August 28, 2008


The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. By Edwin A. Abbott. Introduction and notes by Ian Stewart. Basic Books. $17.95.

Alice in Wonderland. By Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Mary Engelbreit. HarperFestival. $9.99.

Dragon Keepers #1: The Dragon in the Sock Drawer. By Kate Klimo. Random House. $14.99.

      It was Dr. Seuss who wrote of “the thinks you can think” and “the places you’ll go,” but Edwin A. Abbott and Lewis Carroll were taking readers to strange and wonderful realms long before the good doctor ever penned his not-so-nonsensical-after-all rhymes. Abbott’s Flatland, first published in 1884, remains the best short introduction ever written to issues of mathematical multidimensionality and the implications of going beyond three dimensions. The novella is also a book of social commentary, examining the mores of Abbott’s own time and finding them wanting in areas ranging from the general stultification of thinking to the specific treatment of women. Ian Stewart – who has extended Abbott’s concept by writing a book called Flatterland – produced The Annotated Flatland in 2002, but it has only now become available in a paperback edition that, one hopes, will rekindle the always-simmering popularity of Abbott’s book and make Stewart’s gloss more widely available. For Stewart does add a lot to Abbott – not to the basic story, which remains well-nigh perfect in its simplicity, but to an understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts as well as the societal implications of what Abbott wrote. Abbott postulates a land where all is two-dimensional (hence his book’s title); he then has the narrator, A. Square, visited by a sphere – which of course appears to A. Square as a circle. It is only when the sphere lifts A. Square out of Flatland through a direction that A. Square could never have imagined that A. Square begins to understand multidimensionality. Square and sphere visit one-dimensional and no-dimensional worlds; but when A. Square suggests, quite reasonably, that there must be worlds beyond that of three dimensions, the sphere scoffs at him, showing the limitations of his own thinking. Eventually A. Square is imprisoned in Flatland for his heretical notions about other dimensions. Stewart’s book includes Abbott’s original in larger type, set within boxes; Stewart’s own comments are in the margins, with some Abbott pages getting no comments at all and others receiving such long notes that (in one case) seven lines of Abbott are all that appear on two full pages of text. Stewart does go a bit overboard in his commentary at times, but of course there is no need to read more than one wishes to; Abbott’s book stands quite well on its own. If, however, you do want to understand more about Abbott’s discussion of polygons, read about the constraints of physics in Flatland, or find out in what way Flatland may be commenting on the Sepoy Mutiny, Stewart is available as a knowing guide. Flatland itself remains an astonishment. The Annotated Flatland is an expansion that does not make the original any better but may make elements of it more understandable to the modern reader.

      There is, rather surprisingly, no tinkering at all with another Victorian classic in the Mary Engelbreit’s Classic Library edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Engelbreit is a well-known illustrator, her sentimental and rather overdone renderings gracing all manner of books and gift items. But she is quite delightfully restrained here, simply contributing a cover of Alice and the Cheshire Cat (making both of them look somewhat younger, and the cat less mystifyingly threatening, than in Carroll’s writing), then producing a White Rabbit figure to introduce each chapter and an illumination for each chapter’s first letter. A gold-colored necklace from which a White Rabbit charm hangs is included with the book. But these are the only vestiges of the sentimentality for which Engelbreit is known: aside from them, this is Carroll’s work, unembellished and unannotated. In truth, readers ages 8-12 – the book’s target audience – could probably use some guidance to Carroll’s satire of Victorian pretensions, nursery songs and judicial oddities; but that is not what this edition is all about. Instead, it makes Alice in Wonderland reader-friendly, presenting the book as a relatively small hardcover that is easy to carry, with type large enough to be easy to read, and without illustrations (the classic ones by Sir John Tenniel are quite marvelous, but would make the edition considerably longer and would not go well with Engelbreit’s far more simplistic style). Young fans of Engelbreit who are unfamiliar with Alice’s adventures may well be drawn to them through this edition – and that would be a very good thing indeed.

      Kate Klimo is no Carroll or Abbott, but she too has come up with a kind of alternative-dimension story for the same ages targeted by the Engelbreit Alice. The first title in a planned series called Dragon Keepers, Klimo’s The Dragon in the Sock Drawer is one of those cute fairy-tale-like stories…but it is also neatly connected with our everyday 21st-century world. For example, when a baby dragon hatches from an apparently ordinary rock, 10-year-old cousins Daisy and Jesse have to figure out what to feed it. So they take their problem to…Google. That doesn’t work, of course (in real life, you can get an answer by asking Google what to feed your baby dragon – but it refers to a lizard called a bearded dragon). In any case, the cousins’ unsuccessful search sets them to using the computer for further exploration, and that brings them to a site called (which also exists in the real world – to promote this very book). It turns out that the cousins became Dragon Keepers when their dragon hatched, and must now keep the dragon safe from the centuries-old villain Saint George, who stays alive by drinking dragon blood. There are enough twists and turns in the basic plot to keep young readers well entertained, and Klimo keeps finding amusing ways to play with the old fairy tales. For instance, when the cousins have their inevitable confrontation with Saint George, Jesse realizes that the dragon’s real name must not be known to the villain, so he calls the dragon Esmeralda “after Cinderella’s ugly stepsister,” even though the stepsisters are really named Anastasia and Drizella. Later, after a daring rescue of the dragon from Saint George, Jesse and Daisy have to contend with the appetite that Emmy (her actual name; short for Emerald) has developed for fine Italian shoes. The Dragon in the Sock Drawer is great, silly fun, with a climax that makes it abundantly clear that the whole book is a shaggy dog story (even if young readers won’t necessarily know what that is). The ending also sets the scene neatly for the second book in the series – which, based on this first one, will have quite a lot to live up to.


Greetings from the 50 States: How They Got Their Names. By Sheila Keenan. Illustrated by Selina Alko. Scholastic. $18.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2009. Scholastic. $15.99.

      Families interested in American historical trivia will enjoy Sheila Keenan’s name game involving the 50 states (and Washington, D.C.), but should not expect definitive answers to how the states got their names. In many cases, there aren’t any. Arizona, for example, may have come from a Pima Indian word, Alehzon, modified by Spanish settlers to Arizonac; or the name may mean “place of the small spring,” Ali-Shonak; or it could come from the Spanish words for “arid place.” Maine may come from “mainland,” spelled “main,” “Meyne” or “Mayne,” or from a grant from King Charles I referring to “the Mayne Lande and Premises.” But if Greetings from the 50 States: How They Got Their Names is far from definitive, it can be a great deal of fun for families interested in a virtual tour of the nation – with information on when each state joined the Union (although it omits mentioning when the states of the Confederacy left it). The book also includes states’ nicknames, both the official ones and some unofficial ones. Nebraska is officially the Cornhusker State, after an old way of harvesting corn, but is also the Tree Planters State, because Arbor Day started there in 1872; Connecticut is officially the Constitution State because of a constitution-like document written there in 1639, but it is unofficially the Nutmeg State for the very hard fruit seed that residents of the state used to sell. There may be more information here than many kids will find interesting (except perhaps in class during studies of American history); or there may be less than kids want to know, in which case the list of Web sites for all the states, provided at the back of the book, will be a big help.

