December 18, 2008


Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff. By Chris Stevens. Illustrated by Sarah Horne. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. By Philipp Blom. Basic Books. $29.95.

     The popular song “The Way We Were” talks about “misty, water-colored memories,” but most people would settle for something less sentimental and more accurate, at least in their day-to-day lives. Thirty Days Has September, although written for young readers, offers clear, common-sense memory suggestions that will be helpful to parents as well as children. English, history, science, math and other subjects are all included in this short (124-page) but useful little volume. Here you will find a tongue-twisting rhyme for recalling all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, some easy ways to remember the difference between “desert” and “dessert” and between “stationary” and “stationery,” a poem giving a shorthand list of all British rulers since William the Conqueror, a way to recall the three Stone Age eras (Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic), multiplication shortcuts, a mnemonic for the difference between one-humped and two-humped camels, and much more. Entertaining, cartoonish illustrations by Sara Horne help make Chris Stevens’ straightforward suggestions more enjoyable. For example, in explaining how to remember the word “onomatopoeia” (the use of words that sound like what they describe), Stevens suggests thinking of yourself “hitting a gong [for the sound], on a mat, on a pier.” And Hughes shows a silhouette of someone doing just that, and looking rather bewildered about it (it is, after all, a difficult word). Children and adults alike will benefit from as well as enjoy these grammar, punctuation, geography and other memory hints.

     Of course, if you do not want to remember something, hints won’t help – and historian Philipp Blom believes a lack of interest in the early years of the 20th century has led to their fading from memory. The Vertigo Years is a dense, 466-page attempt to correct what Blom sees as the idea that the first decade-plus of the 1900s in Europe constituted merely a “holding pattern” of sorts between the industrialization of the 19th century and the start of World War I. This notion creates something of a straw man, as anyone familiar with Britain’s Edwardian Age will immediately realize. But it gives Blom a good starting point to discuss important events and trends that emerged early in the century, from quantum theory to atonal music to psychoanalysis (although Freud’s work actually began in the late 19th century, and The Interpretation of Dreams dates to 1900, which mathematically is the final year of the 19th century rather than the first year of the 20th). Blom provides a year-by-year account of the period he discusses, giving each year an intriguing title that he explains in the chapter devoted to it. Thus, 1903, “A Strange Luminescence,” is about Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and the Nobel Prize she won as a result; 1908, “Ladies with Rocks,” tells of a gathering of half a million people in London’s Hyde Park to demand women’s suffrage; 1913, “Wagner’s Crime,” focuses on a disturbed Swabian teacher named Ernst August Wagner, who killed 13 people – including his wife and four children – because of his sense of sexual inadequacy. Fascinating period photos give as much of a sense of the history as do Blom’s words: composer Gustav Mahler in a moment of relaxation, Russian peasants eating a meal outdoors, early abortion and lesbianism activist Madeleine Pelletier in a photo that makes her look a great deal like Oliver Hardy, larger-than-life stars Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso, and many more. There is also a subtly disturbing eight-page color section showing art of the early 20th century, from Egon Schiele’s self-portrait without hands or feet, to Matisse’s idealization of a sylvan, pagan scene, to Giorgio di Chirico’s female torso emitting (or at least juxtaposed with) bananas. “Had human character changed? Could it ever change? These were the main questions asked by the artistic avant-garde.” They are Blom’s main queries, too – and if he never answers them satisfactorily, neither did the artists themselves. But they certainly asked plenty of questions, and it is ultimately the questioning spirit of the early 20th century, rather than its specific accomplishments, that seems to define the age. Interestingly, much of the questioning occurs in the United States, even though the avowed subject of Blom’s book is Europe: for instance, it is in America that movies become a huge phenomenon, as do comic strips such as “Krazy Kat” (which Blom uses in one illustration). Also, Blom’s omission of some major events of the time is difficult to understand: there is no mention of Franz Lehรกr, whose operetta The Merry Widow (1905) defined an era in music and was strongly identified with Vienna, where Blom lives. If Blom’s book is, in the final analysis, a touch argumentative and a touch unfocused (a sequence of individual stories does not make a coherent narrative), it is also filled with fascinating information and a series of anecdotes that, while they scarcely provide a complete picture of the years 1900-1914, do offer an entertaining and at times thoughtful one.

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