December 30, 2010


Wild Alphabet: An A to Zoo Pop-Up Book. Text by Dan Green. Designed and engineered by Mike Haines & Julia Fröhlich. Kingfisher. $19.99.

The Book of Bad Things: A Sinister Guide to History’s Dark Side. By “Count Droffig” (Clive Gifford). Designed by Philip Chidlow. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Versus: Pirates. By Richard Platt. Illustrated by Steve Stone. Kingfisher. $19.99.

     Whether portraying something as sweet and attractive as Xantus’s Hummingbird or as vicious and ugly as the real pirates of the Caribbean, these Kingfisher books are, above all, feasts for the eye. They contain solid information, but it is the way the material is presented that will attract kids to them – more than the facts themselves. For example, there are plenty of alphabet books out there, and more coming out all the time. But how many consist of 26 different pop-ups of animals, each showing the three-dimensional animal as well as the letter with which the animal’s name begins (with the animal integrated into the letter)? That is what Wild Alphabet does, and the result is an exceptionally attractive book that is not for very young children just learning the letters -- the design is a touch too delicate for that. This is, instead, for kids who have learned the alphabet through more conventional means and now want to be entertained by the letters, not just informed of what they are. Some of the animal choices here are obvious, such as G for giraffe, “the tallest animal there is,” and E for elephant, “the biggest animal on four legs” (with the word “biggest” set in type that gets larger and larger, then smaller and smaller). Other picks are more unusual, such as I for ibis, “a fancy flapper,” M for mosquito, whose “bites are an itchy nuisance,” and Q for quetzal, “a sacred bird of the Aztec people.” More curious of all is U for Utahraptor, “a two-ton killer of the dinosaur age” and the only extinct animal here. The animal pictures are uniformly excellent, but it is the outstanding paper engineering that really sets this book apart: it is simply a pleasure to turn the pages and watch the animals pop up from the background in a wide variety of different ways. Very clever indeed.

     The Book of Bad Things contains more words, more information (it is intended for ages 9-12), and more design elements: books within the book, flaps and foldouts, and a layout that combines photography with lists and pages-upon-the-page and notes to the reader and maps and more. The narrative by ”Count Droffig,” which has to do with the search for a mysterious Book of Bad Things that “has been unwriting itself” and requires the speaking of 13 correct phrases in a particular order, is overcomplicated and rather nonsensical, but it is merely the gateway – the framing tale, as it were – for a series of disparate facts: a human head is conscious for 15 to 20 seconds after being removed from the body, while a cockroach can live without a head for nine days; grave wax, a waxy substance that forms on the fatty parts of dead bodies, starts to show up within a month after death; Isaac Newton’s notes reveal that he expected the world to end in the year 2060; the brank was used in medieval times on nagging women – it was a metal mask, often with a strap to hold the tongue still; Malaysian kamikaze ants protect their nest by blowing themselves up and spraying poison over intruders; and on and on. In truth, except for the deliberately overdone narrative, there is nothing to pull this collection of often-but-not-always-scary oddments together (the last woman in Great Britain executed by being boiled in water was Margaret Davy, in 1542; a pandemic is a massive outbreak of infectious disease; when asked to name a color, three out of five people will choose red). But there are so many snippets here, presented in so many different formats and type styles – and with so many things to open, peek into, fold out and examine closely – that young readers who would not find a straightforward presentation of these miscellaneous facts attractive will likely enjoy The Book of Bad Things a great deal.

