November 25, 2009


Edward Gorey: The New Poster Book. Pomegranate. $19.95.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey. Text by Karen Wilkin. Pomegranate. $29.95.

The Blue Aspic. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

Sierra Club Holiday Cards: Backyard Birds in Winter. Pomegranate. $15.

Dard Hunter Design Holiday Cards. Pomegranate. $15.

Dard Hunter Folio Notecards. Pomegranate. $9.95.

Gustav Klimt Thank You Notes. Pomegranate. $8.95.

     The winter holidays are a wonderful time to immerse yourself in art, from the stolid to the offbeat to the commercial. In the “offbeat” arena is the art of Edward Gorey (1925-2000), which remains difficult to categorize nearly a decade after Gorey’s death. Gorey was a master of what may be called the amusingly macabre, although even that description does not quite fit everything he created. Gorey fans who hope to make other Gorey fans – not always easy to do, since his highly detailed art is at the service of some very strange storytelling indeed – might want to consider giving Edward Gorey: The New Poster Book as a seasonal gift. This wonderful oversize collection of 30 Gorey illustrations, 18 of them in color, includes such delights as “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” a group of adorable (if sober-faced) youngsters standing beneath a huge umbrella held by Death (or a reasonable facsimile thereof); a Gorey version of a “Little Nemo in Slumberland” scene, captioned “Donald imagined things,” showing a small boy sitting up in bed, gazing quizzically at a gigantic green prehistoric-looking dragon-and-eel-like thing that is staring at him; a crow (or raven?) warning “Beware of this and that” as two children perch, facing in opposite directions, on a very angular bicycle that looks like a Salvador Dali creation; and much more. Gently weird and gently amusing, these posters make a wonderful introduction to Gorey’s visual delights.

     For something more in-depth, read Karen Wilkin’s text in the very handsome Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, a book packed both with Gorey’s crosshatched-ink art and with understanding of it. Wilkin, a friend of Gorey and an expert in his work, offers insights into the artist’s life and times as well as a sampling of illustrations that Gorey made for other writers, for theatrical productions and even as costume designs. Some material here has not been published before (the book originated as an accompaniment to the first retrospective of Gorey’s work, held this year at the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania). The sketches, doodles, typewritten manuscripts and other offbeat features neatly complement the many finished drawings (more than 175 of them), and the book as a whole makes a marvelous tribute to an artist whose work always smelled faintly of Edwardian drawing rooms, with a whiff of the macabre throughout – but without ever reveling in horror or gore. How Gorey managed to make tragedy somehow amusing remains an unanswered question even after a cover-to-cover perusal of Elegant Enigmas (whose title, by the way, is a wonderfully apt description of Gorey’s works).

     For a full if not-quite-fatal plunge into Gorey’s world, nothing beats immersion directly into one of his books, and The Blue Aspic, originally released in 1968, is a gem of its kind (incidentally showing, on the cover, what certainly seems to be a severed head immersed in blue aspic). As so often in Gorey’s work, the title has nothing to do with the story (well, except for that cover picture): this is a tale straight out of the overdramatized world of opera, and it is about opera, starting with a mysterious murder that elevates a singer to world-class status and ending with a murder-suicide and having a variety of deaths and other unpleasantnesses in between. Yet none of this is frightening and none of it wallows in grotesquerie – Gorey’s illustrations here, perhaps inevitably, are reminiscent of the work he did in creating the animated opening for the PBS series, Mystery. The tremendous attention to detail in the drawings, and the apparent inattention to writing and plot (there are many implications but no solutions here), combine in Gorey’s inimitable manner and will delight those willing to submit themselves to his oddly skewed and oddly endearing work.

     But even though Christmas and other winter holidays occur at the darkest time of the year, Gorey may be too dark for many people – and there are plenty of more-cheerful ways to mark the season. Cards are one of the delightful traditions that do just that, and there are some truly merry and bright ones available this year. One standout among the many beautifully made ones from Pomegranate is Backyard Birds in Winter, a Sierra Club offering of 20 cards printed with soy-based ink on recycled paper, with each of the four designs showing a bird whose plumage is set off beautifully against a winter scene: Eastern bluebird, Northern cardinal (two different views) and black-capped chickadee. The cardinal is a tradition of its own on winter-holiday cards, but the star of this show is the Eastern bluebird, whose white, gold and blue feathers look simply gorgeous against the red of highbush cranberries touched by a coating of ice. Each card has the entirely appropriate “Season’s Greetings” message inside.

     For holiday art with the same printed message but of a different visual type, the Dard Hunter Design Holiday Cards offer four lovely studies in seasonal reds and greens, coupled with intricate black-and-white designs. William Joseph “Dard” Hunter (1883-1966) created stained-glass and other windows, title pages for books, and more, and the simplicity and elegance of these 20 cards (five each of four designs) clearly reflect the Arts and Crafts movement of which Hunter was a part. Although far from the best-known name among the many artists whose work graces Pomegranate’s holiday cards, Hunter offers great charm and highly attractive designs that are overtly secular but also hint at the sacred messages that permeate the season. In fact, Hunter’s designs transcend any specific season (although their floral components speak always of spring) – witness the lovely Dard Hunter Folio Notecards, which are blank inside and make a beautiful gift anytime. Pomegranate’s folio of 10 cards includes five each of two 1906 Hunter designs for stained-glass windows. In one, purple is the predominant color, along with a closely related blue and some green; in the other, red, green and yellow splashes of color appear in an attractive open-work black-and-white design. These cards are for any occasion, and make any occasion a little more special.

     And for an occasion where the main message is “thanks,” gift-givers should consider the set of 10 thank-you cards featuring a design from a frieze created by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). These cards are just the right size for a quick thank-you message (3½ x 5 inches), and their multicolored swirls and other geometric shapes nicely complement any special occasion – and compliment any recipient. Pomegranate actually offers thank-you cards for just about any artistic taste – there are even some featuring Edward Gorey’s work, specifically an illustration of a cat on a unicycle – and all Pomegranate cards are well-made and attractive. So if Klimt is not to your taste, you can surely find something that is. But do take a look at Klimt’s elegance of style and lovely color blends. You may consider these cards just the right way to say thanks, or may find the box of them just the right gift to present to someone who could well turn around and send back one of the cards to thank you for being so thoughtful!


The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow. By Andy Griffiths. Illustrated by Terry Denton. Feiwel and Friends. $14.99.

Baking Kids Love. By Sur La Table with Cindy Mushet. Photography by Maren Caruso. Andrews McMeel. $20.

Draw Star Wars: The Clone Wars. By the editors of Klutz and Bonnie Burton. Klutz. $16.95.

     There is so much for parents to do at this time of year that kids can sometimes get left behind, except of course when it is time for eating food and opening presents. Here, though, are three delightful ways for kids to take part in adventures of their own – or ones they can share. For young readers, ages 4-8, The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow will be exactly the sort of book they want to read by themselves. Andy Griffiths, an Australian children’s-book author who has clearly figured out how to channel Seussian cadences, here produces 10 very simple rhymed stories that are an absolute hoot to read. “Big Fat Cows,” which is more or less the title story, starts things off just perfectly: “It’s raining big fat cows today. How many cows? It’s hard to say. A big cow here. A fat cow there. Big fat cows are EVERYWHERE!” Abetted by wonderfully funny drawings by Terry Denton, who often collaborates with him, Griffiths lurches delightfully all over the place – from cows in space to one that really does explode (twice, in fact). And then there are the tales of “Noel the Mole,” “Klaus the Mouse,” “Willy the Worm” (who has trouble at squirm school), “Keith, Ed, and Daisy” (who make unusual choices in clothing), “Lumpy-head Fred,” “Brave Dave,” “Ruth’s Super Scooter,” “Mike’s Bike” (which has a VERY BIG SPIKE), and “Somewhere Less Spiky” (that is, away from Mikey). The jaunty rhythms will keep even reluctant readers interested in taking part in the book: “And that’s the whole story of the mole called Noel – he’s a hole-dwelling, coal-eating, rock-and-roll mole!” And the pictures go wonderfully well with the words – in fact taking over altogether for several pages in the “Mike’s Bike” tale. The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow is a great way to get kids to read, instead of insisting that you read to them (although it’s really fun for adults to read the book out loud, too).

