December 31, 2009


Trouble Gum. By Matthew Cordell. Feiwel and Friends. $16.99.

Yonderfel’s Castle. By Jean Gralley. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur. By Laura Joy Rennert. Pictures by Marc Brown. Knopf. $16.99.

     Some books are profound, meaningful, thoughtful. Some are complex, intricate, convoluted. And some are simple, straightforward and need no excuse for their existence except their entertainment value. So many kids’ books seem to bend over backwards to create a moral that it is a pleasure to find occasional ones that simply revel in telling light and amusing stories – as do all three of these.

     Trouble Gum is bubble gum in the hands (and mouths) of piglet kid Ruben and his younger brother, Julius, on a rainy day while Grammy is visiting. There’s nothing much to do, and when Ruben does try to do something, he is too loud or too bouncy – until Grammy offers him some gum, which “wasn’t often allowed. It tended to make a mess.” Any reader – even one as young as four or five – will soon figure out where this is going, and that is just where Matthew Cordell takes it: into repeated bouts of chaos. But this is such amusing chaos that kids and parents alike will laugh at it. There are the weird sounds Ruben makes while chewing; the odd chewing positions he assumes (lying down, upside down, and so on); and the trouble he gets into when he swallows, stretches, snaps and blows bubbles with the gum. Watching Ruben try to get gum out of Mom’s knit blanket is hilarious – as is watching him make Julius his partner in bubblicious crime. The biggest problem for parents with this book – after they stop laughing along with it – will be persuading their children that these things are funny in Cordell’s telling and art, but would not be amusing at all in real life.

     There’s trouble of a different sort for the good King Yonderfel and the “crowded and happy” castle to which he invites everyone, all the time. After a number of years, toward the beautifully multihued castle and its sparks of happiness comes rumbling a dark machine spewing clouds of smoke and throwing black dust behind it. It belongs to an “ogre guy” who, it turns out, owns the mountain and is doubling King Yonderfel’s rent. But the king does not charge his castle visitors for anything, ever, and can only afford to pay half the amount demanded by the ogre guy – whose dark purple cape spreads behind him like a cloud of ill will. Only half? Well, in that case – the ogre guy hooks his machine to the mountain and makes off with half of it, leaving the castle perched precariously on a precipice. And the once-happy people declare their king a “cabbage-headed nincombooby” and leave. And poor King Yonderfel comes up with a hilarious series of ideas to make his half-mountain castle attractive, including turning it into a toll plaza and a water slide. Nothing works, and the lonely king tries to pass the time by knitting towels – longer towels and longer ones – for years and years – until the arrival of a great storm forces all the people to the castle once again and gives Jean Gralley the chance to create a truly wonderful surprise twist, which seems to go awry (the words “the end” start to appear on one page) but eventually turns out quite wonderfully well. As does the whole book.

     Yonderfel’s Castle is set in vaguely medieval times; Laura Joy Rennert’s Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur juxtaposes something of much, much earlier times with the modern age. It’s a straightforward (but of course completely tongue-in-cheek) guide to choosing and taking care of the best possible pet dinosaur, from triceratops (“a great watch-dino”) to pteranodon (“long fourth finger perfect for removing unnecessary broccoli from dinner plates”) to spinosaurus (“an excellent sailboat”). The accurate facts about dinosaur names and anatomical features add to the fun here, as do Marc Brown’s rounded and nicely amusing illustrations – the dinos’ expressions are just right for contented pets (or maybe not so contented, in the case of T. Rex). But advice on picking a dinosaur is only part of the fun – there is also information on needed supplies (including “a long, LOOOOOOOOOOOOONG leash”); training (“dinos tend to sit when THEY want to, not when YOU want them to”); and activities (“Sign Dino up for your soccer league. Dinos make especially good goalies”). Rennert reserves her biggest type size to tell kids that “DINOS ARE FOR FUN!” And so is her book – from silly premise through to delightful conclusion (and the need for parents to explain why kids will not find friendly dinosaurs at any nearby pet shop!).


A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. By Bill Bryson. Delacorte Press. $19.99.

The Century for Young People—Becoming Modern America: 1901-1936; Defining America: 1936-1961; Changing America: 1961-1999. By Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. Delacorte Press. $9.99 each.

     Making big subjects understandable to young people is a big challenge. Making the biggest subject of all – literally everything – understandable is an even bigger challenge. Bill Bryson rises to it, for the most part delightfully, in A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. Originally published in Great Britain, the book lapses into Britishisms from time to time, but remains for the most part quite clear and understandable, even when dealing with subjects that are simply unimaginable: “By doing a lot of maths, scientists believe they can look back to one ten million trillion trillion trillionths of a second after its birth when the universe was so small that you would have needed a microscope to find it.” Bryson uses the knowledge of science to throw cold water on some favorite science-fictional concepts: “Based on what we know now, there’s absolutely no prospect that any human being will ever visit the edge of our own solar system.” In the main, though, he offers a tale of the wonders to be found right on Earth – and the wonderful ways in which people have explored, measured, discussed and argued about them. The trials and tribulations of scientists trying to weigh Earth – two of them being Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who later gave their names to the Mason-Dixon line – make fascinating reading. So do the arguments about the speed of geological change between the Catastrophists and the Uniformitarians. And the information that even today, Marie Curie’s papers are too dangerous to handle – because they were exposed to so much radiation for so long. Bryson does not shrink from difficult concepts, such as Einstein’s notion that “time is variable and ever-changing. It even has shape.” And he manages to explain difficult ideas with some very well-chosen images, as in his comment about the possibility of an asteroid hitting Earth: “Think of the Earth’s orbit as a kind of motorway on which we are the only vehicle, but which is crossed regularly by pedestrians who don’t look before stepping off the pavement.” From dinosaurs to bacteria, the hugeness of space to the microscopic world, Bryson offers a tour that is not only fascinating but also offbeat and quite thought-provoking: “It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it. The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years.”

     According to Peter Jennings and Todd Brewer in their 1998 book, The Century, 100 of the most important years of all were those of the 20th century – especially so in the United States. This is hyperbole, of course, but it does not make the three volumes for young readers derived from the Jennings-Brewer book (and originally published in 1999) any less interesting. Divided rather arbitrarily into periods based on the arguments that the authors want to make, the three books are fact-packed if less than stylish in presentation. For example, after the stock market crashed in 1929, “It was as if America had gone from a carefree summer into a freezing winter.” Jennings and Brewer are at their best when tossing out little bits of information with casual abandon, such as when they note (in discussing the rise of the automobile) that the first traffic light dates to 1922, the first shopping center to 1924 and the first public parking garage to 1929. The recollections by people who lived in and through specific events are also of considerable interest. For example, Junji Sarashina, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, recalls, “A lot of people were floating in the river; some were swimming, but some of them were dead, drifting with the current. Their skin was red and their clothes were nothing but strips of cloth hanging from them. …All night long we watched the town burn.” And decorated Vietnam veteran Larry Gwin says, “Any American soldier who went to Vietnam didn’t have to stay there long before he knew that there was something wrong with our presence there.” Jennings and Brewer clearly have a sociopolitical orientation that guides their choices of events on which to focus and people to include in their narrative; but for the most part, their skewing of matters is subtle rather than heavy-handed. Unfortunately, The Century for Young People is not especially good at giving context to the quotations from the people who speak from first-hand experience. Often a major, wrenching event gets short shrift: “The collapse of faith in American leadership and the defeat in Vietnam further undermined Americans’ self-confidence. People responded by turning inward and becoming more focused on themselves.” In all, the once-over-lightly approach of The Century for Young People merits a (+++) rating for clear writing and inclusion of people who actually experienced many of the important events of the 20th century; but these three books are far from the last word on that century, even from the limited perspective of the United States.