      It’s hard to imagine a school course that would use the facts in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2009, which are – as always in this long-lasting series – just plain weird. But there remains a certain fascination to these snippets of information on odd things and people. The new edition includes “Ripley Rewind” entries, which look back on Ripley listings of the past, as well as very up-to-date data. The book is laid out in six sections: “Way Out World,” “Flaky Folk,” “Animal Antics,” “Against the Odds,” “Body Oddity” and “Strange but True.” Some of the items are simply coincidences of no significant interest: a girl was born at 3:33 p.m. on the third day of the third month (March) in the year 2003. Others are weird but not strange in the original Ripley “can you believe this?” manner: a patient operated on in 2007 had green blood, not red blood, because he had been taking large doses of a certain medicine. But some items really are wonders: a woman whose sight was restored by transplantation of the cornea from a cat’s eye; a two-headed lamb that drinks milk from either mouth; a four-foot-four-inch-long green bean; the way secret messages were passed in ancient Greece – through tattoos on heads, which were concealed as hair grew over them; panda dung as a souvenir of this year’s Beijing Olympics; and more. As always, there is a mixture here of the old and the new, the amazing occurrences and the groaners, and there are some items that just seem inappropriate – such as the photo of an immensely fat baby whose weight is caused by a rare disease. There will be families that find this latest Ripley’s compilation offbeat, unusual and entertaining; but there will be others that find a lot of it simply tasteless – believe it or not.


Challenges: A Memoir of My Life in Opera. By Sarah Caldwell with Rebecca Matlock. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.

Lang Lang: Playing with Flying Keys. By Lang Lang with Michael French. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      From Offenbach’s Voyage to the Moon to Mozart’s Magic Flute, with much in between, Sarah Caldwell staged operas in Boston for more than 30 years. She also toured the United States with productions and made trips to Germany, Israel, South Africa, China, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And she contended, throughout her long career as impresario and conductor and more, with lack of funds, intransigent unions, pervasive sexism, and the many needs and demands of major artists from Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland to Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Challenges was put together by Rebecca Matlock, a longtime friend of Caldwell and a member of the Board of Directors of Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, from taped interviews done during the three-year period before Caldwell died in 2006 at the age of 82. The book will be instructive, if perhaps not particularly enjoyable, for opera lovers, since Caldwell knew the field so well but said so little about it during her lifetime – she rarely granted interviews or sought publicity. Some of her stories show Caldwell managing to overcome the realities of society as it existed during her career: she was the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera and the United States Marine Band. Other tales remain useful for the classical-music sphere today: the infighting, the internal politics, the huge egos, and the constant search for enough money to mount one more production, make one more tour, develop one more new idea, hire one more top-rank singer. The book’s style, unfortunately, can be matter-of-fact to the point of dullness. For example, regarding a planned production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, for which Caldwell wanted to recruit the famed bass Boris Christoff: “I took with me a model of the set that we had used [in a previous staging]. I didn’t want to have any trouble when he came and saw that it was very different from the sets to which he was accustomed. He professed to think it was the most wonderful set he had seen, a very exciting concept, he thought.” The constant parade of simple declarative sentences quickly becomes wearing; Challenges is a challenge to read straight through, although there is much of interest in it when it is taken in small doses.

      The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang (born 1982) is as flamboyant and public a figure as Sarah Caldwell was a private one. It is no surprise that a version of Lang Lang’s biography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, is being offered to young readers as Playing with Flying Keys, because Lang Lang represents a type of celebrity pianism that reaches out to audiences of all ages. Michael French’s adaptation maintains the idea of celebrity hagiography, with a rags-to-riches story arc of a child prodigy to whom music came “as naturally as breathing.” Also in keeping with the form, Playing with Flying Keys contains 16 pages of photographs, ranging from one of seven-year-old Lang Lang practicing in his underwear to ones of him with conductors Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle. There is not much insight into Lang Lang as a person here, although we do learn of his family turmoil, the poverty of his childhood, and his love of Transformers. Readers familiar with classical music will be able to read between the lines. For example, Lang Lang tells conductor Christoph Eschenbach that, given the choice, he would like to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony: “I suddenly remembered how many careers had been galvanized by that brilliant composition – Horowitz’s and Rubinstein’s among them.” But Lang Lang pointedly does not mention that the concerto launched Van Cliburn’s career – an omission that says something about how the Chinese pianist sees himself. However, Playing with Flying Keys is not really intended for a musically sophisticated audience, and that is just as well, since there is some controversy about Lang Lang’s playing – whether there is really much substance behind his pianism, and whether he tends to “phone in” some performances instead of working hard at them. There is no such controversy here: the book contains nothing but uplift, being a story of success on the stage of the world. It is an appealing tale for readers ages nine and up. They will have time to learn the nuances of life, Lang Lang’s as well as their own, later.


The Princess and the Hound. By Mette Ivie Harrison. HarperTeen. $8.99.

The Juliet Club. By Suzanne Harper. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Rumors: A Luxe Novel. By Anna Godbersen. HarperCollins. $17.99.

Labor of Love. By Rachel Hawthorne. HarperTeen. $5.99.

Lucky. By Rachel Vail. HarperTeen. $16.99.

      The variations on themes of teenage discovery of self and of love seem to be endless, as does the parade of books on those subjects. But some approaches are cleverer than others. The Princess and the Hound, originally published last year and now available in paperback, moves in some interesting directions. It is a sort of beauty-and-the-beast story, although here the beastliness is more on the female side than the male. Mette Ivie Harrison pulls in all the fairy-tale elements (prince, princess, castles, neighboring kingdoms, magic, and so on), but she does a better job than many other writers of making her protagonists, George and Beatrice, come alive for the reader. George is a reluctant prince – the duties, he finds, are a burden – and the possessor of animal magic that he must constantly conceal, even though speaking with animals gives him great pleasure. Bound to marry Beatrice in the aftermath of a war, he finds her to be a young woman with her own problems: “It seemed that she was rejected for any signs of femininity yet also rejected for not showing enough femininity.” Illnesses treated by mysterious physicians, discoveries of true nature and true names, and acceptances of the burdens of leadership add up to a well-woven story that invites a sequel – which will be the forthcoming The Princess and the Bear.

      The Juliet Club is a more ordinary book, but it too has a level of mythic resonance, as Suzanne Harper’s echo-of-Shakespeare title makes clear. The heroine, Kate Sanderson, is the daughter of a Shakespeare scholar. Kate’s boyfriend breaks up with her; Kate decides to avoid love forever; and she heads off to a summer Shakespeare symposium where she can let her intellect flow and hold her hormones in check. But of course, things don’t work that way (at least in romance novels), and Kate finds herself irresistibly attracted to a fellow Shakespeare Scholar named Giacomo, whose watchword – even though he too has been dumped by someone – is, “My heart does not break.” The book is laid out in acts, scenes and entr’actes rather than chapters, and the finding-each-other Act V is no surprise at all, but The Juliet Club is a nicely written book with which young teenage girls can pass their time dreaming of exotic lands and exotic boys.

      There is a touch of the exotic in Rumors as well, but this sequel to The Luxe is somehow harder to swallow than The Juliet Club. Set among glittering (and 100% stereotyped) New York socialites and their hangers-on at the turn of the 20th century, Anna Godbersen’s novel introduces or reintroduces characters already familiar from The Luxe and, it seems, from countless period pieces before it: the too-appealing cad, the sister seeking to redeem the family name, the seductress determined to pick up where her betters left off, the lower-class schemer learning to trade in upper-class gossip, and more. There is plenty of talk here and a modicum of action, but this tale of misplaced pride and prideful romance is so overwrought that the reappearance of Elizabeth Holland – heroine of the previous book – is not only no surprise but also a foregone conclusion.

