May 27, 2010


Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines. By Pat Murphy & the Scientists of Klutz Labs. Klutz. $19.95.

The Game of Sunken Places. By M.T. Anderson. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Some books help your imagination soar. And then there are Klutz books, which help you make things, and then those things soar. Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines is a perfect example of capital-K Klutziness (which is something good, unlike small-k klutziness, which isn’t). The whole book is a project, or rather three projects, since its contents are enough to make three model planes powered by rubber bands. The instructional part of the book – in the usual Klutz wirebound, open-flat format – gives detailed information on how to assemble the planes and how to make them fly in various ways. The plane parts (which are not plain parts but are brightly colored and attractive) include plastic propellers, punch-out foam for airplane bodies, wooden motor sticks, other elements of plane assembly, and of course rubber strips to twist until they store enough energy to power the planes. Although recommended for ages eight and up, Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines is really for careful and attentive model builders, no matter what their age: these planes have to be lightweight in order to fly and do their tricks (yes, they do tricks), so they must be assembled carefully and patiently. Kids who are prone to rush through projects will succeed only in damaging the plane components (the lightweight foam is especially vulnerable) and getting frustrated. A little adult supervision – from a patient adult – can be helpful here. And the time spent putting the planes together is well worth it. One plane, designed for outdoor use, flies especially high; the second, to be flown indoors or out, flies in neat loops; and the third, designed only for use inside, turns tightly and is therefore well equipped to avoid such hazards as walls and table lamps. The planes are not really difficult or time-consuming to assemble (although, again, it will not work to force the pieces or try to do everything too quickly). Flying them, however, does take some skill. The book really excels in details of how to make the flights successful. A “Preflight Checklist,” for example, shows exactly how the plane should look and also how things might go wrong. There are also very useful troubleshooting sections, and some back-of-the-book information on how flying works – which makes gravity, thrust, lift, drag and torque (the forces that push on a flying airplane) into easily understandable concepts. And the tidbits of information in Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines are fascinating – such as the fact that the Wright Brothers, 25 years before their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, had their very own rubber-powered helicopter.

     It took considerable imagination to get from rubber-band-powered flight to an airplane that could carry a human being, and imagination is also the key ingredient in creating worlds where events go beyond anything that can be invented on our own planet. The power of imagination turns out to be crucial in several ways and on several levels in M.T. Anderson’s The Game of Sunken Places, which despite the title has quite a few high-flying moments in it. It is the story of 13-year-old best friends Gregory Buchanan and Brian Thatz, two very different people who seem like “two lobes of the same brain” – a description that turns out to be very important in what happens to them. The “what happens” starts with an invitation from Gregory’s strange Uncle Max to the uncle’s house in Vermont, where all sorts of peculiar people and all sorts of peculiar events come together as soon as Gregory and Brian arrive. At the center of everything is the game of the book’s title, which the boys find in the attic – a board game that is more than a board game, propelling the friends into an adventure in time and space that includes kingdoms at war, a monstrous troll, and sundry other magical creatures. This does not sound like a very original or particularly promising plot – and, to be honest, it isn’t. What makes The Game of Sunken Places a successful book, worth a (+++) rating, is Anderson’s constant deviations into sly humor and his unending fondness for plot twists (near the end, when you are sure he has finally untwisted the last of those, he still has one in reserve). The Game of Sunken Places has some of the flavor of long-ago role-playing games (not the massively multiplayer online role-playing games of today, but games of the “Dungeons and Dragons” variety) and much of the flavor of “buddy movies,” although that element is one of the ones that get twisted at the end. Anderson’s skill at plotting helps conceal the fact that Gregory and Brian are not particularly interesting characters – in fact, they are repeatedly upstaged by less-central beings, from an artificially created monster to someone (or something) that does a lot of the shaping of the world in which the boys find themselves. There is medieval-style adventure here, and some time travel, and some monster-outwitting, and in fact the book sometimes seems to be made up of small pieces of several other books, uncertainly knitted together. Anderson is a good enough writer so he almost pulls off the sleight-of-hand necessary to conceal the seams in the story – and if he doesn’t quite succeed, there is always an upcoming sequel called The Suburb Beyond the Stars to which readers can look forward.


A Wish for You. By Matt Novak. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

A Boy Had a Mother Who Bought Him a Hat. By Karla Kuskin. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Harper. $16.99.

Thanks to You: Wisdom from Mother & Child. By Julie Andrews Edwards & Emma Walton Hamilton. Harper. $6.99.

     Mother’s Day and Father’s Day may be once-a-year holidays, but family feeling is an all-year thing, and these books can help bring it out anytime – for children of many ages. If they are very young, up to age five, they will have fun with A Wish for You, whose title becomes clear only as parents read the book to young children. It does not mean a wish given to the child, but a wish to have the child in the first place: this is a book about two individuals wanting to become a family, and succeeding when their baby arrives. Matt Novak’s very simple text is cleverly rhymed throughout to the sound of “two” (canoe, Peru, blue, you, grew, and so on) – until the book’s end, when the celebration of the new baby creates a family of three and changes the rhyme scheme. The illustrations are large, rounded, simple and straightforward, except for one especially clever two-page spread showing mom’s increasingly advanced pregnancy. Kids will outgrow A Wish for You pretty quickly, but until they do, they will enjoy knowing how they became the key to the creation of the family in which they live.

     Somewhat older children, ages 3-8, will find the amusements in A Boy Had a Mother Who Bought Him a Hat equally enjoyable – maybe more so. Karla Kuskin’s story is of the “house that Jack built” type, where each new element is added to the ones that came before, which are then repeated. The hat starts everything: the boy takes it everywhere. Then the mother buys him a mouse – which he includes in all the activities he does while wearing the hat. Then she gets him new shoes, which he wears while holding his mouse and wearing his hat. And so on. The story gets wilder and wilder as the mother buys the boy boots to wear over the shoes, skis into which to strap the boots, and a Halloween mask to wear with everything he already has on (skis included). And then the gifts become even more extravagant – with a little of the flavor of Dr. Seuss, whose boy characters this boy somewhat resembles – until the whole story gets ready to start again because the hat blows off the boy’s head. Kevin Hawkes’ illustrations contribute a great deal to the charm of A Boy Had a Mother Who Bought Him a Hat, showing the increasing absurdity of the boy’s costumes while making the whole tale seem more a silly fable than an overdone exercise in consumerism. Some adults may find the entire “shop till you drop” premise a little off-putting, but a humor transplant should set them right: it is the silliness that saves the story here.

     Thanks to You: Wisdom from Mother & Child approaches family life from the opposite, serious direction. This small gift book is an appreciation of everything that a mother brings to her child – and is intended for the child to give to his or her mom. There is really nothing here that is exclusive to mother-and-child relationships, and were it not for the photos, the book would work equally well for a father and child. But the photos are the main attraction of this book, since the text is of the “overly sentimental greeting card” variety: “Thanks to you, a cloud becomes a castle for a king.” “Thanks to you, I know that all I have to do is try.” “Thanks to you, I’m grateful for the glory of each day.” A little of this goes a long way, and thankfully, the book is short – fewer than 40 pages of text and illustrations. Also thankfully, the pictures, from the authors’ family collections, are more endearing than the words: mom and child leaping into water at the same time, toddler peeking between two trees, one little girl with a flower and another leaving footprints in the sand, and so on. Objectively speaking, the pictures may be as soupy as the words, but they are more effective – because of their seeming naturalness and because they touch the heart in a way that the text does not. Thanks to You: Wisdom from Mother & Child may not truly offer wisdom, but it does provide many expressions of love – which, after all, is at least equally important.


The Last Dragon Chronicles, Book 5: Dark Fire. By Chris D’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Volume Two: Dragon Haven. By Robin Hobb. Eos. $27.99.

