February 25, 2010


Imagination and Innovation: The Story of Weston Woods. By John Cech. Scholastic. $50.

Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel. By Avi. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Anyone who has ever oohed and aahed at the animated flights of fancy based on works by Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Mo Willems, Jane Yolen and many other top children’s authors has almost certainly been oohing and aahing at the work of Weston Woods, the leading producer of films adapted from children’s picture books. Named for the house where founder Morton Schindel started it – a home in the woods of Weston, Connecticut – the studio started producing animated films more than 50 years ago: the first public screening of its productions occurred in 1956 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Imagination and Innovation is a particularly apt title for a book about Weston Woods, because those two words have been hallmarks of the studio’s work from its inception. John Cech’s book gives plenty of examples. Just one: to animate Harold’s Fairy Tale by Crockett Johnson – one of those marvelous stories of Harold and his purple crayon – “Harold’s pictures had to be first drawn in their entirety. Animation cels of Harold drawing were then photographed in reverse order, with the purple line being erased from the background at regular intervals.” This is pre-computer animation, the same type of painstakingly detailed work made famous by Walt Disney Studios during its founder’s lifetime. But Weston Woods is by no means a relic of the past, although Schindel remains highly aware of history – one of the many photos in this book shows his collection of 19th century magic-lantern projectors, precursors of modern film projection equipment. Despite its start in a small Connecticut town, this was, almost from the start, a genuinely international organization, frequently filming in Turkey, Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia – even the Soviet Union before its collapse. Weston Woods was eventually sold to Scholastic (in 1996), so it is scarcely a surprise that Scholastic would put out a book about the studio’s history. Yet Cech – Professor of English at the University of Florida and a onetime member of the advisory board of the Weston Woods Foundation – makes this not a self-serving tome but a child-centric one. It is packed with stills and storyboards from Weston Woods productions, some of which will likely be familiar to 21st century kids although many will not. There are stories here about Weston Woods’ puppeteers and animators, its packaging and distribution innovations, and the many authors and storytellers with whom the studio has worked over a period of decades. Imagination and Innovation is a book written for adults, showing how children’s literature – from the well known to the unknown – can be brought effectively to life outside the pages of books. And Cech’s book has plenty in it for kids, too, thanks to the numerous fascinating illustrations and the stories about productions based on books that kids can still read and enjoy today – such as the studio’s very first film adaptation, Millions of Cats.

     Avi’s self-described “documentary novel,” Nothing but the Truth – now available in paperback – connects fiction with the real world in a different way. It is a story that didn’t happen but that closely tracks so many other stories that did happen that it seems as if it could have happened. It’s filled with misunderstandings, media misinterpretations, things being blown out of proportion, and a plethora of less-than-honorable occurrences that ultimately victimize those who are the most well-meaning. A cautionary tale? Not really – Avi is too good a writer to make the book so one-dimensional – but this is certainly a novel to make readers think. It starts with a would-be high-school track star named Philip Malloy, a bit of a smart aleck, trying to get himself thrown out of an English class he dislikes (and in which he is not doing well, thereby rendering himself ineligible for the track team) by humming along while the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner is played as part of the school’s morning routine. Disciplined by the rather old-fashioned but well-liked (and tenured) teacher, Margaret Narwin, Philip soon finds his “cause” – he didn’t know he had one – taken up by everyone from his parents to the news media. The result is a cause célèbre involving a student’s right to sing the national anthem if he so desires. Never mind that that is not what Philip wants – the story quickly spins out of his control, and everybody’s. Some elements of Avi’s book, originally published in 1991, are outdated – no one sends telegrams of complaint anymore – but since American society has become increasingly litigious and people’s sociopolitical positions have hardened to the point of calcification, the underlying themes of Nothing but the Truth hit even closer to home today than they did nearly two decades ago. Avi has a longstanding habit of respecting his readers’ intelligence, and the eventual outcome of this novel does so with considerable irony. No one gets what he or she wants: Philip does not get onto the track team (for very logical reasons, explained by the coach); Ms. Narwin becomes a victim; the school district gets considerable unwanted attention, reflected in very realistic worries about funding; Philip’s parents are dissatisfied with the way things turn out; even the reporter following the story finds that the news cycle has, inopportunely for him, moved on to other issues. The nation and its anthem survive, apparently unscathed, but there is plenty of life wreckage to go around. And there is a final twist to the story that is worthy of O. Henry – further evidence, if any should be needed, of Avi’s ability to twist things in ways that surprise as well as illuminate. The new paperback edition of Nothing but the Truth includes some useful civics questions and some suggestions for “think pieces” to explore the book further – fine additions that, one would hope, will encourage forward-looking teachers to assign this novel (which deservedly was a Newbery Honor book) and discuss it fully, frankly and with the thoughtfulness it deserves.


Glossy Bands. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.95.

Fingerprint Fabulous. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.95.

     Crafts books are a Klutz specialty – you could call them Klutz Krafts for their distinctive appearance: spiral bound, lighthearted, packaged with the materials needed to do the projects, and filled with photos of smiling kids wearing or playing with what they have made. The primary target audience for Klutz Krafts books is tween and preteen girls, and these two new volumes fit right into the pattern: Glossy Bands is aimed at ages eight and up, Fingerprint Fabulous at ages six and up. Glossy Bands shows how to make bracelets from a bottle – but, of course, not just any bottle. There are four bracelet-making bottles included with the book, containing enough special gel to make 14 bracelets, according to Klutz. But you can’t actually be a small-k klutz when doing these projects if you want to get to 14. The bracelets all start with a row of dots. Klutz provides the rows in the book – and includes transparent plastic rectangles called design strips to place on top of the rows. Then you squeeze little bits of colored gel onto a design strip to match the size of the dots. Little bits. The gel spreads after it is squeezed, so it is very easy to make the dots too big. Nothing wrong with that, but you won’t get 14 bracelets that way. In any case, bracelets can be made simply from a row of dots, or they can be swirled with the included swirling stick (which is more or less just a blunt toothpick), or they can be wavy or zig-zag, and the dots themselves can be anything from a single solid color to multiple colors in a flower shape (not easy – but the flower instructions appear late in the book, by which time kids will hopefully be adept at the craft). One ingredient not included with Glossy Bands, but absolutely essential for making them, is patience. Rushing will not work – the bands just won’t look good – and when finished, the bands cannot be worn for 24 hours (give them 30 hours to be on the safe side). Kids who get the hang of making these bands will really enjoy doing so: the four colors (pink, green, purple and blue) are attractive, the bands are comfortable, and it’s just plain neat to wear something you have made yourself from start to finish. And if you use up too much of the gel to get 14 bands out of the amount included, you can always 1) make shorter bands and wear them as rings instead of bracelets; and 2) order more gel from www.klutz.com.

     Kids already have the main ingredient they need for Fingerprint Fabulous. This is a crafts book of thumbprint art – fingers not included. What is included is ink for making prints, glitter glue for drawing lines, sequins to brighten things up, and a marking pen to connect the fingerprints and turn them into little cartoony pictures. Klutz starts with the basics here, showing how to make three different sorts of fingerprints (whole, edge and smudge) and providing a blank space so kids can experiment with fingerprint-making before trying out any of the suggested shapes. Then it’s time to make amusing-looking, smiling bugs (the dragonfly wearing glasses is a hoot), sweets, puppies and kittens, sea creatures and many more adorable things. The key to all this, as kids will quickly realize, is that fingerprints alone are not enough to make the creatures and characters. The sequins help dress things up and make them sparkly, but it is the marking pen that is really crucial here – just a few lines drawn between, among, around and through the fingerprints turn them into objects as diverse as a party dress, a singing trio (with bouncer), a dragon and a cheerleading squad. A page of fingerprint hairdos is especially enjoyable for kids who like to do a little more drawing. And just when you think Klutz has done as much as possible with this particular craft, two pages of tear-out cards appear (two cards per page) so kids can share their fingerprint art with each other – or maybe even send it by snail mail to friends or relatives. Fingerprint Fabulous is fun, not too challenging, and a nice way to relax and indulge some creativity – a good cure for that “there’s nothing to do” boredom to which kids are notoriously susceptible. (Aside to adults: you’ll enjoy it, too!)