      The foregone conclusion in Labor of Love, by that reliable recounter of summertime love, Rachel Hawthorne, is that heroine Dawn Delaney will do her very best to avoid falling for a very cute guy but will fall for him anyway. Dawn’s first and only boyfriend cheated on her, so of course she has sworn off all boys and gone to New Orleans to help rebuild houses (isn’t that what everyone does?). She and her friends, Jenna and Amber, have also gone to a psychic, who has told Dawn to expect to encounter a stranger with a red baseball hat. And that’s what happens! And the guy is cute! And Dawn meets him at a bakery, and later at a restaurant! And it’s all just too precious for words! But there are plenty of words here, in Hawthorne’s usual style: “The thought of being with only Brady, with no buffer, no other people, was scary and thrilling. And I suddenly realized that it was something I wanted. I wanted a lot.”

      What Phoebe Avery wants in Lucky is something a bit more unusual, at least in a novel for teenagers: she wants her mom’s wealth back. Lucky is the first book of a planned trilogy about the Avery sisters, who have plenty of material possessions and (as a result) lots of admiration from many, many friends – but whose mother, the source of all that money, suddenly loses her job, plunging the family into financial crisis. Now Phoebe, who has always considered herself lucky, cannot count on having just the right dress for graduation from middle school; nor is she sure she can count on her best friend any longer, or on her crush. Phoebe is not close to her two older sisters, and is too embarrassed to discuss her family’s financial reverses with her school friends, so she has nowhere to turn – until, slowly but surely, she comes to realize that friendship and love are more important than money. Phoebe seems a little too shallow to discover the inner strength that she needs to pull herself through the family crisis, but Rachel Vail makes sure to give her that strength and make it available in time for an ending that is, probably inevitably, syrupy-sweet. Books for young teens rarely focus on financial matters – it seems somehow easier to write about sex, families’ emotional breakdowns, and so forth – so Lucky deserves credit for tackling a subject that is not often handled for this age group. But the characters remain one-dimensional and the ending too pat.


Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro. Glyndebourne Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Silvio Varviso. Glyndebourne. $44.99 (3 CDs).

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery. Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Glyndebourne. $29.99 (2CDs).

Wagner: The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Reginald Goodall. Chandos. $44.99 (4 CDs).

Lully: Psyché. Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).

      To the numerous self-launched CD labels that have sprung up in recent years can now be added one that should have opera lovers everywhere rejoicing: the Glyndebourne Festival’s own label, which will release both recent and archival performances from the famous festival and which is starting off with one of each. Silvio Varviso’s Marriage of Figaro dates all the way back to 1962 – this is an analog recording, although one that has been well remastered – and retains tremendous charm. How could it not, with Mirella Freni as Susanna? And it also has Gabriel Bacquier in fine voice as Count Almaviva, plus the relatively little-known Heinz Blankenburg turning in a passionate and energetic performance as Figaro. With Leyla Gencer as the Countess and Edith Mathis as Cherubino rounding out the principals, the cast is finely balanced and well attuned to the music, which of course bubbles along with this opera’s marvelous mixture of fun and heart. Not the greatest performance of The Marriage of Figaro, perhaps, but a very noteworthy one that showcases the strengths of – among other things – the Glyndebourne Chorus.

      The chorus (not the identical members, of course) also does very well in a much more recent performance, the 2006 Glyndebourne production of Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery. As little known as Mozart’s work is well known, Prokofiev’s 1940-1 work is also a comic opera, although it was scarcely written during an amusing time: the Nazis were invading Russia as Prokofiev worked on it. Nevertheless, this is one of the composer’s brightest and bounciest compositions, based loosely on Richard Sheridan’s 1775 comedy, The Duenna. The plot revolves around two pairs of lovers and makes more than passing references to the fading of the now-impoverished aristocracy as the lower classes, including the merchant class, gain wealth and therefore power. It is a member of that class, the fishmonger Mendoza (sung by Sergei Alexashkin), who emerges as the opera’s central hero (or antihero). Neither Alexashkin nor the other singers will be particularly well known to most listeners, but all handle their roles well, and Vladimir Jurowski, who seems to thrive when conducting unfamiliar scores, bring Prokofiev’s wit and underlying wisdom vividly to life.

      The wisdom pervading Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is deeper than anything Prokofiev offers: Wagner’s grand comedy is one of the most humane and understanding of all operas. It is also an opera so thoroughly enmeshed in the German language – including the series of outrageous German-language errors that eventually sinks Beckmesser’s bid for Eva’s hand, and Hans Sachs’ reminder at the end to honor the German masters of the past and their art – that it is particularly ill-suited to appear in the Chandos “Opera in English” series. Still, the live 1968 Sadler’s Wells analog recording, led by Reginald Goodall, has a great deal to recommend it. This is a famous “lost” recording, archived by BBC Radio for many years. Even remastered, the sound is less than ideal, but there is enough beautiful singing (from Norman Bailey as Sachs, Alberto Remedios as Walther von Stolzing, Margaret Curphey as Eva, and others) to make the recording more than a period piece. It is, however, something of a curiosity, given the deeply Germanic nature of the method that Wagner used to tell his story of beauty, melancholy and art. A huge treat for those who have long awaited the return of this recording to the catalogue, Goodall’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg will not likely be a first-choice recording for anyone else.

      The new recording of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Psyché, on the other hand, will be the first choice of anyone interested in this opera, since the work has never been recorded before. Lully’s lyric tragedy of the world’s most beautiful woman, and the jealousy she provokes in the goddess Venus, was originally performed at the court of Louis XIV – 330 years ago. Certainly the overextended plot and opera seria approach of the action being carried forward through extended recitatives show the work’s age. But with the ongoing rediscovery of operas by Vivaldi and Haydn, listening to Lully is no longer the stretch that it would have been as recently as a decade ago. The Boston Early Music festival performance, recorded just last year, is a very fine one indeed, featuring Carolyn Sampson as Psyché, Karina Gauvin as Venus, and Aaron Sheehan as Cupid – whom Psyché is eventually able to marry after Jupiter (Matthew Shaw) overcomes Venus’ objections by giving the human girl the gift of immortality. Before that happens, there are arguments on Olympus, journeys to the underworld, and all sorts of lavish arias and choruses to explain and comment upon the characters’ trials and tribulations. Lully’s music is varied and colorful, and the singing is skillful and conveys emotions with appropriate intensity. It would be unreasonable to expect Psyché to appear in the first rank of the operatic canon, but this is a work of considerable interest both vocally and instrumentally, and the new CPO recording should be of great interest to opera lovers looking for something unusual.


Lehár: Die Lustige Witwe. Gunther Emmerlich (Baron Mirko Zeta), Lydia Teuscher (Valencienne), Bo Skovhus (Graf Danilo Danilowitsch), Petra-Maria Schnitzer (Hanna Glawari), Oliver Ringelhahn (Camille de Rosillon), Christoph Pohl (Vicomte Cascada), Gerald Hupach (Raoul de St. Brioche), Ahmad Mesgarha (Njegus). Staatsopernchor Dresden and Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Manfred Honeck. Medici Arts DVD. $29.99.

