April 29, 2010


The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 7: Lord Sunday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $17.99.

Sebastian Darke, Book Three: Prince of Explorers. By Philip Caveney. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

     As epics for young readers go, The Keys to the Kingdom is one of the longest-lasting: Garth Nix has taken 10 years to get from Mister Monday to Lord Sunday. That is as long as it took for the full set of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books to be published – but in those books, the hero and his friends grow up chronologically and pull the readers along with them, while in the Nix series, it is fair to guess that young readers who enthusiastically embraced the first few books are likely to have moved beyond The Keys to the Kingdom after a decade. The growth here is more emotional and metaphysical, almost spiritual, than it is physical: Arthur Penhaligon, Leaf and Suzy are not significantly different on Sunday from what they were the previous Monday. The nature of the decisions that Arthur has to make has changed, to be sure, and the nature of the forces opposing him in his role as Rightful Heir to the Architect of the House has changed as well – becoming more complex and, in this final book of the series, significantly stranger. Lord Sunday is a cold, calculating and inflexible opponent whose motivations Arthur has difficulty determining. “‘I do not interfere unnecessarily beyond these Gardens,’ said Lord Sunday. ‘It is unfortunate that events have so transpired that I must take a hand, to impose order where others have failed to do so.’” Lord Sunday has bizarre methods of negotiating: “‘Consider that allowing the puppets to take your eyes is only one of many things I can do to make you reconsider. While I will not stoop to menace mere mortals, I do hold your mother prisoner.’” Arthur, of course, has powers of his own, and such allies as Leaf, Suzy, Elephant and Dame Primus. The grotesquerie is ratcheted up a couple of notches in this book: “The tattoos on [Dr. Scamandros’] face became tumbling Catherine wheels trailing sparks as they careened across his cheeks and crashed into each other.” Arthur’s biggest worry here is that he is “afraid because he felt his human life slipping away from him.” This is no mere identity crisis – it is a key, so to speak, to what Arthur must finally decide and finally become. Longtime readers will have no trouble with prose that may seem unintentionally funny to series newcomers: “‘It was just that my savagesword broke on a Newnith’s helm.’ …‘It does not matter. We must move onward and upward. The Drasils have wilted, and this tower now projects fully into the Incomparable Gardens, which has allowed Saturday to mass far more force there, with the Piper’s army hot on her heels.’” Nix gets credit for consistency: his characters and his prose stay in the same channels here as in earlier books. And Arthur’s eventual discovery of what he must do, what he must become, is skillfully handled, although it may disappoint readers who saw The Matrix film trilogy years ago. In the end – and this gives nothing away – we have…well, the beginning, or a new beginning, just as the end of one week heralds the start of the next one. So Nix brings The Keys to the Kingdom to a very satisfying conclusion, if not an altogether surprising one.

     The more lighthearted adventures of Sebastian Darke show no sign of ending anytime soon, even though Philip Caveney intended to write a trilogy: Prince of Fools, Prince of Pirates and Prince of Explorers. Caveney hedges his bets here, though, having Sebastian say, near the book’s end, “There’ll be no need to go adventuring, ever again,” and having another character – the ever-faithful buffalope, Max – sigh and reply, “Now, why do I find that so hard to believe?” To be sure, Sebastian’s adventures contain enough fun – for readers, and sometimes even for Sebastian himself – so that readers will likely want more of them. Prince of Explorers is about the hunt for a legendary lost city called Mendip. Never mind why – the search itself is the point here. And search Sebastian does – along with Max, Cornelius (a good fighter to have at your side, or in front of you or behind) and sundry new characters. Some events are genuinely harrowing, such as a battle with zombies called Night Runners, but Caveney is careful to keep a lot of the book, and its dialogue, light: “‘For a Chosen One, you’re not all that knowledgeable, are you?’ …‘I’m very knowledgeable…about some things. I tell you what, I know more jokes than you could shake a stick at.’” Indeed, the half-elf, half-human Sebastian is declared the Chosen One of a tribe whose chief’s very attractive daughter becomes a traveling companion and complication. And there is an Indiana Jones-style whitewater-rafting adventure, plus many other hazards and some very long stories along the way – but as Cornelius sagely points out, “If adventuring were easy, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they?” Cornelius and Max do a good job of providing comic relief even when the doings are dark. For example, Max discovers that an ark that is being built is actually the third such craft, the first two having met less-than-pleasant fates – and when he is told “third time lucky,” Max replies, “Yes…I believe I’ve heard several idiots saying that.” It’s fun – and often exciting – to stay with Max, Cornelius and of course Sebastian right through to the end of Prince of Explorers, and to look forward to wherever Caveney (the original “trilogy” plan notwithstanding) will take them next.


FDR’s Alphabet Soup: New Deal America, 1932-1939. By Tonya Bolden. Knopf. $19.99.

     Economist Milton Friedman coined the phrase “we are all Keynesians now” – and attributed it to President Richard Nixon – as a way to show that by the 1970s, politicians and economists of all persuasions implicitly accepted the approaches advocated by John Maynard Keynes to manage the United States economy in times when things seemed to veer significantly off track. An equally emphatic phrase, perhaps even more accurate than the one about Keynes, would be, “We are all FDR’s children now,” for the enormous expansion of the federal government that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt engineered has had a huge and lasting effect on every aspect of American life – and continues to be the underlying basis for further expansion of government power, such as President Obama’s recent push for a vastly greater role for the government in the healthcare field.

     The time is always right for a look at what FDR did and what it means, but it seems particularly right today, when there are so many arguments being made – often so stridently – about the importance of either making government more a part of everyday life or of rolling back its influence. A well-researched book for young readers, such as FDR’s Alphabet Soup, can be especially valuable in showing the limits of today’s debates. For example, no one short of a few fringe extremists is suggesting abolition of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), FCC (Federal Communications Commission) or FHA (Federal Housing Administration) – three of the agencies created by FDR in a single year (1934). Even the proposals of the strongest critics of government’s role will at most tinker around the edges of what FDR did. Rolling back the government to pre-FDR days is literally unthinkable.

     What FDR’s Alphabet Soup does so well is to show the context within which Roosevelt vastly expanded the government; his rationale for doing so; the horrible economic climate in which we was elected and served; and many of the elements of his plans to pull the country out of the Great Depression. To her credit, Tonya Bolden does not offer an unmitigated cheer for FDR, and in fact questions (as many economists do today) whether all those New Deal programs actually pulled the economy up very much – or if they merely reoriented it, with the advent of World War II being the factor that finally ended the Depression.

     Bolden offers a combination of statistics (unemployment tripled during the Depression, to a rate of almost 25%, and national income fell more than 50%) and personalizing photos (FDR walking in 1920 during his unsuccessful bid to become Vice President, and three years later visiting a resort whose waters were supposed to help polio sufferers). There are political buttons from the period, cartoons, and plenty of photos – plus many quotations from ordinary citizens, not just politicians. There are also pictures of people working in one or another of the FDR “alphabet” agencies: men planting trees in South Dakota for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), others pushing wheelbarrows in San Francisco for the CWA (Civil Works Administration). Bolden discusses how the agencies were created, what they did, what sort of opposition they faced, and what events made people ever more willing to accept a governmental helping hand – for example, the disastrous dust storms that hit the Plains in the mid-1930s. FDR’s missteps are mentioned, too – notably his failed attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices, so he could add ones who would support his initiatives rather than possibly declare them unconstitutional. And the legacy of FDR’s creation of so many new government entities is made clear in a four-page postscript showing what happened to many of the “alphabet soup” agencies. Anyone wondering about FDR’s profound and lasting influence on the size and reach of the federal government has only to look here: the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), and many other FDR-era creations – including non-alphabet-soup ones such as Social Security – are a huge part of modern American government and modern American life. Whether or not FDR’s approach helped end the Great Depression, there is no question that it permanently transformed the relationship between Americans and the government that is supposed to be elected to serve them.