     Shorter, punchier (or rather stabbier and slashier), and more packed with violence – and aimed at roughly the same age group – Versus: Pirates is a followup to Versus: Warriors and is constructed along the same videogame lines. The book presents 10 different pirates, from the Sea Person of 1178 B.C. to the Yang-Fei of 1807; explains how they operated, what riches they sought and what weapons they wielded; and sets them against each other, two at a time, in a series of fictional battles whose outcomes leave five of the 10 dead or soundly defeated and the other five labeled as victors. Then the book imagines which of those five would emerge victorious over all the others, and why. The simplistic fighting concept, along the lines of the Mortal Kombat videogame series, is overlaid on some genuinely interesting facts about piracy and those who have practiced it through the centuries. There is information on what the pirates ate, how they cared for their wounded, what they did to ensure victory (calling on anyone from a god to a queen), and so forth. Of course, within a book, there cannot be actual combat, but everything about the layout here makes it look as if real fighting (or rather videogame-style fighting) is going on, with power bars, “add stamina” buttons, data files and more. The book’s clear intention is to give visually focused youths – who would be reluctant simply to read about history and the place of pirates in it – a way to learn a little about this aspect of the past (and even a bit about piracy in the modern world) while enjoying much of the over-the-top sensory experience of videogaming. Versus: Pirates cannot, by definition, duplicate the experience of participating in a videogame, but the strength and intensity of its design, and its determination to present facts only in the service of fictional battles between evildoers whose lives were, in reality, separated by many centuries, mean that it comes about as close as it can to the feel of an artificially animated world. Whether this results in actual absorption of knowledge will depend on each individual player…err, reader. But certainly the book looks terrific and is a very impressive exercise in design.


You’re Making That Face Again: “Zits” Sketchbook 13. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Not Just Another Sweetheart Deal: A Collection of “Rose Is Rose” Comics. By Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Consistency in comic strips is a wonderful thing – when the strips are consistently good. Zits is one of the best, and writer Jerry Scott and artist Jim Borgman show no sign of losing their respective strengths or their collaborative flair in You’re Making That Face Again. This is the 13th Zits collection designated a “Sketchbook,” which means it presents a series of strips in the sequence in which they appeared in newspapers – as opposed to “theme” collections like the last several from the Zits creators, which have focused (among other things) on the character Pierce and the relationship between protagonist Jeremy Duncan and his mom and dad. The new book hits whatever themes Scott and Borgman chose to explore over time: Jeremy, after his breakup with Sara, getting involved with a girl named Becker; Pierce wearing pleated khakis – about as far from his usual outfit as anyone can imagine; Jeremy trying “blonde dreads” as a new hairstyle; Jeremy trying to extend a dance invitation while dressed as a gorilla; and the usual trials and tribulations centered on school, driving and home life. Many of the best strips come in sequences within the overall Zits sequence, such as “Field Guide for Encountering the Teenager in Its Natural Habitat” juxtaposed with “Field Guide for Encountering the Grownup in Its Natural Habitat,” or a “Teenager in the House: The Most Awesome Show on Earth” series. The Sunday strips remain in a class of their own: Jeremy shows nine ways to say the word “dude” and nine expressions to use when saying it; father Walt looks on, bemused, as Jeremy transforms his new phone into a Segway; and there is a wonderful two-panel Sunday strip contrasting Beowulf “as written” (in a dim, dark room, with great care and attention, by a scholarly-looking poet) with the work “as read” (the text from the first panel almost disappearing behind a full-color Jeremy, who is sprawled in an armchair while simultaneously texting, listening to music and using his laptop). The occasional moments of tenderness that creep into Zits are among the things that make the strip so special – such as one Sunday sequence in which mom Connie rediscovers Jeremy’s old picture books and, by the last panel, Jeremy is sprawled in her lap, waiting for her to read him a story “from the beginning.” Zits is, and continues to be, a simply wonderful strip, partly because its portrayal of being a teenager, and living with one, is not simple at all.