     Baking Kids Love invites participation of a different kind. Here, the cookware-store chain Sur La Table and Cindy Mushet, a professional pastry chef and baking teacher, have gotten together dozens of really delicious baked-goods recipes that kids can handle with adult supervision – or, for older children, on their own. Cookies, pies, cakes, quick breads and more permeate the pages of this spiral-bound, lie-flat book, which is easy enough for first-time bakers (it even explains how to measure ingredients and grease pans) but offers plenty of creativity for more-advanced young bakers. Sprinkled throughout are wonderful photos of kids enjoying the results of the recipes, plus quotations that are almost, if not quite, as much fun as eating all these delicious things: “When I bite into one [of the chocolate-chip cookies], I’m in cookie heaven, surrounded by more cookies that have little halos and wings, sitting on clouds.” Meringue crispies, chocolate toffee bars, jumbleberry pie, vanilla scones, pumpkin gingerbread, chocolate-caramel cheesecake, cinnamon rolls, chocolate chunk bread pudding – just the names of the foods are mouth-watering (and these are only some of the recipes). Interspersed with the step-by-step directions are sections called “playing around,” showing how much fun you can have by varying elements of recipes. Baking Kids Love is a book adults will love, too – not only for the delicious results but also for the chance to take part in some truly yummy projects with some sure-to-be-delighted children.

     For kids who express their artistry outside the kitchen, the new Klutz invitation to Draw Star Wars: The Clone Wars offers plenty of guidance and, like a good recipe book, plenty of opportunities for experimentation, too. Klutz – now part of the Scholastic family – has long specialized in well-made “books-plus” offerings, in which the book itself is only part of the package. This time, the guidance on character drawing comes packaged with blank paper, tracing paper and just the right tools to follow instructions and eventually go beyond them: mechanical pencil, marker, colored pencils (actually six colors in three pencils), and eraser. As with a cookbook, Draw Star Wars: The Clone Wars starts with the basics about how to draw (including how to sit) and what not to do when creating art. Tracing, overlines, stick figures, building-block shapes and more elements of drawing are applied to characters from this part of the Star Wars saga. Young artists find out how to create Anakin, R2-D2, Chancellor Palpatine, Jabba the Hutt, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and other characters (20 in all), as well as the opposing armies (“good guys” clone troopers and “bad guys” battle droids), a variety of weapons, and more. Star Wars: The Clone Wars may not be among the best stories in the Star Wars series, which now dates back more than 30 years; but young, artistically inclined fans of this installment will find the new Klutz how-to-draw guide a wonderful invitation to take part in the adventure and make it their own.


The Good Neighbors, Book Two: Kith. By Holly Black & Ted Naifeh. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You. By Vlad Mezrich. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Solomon Effect. By C.S. Graham. Harper. $7.99.

     The second book in The Good Neighbors graphic-novel trilogy, Kith, continues the themes of reality, illusion and identity confusion that filled the first, Kin. The focus continues to be on Rue Silver, who is half human (through her father) and half faerie (through her mother) – and there is nothing ethereal about the faeries in these books: they are human-sized, powerful and inimical (or at best indifferent) to the human race. The idea that Rue does not quite know where she fits, and must find out, is a tried-and-true one, but it has a twist here because Rue does not much like either of her choices. Her mother was allowed to marry her father only on condition that he was never unfaithful to her – but he was, after falling in love, and in this book finds himself torn between human and faerie-centered emotions, which he tells Rue are not the same. Rue finds her mother in this installment and tries to save her from her grandfather, Aubrey – but is it really “saving,” and does her mother really belong with her father or with the faeries? While these uncertainties abound – handled in spare, direct text by Spiderwick Chronicles coauthor Holly Black and in dark, gloomy and sometimes frightening art by Ted Naifeh – Rue is also dealing with unexpected changes in her peer group, with her boyfriend’s apparent drifting away, with her own attraction to someone else, and with unanswerable questions, the central one being, “Are you sure you know whose side you’re on?” Rue is not sure: “I used to try really hard not to worry. Now I’m worried all the time.” And what she learns about herself does not help her decide what to do: “What makes us betray the people we love? Now I know. Nothing makes us. We just do.” By the end of this episode, Aubrey has engineered a faerie-focused success that Rue feels should horrify her – but doesn’t. And that ends the book with a question mark that will remain unresolved until the trilogy’s finale.

     There is little that is light in The Good Neighbors, and little that is dark in The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You, a “dating guide” written by a team of nine like-minded satirists under the pen name “Vlad Mezrich” (yuck). At a time when vampires are hot – as publishing phenomena, not just within the books themselves – this amusingly overdone little book makes a nice corrective to the oh-so-serious emotional intensity of the Twilight series and other works that would be bodice rippers (or bodice piercers, maybe?) if today’s teens and young adults still wore bodices. The book contains a flow chart to help a would-be vampire dater decide if he is “goth, emo, gamer, or vampire.” It offers appropriate things to say at awkward moments: “Of course I understand that killing my brother was an accident. Don’t worry about it – things like this are bound to happen.” There are comments by smitten teens such as “Abigail, 16” and “Willa, 18,” and by vampires such as “Gregor, 498” and “Theo, 112.” There are multiple-choice quizzes, advice on “coaxing him out of the crypt,” suggestions on how to celebrate the holidays together, and what to do if it turns out after all that the vampire really just isn’t that into you (“what to do when your relationship has one foot in the grave”). There are even suggestions for places to contact if you can’t get over the heartbreak of losing him, such as the Vampire Depression Hotline. The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You is silly, juvenile and overdone – but then, so are plenty of the “vampires are wonderful” stories out there these days. And those books, unlike this one, are meant to be taken seriously.

     It is hard to tell how seriously to take The Solomon Effect, C.S. Graham’s fast-paced followup to The Archangel Project. Like The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You, this is a team-written book, although here it is a team of two: husband and wife Steven Harris and Candice Proctor. Their earlier thriller turned on the concept of “remote viewing,” the ability to see things from a distance – specific things, if guided by a handler who knows how to get the remote viewer to focus in the right place. Psychology graduate student and Iraq War veteran October “Tobie” Guinness has remote-viewing ability; she works with a CIA rogue agent, Jax Alexander (the CIA abounds with rogues -- in books, anyway). Yes, the protagonists are types; and yes, the plot of The Archangel Project was formulaic (vast conspiracy to stop Tobie and Jax after Tobie remotely views secret documents that that could lead to war, assassination or both). The Solomon Effect is formulaic, too, involving a nefarious Nazi plot that comes to light through discovery of a sunken U-boat off the Russian coast that carried a cargo that could bring on the Apocalypse. Calling this an apocalyptic novel is therefore redundant. And of course Tobie and Jax are threatened by enemies in high places as well as by those who would benefit from allowing an unimaginable (well, not so unimaginable) catastrophe to occur. What is interesting about The Solomon Effect is the sneaking suspicion that the authors are not taking it entirely at face value. They lapse frequently into genre clichés, for example, but seem to know when they are doing so. Sample dialogue: “What part of ‘life is never easy’ did you miss?” “You never know; we might get lucky.” On the same page: “Things are not going as well as we’d expected. …We haven’t been able to contact our man in Berlin to ascertain just what went wrong.” Elsewhere: “You of all people should know I don’t give anything away.” And “I’m not an easy man to kill.” Add chapter headings that sometimes function as datelines (“Jaffa, Israel: Thursday 29 October 11:54 p.m. local time”) and you have all the trappings of thoroughly mediocre adventure fiction – but somehow The Solomon Effect is better than that, perhaps because it seems to watch itself from outside, making readers aware that the authors know exactly what they are doing. Consider it, perhaps, a display of authorial remote viewing. In any case, the book can certainly be read simply as an apocalyptic thriller, enjoyed and immediately forgotten. But it is more fun if you assume its use of multiple clichés is intentional – thus making it possible to get extra enjoyment out of some of the story’s twists and turns, such as the crucial importance of Googling a 93-year-old doctor who has contributed a certain article to Scientific American.