Night Lights. By Susan Gal. Knopf. $14.99.

Who Will I Be, Lord? By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Illustrated by Sean Qualls. Random House. $16.99.

     Young children thinking about the year ahead – or just the next day – will find a lot to consider in these two books. Night Lights is a simple bedtime story for ages 3-6 – but it is also more. With very few words and many dark-hued illustrations, Susan Gal shows all the ways the world gets light, in little bits here and there, after the sun goes down. The book starts with a mother and daughter bicycling home from wherever they have been, the headlights on their bikes and the streetlights along the road throwing patches of brightness onto an otherwise dark and quiet scene. At their house, there are bits of light everywhere, and the naming of those lights constitutes the only text in the book: firelight, candlelight, reading light, flashlight and more – even lightning! (with an exclamation point) that causes mom, daughter and their dog to run inside. The repetition of the word “light,” in so many contexts, creates a kind of background hum that makes this book very restful to read to a young child. It also invites quiet thoughtfulness about what went on during the day and what the next day will bring, as the child in the book falls peacefully asleep by moonlight.

     The wondering is more verbal than pictorial in Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Who Will I Be, Lord? Intended for slightly older kids – ages 4-8 – this is a book focused on the African-American experience, with a little girl thinking back over her family history and trying to figure out what it implies for her own future. She thinks of her great-grandfather, a mailman and musician whose own grandfather had been a slave; and of her great-grandmother, who “mama’d five children and made the best cakes in the county” – and who was white, and was disowned by her parents for marrying a black man. She thinks of her grandfather, a preacher, and her grandmother, a teacher; her uncle, a pool shark; her cousin, a jazzman; and her own parents, a car repair man and stay-at-home mom. As she thinks of each person, she contemplates what their lives are like and wonders about her own future, almost as in the refrain of a poem: “My grampa is a preacher. And what will I be, Lord? What will I be?” Of course, she is far too young to know for sure what she will become, and there is no answer to her repeated questions by the end of book, by which time “what will I be?” has turned into “who will I be?” But the little girl realizes that what and who she is as an adult is up to her – that is the lesson of her family and her history, as well as her parents’ teaching. This is a nicely contemplative book that, although told strictly from an African-American perspective and unlikely to have widespread appeal outside its target group, will give little girls who can relate to the narrator something to think about as they consider the many role models around them and the ones in their own families’ past.


Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete). Bayreuther Festspiele Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Christian Thielemann. Opus Arte. $139.99 (14 CDs).

     There is no greater operatic spectacle than Wagner’s Ring cycle, and no composer who ever thought through the visual impact and design of his operas more thoroughly than Wagner did in this tetralogy. And yet there is something to be said for hearing the operas instead of seeing them, especially when it is a matter of hearing them in a performance from Bayreuth, whose opera house was built expressly for the staging of the Ring. The reason is that modern Bayreuth productions of the Ring have striven, again and again, to remake it visually – with greater or lesser success. The stagings, and the controversies surrounding them, can all too easily distract operagoers from the astonishingly rich musical fabric that Wagner wove in these splendid works – the pinnacle, for many, of German opera, if not for the entire operatic field.

     This 2008 Bayreuth Festival performance of the Ring is a case in point. Half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier are now joint leaders of the festival, after a series of political and family machinations themselves worthy of an opera. Tankred Dorst staged the operas as a juxtaposition of the gods’ world and a modern, 20th-century one, to lukewarm reviews that often praised the stage design and costumes but less often complimented the direction and Dorst’s overall concept.

     None of that matters in this superb recording – the first-ever CD release from Opus Arte, which has heretofore produced only DVDs. What counts in this fine Ring set is the way Christian Thielemann handles the orchestra, chorus and individual singers (during the Bayreuth Festival itself, the four operas used different soloists for different cycles). Thielemann, born in 1959, has in a sense come of age through his Ring conducting, which was generally deemed uneven (but with episodes of brilliance) as recently as 2006. There is nothing episodic about his 2008 performance: it is wonderful. The pacing is often faster than is usual in these operas – although without any loss of grandeur – and the sense of forward motion throughout the cycle is a real joy to hear. It is especially helpful in Siegfried, the third and most static of the operas. In fact, Siegfried comes off, in some ways, even better than the other three works, with strong performances by Stephen Gould as the hero and Gerhard Siegel as Mime, and with Albert Dohmen so good as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise) that he practically takes over the opera in his scenes. Linda Watson, as Brünnhilde, also sings exceptionally well, and Thielemann’s handling of the score reveals its inner dynamics – and inner dynamism – to a thoroughly impressive extent.

     The other operas fare perhaps a smidgin less well – largely because Siegfried is such a tough nut to crack – but are still outstanding. Dohmen is not quite as inspired as Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, but other singers are top-notch. In Das Rheingold, the Rhinemaidens (Fionnuala McCarthy, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder) beautifully blend playfulness with despair, and Andrew Shore gives real depth and real menace to Alberich. The one significant disappointment is Arnold Bezuyen as Loge, who comes across as characterless.

     Die Walküre has one outstanding performance, by Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde in a rare blend of dramatic effectiveness with vocal superiority – she is worth hearing again and again. Unfortunately, she more than overmasters Endrik Wottrich as Siegmund – he pushes himself and his voice hard, and creates some effective moments as a result; but a sense of the heroic is never present, while a sense of being at the limit of his abilities always is. In fact, this is doubly unfortunate, since Kwangchul Youn makes Hunding a far stronger character than he often comes across as being.

     In Götterdämmerung, Gould’s Siegfried is fine, but is disconcertingly surpassed vocally by Hagen, sung by Hans-Peter König – he dominates every scene in which he appears, right up to his final, fatal plunge into the Rhine in fruitless pursuit of the Ring. Watson’s Brünnhilde here is not quite as good as in Siegfried: she has much more to do, and her voice does not quite stand up to the demands of the final cataclysm. Christa Mayer is a genuinely moving Waltraute, and the Three Norns (Simone Schröder, Martina Dike and Edith Haller) are unusually well cast. Schröder also repeats as Floßhilde, with McCarthy as Woglinde and Helzel as Wellgunde, and they again make the Rhinemaidens effective and unusually full-featured characters.

     The most important recurring roles in this Ring cycle are those of the outstanding chorus, committed and beautifully balanced orchestra, and conductor Thielemann. And this is where these wonderfully recorded live performances really come into their own. Without the distraction of Dorst’s staging – whatever one may think of it – this Ring becomes music-making of the very highest order in Thielemann’s hands, with each opera complete in itself but carefully tied to all the others, both through Wagner’s structure and through Thielemann’s emphasis on the unifying musical and thematic elements. The whole presentation is enhanced by Opus Arte’s inclusion of complete librettos for each opera, along with brief but to-the-point notes and clear synopses. This is, in sum, an absolutely superlative Ring cycle, and a strong argument for envisioning Wagner’s masterpiece yourself, as the music carries you away to the composer’s world, instead of being guided by the hand and eye of a stage director whose vision may or may not complement (much less match) your own.