A Very Big Bunny. By Marisabina Russo. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary. Poems by Maya Gottfried. Paintings by Robert Rahway Zakanitch. Knopf. $17.99.

     Animals of all sorts are often used to teach children ages 4-8 lessons about human life. In different ways, both these books intend to do just that. A Very Big Bunny is mistitled – it would better be called “Big Bunny, Small Bunny,” since that is really what it is about. True, Marisabina Russo’s book starts as the story of Amelia, “the biggest bunny in her class,” who is always last in line (because the class lines up by size) and is continually teased by other girls because of her size – and is lonely. But what really makes the story work is the arrival in class of Susannah, the smallest bunny in the group, who is ostracized and teased by the same girls who have been making fun of Amelia – and is kept away from the same games at recess. But unlike Amelia, who stands and sulks at the fence, Susannah is more outgoing. She repeatedly approaches Amelia with questions and makes attempts at friendship – and eventually breaks through to the big bunny in a way that surprises and delights the bunnies themselves and their teacher. The final scene of the book, showing a solution to the seesaw problem that seemed unsolvable for both bunnies who wanted to play on it (one too big for the ride and one too small), is a particularly neat twist. But the book’s focus is not solely on the big bunny, and its lesson is clearly intended for big and small alike. And a nicely taught lesson it is.

     The lesson intended to be taught by Our Farm is a little harder to figure out. The book is essentially a promotion of Farm Sanctuary, a national group that maintains farms for neglected and abused animals in the states of New York and California and that lobbies for legislation to promote better treatment of farm animals. But those are very adult concerns. What the book offers children is beautiful, realistic but interpretative line drawings and paintings by Robert Rahway Zakanitch, showing the appearance of farm animals in loving detail: pig and piglet, chicken and rooster, ram, calf and more. But the atmospheric poetry of Maya Gottfried, who volunteered at the Farm Sanctuary in New York, is not a perfect fit for Zakanitch’s illustrations – even though they were inspired by it and by photos that Gottfried took. The reason is that the poems unrealistically attribute human hopes, thoughts and feelings to the animals. There is, for example, this from a donkey named Bonnie: “here/ my mane swept by wind/ here/ my ears filled with quiet.” And this from a turkey called Whisper: “We are so graceful,/ like/ a/ ballet/ class.” And, from a goat named Clarabell: “Daisies, they call to me./ Trees sing my name.” Lovely sentiments, these, but surely not the thoughts of the realistic-looking animals portrayed in the pictures. True, this approach mostly avoids outright advocacy of Farm Sanctuary’s cause – that is mainly reserved for “A Note for Grown-ups” at the end – although one poem does have a sheep named Hilda saying, “Thank you to the kind hearts and hands/ that brought me to my home.” Also true, the poems themselves are often lovely, or at least cute – the two haikus by rabbits seem particularly apt. Nevertheless, Our Farm is a somewhat uneasy mixture of realism and flights of fancy – best to leaf through it before buying it, to decide whether it will have something to teach your family.


Khachaturian: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra. Dmitry Yablonsky, cello; Moscow City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maxim Fedotov. Naxos. $8.99.

Schuman: Symphony No. 8; Night Journey—Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments; Ives/Schuman—Variations on “America.” Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $8.99.

     On one side of the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, Aram Khachaturian was producing his intense and eloquent Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra (1963). On the other side, William Schuman was creating his equally personal, equally (but differently) intense Symphony No. 8 (1962) and flashily orchestrating Charles Ives’ 1891 Variations on “America” for organ (1964). The relationships among the works, tonally and harmonically if not in style, are more apparent in hindsight than they were four decades ago. But their equal, if different, musical effectiveness ought to have been apparent from the start.

     Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody gets a big, warm and highly involving performance from cellist Dmitry Yablonsky (frequently a conductor) in partnership with conductor Maxim Fedotov (frequently a violinist) and the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra. Not surprisingly with two soloist-quality string players interpreting it, the work sounds especially fine in the interplay between Yablonsky and the orchestra’s string section. But the brass and percussion – which Khachaturian uses effectively for fanfares and rhythmic propulsion – are fine as well. The single-movement work, which lasts long enough to be considered a full-fledged concerto, features long lines and thematic material that lies well on the cello, along with the Eastern inflections that are a Khachaturian trademark. This is a work of sweep and elegance, both cohesive and expansive, and a real workout for the cello soloist (it was written for Mstislav Rostropovich). The Concerto-Rhapsody is paired on Naxos’ new CD with the earlier Cello Concerto (1946), an even larger work that is filled with atmospheric themes and strong rhythms but that lacks the immediate appeal of its later cousin. Even when as well played as it is here, the concerto is missing a clear emotional focus: the first movement has portentous and forceful elements, the second is sensuous and the third is lively, but somehow they do not add up to a cohesive whole. Yablonsky and Fedotov tackle the concerto with enthusiasm and highlight its many excellently structured passages and fine instrumental touches, such as the handoff of the third movement’s opening theme from oboe to the solo cello. And the concerto will grow on listeners – it seems more of a thought-through whole after several hearings than after one. Still, it never quite packs the emotional punch of the Concerto-Rhapsody.

     Schuman’s eighth symphony, first heard at the opening of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962, is emotionally involving in its own way, especially in the first two of its three movements. Schuman uses a large orchestra – with plenty of percussion – not only to generate sheer volumes of sound (lots of fff) but also to create textures that range from the ominous to those of chamber music, as in the long lines of violins, oboe and trumpet in the first movement and the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of the second, which follows it without pause. The finale is appended a bit uneasily to the first two movements: its playful themes and interesting orchestral effects (pizzicato strings against glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and piano!) do not seem to follow naturally from what has gone before, although they are certainly interesting in their own right. Gerard Schwarz leads the Seattle Symphony effectively throughout the symphony, doing an especially good job of bringing out the strong brass writing. But Schwarz is less convincing in Schuman’s orchestration of Ives, which also traces its origin to the opening season of Lincoln Center: Schuman suggested it at that time to fellow composer Henry Cowell, Ives’ artistic executor. Schuman’s orchestration is far flashier than Ives’ highly creative original set of organ variations – Schuman sometimes comes very close to the point of deliberate near-vulgarity. This work is a great crowd pleaser, one of two superb mid-20th-century encores or concert openers (the other being Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture). But Schwarz is a bit too fastidious in this performance. All the elements are there, but most of the tempos drag a bit (until the very end), and Schuman’s clever instrumental effects, such as castanets, are not brought to the fore as much as they can be. The piece is still fun, but it could use a bit more raucousness than Schwarz gives it.

     Also on the Schuman CD is Night Journey, a 1947 ballet that Schuman wrote for Martha Graham, based on the story of Oedipus’ mother/wife Jocasta, and adapted in 1981 for small ensemble. It is pretty much what one would expect from a score on this subject: dark, pensive, dissonant and unsettled, with an increasing sense of violence as it progresses. It is not top-notch Schuman, but it has moments of somber power, and Schwarz and the Seattle players give the music the intensity that is its due.


Biber: Mensa Sonora; Battalia. Baroque Band conducted by Garry Clarke. Cedille. $16.99.

