haunted House,” about a strange dollhouse that Fleurette’s parents refuse to throw away, “So the dollhouse was moved to the garage where Death continued to live because Death must live somewhere, mustn’t she?” Death and questions of identity are often intermingled, for example in “My Boyfriend Is an Alien,” whose narrator says, “I didn’t tell him that I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia or that I tried to kill myself with pills. That part of the reason I change my hair so often is so that I can forget who I really am.” And then there is the very disquieting “My Mother the Vampire,” in which Sasha’s mom, Bets, who “was rather shockingly beautiful,” matter-of-factly takes her daughter’s blood for her own purposes: “Bets hummed a little tune as she tied the tourniquet around Sasha’s slender arm. …Afterward, Bets gave Sasha a Hello Kitty, Barbie or Disney Princess Band-Aid and a lollipop.” These stories are deeper and more chilling for being so short and so matter-of-fact about the outré.

      Claudia Gray’s first novel, Evernight, is a much more conventional vampire tale, but it is exciting and well told and deserves a (+++) rating. It raises the question of whether vampires or vampire hunters are the true outsiders – or whether both groups are – through a story set at Evernight Academy, a boarding school at which Bianca has been enrolled after her parents take jobs there. There are the usual uprooting, searching-for-yourself and star-crossed-lovers themes here (Bianca – whose name, rather too obviously, means “white” – finds herself strongly drawn to Lucas, who seems to fit in as poorly at Evernight as does Bianca herself). Gray – pen name of Amy Vincent, who has previously worked as a lawyer and journalist – closely observes her characters and their settings, and manages some slightly offbeat takes on vampire lore (“the forgetting is part of the bite”). It turns out that vampires in Gray’s world are driven by the need not only for blood but also for understanding, and Evernight Academy exists to give it to them. And the question of whether Bianca and Lucas are two of a kind or foreordained mortal enemies gives the book a piquant Romeo-and-Juliet flavor. There is little new here, but the well-worn themes of vampires and their enemies are nicely knitted together.


Welcome to Your World, Baby. By Brooke Shields. Illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share. By Mike Reiss. Illustrated by David Catrow. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Mother, You’re the Best! (But Sister, You’re a Pest!) By Diane deGroat. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Papá and Me. By Arthur Dorros. Pictures by Rudy Gutierrez. Rayo/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas & Grandpas. By Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrated by Michael Emberley. HarperCollins. $14.99.

I Already Know I Love You. By Billy Crystal. Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles. Byron Preiss/HarperFestival. $7.99.

      From babies to grandparents, families are held together by their own special bonds – and sometimes by a quirk or two, as these books for ages 3-8 show well. Welcome to Your World, Baby is about a girl with a new baby sister, looking forward to all the things they will do together when the baby gets bigger. They will have “super secret sleepovers” and “play beauty parlor” and catch snow on their tongues together – but for now, big sister will let the baby borrow her teddy bear “until you are bigger and aren’t scared at night.” Brooke Shields, in her first picture book, tells the story in simple, straightforward language, without a hint of “celebrity-fication” anywhere, and Cori Doerrfeld’s warm and lovely pictures create a feeling of calm and happiness throughout.

      But of course, siblings don’t always get along quite so perfectly. The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share is about sour-faced little Edward – David Catrow does a marvelous job with his expressions – who is unendingly mean to his little sister, Claire: “She could not hug his teddy bear./ ‘IT’S MINE!’ he said. ‘Why should I share?’” Well, as Mike Reiss’ verse makes clear, selfish Edward is heading for a fall – or rather for entrapment in a mound of toys so huge that he can barely be seen “somewhere deep inside the pile.” What happens? “When Edward’s mom came in with fudge,/ Edward found he couldn’t budge./ His mother didn’t see him there,/ and so she gave it all to Claire.” But big-eyed Claire is as good-hearted as Edward is mean-spirited, and the non-sharing boy comes to realize “that he’d been crabby,/ grouchy, grumbly, greedy, grabby,” and everything turns out just fine after all. Very amusingly, too.