Mozart: Serenade “Gran Partita,” K361/370a; Divertimento, K166; arrangements of music from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Così fan tutte.” Zefiro conducted by Alfredo Bernardini. Naïve. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Copland: An Outdoor Overture; Schuman: New England Triptych; Holst: Hammersmith, Prelude and Scherzo; Robert Russell Bennett: Suite of Old American Dances; Paul Creston: Celebration Overture. U.S. Air Force Band conducted by Col. Lowell Graham. Klavier. $16.99.

     There’s nothing wrong with a little self-celebration – if you have created something worth celebrating – and the Naïve label is celebrating itself with 15 well-chosen reissues rather immodestly labeled “La Collection.” Each includes two CDs from the existing Naïve catalogue and an oversize booklet about the music and the artists, all packaged in a slipcase that makes the whole thing look more like a book than a CD set. The pricing is attractive – two Naïve CDs for the usual cost of one – and this celebratory series can provide a good opportunity to add some fine performances to a CD collection. The music covers quite a time span, from Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236) and Luca Marenzio (1553?-1599) to Xenakis and Boulez. The “La Collection” offering from the wind band Zefiro is typical of the productions. It includes excellent 1996 recordings of two Mozart works for wind band, plus Zefiro leader Alfredo Bernardini’s arrangements for 13 wind instruments of music from the three operas that Mozart wrote to libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Bernardini presents Mozart’s harmonies in greater complexity than did the wind arrangers of Mozart’s own time, and his use of the same instrumental ensemble as in the “Gran Partita” helps cement this recording – which dates to 2004 – as an unusual one that is very well worth hearing. The arrangements do not follow the operas’ dramatic arc, but they do make Mozart’s expressiveness abundantly clear, and Bernardini throws in a few “showpiece” elements that Zefiro must have had great fun performing and that certainly are cause for celebration, self- or otherwise.

     The celebratory nature of the new U.S. Air Force Band recording for Klavier is clear from the outset: the CD is entitled “Celebration.” More to the point, it feels like a celebration – of music, primarily American music, and by implication of the United States itself. Yet this is no mere collection of hyper-patriotic tunes. Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Overture is scarcely his most profound or compelling work – it was written for student musicians – but it is light, bright and thoroughly upbeat. William Schuman’s New England Triptych is more varied in approach and mood, including a moving slow central movement. Gustav Holst’s Hammersmith, Prelude and Scherzo – the sole non-American work on the CD – is a lovely blend of lyricism with revelry. Robert Russell Bennett’s Suite of Old American Dances is jocular. bright and very well scored. And Paul Creston’s Celebration Overture is rhythmically striking and effective, and a fine showpiece for the performers. The U.S. Air Force Band is as good as they come in this sort of music, handling everything with dynamism and a certain swagger – but not neglecting the subtler and softer sections of the pieces that contain them. Col. Lowell Graham leads the ensemble with great verve and spirit, and the result is an altogether pleasing CD that is sure to lift drooping spirits and keep optimistic ones high.

December 24, 2009


Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $24.99.

Brisingr Deluxe Edition. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $29.99.

     It says something about the Eragon phenomenon that a splendidly made, elegantly designed gift book based on Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle is in many ways more interesting than the thick novels of the cycle itself. Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia is beautiful to look at and surprisingly comprehensive in explaining Paolini’s created (but very strongly Tolkien-derived) world and the races that inhabit it. The excellent illustrations, lovely maps and gorgeous art combine to give a greater feel of reality to Alagaësia than do the books themselves. Yes, the name of the land still sounds disconcertingly like “analgesia.” Yes, there are Beor Mountains (think of Tolkien’s shapeshifter Beorn), Palancar Forest (think of Tolkien’s “seeing stone,” a Palantír), Tronjheim (Trondheim in Norway has a very Tolkienian sound), Vol Turin (consider Tolkien’s Minas Tirith), and many other echoes of the great fantasist – plus echoes of other works as well. But in Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia, the echoes are fainter than in the narrative and invented languages of Paolini’s novels, where they come through so strongly as to interfere at times with those elements of the story that really have originality. In this beautiful gift book, the eye is so delighted and distracted by the bound-in mini-books, the elegant colorings, the size comparisons and histories of the four two-legged races, the tales of dragon riders, and the well-summarized snippets of history that the derivative nature of Paolini’s work becomes almost irrelevant. Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia can serve as an introduction to the Inheritance series, but it works even better as a supplement – a particularly wonderful gift for existing fans.

     Another possible gift, albeit a somewhat frustrating one, is the new deluxe edition of the cycle’s third book, Brisingr. This is the same tale of divided loyalties, desperate battles and an unending fight against tyranny told when Brisingr was originally published in September 2008. The deluxe edition dresses up the story with previously unseen art, a couple of deleted scenes in an appendix, some dwarf runes, and fine-grade paper with high-quality printing. But it remains the 750-plus-page book from which Paolini has said his editor cut 200 pages; it still rambles and could easily have been further tightened, although fans will surely welcome the way Paolini spins out so many things at so much length. Brisingr is subtitled, “The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular,” and indeed, promises prove conflicting and hard to keep here. Eragon’s cousin, Roran, needs Eragon to rescue Roran’s beloved; the Varden need Eragon’s help; the dwarves seek him; so do the elves. There is simply not enough of Eragon to go around. Nevertheless, despite some scenes of genuine excitement, Paolini’s writing remains uninspired and often plodding – although it is more assured in Brisingr than in the earlier Inheritance books, Eragon and Eldest. Still, Brisingr remains in many ways unoriginal; it gets a (+++) rating. And for whom is the deluxe edition intended? Fans will already have the earlier hardcover; non-fans will not want to enter the Inheritance cycle with the third of its four books; and the additions that make this edition “deluxe” are not really sufficient to justify buying the book if you already have it in good shape. A gift item, to be sure; but for whom? Let the buyer think carefully….


The Manga Artist’s Workbook. By Christopher Hart. Potter Style. $15.99.

Drawing Manga Animals, Chibis, and Other Adorable Creatures. By J.C. Amberlyn. Watson-Guptill. $21.99.

     Among the many once-over-lightly guides to drawing manga and anime characters, The Manga Artist’s Workbook is a standout – because it is not once-over-lightly. In fact, Christopher Hart’s step-by-step guide, which includes tracing paper to help you get the feel of the lines that give manga characters their personalities until you can draw them freehand, is more like three or four or five times over…and not lightly at all. Hart, from whose Manga for the Beginner this spiral-bound book is derived, gives excellent, unfailingly detailed advice on how to get the proportions of manga characters right so as to give them their unique look. For example, “Hair never lies flat, always adding size to the head.” And “windblown hair is more dramatic than stiff hair.” In a down angle, “ears [are] placed high on head” and “nose almost overlaps mouth.” There are natural standing poses, less-often-used poses such as rear view and side view, and there are opportunities to draw really interesting poses, such as “one knee bent, hands in front of body.” Speaking of hands, “it takes a subtle touch to draw pretty [female] hands,” while “male hands are slightly more challenging to draw than female hands, because they aren’t as soft looking.” Hart does more than instruct – he explains. And that is one thing that makes this drawing guide so valuable. Another is the way it builds: starting with heads and those famous extra-large manga eyes, Hart takes you through body parts, whole bodies, clothing, and then to fully characterized figures such as the “teen fighting girl” and “classic teen hero” shown in wonderful full-color detail on the front and back covers of the book. By the end of the book, when Hart says to “build your own character,” you will actually be able to – perhaps not with Hart’s own ease and skill, but with considerable success...on which you can then build further through practice.