     The disappearance of dragons is a longstanding metaphor for the decline of magic in the world. But dragons have never really disappeared (never mind that they never really existed): they are among the most durable figures in song and story, both in the benevolent form that is still pervasive in China and the East and in the malevolent guise – in which they are often identified with the serpent that tempted Eve – that is more common in the West. The most interesting thing that has happened to dragons in recent times is that they have become complex characters rather than unidimensional symbols. Both Chris D’Lacey and Robin Hobb are clearly aware of the symbolic importance of dragons, and both their dragon-focused book series are laden with wonder, but what is most impressive about their treatment of dragons is the way the authors accept these mythical beings as creatures of depth and genuine importance.

     The Last Dragon Chronicles is written for younger readers and is a more straightforward adventure than The Rain Wilds Chronicles. Still, D’Lacey’s is by no means a simplistic series, although familiar themes do abound alongside some unusual ones. In truth, Dark Fire is a book only for existing fans of the sequence: D’Lacey knows a good thing when he has one, and is spinning out this group of thick novels perhaps a little too extensively. Still, for readers who are fans, Dark Fire offers plenty of excitement. The story of the earlier books in the series – The Fire Within, Icefire, Fire Star and The Fire Eternal – centered on the disappearance of a bestselling author named David Rain, and the attempts by his daughter, Alexa, to find out what happened to him. Having an author as a series hero has always been one of the neat touches of The Last Dragon Chronicles, but the books have now moved well beyond David Rain’s earlier adventures – in fact, Alexa has found him and brought him back. The new book’s title refers to a deadly force that can be used to bring to life a great evil. It is a force that David, Alexa and their dragon allies must find and destroy. But what if the dark fire’s destruction also means the death of a dragon? This becomes a moral dilemma only because the Pennykettle dragons are characters as fully formed and as interesting as the humans. Sometimes they are more interesting, as shown in a brief scene involving a tiny dragon inadvertently kept in Lucy’s bag at a time of human emotional crisis: “Gwendolen! Poor Gwendolen! Stuck in there all day. Fortunately, the little dragon didn’t seem to mind. After investigating every aspect of the room (she liked the cairn rock; it did have a faint dragon auma, she said) she fluttered to the bedside table where she always sat at home and settled under the pretty lace lampshade.” Homey touches like this keep the dragons on the same emotional plane as the humans both during the intense adventure scenes and in the relatively peaceful interludes. Dark Fire is full of emotional tugging (“Why is [Alexa] so upset when her father ignores her?”), unexpected revelations (“What do you mean, it’s not a cat?”), and – less interestingly – fairly standard pronouncements (“She’s going to bring darkness upon us all”). It is nevertheless a solid entry in D’Lacey’s series, and ends in a way that could let it stand as the series’ conclusion or could allow D’Lacey, if he wishes to mine this vein further, to create yet another sequel.

     The second book in The Rain Wilds Chronicles is actually a sequel to a sequel (or sequels). In this series, Hobb is revisiting the setting of her Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies, spinning out a postscript to the tale of the dragon Tintaglia, with whose help the Traders held off the invasion of the Chalcedeans. Tintaglia’s reward was a promise that the Traders would try to restore the dragon species through a migration up the Rain Wild River: newly hatched dragons have been dying or surviving only in earthbound form, easy prey for humans who seek their flesh for its supposed healing powers. Dragon Haven continues the story begun in Dragon Keeper, an extended quest in which 15 dragons and their human companions continue the search for the ancient and possibly mythical dragon homeland, Kelsingra. Dragons have an ancestral memory of this place, but centuries of geological upheavals have rendered their thoughts about its location unreliable and have led to questions about whether even their belief in its existence may be inaccurate. The human-dragon bond is even more thoroughly explored in this 500-plus-page novel for adults than in the 500-plus-page Dark Fire. In fact, Hobb uses that bond to develop and change characters (physically and emotionally) in a way that D’Lacey does not – one of the ways in which this is a more grown-up book than D’Lacey’s. Dragon Haven is nevertheless a novel very much in the Tolkienian fantasy tradition, with grand gestures, portentous pronouncements and (not surprisingly at all) the discovery that external enemies are less deadly than internal dissension and treachery among the humans. The dragon characters – especially queen Sintara, wise Mercor and beautiful Relpda – are often, as in so many human-and-dragon stories, more captivating than the people. In fact, some of the more-or-less inanimate characters, such as Tarman the liveship, are also more interesting than at least some of the humans. It is the dragons who provide the ultimate enchantment of this story, their uncertain powers and complex history pulling the tale along in finely honed prose produced in typical high-fantasy style: “‘Long before dragons came back, we were living where they had lived, and digging into the places where the Elderlings had dwelt. We were plundering their treasures, wearing their jewelry, making timber out of dragon cases. There may not have been dragons walking among us, but we were walking among them.’” It is this sense of dragons’ felt reality – for this series’ characters and, through them, for readers – that gives Dragon Haven its primary attraction, even though, analytically speaking, it is just one of many recent fantasy novels intended to pull the lore and legend of dragons and their magic a bit farther into our mundane and mechanistic age.


Anna Maria’s Gift. By Janice Shefelman. Illustrated by Robert Papp. Random House. $12.99.

Lawn Boy Returns. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

     A book of historical fiction with music at its heart, Anna Maria’s Gift is a work set in the sort of place that will have to be explained to today’s children before they will fully understand the story. Its setting is an orphanage that is also a music school – a difficult-to-comprehend combination, more so at a time when orphanages themselves are nearly extinct in much of the world. So it will take a special sort of child to be interested in Janice Shefelman’s book – but those who do have the interest will be entranced. This orphanage, the Pietà in Venice, is well known to music historians as the place where, for many years, Antonio Vivaldi taught the young girls and composed hundreds of his concertos for them to perform. Vivaldi looms large in the narrative, but the primary focus is on the fictional Anna Maria, a nine-year-old girl with great musical talent and great sadness already in her short life. Shefelman makes her the daughter of a celebrated luthier – a violin maker – and has her most prized possession be the violin that her father gave her before his death. This is one meaning of the “gift” of the book’s title. A second gift is Anna Maria’s musical ability, which quickly brings her Vivaldi’s recognition and makes her the composer’s favorite among the orphan girls. And there is a third gift here as well: the gift of forgiveness, about which Anna Maria truly learns only after another girl, out of jealousy, throws Anna Maria’s violin into the canal. Anna Maria’s Gift is partly a story of the search for the violin, partly a story of Anna Maria’s search for calm amid terrible loneliness, and partly a story of the search for a miracle – the recovering of the missing instrument. This is a lot of material to pack into a book intended for ages 6-9, and some of this narrative may well be above young readers’ heads – not in the writing style, which is age-appropriate, but in the intertwining of classical music with early-18th-century customs and with the concept of forgiveness (within a clear religious context, although a downplayed one). Robert Papp’s illustrations help readers make the long-ago events and people seem alive, but the book will still be of most interest not to the general reader but to budding musicians and classical-music lovers of our own time.

     Lawn Boy Returns is a story of our own time, for slightly older readers (ages 9-12) and with an older protagonist (age 12). This is Gary Paulsen’s sequel to Lawn Boy, and it brings back many of the oddball characters from the first book – the sorts of creations in which the prolific Paulsen specializes. Readers who have not read that earlier book really ought to do so before tackling this one, because Lawn Boy Returns, like many sequels, is really designed to keep the story going rather than to interest new people in it. The first book was a six-week whirlwind adventure for Lawn Boy, who intended to use an old ride-on mower to earn enough money to buy himself a new inner tube for his bike, but who soon found success beyond his wildest dreams and biggest plans. In Lawn Boy Returns, the success starts to catch up to him. Lawn Boy has become the sponsor of a boxer called Joey Pow, which is fine; but Joey’s long-lost, unsavory and greedy relative, Zed, has shown up and parked his trailer at Lawn Boy’s home, which is not fine. Lawn Boy is still making lots of money, which is fine, but the IRS is taking a significant interest in him, which is not fine. Lawn Boy is getting plenty of attention from the media and from girls, which is fine (all right, sort of fine), but he never has a moment’s rest or any time in which to be an ordinary 12-year-old, which is not fine. So in addition to all the slapstick – and there are plenty of funny scenes here – Lawn Boy Returns contains a message about knowing who you are and being true to yourself. Paulsen’s use of first-person narrative is especially effective in this story: “Grandma is amazing and fun, but there are times when she makes no sense. Still, if you think really hard, you can usually figure out what she means.” “My tongue was still stuck to the roof of my mouth. Which tasted like—well, never mind. It was bad.” And the chapter titles are part of the enjoyment here: “The Prudence of Adding Personnel to Manage Material and Financial Well-being,” “Brains Good, Brawn Sometimes Better,” and more. Paulsen’s devil-may-care style fits Lawn Boy Returns well, and if the book seems somewhat overdone and is not quite as innovative or amusing as its predecessor, it will certainly satisfy readers who wanted to know what happened after the original Lawn Boy story ended.