     Rose Is Rose has become consistent since Don Wimmer took it over from creator Pat Brady, but unfortunately its consistency is on a far lower level than it was when Brady himself handled the strip. Not Just Another Sweetheart Deal, which gets a low (+++) rating, is a fair example of where this once-exceptional strip stands now. There is nothing new in the book – Wimmer never really learned to extend the boundaries of the Gumbo family, which Brady always did through a series of gentle pushes and pulls. Pretty much everything is toned down: the baby talk of neighbor child Mimi is more understandable than it used to be; the use of Rose’s alter ego, Vicki the biker, has less and less to do with the notion that there is something rather wild and not that deeply buried in the strip’s title character; Pasquale’s guardian angel appears less often and to less amusing effect; the Gumbos’ cat, Peekaboo, does the same things over and over, with the result that they lose their charm; and, in fact, the strip as a whole is less charming and heartwarming than it used to be. It is generally well enough done, in a drawing style that is more formulaic and angular than Brady’s, but it no longer feels really special. And some of Wimmer’s art is simply poor. On one page here, Vicki’s smile looks like a death’s head; on the facing page, Rose’s makes her look like Jon in Garfield; later in the book, Mimi’s mom’s smile seems to have escaped from a stick figure. The basic themes of this essentially simple family-focused strip remain intact, providing it with continuity; but too many of them have dropped off from cleverness into repetition of ideas that were once both amusing and touching but are now merely formulaic. Rose Is Rose is not really a bad strip in this incarnation, but it is too bad that it is not nearly the strip it used to be.


Where Did Dinosaurs Come From? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Lucia Washburn. Collins. $16.99.

Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #6: The African Safari Discovery. By Josh Greenhut. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $15.99.

Transformers: Hunt for the Decepticons—Buddy Brawl. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Illustrations by MADA Design, Inc. Harper. $3.99.

     It is possible to communicate some complex subjects in language simple enough to be understood even by kindergartners. That is what happens in “Stage 2” books in the “Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out” science series, such as Where Did Dinosaurs Come From? Intended for ages 5-9, Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s book tackles an interesting subject that is the opposite, more or less, of the more-typical “why did dinosaurs all disappear?” The question of where dinosaurs came from may not be “the biggest mystery of all,” as Zoehfeld calls it, but it is certainly a subject well worth exploring, and Zoehfeld does so by discussing the fossil record, then explaining how animals with backbones first became able to live their whole lives on land. Interestingly, she shows how the “weird, two-tusked plant eaters and meat eaters with big, sharp teeth” of 250 million years ago must have been ancestors of mammals, not of dinosaurs – using a simple but clear anatomy lesson to explain why that must be so. Then she talks about animals that were dinosaur ancestors, explaining how the earliest dinosaurs “eked out a living in a world dominated by big crocodile relatives” known as archosaurs. It was only after the archosaurs died out (no one knows why) that dinosaurs really flourished. Zoehfeld’s explanation of what happened is clear, intelligently written and simple to follow without being simplistic. And Lucia Washburn’s careful, well-wrought illustrations help bring the age of dinosaurs and their ancestors vividly to life. This book will be challenging for less-adept readers in its target age range, but those who rise to the challenge will find it fascinating.

     The Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures series is designed for slightly older readers – ages 7-10 -- but is, in many ways, simpler. The African Safari Discovery is a chapter book, based on the character created by Jeff Brown but actually written by Josh Greenhut; and it is packed with suitable if not very distinguished illustrations by Macky Pamintuan. In this book, Flat Stanley is still flat, and his parents are worried about him, so when a flat skull is reported to have been discovered in Africa, Stanley’s father, George, decides to investigate, taking along Stanley and his brother, Arthur. There is a safari, an encounter with helpful African natives, a scene in which Stanley is used as an oar to row a canoe, and an encounter with “Dr. Livingston Fallows, the world’s greatest ologist” (which means the man claims to be an anthropologist, paleontologist, archaeologist and more). The flat skull, when it turns up, proves quite unhelpful, but everyone decides that the trip was enjoyable anyway. There is not much science here, and the story itself is about as flat as Stanley’s body, but the book is an easy and pleasant read that will please at least some young fans of the original Jeff Brown stories about Stanley.