      And what of parents? Diane deGroat’s Gilbert the possum wants to do something special for his mom on Mother’s Day, but little sister Lola spoils everything – first taking Mother’s attention away from Gilbert, then making a mess of everything Gilbert tries to do. Gilbert takes her to the store so he can buy something for Mother, but Lola eats the gift – an ice-cream cone. She gets messy, so Gilbert has to give her a bath. And so the day goes. But while Gilbert gets frustrated, Lola gets happier all the time – Gilbert never took her to the store before, never gave her a bath, never read to her at her nap time, and so on. And it turns out that what Mother wanted most was for Gilbert to take care of Lola during the day, which is just what Gilbert ended up doing. The result is a warm-hearted look at the positive side of unintended consequences.

      As for fathers, Papá and Me shows a day of great but simple fun for a boy and his Papá, and includes some Spanish phrases (clearly understandable in context) in its English-language story. Arthur Dorros’ tale follows the boy and his father as they have breakfast, go to the park, draw, race, and the boy learns that “I can do some things better than Papá, he can do some better than me.” Rudy Gutierrez’ pictures, which are all swirls and color blends, give the book a unique appearance and help propel it to a final hug that also includes the boy’s grandparents.

      Ah yes, grandparents. The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas & Grandpas tells kids everything they need to know about them. Sally Lloyd-Jones explains the grandparent-managing guidelines, which are made super-clear by Michael Emberley’s highly amusing illustrations of all sorts of animal families. “You need to scream and run away when they pretend to be a monster,” for example. And “it’s important to let your grandpa have some of your ice cream, and let him build you big sand castles like when he was a boy.” And “you need to make sure your grandma and grandpa have their naps when they’re tired.” Add all this good-hearted advice to pictures of (for example) goats playing checkers and giraffes reading newspapers, and you have a thoroughly engaging guide to staying engaged with the older generation.

      And how do grandparents feel about grandkids? Billy Crystal makes that abundantly clear in the board book, I Already Know I Love You. Crystal puts aside his usual comedic style for the dreams of a grandparent-to-be: “I’m waiting to show you oceans and explain why the sky is blue./ I want to show you that lying is never as good as true.” The sentimentalism of the thoughts is nicely complemented by Elizabeth Sayles’ attractive illustrations in a book that shows – as all these books do – that what binds the many members of a family together is their many kinds of love.


Yesterday’s Magic. By Pamela F. Service. Random House. $16.99.

Some Helpful Tips for a Better World and a Happier Life. By Rebecca Doughty. Schwartz & Wade. $9.99.

      If only there were magic that really worked, the world would be a much better place. That is, if only the right people controlled the magic. This is a problem for all books in which magic is a major force, dating back at least to the legends of King Arthur – which Pamela Service has been remaking and reconsidering for more than 20 years. Her first two tales of post-nuclear-holocaust Britain – in which a bold attempt is made to return the nation to rule by King Arthur, whose reappearance in a time of great need has long been predicted – were Winter of Magic’s Return (1985) and Tomorrow’s Magic (1987). Last year’s reissue of those stories under the Tomorrow’s Magic title paved the way for Service’s further exploration of the subject in Yesterday’s Magic. The idea of a nuclear holocaust ushering in an age of mutants, extinctions and a revival of magic – of both the good type and the ill – was already rather well-worn by the mid-1980s, so Service takes Yesterday’s Magic in a somewhat different (if not wholly new) direction. She pulls the focus away from the grand doings of King Arthur, who is being married to Queen Margaret of Scotland while trying to reunite England, and makes human characters the main focus of the new novel. One of those is Heather McKenna, although she may not be strictly human, since she has magical powers of her own, and they are growing steadily. She is kidnapped by Arthur’s old nemesis, Morgan LeFay, who wants Heather as a pawn in her centuries-old bid for power (here tangled up with the Hindu goddess of death). With Arthur otherwise occupied, it falls to Heather’s friend, Welly, to mount a rescue – with the help of none other than Merlin, supplier of the necessary gravitas as well as magical firepower. Service keeps humor handy – a welcome stylistic element. For example, a troll named Troll talks this way: “Trolls not like dragons. Dragons big and cranky and eat small folk. …Troll brave, do duty. Horses big hairy cowards.” And Service tries hard – she really does – to unite the once and future magic with elements that fit the real world as readers know it, as in the discovery of “a big underground bunker. A city almost. Apparently some government and military big shots built this hideout in the mountains in case war broke out. But I don’t think most of them got to use it. They were killed right out, or maybe from the radiation or the plagues.” Still, the book does not quite work, as the humorous elements and serious ones mix uneasily. Humor wins out most of the time (“Even with magic, we can’t save the world on empty stomachs”), making the underlying seriousness seem a bit trivialized. Still, fans of Service, who is a very fine writer, will find much to enjoy here.