     J.C. Amberlyn’s Drawing Manga Animals, Chibis, and Other Adorable Creatures is not quite at this high a quality level – it gets a (+++) rating – but it is in many ways more out-and-out fun than Hart’s book, because it focuses on the cute little subsidiary characters that people (so to speak) the manga and anime worlds. These are the huge-eyed, huge-headed cats, rabbits and unidentifiable things that sometimes participate in adventures and sometimes simply hang out on the sidelines. The proportions are what really matter here: heads can be fully half the size of bodies, and eyes are enormous even by manga standards. Amberlyn, an artist and animator, clearly knows what makes these characters effective, but she sometimes has trouble explaining what she means. For example, an illustration marked “no” shows an eye with solid lines visible at the inner corner. But in the text, Amberlyn writes, “Broken outlines for eyes are common in manga, but solid outlines for eyes can be used, too.” The best parts of this book are the ones that approach drawing in a creative way. For instance, “When drawing chibi bodies, it can help to keep the idea of a flour sack in mind” – after which Amberlyn shows how the sack shape can be used to convey emotion through body positioning. The book’s section on computer techniques – such as freehand drawings colored in Photoshop – is especially helpful for artists who are comfortable with software as a major tool. In all, Drawing Manga Animals, Chibis, and Other Adorable Creatures is a good book to supplement one, such as The Manga Artist’s Workbook, that gives basic techniques for manga drawing and focuses on portraying human characters. Like the characters she depicts, Amberlyn’s book is more of a side dish than a main course.


Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism). By Frank Schaeffer. Da Capo. $25.

Love. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Frank Schaeffer is making a second career out of living down his first one. Schaeffer and his father, Francis Schaeffer, played major roles in shaping the evangelical Christian movement into a significant right-wing political force. Now, more than 25 years after his father’s death, the younger Schaeffer is creating novels and nonfiction (notably Crazy for God) about growing up in a fundamentalist family – and using them to disavow the very narrow view of God and religion within which fundamentalism flourishes. But Schaeffer remains a preacher at heart, and in Patience with God he preaches a kind of “middle way” that is intended to appeal equally to people dismayed by religious fundamentalism and to those fed up with the intensity and excesses of the so-called New Atheism. Saying that “the people who speak in God’s name [are] basically our national village idiots,” Schaeffer mocks those he once helped lead – while reserving equal scorn for “the no-God version of right-wing hucksterism” in which atheists, afire with their own brand of evangelical-but-godless fervor, are as narrow and uncritical in their thinking as the God-soaked fundamentalists they despise. Schaeffer counters both these extremes with thoughts that are, unfortunately, more pithy than profound. “The truth is…that we either experience God or we don’t. And just as in a marriage, once we have experienced God, we either choose to work to maintain that relationship or let it fade. In that sense we can choose to believe, just as on days when I’d rather be sleeping with another woman, I choose to stay married.” This is a sort of 2009 version of then-President Carter’s admission to Playboy magazine that he had “lusted in my heart,” and it is no more meaningful – even though Schaeffer clearly thinks it is. Essentially, he is saying that the experience of God is a personal one, that it comes to some people but not others (and that’s OK), that it comes at different times to different people (and that’s OK), and that in some cases it does not come at all (and even that’s OK). The most important thing is for everyone to tolerate everyone else – another of those “why can’t we all just get along?” moments that are meaningful only if you have not encountered them many times before. Schaeffer is apparently sincere (just as he was apparently sincere when promoting narrow-minded evangelism – he just didn’t know any better, he now says). But his sincerity oozes; it does not inspire.

     One problem with Patience with God is that it takes itself so remorselessly seriously. But even with a deeply serious subject – such as God or love, the latter being what many believe the former consists of – a touch of humor can leaven an otherwise serious message, making it easier to understand and accept. Interestingly, Love is the best little gift book to date by Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae) precisely because it is the most humorous – and not in a weirdly offbeat way (as in The Penguin of Death), but in the sort of straightforward manner that evokes chuckles. It is the silliness of the text in the book and the images that illustrate it that keeps it light; for instance, two lovers “arm in arm…stand on the SAUSAGE of LOVE looking out together at the KETCHUP of their DREAMS.” And speaking of dreams, there is one in which the narrator and his love appear as biscuits and he chases off “enemy biscuits.” And there is “The POTATO of LOVE,” of which it is written, “It is so full of LOVE that the ANGELS weep with envy at its coming and the HEAVENS sing a NEW and BEAUTEOUS song.” But when you look at it – hey, it’s only a potato. Thus, beauty and love – and perhaps God – are in the eye and heart of the beholder; and Love makes that point more effectively in 32 small-sized pages than Patience with God does in 230 intensely argued ones.


Liszt: Organ Works (complete). Martin Haselböck, organ. NCA. $129.99 (5 SACDs + DVD).

Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 4: Liszt—Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Totentanz. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emil Tabakov. IBA. $8.99.

Bach: Concertos for Solo Harpsichord (complete); Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894. Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Although Martin Haselböck’s superb recordings of Liszt’s organ works are available as individual SACDs, they are even better in the newly released complete set – not because the performances themselves are better (they are the same) but because the comprehensive survey of this highly important organ repertoire makes more sense, and possesses more cogency, when heard as a whole. Furthermore, Haselböck’s 45-minute discussion of Liszt’s organ music, on an included DVD, is more coherent and revelatory than the notes he wrote for each of the individual SACDs: those commentaries (which are included in this set in an oversize booklet) tend to get so bogged down in technical and historical details that non-specialists may find them daunting, or at least uninteresting. But no one interested in organ music – or in Liszt – will find Haselböck’s performances less than enthralling. He takes the full measure of some works that are central to the organ repertoire, Liszt having been almost singlehandedly responsible for changing the organ from an instrument for church music only into one that could, in addition to sacred works, be used for extensive secular pieces of style, elegance and virtuosity. On the sacred side stand such outstanding long-form pieces as Requiem (1868-83) and Missa pro Organo (1879), as well as chorales and laments and some rather spare and emotionally desiccated works of Liszt’s later years. On the secular side are works based on Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète and Wagner’s Tannhäuser (operas with religious themes but not ones of religion per se); an expansion of parts of Liszt’s own Dante Symphony; and a number of works based on ones by Bach – whose influence loomed large over all Liszt’s organ music. Haselböck’s playing is by turns sensitive, dramatic, controlled, anguished, light-fingered and brilliantly sonorous, as he takes the full measure of each of these pieces while placing them in a context that he explains with care and intelligence on the included DVD. This is scarcely an inexpensive set – although, with the individual SACDs priced at $24.99, it costs little more than the five of them put together – but it is an absolutely crucial one for anyone interested in organ music beyond Bach, and in Liszt’s music beyond virtuosic display and brilliantly nationalistic set pieces. It is, in short, a major achievement, with absolutely top-notch performances of music that, for all its importance, is too rarely heard and has never before been given such a fully realized and thoroughly thoughtful rendition.