Martha Argerich: Evening Talks. A film by Georges Gachot. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

      The newly issued live recording of the Semperoper Dresden performance of Die Lustige Witwe has a lot going for it: fine pacing, excellent orchestral playing, a delightful set, and staging that keeps everything and everyone moving pretty much constantly. It also, unfortunately, has some things going against it, from some peculiar stage-management decisions to, alas, considerable vocal weakness in some of the principal parts. This is a production that puts acting above beautiful singing – a state of affairs that does not quite work for The Merry Widow, Franz Lehár’s most famous work. Jérôme Savary, who directed the work for the stage, mounts the operetta in modern dress and with plenty of flash, including a helicopter that delivers and removes singers at climactic moments and a number of pinpoint lights that illuminate everything from the Eiffel Tower backdrop to the eyes in the portrait of the Pontevedrian leader that appears in several scenes. The dialogue has been largely rewritten to accommodate the updating – and the inclusion of such items as an “Andy Warhol” couch shaped like a giant hand, and a promise by Danilo never to tell Hanna he loves her in German, so he eventually says the words in English. Unfortunately, the spoken words often end up at odds with the sung ones: we have a 21st-century Hanna being told she is finally being granted the right to vote, which she graciously accepts in the “Ladies’ Choice” scene. Odd; very odd. But not as odd as having the first verse of the erotic Vilja Song sung by Hanna to a child, or having Danilo’s deeply emotional (if barely concealed) proclamation of love through the fairy tale of the prince and princess staged with marionettes. Miscues such as these might be forgiven in a production packed with top-notch singing, but unfortunately this one does not have it. Bo Skovhus makes a fine Danilo, whose pain at losing Hanna is barely concealed from the beginning, and who delights in his interactions with some very sexy grisettes. But there are no sparks between him and Petra-Maria Schnitzer as Hanna, and Schnitzer, although she handles the basic singing creditably enough, seems to have trouble pronouncing German and says her spoken lines with a pronounced accent (if this is deliberate, it does not work). The almost-love-scene between the principals in Act Two – in which the orchestra sneaks in the strains of the famous waltz, which Lehár wrote to appear in Act Three only – falls flat. Among the other singers, Oliver Ringelhahn is all right as Camille, but appears more put-upon than passionate – this is a deeply felt role when done well, but here everything is on the surface. A surface-level interpretation makes sense for Valencienne (although there are better ways to handle the character), and Lydia Teuscher is all glitz, although her mercurial mood changes do not always come across effectively. As her husband, Baron Mirko Zeta, Gunther Emmerlich is the weakest principal singer of all: the conclusion of his opening aria is transposed down to fit his limited vocal range, and he talks his way through his later singing rather than even trying to get the notes right. On the other hand, Ahmad Mesgarha overacts effectively in the spoken role of Njegus (and is actually given a brief chance to sing here). This production is all sparkle: the final act even transports the characters to Maxim’s instead of having Hanna remake her own home in its image, thus undercutting the emotional content of the operetta but making possible the display of some wonderfully inventive scenery, dancing and acting. But Die Lustige Witwe is deeply heartfelt beneath its glossy surface, and it is Lehár’s effective tapping into that emotional vein that is largely missing here.

      Emotion is on tap in George Gachot’s 63-minute film about pianist Martha Argerich, which is paired on a new DVD with 38 minutes of Argerich rehearsing and in concert. Argerich, born in Argentina in 1941, is a famously private pianist, although not to the extent of Sviatoslav Richter. In Evening Talks, she opens up a bit about her life, her background and her love of music; as she speaks, Gachot sometimes shows her talking and sometimes shows her rehearsing at home or in a concert hall; at other times, she is seen in concert. A feast for fans of Argerich, the film is likely to be disappointing to others, since the focus is entirely on the performer and not on the music – anyone hoping to hear a variety of complete Argerich performances will have to go elsewhere. Argerich does have an interesting background, and she communicates her passion for music and music-making effectively – but she is more effective still when communicating from the piano to an audience. That is not what Gachot has her do here; it is not what he intended her to do. Nevertheless, Evening Talks finally comes up a little short by letting viewers hear Argerich’s voice discussing who she is and what she tries to put across to the audience, while offering comparatively few opportunities to hear how she does it through the voices of the pianos on which she plays so well.

August 21, 2008


Brevity (Remix). By Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Zot! 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection. By Scott McCloud. Harper. $24.95.

      The nice thing about “Guy & Rodd,” as the writer and artist of Brevity style themselves, is that they take the single-panel medium seriously without taking the world or themselves seriously. The Brevity title refers to a style that, when it works, is minimalist in both words and art, putting across an amusing or cynical observation in an unusually pithy way. Guy and Rodd have a nicely skewed sense of humor. For example, as a shark eats another fish, one of the three remoras clinging to the shark thinks, “Oh great, now we’re accomplices.” Or, as a peacenik pulls up (and therefore kills) flowers to place in gun barrels, a still-unpicked flower says to another, “Such senseless brutality – when will it stop?” And then there’s the “Shrinks in Heaven” panel, with the haloed psychiatrist asking his haloed and thoroughly relaxed patient, “Couldn’t you at least pretend to have a problem?” Not all the panels work – some are far from exercises in brevity, being overly filled with words, while others are silly or obvious, such as one imagining Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings as a crossing guard saying, “You shall not pass.” But it’s nice to know that Guy and Rodd do think about what they’re doing – they offer commentary throughout this oversize “Treasury” collection, informing readers that (among other things) they hate to do research and therefore usually make up such things as the right clothing for a particular era or the shape of a narwhal. It’s also nice to know that they can work together even when they disagree – they point out some panels that one or the other of them didn’t care for, and a few that neither of them, in retrospect, considered worthwhile. And then there are the panels that could have used more brevity, such as the one showing Tolstoy erasing part of his original title, “War & Peace & Cabbage,” which would indeed have worked better without the added words, “It was a last minute change, but a good one.” The nice thing is that even though Brevity sometimes misfires, its creators are actually paying attention to what works and what doesn’t – a recipe for greater success in the future.

      Scott McCloud went on to much greater success in his future after his Zot! comics: he became an intelligent analyst of the medium with some striking (if debatable) views on its value, meaning and societal implications. But that was in his three works called Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. All are light years beyond the determinedly pedestrian Zot! series, which earns its (+++) rating mostly as an artifact and because of the commentary that McCloud provides throughout the book. The Zot! series was originally done in color and then, McCloud says, restarted as a black-and-white sequence, but in fact these stories require more filling-in of the background of characters and settings than McCloud offers within the tales themselves. And the stories themselves are, really, not much to read or look at. They begin as superhero/alternative universe tales – a concept already humdrum by the late 1980s, not only in literature but also in comics (certainly for anyone familiar with the underground comics, which had gone far beyond this sort of thing more than 20 years earlier). Then they turn into illustrated tales of life on our own planet, through the well-worn device of having Zot (the eponymous superhero) stranded on our Earth. The stories have moments of pleasant insouciance, especially when Zot is fighting the strange and mostly feckless villains of his own world. And they have moments of genuine tenderness in Zot’s relationship with Jenny Weaver, whom he meets on our Earth – although Jenny herself is never very fully developed as a character. The drawing style tends to the wooden when McCloud is portraying people – a shortcoming he acknowledges – but has its fascinations, too, as when McCloud uses large panels to portray details of Zot’s world, or when he “sees” elements of that world through the distorted eyes and minds of some of the bad guys. The Zot! series did break some new ground by the long-outmoded standards of DC and (to a lesser extent) Marvel comics, and will be of interest to readers of those companies’ products and to people familiar with McCloud’s later and much better work. On their own terms, though, these stories have not worn particularly well in either narrative or artistic terms.


Sputter, Sputter, Sput! By Babs Bell. Illustrated by Bob Staake. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Honeybee. By Naomi Shihab Nye. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Psyche in a Dress. By Francesca Lia Block. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $7.99.

      Poetry works differently at different parts of the age scale. Sputter, Sputter, Sput! is by far the simplest book here – which makes sense, since it is for ages 2-5. Here the poetry aids directness of expression and, through its rhythms and rhymes, enjoyment of the very simple story, in which a character drives a car “Uphill. Downhill. Up and down/ past all the houses in my town.” But then the car sputters and stops (hence the book’s title) – it is out of gas. A quick fill-up (“Glug! Gurgle! Glug!”) and the trip continues. That is essentially the entire book, and no, it is not a parable of conspicuous consumption or a warning for children about current high gas prices – it is simply a straightforward, charming story told in deliberately repetitive rhymes, compactly written by Babs Bell (whose full name is Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz) and delightfully illustrated by Bob Staake with characters whose heads are, in most cases, bigger than the rest of their bodies. For its target audience, it is right on target.