      Back in the everyday world, wouldn’t it be nice to posses some little bits of magic to make life flow more easily? Rebecca Doughty offers them in Some Helpful Tips for a Better World and a Happier Life. Perhaps these prescriptions aren’t magical in a sense that King Arthur and Merlin would understand, but they certainly can produce magical effects – especially when coupled with Doughty’s illustrations, which provoke some quite-magical laughter. “Begin each day by making funny faces in the mirror” is a good place to start; “experiment with your hairdo” shows a girl with a cat draped over her head; “invent occasions for celebrations” focuses on “International Bunny Appreciation Day”; and so on. A thin, gift-type hardcover with pleasant messages about enjoying the little things in life, Doughty’s book recommends nothing more magical than that readers observe and enjoy what they find around them, from beaches to mud puddles. But then, that’s magic enough for a less-stressed life, isn’t it?


The Fire Eternal. By Chris D’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. By James Luceno. Lucas Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

      There are dragons in the Arctic, and the bears are starving, and ecological changes are bringing with them a rise in magic from beneath the Earth. This is the setting for The Fire Eternal, Chris D’Lacey’s followup to The Fire Within, Icefire and Fire Star, a trilogy that now has a fourth book and seems certain to spawn more in the future. The focus this time is on Alexa Rain, daughter of novelist David Rain, who disappeared mysteriously in the Arctic five years before the start of the new novel. Alexa may be the only being standing between Earth and the increasingly angry spirit Gaia, a goddess rapidly losing patience with the changes on the surface of the world. This is a book filled with implications, where even small events are subject to multiple interpretations – the most otherworldly usually being the correct one: “When the winter wind had blown and the chimes had responded, the door in the rockery had opened for a second. And it might have been the pressure of the wind that had moved it. But that would not explain the faint crack of light behind it. Or that unmistakable hazy ripple, characteristic of a shift in the fabric of the universe.” There is treachery here, and there are otherworldly beings assuming (or forced to assume) the shapes of various animals or part-animals, and the souls of Inuit dead are haunting the northern skies. Understanding what is going on in The Fire Eternal, and why, requires some knowledge of the previous books in this series – D’Lacey makes at best a passing attempt to explain the story so far to new readers. And the many characters, human and otherwise, can be confusing, as can a world in which magic is pervasive but characters say such things as, “He’s gonna die – in my foyer! I’m definitely calling the police.” Still, existing fans of this series will enjoy its continued expansion into new realms, with new alliances and new sets of opponents arrayed against each other. At the heart of the book and the series as a whole is this comment, made here of dragons but applicable to other beings as well: “‘Are they spirits?’ ‘Sometimes.’”

      It is screen magic rather than verbal magic that drives the fourth Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but fans of the film who do want to read what happens can now get the tale in the form of a novel by James Luceno, based on the story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson and the screenplay by David Koepp. This is really a post-film souvenir book, complete with stills from the movie; it is hard to imagine anyone reading the novel who hasn’t seen the film already. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – the book actually makes it possible to think through some of the plot points that the movie rushes past so quickly that they almost become invisible. The film is a special-effects spectacular, after all – more so than the earlier Indiana Jones films, which were more character-driven despite all their action. The book takes a little time (although only a little) to try to get inside the characters’ heads: “Indy was more affected by his intimate contact with the crystal skull than he let on. …He had seen many amazing things in his lifetime, but he had always considered himself to be as much a scientist as an adventurer, and he had constructed complex rationalizations to explain each mystery. But his stance had softened somewhat over the course of the past fifteen years.” Despite the spells of what passes for thoughtfulness, though, readers of this novelization will surely want to recall the film’s many action sequences, and Luceno delivers those quite well, albeit inevitably without the punch of the movie itself. Yet purchasers of the book may not care: as they read the words, they will undoubtedly be recalling the pictures they have already seen.


Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99.

Nielsen: Symphonies No. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) and 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”). Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Naxos. $8.99.