Spohr: Concertantes Nos. 1 and 2 for Two Violins; Violin Duet in G, op. 3, no. 3. Henning Kraggerud and Øyvind Bjorå, violins; Oslo Camerata and Barratt Due Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stephan Barratt-Due. Naxos. $8.99.

     Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was one of the best violinists and most creative composers of his time, famed for his use of scordatura in his Mystery Sonatas and elsewhere. But he was, after all, a Baroque composer, dependent on the largesse of the nobility for his commissions and livelihood, and therefore needed to produce a certain number of works “to order,” as it were. Mensa Sonora is one of them – it was written as background music for elaborate dinners, and therefore falls into the same “occasional music” category as, say, Handel’s Water Music. But Biber, like Handel some time later, was not content merely to complete his assignment. He wrote something of genuine creativity and real musical interest, even knowing that little of it would probably be audible during the meals at which it would be played. But everything is of course quite easy to hear – and excellently so – in the Baroque Band’s performance. This Chicago-based original-instrument ensemble, founded in 2007 by its leader, Baroque violinist Garry Clarke, delivers a big sound for Biber’s music despite using only 15 players (including continuo). In fact, it is a bigger sound than Mensa Sonora usually gets, since it is generally performed one instrument to a part. The additional performers – and this is still a small ensemble – give the 39 pieces (arranged in “Pars I” through “Pars VI”) a fair amount of heft and a lot of rhythmic vitality. There are a few standouts, often in the extremely short numbers: the half-minute “Balletto” in Pars IV, for example, and the equally short concluding “Sonatina” in Pars VI. But it is the cumulative effect of the performance that is most impressive here, showing Biber’s ability in multiple dance forms as well as in miniature sonatas and sonatinas. And he was skilled in program music, too, as Battalia shows. This work is best known for its extraordinary second movement, in which eight folk songs in different keys are played simultaneously – multiple tonalities in 1673! But that is only one-tenth of this nine-minute work, which also features such unusual performance techniques as intense plucking and the use of paper against the strings of the bass. The battle of the work’s title lasts only 45 seconds, the balance of the music being given over to preparations and, after the fight, a lament for the wounded. Here Clarke and the Baroque Band show just how effectively a 17th-century composer, using only strings, could paint a tonal picture while also extending performers’ techniques and expanding listeners’ auditory perceptions.

     Louis Spohr and Biber barely occupied the same century – Biber died in 1704 and Spohr was born in 1784 – but Spohr retained a healthy respect for the Baroque and at times incorporated the approaches of earlier music into his own (perhaps explaining why his works, much admired in their own time, fell into disfavor as Romanticism flowered). The two-violin Concertante No. 1 (A major, 1808) and Concertante No. 2 (B minor, 1833) are particularly striking examples of Spohr’s indebtedness to the earlier era. The violins are not in competition in these works – instead, they support each other. Both works are in the traditional three movements of a concerto (and are wrongly identified as concertos on the front of the new Naxos CD), but Spohr likely gave them the more apt “Concertante” designation to highlight their relatively light weight and their instrumental resemblance to pieces of the Baroque era. Interestingly, though, the first concerto is more backward-looking than the second, which harmonically and stylistically looks into the future and features one effect in which the two soloists, both playing in double stops, sound like a string quartet. The all-Norwegian performances of these works, under the auspices of Oslo’s Barratt Due Institute of Music, are well-balanced and thoroughly effective ones, led by violinist and institute director Stephan Barratt-Due (whose name has a hyphen, which the institute does not use). As a kind of encore, the soloists offer one of Spohr’s duets for violin teacher and pupil – although in this particular one, the two performers appear as equals, intertwining with poise and elegance.

February 18, 2010


The Klutz Book of Animation. By John Cassidy & Nicholas Berger. Klutz. $19.95.

Doodle Journal: My Life in Scribbles. By Karen Phillips. Klutz. $16.95.

     Klutz books are great encouragers of hands-on activities, but even books that help show young readers how to do things with their hands need to connect to our digital age – and The Klutz Book of Animation does just that. Nowadays it just isn’t enough to put together a wonderful instruction book about stop-motion clay animation and package it with a smiling blob of plasticine (yes, smiling – it has googly eyes and a smile on its wrapper). You also need to show kids what their videos (not films anymore) can look like – so the book connects to a special Web site, www.klutz.com/ani, where those videos are on display. This is a good thing, because without the videos, kids might have to watch really good, bad old movies featuring the classic animation of Ray Harryhausen – or maybe the thoroughly modern and delightful Wallace & Gromit cartoons – to see what stop-motion animation is all about; and there is simply no way that beginners can match what Harryhausen and W&G’s Nick Park have come up with. Kids can aspire to those heights, though, and aspiration is a lot of what Klutz crafts books are about. So The Klutz Book of Animation provides all the basic tools that kids will need to make their own animated videos – plus some not-so-basic ones, including free downloads of software and sound effects. Stop-motion animation takes patience, so kids who have trouble staying focused on projects will likely get frustrated by the careful, step-by-step requirements of this approach. But other budding filmmakers (or video makers) will find it fascinating to re-create the animations shown online by Klutz – and then move on to develop their own. All the simple and some beyond-simple techniques are here, very clearly explained: “onion skin” to show the prior position of an animated object, making it easy to keep moves in line; shot angles; tracking; morphing; pixilation; and much more. And the book, in typical Klutz fashion, insists on not taking itself seriously all the time: it includes such extras as punch-out mouths and disco costumes, plus a “ratoscope” to demonstrate one animation principle by making rats seem to crawl. The Klutz Book of Animation gives would-be Hollywood (or Bollywood) moguls enough behind-the-scenes information to get them started on a rewarding career – or at least help them understand what is really going on when they watch some of their favorite animated productions.

     But who needs something as elaborate as animation to develop creativity? Sometimes all that is required is a bunch of paper and a nice pen, like the one attached to the front of Klutz’s Doodle Journal. This book is, of course, a journal, spiral bound to open flat. It is crammed with all sorts of material designed to encourage note-taking, life-chronicling and – of course – doodling. The margins here (and some entire pages) are filled with swirls and words and splats and colorful something-or-others that may inspire kids to imitation or to doing something entirely different (either approach is just fine). Many pages have very faint bits of drawing visible. For instance, a brightly colored girl is walking off the left page, but her long and curly hair is very pale and barely visible – suitable for coloring, tracing or ignoring completely while making her hair look entirely different from the way the pale lines make it appear. There are quotations sprinkled around the book, too, such as “it is better to play than do nothing – Confucius” and “I have never let schooling interfere with my education – Mark Twain.” Because there is no such thing as a mistake when doodling, there are pages about mistakes and “random scribbles” to be completed, changed, or simply labeled. One of the cleverest things in the book is “groodling,” which is group doodling: pages are divided in three parts and set up to flip, so three people can draw three different parts of a character and then create flip books that mix up the top, center and bottom parts. Another clever idea here is a page devoted to action – but “action scenes are hard to draw. Fortunately, this one is happening in the dark of night, so all you have to do is fill the space with sounds.” Among the suggested noises are “prooompf,” “klop” and “ga-boing.” There are a few traditional journal-like pages here, such as ones with questions: “If you and your friends were in a band, what kind of music would you play?” But even these tie into doodles: for example, you draw yourself and friends playing instruments. Doodle Journal is, in sum, an exercise in creative thinking – abetted by the encouragement and sense of humor in which Klutz specializes.


While the World Is Sleeping. By Pamela Duncan Edwards. Illustrated by Daniel Kirk. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Sweet Dreams Lullaby. By Betsy Snyder. Random House. $15.99.