Secrets of a Jewish Mother: Real Advice, Real Stories, Real Love. By Jill Zarin, Lisa Wexler, and Gloria Kamen. Dutton. $25.95.

     Clichés become clichés in the first place because they contain, at their heart, a nugget of truth. Some stereotypes, although scarcely all, are the same way – and some people deliberately play to the stereotypes their heritage evokes, such as the Latin lover, the frugal Scotsman and, as in this book, the Jewish mother.

     You get three Jewish mothers here for the price of one, although it is the name of Jill Zarin – known from The Real Housewives of New York City on the Bravo network – that gets the most play. Gloria Kamen is Jill’s mother; Lisa Wexler is Jill’s sister. The three women are clearly cut from the same cloth, at least within the pages of this guide-to-life book. Each gets a chance to express herself separately on a subject, but there is virtually no attitudinal difference in what they say. As for the content of the book – well, there is content, but it is so frothy that it seems ready to evaporate if you examine it too closely. It is also rather strangely old-fashioned. Take the subject of dating and sex: “A Jewish mother does not advise you to live together before marriage. …Why would a guy choose to get married if he gets all the benefits of marriage by living together, without the burdens? …Why should he get to see you in your pretty underwear without having to accompany you to your parents’ on the holidays or help pay for all those pretty negligees?” Oh, come on – didn’t that sort of thinking go out of style about 50 years ago? Do these women really think people who cohabit don’t see each other in everyday working clothes and don’t visit each other’s families? Obviously this is a very, very skewed view of human relationships – made more so when, after the general statements, the authors get to make some specific ones. From Lisa: “I don’t understand couples who would rather live together before getting married just because they want to save up for a ring.” From Jill: “One of the rules I learned from my mother is to never move to a city for a man without a ring and obviously never move in with a man without a ring.” And from Gloria, who is her mother: “In my day, people simply did not live together before they got married.” Apparently her day has continued to today in this particular group – both the sexual revolution and women’s liberation passed these three Jewish mothers by, in terms of their attitudes if not necessarily their experience.

     Of course, it is this attitudinal hyper-traditionalism, delivered with a kind of homespun certainty, that will attract some readers. They will find plenty of it. “We strongly believe that Jews should marry Jews, Christians should wed Christians and so on.” “Learn as much as you can for as long as you can.” “A real friend will kvell [be joyful about someone else’s accomplishments] when you receive that promotion you’ve been working for, your kid has gotten into Harvard (it should only happen!) or you finally manage to lose those last ten pounds.” “Ideally, we do not push our kids into doing anything [as a career] they wouldn’t be happy doing. But we are not above giving a shove in the right direction.”

     Readers who are not enthralled by this sort of dispensing of this sort of pseudo-wisdom will quickly start wondering what planet these women are from. The answer is, of course, the planet New York City – specifically the planet Jewish New York City, which apparently accounts for a lot (and not just the sprinkling of Yiddish terms). Even advice that is intended to be with-it and plainspoken tends to come across as hectoring here. For example, what should a woman do if her marriage is not going well and she flirts a little too avidly with an attractive co-worker? Should she tell her husband what happened? From Gloria: “Why do you want to confess? To make yourself feel better? To alleviate your own guilt? Too bad. If you intend to stay with your husband and work on your marriage, then shut up and don’t say a word. …Fooling around was your sin; your punishment is that you have to live with what you did.” Wow! And this is in a hypothetical example of someone who was not actually unfaithful – only “almost.”

     These self-proclaimed Jewish mothers are big on forgiveness of close friends and family, but not so forgiving otherwise. And they really do have an almost laughably narrow view of human relationships in the 21st century: “Two parents are better than one. Don’t holler—of course, there are exceptions to this rule.” But rules are what Secrets of a Jewish Mother is ultimately all about – rules on how to live, with whom, when, under what circumstances, doing what sort of work, where, for what kind of payment, and on and on and on and on. And if you don’t like what you are told here – well, you can always feel guilty for not “getting” it. Guilt is a big behavioral driver for these women – and, in fact, the use of guilt as a motivator by Jewish mothers is not only a stereotype, not only a cliché, but, as readers of this book will discover, a way of life.


Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, 2nd Edition. By Sandra Steingraber. Da Capo. $16.95.

Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. By Matt Gallagher. Da Capo. $24.95.

Worried Sick: Break Free from Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental & Physical Health. By Karol Ward. Berkley. $15.

     It is only when big, macrocosmic events are brought down to the human, microcosmic level that those not directly involved in them start to feel their effects. Hence the quotation usually misattributed to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” But when you, personally, are threatened with being the one, those one million loom much larger – in the most highly personal way. That was the situation facing Sandra Steingraber, who at age 20, nearly three decades ago, was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Knowing that the odds against that form of cancer at so young an age are very small is not helpful when you are one of the very few to contract the disease. And Steingraber, whose cancer was cured and has not recurred, was determined not to be simply a statistic, in any case. A biology major who eventually got a graduate degree in field biology, Steingraber started on an exploration of the environmental factors considered causative for bladder cancer after learning that this particular cancer has a particularly strong link to pollutants. Living Downstream is Steingraber’s account of what she learned – expanded, in this second edition, to include new scientific information and toxicological findings. As a book with a strong personal as well as societal orientation, Living Downstream is hard to fault, and its writing (and rewriting) was surely cathartic for Steingraber. Indeed, the book’s language is more plainspoken and thus more accessible than that of many other books warning of environmental hazards. But the problem is that there are so many books (and news stories, and magazine articles) warning of the dire consequences of this, that and the other thing. The drumbeat of doom beats so constantly that it is hard to dredge up enthusiasm for yet another book saying that our way of life is destroying us. Steingraber correctly notes that “the process of exploration that results from asserting our right to know about carcinogens in our environment is a different journey for every person who undertakes it,” but she has no convincing argument for why other individuals – ones not themselves touched directly by environment-related cancer – should go through a process so arduous and time-consuming. “Going in search of our ecological roots has both intimate and far-flung dimensions,” Steingraber explains. “It means learning about the sources of our drinking water (past and present), about the prevailing winds that blow through our communities, and about the agricultural system that provides us food. It involves visiting grain fields, as well as cattle lots, orchards, pastures, and dairy farms. It demands curiosity about how our apartment buildings are, and have been, exterminated, our clothing cleaned, our golf courses maintained.” And more – much more. But it demands all this in addition to handling the realities of daily life – and without any way, ultimately, to have a significant influence on the extremely complex and interrelated issues that Steingraber raises. This is an insuperably large order for the vast majority of people – and delegating their concerns to environmental groups that spend all their time on such issues is at best an iffy proposition, since those groups have their own agendas and their own ways of spending money that people give freely. Ultimately, Steingraber’s book is yet another indictment of pretty much everything that we, as a society, are doing and have done in the past with regard to the environment. Despite her accessible prose and her interweaving of personal elements with wide-ranging ones, this sort of doom-and-gloom scenario is simply a tale too often told, with too little that anyone who reads the book can do directly about the issues it raises.