The Blue Shoe. By Roderick Townley. Pictures by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $16.99.

The Indigo Notebook. By Laura Resau. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Looking for Marco Polo. By Alan Armstrong. Random House. $16.99.

DWEEB: Burgers, Beasts, and Brainwashed Bullies. By Aaron Starmer. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

     Preteens and young teenagers can travel long distances for adventure in these books -- or find excitement close to home. The Blue Shoe, whose text is nicely printed in blue on attractive cream paper, is subtitled “A Tale of Thievery, Villainy, Sorcery, and Shoes,” and that pretty well sums it up, except that the last word of the subtitle should be singular. For there is only one blue shoe in the town of Aplanap, and it was never meant to be worn: it was ordered by a mysterious man and created as a jewel-covered piece of finery – jewels of every shade of blue bedecked the shoe. The shoe is damaged because of an attempted good deed; the would-be do-gooder is the shoemaker’s apprentice and hero of the tale. In Aplanap, no good deed (at least of this type) goes unpunished, so 13-year-old Hap Barlo is sentenced to banishment to the far side of Mount Xexnax, a place from which no one ever returns. This may not be all bad, though, since it gives Hap the chance to find out what happened to his father, who was banished there a year earlier. In short, there are all the ingredients of a moderately compelling mystery-fantasy here. What raises The Blue Shoe above the ordinary is Roderick Townley’s narrative style, which is full of asides and questions to the reader: “Even the town’s mayor (whose name is far too important to write out here) was tempted by” the shoe. “Everyone called [the shoemaker] Grel, which was his name, or as much of it as anyone bothered to remember. …He was poor, but not poor enough to be arrested. Did I mention that the poor were arrested in Aplanap?” Now, this style can wear thin pretty quickly – all the foregoing examples come in the first two pages – but Townley sprinkles it pretty evenly throughout the book, and dials it back when some of the complications (all that thievery, villainy and sorcery) come forward. Furthermore, the book features illustrations by Mary GrandPré, who did the pictures for the U.S. versions of the Harry Potter books, and her gentle curves of black and white (okay, blue and white) and clever portrayals of not-quite-human characters add a great deal to the story. In addition, there are enough twists and turns in the tale to raise it several notches above the traditional boy-solves-mysteries-and-grows-up mode, even though, at bottom, that is the mode in which it operates.

     Another blue-ish object is the focus of The Indigo Notebook, but this is a work of our world, not one out of fantasy. Laura Resau here focuses – for the first time in what may become an ongoing series – on 15-year-old Zeeta and her wanderlust-driven mother, Layla, who teaches English and moves to a different country every year. Layla is a real character: “a cute, disheveled hippie chick in a slightly see-through cotton wraparound skirt tucked over her knees, with her bare toes peeking out,” as Zeeta describes her. “I used to wish for a Handsome Magazine Dad,” adds Zeeta, “but I’ve pretty much given up at this point. Every year in a different country. Fifteen years, fifteen countries, well over fifteen boyfriends for Layla. Fifteen dozen maybe, one for each month.” Layla is, in fact, a more interesting character than her note-taking daughter, and tends to steal the scene whenever she appears. But The Indigo Notebook focuses on Zeeta most of the time, and specifically on her adventures in Ecuador, where she meets a boy named Wendell, adopted by Americans, who has come to Ecuador to search for his birth parents. Zeeta agrees to help him, but Wendell is concealing a secret – and, it soon turns out, so is just about everyone with whom the two teens interact. The main lesson here, as Wendell articulates it in response to a story Zeeta tells him, is “that sometimes what you thought was bad is good after all.” Not a profound lesson, perhaps, but one that both Wendell and Zeeta learn, to their mutual benefit.

     Exotic settings are integral to Looking for Marco Polo as well. Alan Armstrong’s protagonist, 11-year-old Mark Hearn, has an anthropologist father who goes to the Gobi Desert to trace Marco Polo’s route from Venice to China – and disappears. Mark’s mother takes Mark overseas to try to get together a search party to look for him; this is crucial to the plot but not entirely believable in our age of instant communication. In any case, Mark and his mother arrive in Venice, Mark suffers a serious asthma attack, and an old friend of Mark’s father – a doctor known as Doc Hornaday – shows up to help Mark recover. Doc, seeking to distract the boy from his wheezing, starts telling him the story of Marco Polo’s adventures, and once-timid Mark (the similarity of whose name to Marco is of course no coincidence) becomes so involved in the tale that his own taste for adventure rapidly develops. The best part of this book is the tale-within-the-tale of Marco Polo, as Doc tells it, because Armstrong focuses not on the grandeur of Marco Polo’s ambitions or the glories of ancient China but on small, everyday things that thoroughly humanize a major figure in European history. For example, the story of how Marco Polo almost dies on his journey, only to be saved by a shaman who brings with him a big black dog that eventually ends up staying with the traveler, is wonderfully told and crucial to the book’s climax. In letters to his absent father, Mark makes comments on the tales he hears: “Doc told me some Marco Polo stories that aren’t in the book. I think he’s guessing and making up a lot, but I don’t care.” By the time it turns out that Mark’s dad is alive and the family will be reunited, the novel turns heartwarming to the point of being overdone – but the happy ending is inevitable and is not, really, the point of the book.

     If all this gadding about seems a bit much, there are also adventures to be found close to home, for instance at Ho-Ho-Kus Junior High, where five eighth-graders and non-friends named Denton, Wendell, Eddie, Elijah and Bijay end up as a group called DWEEB (from the first letters of their names) when they are all falsely accused of theft and find themselves face-to-face (or faces-to-faces) with a mystery. Aaron Starmer’s first novel is narrated by each of the five protagonists in alternating chapters – although, in truth, their voices are not especially distinctive. Each boy is encapsulated in a couple of words and then operates according to his type: Denton the negotiator, Wendell the computer whiz, Eddie the athlete, Elijah the writer and Bijay the performer. Of course, each has to use his special abilities to solve the mystery that involves them all, and each of them learns that teamwork beats going it alone, and all that expected stuff. What is amusing here is not what the boys find out but what they go through on the way. They are imprisoned in a secret room beneath their school; they are ordered to ace the standardized Idaho Tests to prevent the school (in the person of nasty Vice Principal Snodgrass) from calling their parents; and they have to use their individual skills, and even body types, to figure out what is really going on. Yes, body types, as in: “Eddie had to do this alone. No one else could fit through the hole. And even if they could, they probably weren’t athletic enough to climb the pipes.” And yes, individual skills: “For Bijay, it was the performance of a lifetime, because he was doing something he had never been able to do: he was fitting in.” The plot that the five uncover is ridiculous, but DWEEB makes no pretense to be anything more than a silly romp with a bit of a message. And Starmer carefully leaves open the possibility of a sequel if the book does well. Nothing dweeby, or DWEEBy, about that.