     There is something about nighttime books for young children that inspires authors to write poetry – and not just any poetry, but poems in exactly the same meter. Here is a sample from When the World Is Sleeping: “In the meadow far below,/ See father stag and mother doe./ Tiny fawns spring to and fro,/ While the world is sleeping.” And here is one from Sweet Dreams Lullaby: “The day is done. It’s time for bed./ Let peaceful moments fill your head./ So cuddle up and snuggle in,/ and let your happy dreams begin.” To be sure, the singsong rhythms and gentle cadences of both these rhyming tales are immediately appealing, and the regularity of the verse helps create a restful state both in a tired child and in the parent who is reading to him or her. And both these books make lovely nighttime tales – Betsy Snyder’s for even younger kids than Pamela Duncan’s, which has a slightly more sophisticated story line and more “fantasy realism” in Daniel Kirk’s drawings.

     While the World Is Sleeping is a child’s make-believe journey atop an owl’s back, high above rooftops and fields, meadow and river and forest. The child is drawn highly realistically – and androgynously, even to his or her yellow pajamas, so kids of either gander can relate to the adventure. The animals portrayed in the pictures are drawn with loving care and mostly with huge, expressive eyes, and they are not anthropomorphized: they do what real animals do, from beavers building a dam to a mother mouse protecting her babies from a nearby snake. The sleeping child – for the whole tale must be a dream, or one of those near-dreams experienced just as sleep comes – is small enough to ride atop the owl and therefore small enough to see every detail of what the various animals are doing at night. But there is no danger here – only a sense of wonder and discovery that ends with sunrise and the crowing of a rooster when “the world has finished sleeping.”

     Sweet Dreams Lullaby is a more straightforward bedtime book, featuring a mother rabbit (not drawn realistically) putting her baby bunny to bed and inviting him or her (again, a child of either gender can enjoy this story) to imagine “the dandelion breeze” and “blossoms, soft as snow” and “a canopy of weeping willows” and “gentle raindrop showers” and other sweet, soft and relaxing things – shown in nicely colored pastel pictures that take baby bunny through an entire day of happy adventures and into a night of “tiptoes through the grass/ and fireflies that blink and flash,” of “purple twilight skies” and “a bedtime kiss from butterflies.” If it is the pictures that are outstanding in While the World Is Sleeping, it is the text that lulls and enchants in Sweet Dreams Lullaby. So parents who want to buy only one of these two charming books can choose based on whether a child will sleep more easily after a wonderful visual adventure or after listening to words telling of the pleasures of everyday things.


Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer. By Ernst Weiss. Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. Archipelago Books. $17.

     This is a strange, compelling novel about a strangely compelling – if scarcely admirable – protagonist. A novel that is at once of its time (1931) and beyond time, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, never before available in English, is the first-person narrative of an unstable doctor who does not blanch at vivisection (although he much later says it gave him a “vague guilty feeling”); who marries for no good reason and murders his wife, also for no good reason; who has a prototypically Oedipal relationship with his father, who in turn goes so far as to try to change his own name to distance himself from this son; and who is not to be trusted – not even when writing his own story.

     Ernst Weiss (1882-1940) – physician, ship’s doctor and author – keeps the reader thoroughly off balance in this peculiar, mildly surrealistic novel that on the one hand reeks of between-the-wars sensibility and on the other delves deeply into timeless motivations and personality flaws – in some ways along the lines of Dostoevsky. Recurrent themes march through the book’s pages like Wagnerian leitmotifs. Two of the most important are rats – dealt with in grotesquely loving detail and with elements of horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” (1923) – and the phrase “loving hearts” (almost always given with quotation marks). Themes frequently interrelate, spilling over each other, as when Letham relates the failure of his father’s Arctic expedition, which was overrun by shipboard rats. An elaborate attempt to poison the rodents has this effect, described with medico-scientific care, on the crew: “Then someone begins to breathe with difficulty, to groan, he vomits, someone else croaks, racked with terrible throat irritation, tears gush from his eyes, his nose, his oral mucosa begin to be awash, twenty men complain of headaches, burning in their throats, choking, nausea, anxiety, fear of death, fear of darkness, fear of the northern lights, all throng to the gangplank, but this is no orderly retreat like that of the children of nature, the Eskimos and their animals; instead the civilized men stumble in the darkness, the steel hawsers slice the palms of their hands, they bump into each other, two of the scholars slip on the icy gangplank, slide sideways under one of the slippery steel hawsers and lie whimpering on the ice at the foot of the ship, all are as though gripped by madness.” After this torrent of words comes the brief analytical comment: “So this was the result: only thirty-two animals had met their maker.”

     This sort of boldly striking stylistic contrast pervades Weiss’ book. Letham is a most peculiar but highly engaging narrator – in the sense that he engages the reader, not in the sense of being a pleasant person. He writes of relatives of convicted criminals, “Possibly the ‘loving hearts’ had forgiven and forgotten all our misdeeds. They thanked thanklessness with thanks and presented their cheeks to be struck as my poor wife had once done. But had the crimes been undone on that account? You who are entirely free of conscience, step forward! I am not among you.” These rhetorical flourishes – one must assume they have been well rendered, since Joel Rotenberg’s translation reads so smoothly throughout – occur at irregular intervals, as Letham’s recounting of his story wanders hither and thither, wherever he chooses to take it. “I am the son of well-to-do, unpunished parents (or is it a punishment for the old man to have a son like me?), I was educated in good schools – but life was my best teacher, as my father was the first to prove to me. Once he made me spend the night with rats in a locked, pitch-dark room, to teach me not to be afraid of animals.”

     Mixed in with Letham’s memories and very imperfect introspection are a series of proclamations about grand human endeavors, often mingling elements of religion and science: “I have never believed very deeply in prayer or making the sign of the cross. Where ultramicroscopy, where microbial culture, where pathologic physiology rule, traditional religion usually has no crucial role to play. Sad, but true. Tragic, but that is the fact.” Yet Letham retains some sense of what is right and proper in medicine, as shown in the revulsion he feels for the prison doctor who examines him: “I am like a head of livestock to this wrinkly old fellow pawing me with his greasy hands… – this gray-haired, gold-braided oaf is prodding at my face, my ocular conjunctivae, with his dirty, sticky, rubber-gloved paws as though I were a low-grade steer. And if the old scoundrel touched a trachomatous conjunctiva a moment before, which is only too likely, or if Professor Hansen’s leprosy bacterium is still clinging to his rubber gloves, endangering not his but my epidermis, there’s not a thing I can do about it.”

     And where does all this remarkable – if overwrought and remorselessly self-centered – thinking take Letham? Spared from death because of his wartime service, instead sentenced to exile on a tropical island, he does good work as an epidemiologist in an area ravaged by yellow fever. And he engages in fairly complex human relationships as well as trenchant scientific observations: “Anything that can be found without difficulty today, now that science has already discovered the easy things, is usually wrong.” Yet it would be overstating and simplifying this lengthy novel to say that Letham somehow seeks redemption in his work, much less finds it, for he is neither sure that he needs redemption nor that there is any to be had. As it turns out, the book itself is Letham’s attempt to make his mark in the world (and in his own mind) by providing an analytical case study of…himself. Thus, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer becomes self-referential to the point of navel gazing; but there is no peace to be found in it, and what insights it provides are strictly at the “meta” level – available, that is, to readers of Letham’s book, which is Weiss’ book, which becomes, finally, a reader’s journey to harrowing places, both within and without, to which, thankfully, few people will ever have to go in their mundane lives.