      Performers create expectations – to which they then live up or down. Here are two CDs for which listeners would do better to set their expectations aside. For example, one does not expect the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to be particularly well-suited to the sonic richness of Mahler; and Gerard Schwarz is scarcely the first conductor whose name comes to mind as a Mahler specialist. But this recording of Mahler’s Seventh is quite exceptionally good. That may be because the symphony itself doesn’t quite fit neatly into the Mahler canon. So strange are its instrumentation and its tonic restlessness (it constantly strays from major to minor and back) that Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke, who prepared the first performing edition of the unfinished Tenth, gave the Seventh the subtitle “Mad.” But it is a fine madness here. Schwarz gives the first movement shrill, percussive treatment, and if the strings are not as warm as one expects for Mahler, they are solid and rhythmically attentive. Schwarz appreciates the oddities of scoring in this sprawling, discontinuous movement, and the result is a thrilling performance. In the first Nachtmusik, which follows, Schwarz emphasizes grotesqueries of rhythm and instrumentation, so the movement sounds very modern – but the lyricism really flows in the gorgeous central section. The Scherzo is genuinely spooky at the start, with Schwarz focusing on its dissonances and giving it the sort of flickering quality usually associated with (for example) the Scherzo of Bruckner’s Ninth. It is only in the second Nachtmusik that Schwarz’s approach falters: this movement is a little too hard-edged and surface-level, and is not true to the “amoroso” part of its “Andante amoroso” designation. The huge final Rondo, though, works splendidly – as it often does not in other performances. It can easily feel tacked on, so different is it in character from the first four movements, but Schwarz makes a strong case for it as the symphony’s capstone, emphasizing the timpani tattoos in a boisterous, rowdy performance that ends in a burst of joy. This is one of the best Mahler Sevenths currently available – a very pleasant surprise indeed.

      The surprise is not quite so pleasant in Michael Schønwandt’s handling of Nielsen’s Second and Third Symphonies. The expectation here is excellence and thorough familiarity with the music, and that is just what the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR delivers in the Third Symphony. The wordless voices of Inger Dam-Jensen and Poul Elming fit Nielsen’s sound beautifully in the slow movement, and the symphony feels tightly integrated – including its problematic finale, which can be a real letdown through the comparatively ordinary nature of its themes and Nielsen’s handling of them. Not so here: Schønwandt pushes the movement effectively, refusing to let it drag, and as a result the symphony becomes a thoroughly integrated experience from start to finish. But the results in the Second Symphony are, surprisingly, something of a disappointment. This is a deliberately episodic work, with each movement representing one of the “temperaments” once thought to be defined by excesses of specific bodily fluids: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. Nielsen paints each temperament very skillfully, allowing only brief respite – for purely musical reasons – from the primary driving forces of each movement. But Schønwandt overemphasizes those contrasting sections throughout the work, perhaps seeking a more “musicianly” reading of the symphony but in fact spoiling its deliberately programmatic (and intentionally rather superficial) approach. As a result, none of the four temperaments seems to be painted in primary colors – they are shaded and nuanced, which is exactly what Nielsen did not intend. The symphony is certainly well played, and in light of the fact that this recording dates to 1999 – it was originally released by Dacapo – there could well be a more effective Nielsen Second from these forces one of these days. For now, Schønwandt’s Nielsen Third is ample reason to consider this CD a success.


Tony Palmer’s Film about Puccini. Written by Charles Wood. Starring Robert Stephens, Virginia McKenna, Judith Howarth and Robert Urquhart. Tony Palmer Films. $24.99 (DVD).

Tony Palmer’s Film of God Rot Tunbridge Wells. Written by John Osborne. Starring Trevor Howard, Dave Griffiths, Christopher Bramwell and Peter Stanger. Tony Palmer Films. $24.99 (DVD).

      As producer of films about Chopin and Sir Yehudi Menuhin, and director of ones about Britten, Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Renée Fleming and others, Tony Palmer has carved himself a niche in the visual exploration of classical music. Now his 1984 film on Puccini and 1985 exploration of Handel, both made for British TV, are available on DVD – and they are very much niche products. Palmer’s strength is in his belief in himself and his viewpoints. If you accept his ideas, you will become quickly involved in his films and find them enthralling. If you do not see eye-to-eye with him, though, watching his movies can be something between a chore and an irritation.