      Honeybee aims higher – in age, anyway. Intended for ages 10 and up, Naomi Shihab Nye’s book includes both poetry and short bursts of prose. Some of the pieces here, such as “Hibernate,” have intriguing subjects: “My father’s friend Farouk/ has a dream:/ God resigned./ And all the people took better care of one another/ and got together then/ because, well, they had to.” Others are odd, such as “Accuracy,” in which one girl says she married another girl’s sock puppet “in my mind” but, when complimented for loving him, answers, “I didn’t say I love him! I said, he is my husband!” Still others, such as “The Cost,” have social and political undercurrents: “Oh students, we will teach you/ everything you need to know/ then place a gun in your hands?/ Makes sense, doesn’t it?/ No sense seems common anymore.” Because the book leaps and meanders rather than progresses, and because it is somewhat inconsistent in both style and subject matter, it gets a (+++) rating – but existing fans of Nye, a popular author of novels as well as poetry, will rate it higher.

      Existing fans who are still older – 14 and up – will be the primary target for Psyche in a Dress. Francesca Lia Block’s very short 2006 book, now available in paperback, is a set of prose poems in which ancient Greek transformation myths are updated for modern times. The tale of Psyche and Cupid becomes one in which she says the god “told me all the myths, one after the other/ night after night/ my beautiful, brutal bedtime tales.” Psyche, here imagined as an independent filmmaker, wishes for a change comparable to those of the characters in the tales that Cupid tells her. Other figures are also reimagined in a modern urban environment: Aphrodite as a shopgirl, Echo and Narcissus as actors, and so on. The various stories interconnect with a framing tale about filmmaking, and the narratives are done from a variety of perspectives: the tale of Orpheus, for example, includes his voice, that of Eurydice and that of the Maenad (here, a rock star). The density of the themes belies the book’s 115-page length, but the interlocking stories and the interweaving of the ancient and the modern may prove difficult for teens not already familiar with Block to digest. This book too gets a (+++) rating, but it will be especially appealing to those already familiar with Block’s style.


High Dive. By Tammar Stein. Knopf. $15.99.

How to Build a House. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      Loss, finding oneself, uncertainty, the drive to know – these are the recurring themes of a host of novels for teenagers, including these two, both of which handle their subject matter with sensitivity but not with a great deal of originality. In High Dive, the second novel by Tammar Stein (whose debut, Light Years, was very well received), what holds Arden Vogel’s family together is a small house in Sardinia that is filled with her childhood memories. The house represents her parents’ love and her own sense of self. But it is a flawed symbol: Arden’s father dies suddenly, and then her mother is deployed to Iraq, and there is no longer a way to keep the house. It is Arden herself who must go to Europe to get the house ready for sale, all the while dreading both her mother’s danger and her own sense of disconnection from her roots. Small wonder, then, that when she meets three apparently carefree girls of her own age who are heading for Europe for summer break, she joins them and does her best to enjoy all the tourist spots and all the carefree living she can. But even while seeing art in Florence or climbing the Eiffel Tower, Arden finds her thoughts drifting back to her mother’s safety and her own responsibilities, which she will have to face sooner rather than later. Of course, it turns out that the apparently blithe girls have their own troubles – one is pregnant by an ex-boyfriend, for example – but their problems are not Arden’s, and she knows she eventually has to go to Sardinia to get on with her life. And she does, finding there a level of support she never expected, and learning that she can indeed handle what life has thrown at her so far – and, by implication, what it will throw at her in the future. None of Arden’s progress is surprising or (in the context of this sort of book) particularly unusual, but Stein manages to tell the story with an appealing mixture of both sensitivity and realistic grittiness.

      How to Build a House has a house as a focus, too, but not in the same way. Dana Reinhardt’s third novel for young adults is the story of Harper Evans, who journeys from California to a small town in Tennessee to help rebuild a home destroyed by a tornado. But what she is really trying to do, of course, is rebuild her sense of self and of her own home. Harper (whose mother died when she was two years old) loves her stepmother, Jane, and her stepsister, Tess – who is her best friend. But the whole arrangement unravels quickly when Harper’s dad and Jane get a divorce, sundering everything on which Harper has come to rely. Harper knows she is running away by going to Tennessee to work on home rebuilding, but she wants to run away, and likes the idea of maybe doing some good at the same time. And she needs time to think about herself and where she stands, without emotional entanglements. But there will inevitably be an emotional entanglement in Tennessee – in the form of Teddy, the son of the family for whom the home is being rebuilt. Slowly, slowly, Harper learns to trust someone again, and even comes to love Teddy, a relationship that “feels like the most important thing that’s ever happened in my life.” The changes involving Teddy – and the re-entry of Tess in Harper’s life – are what lead to an unsurprising but emotionally satisfying sense that Harper has built not only a house but also the start of a better life for herself. The theme and its execution are nothing new; nor is Reinhardt’s handling of Harper’s story. But readers will find the conclusion more than satisfactory nevertheless.


Chasing the Jaguar. By Michele Domínguez Greene. Rayo/HarperTeen. $7.99.

The Mystery of the Martello Tower. By Jennifer Lanthier. Laura Geringer/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Football Hero. By Tim Green. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      The concepts of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys for girl and boy readers, respectively, in the 8-12 age range, are alive and well, but the changes those popular series characters have undergone in being remade for the 21st century render them well-nigh unrecognizable – except for the pattern of their successful solutions to spooky mysteries. Chasing the Jaguar, originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, is the story of Martika Gálvez, who begins having strange dreams about jungles and jaguars shortly before her 15th birthday. It turns out that Martika is of Mayan heritage, descended from a line of women with psychic powers – including her great aunt, Tia Tellin, a curandera (female shaman) and consultant to the Los Angeles police force. Martika is determined to learn more about her potential psychic inheritance from Tia Tellin and to be guided to her own destiny – but then she finds herself confronted by a mystery that she is not sure she is ready to solve. The daughter of Martika’s mother’s client is kidnapped, and Martika needs to try to use her emerging psychic powers to find the girl, Jennifer – if she can. Martika sees visions that she is not sure how to interpret, but she goes in search of their real-world equivalents anyway. She has dreams, too: “I felt like I was inside [Jennifer’s] mind, I could see what she was seeing.” And Martika starts discovering some other abilities -- potentially dangerous ones, including a fiery power that emerges when she gets angry. “Anger can be positive,” Tia Tellin tells her. “It can protect you and it can prompt you to take action. But it has a dark side as well. It can turn in on you and consume your life and your hope.” The dialogue does tend toward cliché, and the solution to the kidnapping is hardly surprising, but Martika has the potential to become an interesting blend of the modern world and ancient arcana as the series continues – which it surely will.

      The Mystery of the Martello Tower is the start of something, too. It is Jennifer Lanthier’s first novel, and its focus is siblings Hazel and Ned, home for summer vacation and wanting nothing more than a few months of warmth, laziness and sleeping late. No such luck: their father, an art dealer, suddenly disappears without saying goodbye; their babysitter leaves town; burglars break into their apartment; and suddenly they start seeing two menacing thugs everywhere. Something is afoot – but what sort of game is it, and who is moving the pieces? Hazel and Ned soon learn that the many odd occurrences are connected, and that their father’s disappearance has something to do with the mystery that surrounds the death of their mother years earlier. While Chasing the Jaguar looks to ancient powers to solve modern mysteries, Hazel and Ned and their friends look strictly to modern techniques, using Internet searches to focus on two men named Clive Pritchard and Paul Fazza, then figuring out that the men are thieves who favor anagrams in creating their crooked schemes. The young sleuths are properly skeptical of their computer-based techniques: “The Internet is one strange universe… There’s stuff here from five or six years ago and stuff from yesterday. And who knows how much of it is true?” But their instincts take them in the right direction – and when Hazel realizes that the Martello Tower, which is on an island, holds the key to much of what has been going on, the stage is set for Hazel and Ned to “save the police” (whose surveillance of the bad guys has gone awry) by making sure the crooks cannot escape. Eventually, the mystery of where the siblings’ father went is solved, too, as is the question about their mother’s death, and everything is buttoned up far more neatly than could ever happen outside a novel, in a way that preteen readers will enjoy – especially since the book’s structure leaves open the possibility of one or more sequels.