     There is even less that an average citizen can do about the issues in Kaboom, for this is a book about war – specifically the Iraq war – and how it has been managed and (frequently) mismanaged. Yes, yet another war-is-hell book; and in truth, Matt Gallagher has little to say that has not been said as well or better before. Catch-22 remains the ultimate book about the idiocies of war and warmakers, despite being a novel rather than a nonfictional account, and the “Suck” of Gallagher’s subtitle is a kind of 21st-century Catch-22. It is whatever happens to lower-ranking members of the military that they need to endure and accept – such as senseless orders, miserable assignments or a blog shutdown. The last of these happened to Gallagher, whose blog – called, not surprisingly, Kaboom – was closed by the Army in June 2008 even though, Gallagher says, he had committed no security violations or done anything else justifying its cancellation. Kaboom, the book, is based on Kaboom, the blog, and is full of the everyday experiences of ordinary soldiers during Gallagher’s 15-month deployment in Iraq. Not surprisingly, Kaboom offers a mixture of the horrifying, the gritty and the surreal, all told in forthright language that makes it easier (although not much easier) to read about some of the more frightening events. “I sometimes felt my compassion for fellow human beings leaking out of me like oil leaving an engine,” writes Gallagher, “so slow it was barely evident and yet dripping with enough regularity that I knew the problem was severe in nature.” Yet Gallagher never actually loses his compassion or his capacity for connection, and that is what gives Kaboom most of its impact. For instance, when he is told that he will be moved out of his platoon to become an executive officer elsewhere, he comments, “Surplus officers crawled around every staff office on Camp Taji, and the thought of a line platoon going short in such an environment lit my already short fuse. …I told [the captain] how I felt about this reactionary method to [sic] filling officer slots, describing it as ‘self-important chimpanzees making a square peg go into a round hole, logic be damned.’” Readers who find Gallagher’s language and perspective on Army life refreshing, and who want to know what it feels like to slog through the Suck in Iraq, will certainly find Kaboom worthwhile (if not easy or pleasant) reading. Readers who have seen books filled with similar anecdotes before, from many other wars – too many other wars – will likely wind up with the feeling of having been here before, often, with only the names of the towns, the soldiers and the victims changed. And that is the Suck for civilians.

     What to do? The reasons for the war in Iraq – for any war – are always complex and sometimes self-contradictory, no matter how simple politicians and interest groups try to make them. No single person can hope to change the events in Kaboom, or whatever Kaboom-like events are occurring right now in Iraq and other world trouble spots. Nor can any single person hope to reverse (or even fully understand) the extremely complex environmental interrelationships discussed in Living Downstream. It is this feeling that one should do something but cannot do anything meaningful that is a huge reason for the heightened stress levels in modern society, as the well-known (although not always well understood) flight-or-fight response causes chemical changes in the body without providing an outlet for the hormonal flow. The best most people can hope for in their everyday lives is to find a way to live with the stressors that seem to appear unceasingly from everywhere – home, family, work, politics, war, the environment, etc. This is where Worried Sick comes in. Psychotherapist and communication consultant Karol Ward discusses, simply and usefully, just what stress is, how the body responds to it, and what to do about that response. Her basic explanations are very clear: “We respond with our whole being whether a worrisome situation is actually happening or we anticipate it happening. …After we sense that a worrisome situation is not as bad as we first imagined, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over and helps us move from panic to calm.” But how can we make that move easier, quicker and more frequent, given all the stressors bombarding us day after day? That is what most readers of this book will want to know – and unfortunately, Ward has nothing to suggest that has not been recommended many times before. That does not invalidate what she says, but readers looking for something new – even if not for a magic bullet to kill all those stress symptoms instantaneously – will be disappointed to be told only that exercise, changes in diet, adequate sleep, good relationships with others, meditation and a few other techniques are the way to limit the effects of worry and stress. Ward has acronyms – all advice books have acronyms – to encapsulate her recommendations. For example, to wind down your keyed-up mind, she suggests “the three Cs” of calmness, clarity and community. If you manage worry with food, she suggests the acronym SANE – Stop for a while; Acknowledge that your eating or drinking is out of control; Normalize your coping mechanism by realizing that it is a common one; and Evaluate what you can do to handle stress in a better way. Again, there is nothing wrong with this – and nothing new. The best parts of the book, and the ones most likely to be useful to readers who have sought stress solutions many times, are the very specific suggestions that Ward makes. For instance, for people whose worries prevent them from sleeping, she suggests writing in a “worry journal” at night: “Create a list of your worries and rank them in order of concern. Then you can create a plan to address the most important one first and go down the list from there.” If you just cannot seem to shake off constant worrying, she suggests disrupting it by playing a favorite song and singing along; washing dishes or vacuuming; taking a walk; going to the gym; etc. These specific ideas are no newer than Ward’s general approaches, but because they are specific, they give readers explicit ways of trying to cope with stress and worry instead of becoming even more worried because they are not finding ways to cope. So even if Ward offers little that is original, she offers much that can, potentially, be helpful.


Schubert: Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 2; Fantasia for Piano Duet, D. 940. Julia Fischer, violin and piano; Martin Helmchen, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Cuarteto Latinoamericano: Encores. Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.

     Julia Fischer and Martin Helmchen make a great team in both expected and unexpected ways. Their second and final SACD of all the small number of works that Schubert wrote for violin and piano includes the “Grand Duo” violin and piano sonata in A, D. 574, the Fantasia in C, D. 934, and a two-piano work in which Fischer moves elegantly and with apparent ease from the violin to the keyboard. There is a natural give-and-take to the Fischer-Helmchen performances that gives them a pleasant ebb and flow, and this is especially effective in music that is, for the most part, cheerful and emotionally light. But Fischer and Helmchen also plumb what depths these works have. The “Grand Duo” sonata, which dates to 1817, has three-fourths of its movements in three-quarter time, the sole exception being the opening Allegro moderato, which is the longest movement and the only one with even a hint of profundity. As a whole, the work is light to the point of being airy, and Fischer and Helmchen trip along with warmth and ebullience throughout. The Fantasia D. 934 is a later piece (1826) and, although certainly pleasant enough, is more inward-looking. Written for violinist Josef Slavik, the Fantasia offers the violin a meatier role than the piano receives. Schubert also melds the two instruments, at the very opening of the first-movement Andante molto moderato, into a plaintive combination that is more introverted than the rest of the work. Fischer and Helmchen do a fine job of balancing this piece’s more-serious and lighter elements – and they do equally well in the Fantasia for Piano Duet, written in Schubert’s final year (1828). This is an odd work in some ways: it is written in a form commonly used in its time for home entertainment, but is not nearly as light and carefree as most such works were. This is not to say that the work is gloomy or dismal; it is not. But it has more power than a typical drawing-room piece, along with greater emotional depth. Fischer and Helmchen play it with a seemingly natural rapport that lets the work flow easily throughout, allowing it to hint at profundity even as it simply delights the ear.

     There is excellent flow among the members of Cuarteto Latinoamericano as well, but it is hard to recommend the group’s new Encores CD unreservedly despite the fine playing. The reason is that this is essentially a “fan” disc – likely to be of interest almost solely to people who simply like this quartet’s playing and want to hear some of the works that the members have, over the years, used as encores after their concerts. Those works themselves, though, will likely be quite unfamiliar: the 76-minute CD contains only one 13-minute item (Osvaldo Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk) that has ever been recorded before, and it is scarcely a well-known work. Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s members – brothers Saúl and Arón are the violinists, with a third brother, Alvaro, on cello, and Javier Montiel on viola – play all the pieces here with flair. And no wonder: many of them were written for the group. Still, it is hard to imagine that a lot of listeners will buy this CD for the music, which includes, in addition to the Golijov, Radamés Gnattali’s Valsa; Roberto Sierra’s Mambo 7/16; Stefano Scodanibbio’s Sandunga, Bésame Mucho, Cuando sale la luna and Canción Mixteca; Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez’ Cinco para Cuatro; Jorge Torres Sáenz’ La venus se va de juerga; Adolfo Salazar’s Rubaiyat; and David Stock’s Sueňos de Sefarad. The works are nearly all short or a series of short movements, and they contain plenty of virtuosity and enough emotional excess to work well as encores; but taken together, they make a rather thin musical gruel – there is little to sink one’s teeth into here (so to speak). This CD gets a (+++) rating because of the skill of the playing and the fact that some of the short pieces provide a great deal of lighthearted fun. But anyone looking for something more substantive from Cuarteto Latinoamericano must look elsewhere.

April 22, 2010


How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

Can You See What I See? Treasure Ship. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $13.99.