     The more familiar side of Liszt is on display – and “display” is the right word – in the latest Idil Biret Concerto Edition release, which features the two piano concertos and the Totentanz. This is music that requires a combination of careful control (to keep it from spinning away from the soloist) and high-level virtuosity. Biret brings her usual thoughtfulness to it, and if occasionally a listener may wish for a bit more abandon (or seeming abandon), in the main these performances are as intense and strongly declaimed as one could wish. Biret favors comparatively slow tempos that bring out many nuances that can be lost at the breakneck pace used by some pianists. Her approach takes some getting used to but is completely convincing in context. And she has plenty of power when it is needed – in the final Allegro marziale animato section of Concerto No. 1, for example. She has the showpiece Totentanz well in hand, too, giving it a seriousness and intensity that it does not always receive from performers who seem to think of it as a kind of extended encore (very extended: Biret’s performance lasts almost 18 minutes). The Bilkent Symphony Orchestra under Emil Tabakov keeps up with Biret and is certainly responsive enough, but it is not really a world-class ensemble, and tends to sound a bit thin and stressed from time to time. Nevertheless, these 2004 performances of the concertos – and the 2007 rendition of Totentanz – are fine showcases for Biret’s art.

     But back to Bach’s influence on Liszt: it is absolutely fascinating to juxtapose Liszt’s works for solo organ with Bach’s Concertos for Solo Harpsichord. Their title means what it says: these pieces are in concerto form but are for solo harpsichord, not harpsichord and strings. There are 16 of these works in all, running a total of more than two-and-a-half hours, and they are not to be listened to all at once – the essentially monochromatic sound of the harpsichord (even one whose registrations are managed as skillfully as Elizabeth Farr does in this recording) makes them hard to take in huge doses. But of course they were not intended to be played or heard that way. These are Bach’s transcriptions of work by Vivaldi, Torelli and Telemann; less-known composers including Johann Ernst and brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello; and composers whose identity is unknown. Like Liszt in his opera transcriptions many years later, Bach made these concerto transcriptions with care and close attention to detail, possibly for his own study. They are early Bach works, from his Weimar period, and are certainly not designed for virtuosic display, although they require a considerable amount of skillful playing – notably in fugal movements. Farr is an intelligent and committed interpreter of this music, performing it with grandeur (aided by the use of a two-manual harpsichord with 16’ sound) and considerable sensitivity. And the A minor Prelude and Fugue makes a fine encore to the concerto set. Even if these particular transcriptions did not directly influence Liszt – although perhaps they did – they are excellent examples of the way one composer learns from others through adaptation, alteration and updating. As Bach did with Vivaldi and others, so Liszt later did with Bach. Different time, different keyboard, but the compositional impulse remains much the same – and every bit as strong.


Elgar: The Crown of India; Imperial March; The Coronation March; The Empire March. Clare Shearer, mezzo-soprano; Gerald Finley, baritone; Barbara Marten, Deborah McAndrew and Joanne Mitchell, speakers; Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Bliss: Viola Sonata; Delius: Violin Sonata No. 3 (arranged for viola); Bridge: Pieces for Viola and Piano. Enikö Magyar, viola; Tadashi Imai, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     The long-gone days of the British Empire resound strongly again – in very different ways – in these two new recordings. Elgar’s The Crown of India is a fascinating and very extended work, running more than two hours, with very British provenance and an unusual history. Staged in 1912 to mark the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India, Elgar’s work harks back to the old tradition of the masque: a very elaborate theatrical entertainment, popular in the 17th century with composers such as Henry Purcell. There is narrative, there is celebration, and there is a considerable amount of posturing that now seems distinctly old-fashioned and rather musty, with participants representing India, St. George, and the cities of Calcutta and Delhi. The libretto, by Henry Hamilton, is very much of its time and place and not particularly distinguished. But the music is quite solid, strong and sonorous: this is Elgar in his prime (he in fact conducted the first two weeks of performances of the work). The complete orchestral parts for The Crown of India were inadvertently destroyed in the 1970s, long after India gained independence from Great Britain – which means the excellent new recording led by Sir Andrew Davis, the first ever of the entire work, is in part a reconstruction. Anthony Payne completed the orchestration, using as his basis Elgar’s Crown of India Suite, which includes five pieces from the original score (plus a sixth, for solo violin, created specifically for the suite). Also surviving is the Crown of India March, which is not part of the suite. These works gave Payne considerable guidance in orchestrating the remainder of the work after the Elgar Society commissioned him to do so in 2007. He has done an excellent job: the music sounds throughout like Elgar’s, not like someone else’s interpretation of Elgar. The Crown of India is unlikely ever to receive considerable numbers of complete performances, since it requires five soloists (three of them in speaking parts), plus chorus and orchestra, to present a story that is quite out of tune with modern sensibilities. But for that very reason, it is wonderful to have this heretofore obscure but musically very interesting work available on CD in such a fine performance. Indeed, it is offered in two fine performances: the second CD includes the instrumental material and songs but omits the narrative and connective tissue provided by Hamilton’s words – and thus will likely be more satisfying to modern listeners. Furthermore, the two-CD set – being sold for the usual price of a single Chandos disc – is very well rounded out, again in the British Imperial spirit, with three of Elgar’s extremely fine marches: Imperial (1896-7), Coronation (1911) and Empire (1924). The material in The Crown of India will certainly not be to all modern tastes, but the music deserves far better than the obscurity in which it has so long languished.

     And speaking of languishing: the viola did so for centuries, suffering neglect as the smaller violin dominated both solo and orchestral playing. To a great extent, it was in Imperial Britain that the viola’s neglect began to be reversed, in large part with Walton’s Viola Concerto but in even larger part because of the renowned and long-lived violist, Lionel Tertis (1876-1975). It was for Tertis that Walton wrote his concerto in 1929 – and Tertis also had a huge influence on other British composers, even making a viola arrangement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto of which the composer approved. Sir Arthur Bliss wrote his Viola Sonata for Tertis in 1933 and dedicated it to Tertis “in admiration.” It is in fact an admirable work, moving from lyricism to solemnity to a scherzo-finale in the decidedly odd (and rather engaging) time signature of 6/16; and it is very well played in the new recording by the distinctly international pair of Enikö Magyar and Tadashi Imai. They also do a fine job with Tertis’ 1932 arrangement of Frederick Delius’ Violin Sonata No. 3, which Tertis played for the blind and nearly paralyzed composer (who died in 1934). The Delius work’s simplicity and lovely flow fit the viola quite well. And then, for an encore – or rather a series of them – Magyar and Imai offer seven short works by Frank Bridge, who was a violist but generally wrote brief pieces for violin or cello (which he later arranged for viola). The selections here, only two of which started out as viola pieces, date from 1901-8 and are quite varied in mood, with Magyar’s lithe and lovely playing giving each its due. Interestingly, there is a slight irony to Magyar’s considerable success with the music on this CD. She is Hungarian – indeed, the name “Magyar” means “Hungary” – and as it happens, the one 20th-century viola concerto that stands as an equal to Walton’s was written by one of Hungary’s greatest composers, Béla Bartók.