Dohnányi: Variations on a Nursery Song; Symphonic Minutes; Suite in F-sharp Minor. Eldar Nebolsin, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

     America’s two most prominent female conductors have very different approaches to music of the Romantic era, or imbued with that era’s spirit. JoAnn Falletta, who often explores less-known works of that time with the Buffalo Philharmonic, revels in the excesses of the music without overemphasizing them, allowing the spirit of a composer such as Ernö von Dohnányi to come through naturally. Dohnányi had the same teachers as Bartók, but was far more strongly influenced by German Romanticism and far less inclined toward Hungarian influences in his work, although he did use rhythms of his native land to give his music some special coloration. Dohnányi was also a fine pianist, as is shown in the bravura piano part of his 1914 Variations on a Nursery Song, a once-popular work along the same lines as Rachmaninoff’s 20-years-later Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. That is, it is clever, bright, filled with virtuosic passages and not intended to have any depth of expression. It is also a great deal of fun. The nursery song is the same ditty on which Mozart wrote variations – the one known in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Dohnányi deliberately builds up to the trivial tune with a hugely overdone introduction that sounds like something out of Wagner; and then the variations themselves twist and turn the nursery song practically every which way except inside-out. Eldar Nebolsin plays the work with great flair, and Falletta directs it with enthusiasm and not a hint of condescension – which is just the right approach. Falletta does equally well with Symphonic Minutes (1933), which requires considerable orchestral virtuosity and includes its own impressive set of variations – a form in which Dohnányi was skilled and to which he clearly gravitated. In fact, there are also variations in the third work here, the Suite in F-sharp Minor, written in 1908-09, when the composer was just entering his 30s. This is an expansive piece, reminiscent in some ways of Tchaikovsky’s suites: like those, it has a symphonic quality about it even without the thematic and structural unity of a symphony. The orchestration is quite impressive: Dohnányi had a good feel for the capabilities of instruments from cor anglais to clarinet to timpani, and all the works on this CD show fine craftsmanship and excellent grasp of form. And Falletta delivers all the performances with élan.

     Marin Alsop’s recording of Dvořák’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies is somewhat less satisfactory and gets a (+++) rating. Alsop’s advocacy is not of lesser-known Romantic works but of more-modern music, especially American music; she is not a particularly convincing conductor of the standard repertoire. She has a wonderful orchestra – the Baltimore Symphony’s sound is smooth, rounded and warm, with notably high-quality brass. And the live recording, made at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore, is resonant and rich. But Alsop’s interpretations are ever-so-slightly off much of the time, as if she is just going through the motions of presenting music to which she has little personal commitment. The Seventh Symphony, in D minor, is a towering achievement and perhaps Dvořák’s best, but Alsop handles it in a matter-of-fact way from the very beginning, when the mysterious growling that opens the first movement sounds like just another set of introductory bars. What is missing is a sense of the grandeur that Dvořák built into this work; and when Alsop tries to bring out some of the symphony’s deep emotion, she lapses into mannerisms that are frankly annoying, notably by slowing down before a climax as if to make that climactic moment more intense – an approach that stretches things out without making the music sound better. The Eighth, a much brighter and more cheerful work, fares better here; Alsop seems more at home with it. The mannerisms are still present, but they are less obvious and therefore less intrusive. And this work depends heavily on brass for its effect, so the orchestra’s strength in that section is a major plus. There is nothing really wrong with Alsop’s handling of this symphony, but her reading is not idiomatic and not especially committed – it is all right, but far from inspired. As female conductors become more accepted as heads of major orchestras, they are proving to have all the skills and all the idiosyncrasies of male conductors, and to make just as many good decisions and missteps – which, when you think about it, is really no surprise at all.

May 20, 2010


50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can’t Be Wrong: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

FoxTrot Sundaes: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Big Nate: In a Class by Himself. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.

     Start with your basic four-panel storytelling comic presented daily in a format consisting of ink on dead trees. Then modify, to a greater or lesser extent, and you get these books – each of them outstanding in its own way. 50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can’t Be Wrong is outstanding for its hyperbole and confusing title. The title has an asterisk after it, which refers to tiny type on the cover, “Actual number closer to 5 or 6, but you get the idea.” The title also has a subtitle, “Stephan’s Gold Records – Volume 13.” It is an elaborate Elvis Presley parody, with a list of “songs” also appearing on the super-cluttered cover, and it is also the 14th (not 13th) Pearls Before Swine book, although maybe Pastis’ one small-format gift book doesn’t count, but who’s counting? The inside front cover shows a vinyl record broken into pieces; the inside back cover shows the same pieces, but with white glue oozing from between them after an apparent attempt to mend the record. Oh, and there’s content, too. Pearls Before Swine content, which means – among other things – that the individual daily strips have three panels rather than the traditional four (except when they do have four, one of which is frequently unbordered and squashed). Oh yes…content. Well, it’s typical Stephan Pastis stuff, including one series in which the cartoonist decides it is time to kill off a character in the strip and manages to kill himself off (after rejecting Rat’s plan to kill off a character from The Family Circus, a frequent target of Pastis’ humor). And then there is the sequence in which Guard Duck declares war on Venezuela. And the continuing sad story of Andy, the small, chained-up dog whose chained-up girlfriend is just slightly too far away for them to embrace – until Andy wakes up one morning and finds her gone (this is Pastis pathos). And the eternal imbecility of Zebra’s neighbors, the crocodiles, who at one point write Zebra death threats in a letter signed “anoneemiss” and having their return address on the envelope (this is Pastis pathetic-ness). And there are Rat’s children’s books about Danny Donkey, who hates everyone and spends all his time being antisocial and/or drinking beer. And the horrendous puns that Pastis offers in some Sunday strips – strips that end with Rat confronting him in the final panel with endearments such as, “Please, please retire early” or “You’re a nausea-inducing embarrassment.” Peanuts this isn’t. But there’s a Peanuts baseball-game parody here, and lots of other strange and wonderful stuff to enjoy. Or strange stuff, anyway

     Life is a trifle less peculiar (or at least differently peculiar) in Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, but here too the strip is highly nontraditional – because Amend took it to Sundays-only in 2007, presumably so he could spend more time playing video games or something. FoxTrot Sundaes is the first collection since Amend’s not-entirely-appreciated decision, and it shows something interesting: just as the daily strip worked especially well when read in book form, so does the Sunday one, because even though the individual weekly drawings are unconnected to each other, the sequence of them lets readers enjoy what is essentially character-driven comedy. Included in the new collection are dad Roger commemorating the strip’s 20th anniversary by telling mom Andy about other cartoon couples who have been around much longer: 30 years for the Pattersons, 50 for the Flagstons and Mitchells, and 75 for the Bumsteads. A political strip – a type that never wears well – manages to stay amusing here because it involves Andy watching TV shows in which various candidates discuss themselves and their policies as elements of the Superman legend, with Barack Obama proclaimed as Kal-El (Superman’s real name, for anyone who may not know). And of course there is the ongoing war between super-nerd Jason and his older sister, Paige: he identifies her as an Imperial Walker from Star Wars and encircles her legs with twine, hacks “Wheel of Fortune” so the puzzle solution is “Paige Fox Is Ugly,” and so on. Jason also turns a Christmas tree into an Ent; figures out how to change long division into longer division; insists on playing football in the metric system with sports-obsessed big brother Peter; and opens a Fudgsicles stand that, as the hot day wears on, sells chocolate slushies, then chocolate milk, then hot cocoa, then chocolate syrup. It’s hard not to miss Amend’s dailies when his Sunday strips read so well in book form, but given the way newspapers are shrinking comics and limiting the number they print, readers just have to be grateful for what they can get.