      Football Hero, although not exactly a sequel, is a successor of sorts to Tim Green’s Football Genius, his first novel for young readers. Green, a former player with the Atlanta Falcons and the author of a number of suspense novels for adults, has also been an NFL broadcast analyst and commentator. His specialty is showing football players in a highly positive light while providing an insider’s details of how the game works. – a potent combination for fans of the game. However, neither this book nor its predecessor will be of much interest to young readers who are not football devotees. Football Hero is decently paced and moderately well written, but the basic plot is nothing special and the characters are far too one-dimensional to be mistaken for real people. The book’s focus is on brothers Ty and Thane Lewis. Ty, who is 12, is delighted when the coach at his school recruits him for the football team – except that Ty’s guardian, Uncle Gus, needs Ty to help in the family cleaning business and won’t let Ty play. Thane, for his part, is in college and being actively recruited by the NFL. The crime-and-mystery connection here is that Uncle Gus is working on gambling plans with a local mobster named Lucy – and Lucy starts becoming very friendly to Ty, trying to use him to get inside information from Thane. It falls to Ty to figure out the scheme and undermine it, while saving his brother’s career. The level of unreality is striking but quite irrelevant, since the point of Football Hero is to take young readers inside a game they presumably love while giving them a bit of a mystery on which to focus as well. Of course, Ty outwits the bad guys and does get to play football after all; and of course, Ty ends up as the hero both of the crime investigation and of his school’s big game. The whole book is pure fantasy, but will be fun for young fantasy-football fans.


Field: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-7; Divertissements Nos. 1 and 2; Rondeau; Nocturne No. 16; Quintetto. Míċeál O’Rourke, piano; London Mozart Players conducted by Matthias Bamert. Chandos. $34.99 (4 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Anton Kuerti, piano; Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. CBC Records. $19.99 (3 CDs).

      Best known for creating the form of the Nocturne and somewhat known for a single one of his piano concertos (No. 2), John Field has long been on the fringes of mainstream musical performance. True, his output was uneven, as the cycle of his complete piano concertos shows. But he had a voice with some unique qualities, and may have been primarily disadvantaged by living in an age of transition, in which greater geniuses, such as Chopin, took his innovations farther than Field himself ever did. (It is perhaps not coincidental that Field, who lived from 1782 to 1837, seems to suffer much the same treatment as does his contemporary, Johann Nepomuk Hummel [1778-1837].) Míċeál O’Rourke’s Field compilation, which includes excellent support by Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players, is a rerelease of recordings made between 1994 and 1996. Both the performances and the sound have held up beautifully. O’Rourke has a fine understanding of the combination of classical poise and Romantic sensibility that together make up the Field “sound,” and he plays each concerto with individual attention, bringing out its unique elements. Nos. 1 and 3 (the latter probably Field’s earliest concerto, despite its numbering) are largely in the spirit of Mozart and, perhaps more to the point, of Muzio Clementi, with whom Field worked closely (Clementi probably helped with the scoring of No. 1). No. 2 is the first concerto to showcase Field’s more poetic side, and its rondo finale has delightful lilt. No. 4 contains one of Field’s few really interesting orchestral effects, with strings playing col legno while the piano is in its highest register (Field, like Chopin in his two concertos, uses the orchestra mainly for straightforward accompaniment). No. 5 is called “L’Incendie par l’orage” (“The Blazing Storm”) and is packed with effects portraying lightning, thunder and heavy rain – an impressive piece, if not one that wears particularly well. No. 6, the weakest of the mature concertos, uses an arrangement of Nocturne No. 6 for its slow movement and has a truncated finale, perhaps written in haste; its first movement, though, is filled with interesting melodies in a succession of short episodes. Concerto No. 7 is in two-movement form and includes forward-looking key changes (major to minor) and a slow section that was later published separately as a Nocturne. The four-CD Field set is filled out with some of the composer’s rarely heard chamber music, including a piano-and-strings version of Nocturne No. 16, a very effective Rondeau, and the lovely Divertissement No. 2, whose first part was later rewritten as Nocturne No. 7. Both on its own terms and as a chance to find out, through hearing Field, the ways in which he influenced later composers, this set of his concertos is a winner.

      Anton Kuerti’s Beethoven cycle is also a reissue – the performances date to 1986 – and also quite well done. Furthermore, it is well priced and neatly packaged, with an unusual three-CD holder. As a musical offering, though, it gets a (+++) rating, largely because there are so many fine performances of Beethoven’s piano concertos available, and Kuerti’s brings nothing especially distinguished to the table. This is in no way to fault his playing, which is excellent; nor is it a criticism of Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – the accompaniment is first-rate throughout. But these are straightforward performances that, although they rarely make missteps, also rarely take the sorts of chances that might reveal something new about the music. There are a number of brief uses of rubato in the concertos, for example (No. 1 is especially rife with them), but they appear to be to no particular purpose except to extend one nicely played section slightly at the expense of another that is also nicely played. Kuerti’s tone is suitably light for the first two concertos and appropriately intense for No. 5, but there is little interpretative nuance in any of the performances – they are well done but never really catch fire. Surprisingly, though, Kuerti comes into his own in the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, taking the quasi-improvisational first section very quickly and giving the whole piece the flavor of an encore to the concerto cycle (the fantasia was in fact written by Beethoven as a sort of encore to a very extended concert of his works). The excitement of the fantasia – to which the chorus also brings considerable intensity (although it would have been nice if the booklet had included the text) – shows how well Kuerti and Davis were capable of doing Beethoven in the mid-1980s. But that level of passion is largely missing from the well-controlled concerto performances.


Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead; Youth Symphony; Symphony No. 1. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

František Ignác Antonín Tůma: Partitas, Sonatas and Sinfonias. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

Mendelssohn: Prelude in B minor; Rondo capriccioso; “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges”; Three Etudes; Five Songs without Words; Scherzo in E minor; Variations sérieuses; Two Caprices; “Suleika”; Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bertrand Chamayou, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Valse-Scherzo; Valse sentimentale; Ravel: Tzigane; Chausson: Poème; Kreisler: Liebesfreud; Caprice viennois; Sarasate: Caprice basque; Rodion Shchedrin: In the Style of Albéniz; Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasy. Yossif Ivanov, violin; Itamar Golan, piano. Ambroisie. $16.99.

      Little of the music on these four new CDs represents the best of which the composers were capable. But listeners who have become jaded by the too-frequent performance of some composers’ acknowledged masterworks will enjoy the lesser pieces here; and those who have tired of hearing the same composers over and over again will enjoy encountering one of whom they likely have never heard.

      Rachmaninoff’s first attempt at a symphony produced in 1891 a single movement in D minor that is distinguished for its propulsive motion and the clear influence of Tchaikovsky, but not much else. Four years later, the composer completed his first symphony – also in D minor – to much better effect, although it too is a largely derivative work. One would not necessarily expect the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda to play Rachmaninoff particularly idiomatically – this composer seems to have written for the unique lushness of Russian orchestras – but in fact these are excellent performances, full of drive, passion and understanding. The Isle of the Dead, the best work on the CD and the latest (1909), also gets top-notch atmospheric treatment in a recording that lavishes attention on details of the composer’s dark and moody tone poem. The symphonic works here do not show Rachmaninoff at his best, but these fine performances show the works themselves at their best.