December 17, 2009


Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. By Gene Barretta. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi. By Rachel Rodríguez. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Henry Holt. $16.99.

The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy. By James Cross Giblin. Clarion. $22.

     Whether well known or less so, whether heroes or villains, larger-than-life characters from the past make for fascinating reading – for young readers as well as adults. Neo Leo and Building on Nature are short books in oversize “picture book” format, but both pack a lot of information into a small number of pages. Gene Barretta’s story about Leonardo da Vinci’s many inventions is particularly cleverly done. The pages are set up to show “neo” ideas, such as the first contact lens (1887) and the first helicopter (1907), on left-hand pages – and Leonardo’s ideas from five centuries earlier on right-hand ones. So we find that Thomas Edison’s 1895 Kinetoscope was the forerunner of modern movie projectors – but Leonardo had already figured out “how to use light to project images through a lens.” James Starley created the forerunners of modern bicycles in 1870 – but Leonardo, although he may or may not have invented the bicycle itself (there is a dispute about it), did design gears, chains and other parts used in bikes. Making the “Leo” pages even more interesting is the backwards writing incorporated into them – a version of the writing that Leonardo himself did in his many notebooks (although he, of course, wrote in the Italian of his time, not in modern English). Some of the material here will likely be as fascinating to parents as to children, such as the fact that Leonardo not only designed but also constructed robots for court events. Equally intriguing is the information – given at the end of the book – that a number of Leonardo’s never-constructed inventions are actually being built today, and are turning out to work just as Leonardo said they would. Neo Leo is a simply wonderful introduction to the ideas of a thinker of astonishing genius.

     Antoni Gaudi is not as well known as Leonardo, but the 19th-century architect from Catalonia had an effect on building that can be seen in Barcelona, Spain today – and that is really quite remarkable. From childhood, Gaudi observed nature closely, eventually incorporating elements of it into exceptionally clever designs, such as a door knocker that squashes a built-in bedbug whenever it is used and a peephole that resembles a honeycomb. Curving ramps, hallways resembling underwater caverns, pillars shaped like animals’ feet, a mosaic lizard guarding a park – Gaudi created all these and more. Rachel Rodríguez tells the story of his work without giving too much information on him as a person – and while barely mentioning the intense controversies that some of his works caused. Still, for young readers, Building on Nature is a fascinating introduction to one of the world’s most creative architects. The design of the illustrations by Julie Paschkis helps give the book an even stronger effect: pictures float against white backgrounds instead of taking up whole pages or appearing in frames, and the sinuous lines of the art parallel and complement the work done by Gaudi himself.

     The work done by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in contrast, tore down rather than building up. Decades after the “red scare” that followed World War II – a time when fear of Communism ran rampant and politicians, including future president Richard Nixon, took great advantage of it – the name of Joe McCarthy and the movement he spawned and led, McCarthyism, continue to resonate, always identified with over-zealous and vicious smear campaigns designed to destroy political and personal enemies. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, used bullying, half-truths, guilt by association and outright lies in pursuit of the Communists who, he said, had infiltrated all levels of the United States government and were undermining the country with an eye toward handing it over to the Soviet Union. James Cross Giblin’s The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy puts the senator’s career in the context of the early years of the Cold War, enlivening what could be a straightforward history book by including plenty of photos and cartoons. Some of the pictures will be well known to adults of a certain age or a certain interest in history, such as the photo of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at the time of their spy trial and the picture of McCarthy listening carefully to chief counsel Roy Cohn. But other photos will surely be unfamiliar: McCarthy almost buried in letters of support; McCarthy having breakfast at the home of friends Urban and Margery Van Susteren, parents of Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren; McCarthy on the bench as a circuit court judge; and many more. The cartoons can be at least as fascinating as the photos, such as Herblock’s panel showing the 1946 elections as a prizefight in which the cigar-smoking “The Campaign” smashes “Voter’s Intelligence” in the face. Giblin has a personal connection, of sorts, with McCarthyism: one of his college professors announced in class that he would not assign any studies of Marx or Marxism because of the nation’s political climate. In this book, Giblin details McCarthy’s rise, the climate of hysteria in which he flourished (and which he helped create), the famous Army-McCarthy hearings that helped bring him down, the hugely important role of famed journalist Edward R. Murrow in showing McCarthy for the demagogue that he was, and McCarthy’s eventual censure by the Senate. Although some young readers may have difficulty following the ins and outs of the political process and keeping all the names and relationships of the characters straight, all will be very well repaid for sticking with The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy to the end. For this is a book that shows, at the same time, how deeply flawed the American political process can be, and how it can manage – even at a time of grave national difficulty – to take a self-correcting course. McCarthy ruined a great many lives and careers, and there is no minimizing the pain he caused in so many ways large and small. But in the end, it did not require extra-legal methods like McCarthy’s own to pull him down – all that was needed was the rule of law, a fair-sized helping of political courage, and exposure through the work of some dedicated journalists. And all these, to a greater extent or a lesser, remain crucial to rooting out those who would succeed McCarthy even today.


Paying for College without Going Broke, 2010 Edition. By Kalman A. Chany with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Random House. $20.

      College costs outpace inflation, year after year, and this year have risen substantially even though consumer prices have actually declined. College costs frequently outpace gains in families’ income, and this year many families have no income gains at all. With the recession’s effects still being felt by so many people – including the unemployed – the ever-higher cost of higher education is a bigger burden now than ever. To the rescue (more or less) comes the new edition of Paying for College without Going Broke, the commonsense guide to maximizing aid and minimizing (to the extent possible) the financial stress of sending a child to college – or financing your education yourself, if that is what you need to do.

      It would be naïve in the extreme to say that Kalman Chany’s plainspoken book will actually make college costs bearable for everyone. Not so – which is why it is only “more or less” a rescue. But it would be unfair, not to mention unrealistic, to expect Chany to come up with financing approaches that will work for everyone. In truth, the only guaranteed way to afford college is to start saving a considerable amount of money when a baby is born, factor in the annual inflation in college costs for every year of the child’s life, and continue socking money away until he or she graduates from high school. This is doable in some cases, but not in the vast majority – there simply isn’t that much money available for education-targeted saving in most families’ budgets.

      Essentially, what Chany – an independent counselor on college financial aid since 1982 – does is approach college financing as a kind of chess game. It is not enough to follow the rules – you have to follow them with enough creativity to maximize your chance of obtaining the financing you need. Some aspects of Chany’s recommendations have to do with pre-college education. For example, students should take as many AP courses as possible, prepare carefully for AP exams, and apply to colleges that award course credits for success on those tests. This puts students ahead in terms of requirements for graduation – lowering the cost of getting there. An alternative approach is to attend a community college for two years – at comparatively low cost – and then transfer to a four-year school and graduate from it. This keeps the high-cost element of college to two years instead of four.

      Furthermore, Chany recommends that students apply to colleges whose admissions criteria they exceed. Colleges are more willing to spend money to attract students who will raise the perceived academic value of the school. This means finding out the average SAT or ACT score for each college and applying to ones where the average is well below yours.