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

     It was the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln – then known as the Cologne City Orchestra – that gave the first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on October 18, 1904, with the composer conducting. While it is a mistake to believe that this history gives the current orchestra’s players some sort of mystical connection to the work – after all, every single orchestra member today is different from the ones who first played it – there is no doubt that Cologne is proud of its Mahler associations, and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln works hard to maintain a special claim to his music. Or perhaps the phrase is “plays hard,” because the orchestra, under Chief Conductor Markus Stenz, certainly takes on the Fifth with intensity and enthusiasm. And the results are excellent throughout, from the opening trumpet call to the strongly accented second movement; from the well-paced and bucolic third movement, through the always beautiful Adagietto (here with a bit more bite than usual), and into a propulsive finale that flows naturally from what has gone before and comes across as the symphony’s capstone, not (as in some other performances) an afterthought. One thing that Stenz and the orchestra do particularly well is contrast the quieter, chamber-music-like portions of the symphony with its grand tutti sections; for example, the very soft ending of the first movement here sounds just right, so the explosive attacca of the second creates the strongest possible contrast. The sound quality boosts the performance’s effectiveness: this is a particularly clearly recorded SACD, in which the absolute silences are as impressive as the loudest sections of the symphony. This is the first release in what is planned as a Mahler cycle; and while there are now a number of good complete-Mahler-symphony recordings, Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln seem likely – if they continue as they have begun – to produce one of the best.

     Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are already well on their way to producing what could be the best Shostakovich cycle of all. Their new recording of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 fulfills the promise of their first CD, of Symphony No. 11 – an unusual choice to start a complete set of Shostakovich symphonies, but one that they pulled off brilliantly. Now they have turned to better-known, more-often-heard symphonies and produced equally fine results. The surprising thing here is the attention Petrenko gives to the quiet passages – an approach that would seem to make more sense in, say, Mahler, than in Shostakovich, who often comes across with all the subtlety of a battering ram. Petrenko finds subtleties in these works that most other conductors miss or gloss over: the solo violin passages in No. 5, for example, and the quicksilver flashiness of the third movement of No. 9 – here taken at a true Presto, which is how it is marked but which is a tempo that conductors rarely attempt for it. Because Petrenko is at such pains to get the details and quiet passages of these symphonies right, the more bombastic – and simply louder – music comes off far better as well. The problematic finale of No. 5, for example, starts with speed and triumphalism, but by the last section – which Petrenko, like some other conductors, takes quite slowly – there is an ambiguity about the movement that fits well with current thinking that this work was less a celebration of Socialist Realism than a necessary accommodation to it. As for No. 9, its classical balance and sardonic modernism exist in an uneasy melding here – witness, among many examples, the piccolo tune in the first movement – and the result is a symphony that keeps listeners slightly off-balance in a very engaging and thought-provoking way. Indeed, “thought-provoking” is a good description of all three Shostakovich symphonies recorded so far by Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, of which he has been Principal Conductor since 2006. Petrenko has some genuine insights into Shostakovich’s music, and will hopefully continue sharing them with listeners as this series progresses.

November 19, 2009


The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson: Volume 1—Call Me Joe; Volume 2—The Queen of Air and Darkness. Edited by Rick Katze. NESFA Press. $29 each.

M.C. Escher “Reptiles” 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle. Pomegranate. $17.95.

Lost Worlds. By John Howe. Kingfisher. $22.99.

Versus: Warriors. Illustrated by Steve Stone. Kingfisher. $19.99.

The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.

     ’Tis the season of gifts, ’tis the season of wonders, ’tis the season of wonderful gifts – if you choose carefully, looking for items that will entertain, enthrall or educate long past the season in which they are given. Thus, ’tis a fine season for the first two volumes of a planned multi-volume Poul Anderson series from NESFA Press. Anderson is one of the grandest of grand masters of science fiction, having won seven Hugos and three Nebulas – the top awards in the field – and actually being named a Grand Master in 1998. Anderson (1926-2001) was a strong advocate of space exploration, a believer in the improvability (if not perfectibility) of humanity, and a dedicated chronicler of larger-than-life characters cast in heroic settings that would try them deeply – leading sometimes to success, sometimes to failure. The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson is a rather capriciously edited series – the stories appear in no apparent order – but it is also a marvelous one, giving readers a chance to explore Anderson’s world (and worlds) in depth while also showing how his storytelling evolved over time (his later stories are often quieter and less stormingly heroic). The 26 stories and poems in Call Me Joe include Anderson’s first published tale, “Tomorrow’s Children” (1947), and range to as recently as 2001 (“Kinnison’s Band,” a poem with echoes of Aristophanes that is here printed immediately after “Tomorrow’s Children,” on the same page as that story’s ending). The Queen of Air and Darkness includes 19 pieces, one of which is the wonderful title story (published in 1958) and the rest of which appeared between 1956 (“Operation Afreet”) and 1993 (no fewer than 10 different pieces). Anderson was a prolific writer, an old-style SF stylist (which means his works tend to be straightforward and narrative-driven), a man of ideas and action rather than psychology (there is little analysis of characters in his works), and an author unafraid to bring sociopolitical matters into his tales (his philosophy was essentially libertarian). Individually, his tales are a treat. In these two sumptuous volumes – more than 500 pages each – they are a feast that will last long past the winter holiday season.

     Equally outré and equally certain to carry well into 2010 is Pomegranate’s excellent and very difficult jigsaw puzzle based on M.C. Escher’s famous study in two and three dimensions, “Reptiles.” This is one of a series of Escher-based puzzles from this very innovative publisher, and any of them will delight jigsaw fans. “Reptiles” may even make fans for these puzzles, because there is so much in it: a planter containing two cacti, an open book, a stoppered bottle near a glass, and several objects over which a crocodilian creature climbs after emerging into three dimensions from a notebook page on which its basic, flattened form has been drawn two-dimensionally. The creature completes a circuit of its environment before climbing back into the two-dimensional world that gave it birth – but of course the creature only looks three-dimensional, since the medium itself is a two-dimensional one. Since the whole wonderful “Reptiles” concoction is done in black-and-white, it is very difficult indeed to figure out just what piece of the jigsaw puzzle goes just where. Escher’s works are treats for the mind as well as the emotions. So is this puzzle, which takes his work into…well, into yet another dimension.

     The pages of Lost Worlds seem to have three dimensions as well, so realistically and with such care are they drawn by John Howe, who was one of the concept artists for director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Visual splendor is what this book is all about, as Howe portrays lands real and fictional with equal skill and attention to detail. The names are the stuff of legend: Ultima Thule, Shambhala, Mohenjo-Daro, Rapa Nui, Cahokia, Cibola – but which existed and which did not? And what of Babylon, Atlantis, Troy, Asgard, Camelot and Avalon? What of them was real? How much is legend? Howe’s marvelous illustrations make every place seem as real as every other, and the brief narratives about each of the Lost Worlds explain what we know and do not know about them. The Garden of Eden, for example, may have been somewhere in the plains of Mesopotamia; Mount Olympus is real, “though no one, of course, has ever seen the gods there”; and so on. The information here is solid, but it is not what makes this book so attractive as a gift for ages 9-12. It is Howe’s great skill at bringing to life long-gone lands, or ones that never were, that makes this a book to treasure.