Woods Runner. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

Flightsend. By Linda Newbery. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

     One war that rarely gets historical-fiction treatment in books for teenagers is the American Revolution. Gary Paulsen sets out to correct that situation in Woods Runner, a gritty and reasonably believable story of a 13-year-old boy who goes on a long journey to try to rescue his family, taken prisoner by the British. The book is a quest-and-self-discovery story overlaid on a tale of the horrific realities of life in wartime. The novel’s protagonist, Samuel, believes the war – initially largely in the form of rumors – is far away from the Pennsylvania town where he, his parents and his baby sister live. But the conflict’s reality and brutality are brought home to him soon enough, as British soldiers and Indians attack for no apparent reason, killing the neighbors and taking Samuel’s family away as prisoners. Trying to understand what happened, Samuel asks why, and is told, “Redcoats doing it because they’s redcoats and ain’t worth a tinker’s damn. Follerin’ orders. Indians doing it because they was hired to do it. They’s Iroquois, most of ‘em work for the English, always have, always will.” And that is about all the explanation Samuel gets – but one thing he knows is that he must set out toward British headquarters, in New York City, to find and free his kin. Samuel gets help from fellow colonists throughout his journey, and sees again and again the brutality of the British and those who fight with them – Hessian mercenaries worst of all. Paulsen structures the book partly as an adventure story and partly as a history lesson, introducing chapters with short factual accounts of such elements of the war as the alliances in the world at the time; what happened to the wounded; why American morale was usually higher than British, even though the colonists were far more poorly equipped; what happened to war orphans; forms of covert communication; and much more. A great deal of the information in these introductory pages is at least as interesting as the story itself: more American soldiers died in prison than in actual combat; invisible ink was commonly used to protect information; prisoners of war got half the rations of British soldiers; and so on. But the presentation – separating the factual elements from Samuel’s story – makes the book somewhat choppy; and Samuel’s eventual success seems rather farfetched, although readers will certainly root for him all the way. In the end, Paulsen does a good job of providing little-known background on the American Revolution, although in his storytelling role, he really makes only Samuel come alive – using other characters to flesh out the story and make specific points about the war.

     Flightsend is a tale of modern Britain and of a battle within a family, not a fight to preserve or rescue one. Gritty and forthright in its own way, it is the story of 14-year-old Charlie and her attempt to adjust to her mother’s decision to remake their lives after the birth of a stillborn daughter. Charlie’s father had left her and her mother, Kathy, when Charlie was an infant, and Kathy has been living with a man named Sean, whom Charlie likes a lot – and whom she would be happy to see her mother marry. But after Rose, the baby that would have been Sean’s and Kathy’s, dies – no specific cause is given – Kathy becomes distant toward Sean and virtually throws him out, citing their age difference (Sean is eight years younger) as the main reason. Charlie does not understand any of this and cannot accept it. “The abrupt snuffing out of Rose, and of all the possibilities of her future, was bad enough. Even worse was watching her mother punish herself and Sean, dismantling their life together with what seemed to Charlie a deliberate, callous obstinacy.” But her mother pays no attention to Charlie’s feelings and simply arranges a move to a property called Flightsend, which Kathy hopes will represent the end of running from her past and a chance to settle down. There is much of soap opera in Linda Newbery’s plot and in the multiple confrontations and tearful arguments among the characters. Sean continues trying – ultimately unsuccessfully – to repair things with Kathy; Charlie eventually discovers, not at all surprisingly, that she can move beyond heartache and find new friends and a new life for herself at Flightsend; the property’s name, of course, turns out to be entirely appropriate (although calling the book’s final chapter “Flight’s End” is really overdoing things); and Kathy does remake her life and find happiness, despite running roughshod over both her daughter and Sean – perhaps getting off rather too easily from the consequences of some of her decisions, although of course an author can take these plots where she wishes. Teens in broken homes or unconventional living arrangements may find much that is resonant in Flightsend, despite the obviousness of a great deal of the plotting and dialogue. Others may enjoy it simply as a good, solid tearjerker of a novel. But despite its veneer of realism, it comes across as a very manipulative book – both in Newbery’s treatment of her characters and in the way she lays things out for readers.


Mendelssohn: String Symphonies (complete). Festival Strings Lucerne conducted by Achim Fiedler. Oehms. $44.99 (3 CDs).

Widor: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, op. 42 (bis); Sinfonia Sacra for Organ and Orchestra, op. 81. Christian Schmitt, organ; Bamberger Symphoniker/Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Stefan Solyom. CPO. $16.99.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (complete); Symphony in Three Movements; Four Études. Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez. CSO Resound. $19.99 (SACD); $18.99 (CD).

     Only three of Mendelssohn’s 18 or so symphonies are played with any regularity – and many music lovers are still surprised to find out just how many symphonic works Mendelssohn produced. Mendelssohn himself thought of the symphony we know as No. 1 as his 13th such work. In fact, it could be his 14th. His second numbered symphony, Lobgesang, is really a cantata. And it is only the symphonies known as Nos. 3 (“Scottish”), 4 (“Italian”) and 5 (“Reformation”) with which most people are familiar. The first dozen of Mendelssohn’s symphonies – plus a single movement that may be seen either as the start of No. 13 or as a complete one-movement work – were written almost solely for strings, and these are the pieces performed brightly and enthusiastically by the Festival Strings Lucerne under Achim Fiedler. There are all sorts of wonders and all sorts of oddities associated with these string symphonies, which Mendelssohn wrote between 1821 and 1823 (that is, when he was between 12 and 14 years old). One of them (No. 8) also exists in a full-orchestra arrangement by the composer himself; two (Nos. 9 and 11) contain themes based on Swiss songs in their scherzos, each of which is labeled Schweizerlied. One of those two scherzos (in No. 11) surprisingly adds military instruments to the strings, along the lines of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100. The string symphonies exist in various forms – Mendelssohn rearranged some, dropped or added movements, and generally made things complicated for performers. There are also numerous repeats in the scores, which – when taken as the composer indicated, as is the case in this recording – make some of the works very substantial indeed: No. 11 runs more than 40 minutes, making it longer than the “Italian” and “Reformation.” But the most remarkable thing of all about these symphonies is how fresh and wonderful they sound. Their provenance matters less to a modern listener than their ebullience and infectious style. Young Mendelssohn, although clearly still striving to find his own individual symphonic voice, had clearly absorbed lessons aplenty from Bach, Haydn, Mozart and beyond: Mannheim-style flourishes coexist easily with French overture rhythms from the Baroque, and Romantic emotion peeks out again and again, especially in the later symphonies and those in minor keys. Fiedler’s fleet tempos are sometimes a touch rushed in the first movements, but the transparency of the Festival Strings Lucerne keeps all harmonies and melodic lines very clear, and there is plenty of expansiveness when that is needed (as in Nos. 8, 9 and 11). This is an excellent recording both for those unfamiliar with Mendelssohn’s early symphonic work and for those who know it – or at least parts of it – already.

     The best-known symphonic works of Charles-Marie Widor are his 10 symphonies for organ solo – and they are works that do deserve to be called symphonies, even though written for only a single instrument (the organ, after all, contains a full orchestra of sounds). But Widor also wrote three numbered symphonies, a Symphonie antique, and the two symphonic works for organ and orchestra just released in a recording featuring Christian Schmitt and Stefan Solyom. These symphonies are tremendously different in sound and effect. Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, arranged by Widor from elements of the solo-organ symphonies in his opp. 13 and 42, is a grand and deeply impressive work, striding forth from start to finish with magisterial sound and the sort of grandeur that is unique to the organ. Schmitt plays his instrument boldly and brightly here, and Solyom conducts the Bamberger Symphoniker/Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie with strength and rhythmic clarity. The result is a genuinely exciting performance and a high level of sheer sonic splendor. In contrast, the Sinfonia Sacra explores the organ’s (and orchestra’s) quieter side, emphasizing inner voices and mostly slow tempos (the first two of the five movements are Adagios). Written in 1906 – 24 years after the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra – and first played in 1909, the Sinfonia Sacra resulted from Widor’s relationship with Albert Schweitzer, through whom Widor immersed himself thoroughly in Bach. Schweitzer wrote the program notes for the symphony’s first performance, discussing Widor’s musical interpretation of the sighs of humanity being eventually transformed into jubilant sounds through heavenly intercession. Even without a program, the musical development is clear and impressive, as themes introduced early in the symphony are altered during the work’s progress until, in the final and longest movement, they are all – notably including the opening sighs – transformed into splendor. Schmitt and Solyom do a fine job of building this work carefully from start to finish, in a performance that is more thoughtful than that of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, although not as viscerally exciting.