     And in the case of Lincoln Peirce’s (not "Pierce’s") Big Nate, they can definitely get more than the strip that appears in some 200 papers – because now Big Nate, the story of a sixth-grader with an outsize ego and more than a little talent for sarcastic cartooning, has become a six-book series of novels. The first, In a Class by Himself, is a real winner, introducing Nate, his friends, his enemies (mostly teachers), his peculiarities (many), and his hangers-on (such as a neighbor’s hilariously inept dog, Spitsy) to anyone unfamiliar with the cast while providing enough of a story line to keep the interest of anyone who already knows Nate and his foibles. The inside front and back covers are a hoot even before (and after) the story, offering Peirce’s drawings of various characters, coded information on the book’s contents, even a full Nate-drawn strip about “Ultra-Nate” and the archest of his arch-enemies, teacher “Mrs. Godfrey, aka Godzilla!” The story arc itself takes Nate through a typical day at P.S. 38, which becomes an atypical day when Nate manages to gather a record number of detention slips. (Individual chapters show how each slip comes about.) Peirce tells the story with equal parts narrative and cartoons, which turns out to be a great way to keep things moving. This is not a graphic novel but a novel jam-packed with graphics – a quick glance at any page shows the difference. For example, in prose, Nate (who narrates the book) complains about his good-student older sister, Ellen; then there is a drawing of Mrs. Godfrey asking why Nate isn’t more like his sister; then Nate says, in prose, that his goal in life is not to be more like a high-school cheerleader; and then there is a drawing of a very unhappy-looking Nate in cheerleader costume. Peirce’s narrative technique is a little hard to describe but is instantly accessible and clear when you see it. And Nate’s misadventures fit his character (and, by the way, the comic strip’s) perfectly. They mostly revolve around a fortune-cookie fortune that tells him, “Today you will surpass all others,” which of course he eventually does through his many suspensions. Nate’s unremitting cheerfulness and optimism, his certainty about his own greatness no matter how obvious his failings are, make him an endearing character – not a braggart so much as someone thoroughly misinformed about himself. He is a great comic-strip protagonist – and now, for other sixth graders, soon-to-be-sixth-graders, and once-were-sixth-graders, Nate is…well, not a role model, exactly, but a great model to turn to when there isn’t quite enough laughter in your day.


Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug. By J.D. Lester. Illustrations by Hiroe Nakata. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.

I Am an Ice Cream Truck. By Ace Landers. Illustrated by Paolo Migliari. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

Stone Rabbit #4: Superhero Stampede. By Erik Craddock. Random House. $5.99.

X-Treme X-ray. Photographs by Nick Veasey. Text by Paul Harrison and Barry Timms. Scholastic. $9.99.

Chocolate with Vimrod: Life Is a Struggle Between Good, Evil, and Chocolate. By Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There are many doses of light and quick enjoyment out there for 10 dollars or less – for readers of all ages. For the youngest children, board books can range from the sentimental to the interactive. Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug is a cute little rhyming story about a father playing with a young child (the child, cleverly drawn and dressed, could be either a boy or a girl). Each two-page spread shows father and child in the guise of different animals, doing things together. At one point they are raccoons: “Daddy calls me Rub-a-Dub…we scrub-a-dub our treasure.” Then they are multicolored insects, something between worms with antennas and caterpillars without legs: “Daddy calls me Itty Bit…a teeny-tiny measure.” Adorable nicknames and adorable drawings, combined with pleasant rhymes, make this book a winner for ages one to four. It is not, however, shaped or interactive. But I Am an Ice Cream Truck is both. The van-shaped book – whose rear wheel is a button that, when pushed, causes a computer chip to play “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” – offers the simple story of an ice-cream truck’s visit to a suburban neighborhood, with the ice-cream lady’s red-and-white-striped dress matching the canopy from beneath which she dispenses all sorts of frozen treats “any way you would like.” Everyone gets something sweet, and the book is a sure-fire favorite as the weather warms – ending, as it does, with the ice-cream lady saying, “When you want a sweet treat, just listen for my tune!”

     Older kids – roughly ages 7-10 – can get some quick fun of both the fictional and nonfictional type. The latest Stone Rabbit comic book/graphic novel by Erik Craddock is clever as well as amusing. It starts with Judy Goose winning a remote-controlled-car race as the boys, especially Stone Rabbit, spend their time teasing their friend Andy for being “wimpy” and a “four-eyes.” Mr. Goat says the boys are being too hard on Andy, adding that “graphic literature is essential to any young man’s development, along with a healthy diet” (subtle plug there!). So much for scene-setting. Then one of Judy’s inventions takes Judy, the boys and Mr. Goat into one of Andy’s comics, where they emerge as “The Mighty Friends” and have to combat “The Dastardly Trifecta.” At one point, Stone Rabbit comments, “Spandex doesn’t make the superhero.” Other dialogue examples: “That’s my superpower? I run really, really fast and explode?” “What’s his superpower? Bad taste in hats?” “Evil isn’t bad, it’s just misunderstood. Eventually, Andy has to decide whether his true friends are the bad guys who treat him nicely or the good guys who treat him badly, and finally everything reverts to the normal world, where Judy says she is through with quantum physics because “it gets kind of boring after a while.”

     Kids can go into an unusual world in a different way with X-treme X-rays, which explains what X-rays are, who discovered them, and what they are used for – and then shows X-rays of everything from a game console and cell phone to a longhorn beetle and a tennis player. There is some fascinating information here: for example, an X-ray showing a runner crouched in starting position points out that “the bone at the base of the spine is the remains of the tail our ancient ancestors had.” The X-rays of a bat and a nautilus shell are especially interesting. Then there are X-rays of an airplane (“over 500 X-rays were taken to make up this picture”), a fish, a bus and the people riding in it, and more. Among the facts in this book: “When a lobster grows, its old shell cracks open. This allows the lobster to crawl out and increase in size before its new shell grows hard.” And: “Barbara Blackburn is the world’s fastest typist – she can type 212 words a minute.” True, the facts are not always intimately related to the pictures, but both the X-rays and the information are interesting, making X-treme X-rays a double dose of enjoyment.

     And let us not leave adults out of the short-but-sweet action. A new book featuring greeting-card character Vimrod, “the Bard of Suburbia,” really is sweet, focused as it is on chocolate. Vimrod is a gender-neutral shape-changer – always drawn with an enormous head (sometimes roundish, sometimes square-ish) and tiny body. Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar, Vimrod’s British wife-and-husband creators, give the character various stylized surroundings and all sorts of exaggerated expressions. For example, a huge, toothy, somewhat crazed smile goes with “See no chocolate, hear no chocolate, speak no chocolate. (get hospitalized due to chocolate deprivation.)” Closed eyes and an expression of bliss go with a kneeling Vimrod on a page showing candles near an altar with a chocolate square on it: “I don’t love chocolate (i just worship, esteem, respect, admire, and adore it).” Standing at a microphone with a huge happy-face-style smile (no teeth showing in this one), Vimrod proclaims, “Give me chocolate right now or i will SING.” Not recommended for those who will attempt to eat its chocolate-colored cover, this Vimrod book will be sweet fun for other chocoholics. But no, it’s not as sweet as chocolate.


Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. By Juliet B. Schor. Penguin. $25.95.

The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success. By Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, with Liz Neporent. Da Capo. $25.

     Whether Juliet Schor’s Plenitude strikes a reader as visionary or nonsensical will depend to a great degree on the reader’s faith in the willingness of people and their created institutions to do the right thing. Schor’s basic argument is that ecological degradation is real, is at a crisis point, and is going to upend the entire American and world economic system – especially the American one. But, she argues, there can be far better times ahead by “merely” shifting to an emphasis on new forms of wealth and a new style of living. Schor does not put “merely” in quotation marks or suggest that the changes she proposes are small, but throughout Plenitude, she constantly argues that they are doable, beneficial, affordable and good for the planet as well as for individuals. For example, she points out that “even very wealthy countries can remain rich and reduce their [ecological] footprints. The average Norwegian has a 19 percent lower footprint today than he or she did almost half a century ago, even with a per capita income that is about eight thousand dollars higher than the U.S. level.” This is quite true. But Schor does not mention that Norway’s population is 4.8 million – about as many people as live in Alabama. She does not note that Norway’s population is extraordinarily homogeneous – nearly 95% ethnic Norwegian, 3% from elsewhere in Europe and only 2% from the entire remainder of the world. Is Norway’s situation – which also includes a top individual tax rate of 47.8% plus a Value Added Tax of 25% – really comparable to that of the United States? Schor would rather assert the comparison than argue it. Indeed, Plenitude abounds in assertions. People will be better off if they “work less in the declining market, but use those freed-up hours productively, to invest in new skills and activities. Some of the time will be deployed to replace higher-priced food, energy, and consumer goods with homemade or community-produced alternatives. Some will be used to invest in social relationships, another form of wealth. And some hours will be spent in high-return leisure activities requiring relatively little monetary outlay.” In a country of 310 million people, a huge number of ethnic groups, vastly different skill sets and tremendously varied ethnicity, how exactly will this utopian vision apply to all? No answers here.

     “Plenitude requires substituting into new, high-benefit uses of time, ideally those that can serve double or even triple purposes,” writes Schor. “These include producing for oneself, making items that may be sold or bartered for other things, and engaging in activities that are meaningful, skill-building, and contribute to one’s standard of living.” What, in the nation’s vast areas of urban poverty, will people produce for themselves? How will the IRS, which taxes barter transactions if they are a regular part of one’s way of life, react to this approach? What sort of skills will be built that will not be reapplied to additional hours of work, which will be deemed counterproductive? And who will so deem them? “In many cases, sustainability entails paying more up front. However, this is not always more expensive over the long run.” And what about people without the luxury to look at the long run when deciding what to buy? As for business, “small is more efficient” and is therefore the basis of the plenitude model. Why, just look at “enterprising, strategic, and lucky [craftspeople], like Josiah Wedgwood, [who] remain known even today.” Yes, but Wedgwood, Waterford and Royal Doulton are now made by an international company controlled by a New York-based private equity firm. No mention of that in Plenitude.

     Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, is not a complete naïf, and her belief in and commitment to alternatives to the wasteful consumer society shines through in this book. Furthermore, some of her arguments are attractive, at least for the sufficiently wealthy – for example, that a plenitude spending model can be built around customization of items that would individually be more costly but would serve their purpose better than current items and for a longer time; and that jobs involving restoration of nature could be a viable alternative to much work today that, directly or indirectly, undermines the natural world. But Schor fails to show how and why individual people will move in dramatically large numbers into a plenitude model – she gives some examples of early stages of plenitude thinking today, but they are mostly eccentric and unlikely to spread throughout a nation with vast and varied geographical territory and a large, diverse population. And although she brings up the Malthusian concept of a population growing beyond its means to feed itself – only to dismiss the idea almost offhandedly – she never looks at, say, an approach to worldwide population growth as a way of limiting the demand on Earth’s finite resources. How about taking China’s one-child-per-family policy one step farther and limiting reproduction according to income level? There’s an idea that would cause vast outrage and would be impossible to implement. But no more impossible than making the plenitude concept a success – unless there are compelling reasons attracting people to it, or overweening governments forcing individuals to live by it.

     What is possible, though, is to help “set” your brain on the path to success in whatever sociological environment you are in – at least according to Jeff Brown, a Psy.D. and Harvard Medical School psychologist, and Mark Fenske, a Ph.D. neuroscientist. In The Winner’s Brain, they argue – with the authorial help of health writer Liz Neporent – that there are eight “win factors” that everyone can develop, regardless of educational level or IQ. They call these factors self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care. There is no cute acronym here, and indeed there is nothing particularly new in the list itself. Brown and Fenske argue that winning in life is more a matter of deciding how to win than if we will win, since the brain equates winning with success and there are many ways to succeed. Before detailing their “win factors,” the authors discuss five essential success elements that they call “BrainPower Tools.” And here they get a little jargon-y: the tools are “opportunity radar,” “optimal risk gauge,” “goal laser,” “effort accelerator” and “talent meter.” The explanations of these tools are clear enough, although their fit with the eight “win factors” is less so: the authors say that their areas of specialization (Brown’s in behavioral modification and Fenske’s in brain-scanning techniques) are complementary, but the fit is not always seamless. Still, the “win factors” come through clearly enough. With developed self-awareness, “you are not only aware of how you relate to the rest of the world but also [of] how the rest of the world relates to you.” Motivation helps you “glide over obstacles.” Focus keeps you from being overwhelmed by distractions. Emotional balance helps you “put feelings to good use rather than being driven blindly by them.” Memory is used “to help anticipate the future and make predictions about the best way to respond to a novel situation.” Resilience involves coming back after inevitable failures. Adaptability has to do with how the brain responds to differing stimuli and “is the foundation of every single Winner’s Brain strategy and tip.” And brain care involves eating the right foods, getting plenty of sleep and otherwise taking care of your body and thus of your brain. This is actually a pretty mundane list: it may disappoint readers looking for new ideas and approaches. What gives Brown and Fenske’s book its value is less the list of factors than their suggestions on how to improve each factor in everyday life. They show, for example, how to “reduce the discrepancy between the real you and the public you” and how to “calibrate the level of Focus across a broad range of circumstances.” Some of what they suggest is based on scientific findings about how the brain works; other ideas are presented in an inspirational manner by discussing ways in which various people have succeeded in their special areas of interest. For example, Whoopi Goldberg is an example of resilience, while a London cab driver and a rock star who decided to become a doctor are examples of adaptability. Readers who find “leading by example” useful will get more from these upbeat stories of successful people than readers looking for a methodical, step-by-step brain-boosting plan. In truth, the most specific suggestions here are not in the narrative but in small boxes scattered about the text. For example, those boxes discuss the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and four ways to get better sleep. The Winner’s Brain is a somewhat odd mixture of a self-help book with a motivational get-up-and-do-it cheer, but it does have some good, specific suggestions for improving brain health mixed in with a fair number of anecdotes that are sometimes entertaining but not necessarily applicable to readers’ lives.


Legends: Battles and Quests; Beasts and Monsters. By Anthony Horowitz. Illustrated by Thomas Yeates. Kingfisher. $9.99 each.