      Another element of Chany’s approach is to be realistic about a student’s post-college earnings power in terms of debt taken on during school. That simply means not to load down a student with loans that are likely to be a severe long-term burden because of the pay scale of the career that he or she is likely to choose.

      In addition to these strategic thoughts, Chany offers considerable detail about the process of applying for aid – which is anything but straightforward. Aid is not necessarily limited by current income – and even high-income people should apply in case of a job loss or other economic reversal. Pricey schools are not off-limits for students who have solid academic credentials – in fact, many of them are allocating extra funds precisely because they want to admit more high-achieving students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. And then there are the nuts-and-bolts recommendations, such as knowing deadlines for forms, which vary not only by form but also by college; following forms’ instructions carefully so you do not (for example) leave a line blank or omit a signature; doing a draft of your income tax early so you can meet application deadlines – and being prepared to send in your actual return when it is finished, so the college can compare it with your estimate; applying for aid as early as possible, and definitely before being accepted – by acceptance time, all the aid may have been allocated; planning to maximize education-related tax benefits in addition to obtaining aid; and a great deal more.

      Paying for College without Going Broke is not easy reading, despite its straightforward style – there is just so much territory to cover that it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the process. And it is complex, without a doubt. But college is one of the biggest expenses of a student’s or family’s life, and it is worth investing some time in the financing issues in order to keep the cost as manageable as possible. The $20 that Paying for College without Going Broke costs is repaid many times over by the help and information offered throughout the book.


Edward Gorey’s Children 3x5” Notepad. Pomegranate. $4.95.

The Fantod Pack by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $9.95.

Edward Gorey Bookmark Set. Pomegranate. $10.95.

Edward Gorey Magnets: The Creature Regarded Them Balefully; Chef Cat. Pomegranate. $3.50 each.

B. Kliban Magnets: Hula Cat; Here, There. Pomegranate. $3.50.

B. Kliban Rowing Cats Bookmark. Pomegranate. $1.95.

     There is nothing cuter and sweeter than the sugar-plums-and-smiles spectacle of families taking down their Christmas stockings and finding all sorts of adorable little goodies in them. If you’d like to do something about that, try these stocking stuffers this year. They’re wonderfully made, artistically designed and just as likely to bring cries of “ugh!” as ones of “wow!” But the recipients will know you meant well. Maybe.

     Really, Christmas is a perfect time to put such traditions as childhood and cartooning in proper perspective, which means to shake things up a little (hey, kids do that all the time, and so do the best cartoonists). Pomegranate has a whole line of innocent-seeming little gift items from some of the best slightly askew cartoonists of the 20th century, most notably Edward Gorey and B. Kliban. Gorey’s renditions of serious children in a vaguely Victorian or Edwardian age adorn a wonderful little 80-sheet notepad that fits neatly into a stocking and can be used by kids to send thank-you notes to family members – thereby accomplishing the dual goal of being polite and getting rid of the vaguely disturbing 80 sheets as quickly as possible without seeming ungracious. Besides – in all (or at least some) seriousness – the drawings really are attractive in their offbeat way, and there is none of the trademark Gorey mayhem here (although, to be sure, most of his mayhem occurs offstage, as it were).

     For older kids, or adults with a skewed sense of the world – especially anyone interested in classic tarot – Gorey’s The Fantod Pack makes a wonderful little gift that perfectly captures the artist’s unsettling whimsicality. The deck’s 20 cards include Gorey-invented archetypes such as the Yellow Bird and the Limb, and the pack contains a booklet with readings relating to each image – everything being just as cryptic and perhaps even more disturbing than the readings from an ordinary tarot deck. Whether The Fantod Pack was inspired by tarot cards or intended to parody them can be left for the recipient to decide. Either way, it’s in the cards.

     Gorey is in the books, too. Pomegranate makes a wonderful series of bookmarks featuring Gorey’s art and sold for $1.95 each, but if you are looking for something a bit more generous and even more fun than a single bookmark, consider the Edward Gorey Bookmark Set, which contains 10 of them for less than the cost of six individual ones. Five are black-and-white drawings from Gorey’s illustrations for T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and they are a delight – from Bustopher Jones about to be served an elegant meal to The Old Gumbie Cat starting to conduct “Frivolitätenmusik.” Of the other five bookmarks, two – showing some of Gorey’s drawings of children – are in color, and the remaining three are as elaborate and mysterious as one would expect Gorey to be.

     “Elaborate and mysterious” also describes Gorey’s unsettling and odd drawing called The Creature Regarded Them Balefully, available as a 2x3” refrigerator magnet – large enough to pick out plenty of Gorey’s elaborate detail. The magnet shows the unidentifiable seaweed-like creature at the left, just climbing onto a pier from water that one imagines to be somewhat unhealthful, while three puzzled children – one carrying a bucket – stare at it from the right. At least the kids seem to be puzzled – as so often in his work, Gorey does not show their eyes or facial expressions, leaving it to viewers to figure out just what is going on, and what happens next….

     Gorey did get lighthearted now and then, as in his Chef Cat drawing, another refrigerator magnet that can zip out of your stocking to adorn your very own kitchen. The black-and-white cat in ballet shoes, dancing while holding a long spoon and a bowl of who-knows-what, is strictly for fun. But of course Gorey was not especially known for cats, although he often drew them. B. Kliban, on the other hand, was irremediably feline in inclination, and a refrigerator magnet with one of his cats makes a wonderful contrast with Gorey’s magnet. Hula Cat is one of Kliban’s best-known drawings, showing (in full color) a cat in a grass skirt and lei dancing while also staring at a vaguely butterfly-like flying insect – the contrast between the body motion and eye motion being especially amusing. Here, There is amusing in a different way, and oddly thought-provoking. No cats here – this drawing simply shows a person walking on a well-worn path from a big sign saying “Here” and a smaller, arrow-shaped one saying “There.” That is, the person is walking from “Here” to “There.” But at the other end of the short path, the same two signs appear – and since the path is bare but surrounded by grass, one has to assume that the person has been walking here and there, here and there, for a very long time indeed…..

     This sort of “thinking” humor is a Kliban specialty, and is combined with his frequent renditions of cats in a delightful full-color bookmark. Everyone knows that you can’t herd cats. According to this Kliban drawing, they can’t cooperate even when rowing a boat: the six portly felines are looking in six different directions and doing six different things with their oars – including being distracted by two flying fish whizzing though the air above them. But what really makes this drawing pointed is what appears at the far left: a tiny outrigger, much smaller than the cats’, being rowed speedily along by six rats working in apparently perfect unison. And the point is….well, who needs a point? The gift-giving point is that there are some wonderful stocking stuffers out there that may not be all sweetness and light, but for that very reason are likely to endure and provide enjoyment well after the Christmas season. So by all means stuff a stocking a bit strangely this year!


Jeremy Draws a Monster. By Peter McCarty. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Doodlemaster Rock Star! By Maria S. Barbo. Illustrated by Chuck Gonzales. Feiwel and Friends. $9.99.

Doodlemaster Fashionista! By Maria S. Barbo. Illustrated by Chuck Gonzales. Feiwel and Friends. $9.99.