     Sometimes the creators of long-running series surpass themselves – as in these two books. As good as the How Do Dinosaurs series has always been – with its fanciful portrayals of accurately rendered dinosaurs rampaging through modern households, standing in for modern children – the latest entry is even better than most, because of the amount of interactivity between human parents and kids-as-dinosaurs. Instead of being incidental to Jane Yolen’s story, the parents here are integral to it, from the frowning mother watching her little (well, actually huge) Neovenator rubbing its eyes and crossing its legs after waking up in a bad mood, to the annoyed-looking mom trying to drive while her rambunctious Pachycephalosaurus kicks the seatback. Many of the How Do Dinosaurs books feature the kids-as-dinos alone on most pages, but this one has interactions with humans on every single page. The design seems to have inspired Mark Teague to make the dino drawings even more expressive than usual: the details of motion, the positions of limbs and wings, the tremendous expressiveness of those dinosaur faces, are completely enthralling. The size relationships are perfectly (if not always paleontologically accurately) rendered, whether a mom is reaching up to stroke a huge dino’s face or a small child is running away from a Chasmosaurus rampaging in a sandbox. The point of the book is that parents love their “little” dinosaurs despite all sorts of misbehaving. But the structure here differs from that in other How Do Dinosaurs books, which typically show a number of pages of misbehavior followed by a number of ones with correct ways to act. Here, bad and good are intertwined throughout: Tsintaosaurus “flooded the house when you played in the sink,” but on the very next page Antarctosaurus (watched by a quizzical cat as well as a human mom) “got out the mop and then cleaned up the floor!” The dancing, whirling, spinning and bouncing dinos are a wonder to behold, the soft-pedaled behavioral lessons are effectively conveyed, and the ways in which human parents handle their dino darlings are even more delightful than usual.

     The Can You See What I See? series has its own pattern: intricate miniatures artfully conceal a variety of specific objects that readers are invited to search for and find. But Walter Wick likes to give his books an unspoken story line as well, and in Treasure Ship, he has done so outstandingly by combining two striking visual techniques. One is the hide-in-plain-sight design always used in these books. The other is the zoom out: starting with an object that fills the entire frame, then showing that object, in smaller size, as part of a larger picture; then showing that picture as part of a still larger one; and so on. Wick uses the technique to perfection here: it would be easy to write a story about these pictures instead of (or in addition to) using them as puzzles. The first picture is a closeup view of a coin, supposed to be part of the treasure of a ship called the Bountiful. The next picture shows that the coin, and the large pearl necklace first seen next to it, are just two small items on the lip of an overturned golden cup, while the cup itself is just part of a treasure of gold and jewels. Next, a picture shows that all the treasure is only part of a larger scene…and then that scene widens to show that everything is located within a wrecked ship…and then, with another zoom out, the entire underwater derelict itself appears. And that is by no means the end, as Wick’s imagination pulls back even further to show the underwater wreck to be, in reality, a ship in a bottle – and there are more pullbacks, and more, and more, each one a delightful surprise and each a perfect prelude to the next. On every page appears the question, “Can you see what I see?” And as always, the objects are very difficult to pinpoint but are, like Poe’s purloined letter, placed in plain sight. There are so many objects to find that this book will keep readers involved for a long time: on just one page are “a ship propeller, hammer, 2 saws, an arrow, 5 anchors, 4 lobster claws, an elephant’s trunk, a grandfather clock, a fish hook, a fly, 3 keys, a lock, a blue umbrella, a black-billed gull, a sword, a spyglass and a pirate skull!” Excellent photography, a top-notch unspoken narrative, and a typical-for-this-series set of questions requiring close observation of intricate scenes add up to a book that is a delight on every level.


I’ll Mature When I’m Dead. By Dave Barry. Putnam. $24.95.

     Dave Barry has long worn his utter immaturity as a badge of honor, so fans are bound to be astonished or even upset at a book whose subtitle is, “Dave Barry’s Amazing Tales of Adulthood.” But have no fear: the astonishment is designed only to separate you from 25 bucks. Almost everything here is as emotionally regressed as always.

     The book also makes a big deal about being filled with “all new” material, “except for one piece,” which is called “Colonoscopy” and happens to be about the closest Barry has ever gotten to tackling a genuinely adult theme, even to the point of offering to have readers send him a self-addressed, stamped envelope after getting a colonoscopy, at which point “I will send you back a certificate, signed by me and suitable for framing if you don’t mind framing a cheesy certificate, stating that you are a grown-up who got a colonoscopy.” This may actually have induced some people to get colonoscopies, which is a good thing that people over age 50 had better get done quickly before the new health-care law either makes colonoscopies illegal or requires them three times a week and forces your grandchildren to pay for them, depending on whether you are a Democrat or a Republican.

     Barry, by the way, does deal with the American health-care system in one of his all-new essays here, in which he points out that turning health care over to the federal government “is like saying that if your local police department has a corruption problem, the solution is to turn law enforcement over to the Sopranos.” Instead, Barry recommends avoiding medical care altogether.

     Among the other “adult” themes that Barry explores here is “Tips for Visiting Miami: No. 1 – Are You Insane?” This includes such “adult” information as an anecdote about a dead shark on a public-transportation vehicle. And then there is “My Hollywood Career,” which includes the plot summary of Howard the Duck and some plot ideas from Barry and fellow would-be big-time Hollywood success story Gene Weingarten that are, believe it or not, even worse.

     By now, you may be wondering where the “adult” part of the book comes in – maybe some sex and violence somewhere? No such luck. Barry prefers mature writing to mature themes, as in this explanation of how the Wheel-O toy worked: “You tilted the frame so the wheel rolled down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, then down, then up, and so on.” (This is an exact quotation and explains why book critics are so well paid.) Barry here gets points for accuracy but none for style.

     A couple of other “adult” features in this book are parodies that require readers to have an intimate knowledge of entertainment garbage, specifically the TV show 24 and the latest spinoff of the Twilight series, whatever that may be this week. Don’t bother reading “24: The Ultimate Script” or “Fangs of Endearment: A Vampire Novel” if you don’t know what Barry is parodying, or you will be either disappointed or bored – which is similar to being “disappointed” but costs $24.95. If you do know what Barry is writing about, though, the vampire-novel sendup is particularly toothsome; and a good thing, too, since it is the longest piece in the book.

     Unfortunately, I’ll Mature When I’m Dead does not end with undead bloodsuckers but with its two weakest essays, “A Festival of Grimness” and “Father of the Groom,” which – probably not coincidentally – are the most overtly “adult” pieces here. The first of them is about parents who go nuts when their kids play sports, and features Barry dispensing actual good advice that, coming from him, sounds weird: “There are more important things in life than winning. Such as not being a jerk.” This from a professional jerk? Okay, he is not that kind of jerk, but still. And the very last essay is about Barry’s son’s wedding day, and features Barry getting sentimental over the vows that the bride and groom wrote for each other: “When he told her, with pure and simple eloquence, how much he loved her, his voice broke, and every woman watching went aww, and Laura’s eyes shone like moonlight on a mountain lake.” At this point, every loyal Dave Barry fan is going to be looking carefully at the book and, in unison, retching. Because that sort of expressive prose is so not Dave Barry. It is too emotional, too sentimental, too serious, too caring, too…adult. Better to stop reading the book after page 233 (the last page of the vampire parody) if you don’t want to find out what happens when Dave Barry actually does try to do something adult. Because, really, he doesn’t do “adult” very well. If you want to read real adult material from a Florida-based keen observer of the human condition, you should be reading, say, Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey. But that, as they say, is another story.


Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #4: Stage Fright. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #5: Glitter Girls and the Great Fake Out. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

Cornelia and the Show-and-Tell Showdown. By Pam Muňoz Ryan. Illustrated by Julia Denos. Scholastic. $4.99.