     Listeners looking for musical excitement will find plenty of it in the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of Stravinsky – conducted by Pierre Boulez, who as he nears 85 puts across more brightness and intensity than many conductors half his age. Boulez has strong feelings about Stravinsky that he never hesitates to express – he is not sure whether the fourth of the Four Études even belongs in the set, for example, and does not think much of the second movement of the Symphony in Three Movements. But his conducting on this CD – of the works he likes less as well as those he prefers – is so finely honed, so convincing, that he gives all the pieces their best possible chance of capturing listeners. The Symphony in Three Movements seems more modern and forward-looking here than it often does, with considerable angularity in the themes and constant forward propulsion. The Four Études manage to be humorous, witty, rhythmically striking and genuinely odd – although, yes, the fourth comes across as the lightest of them and somehow the least satisfying. As for Pulcinella, here performed complete with vocal sections, it is an absolute gem, sparkling with wit and filled with vivid orchestral touches that Boulez brings out with tremendous attentiveness – and, often, the help of the Chicago Symphony’s very fine brass. This live recording (available in either SACD or standard CD format) can certainly be looked at as a tribute to Boulez’ 85th birthday (he was born on March 26, 1925). But what makes it special is not the timing of its release or the age of its conductor, but the splendid understanding evinced by its music-making.

February 11, 2010


The Slightly Odd United States of America. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $12.95.

Good Growing: A Kid’s Guide to Green Gardening. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $16.95.

     “Reliably offbeat.” That’s a two-word review of the entire line of Klutz books – and, as it happens, of each book individually. The Klutz line has never been much like anything else in book publishing, even though other firms produce occasional products that are somewhat in the same vein. Klutz does everything in its own vein, though: the “books-plus” field, in which something that looks like a book and is bound like a book is inevitably more than “just” a book.

     Klutz adheres to its own special weirdness even when producing a book such as The Slightly Odd United States of America. This sort of thing has been done often before: take young readers (the target age range is eight and up) on a tour of the 50 states and give them snippets of unusual information all along the way. But Klutz, being Klutz, does not stop there. Start with the foldout map at the beginning of the book – which includes such geographical designations as “the middle middle” and “the middle (sort of).” Continue with state-focused questions, such as: “Georgia is the nation’s leading producer of ‘the three P’s.’ Can you name them?” (Answer: peanuts, peaches and pecans.) Go on to a page of real state nicknames mixed with fake ones, and try to figure out which are which and which real ones go where. Stop at “Interstate Scramble” to find out a unique feature of various states by unmixing the mixed-up letters: New Mexico, for example, has “oelitt cork,” which unscrambles to “toilet rock.” And by all means stop on the page devoted to each state, so you can learn that the Ah-Choo Sneezing Powder Company was founded in New Jersey, a nuclear bomb was accidentally dropped on South Carolina in 1958, and the first ice cream sundae was made in Wisconsin. Throw in abundant illustrations – from lots of amusing cartoons to a variety of photographs of people, places and things, past and present – and you have a book that is not only informative but also looks good. It is also spiral-bound, so it opens flat – a convenience for readers doing the “star search” puzzles in which, for example, you need to find the capital of each state named at the bottom of the page within the large square of apparently random letters higher up. An offbeat look at offbeat facts, The Slightly Odd United States of America is at least slightly odder than similar “factoid” books from other publishers – and that’s the Klutz way.

     There is a more serious, overtly instructional side to Klutz, too – one in which the “books-plus” format really excels. Many Klutz books teach crafts or hobbies, and they always include what kids need to get started. Good Growing, for example, isn’t just an instruction book about gardening – not even just about green (ecologically aware) gardening. It is a how-to kit, including two small hydroponic growing systems (Klutz calls them “Super Sprouters”) bound to a cardboard panel attached to the spiral binding behind the book’s back cover, plus packets of seeds for green beans and radishes. The idea here is to show kids ages six and up what gardening is all about, and then let them try it themselves. The book starts with a particularly neat definition: “Gardening is the art and science of turning water, soil, sunshine, and seeds into something tasty to eat or lovely to look at.” That’s a clear encapsulation that gardening books for adults could well emulate. Good Growing then explains what plants need to grow, how the “Super Sprouters” work, and how to get things growing – not only with the items included with the book, but also on your own. Simple instructions show how to grow herbs, avocado plants, even “grassheads” (silly decorative things made from old stockings, grass seed, googly eyes and decorations). “Know-It-All” boxes provide supplemental information – explaining, for example, why it is better to cut off flower buds that bloom when growing herbs. Chapters on outdoor gardening take young readers beyond the simple windowsill growth of “Super Sprouters” and potted plants. By the end of the book, kids will even know how to grow giant sunflowers – and how to get edible sunflower seeds from them. There’s knowledge as well as enjoyment in Good Growing, as in so many Klutz books. And that’s why a three-word review of many Klutz offerings could well be: “making learning fun.”


Dear Dumb Diary #9: That’s What Friends Aren’t For. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

Hamstermagic. By Holly Webb. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Jim Benton’s continuing diary entries of Jamie Kelly, erstwhile Mackerel Middle School student and self-appointed chronicler of her life and the lives of those around her, are reliably funny and filled with often-hilarious illustrations. With the ninth entry in the Dear Dumb Diary series, the books are something more: a little bit thoughtful. That’s nothing for fans to be afraid of – That’s What Friends Aren’t For has plenty of the trademark Benton/Kelly silliness, miscommunication and bright writing. But as the title indicates, it also has an underlying serious (all right, semi-serious) theme, as Jamie tries to figure out who her friends really are and what it means to be a friend in the first place. Jamie is pretty slow on the uptake about this whole friendship thing. Before she can get to it, she has to think through other parts of life, in her usual way: “Tuesdays are how I imagine being an adult will feel every day. Except when I get to be as old as my parents. Then I think it will always feel like Monday morning. In February. And it’s raining polar bears. And they have rabies.” The friendship thing comes up because Jamie’s Aunt Carol has married the uncle of Angeline, Jamie’s WEF (that would be “worst enemy forever,” the opposite of BFF). This makes Angeline an “automatic friend” to Jamie, and Jamie doesn’t like that a bit. What she does like is her friendship with Isabella, her BFF; but Isabella seems way too accepting of the idea that Angeline is now part of the whole friendship thing as well. And in fact, Isabella and Angeline are getting a little too close for (Jamie’s) comfort. The whole thing makes no sense to Jamie, who is the only one who really understands Isabella: “A rattlesnake won’t sit on you and let just a little drool dribble out of its mouth and then suck it back up at the last moment. It’s weird to think that my BFF has done things to me that are beneath a rattlesnake.” It’s also weird to think about “T.U.K.W.N.I.F. (That Ugly Kid Whose Name I Forget),” a boy who ends up in an art assignment with Jamie – each has to draw the other’s face – but whose work leaves something to be desired, even when revised: “Don’t get me wrong, he still can’t draw, but at least the [somewhat improved] portrait looked a lot less like a chimpanzee and a clown had a baby and then tied a mop to its head and used it to clean out a stable.” The art matters because there’s supposed to be an art contest at school – and there is also a talent show – and Jamie has plans for both of them – and the whole friendship thing gets tangled in both – and besides, Jamie continues to have to deal with her own inner oddities: “Dreaming is just like watching TV, but you can’t change the channel, and the shows often feature an insane clown that’s trying to kill you. Or maybe that’s just me.” Everything does work out just fine in the end, and Angeline has a lot to do with it, and that drives Jamie a little bit crazy (or crazier) as she tries to figure out what friendship really is, and the result is one of Benton’s best Dear Dumb Diary books to date.