     History comes to life in a different way in Versus: Warriors, where everything shown is real except the underlying premise of the book: battles between warriors who existed at very different times and in very different places and therefore never met in the real world. Like a gladiatorial video game seen in slow motion (and with far less gore, although plenty of implied violence), Steve Stone’s book posits fights between, for example, an Aztec and a Viking, or a Spartan and a Mongol. Hyper-realistic illustrations show each warrior’s weapons, fighting style and other data – pages are laid out like video-game still shots. Then – and this is where the book gets really interesting – one member of each pair is selected as the winner, for reasons that are cogently argued from a historical perspective. At the end, the five winners are compared and an overall champion is picked – again, based on known skills of the real-world fighters. And then there are “rematch” pages, suggesting alternative matchups whose outcomes it is left for the reader to decide. Offbeat design, strong graphics and a cleverly analytical approach make Versus: Warriors an unusual gift for readers ages 10 and up for whom mindless slash-and-crush video-game action is not quite enough.

     And how about a present for students’ more serious side – one that relies not on strong graphic design but on intelligence, not on punchy action but on words? The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Fourth Edition makes a wonderful gift – yes, in the Internet age; perhaps especially so in the Internet age. It is true that you can look up word definitions online easily, but not necessarily more quickly than you can look them up in this dictionary – because a Web search for a word turns up so many sources, and you may need to jump from one to the next to the next to find a definition that fits the particular circumstances in which you have seen the word. And niceties of this dictionary – a style manual, commentary on alternative pronunciations (“ax” for “ask,” for example), usage notes and more – are available online only if you go actively looking for them. In this dictionary, they are an integral part of the presentation, which they enrich significantly. It is unlikely today that a printed dictionary will be the sole source of word definitions for the high-school-and-up audience for which this one is intended; and that is fine, since the ability to use hyperlinks and other online tools to figure out vocabulary while doing online reading is valuable – and a necessary skill for college and the world after graduation. But as long as school work and pleasure reading continue to involve books (including electronic books), having a handy dictionary like this one nearby is a great boon – and brings the bonus of serendipity. One example: look up “jaguar” and you will find, in the margin of the page giving the definition, a picture of a jaguar – plus pictures of Andrew Jackson, Jesse Jackson and Cheddi Jagan. And maybe, just maybe, a quick, almost subliminal look at those pictures will spark a young reader’s curiosity about something or someone he or she never intended to look up. And maybe, just maybe, that will start his or her thoughts in entirely new and fruitful directions. The Internet is the perfect place to go for a directed search. For an expansive one – one with the potential to take the mind somewhere new – try The American Heritage High School Dictionary, Fourth Edition.


14 Years of Loyal Service in a Fabric-Covered Box: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Children at Play: A “Cul de Sac” Collection. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The Natural Disorder of Things: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 25. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Lust and Other Uses for Spare Hormones: A “Zits” Look at Relationships. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Math, Science, and Unix Underpants: A Themed “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Thirteen dollars gets you an uncounted number of laughs from a wide variety of sources in a size you can actually read (unlike the size now accorded to most newspaper comic strips) in these excellent new collections from Andrews McMeel. The preeminent workplace-oriented strip of our time, Scott Adams’ Dilbert, is now in its 33rd collection – with all strips in color – and as usual is filled with ideas that are just slightly too plausible to be real. There is Dilbert’s invention, the “carbicle,” which let you drive your workplace around – but, as Dogbert points out, unfortunately lacks a bed. There is the character who becomes Employee of the Month for the superb command of jargon with which he says “we need to plan the plan’s planny plan” – but unfortunately the guys with nets show up looking for him. There is “forcible relocation to an agrarian society” as the penalty for asking for too much technical support. There is Dilbert exposing the double standards permeating Congress when he is called to testify there, causing one lawmaker to say, “I yield my time to the hypocrite from another state.” There is the inspirational poster, “If all else fails, your coworkers are edible.” Throw in the three-headed rebate-preventing monster Rebaterus, a woman who laughs too much, and a performance review describing an employee as “like a blister on a skunk’s colon,” and you have a modern version of what Mad magazine used to call “humor in a jugular vein.”

     The amusements are gentler but no less surreal in Children at Play, the second collection of Cul de Sac, one of the most visually as well as verbally interesting comic strips of recent years. Expect to pause every now and then to try to understand just what is going on with Alice Otterloop; her big brother, Petey; their parents; and the various hangers-on who populate Richard Thompson’s world. Watch Alice do her dances on the manhole cover! See Petey have an out-of-body experience that ends when all of his selves are knocked down by a soccer ball! Listen to the “skweeks” as Beni tries out his new hammer! See Alice try to make her eyes extend on stalks! Observe Dill peeking through the Otterloops’ mail slot “as a community service”! Read along with “A Child’s Garden of Haiku” in a Sunday strip written entirely in haiku form! Hear the legend of Pulpy Joe and his watermelon head! Watch Petey dance to the tune he makes up by saying the names “Alice-Beni-Dill” real fast! Then discuss the merits of Halloween candy – “I like candy corn because it tastes like wax” vs. “I like eating wax, but only in crayon form.” And when you stop laughing, read the book again.

     Or move on to a different sort of family and laugh there. “There” would be the MacPherson house, where The Natural Disorder of Things includes oldest child Zoe helping baby Wren break the annoying habit of always saying “da da da da da” by teaching her to say “no no no no no” unstoppably. Middle child Hammie decides to be called “H” from now on, because capital “H” is a manly letter that looks like a goal post or steel beam – except that small “h,” as Zoe points out, “looks more like a potty chair.” After her hair, nose and face get pulled and twisted innumerable times while Wren is feeding, mom Wanda learns why she should “never breast-feed with your hands full.” Also here, you can learn the game of “X-treme sistering,” at which Zoe is an extreme expert. Meet the cicada that takes up residence on Hammie’s nose. And catch the wisdom of dad Darryl: after everyone else says Hammie’s drawing looks like an eel, the wise father takes a peek and immediately says, “It’s an elephant” – gaining Hammie’s instant appreciation (and then, when Wanda asks how he knew what it was, Darryl explains that “all of his elephants look like eels”). Jerry Scott’s writing and Rick Kirkman’s art meld so perfectly in Baby Blues that it is hard to imagine a better-matched team. To see how well Kirkman and Scott work together, just check out the “Ask a Mom/Ask a Dad” strips – for example, to the question “Can you fix it?” the mom answers, “I’ll get the manual,” while the dad says, “I’ll get the duct tape.” This is almost too true to be funny. Almost.

     If there is another strip with the collaborative punch of Baby Blues, it is the other one that Scott writes: Zits, for which Jim Borgman provides some truly amazing art. The latest Zits collection is a “theme” book whose focus is one of those things you can’t really get into in newspapers, even in 2009 (at least, not in newspaper comic strips). The word Lust is in huge red letters on this book’s great cover, which shows Jeremy Duncan and girlfriend Sara in a lip lock so intense that everything around them is burning up (including the back cover), each has sprouted multiple hands to hold the other that much closer, and their faces have merged into a single face. The cover alone makes this book worth buying. But there’s much more inside, including not only Jeremy and Sara but also multiply pierced Pierce and his girlfriend, D’Ijon, plus RichandAmy, always seen as tightly wrapped together as their names (name?) – until they briefly and very traumatically break up before getting very together again (two people wearing a single pair of shoes – enough said). The “lust” element here is implied rather than seen – the newspapers of 2009 are not even close to where the underground comics were in, say, 1969 – but Scott and Borgman extract hilarity even from that situation, as when Jeremy fantasizes about the school guidance counselor in jungle costume and “Mrs. Robinson” pose; and Jeremy’s parents embarrass their son into more incoherence than usual when they start giggling after having a weekend alone together. Toss in some of those patented (well, they should be patented) Borgman surreal-art strips, such as one in which Jeremy and Sara call each other names and turn into whatever they are called (chicken, pig, Neanderthal, Miss Goody Two-Shoes), and you have a collection whose main theme is hilarity.