      The music of František Ignác Antonín Tůma (1704-1774) is virtually unknown today, and it is unlikely that the new CD by Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini will make this Czech composer a household name. But the two partitas, two sinfonias and three sonatas presented here show a composer with a fine sense of form and considerable skill in balancing the instruments of a chamber ensemble. The pieces break no new ground – Tůma was actually better known in his time for his sacred works than for his instrumental pieces – but they will interest listeners who would like to hear music by some of the less-known composers of Haydn’s and Mozart’s era.

      The Mendelssohn CD featuring Bertrand Chamayou mixes familiar and less-familiar works in the pleasant form of a “recital of encores.” There is nothing of great length here (average track length is less than four minutes) and nothing of great profundity. Liszt’s transcriptions of the two songs Auf Flügeln des Gesanges and Suleika are interesting to hear in close proximity to some of Mendelssohn’s own “Songs without Words,” and Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an appropriately light and fleet-footed way to conclude the CD. Chamayou plays everything with a deft touch and understated virtuosity: he does a good job of not overwhelming these slight pieces with prodigious technique. The CD will in fact be of greatest interest to fans of the pianist, since the music itself, however pleasant, is less than compelling.

      Much the same can be said of the CD entitled “Con Passione” by violinist Yossif Ivanov and pianist Itamar Golan. The title explains the selection of pieces (again, mostly short ones) and the intended appeal of the CD; and indeed, Ivanov and Golan play the works quite passionately enough. The music, some familiar and some much less so, is mostly surface-level and pleasing to listen to, emphasizing violin virtuosity rather than any emotional profundity (although the two Tchaikovsky works and Chausson’s well-known Poème certainly tug a bit at the heartstrings). In a sense, both this CD and the Mendelssohn disc by Chamayou are “classical easy listening,” requiring minimal attention as they produce enjoyable sounds that make a more interesting background for everyday life than, say, the sounds of a TV set. This in no way minimizes the quality of the individual pieces on either CD; but in these two assemblages, with little to connect the mostly short works in musical terms, it is hard to see the discs as inviting the sort of serious attention that more-substantial recordings demand.

August 14, 2008


Coraline. By Neil Gaiman. Adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. HarperCollins. $17.99.

Warriors: Cats of the Clans. By Erin Hunter. Illustrated by Wayne McLoughlin. HarperCollins. $15.99.

      Both Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Erin Hunter’s Warriors series are so well imagined – Gaiman’s work especially so – that readers can easily envision their characters and events. But both these illustrated works – one a graphic novel, the other a character guide – add significantly to the original Gaiman and Hunter writings through their elegance and excellent visualizations. This is especially surprising in the case of Coraline, a genuinely spooky story of a girl who goes through a mysterious door and finds her way to a world controlled by her “other mother,” a deeply sinister creature of uncertain provenance. Gaiman is an excellent wordsmith, and it is hard to imagine that the frights that he calls up in readers’ minds could be equaled by a specific set of illustrations. But P. Craig Russell gets to the heart of Coraline, whether showing the scarily gnarled hands of the “other mother” or her absurd (and quite frightening) button eyes. Whether portraying the ghosts of young children, who help Coraline and are helped by her, or the misshapen rats that carry out the bidding of the “other mother,” or the grublike monster that chases the young girl around a cellar as she tries to escape, Russell gets the appearances right. He gets the settings right, too, notably when Gaiman explains how, as Coraline tries to get away from the house of the “other mother,” the landscape becomes less and less realistic and the trees progressively less treelike. Coraline’s eventual escape – and the final horror she must confront in her own world – are as well imagined as is the mysterious cat who helps her (and is helped by her in turn) in the world of the “other mother.” One caution for families: like Gaiman’s book, Russell’s graphic novel is recommended for ages eight and up – but in both cases, the story will be too intense for younger readers. Ten-and-up is a more realistic age range for this chilling tale.

      The age range suggested for Warriors: Cats of the Clans is 10 and up already, although most of this guide to Hunter’s heroes and villains is far less intense than anything in Coraline. Wayne McLoughlin’s illustrations are especially welcome in this book, whose framing story involves an ancestor cat telling the tales of the clans to three kittens who were recent victims of battles. A difficulty with Hunter’s novels is that there are so many characters that it can be hard to keep them straight; and not all of them are much beyond one-dimensionality. In this book, the major characters (and some of the less-major ones) really come to life, with McLoughlin giving each cat a different physical appearance and a different facial expression as well. Firestar, for example, has far-seeing eyes and an amazingly alert appearance, while Sandstorm is not only sand-colored but also cool and intense in gaze. Warriors: Cats of the Clans includes detailed forest and lake maps and discussions of each clan as a whole, in addition to pages about individual cats. There are also explanations of “Cats Outside the Clans,” and some discussion – within the pages profiling individual cats – of the battles among the clans and the uneasy relationships between clan cats and “kittypets.” Although certainly not comprehensive – Hunter has created far too many characters for any short book to encompass them all – McLoughlin’s work provides an excellent introduction to the Warriors world. Even readers who already know the stories will find these pictures and capsule descriptions both entertaining and helpful.


Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal with Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries. By Diane Peters Mayer. AMACOM. $16.

Helen Keller: The World in Her Heart. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James Ransome. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      School has already started in some parts of the United States, and will start soon in others – which means an upsurge in anxiety for many children and not a few parents. A book that can talk families through the different forms of anxiety, showing how to handle all of them, would therefore be most welcome. Overcoming School Anxiety wants to be that book, and even though it isn’t quite as comprehensive or universally applicable as psychotherapist Diane Peters Mayer believes, it can certainly be a valuable starting point for many worried children and parents. Mayer begins by discussing anxiety and the reasons for it, ranging from hereditary and biological factors to childhood experiences and parenting techniques. This material provides a useful foundation for families that are unfamiliar with anxiety (if there are any); but Mayer’s discussions of specific school-related issues are more useful. These range from “school refusal,” which is an outright unwillingness (or psychological inability) to go to school and which may be indicative of separation anxiety disorder, to in-school issues such as test anxiety and bullying. After describing each type of difficulty, Mayer offers a “clinic” with suggestions on what to do. Most of these start with listening carefully to your child describe what he or she is feeling, empathizing and providing comfort – and then move on to looking for ways to ameliorate the situation. The value of these solutions varies. For school refusal, they range from talking to your child about reasons he or she must attend school, and asking for his or her input on the problem (solid, pragmatic ideas), to modeling good stress management and life-coping skills (an excellent concept that may be difficult or impossible to implement). For homework anxiety, Mayer suggests setting up a comfortable, special area in which to do homework, creating a flexible homework schedule, limiting TV and computer time, and making “reading and learning an important family pursuit that is fun and exciting” (that last one, although a very worthwhile idea, may be a big challenge in time-pressed, two-working-parent families). The point is that Mayer’s solutions are not one-size-fits-all – they may or may not work in your particular family arrangement. But they are all, at least in the abstract, good ideas that will surely work in some situations – and useful as jumping-off points even for parents who may not find them helpful in the form in which Mayer presents them.