     Holly Webb is developing a series of sorts, too, although it doesn’t come with numbers. Webb writes stories about Grace’s Pet Shop – first Catmagic, then Dogmagic and now Hamstermagic. This pet shop is, of course, not an ordinary place: it’s magic, as the books’ titles make clear. The animals in the shop, owned by narrator Lottie’s uncle, have special abilities. For instance, there is “Henrietta the homing mouse,” who “was a lone operator. Uncle Jack sold her to people he thought didn’t deserve pets, and then a few days later she would come back, having thoroughly turned her new owners off pet ownership.” The hamster in the title of Webb’s new book, whose name is Giles, gets to the pet shop by mistake, but turns out to fit right in, complete with his upper-crust way of speaking (oh yes, the animals speak) and his concern for Lottie, who has managed to offend an enchantress through no fault of her own (“It all happened before you were born, or even thought of,” says Uncle Jack reassuringly, which of course does not reassure Lottie at all – and shouldn’t). This is part of the plot, which also includes Lottie’s friend, Ruby, who is acting odd for reasons that Lottie is determined to find out. And there is a matter of a unicorn, and dragons – or would-be dragons, such as the lizards Sam and Joe, whose “one aim was to breathe fire, and they were convinced they would do it someday.” For his part, Giles is a hoot, as when he peremptorily tells the mice who are helping him help Lottie, “This is a covert mission that must be undertaken with the most extreme discretion!” Giles proves invaluable in this adventure, which climaxes with Lottie confronting Pandora, the enchantress whose evil doings lie behind Lottie’s problems and Uncle Jack’s – and explain Ruby’s mysterious behavior, too – and do indeed predate Lottie’s birth. Webb constructs the finale cleverly enough so that it makes a satisfying ending while also opening the way to the next book in the series, which will be called Rabbitmagic.


Lunch Lady No. 3: Lunch Lady and the Author Visit Vendetta. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $5.99.

Your Life, but Better! By Crystal Velasquez. Delacorte Press. $7.99.

     “Serving justice! And serving lunch!” Has there ever been a better motto for a super-heroic character? But then there’s never been one quite like Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady, whose graphic-novel exploits center on nefarious doings in and around the school attended by Dee, Terrence and Hector – who inevitably get to do their own heroics . The third book in this twisty and twisted series isn’t quite as wild as the first two (Cyborg Substitute and League of Librarians), but it certainly has its moments. They revolve around an author named Lewis Scribson, who is the creator of Flippy Bunny and who turns out to be something of a pill when he shows up at school. He is nasty and off-putting and won’t even sign Hector’s book, because it has a ripped cover. Then, in a separate plot that of course turns out to be connected to the authorial one, the school’s gym teacher disappears. And, also of course, Scribson is behind it all. The recurrent elements of the series are all here, such as Lunch Lady’s food-related equipment, designed by her friend and cohort, Betty: hamburger headphones for eavesdropping, a “fancy ketchup packet laser,” and so on. The eventual Attack of the Flippy Bunnies is hilarious, as is their defeat through dodgeball. And the idea of bringing gym teachers out of hypnosis with smelly socks has just the right “ick” factor. Scribson isn’t really much of a menace, though; but then, kids in the target age range of 7-10 will probably be too busy enjoying Krosoczka’s adept drawings and in-character exclamations (“Great Brussels sprouts!”) to pay super-close attention to such plot points.

     The plot is even more fragmented in Your Life, but Better! – which is the first book of a series with the odd overall title of Your Life, but… This is one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, but Crystal Velasquez tries to raise it a notch above others by including a series of quizzes for the target audience of girls ages 8-12 to take. The questions involve real-world (if usually superficial) issues. One asks which reality show a reader would most like to be on: The Bachelor, Beauty and the Geek, So You Think You Can Dance or Amazing Race. Each choice comes with a few lines indicating what the person picking it is probably thinking by making that selection – and the cumulative points from making multiple selections are then used to tell readers what page they should turn to next. Some questions do actually require thought: “You hear your younger sister telling your parents that she got an A on her last biology test, but you know for a fact that she got a big fat F.” The choices here are threatening to tell on her; making sure she knows you could tell on her, but aren’t for now; telling her you know she failed and will tell your parents if she doesn’t; or telling her you know she failed – but you won’t tell, and will tutor her for the next test. Even in questions like this, it is usually pretty clear what a nice girl (or good sister) ought to do, but of course readers can decide whether they want to come across in their answers as nice or not – or whether they really want to look into themselves and be honest. That’s a lot to expect of preteens, and the story Velasquez tells is not really strong enough to invite substantial introspection – it is filled with the usual school dilemmas, cute boys, malls, parties, and so forth. And some of the writing just tries too hard to be with-it and/or cute: “You are a hopeless romantic. You’re always first in line to help decorate for the Valentine’s Day dance, and you’re still heartbroken that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt broke up.” Your Life, but Better! never quite answers the question that its title begs readers to ask: better than what? The book is best if not taken as seriously as Velasquez seems to hope her readers will take it.

(++++) ARC SPARK

Microsoft Arc Keyboard. Windows 7, Vista or XP; Mac OS X v. 10.4-10.6. Microsoft. $59.95.

Microsoft Arc Mouse. Windows 7, Vista or XP; Mac OS X v. 10.2-10.5. Microsoft. $49.95.

     Everyone knows that Microsoft is a software company. Not everyone knows that it has a really excellent hardware division that consistently turns out top-quality products with innovative designs and unusual features. The trademarked Arc line is a perfect example of this under-the-radar part of Microsoft, and the new Arc Keyboard shows clearly just how innovative the hardware division can be.

     This is a wireless keyboard specifically designed for casual use – a clever idea that immediately sets it apart from traditional business-oriented keyboards. It weighs less than a pound and measures only about 12 by six inches – roughly two-thirds the size of most full-featured wireless keyboards. And it is full-featured, although some of its design elements take a little getting used to. Things that do not require accommodation are the keyboard layout (traditional QWERTY), key size (keys are full size) and key action (positive, easy to depress, forthright in operation). The space bar is full size; the Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Enter and Backspace keys are in expected positions and are of expected sizes; and for ordinary typing, the keyboard is a pleasure to use. It is also – by design – a personal statement, thereby becoming part of the current trend toward individualizing computers. Flat along the sides and front, but rising along the top center, the keyboard sits comfortably on a user’s lap while he or she types in a non-business position – sitting on the sofa or in an armchair, for example. Being very lightweight (less than a pound), the keyboard is easy to move around and never feels like an encumbrance; but it does feel solid, not cheap, and its reflective black plastic casing is shiny and surprisingly fingerprint-resistant. It simply looks good – and it feels good, too.

     Compromises? Well, yes. The top row of keys – above the numbers and Backspace key – is small and arranged nontraditionally. At the far left is the Esc key – a good position. The next six keys – only six – are F keys. Each does double duty: to use F7 through F12, you must depress the Fn key as well as the F key. The Fn key is second from the right in the bottom row – not a particularly intuitive location. Nor is the key very large. It sits just to the right of an Alt key, and since there are two of those, Microsoft could have eliminated one and doubled the size of the Fn key. On the other hand, if you rarely use F7 through F12, the keyboard layout will not be an issue. On the third hand, the Fn key is used to turn the keyboard on and off (Fn + Esc), so having it more prominent would certainly not have been a bad idea.