     Ditto the first “themed” collection of Bill Amend’s almost-late, almost-lamented FoxTrot, which now runs only on Sundays. It’s really a shame that it is no longer possible to get a daily dose of Math, Science, and Unix Underpants. Amend has a degree in physics, of all things, and he often used math and science – sometimes rather complex math and science – in his strips, usually through the character of 10-year-old Jason. The new FoxTrot collection includes examples of the many ways Amend brought these subjects into the strip: Paige exults at getting a 91 on her math test until Jason reveals that he got 108 on his. Jason and his pal, Marcus, program a printer to spit out 1,000 labels saying “kick me” that they can paste on fellow students’ backs. Jason struggles through a poetry assignment and then reads a computer book to relax, because “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a binary tree.” Sixteen-year-old Peter starts drooling on his math test when a question about π makes him think of pizza. Jason (who really does wear Unix underpants) sets up the family’s answering machine to require callers to “press the square root of 1,296 minus the cube root of 13,824 times 17.5 minus the 4th root of 1,908,029,761.” There is much more of this, all of it thoroughly in character – that is, in the character of each member of the Fox family and the people with whom the Foxes interact – and it all adds up to a delightfully funny collection from which, if you are not careful, you just might learn some math or science. Now, how comical would that be?


Crow Call. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Scholastic. $16.99.

Cornelia and the Great Snake Escape. By Pam Muňoz Ryan. Illustrated by Julia Denos. Scholastic. $4.99.

The Secret Plan. By Julia Sarcone-Roach. Knopf. $16.99.

The Busiest Street in Town. By Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. Knopf. $16.99.

Imogene’s Last Stand. By Candace Fleming. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

     There are plots aplenty in these books, some hatched for or by animals, others created entirely by and for humans. Crow Call is a sensitive memoir of a time in 1945 when Lois Lowry and her father, who had just returned from service in World War II, went hunting for the crows that were eating the crops. Liz, as the girl in the book is called, has never hunted and is not sure she wants to. But she does want a hunting shirt – a boy’s shirt – and her father agrees she should have it. And she is willing to try using the crow call to bring the crows close enough to be shot. But the actual shooting – she is not so sure. What she is sure of is that “the stranger who is my father” is home, and she wants to be with him and do what he does and become part of a complete family again. And so father and daughter interact, joke, have both playful and serious talks, and eventually Liz uses the crow call with tremendous success – and her father does no shooting that day, although he knows he will have to at other times. This is a wonderfully touching story, made all the more realistic by the near-photographic quality of Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations – which, however, are done in subtly muted tones that reinforce the nostalgia of Lowry’s recollection.

     A much lighter animal plot is the subject of Cornelia and the Great Snake Escape, an easy-to-read paperback for kindergartners and first-graders, in which Cornelia gets a corn snake named Corny that she just can’t seem to keep in its cage. Pam Muňoz Ryan gets the basics of snakes as pets exactly right, having Cornelia learn what sort of cage to use and how to keep the snake in it – even though snakes are excellent escape artists. Corny, it turns out, is unusually good at getting away, even when three books, and then four, are put on top of the cage. Cornelia’s mom, who was not too fond of the idea of a snake in the house in the first place, has had more than enough by the time Corny slips into the family car’s air vent and disappears. But Cornelia’s dad has a good idea – luring Corny out by setting up a soft spot warmed by a lamp – and this actually works, as it often does in real life. The family eventually figures out what to do, and everyone ends up happy – including Corny, who is mostly drawn realistically by Julia Denos but is also shown with an occasional unrealistic (but cute) smile, as when he is basking happily in the warmth of a lamp.

     There is nothing realistic in The Secret Plan created by an elephant named Milo and his three cat friends, Henry, Harriet and Hildy. The plan is to stop bedtime forever – because it always interferes with the friends’ play. Julia Sarcone-Roach shows the friends trying to hide, camouflaging themselves, wearing a hilarious disguise, and trying to sneak outside – all to no avail. Bedtime keeps catching up to them, until Hildy hatches a new plan that involves some “big, furry monster feet from Halloween.” And this plan actually works! Well, almost… This is a simple and delightful bedtime story, pleasantly and amusingly illustrated in a way that almost makes the friendship of the suburb-dwelling kittens and baby elephant seem plausible – even when it involves all of them sneaking around together, each just as silent as the other.

     A little silence and contentment is all the humans want from The Busiest Street in Town, but Rushmore Boulevard is built for speed, not contemplation. Agatha May Walker and Eulalie Scruggs, who live on opposite sides of the street, cannot even cross it to visit each other – until Agatha decides to do something about all the hustle and bustle. So she puts her “wingback chair…smack-dab in the middle of the street” and simply sits in it, as traffic screeches and honks all around her. When people yell at her, she offers them gingersnap cookies she has made herself. And Eulalie, looking out from her house, sees all this and brings out “a piano stool, a card table, and a Parcheesi set,” and the two friends sit together in the middle of the street as traffic belches and blusters past them. But the traffic has to slow down now, and that means that soon, other people can walk into the street, and children can start to play there, and each new arrival of a person forces traffic to slow even more, and then the whole neighborhood gets involved, and people plant flowers and stage parties and play music and generally have a grand time. “It took a while these days to drive down Rushmore Boulevard,” writes Mara Rockliff. “But no one minded.” And there is a very happy ending to the whole fantasy – but it is a fantasy, accentuated by Sarah McMenemy’s pretty illustrations. Children will enjoy the book, but adults will need to warn them not to try to duplicate it on a real-life busy boulevard.

     However, kids might manage to emulate Imogene Tripp if they, like Imogene, live in a small and isolated town. Candace Fleming’s Imogene’s Last Stand features a young heroine with a passion for history and a penchant for quoting famous people of the past (who are shown and briefly discussed on the inside front and back covers). Imogene lives in tiny Liddleville, New Hampshire, where a shoelace factory will soon be built to revive the town’s economy. That means tearing down the Liddleville Historical Society, which is in a house so dilapidated – as Nancy Carpenter’s apt illustrations show – that it is no wonder no one ever visits. Imogene and her dad decide to fix the place up, but even after they do, no one comes there – and teardown time is fast approaching. So plucky Imogene launches a “Save Our History” campaign – which meets with no success whatsoever. But then, just as she is about to give up, she makes an amazing discovery – and then she contacts a historian – and then she makes a dramatic gesture that prevents the bulldozers from knocking down the house. TV crews show up, everything takes on a carnival atmosphere, and eventually the historian arrives – and Imogene and her love of history prevail! Realistic? Not very – but the message that a little girl can take on City Hall (literally: the mayor is the biggest proponent of the shoelace factory) is an empowering one. And the amusing way Fleming and Carpenter handle the story keeps it from becoming preachy, while reinforcing the importance of history and of young people’s involvement in keeping the past alive. That’s quite a lot to accomplish in 40 pages, and Imogene’s Last Stand manages to pack it all in very successfully.


Norton Internet Security 2010. Windows 7/Vista/XP SP2. Symantec. $69.99.

     Year after year, Symantec makes small incremental improvements to its Norton line of utility products. But, to misquote George Orwell, some years are more equal than others – and the changes in Norton Internet Security 2010 add up to more than the ones in the last several years of updates. This needs to be pointed out up front, because what is interesting about the new version of this security program is that most users will not notice how much better it has become.

     Here’s why: having successfully reduced the previous Norton Internet Security drag on system performance with the 2009 version of this protection suite, Symantec this year made the product even easier to use and better at its primary job of protecting users’ computers (up to three for the $69.99 price). One-click installation is simple and quicker than in past years (five minutes or less), and – this is a neat trick – when the 2010 version runs into problems during installation, it tackles them instead of crashing. That is, it offers solutions, suggests approaches, and can even make decisions on its own (about whether to run a preinstall scan, for example).