Poison Apple Books: The Dead End; This Totally Bites! By Mimi McCoy (End) and Ruth Ames (Bites). Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     There is plenty of life remaining in the grand tales of the past. Plenty of death, too. Anthony Horowitz, best known for his Alex Rider series, clearly relishes the “death” part. His first two Legends books – there will be two more per year for the next two years, for a total of six, all of them updates of Horowitz’s decades-old Kingfisher Book of Myths and Legends – retell myths and stories from many times and many peoples, with an emphasis on cinematic descriptions of mayhem (abetted by Thomas Yeates’ atmospheric illustrations). For example, in the first part of the story of Theseus – well before he kills the Minotaur – the young hero encounters some bandits. “He had managed to kill no fewer than five of the worst offenders, kicking one of them over a cliff, lopping off the legs of another, and crushing a third with a huge boulder.” In the legend of “The Great Bell of Peking,” the bell-maker’s daughter sacrifices herself to ensure the success of her father’s greatest work: “She leaped off the gantry with a terrible scream and dived headfirst into the molten metal. …Her scream was cut off instantly. At once there was a great sizzling and a horrible smell filled the air.” In the Bororo Indian story of a very unpleasant character called Geriguiaguiatugo, the title character changes himself into a stag and viciously butts his father: “The first time, the father landed in a clump of thistles. The second time he hit a wasp’s nest. And the third time he splashed into a nearby river, where he was immediately torn into a million pieces by a pack of ravenous piranha.” Readers ages 9-12 who cannot get enough of this stuff can get more of it in Beasts and Monsters. This includes a Cheyenne story of a young man transformed into a sea monster after eating an odd-looking egg; a retelling of the tale of Saint George and the Dragon that attempts (not very successfully) to be a humorous commentary on government foibles; and a Celtic story that includes a really ugly eight-foot-plus giant and the hunting of a boar that “howled as all its insides fell out, covering Oscar with a tangled knot of steaming, bloody intestines.” The legends retold in the Legends books are certainly grotesque and gory enough on their own – many of them exist in multiple versions, some bloodier than others – but Horowitz’s aim seems to be to attract reluctant readers by emphasizing the grotesqueries and gore as much as possible. For at least some boys (the books are clearly boy-oriented), this will probably be quite effective.

     The Poison Apple books are intended for girls in the same age range. Whether told in the third person (The Dead End) or the first (This Totally Bites!), these books – entries in an ongoing series – are about the supernatural adventures of preteen girls who discover that some old legends are still hanging around in the modern world. Of course, it helps to get out of the mainstream to find them. That means way out in the country, to an old house that Casey Slater’s parents have bought and are remodeling, in The Dead End. This is a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night story, in which things almost go bump right on top of Casey, who is convinced that the house is haunted but whose parents are (not unexpectedly in a book like this) completely oblivious. The townsfolk think the place is haunted, too, and one old man in particular – who nearly jumps with startlement when he first sees Casey – seems to know more than others about why the house may be haunted. There is nothing very original in the book’s structure: things happen to Casey that her parents do not see; lights go on and off even though the electricity is disconnected; a large cabinet falls over and misses Casey by just a little bit; and so on. There is also a best friend back home for Casey to talk to, and a cute boy in town for a little innocent flirting. Pretty much everything is predictable in The Dead End, including the fact that a twist in the story shows that things are not exactly what Casey feared they were. There is a twist in This Totally Bites! as well – this book being a modern take on the ever-popular vampire legend. Here the focus is on Emma-Rose Paley, who has pale skin, an aversion to sunlight and garlic, and a Romanian great-aunt with the expected accent: “Ven I suggested to her the idea for this exhibit, she took it and ran vit it. …Ve vant it to be perfect.” Clearly Emma-Rose, whose appearance and tastes are quite unlike those of her parents, must be a fledgling vampire – a state of affairs that costs her her best friend, Gabby, and leads her to the library to find one of the earliest vampire books, John Polidori’s The Vampyre (which a cute guy helps her locate). Again, things do not turn out quite the way Emma-Rose thinks they will, and in fact the twist here is somewhat less satisfactory than the one in The Dead End. But these books are written to be fast and forgettable, not as literary masterpieces, and both of them, as well as others in the Poison Apple series, can be fun when taken not too seriously and in small bites.


Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Maureen Mackay, soprano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Rückert-Lieder. Christine Schäfer, soprano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Capriccio. $16.99.

     The tempos that today’s conductors select for Mahler are, in a word, all over the place (all right, that’s four words). Their choice of emphasis within the symphonies, and within individual movements, is all over the place, too. Mahler’s famous prediction that his time would yet come needed some 50 years after his death in 1911 to turn into reality; today, another 50 years onward, his times seem to have come: there are many Mahlers, all of common heritage but tremendously different in sound and approach from each other – and from the pioneering performances of Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein.

     Roger Norrington’s Mahler both harks back to the original Mahler tradition and breaks from it in important ways. Norrington is a noted proponent of original playing styles, even when using modern instruments and a modern orchestral complement. For the live recording of Mahler’s Ninth that Hänssler Classic has just released, Norrington had the orchestra’s strings return to the playing style of Mahler’s own time, in which vibrato was minimal or absent except when called for as a special effect. This puts a heavy burden on players trained in modern performance style, in which vibrato is integral to all playing and (not incidentally) can be helpful when one does not hit a note with perfect precision. The Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR – which, after all, is one of Europe’s top ensembles – rises to the challenge and produces clear, clean, transparent sound that is quite unlike the massed (and unfortunately sometimes muddy) sonority often associated with modern-times Mahler. The effect in Mahler’s last completed symphony is quite wonderful: far from being dense and doom-laden, it emerges as a work of surprising optimism despite a sense of Abschied throughout (not just in the last movement). The first movement – which, as Norrington points out in his booklet notes, repeatedly makes references to a Johann Strauss Jr. waltz whose title, in English, is “Enjoy Life” – becomes a tone poem in which death may be inevitable but is scarcely demonic. The middle movements, which do often sound demonic, here come across as elements of the wild whirligig of life, with even the Rondo Burleske emerging as hectic but not frantic or depraved. And the finale – well, here Norrington decidedly breaks with Mahler performance tradition, as a cursory glance at the timing of the movement will show. This is one of the fastest Adagio conclusions ever recorded for this symphony – and yet, and this is the surprising and wonderful thing, it does not feel fast except in a very few places. Somehow Norrington, while keeping the underlying pace quicker than usual, brings out all the emotion that Mahler put into this finale and that listeners have come to expect in it. And the very ending is truly sublime: impeccably played and almost unbearably beautiful in the mode of “I hope this never ends.” In all, Norrington’s Ninth is an extraordinary performance that remakes the Mahler landscape in important ways.

     Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler Fourth – also recorded live – is not at this rarefied level, but it is one of the better entries in the Mahler cycle that Schwarz is currently producing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Simply from the point of view of tempos, Schwarz tends to go in the direction opposite Norrington’s: this is a leisurely Fourth, running almost a full hour. It does not drag, though, because once he selects tempos, Schwarz stays true to them; and the ones he picks help him bring out the naïve and bucolic qualities of the symphony – which is filled with them. The sleigh bells in the first movement give the impression of a wintertime country scene here, and the musical conflicts of the movement are not harsh but more like those of natural forces. The second movement, with its scordatura solo violin, sounds like something out of folk stories: Death may be present, but in the comparatively companionable form of a fairy-tale character rather than the terrifying one of other Mahler symphonies. The slow (sometimes quite slow) variations of the third movement wind unerringly upward in a subtly balanced performance that emerges into real splendor when the gates of Heaven open at the movement’s climax. Once through those gates, though, there is a bit of a letdown, for soprano Maureen Mackay’s singing in the finale is a touch too breathy and a little too emphatic for Mahler’s extremely innocent, childlike setting of the “Heavenly Life” song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (whose short text Artek really should have provided in this CD’s booklet). The very simplicity of this movement makes the vocal line extremely difficult to deliver effectively – Bernstein famously had it sung by a boy soprano, who almost made up in purity what he lacked in technique. Mackay has a bit too much technique to put across the childlike wonder of the whole scene to which the symphony builds. As a whole, though, this Mahler Fourth is a very satisfying one.