      One thing that may help some children overcome their anxieties is reading about children whose circumstances were far more difficult – and that can be one way to use Lesa Cline-Ransome’s book on Helen Keller, which is intended for ages 5-9 (a common age range for school anxieties). Certainly few children have as much to overcome as Keller, who was left deaf and blind after an illness (possibly scarlet fever or meningitis) before she was two. The story of how she was taught to observe the world, understand it and communicate about it has inspired many generations, and Cline-Ransome’s focus on Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, makes this book particularly useful for children worried about their own relationships with teachers. But no form of anxiety is necessary to appreciate Cline-Ransome’s telling of the story, or the lovely, warm paintings that James Ransome (Lesa’s husband) provides to illustrate scenes of Keller’s life and learning. This is a heartwarming and uplifting tale, however and whenever it is told, and this new picture book is sure to touch many people in both their hearts and their minds.


The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel II: The Magician. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Legend of Asahiel, Book Three: The Divine Talisman. By Eldon Thompson. Eos. $25.95.

      There is a lot of chasing hither and thither in the second book of the planned six-book series, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. The real Flamel, a highly esteemed alchemist, lived from 1330 to 1418. Michael Scott’s idea is that Flamel succeeded in finding the Philosopher’s Stone, which provides eternal life, and therefore made himself immortal. Scott embellishes this basic concept by suggesting that the Stone was within a volume called The Book of Abraham the Mage, which Flamel has kept throughout the ages and continues to protect. Now, in the modern world, the sinister Dr. John Dee – once a spy for Queen Elizabeth I – is determined to get his hands on the book for his own nefarious purposes; but according to a prophecy, young fraternal twins Sophie and John Newman have the power to help Flamel protect the book, and the world, from Dr. Dee’s evil machinations. This story was set up in the first book of the series, The Alchemyst. Now, in The Magician, Sophie and Josh roam the world from California to France as they try to protect the book’s secrets and evade none other than Niccolò Machiavelli, who is working for Dr. Dee and the forces of the Dark Elders. The mixing of historical figures with modern youths is not surprising in a work intended for ages 12 and up, but after a while, the Machiavelli angle gets a little tiresome (Joan of Arc shows up here, too, and a statue of Mars awakens, and much more). Also in The Magician is Flamel’s wife, Perenelle, who is locked up in (of all places) Alcatraz, where she is aging a year every day, as is Flamel himself (a side effect of each day without the book, on whose deciphering Dr. Dee and the forces of evil are working assiduously). Flamel needs to teach Sophie elemental fire magic to give her the power to protect him, Perenelle, and indeed the entire world. Readers who avoid taking this whole chase-adventure too seriously will have fun, but Scott seems determined to make the entire thing more portentous than it is – with the result that it constantly spills over into melodrama, and rather formulaic melodrama at that: “And the first prophecy of the Codex has come to pass,” Dr. Dee intones. “We have found the two that are one.” Best not to laugh at any of this – but it does seem unintentionally funny on more than one occasion.

      There is nothing remotely amusing about The Legend of Asahiel, a trilogy that concludes with The Divine Talisman and that is also, in its own way, about the conquest of death and the consequences of that victory. Eldon Thompson, a novelist and screenwriter, writes for adults and is very serious indeed: Torin, king of the region called Alson, sacrifices his life to protect his people, the Pentanians, from the evil, demonic Illysp. Torin leaves behind his best friend and his former bride, who lead the surviving forces – but who lose their greatest weapon, the crimson sword (the sword provided the title of the first book, which was followed by The Obsidian Key). And where does the conquest of death come in? Torin is reanimated – but far from being an inspiration to his people, he becomes their greatest enemy, for he is possessed by one of the Illysp and turns against the very ones he gave his life to save. Like most modern epic fantasies, The Divine Talisman is a curious mixture of the trappings of ancient heroism and the language of everyday modern Earth: “Time to move out, General.” “Mother’s mercy.” “With all due respect, sir, it seemed a terrible risk.” “I only want her to be happy.” “You don’t know what you want, or who.” Readers enthralled by the unraveling of riddles that leads to the trilogy’s climax will likely ignore (or not care about) the means of expression, but others may wish that the descriptions of wondrous events had been presented in less mundane language – and with less ultimate predictability about the story’s eventual outcome.


Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections. By Ishmael Reed. Da Capo. $15.95.

A Thousand Never Evers. By Shana Burg. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

      Anyone who thinks the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama represents a moderating of racial tensions in the United States has only to pick up Ishmael Reed’s latest book of essays to find the same old stuff. The essays are well written and punchy, and they raise legitimate and often important (although equally often trivial) points; but if Obama’s candidacy helps moderate voices like Reed’s, the nation and all its people may in the long run be better off. These Reed pieces originally appeared in The New York Times, Playboy and elsewhere, and they range from a fine profile of jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to a rather tired complaint about gentrification destroying a historically black area (New York City’s Harlem). Reed starts the book with a 41-page (!) introduction, which includes such gems as: “Police plant evidence as they probably did in the O.J. case,” and a complaint that too many “talking heads rallied around the lacrosse defendants” from Duke University, who were falsely accused of raping a black stripper, while those young men “acted like angels during their encounter” with the woman (the sarcasm drips off the page). Reed’s selectivity in the service of his biases is impressive – never mind, for example, that the Duke lacrosse case originally involved a rush to judgment against the white athletes, turned out to be totally unfounded, and resulted in the disbarring and imprisonment of the district attorney who brought the unjustified prosecution. When Reed finally gets into the essays themselves, he uses a March 2006 CNN story about prostitution in Chicago to argue that “black social problems and criminality are played up while white problems are minimized.” Separately, in regard to a 2004 story, he attacks the same cable network by asking, “When was the last time you saw a black male author on CNN and I don’t mean a tough-love artist who preaches that the problems of blacks are internal, or a black man who wrote books as a way of financing his drug habit.” (He omits the question mark.) Elsewhere, Reed argues that “through terror and negotiation the Confederates got…back” everything they lost in the War Between the States (their name for what is elsewhere called the Civil War). He eventually gets to an item called “Going Old South on Obama,” in which he repeats his previous statement about Bill Clinton being “a black president as a result of his mimicking a black style,” talks again about “the Confederate Restoration,” and tosses out the notion that “flogging blacks was [Thomas] Jefferson’s idea of recreation.” For those who believe little has changed or is likely to change in race relations in the United States, Reed’s book will be like salve to the soul (strange salve, though). That Reed writes so well while wearing such blinders indicates that although his viewpoint is very limited, he seems to see clearly what he sees at all.

      There is more hopefulness and less bitterness in A Thousand Never Evers, a book for ages 10 and up, than in all of Reed; and if that makes Shana Burg’s novel naïve by Reed’s standards, it also makes it a call for Americans today to look to their better natures instead of constantly dwelling on the worst they and their nation have had to offer. Set in Mississippi in 1963, Burg’s book focuses on junior-high-school student Addie Ann Pickett, who lands in big trouble in the Jim Crow South when she and her brother, Elias, make the mistake of laughing when they shouldn’t. Such a small thing – but not at that time. And Addie’s Uncle Bump gets into trouble of his own, hauled into court on charges of destroying the town’s new integrated garden and due to be judged by an all-white jury. Uncle Bump is eventually exonerated, leading Addie to say, “I reckon things in Kuckachoo might be starting to change, because up till now, even if a Negro man had all the evidence on his side, he’d usually end up in jail or worse.” Yet Addie is no Pollyanna, and A Thousand Never Evers is not a purely optimistic book: “Of course, setting an innocent Negro free isn’t the same as locking up a guilty white man.” And Burg herself points out in an afterword that “discrimination against African Americans and other minority groups still exists” and that “many public schools that were desegregated by law are still segregated.” Yet Burg’s statement that “you’re never ever too young to speak up for justice” has a ring and a challenge to it that Reed’s unending (although better written) complaints about the unfairness of being black in America never match.