     Once installed, Norton Internet Security 2010 does something that no previous version has done: it uses an approach called reputation-based security technology to supplement the signature-based and behavior-based protection of previous years. This add-on approach, which Symantec has labeled Quorum, has the potential to undercut one of the most troubling weapons of malware creators: their ability to turn out new instances of malicious code very quickly. The reason Symantec’s counterattack works is that Quorum evaluates download source, age and other factors for every file. So a file that is a) new and b) downloaded from a Web site that is not well known and that few people have used will be automatically regarded as suspect even if it does not seem harmful. This should let Norton Internet Security 2010 intercept threats very quickly – and that is increasingly important, since a great deal of modern malware is written to exist in any single form for less than 24 hours (the time needed to release signatures to detect a threat). Malware writers are, in effect, doing drive-by computer hijacking these days. Quorum fights back.

     What matters to users, though, is that they will not know Quorum is there. In fact, they will have only rudimentary evidence that Norton Internet Security 2010 is working at all, most of the time. Both unobtrusive and non-intrusive, the software percolates along in the background so effectively that users will notice it only when it warns them about a threat. Like earlier versions, Norton Internet Security 2010 protects against viruses, Trojans, rootkits, spyware and more, and includes a firewall, intrusion protection, Web protection and E-mail protection for POP-3 and SMTP-compatible E-mail clients (and if you don’t know the terminology, don’t worry – all it means is that most E-mail is protected). Furthermore, Norton Internet Security 2010 integrates with browsers and search engines to warn users away from sites that may be malicious or compromised. And it is designed for Windows 7 as well as for Vista and XP, so it works effectively in any operating system a PC user is likely to have.

     You might think the improvements to Norton Internet Security 2010 come at the cost of bloat – after all, more features, more need for memory and hard-disk space, right? But not so: the suite does not require substantial RAM or system resources and does not noticeably slow down other processes.

     The fact that users already familiar with Norton Internet Security will not notice much new this year is remarkable, considering the changes in the product. The interface is similar to those of previous years, although not identical – for instance, the main screen is now in three sections called Computer, Network and Web instead of the previous Computer, Web and Identity. But the screen still gives you a snapshot of your security at a glance, says whether any actions need to be taken, and lets you turn features on and off; and, as before, has monitors on the left-hand side of the screen that show current CPU usage and how much of that Norton is taking up. The main screen is all you need for a security overview, and will be plenty for many users. But those who enjoy poking around in the innards of their computer (figuratively speaking) can go much more deeply into the system by clicking on links such as Performance, System Insight and Network Security Map. System Insight can be particularly useful if problems develop unexpectedly: you can use this feature to find out (for example) whether an odd behavior began after you installed certain software – and if it did, you can uninstall that program and see whether the problems disappear. The result is a kind of collaborative model of system protection, with Norton Internet Security 2010 doing most of the work but letting you investigate matters on your own if you wish to do so.

     Among other improvements in Norton Internet Security 2010 are an anti-spam component that Symantec says is 20% more effective than previous ones; a free subscription to OnlineFamily.Norton, which lets parents adjust children’s Web access; and Norton Safe Web (previously introduced in Norton 360, version 3.0), which shows whether any Web sites that turn up in search results are potentially dangerous (it works with Google, Bing and Yahoo!). There are also a few changes that are not really improvements, such as a main-screen link called Vulnerability Protection, which lists programs that Symantec has found to have vulnerabilities. That sounds good, but the list is generic, not related to what you actually have on your computer – so there is really no value to looking at it. Furthermore, Symantec’s continued insistence on offering protection for only a single year remains an irritant, especially if you use Norton Internet Security 2010 on only one computer, which makes it pricey. Nevertheless, the new version of Norton Internet Security is improved in so many ways that it certainly makes sense to upgrade from earlier incarnations (in other years, this has often been a close call). This is simply the best Norton Internet Security yet.


John Adams: Nixon in China. Robert Orth, Maria Kanyova, Thomas Hammons, Marc Heller, Tracy Dahl, Chen-Ye Yuan, Melissa Malde, Julie Simson, Jennifer DeDominici; Opera Colorado Chorus and Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $26.99 (3 CDs).

Britten: The Beggar’s Opera. Susan Bickley, Jeremy White, Leah-Marian Jones, Tom Randle, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Donald Maxwell, Sarah Fox, Frances McCafferty; City of London Sinfonia conducted by Christian Curnyn. Chandos. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Tchaikovsky Romances. Dmitry Hvorostovsky, baritone; Ivari Ilja, piano. Delos. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     One of the greatest accomplishments of President Richard Nixon – some would call it the matter for which he will be positively remembered – was opening normalized relations between the United States and Communist China. It may be that only so staunch an anti-Communist as Nixon could have pulled off such a rapprochement in the midst of the Cold War. Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung and Madame Mao, could be the stuff of opera – even though it was, in reality, the stuff of politics. But John Adams has made it the stuff of opera with Nixon in China, which is now available in a mostly excellent recording led by Marin Alsop, assembled from several live performances in June 2008. Alsop, who directed the Colorado Symphony from 1993 to 2004, clearly knows how to bring out the best from the musicians, and the fine vocal performances by the principals help move along a story that is short on action (most of what happens is ceremonial) but is focused, in Alice Goodman’s libretto, more on the characters’ inner lives and their sense that they are making history. That is particularly the case with Nixon (Robert Orth, who does an excellent job inhabiting the character of this complex and deeply flawed president) and his wife, Pat (Maria Kanyova, a fine foil for her husband and an equally strong singer). Arrayed against them, yet with ultimately the same sense of being present at a historic moment, are Mao Tse-tung (since revised in spelling to Zedong), who is mostly bluster in Marc Heller’s portrayal, and Madame Mao (Tracy Dahl, whose voice is slightly shrill but whose characterization is effectively chilling). Chen-Ye Yuan makes Cho En-lai thoughtful and introspective, but there are some overdone political notes in the opera’s rather buffoonish characterization of Henry Kissinger (well sung by Thomas Hammons). This is an interesting and impressive opera that is certainly one of Adams’ most important works, but it should be noted that it is by Adams, which means there are long sections of repetitive music – some of which seem to wear on the orchestra, which is otherwise well-balanced and responsive to Alsop’s direction. Diplomacy in opera certainly came a long way in the 82 years between Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Adams’ 1987 work, which features – in addition to Adams’ trademark repetitiveness – frequent rhythmic changes and passages of neo-Stravinskian sound. This is a highly impressive performance of one of the few recent operas that seem likely to gain at least semi-regular stagings. And kudos to Naxos for providing the libretto.

     This is not to say that operatic success is assured even to the very best of composers. Witness the case of Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera, which is infrequently performed and rarely recorded (the last recording dates to 1993). This is, in fact, the least known of Britten’s stage works, although it does hold the boards from time to time in England. What Britten did in this 1948 opera was rework John Gay and Johann Pepusch’s wonderful (and bawdy) 18th-century “ballad opera” of the same title – not in the way Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill did when they created The Threepenny Opera from the same source, but in his own musical language. The 1728 original was inspired by a letter from none other than Jonathan Swift to no less a figure than Alexander Pope, and consisted of no fewer than 69 songs – the idea being to create a play for actors who could also sing. In Britten’s hands, this is transformed into an actual opera, or meta-opera, since the concept involves re-setting the scene in a laundry filled with beggars – who reenact the Gay/Pepusch story of the often-appealing scoundrel Macheath and his two lovers (wife and mistress). Britten keeps the original’s audience-participatory ending, in which patrons can help save Macheath from the gallows with their applause (Brecht and Weill jettisoned it in order to strengthen their sociopolitical points about Weimar Germany). And even though Britten uses the original 18th-century tunes in this opera, he gives them his very personal compositional stamp – and considerable satirical bite, although of a type quite different from that of Brecht and Weill. The changes, additions and updates to Gay’s libretto are by Tyrone Guthrie, and they are by and large quite effective; it helps enormously to be able to follow along in Chandos’ included libretto. The performance is a very fine one, with the intimate feeling appropriate to a chamber opera and with soloists who all manage to combine genuine operatic vocalization with verbal bite. Tom Randle is particularly good as Macheath, but Leah-Marian Jones (Polly), Sarah Fox (Lucy), Susan Bickley (Mrs. Peachum) and Jeremy White (Mr. Peachum) more than hold their own, and the interplay of the other soloists with the principals is very effectively managed by conductor Christian Curnyn. The performance is so good that it argues for more-frequent stagings of this underappreciated Britten gem.