     Christoph Eschenbach’s studio-recorded Mahler First is somewhat less effective and therefore gets a (+++) rating. Eschenbach has a very fine orchestra here – the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin easily handles everything the conductor asks of it – but this performance does not seem to be as thoroughly thought-through as those of Norrington and Schwarz. Eschenbach repeatedly slips into small but irritating mannerisms, such as a ritard and brief pause before this or that emphatic chord – something that Mahler, a brilliant conductor, was perfectly capable of writing into the score if he had wanted it. This periodic jerkiness disrupts the musical flow. And Eschenbach seems less than fully comfortable with some of Mahler’s tone painting – the opening of the first movement, for instance, seems not an awakening of nature but just a set of introductory bars leading to the main theme. The playing is excellent throughout – the brass section is especially good – and when Eschenbach calls for a really big sound, as at the end of the second movement and beginning of the fourth, the orchestra comes through very well indeed. But the quieter sections are not as expressive as they can be. The entire third movement, with its mixture of sincerity and sarcasm, falls rather flat, and the reminiscences contained in the finale (including the references to the dropped “Blumine” movement) seem elements to be gotten through rather than ones in which to dwell for a brief time. There is plenty of skill in Eschenbach’s performance, but it is rather lacking in heart. The five Rückert songs on the CD are uneven as well. Christine Schäfer sounds a touch strained at times, and although she gets the words and rhythms right, she misses a certain level of emotional connection with the texts, especially those of “Im Mitternacht” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” Eschenbach and the orchestra provide fine support, but the performance as a whole is emotionally a bit shallow. There is really nothing wrong with this Mahler CD, but there is not quite enough right for it to be recommended wholeheartedly at a time when so many performers are doing Mahler so outstandingly well.

May 13, 2010


Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Party Edition. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $17.99.

Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go Pop-up! Pop-ups by David A. Carter. Robin Corey Books. $28.99.

Dr. Seuss’s Oh, Baby! Go, Baby! Based on and inspired by Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Random House. $10.99.

     The last Dr. Seuss book to be published during Theodor Seuss Geisel’s lifetime, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has proved to be one of the most adaptable. Nearly two decades after its author’s death in 1991, the book continues to spawn greeting cards, posters, graduation gifts and many other variations that make it seem a wholly upbeat affirmation that the recipient, any recipient, has great things in store in the future.

     Except that it’s not the book that many people think it is. That makes it worthwhile to buy the new “Party Edition” of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (which has an embossed jacket printed on foil but is otherwise the same as the version first published in 1990) and read it from start to finish. There’s some worry and even cynicism in this book to balance its upbeat moments; and although, yes, the conclusion is resolutely optimistic, it will be hard for a reader to forget the Seussian scenes of the boy playing basketball alone at a ramshackle house, dreaming of something better; the “things that scare you right out of your pants” looming darkly on both sides of a gateway that leads to a road to who-knows-where; and especially The Waiting Place, filled with people waiting for “the phone to ring, or the snow to snow,/ or waiting around for a Yes or No/ or waiting for their hair to grow.” This is the Seuss of such other late works as The Butter Battle Book and You’re Only Old Once! – gently chiding the world, but chiding it nevertheless. There is a great deal more to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! than many 21st-century readers realize – the book is definitely worth a visit, or revisit. Or several.

     But of course it is the celebratory aspects of the book that are most amenable to repackaging and selling in a wide variety of guises – and in truth, those upbeat elements are as wonderful now as they were when the good doctor created them. David A. Carter, who previously created a pop-up of Horton Hears a Who! and has written (or, rather, engineered) 75 pop-up books in all, brings tremendous creativity to an excerpted version of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! No Waiting Place here, but a couple of the darker and lonelier scenes do appear – and seem far less threatening in three-dimensional form. Carter gets the Seuss lollipop colors right, and manages to keep many of the perspectives of the original drawings while creating 3D packed with balloons, pennants, castles and humbler abodes, and even the “mountain” that Dr. Seuss has his character moving – here attached to the boy by three lengths of bright yellow thread. This is a gift book par excellence, not a substitute for the original but a supplement to it, designed for someone who is graduating from somewhere and is certainly, definitely, or at least most likely going on to even greater things.

     Aimed at the other end of the Seussian spectrum, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, Baby! Go, Baby! is sort of an introduction to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Intended for children up to age three, it is a bright and bouncy board book with tabs to pull or turn (the “optical illusion” created on one page is particularly impressive), fluffy stuff to feel, a few touches of foil, and even a flap that opens to the promise, “Baby, you’ll move mountains!” That’s not quite what Dr. Seuss had to say, but it scarcely matters: this is simply a book for the youngest Seuss fans, or rather fans-to-be, providing a sturdy, visually attractive sampling of Seuss sentiments to young children who will presumably be enthralled by this easier-than-easy version of the book and eventually graduate – not from Dr. Seuss but to him and the many delights of his work.


Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance. By Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm. Penguin. $27.95.

     This book’s subtitle is doubly unfortunate. First of all, the primary meaning of “crash course” – a quick study – is subsumed within an economic context by that word “crash,” which indicates a level of pessimism that the book’s two authors do not fully communicate in the text itself. Second of all, the subtitle refers to the future, but the book itself is mostly a dissection of the lessons that can be learned from the past (and to some extent from the present) rather than a look at what is likely, or even reasonably likely, to occur in the future.

     This is nevertheless a closely argued, well-thought-through book whose contents are better and more cogent than its subtitle would indicate. Nouriel Roubini, former White House advisor and professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and Stephen Mihm, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other publications, analyze the most recent financial meltdown not just through the often-used but now-tired comparisons with the Great Depression but also by delving into the Panics of 1825, 1837, 1847, 1857, 1866, 1873, 1893 and 1907. Among other things. Roubini wears his “Dr. Doom” sobriquet proudly, having been awarded it (if that is the right way to put it) after he predicted the coming global recession back in 2006. But Roubini and Mihm manage not to discuss other famed market prognosticators who got it right until they got it wrong and fell into obscurity – such as, say, Joseph Granville, perpetual bear (even after 1982) and perhaps the most-admired technical analyst of the 1970s, whose pronouncements actually did move the market. It would be wonderful to know how much confidence Roubini personally had in his advance warning of the global recession -- what changes did he make to his personal investments, and how did they weather the market plunge? Did he, perhaps, go to all cash in 2006 and miss more than a year of extraordinary (if ultimately unsustainable) gains? No word on that in Crisis Economics – because this is a macro look at the periodicity of downturns, not a “do what I do” book of investment advice.

     So Roubini and Mihm discuss, for example, the way J.P. Morgan singlehandedly strong-armed the bankers of 1907 into ending that year’s panic, and the way Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson unsuccessfully tried something similar 101 years later. Why did Morgan succeed where Paulson failed? There are many reasons, from the systemic to those involving personality, but again, this is not what Crisis Economics is about. The authors instead focus on the results of Paulson’s failure: the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the ruination of the credit rating of AIG, the run on and eventual closing of the once-prominent Reserve Fund money-market fund, and so on. It is the interconnection of apparently disparate elements of the economy that interests Roubini and Mihm – a state of affairs that, they argue, makes it very important to understand that recessions and other apparent economic “hurricanes” are not in fact rarities but are integral to the functioning of the United States and world economies. This in turn makes it crucial to plan for crises, to understand what they have in common and how they spread.

     There is a bit of self-contradiction here. If crises are in fact predictable, and if Roubini’s and Mihm’s ideas for handling them were to be accepted – but if crises are also inherent elements of economic life – then the implementation of those recommended policies cannot possibly succeed, since crises will occur anyway, perhaps in some new form less closely related to those of the past. However, a book like Crisis Economics would be of interest only to historians if it did not include prescriptions as well as descriptive elements; so the authors, after arguing effectively for the periodicity of economic crises, proceed to offer ideas that they say will blunt those inevitable recurrences. The ideas are not particularly new, and Roubini and Mihm underplay and underestimate the political realities that make them difficult to implement. But they are certainly reasonable proposals from the point of view of economists: break up huge companies to eliminate the notion of institutions being too big to fail; create a new form of the Glass-Steagall legislation of 1933, strengthening it through transparency and tough requirements to keep different aspects of financial institutions truly separate; use the powers of central banks to prevent asset bubbles from getting out of control; and so on. The authors do acknowledge disagreement with some of their ideas: “In all fairness, the reluctance of central banks to prevent bubbles from forming reflects the fact that the idea remains controversial in academic and policy circles.” But they tend to be dismissive of counterarguments, sometimes through ad hominem comments: “[Ben] Bernanke and other apologists for the status quo have countered by arguing that central banks can’t possibly intervene against rising asset prices because of ‘uncertainty.’ This is nonsense: all monetary policy decisions are plagued by uncertainty.” At another point, they say of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s argument that massive new regulation should not be based on an unusually deep recession, “That’s ridiculous.” Not a lot of room for reasoned discussion there.