      This is particularly true in Palmer’s film about Puccini, whose focus is not the composer’s operatic career but the tragic story of the family’s maid, Doria Manfredi, who was wrongly accused by Puccini’s jealous wife of having an affair with the composer, a notorious womanizer. Distraught, Manfredi committed suicide – and Puccini’s wife, Elvira, was later convicted of public defamation in the case and sentenced to more than five years in prison. Palmer interweaves this story with preparations for a production of Turandot that Palmer himself designed for the Scottish National Opera. This is self-aggrandizement as much as anything: the production was roundly condemned and reflected far more on Palmer than on Puccini. In fact, Palmer goes so far as to suggest that Turandot may have been left incomplete – Puccini stopped writing it after the death of Liu – because Puccini was so emotionally torn by what happened to Dora Manfredi. This creates a variety of factual problems – for example, it would mean the composer stopped composing years earlier than is generally believed to be the case – but it certainly makes for good theater, and that is what Palmer is after. Unfortunately, the film itself is rather sloppily shot, especially in the scenes of preparations for the Turandot production; and in fact, only dedicated opera lovers will likely want as much of a backstage view as Palmer provides. The actual performance of parts of the opera, by the Scottish Opera Chorus and Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson, is very good, but there is not much of it, and it is not Palmer’s main point in the film. In fact, his main point is a bit hard to come by – the film gives the impression of being several short movies cut together, sometimes rather haphazardly, all with a focus on something having to do with Puccini.

      God Rot Tunbridge Wells
is argumentative in a different way. Screenwriter John Osborne, a well-known playwright, commemorated the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth with a film whose title comes from a letter that Osborne says Handel wrote to the Tunbridge Wells Ladies’ Music Circle after they put on a particularly hideous performance of Messiah. Did it happen? It scarcely matters to Osborne and Palmer, who are more interested in the way Handel shook up British music in the 18th century and created a set of entirely new traditions. That did happen, but it is something of a scholarly matter and not well suited to film visualization. So Palmer and Osborne focus on the Tunbridge Wells matter as a kind of microcosm of bad music-making. The good news is that, in the process, they offer some very good music-making – from the English Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, and a number of fine singers. Palmer does not inject himself as much into this film as into Puccini, where he uses his own Turandot production so prominently; God Rot Tunbridge Wells is as much Osborne’s vision as Palmer’s. If neither of the films is definitive – and neither is – both have interesting, if seriously skewed, points of view, and are likely to be enjoyable to the extent that viewers and listeners find the viewpoints congenial rather than maddening.

July 17, 2008


Dr. Seuss Beginner Concepts Cards: Colors & Shapes. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $10.99.

Dr. Seuss Beginner Alphabet Cards. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $10.99.

Fancy Nancy’s Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins. $12.99.

      It is hard to realize that Theodor Seuss Geisel has been gone for 18 years. His books have never disappeared, and they keep showing up in new editions, new forms, and new shapes. One of the happiest is a new card shape – because Dr. Seuss was such a marvelous teacher, even when he did not overtly intend to be. His great rhymes taught kids word sounds; his amusing comments on make-believe creatures’ foibles taught kids tolerance, understanding and the importance of equality; his nonsense words taught kids the delights of language and word play. And now he is teaching the youngest children about colors, shapes and the alphabet, thanks to a couple of wonderful flip-top boxes containing cards that use Seussian illustrations to demonstrate basic concepts of language. Colors & Shapes includes a dozen large cards – about four-by-six inches apiece – with a color on one side of each and a shape on the other. The color blue goes with a blue-shelled turtle from Yertle the Turtle, for example, while the color red goes with a fish from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Shapes such as circle, square and star are also shown with amusing Seuss illustrations. There are a dozen “playing” cards (really “learning” cards), and a set of helpful instructions for parents on how to use them – for example, by engaging several of a child’s senses to help speed learning and retention. Everything is packed in a tough cardboard box with neatly concealed magnetic closure. This will be a real treat for young learners.

      So will the Dr. Seuss Beginner Alphabet Cards, which come in a similar box but more closely approximate the size of a standard deck of cards. There are 26 of them (of course!), again with useful instructions for parents, with each letter associated with something Seussian. “C” is, of course, for cat, as in the Cat in the Hat, but there are plenty of less-obvious Seuss drawings to enliven alphabet learning and practice. The cards can also be used to build small words, helping young children start to understand how letters are combined and what happens to their sounds and meanings when that occurs.