     Prefer something more of the Romantic era – and more romantic as well – than either Adams or Britten? The Dmitri Hvorostovsky release called Tchaikovsky Romances can be looked at as an encore to the full-length operas – or simply as two full CDs of encores. Hvorostovsky’s rich, expressive baritone voice has just the right timbre for “None but the Lonely Heart,” “It Was in the Early Spring,” “Don Juan’s Serenade” and the other short but sweet – often very sweet – songs here. There are two dozen in all, each delivered with gorgeous tone and a great deal of feeling, and all of them accompanied in just the right vein by pianist Ivari Ilja, who provides firm support without ever getting in the way of what is clearly a vocally focused recording. In truth, listening to all 24 songs at one time may be a bit much: Hvorostovsky has considerable vocal power and impressive range, but the songs themselves become a bit monochromatic after a while. This release therefore gets a (+++) rating: as well sung and well played as it is, it does tend to be a bit “much of a muchness.” But it certainly offers plenty of Romantic/romantic singing – it’s just that it’s more effective when taken a bit at a time than in a single large dose.

November 12, 2009


2010 Calendars: Day-to-Day—Anguished English; Shakespeare’s Insults. Desk—M.C. Escher. Postcard—Frank Lloyd Wright Designs. Mini Wall—Frank Lloyd Wright Designs. Wall—Edward Gorey: The Doubtful Guest; Buddhist Paintings. Pomegranate. $12.99 each (English; Insults; Postcard); $14.99 (Escher); $7.99 (Mini Wall); $13.99 each (Gorey; Buddhist).

     Many companies make calendars, but only one, Pomegranate, makes calendars that seem to open the doors to an ever-unfolding series of worlds – worlds of art, of beauty, of language, of humor and joy and even transcendence. The biggest problem with Pomegranate’s calendars is deciding which world, or worlds, you want to enter in the coming year. It’s easy to go overboard and choose a different world for every room (good for sales, of course, but perhaps just a little extreme). So here are a few options among the very many this company offers for 2010:

     Anguished English and Shakespeare’s Insults are day-to-day calendars for people who want to be immersed in a world of words. But not just any world of words. Language commentator Richard Lederer has a high old time finding instances of ambiguous reference, unintended double meanings, erroneous punctuation that changes what people intend to say, and more. There are 13 categories of mishaps in Anguished English, covering everything from signage to sports to courtroom misdemeanors (of the linguistic sort). Here you will find people spreading the Gospel in foreign lands and being congratulated on assuming the missionary position; an oral surgeon being given a small token of achievement – that is, a dentist receiving plaque; plus plenty of malapropisms and confusing translations (notably from Japanese into “Engrish”). Some of the chuckles are obvious – and some may have you wondering what’s so funny, until you realize that you yourself are unintentionally mangling the language.

     Of course, no one used the language as Shakespeare did, and the Bard was the grand master of, among other things, scurrilous comments. Shakespeare’s Insults goes well beyond the “bite my thumb at thee” that so incenses the youths at the start of Romeo and Juliet. Whoreson knaves abound here, in works both well-known and less so, as Shakespeare has characters curse each other in language most foul – if you can understand it. The calendar helps you do so: every page puts its quotation in context, explaining not only where the excerpt comes from but also just who is saying what to whom, under what circumstances, and why. Shakespeare was a master of insinuation as well as out-and-out nastiness, and you’ll find plenty of both here – a trip to the darker side of the Elizabethan world.

     But Shakespeare’s world is less strange than that of M.C. Escher, and if you really want to visit somewhere odd in 2010, take in the scenes in the M.C. Escher 2010 Engagement Calendar. This is one of several Escher-based calendars from Pomegranate, and it is a particularly happy melding of form and function. Here are not only Escher’s famous black-and-white works that challenge the senses to figure out just what is going on (such as “Up and Down” and “Concave and Convex,” in both of which directions become interchangeable), but also fascinating color engravings (such as “Stars,” featuring chameleons within a most unusual space object, and “Depth,” in which fishlike winged creatures fly or swim from or to infinity). The spiral-bound, lie-flat calendar provides room for notes for every day of the year; and its samplings of Escher’s earlier, more realistic drawings of people and objects are a well-selected contrast to his more familiar and outré designs.

     The designs of Frank Lloyd Wright are particularly adaptable to calendar use, with their colors and unusual use of geometric forms. If you would like a smaller spiral-bound calendar than the Escher one – but still with enough space to jot down a note or two for each day of the year – the Wright “postcard calendar” offers beauty with a bonus. The bonus is that 26 of the pages can be easily removed (they are perforated) and sent as postcards – an exceptionally clever design that gives this calendar value even after you finish using each week. The postcards are quite attractive: a 1927 design for the cover of Liberty magazine, a 1903 art-glass window design, plus textile and carpet designs and much more. Offbeat and unusual, this calendar makes a particularly fine gift for anyone who enjoys Wright’s art and architecture.

     In fact, Pomegranate uses Wright’s work in quite a number of different ways. Some of the same designs that appear in the “postcard calendar” also adorn the attractive Wright mini wall calendar for 2010. The abstracts and geometrics here, their colors brilliantly reproduced, very attractively brighten up a small space, such as a work cubicle or a bathroom or small bedroom. Wright’s wallpaper details in multiple shades of blue, in bright orange or in multicolored geometrics really stand out, with textile, rug and magazine designs of all sorts bringing splashes of color to every month.

     Or perhaps you would prefer a world both larger and weirder. Then, by all means, consider the full-size wall calendar, Edward Gorey: The Doubtful Guest. Gorey’s ink drawings, extremely meticulous and often very dark, adorn the months in his tale of a strange, vaguely birdlike creature that wears white canvas shoes, shows up at the door unannounced one cold winter’s evening, and remains for 17 years (and still counting) – tearing up books, sleepwalking and disappearing into the soup tureen. Amusing and disturbing at the same time, this story – an allegory of the immigrant experience – retains its oddity and rather soulful depiction of turmoil in a more-or-less Victorian setting more than 50 years after its original publication in 1957. Gorey is something of an acquired taste, and this calendar will not be for everyone, but those who find his observations quietly unsettling – and admire them for that quality – will very much enjoy immersing themselves in the world of The Doubtful Guest all year long.

     By now, though, if all you want is a touch of peace, quiet and beauty, consider Buddhist Paintings, featuring works from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. This calendar assembles a dozen devotional works on cloth and from hanging scrolls, some made as long ago as the 13th century and others from modern times. There is remarkable consistency of imagery despite the vast time span here: the deities and other figures are still shown much as they have been for many hundreds of years. Deities such as White Tara of China and Penden Lhamo of Tibet, the six-armed guardian Mahakala and the guardian Skanda – these and more are depicted in rich colors and textures, with intricate background detail highlighting the figures and projecting a sense of beauty, protection and peace. This calendar takes you to a world away from everyday humdrum and hectic life – a journey that can be revivifying at any time of any month of the coming year.