     Roubini and Mihm would no doubt argue that the issues discussed in Crisis Economics are too important to mince words, and they would have a point. But wide-ranging and complex policy changes are unlikely to come about with a “my way or the highway” attitude – the recent healthcare debate being one case in point among many. What changes are eventually adopted will of necessity, if not by design, end up being messy, imperfect and far from anyone’s original ideal – again, look at what emerged from the healthcare morass. Furthermore, as Roubini and Mihm accurately note, decisions made in the United States must be implemented within a world grown increasingly skeptical of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency and of the U.S. government’s ability and political will to manage its huge and growing debt. “The recent [economic] cataclysm …marks the end of the financial stability ushered in by the Pax Americana,” the authors write. Nevertheless, they say that there is a “road to redemption,” through a series of reforms ranging from the radical to the “even more radical.” But how likely is anything radical to emerge from the sausage-making machinery of Congress? What is the real-world chance that “regulations can be carefully crafted with an eye toward the future, closing loopholes before they open”? Unfortunately, Roubini and Mihm, for all their understanding of the historical inevitability of severe economic shocks, seem not to know about, or at least not to accept, the equally historically inevitable imperfection of the governing process and its laws and regulations. Just as “this time it’s different” is a dangerous phrase when applied to investing, so “this time it’s different” is self-delusional when applied to the U.S. political establishment and the elected and appointed people who run it and ultimately profit from having it continue to do business mostly as usual.


Devoted: The Story of a Father’s Love for His Son. By Dick Hoyt with Don Yaeger. Da Capo. $22.95.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. By Doug Stewart. Da Capo. $24.95.

     There are some books that, no matter how firmly they wear their hearts on their sleeves, it is impossible to criticize without seeming unsympathetic to the point of inhumanity. Devoted is one of those “beyond criticism” books There is simply no way to find the tale of Rick Hoyt and his father, Dick, anything less than tear-jerking, emotionally wrenching, uplifting, an example of humanity at its best, a tale of what “family” really means, and so on. And it would be unfair to suggest that the book is in any way exploitative of Rick, a 48-year-old congenital spastic quadriplegic, because Rick comes across as a thoroughly remarkable individual who deserves every single break he ever gets, and then some. And his father, 69-year-old Dick, deserves not only applause but also a standing ovation for his amazing dedication to Rick and his utter refusal to see his son as anything other than a complete, talented and very able (as opposed to disabled) human being. These two men have bonded through athletic events, in which Dick has pushed Rick’s wheelchair through – among other things – 27 Boston Marathons and the Hawaii Ironman competition. Rick’s mother, Judy, became a crusader when school administrators would not let Rick enroll in public school, eventually being instrumental in the passage of the nation’s first special-education reform law. There is a purity to this family – not an angelic one, but a gritty one – that simply admits of no reaction but admiration. Except…well, after readers are done crying with joy and empathy at all that the self-named Team Hoyt has accomplished, after everyone lives vicariously through the unspeakable difficulties, after everyone reads the letters from Team Hoyt admirers worldwide and imagines being in a similar position (unimaginable for anyone who has not been in one), there may be a niggling little bit of uncertainty about what to do with this astonishingly positive microcosmic story – from a broader perspective. Consider: Dick Hoyt writes, “You know, I’m just a regular guy. …I’m like any other man in America. Only I got lucky – I have a beautiful son and an activity we can do together, despite his disability. It’s been an incredible journey. I’m not a hero. I’m just a father.” But Dick Hoyt is a hero, and so, in his own way, is Rick. Yet not all people with disabilities are heroes, certainly not in this way; not all fathers have military careers that help them hone the discipline needed to manage a severely disabled child; not all children with disabilities can function, much less excel, in a public school setting; not all disabled young people can negotiate the vagaries of college, even with caregiver assistance, to become Boston University graduates; not all people with disabilities, and their families, become icons of a cause, with speaking engagements and TV appearances galore. There are huge issues – social and economic as well as familial – associated with disabled members of society. Devoted raises many of those issues, mostly indirectly, but never addresses any of them: its focus is entirely on these people in these circumstances. It is a heartbreakingly heartwarming book, but it is also a story so remarkable in its atypical way that it makes it more difficult, not less, to try to find ways to address the many, many thousands of people with disabilities who did not have the good fortune to be born with Rick’s amazing will to overcome physical handicaps and into a family as tremendously determined and devoted as the Hoyts.

     If Rick Hoyt’s father stands way, way off at one end of the spectrum of fatherhood in terms of love and devotion, William-Henry Ireland’s stood nearly as far on the other end. Samuel Ireland denigrated his son, was emotionally distant and seems to have scared William-Henry nearly out of his wits. Samuel was also a tremendous devotee of Shakespeare, whose works were being rediscovered in England in the late 18th century and were being wildly acclaimed after a long period of eclipse that had begun even while Shakespeare was still alive (in the early 17th century, he was not considered as with-it as, say, Ben Jonson). The troubled father-son relationship and the fortuitous reascent of Shakespeare combined to lead to one of history’s more curious footnotes: William-Henry, an unsuccessful aspiring writer, managed to forge a great number of documents that scholars of his day believed had been created by Shakespeare. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare tells this odd story in lively detail, explaining how William-Henry was able to pass off supposed letters, poems and even a “lost play” by Shakespeare after writing everything himself. Much of this was made possible by one of the great oddities of English literature: no one knows what Shakespeare’s everyday handwriting looked like (this is one reason some people still stubbornly insist that his works must have been created by someone else). A few signatures on legal documents exist, but there is not one poem, not one play, not one draft of anything known to be by Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s own hand. So William-Henry, using crabbed and often nearly indecipherable handwriting, old paper or parchment, and watered ink so faded that it appeared old, was able to convince the most prominent scholars of his day that he had unearthed a treasure trove of genuine Shakespeare manuscripts. Why did he do it? Not, argues history-and-art journalist Doug Stewart, in an attempt at self-aggrandizement or for personal riches, but in order to impress his father, whose collection of old books and manuscripts would be immeasurably enhanced by the Shakespeare works “discovered” by his son. In one of many ironies in this story, Stewart points out that Samuel Ireland never believed that William-Henry had forged the documents, even after they were exposed as fakes – because Samuel did not think his son smart enough to pull off such a fraud successfully (nor did many others: for years, people argued that Samuel himself did the forgeries and forced his son to take the blame). Oddly enough, William-Henry succeeded in fooling such giants of his age as James Boswell and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and managed to fool his father as well – despite not wanting to do so. William-Henry’s tell-all (or at least “tell-much”) book about his forgeries, The Confessions of William-Henry Ireland, was one of three books of memoirs that he wrote, and is itself incomplete and not wholly reliable. Indeed, sorting out what William-Henry did and meant to do is difficult, and Stewart does not claim to have uncovered every last bit of this minor but fascinating mystery. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy this book a great deal, although it will be rather arcane for the general reader, despite Stewart’s accessible writing style. But how delightful it would have been if, let us say, William-Henry had turned out – as was suggested at one point – to have an ancestor with the same “W.H.” initials who had been the mysterious dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets! “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” goes a proverb that dates to Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, wishes so often lead astray even those who supposedly know better – and even those who want no more than to prove their worth to their fathers.