     A charming hybrid of Harold and the Purple Crayon and Dr. Seuss’s The Glunk That Got Thunk, Peter McCarty’s Jeremy Draws a Monster is the wonderfully drawn and delightfully written story of a boy who “never went outside” and who decides to make something to keep himself company. So he “took out his fancy pen and started to draw,” writes McCarty, showing the plump and neckless little boy with the “3” on his shirt standing on a stool in order to start at the top of his creation. Eventually, Jeremy creates his very own monster, complete with multiple horns, a spiked tail and a “3” on its chest. And this turns out to be a demanding monster, insisting that Jeremy draw it a sandwich – and a toaster – and a record player – and a checkerboard – and a chair – and more and more. Not knowing what else to do (who wants to antagonize a huge, bored monster?), Jeremy complies again and again, eventually drawing the monster a hat so it can go out and leave Jeremy alone once again. But the monster returns late at night, takes over Jeremy’s bed and bedroom, and now Jeremy has to come up with a clever way to get rid of it permanently. He does – and, in the process, emerges from his room at last and finds that he would rather play with other kids than go back to monster-making. The never-stated, soft-pedaled moral of the story is wonderfully delivered, and the illustrations, which use plenty of white space, make the tale a monstrously good one to read.

     Kids who would rather do their own drawing – with a little guidance – can turn to two new books for preteens called Doodlemaster. Of the two, Rock Star! seems intended more for boys, and Fashionista! is definitely for girls. The idea here is guided doodling. One page in Rock Star! shows a wrestling ring and says, “Draw yourself in the ring delivering your signature move,” then asks questions about whom you are wrestling and what your theme song is. One page in a “Mad Scientist” section shows a petri dish and says to draw what is growing in it – and also provides space in which to write about your best and worst creations. A “Creature Feature” section says to “create the most horrible creature imaginable for the next blockbuster movie,” then give it a name and say what is the scariest thing about it. A two-page spread in Fashionista! shows a “regular girl” dressed in standard clothing – and suggests turning copies of her basic shape into such characters as a hipster, bookworm and punk rocker. A page showing a snow globe says to “draw a wintry scene” inside. One called “That’s So Warped!” says to draw your idea of a time machine and then write about the moment you would most like to skip ahead to – and the one you most want to go back to. A lot of the ideas in the books are pretty obvious, and some of the doodling guidance doesn’t really guide, such as a picture of a girl at a steering wheel, plus two tires, to show where to draw “your dream car.” The Doodlemaster books deserve a (+++) rating, though, for providing some interesting drawing ideas and for mixing up the doodling with enough questions to provoke at least a little bit of thoughtfulness. But thumb through the books before buying them to be sure that the art and writing strike you as a comfortable blend.


Villa-Lobos: Complete Symphonies; New York Skyline Melody; Ouverture de l’Homme Tel; Suite pour Cordes; Sinfonietta No. 1. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Carl St. Clair. CPO. $62.99 (7 CDs).

     This release is, despite some oddities, a major event. Oddity No. 1: music with a strong Brazilian flavor performed by a German orchestra led by an American conductor. Oddity No. 2: a peculiar sequence of the music, caused by the fact that this is really a re-release – a repackaging of seven CDs that originally came out separately, one at a time. Oddity No. 3: Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) wrote 12 symphonies, but only 11 are recorded here; yet the set is complete.

     In fact, the oddities are easy enough to explain. No. 1: like his better-known Bachianas brasileiras, Villa-Lobos’ symphonies are far more than “regional” music, and are of high enough quality to deserve performances by top-notch orchestras anywhere – which is exactly what they get here. No. 2: the recordings were made between 1997 and 2000, but the use of the same orchestra and conductor throughout gives the set cohesion despite the rather odd pairings of works on the CDs (Nos. 1 and 11, Nos. 3 and 9, Nos. 4 and 12, etc.). No. 3: one Villa-Lobos symphony – No. 5 – is lost; and this is particularly unfortunate because it was the third part of a triptych relating to World War I.

     So while this may be an imperfect set, it is an excellent and important one, and the best chance listeners are likely to have to consider Villa-Lobos’ symphonic output, since Villa-Lobos symphony cycles are not exactly commonplace in concert halls.

     Villa-Lobos’ symphonies were written between 1916 and 1957, covering a great deal of the musical style of the 20th century, if not its full chronology. All except No. 10 are in the traditional four movements, although the slow movement is sometimes placed second and sometimes third. No.10, Amerindia ("Sumé Pater Patrium") is a five-part oratorio for tenor (Lothar Odinius in this recording), baritone (Henryk Böhm), bass (Jürgen Linn) and chorus (members of the Staatsopernchor Stuttgart and SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart) as well as orchestra.

     There is a significant stylistic break midway through Villa-Lobos’ symphonies, with the early ones (through the lost No. 5) strongly influenced by the work of Vincent d’Indy – after which there is a 24-year hiatus before the appearance of No. 6, which has a stronger Brazilian flavor than the earlier works. No. 7, which also features folklike elements, begins a series in which Villa-Lobos shows himself more willing to adopt a rhythmically complex style and considerably greater use of dissonance.

     All the earlier symphonies, in addition to No. 10, bear subtitles. No. 1 is “O imprevisto” (“The Unforeseen” or “The Unexpected”); No. 2 is “Ascenção “ (“Ascension”); No. 3, the first of the war trilogy, is “A Guerra” (“War”); No. 4 is “A Vitória” (“Victory”); and the lost No. 5 was “A Paz” (“Peace”). No. 6 was a turning point here in addition to being composed two decades after No. 5: it was originally called “Sobre a linha das montanhas do Brasil” (“On the profiles of the mountains of Brazil”), but the title was dropped. Thereafter, except in No. 10, Villa-Lobos ceased to give his symphonies titles, and they increasingly became pure, non-storytelling music. But, interestingly, they were nearly all occasional pieces, written for specific purposes. Villa-Lobos wrote No. 7 for a competition in Detroit – under the pseudonym “A. Caramuru,” a reference to a nickname that Tupinambá Indians give to someone Portuguese. No. 8 is a real oddity, being dedicated to a music critic, Olin Downes of The New York Times; there is very little Brazilian flavor in it. No. 9 was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and is dedicated to the composer’s second wife, Mindinha. No. 11 was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and No. 12 was finished on Villa-Lobos’ 70th birthday. As for No. 10, it was written in 1952 for the 400-year anniversary of Sað Paulo and is based on a poem from 1563 called “Beata Virgine” – yet it retains the basic form of a five-movement symphony despite being structured, in terms of text, as an oratorio.

     So disparate are Villa-Lobos’ symphonies that it is difficult to see them as “progressing” as do those of, say, Beethoven or Brahms. By and large – certainly after the first five symphonies – Villa-Lobos seems to have set himself a different set of challenges in each one, overcoming them according to his compositional style of the time while often (but not always) returning to the Brazilian folk music to which he was attracted throughout his life. Carl St. Clair and Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR approach each of these works with a fresh perspective and a willingness to explore each one’s individualistic artistry thoroughly. The few short filler items – the most notable being the early Sinfonietta No. 1 (1916) and the even earlier, very Tchaikovskian Suite pour Cordes (1912-3) – are interesting bonuses in a set that establishes Villa-Lobos as a major 20th-century symphonist with a strong, if highly variable, musical voice.