     Meg Cabot’s endearing fourth-grader, Allie Finkle, continues to get herself into the same sort of trouble, time and time again, in the two latest books of her adventures. Allie has all sorts of rules to live by (there is an “Allie Finkle’s Rules” list after each story), and she keeps writing down more of them, but somehow she finds them hard to use in real life. Allie has recurring problems, and not just because many of the same characters show up in each book. She is cute, perky and smart, but never learns quite as much from the consequences of her actions as she thinks she does. Stage Fright is all about a school play called “Princess Penelope in the Realm of Recycling,” whose plot seems to be even more ridiculous than its title suggests – for instance, there is a “kindly wizard who tries to help Princess Penelope understand about wasteful plastic water bottle usage.” Allie wants to be Princess Penelope, but so do almost all the girls in class – notably Allie’s friend, Sophie, and Allie’s enemy, stuck-up and spoiled Cheyenne, and of course Allie herself. The tryouts, the role assignments and the ups and downs of rehearsals are only part of the story here. Equally important are the book’s messages, which Cabot scarcely soft-pedals, as when she has Allie explain to her helpful Uncle Jay, “I want to audition for the part of Princess Penelope. But the problem is, one of my best friends is going out for the part. And I’m afraid that if I try for it, too, she’ll be mad at me. And so will all my other friends.” So Allie learns to go for what she wants; accept what happens in life if it’s not quite what she thought she wanted; make the best of things; do what is best for the group, not just for herself; be a good friend; and so on. Along the way, she tosses about her rules (for instance, “whenever possible, try to be born into a family with no little brothers”). And everything comes out just fine.

     Until, that is, Glitter Girls and the Great Fake Out, in which Allie gets invited to the birthday party of a stuck-up and spoiled girl – not Cheyenne but Brittany, from Allie’s old school – and the party conflicts with the regional Twirltacular baton competition to which one of her best friends has invited her. The party, it turns out, will be in the big city, an hour’s ride away in a real limousine, and will feature some things that Allie just has to experience, including a visit to the ultimate store, Glitterati, and an overnight stay in a hotel. Not surprisingly, Allie opts for the party with not-really-friends over the wholesome competition with really-friends, and regrets her decision, and learns that things that seem wonderful aren’t always, and has to figure out how to make everything all right again with the people who really matter to her. And she does just that – although adults may notice, in this book, that Cabot’s lesson is a little confused, since Allie gets to have it both ways (experiencing the rich girl’s party but also, through a stroke of scheduling luck, sharing in the excitement of Twirltacular as well). Fourth-grade girl readers, though, will simply have fun with Allie’s misadventures, some of which are really funny (she makes a great pirate, turning what was supposed to be a humiliating experience into a positive one). Readers will also enjoy taking the wraparound covers off these books and doing the activities presented inside: creating a cast list for their very own play and designing their own Glitterati looks.

     Cornelia and the Show-and-Tell Showdown is for younger readers – second grade rather than fourth – but it too has lessons, suitably simplified, to teach within the context of a story. The tale here is about Cornelia’s decision to bring her corn snake to school for show-and-tell, and the problems she encounters with mean Jason, who misbehaves repeatedly even though Cornelia tells him, “It is not smart to be mean to a reptile.” Jason eventually gets his comeuppance – not being bitten, which might scare young readers, but being scared and reprimanded. But his antics result in Corny getting away in the classroom, causing a mixture of panic and worry until the snake is safely recaptured. There is some accurate snake information in the book, which is nice to have, although there is an implied inaccuracy when Cornelia sings a song and Corny peeks out at her – the implication being that the snake responded to the music, which could not be true (snakes have no ears, although they do sense vibrations through their bellies). However, Pam Muňoz Ryan never actually says that Corny hears the song; and her pleasant narrative moves along smartly and in an age-appropriate way. Julia Denos’ pictures complement the story well, making the latest Cornelia adventure a fine entry in this ongoing series.


Beethoven: Symphony No.9. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, mezzo-soprano; Christoph Strehl, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone; Collegium Vocale Gent, Academia Chigiana Siena and Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Sinéad Mulhern, soprano; Carolin Masur, mezzo-soprano; Dominik Wortig, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritone; Chœur de Chambres les Éléments and La Chambre Philharmonique conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Naïve. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Yvonne Kenny, soprano; Jard van Nes, mezzo-soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Two of the greatest choral symphonies of all time here receive performances ranging from the excellent, on the “low” end, to the truly exceptional. Philippe Herreweghe’s Beethoven Ninth, which by any ordinary standards is a first-rate reading, is in this company not quite at the ultra-highest level. At the start, Herreweghe offers a robust, quick opening, not mysterious but emphatic. Throughout the first movement, Herreweghe’s clarity ties this work to the Classical period, even downplaying the timpani strokes; as a whole, the movement is speedy but does not feel rushed. In the scherzo, Herreweghe’s timpani are more muffled than reverberant – clearly the conductor’s intention, since PentaTone’s SACD has, as usual, very fine sound – and the horns are quite good, although the winds are slightly reticent. The movement is effective but a bit lacking in intensity. In the third movement, Herreweghe makes the Adagio molto e cantabile almost an Allegretto: it is not a relaxation from what has gone before. The movement is sweet and pleasant, with relaxing flow but no strong emotion. Then, in the finale, Herreweghe’s opening is striking, but there is little intensity in the musical rejections of excerpts from the earlier movements. The vocal quartet blends well, although listeners will not be able to follow along with the words: for some strange reason, PentaTone does not provide Schiller’s text. The chorus sings very clearly, notably in softer sections. As a soloist, soprano Christiane Oelze is particularly good. And the finale’s coda is very well done, with more drama than the rest of the movement. On balance, Herreweghe’s performance is strong but a touch lacking in grandeur – it is not inappropriately monumental, but neither is it particularly majestic.

     Emmanuel Krivine, whose ensemble uses original instruments and whose performance was recorded live, takes a very different approach. The opening of the first movement is intense, although with less bite to the horns than in Herreweghe’s version, and is more propulsive despite its slower tempo – all Krivine’s tempos are a bit slower than Herreweghe’s. As the first movement unfolds, Krivine makes the timpani very dramatic, the more so because of his careful instrumental balance, especially between brass and winds. The rhythms are felt unusually strongly here. In the scherzo, Krivine is fleet, slower than Herreweghe but feeling faster, with lighter texture and a bouncy, scurrying quality rarely heard in this music. The solos by bassoon and timpani come through particularly well. Then Krivine gives the third movement a gentle, almost pastoral opening, with an overall soothing feel and some yearning in the strings that is proto-Romantic. And in the finale, Krivine creates a real but brief shock as the movement opens, with especially strong timpani, and makes the “rejection” section almost regretful. The vocal quartet is very fine; bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff and tenor Dominik Wortig sing particularly well. So does the chorus, which enunciates clearly and, despite being French, brings real feeling to the German words (which Naïve does provide). The martial music, which can stick out oddly, here fits perfectly with the words “wie ein Held zum Siegen” – “like a hero going to victory.” And there is a beautifully ethereal quality to “Such’ ihn über Sternenzelt” – “seek Him above the stars.” The result of all these elements is a poetic, flowing performance with an unforced orchestral blending perhaps attributable in part to the use of original instruments but surely due more strongly to the conductor’s skill. This is a Beethoven Ninth to cherish.

     The new Mahler “Resurrection” on LPO is one to cherish, too. The performance itself, of course, could scarcely be new: Klaus Tennstedt died in 1998. But this is a newly released performance that was, at the time it was recorded live, famous. Tennstedt did a fine studio recording of this symphony for EMI in 1982, but by February 1989, when he conducted this version with the London Philharmonic, he had been forced by illness to resign as the orchestra’s principal conductor and was already noticeably frail from the cancer that would eventually kill him. Tennstedt’s podium manner, never very emphatic or dramatic, was said to be even limper than usual by 1989, but he must have been in telepathic communication with Mahler’s spirit to have produced the astonishingly full-bodied and intensely dramatic reading of the “Resurrection” recorded more than 20 years ago and kept away from the public, by contract, for two decades. The new LPO release is that recording, and it is one the finest Tennstedt ever made and one of the best Mahler Seconds on disc. It is slow (93 minutes), grand, deeply tragic almost throughout (even the second movement providing little relief from the first), and so heartfelt that the final chorus raises the spirits in an almost physically uplifting way. Mahler said the first movement represented the funeral of the hero from his First Symphony, and Tennstedt certainly treats it as a grandly spun-out funeral march, its repeated climaxes verging on the depressive. The second movement is more solemn than usual, its gentle dance theme taking on an air of sadness as the dances do in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Sibelius’ Valse Triste. The third movement’s grotesqueries therefore seem like a continuation of what the second movement has to say, and it is only in the fourth movement, Urlicht, that there is some feeling of uneasy restfulness. Then comes the finale, in which the rumblings at the start seem to shake the musical foundations (and the foundations of Royal Festival Hall, where the performance was given). It is only gradually and through much struggle that the music wins through to eventual affirmation of life beyond death – ending with concluding measures so broad that they provide ample time for a feeling of exaltation to balance all the earlier despair. This is an extraordinary performance, worth owning even for the listener who already has multiple versions of Mahler’s “Resurrection.” It is the sort of recording to which one returns again and again for emotional inspiration.