      One thing that happens is that the words get fancy. Or at least they do when Fancy Nancy is involved. Her alphabet book, for ages 4-7, is right in line with her character and is packed with words and comments that reflect her view of life as something to accessorize. B, for example, is for “Boa – a long scarf of feathers. Boas are very glamorous, but they itch!” Some of the word choices here are exceptionally clever, reflecting the way Jane O’Connor handles her books of Nancy’s adventures. For example, I is for “Improvise – to use whatever is handy in order to make something.” What Nancy has made is an “elegant” canopy bed, using a sheet, mop and broom – the whole thing endearingly portrayed by Robin Preiss Glasser in her usual just-right style. Whether on an Excursion in a pink convertible or being Joyous about Christmas in an outfit that includes a wig that looks like a fully decorated Christmas tree, Fancy Nancy is thoroughly overdone in a most endearing way – not a teacher for just anyone, perhaps, but if you have a child who will learn well from this classy lassy, you’ll know it.


Snoop: What Your Stuff Says about You. By Sam Gosling, Ph.D. Basic Books. $25.

The Book of Wizards. Selected and illustrated by Michael Hague. HarperCollins. $19.99.

      Sam Gosling doesn’t exactly wave a wand to learn things about people that they may prefer he not find out, but there is enough apparent wizardry in his snooping and analysis to make some of his revelations seem a lot like magic. Gosling, who is anything but a small goose, is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Most of what he does is observe people and their places closely – the basis of much magic as well as a great deal of hokum. But what Gosling finds out isn’t hokum at all. Many people understand intuitively that the things they own reflect on them – but what they reflect may not be what people think. The reason is “seepage and leakage,” which means that “many elements of personality find their ways into our behaviors without our being conscious of it. …Personality is expressed not just in our behaviors but also in the way we perceive the world; that is, anxious people not only fidget when under stress but they see more dangers, threats, and things to worry about than their laid-back neighbors, who see no good reason to get their knickers in a twist.” What this means is that the way people do simple things, such as shaking hands or jumping, reflects their personalities clearly to someone who has studied the relationship between behavior and personality as thoroughly as Gosling has. Furthermore, the things we accumulate – and the way we choose to display (or not display) them – can be important personality keys. Gosling builds on some important work done by earlier psychologists, such as Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. But Gosling thinks Goffman’s idea that people in daily life perform like characters in a play is insufficient, because people’s true personalities will peek through no matter how carefully they try to conceal them. This leads Gosling to a neat distinction between a tidy room and a tidied room: the former reflects a personality that naturally keeps things neat and organized, while the latter is a mostly transparent attempt to appear neater than a person actually is – an unsuccessful attempt when Gosling is observing the room, because “many parts of our personalities are simply irrepressible.” This is fascinating stuff – so fascinating that, no matter how many times Gosling reminds readers that he is primarily practicing careful observation and interpreting what he sees in accordance with established standards, a lot of his revelations about how we inevitably project ourselves to the world through our behaviors and owned objects still seem somewhat magical.

      Gosling may be a real-world wizard, but he is not a real wizard in the classic sense, as becomes clear in The Book of Wizards, which collects folktales from Russia, Wales, Iceland, Greece, the Baltic and elsewhere. Yet it is interesting to compare Gosling’s skill in real-world observation (in a book intended for adults) with the talents on display in Michael Hague’s fictional story compilation (for ages 6-11). It turns out that close observation of one’s environment is a key to successful wizardry, and that underlying personality characteristics do indeed determine one’s success not only on Earth but also in magical lands. Thus, in the Native American tale of “Coyote and the Medicine Woman,” Coyote’s careful observation of the way the medicine woman obtains meat makes it possible for him to steal her magic – but her own more-careful observation of Coyote brings the magic back. In the Russian story of “Baba Yaga,” the underlying generosity of young Sonya’s heart shines through even in a place of fear and terror – and gets her out of danger safely. In the medieval legend of “King Solomon’s Ring,” it requires both careful observation and an innate sense of patience and caution for the young hero to obtain ultimate power – which he wishes to use only for the common good. It will not do to push parallels between real and magical worlds too closely, but it does not hurt to probe them to a limited extent, since, after all, the creators of the old tales were living in the real world when they made up their stories – and those stories, however changed they may be after many years, still reflect some underlying truths as perceived by those who first told them and by their successors. Hague’s book gets a (+++) rating for its intended audience, because in addition to many high spots it also has some ill-told tales, such as an inaccurate distillation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a peculiar take on the story of Merlin, and a version of the legend of Circe and Odysseus that is well presented but for no good reason insists on calling the Greek hero by the Roman name of Ulysses. Still, for young readers who may think J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter sprang fully formed from Rowling’s fertile mind, The Book of Wizards will provide a good deal of interesting food for magical thought.