     Back to that top row. To the right of F6 (which doubles as F12) is the Home key (PrtScn when used with Fn), followed by End, PgUp and PgDn. These take a little getting used to, since they are all the same size and it is easy to press the wrong one. But it is not hard to adapt. Then, continuing left to right, there are three volume keys – mute, down and up – and finally, at the far right, the Del key. This small key sits directly above the much larger Backspace key, and although that might seem like good placement because each of the keys is used for deletion, in practice it is very easy to hit the wrong key (usually Backspace when you want Del). Nevertheless, regular users of the Arc Keyboard will surely adjust quickly to its atypical elements.

     Mac users need to do a little extra adjusting, since the bottom row has a Windows key second from the left. Going to System Preferences will allow Mac users to remap Ctrl/Windows/Alt to the Mac’s traditional Ctrl/Option/Command – but they will probably want to paste something over that Windows logo.

     The Arc Keyboard’s wireless connection, by the way, is 2.4 GHz RF, not Bluetooth. All it needs is the included USB transceiver, which plugs directly into any USB port and stores neatly on the bottom of the keyboard when not in use. The Arc Keyboard is a specialty item, designed for people who regularly use their computers in casual settings – and its layout and functionality are just different enough from those of other keyboards so it may be irritating to switch back and forth between the Arc and a standard keyboard. But the Arc Keyboard is so well made, light, portable and comfortable in your lap that many who try it may find they prefer it to bulkier traditional keyboards and have little desire to go back.

     Nor is this keyboard Microsoft’s first Arc product. Although the keyboard is sold by itself, many users of it will also be interested in the Arc Mouse, which goes well with the keyboard and shares many of the same “elegant but casual” design elements. The Arc Mouse also uses 2.4 GHz RF for its wireless connection. It has four customizable buttons, a snap-in transceiver that fits in the bottom, and a feature that starts Windows Aero on computers equipped with it and Exposé for Mac on computers that have it. The Arc Mouse works well with either hand – its design is genuinely ambidextrous. But, interestingly enough, one of its primary design features is not all that big a deal. This is the fact that it is foldable: the front part tucks down and under on a sturdy metal hinge, making the Arc Mouse 60% of its fully expanded size so it can be carried more easily (folding it automatically turns it off). But if it is portability you are after, there are other ways to get it that are at least as elegant and functional, such as Microsoft’s own Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000, which is both feature-packed (including presentation-related buttons on the bottom) and about the size of the folded Arc Mouse. It costs more ($79.95), but other Microsoft notebook mouse products are less expensive and retain the small footprint. Strictly from a size perspective, the Arc Mouse is for users who really want a full-size mouse – perhaps because of the size of their hands, or just because it is what they are used to – and also want easy portability. For that group, it is a highly attractive product. The fact that it is available in multiple colors (white, purple, green, blue and of course black) makes it a “dress-up accessory” for computer personalization – tying into the same approach that the Arc Keyboard uses. Neither the keyboard nor the Arc Mouse will be ideal for all users; but then, neither is intended to be. Both work very well while looking good and feeling like off-the-beaten-path equipment. Their first-rate functionality and unusual design show just how cleverly the Microsoft hardware division continues to set itself apart from other hardware manufacturers – and from the company’s own, much larger software side.


Suppé: Pique Dame. Anjara Ingrid Bartz, mezzo-soprano; Mojca Erdman and Anneli Pfeffer, sopranos; Thomas Dewald, tenor; Tom Erik Lie, baritone; WDR Rundfunkchor and WDR Rundfunkorchester conducted by Michail Jurowski. CPO. $16.99.

Nielsen: Cantatas. Jens Albinus, reciter; Ditte Højgaard Andersen, soprano; Mathias Hedegaard, tenor; Palle Knudsen, baritone; Aarhus Cathedral Choir, Danish National Opera Chorus, Vox Aros and Aarhus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bo Holten. Dacapo. $16.99.

     It is always a pleasure to discover that Franz von Suppé did not just write operetta overtures – he wrote the works themselves. The overtures are such light-classical staples that it is easy to forget that they were meant to introduce full-length stage performances (Rossini’s overtures are in a similar situation). In the case of Pique Dame, though, listeners will likely approach the full operetta – actually a one-act work – with some trepidation. Could Suppé really be making light of the same Pushkin story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s dark and doom-laden Pique Dame? The answer is yes – and no. The genesis of Suppé’s work is complex and ties to Pushkin only in part; it also ties to the composer’s earlier Die Kartenschlägerin, Suppé’s unsuccessful second operetta, which in turn did tie to Pushkin but which the composer subsequently reworked. Little of this matters to the music, although CPO’s booklet notes do help sort out the background. What Michail Jurowski leads is a rousing performance of all nine numbers of the score, plus the justly familiar overture – whose tunes, it turns out, are all taken from the vocal pieces, which they fit beautifully. CPO provides neither a libretto nor a link to one online, which is deeply unfortunate but has become the standard of a label that once cared about such things. Listeners familiar with German will not have a problem – the singers’ voices are particularly clear, and they enunciate unusually well. But English speakers will have to be content with a rather confused and too-brief summary of the action. Much of the plot unfolds in dialogue, which is not included on the CD; in fact, the second portion of this one-act work contains only three vocal numbers. But, again, the music itself is quite wonderful, and the singers bring considerable expressiveness to it, effectively changing intonation to indicate their emotions. This is especially well done in the attempted-seduction scene – boldly labeled “Orgy” in the score – in which the sort-of-bad guy is shown to be an unprincipled rake (although he becomes a better person at the operetta’s very end). Jurowski does a fine job throughout, except for overdoing some of the tempo changes in the overture. Suppé is underrated as an operetta composer – it would be good to have more of his works available. But they really, really need libretti – and preferably dialogue – to have their full effect.

     Unlike CPO, Dacapo is meticulous in providing texts and multilingual translations for its CDs of vocal works, such as the first-ever recording of three occasional cantatas by Carl Nielsen. The difficulty here is not with the elegant presentation but with the music itself, which is why this release gets a (+++) rating. Nielsen was as capable as any artist of rising to a well-paid occasion and producing a work to order. But being inspired on command is quite another thing. Not even Mozart could manage it, as his many Mass settings show. In Nielsen’s case, the longest work here is the blandest: Cantata for the Opening Ceremony of the National Exhibition in Aarhus 1909 is all major-key triumphalism, supporting words of stunning mediocrity: “God-given beauty of form is ever-present, like a grub unfolding its color in the sun as a poem does in words.” Nielsen actually wrote only half of this cantata, sharing the chore with his pupil Emilius Bangert, who did a fine job of imitating Nielsen’s style here – although it is more a case of Nielsen removing most of his own unique stylistic elements and Bangert then producing similarly uninspired music. There is a certain rousing enthusiasm to this cantata, and the performers give it their all, but it has little pure musical value. The other works here are at least marginally more interesting. Music for Hans Hartvig Seedorff Pedersen’s Homage to Holberg (1923) has a bit of the flavor of Maskarade, which Nielsen based on a Holberg comedy. Nielsen was no longer writing in Maskarade style by the time he composed this work, but he returned to his earlier approach with some success, although the piece remains slight. Cantata for the Annual University Commemoration (1908) is broader and more effective than the National Exhibition cantata, with some darker tone painting and a marginally (if only marginally) better text. Again, the performers bring enthusiasm to the music, and a sense of importance that is somewhat beyond what it deserves. Also on this CD is a very short piece – the only work here that has been recorded before: “Ariel’s Song” for tenor and orchestra from Music for Helge Rode’s Prologue “Shakespeare” (1916). It is moody and flowing and over quickly. It cannot be denied that this disc is a valuable addition to the Nielsen discography, but it mostly shows that even a first-rate composer will willingly step down from the musical heights when he has a chance to fulfill paying commissions.