English Viola Sonatas: Gordon Jacob, John Ireland, Malcolm Arnold, Frederick Delius, Lennox Berkeley. Martin Outram, viola; Julian Rolton, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Haydn: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 4; Mendelssohn: Octet. Gil Shaham, violin; Sejong Soloists. Canary Classics. $16.99.

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin. Konrad Jarnot, baritone; Alexander Schmalcz, piano. Oehms. $16.99.

     The viola’s resurgence as a solo instrument during the 20th century was focused largely in England, because violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) was so influential on so many British composers: Bax, Bridge, Elgar, Holst, Walton and others. Some of those “others” are represented on a beautifully played CD of English sonatas from the last century that were written or transcribed for the viola. Every one of these five works has something to recommend it. Gordon Jacob’s sonata has long lines and a high level of expressiveness, taking full advantage of the viola’s warm, singing tone without neglecting its virtuoso possibilities – highlighted in the work’s brief finale. Malcolm Arnold’s sonata is atmospheric and fast-changing, a winning combination of melancholy and puckishness with a sonic world all its own. The sonata by Lennox Berkeley is more conventional, well made and refined, allotting soulfulness as well as flashes of wit to the viola. The other two works here are arrangements. John Ireland’s Cello Sonata was transcribed by Tertis (and first played in that version, in 1941, by Tertis on viola and Ireland on piano). This work lies very well on the viola, calling for wide-ranging, rich sound and a vein of nostalgia throughout. Martin Outram not only plays these four works with understanding and enthusiasm but also is himself the transcriber of the fifth: Delius’ Cello Sonata, whose nearly continuous lyrical line is absolutely gorgeous on the viola, giving this one-movement work the feeling of an evolving fantasia with great subtlety of ebb and flow. Julian Rolton is a fine accompanist, staying supportively in the background most of the time but bringing forth the piano part when (as in the Arnold) it helps make the composer’s points clearer. This is a first-rate disc all around.

     The violin’s voice remains more often heard in a solo capacity than that of the viola, of course, and Gil Shaham’s own label, Canary Classics, exists in large part to promote it. The new Haydn-and-Mendelssohn CD, though, is stronger when Shaham steps a bit back from center stage than when he plants himself there. Shaham plays the two Haydn concertos quite well – neither is especially challenging for a first-class virtuoso, with No. 4 in particular being comparatively simple – but his playing is not especially idiomatic or involved; it sounds as if he knows he can handle this music easily, so that is just what he is doing. Haydn was not a great concerto composer (likely because he was not really a soloist-quality performer on any instrument), but the balance, poise and charm of his music is as apparent in his concertos as in everything else. Shaham’s playing is rather…well, charmless. Not so that of the Sejong Soloists, though. The 15 young musicians in this group play with care and delicacy, showing a stylishness that really comes to the fore in their performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. In fact, here, where Shaham is more a member of the group of eight than its front-and-center leader, everything sparkles. The ability of these musicians to play the Scherzo both very quickly and very softly is just remarkable. The sense of ensemble is palpable, and the music flows with ease and naturalness from start to finish. There is tremendous transparency in Mendelssohn’s string writing here, and every player is essentially exposed at all times. Shaham and the Sejong Soloists’ members make the Octet fleet, exuberant and thoroughly youthful – a winning performance from start to finish.

     In Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, the solo voice is, of course, a solo human voice; and this too is a youthful work, dating to 1823, when Schubert was 26. Of course, since Schubert died at 31, it can be said that all his works are youthful, but in this case, it is not only the age of the composer but also the age and attitudes of the protagonist of Wilhelm Müller’s poems that stamp the song cycle as filled with the passions of youth and love. The sentiments of the work are thoroughly Romantic, including the humanization of nature, the preoccupation with color, and above all the intertwining of love and death that were hallmarks of the time. Ideally, Die schöne Müllerin requires a voice that expresses tremendous passion (both positive and negative), with intensity until the resignation of the end – but at the same time is so finely controlled that Schubert’s gorgeous melodic lines get their full due. Konrad Jarnot is not, on this basis, perfectly suited for the song cycle, although he gets better and better as the music veers from initial exuberance and love of life into darker sentiments. For the first six songs, Jarnot sounds slightly breathy at the top of his range, and his expressiveness sometimes takes the form of what almost sounds like an attempt to whisper and project at the same time – an odd effect. He has difficulty connecting with the naïve emotionalism of lines such as, “O Bächlein meiner Liebe.” And the climax of the seventh song – the repeated line “Dein ist mein Herz” – is not as joyous as it can be. From then on, though, as things start to go wrong in the wandering poet’s love for the miller’s beautiful daughter, Jarnot becomes more effective. There is real tenderness in “Morgengruss,” dark foreboding in “Pause,” and strong anger in “Eifersucht und Stolz” (although the yearning in that song is less well conveyed). By the last two songs, when the poet tells the brook of his plans to drown himself and then, afterwards, the brook sings his body and unhappy soul to eternal peace, Jarnot has settled well into the comfortable portion of his range and offers a feeling of sweetness, gentleness and peace, with the rocking motion of the last song, “Das Baches Wiegenlied,” particularly well conveyed. Whatever reservations there may be about Jarnot’s performance do not apply to that of pianist Alexander Schmalcz, who is exemplary throughout, providing warmth, partnership, a fine sense of balance, and an accompaniment that moves seamlessly from bubbling happiness to intense anger and eventual pervasive sadness. This is, on balance, a very fine performance, even if it is not quite at the apex of emotional and musical expressiveness throughout. And it does have an irritation in packaging for English speakers: all the texts are included, even those of the Prologue and Epilogue, which are not recorded. But they are provided only in German.

April 15, 2010


Paris in the Spring with Picasso. By Joan Yolleck. Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Hugo and the Really, Really, Really Long String. By Bob Boyle. Random House. $15.99.

Time for Bed, Baby Ted. By Debra Sartell. Illustrated by Kay Chorao. Holiday House. $16.95.

     Unusual in theme, elegantly written and beautifully illustrated, Paris in the Spring with Picasso is intended for children ages 4-8 but will appeal to older and more sophisticated readers as well – including parents of children ages 4-8. This is Joan Yolleck’s alternative-history reimagining of early 20th-century Paris and of the renowned artists and writers who clustered around the famous soirées of the inimitable Gertrude Stein. The characters are all real – Stein herself; her brother, Leo; her companion, Alice B. Toklas; poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob; and of course Pablo Picasso. Yolleck imagines what these people might have been doing during the day, before one of Stein’s nighttime soirées: walking the streets, interacting with a dog, visiting cafés, strolling past Notre Dame, seeing some circus elephants – all things that could have happened at this time and in this place, even if they didn’t. This is a charming conceit, and Marjorie Priceman’s impressionistic, wonderfully colored illustrations manage both to make the concept seem real and to give it a dreamlike quality – quite an accomplishment. The wonder-filled world of the illustrations complements and contrasts with the sometimes mundane details of the characters’ everyday lives: Apollinaire has stayed overnight with his mother, Jacob adds water to a vase of flowers, Picasso puts on a polka-dot shirt. The overall presentation of the book adds to its air of simultaneous reality and unreality, as when the reader must turn the pages sideways to read some of the text and when one page is written in the style of a rhyming memoir by Jacob and is colored entirely in orange and yellow. Paris in the Spring with Picasso is a fascinating book on several levels, conceptually and in execution well beyond the norm for readers in its target age group. The brief information offered at the end about some of the real-life characters shown in the story may even inspire children to learn more about those people and the others who made this era in Paris such an intellectually and artistically stimulating one.