The Eyes of a King. By Catherine Banner. Random House. $16.99.

Fairest. By Gail Carson Levine. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

Ever. By Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Fairy tales, as collected by Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm and others, were not intended for children – they were dark, often psychologically complex (although they long predate any formal understanding of psychology), and filled with genuine horror and awful punishments. Victorian Bowdlerizing of the old fairy tales started a trend toward making them children’s stories in the 20th century – and now, in the 21st, subjects for revamping in the name of creating books for teenagers and preteens. Sometimes that also means creating books by teenagers: Catherine Banner, author of The Eyes of a King, is 19, and is said to have started writing the book when she was just 14. It would be churlish to dismiss this book as mere juvenilia, and also unfair, since in many respects it is quite well done. Besides, it is the first book of a planned trilogy, and some of its inelegances of plot may be worked out (and worked through) in the later volumes. As is, The Eyes of a King follows a now-familiar formula, which has been done quite well by (for example) Cornelia Funke with Inkheart and its successors. This is a story in which a book has genuine power – not merely to teach or to allow a person to imagine other worlds, but literally to transport him or her somewhere else and affect his or her life directly. That’s the basis of The Eyes of a King: Leo North, who is 15, lives with his grandmother and takes care of his younger brother; he attends military school because other boys do. But he knows he has undeveloped magical powers – powers he must resist, since in his land, Malonia, they lead to serious trouble. Then Leo finds a blank book in the snow (a very typical kind of fairy-tale device), and words start to appear on its pages, and he learns of Malonia’s history and of a parallel universe where two other teens – Ryan and Anna – live. Their lives start to intersect Leo’s in ways that are supposed to be magical but that feel as if they have often been used before (which they have). Leo faces tragedy involving his brother, uncertainty about whether he is losing his mind, and a growing connection with another world. Banner cleverly gives Leo’s story in first person and the tale of Ryan and Anna, set in different type, in third person. And there is some genuine emotion here, and some genuine learning by the interlinked characters. But even though The Eyes of a King is a very good effort, it never quite makes the sort of connection between fairy tale and the real world that the old stories made so effortlessly.

      Gail Carson Levine is a more facile writer than Banner, but she seems to have her own difficulties with the world of fairy tales. Although her first novel, Ella Enchanted, was…well….enchanting, and she has shown a fine sense of humor (something Banner’s writing lacks) in certain of her books, such as Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, Levine seems to be trying too hard to make her books and their characters likable a lot of the time. Fairest, originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, is loosely based on the Snow White legend. It is about a land where grace, beauty and especially song are prized, and it focuses on a girl named Aza -- who has little of the first two qualities but an extraordinary ability with the third. The wicked, untalented queen takes advantage of Aza’s wonderful voice for her own purposes, and it is only gradually that Aza learns to value herself for who and what she is instead of conforming to society’s dictates and expectations. The story is better than a bare plot summary makes it sound, but not much better – there are lots of songs (perhaps too many), and long descriptive passages that do not advance the story much, and a sense of rushing through the climaxes of the tale (including Aza’s finding true love). Aza herself is not especially appealing: it is easy to forgive her ugliness and gracelessness within a fairy-tale world, but she also seems rather dull and not especially intelligent. The book works on some levels but, taken as a whole, just seems too contrived and obvious.

      Yet it is not as contrived as Levine’s new fairy-tale book, Ever. This one has a genuinely offbeat plot. A 17-year-old god named Olus spends his time with mortals because he is uncomfortable with the other gods, who are much older. Olus is especially attracted to a 15-year-old mortal girl, Kezi, who – because of her father’s unwise oath – has only 30 days to live. Together, Olus and Kezi seek a way to save her life so they can both be together for Ever. The working-through of the plot, though, is not as good as the outline. Olus seems like something of a stalker at first; the tests the two must face in order to succeed in their quest seem to go by quickly; the characters’ love seems more shallow than heartfelt; and the writing itself is choppy, told in chapters alternating between Kezi and Olus – who do not sound very different, because the characters are not particularly well differentiated. There is a lot to like in Ever, including exotic settings and the interesting notion of a young god facing his fears to help save the one he loves. But the book lacks the stylistic punch of Levine’s better works, not to mention the power and immediacy of the old fairy tales themselves.