     Hugo and the Really, Really, Really Long String is intended for slightly younger kids – ages 3-6 – and is much more the sort of book one would expect for its target age range. Bob Boyle’s story is a great deal of fun in a far more superficial way than Yolleck’s, and may in fact appeal to a wider variety of children through its silliness and through popular-style illustrations reminiscent of the animations that Boyle does for the Nick Jr. network. The story is very simple: a “happy little guy named Hugo” looks out his window one day and sees a long red string – which he is sure must have something wonderful at the end. So he starts following it, up and down and every which way, singing a happy little song from time to time (“following this string” rhymes with “it’s a wonderful thing”). Through water, through underground tunnels, and all over the place, Hugo follows the string, meeting other characters (Mrs. Mole, Mr. Alligator Police, and so on) who also follow along through some very unlikely places (the funniest scene has the string running through a noodle shop). Eventually, Hugo and friends find the end of the string – which turns out not to lead to anything wonderful at all…until all the characters decide that simply meeting each other and following the string together was wonderful, and everything ends happily. This is a nice, non-challenging little story with some amusing and likable characters, and it makes a good bedtime book, too, since it ends with Hugo going happily to sleep after his big day of exploration. Hugo and the Really, Really, Really Long String is far from profound, but it never tries to be. Instead, it is quite pleasant and unassuming – which is what it does try to be.

     And speaking of good bedtime books, Debra Sartell’s Time for Bed, Baby Ted is not only fun but also unusual. Instead of mommy putting a child to bed, in this book it is daddy, with mom nowhere to be seen. And instead of skipping over all the little elements that make up a bedtime ritual, this book includes all of them – even Ted sitting on the potty. Kay Chorao’s illustrations make Ted’s familiar-to-every-parent pre-bed delaying tactics absolutely adorable, and Sartell’s rhyming story – in which Ted pretends to be a whole series of animals that his father has to guess – is delightfully told. The characters’ expressions make it clear that there is easy rapport between father and child here, as when Ted first says he isn’t baby Ted and starts “snap, snap, SNAPPING” – at which point his dad snaps Ted’s pajamas and says, “Let’s get this baby crocodile ready for bed. We’ll SNAP him up, WRAP him up, and tuck him into bed.” But Ted protests that he is not a baby croc, and he quacks – so dad promises to “QUACK him up, SNACK him up, and tuck him into bed.” But not so fast, as Ted declares himself a frog, bat, penguin, mouse, chick, owl and seal before finally settling in for the night. Ted’s and his father’s looks and actions show that this whole interaction is a bedtime ritual – and Chorao’s lovely pictures of the animals Ted is pretending to be add to the fun, especially for very young children (the book is targeted at ages 1-3). Parents feeling frazzled by their children’s bedtime routines (or non-routines) will find Time for Bed, Baby Ted as calming as their kids themselves will. And the final picture of Ted giggling as he settles into bed is just too cute for words.


The Book of Awesome. By Neal Pasricha. Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. $22.95.

Change Your Age: Using Your Body and Brain to Feel Younger, Stronger, and More Fit. By Frank Wildman, CFT, Ph.D. Da Capo. $18.95.

     Cynics, begone! The Book of Awesome is easily dismissible as a silly attempt to elevate meaningless elements of everyday life to the level of great importance. And if you read it that way, that’s just what it will be – and you will not enjoy it at all. Non-cynics, be aware: The Book of Awesome really is an elevation of small, apparently meaningless events to a higher level than they would ever normally attain – but that is the whole point. Neal Pasricha’s argument is that, with all the grand and miserable things going on in the world, everyone can take refuge in the small, delightful things that occur all the time but that we rarely pause to acknowledge. Think of it as “stop and smell the roses” expanded to nearly 400 pages. True, a little of this bubbliness goes a long way, which is surely why Pasricha’s blog, www.1000awesomethings.com, gets so many hits and has won so many awards – you can look at it daily for just a second or two and get the point of the whole thing, and maybe find a pick-me-up for yourself and your day (and if not, there’s always tomorrow). Pasricha’s concept is well communicated by the headlines in this book, which pretty well render the explanations that follow unnecessary. For example, “when the thing you were going to buy is already on sale” is certainly an “up” moment. Whether Pasricha’s follow-up personal story of “humming down the aisle and happily accepting little sample cups of drinkable yogurt from sweet old ladies in hairnets” adds anything is a matter of taste (and not just whether you have a taste for drinkable yogurt). Similarly, “discovering those little tabs on the side of the aluminum foil box” really does feel like a small accomplishment, whether or not you add Pasricha’s personal aluminum-unrolling foibles to the initial headline. And “finally clipping your fingernails after you’ve been meaning to do it all week” scarcely needs to be followed by the news that “it’s not a trim, it’s a full-on shear…and you sort of feel a little buzz of pride, relief, and cleanliness.” Still, Pasricha’s unbounded enthusiasm for the little pleasures of life can be infectious if you let it be, and it is truly wonderful to see how many of those little pleasures he comes up with and writes about: bakery air, the cooler “other side of the pillow,” laughing along with someone whom you spot singing in his or her car, getting to use a neighbor’s expensive swimming pool, perfectly popped microwave popcorn – there is nothing earthshaking anywhere in The Book of Awesome, but there are so many little niceties that readers will feel renewed, maybe even uplifted, by the time they finish it. Which they should do slowly, since the items really do cloy if taken in too-large doses at one time.

     Another thing to do slowly – if you want your mobility to belie your calendar years – is to move, stand and lie down. The importance of doing those activities carefully and thoughtfully is one lesson from Change Your Age by Frank Wildman, CFT (which here means Certified Feldenkrais Trainer, not, say, Center for Financial Training or Community Foundation Trust). Wildman, also a Ph.D. and educator, heads the Feldenkrais Movement Institute in Berkeley, California, which aims to improve people’s balance, fitness and daily life through a self-awareness program created by Israeli physicist Moshé Feldenkrais (1904-1984). Guided self-observation, awareness and self-rehabilitation are foundations of the Feldenkrais method, whose teachings pervade Change Your Age but need not be studied or followed dogmatically in order to benefit from Wildman’s book. For the book is really about small things you can do, on an ongoing basis, to improve your overall quality of life, whatever your age. One subheading, “Hidden in Slow, Small Movements – The Potential for Change,” stands for much of what Wildman recommends and is followed by this explanation: “It is by paying attention that you can assess how young or old different parts of your body feel, determine the realistic and reasonable changes needed to make your movements more youthful, and measure your progress toward your goal of a more youthful self.” In the book’s six sections, Wildman focuses on becoming mindful of your body as it is and as you want it to be, then exercising in ways that will help you get from where you are now to where you want to go. “The Change Your Age Program” of 30 exercises is the core of the book and the longest section by far, detailing basic and advanced movement exercises (all derived from Feldenkrais teachings) to be done when lying down, sitting, kneeling, and so on. Like all books recommending exercise – even gentle exercise – this one cannot provide the motivation needed to learn the movements and practice them day in and day out. But Wildman’s recommendations have an advantage over those in the many “sweat it out” exercise books: these are gentle, motion-focused exercises rather than ones designed for strength building or cardiovascular fitness. Some have silly or whimsical names (“baby alligator,” “the sitting and turning dance,” “jump-sitting in a chair”), but all are serious attempts to maintain or improve mobility. The flaw in Wildman’s approach, as in the many well-meaning “exercise for fitness” books written in recent years, is the assumption that people have the time as well as the motivation to become as intensely involved in these exercises as Wildman clearly is himself. In the case of Change Your Age, though, this is not a significant drawback, since the exercises have specific purposes – for example, “coordinating your neck and eyes with your legs and pelvis” – and it is not necessary to do all the activities all the time. Furthermore, the underlying precepts of the exercises are nicely explained here, as in a section called “The Importance of Orientation and Scanning” that explains why certain forms of movement are evolutionarily significant and how improving them can therefore be beneficial in everyday life. Change Your Age will not, of course, alter your chronological standing, but it can help you develop habits that, if they will not make you become younger, can make you feel younger than the calendar says you are – and that, after all, is one thing that people most value as time goes on.


The Sixty-Eight Rooms. By Marianne Malone. Illustrated by Greg Call. Random House. $16.99.

Calendar Mysteries: #3—March Mischief; #4—April Adventure. By Ron Roy. Random House. $4.99 each.

     Here are some books that are pleasant and interesting rather than dramatic – nice ways to spend some “down time,” if not the sorts of page-turners that you cannot put down once you become engrossed in them. The Sixty-Eight Rooms has an unusual and interesting premise, especially for families living in Chicago or familiar with its museums: the rooms of the title are the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were designed by Mrs. James Ward Thorne and furnished partly with miniatures she bought and partly with furniture created by craftsmen in the 1930s and 1940s. The rooms are a popular exhibit at the museum – but they contain no human figures, since Mrs. Thorne felt that dolls would not look as realistic as the rooms’ miniature furnishings, which reflect a wide variety of styles, tastes and eras. But the fascinating setting is not enough to sustain a book for ages 8-12, so what first-time novelist Marianne Malone does is invent two sixth-graders named Ruthie and Jack who see the rooms on a school field trip – and discover a key that lets Ruthie (and, later, Jack) shrink to hamster size so they can explore the rooms and learn their secrets. And the rooms do have secrets – in the novel, that is – because there has to be some thread of exploration and uncertainty to keep the book moving. So Malone has the protagonists not only visit the rooms but also visit the time periods that the rooms represent; they encounter characters (some real, some imaginary) from different epochs; they are involved in the Salem witch trials and the French Revolution; they find an important journal and learn about an almost-wife of King Henry VIII; and so on. Unfortunately, there is an artificiality to the plotting that fits uneasily with the descriptions of the rooms, which Malone clearly knows and loves – the furnishings are more interesting than the sixth-graders. And the dialogue and narrative style are pedestrian: “‘I’m not going to do that again!’ Ruthie stated when her feet were firmly planted on the ledge. She brushed her hair off her face. ‘But it worked!’ ‘Yeah, but it felt like backward bungee jumping!’ ‘What’s wrong with that?’” The youths’ adventures offer periodic tingles of excitement, and the notion that there can be magic in everyday life if you simply look for it is attractive (although commonplace). But the real attraction here is the exhibit of rooms, not the “official” adventures that Ruthie and Jack have while visiting them.

     March Mischief and April Adventure continue the mystery series that Ron Roy began with January Joker and February Friend, and here as in the earlier books, the stories are pleasant without being gripping. These mysteries for ages 6-9 feature the younger siblings of the kids in the A to Z Mysteries series, with events and writing style suitably simplified. March Mischief focuses on St. Patrick’s Day, April Adventure on Easter (never mind that Easter can also occur in March). The four sleuths here are Bradley, Brian, Nate and Lucy. The March story involves disappearing leprechauns: they are first stolen for a bit of revenge that goes wrong, but then they are stolen from the young thieves, and then the mystery really begins. It turns out to involve a double-cross (or maybe triple-cross) intended to teach a mild lesson, and of course everything turns out just fine. Ditto in April, when instead of leprechauns being stolen, Easter eggs mysteriously disappear. The egg hunt involves finding both plastic eggs (a dozen) and real ones (four), with the real eggs being the ones that have gone missing. There is a nice scene here in which the kids think a snake has eaten the eggs, but the boys are scared to approach it – while Lucy admires its beauty and tells them not to be afraid. That’s a good role reversal. The mystery itself has a bit of a twist, too, and involves the kids getting help from a petting zoo to bring some real eggs to a couple of misguided birds. Again, everything ends happily and there is nothing at all scary or threatening in the story, which is an enjoyable one even though the kids themselves have very little personality.


Microsoft LifeCam HD-6000. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP Pro 64-bit). Microsoft. $59.95.

     Lots and lots of notebook computers come with built-in cameras these days. And lots and lots of those cameras are, to put it politely, not very good. They’re fine for taking still photos to identify yourself in E-mail or at social networking sites; they’re reasonably good for video chat if the lighting is just right and you aim them correctly; and they do have the advantage of being built into the computer’s form factor, so there is nothing else to carry if you are on the go. That last undoubted benefit is somewhat negated, though, when you are sitting somewhere less than ideal – say, in an airport terminal – and trying to find a place comfortable enough to use the computer while also angling it so the built-in camera actually shows what you want it to show.

     So add-on cameras certainly have a place in the market, and when they are good, they can be very worthwhile accessories. For notebook users whose units do not contain built-ins, the add-ons are practically a must-have. And when they are very good, it may be tempting to buy one even if you already have a built-in model.

     The new HD-6000 from Microsoft Hardware is very good. Very, very good. Indeed, it is good enough so people who decide not to spend the $60 to buy it because they already have a built-in notebook camera will make that decision regretfully if they try out the HD-6000 and find out what it can do.

     First of all, this camera is really tiny: a one-inch cube, not counting its mounting adapter. Second of all, it rotates a full 360 degrees (actually, to be precise, 180 degrees in each direction) and tilts smoothly up and down as well – there is simply no position in which it can’t get a good picture. Third of all, the camera’s auto-focus works flawlessly. Fourth of all, the pictures themselves are really high-quality. The HD-6000 is one of a new generation of Microsoft cameras using what the company calls “TrueColor Technology,” which sounds like marketing hype but happens to have a very strong real-world connection: no matter what the angle or (within limits) the dimness of the lighting, the HD-6000 automatically adjusts colors to look quite amazingly natural.

     And then there are the bonus features – ones you may not use constantly but will welcome if you do use them. The HD-6000 captures pictures in 720p HD video at up to 30 frames per second. You won’t want to use this camera to make feature-length films, but for short videos, it maintains as good a quality as it offers for stills. The camera’s USB cord is quite cleverly designed: it is only three feet long, so it does not get tangled, and it threads through an easy-to-use plastic holder that lets you keep it neat when not using the whole thing. The on-screen software display is attractive, looking like a widescreen version of the camera itself (the window is black on black) and making it very simple to capture a still, audio or video – or to get help. An unusually wide and easy-to-see bar along the display window’s bottom lets you scroll left or right from clip to clip. Everything about the design is user-friendly and intuitive.

     If you happen to be a fan of Microsoft’s Web features – Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker – the HD-6000 gives you seamless integration with their features; in fact, the packaging proclaims that it is “Optimized for Windows Live.” That may be a marketing mistake – not everyone is a fan of the company’s Web services, but the package design implies that this camera is really intended for those services’ users. But have no fear: the HD-6000 works exceedingly well with Skype, Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger as well as with Microsoft’s own offerings. The camera even looks cool when operating: a subtle blue light fills the space between the cubic camera body and the clip that attaches to the computer, making it almost look as if the unit is floating.

     The one oddity of the HD-6000 – there had to be one – is not the camera itself but the soft carrying case with which it comes. The case is three-and-a-half inches wide and four inches high: it holds the camera and its USB cable easily but not firmly, and creates a package that is significantly bulkier than the camera itself. It would have been more elegant if Microsoft had created a shaped hard case for the camera, along the lines of the one for its Wireless Notebook Presentation Mouse 8000. That would have provided better protection and a touch of class – maybe at higher cost, though, and Microsoft certainly deserves credit for offering so many features at such a reasonable price. In any case, from a strictly operational viewpoint, the HD-6000 is a small but very feature-rich unit that is significantly better on multiple levels than anything you are likely to find built into a notebook computer. For people who travel often and want to show themselves in the best light (so to speak) in varying lighting conditions, it is an absolutely top-notch notebook accessory.