     Easy reading goes in a different direction in the “I Can Read!” series, in which Buddy Brawl is at Level 2, “Reading with Help” (for ages 4-8, although mostly for kindergartners and some first-graders). This entry in the series called Transformers: Hunt for the Decepticons is, of course, for Transformers fans, and is designed to teach a simple lesson while letting kids enjoy the adventures of these shapeshifting robots. The story has two of the good robots, Bumblebee and Wheelie, getting into an argument instead of working together, then finding out that cooperation is what they need to defeat the bad robot Starscream. There is nothing subtle here in either the drawing or the writing: “BOOM! Optimus Prime suddenly appeared!” But subtlety is not the point at all: this series is designed to engage beginning readers through very simple stories about characters with which they are already familiar – the tales being told in very simple language. This is far from great literature, and far even from the fascination of a book such as Where Did Dinosaurs Come From? But if Buddy Brawl and similar books get young readers interested enough to move on to works about dinosaurs – or about Flat Stanley, for that matter – then they have accomplished what they set out to do.


The Hole in the Wall. By Lisa Rowe Fraustino. Milkweed Editions. $16.95.

The Rivalry: Mystery at the Army-Navy Game. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.99.

Kickers, Book 3: Benched. By Rich Wallace. Illustrated by Jimmy Holder. Knopf. $12.99.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes. By Lenore Look. Pictures by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

     Opening with the famous “butterfly effect” as propounded by chaos-theory founder Edward Lorenz – that is the idea that something as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can have large and distant consequences – Lisa Rowe Fraustino’s The Hole in the Wall proceeds through bits of the supernatural, touches of The Secret Garden and elements of environmental awareness to become a novel with a standard bad guy (rich man buying up lots of town land) and standard moral (despoiling the environment is bad), but above-standard pacing and writing. Sebastian “Sebby” Daniels, the book’s 11-year-old protagonist, finds a refuge – the “hole in the wall” of the book’s title – from his constantly bickering family and unpleasantly run-down mining-town surroundings. But then he starts seeing weird colors (H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space may come to the minds of adult readers familiar with that genuinely spooky tale). And, more mundanely, he gets sick from raw cookie dough, and the family’s chickens disappear, and something is clearly not right. Sebby and his twin sister, Barbie, who appear to care more about these events than anyone else in town does – and to be better investigators than anyone else, too – follow a series of leads that all end up with astrophysicist and mining boss Stanley “Boots” Odum, who turns out to be a typical nefarious businessman (“‘You think everyone has a price, don’t you?’” says Ma to him at one point – the dialogue here is not exactly original). The mystery deepens, as does the secret-keeping, with even a doctor getting into the clichéd dialogue: “‘I’m sorry, Sebby, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the situation with you at this time.’” Everything eventually gets discovered and appropriately sorted out, and even Sebby’s family manages to pull together, so the book ends in a satisfying way – and is, in parts, quite exciting to read. But its formulaic foundations, like the butterfly’s wings, have large consequences for its originality of plotting and dialogue.

     Sports-focused novels tend to be formulaic both by definition and by design. There will be winners, losers and issues of team support, self-respect and all that. This applies whether the books are intended for ages 10 and up, as is The Rivalry, or for ages 7-10, as is the Kickers series. The Rivalry, a piece of fiction by John Feinstein – who wrote a well-received nonfiction book about the Army-Navy football game in 1997 – plunges young detectives Stevie and Susan Carol into a pregame adventure centered on the fact that the President will be attending the game. The writing is designed entirely for existing football fans, who will deem the jargon realistic and involving: “‘On a two-step drop you saw a hold?’” Similarly, readers are expected to understand about “Coach K” at Duke University: “‘Anything happens to him and they probably shut Duke down tomorrow.’” There are, of course, locker-room scenes and strategy sessions and bravery and intense rivalries leading up to the main event, not just during it. There are bits of social consciousness, too: “‘I will tell you this, though: you can’t be an African-American in this country and not encounter racism.’” Bill Gates makes a brief appearance, and President Obama a longer one, and there is crooked stuff going on that Stevie and Susan help uncover, and eventually, of course, the game is tied, and Stevie says, “‘I don’t want it to ever end.’” He means the game – but the book really has gone on long enough, even for dyed-in-the-wool fans.

     Kickers takes place at a more modest level. The series is about the fourth-grade Bobcats, a co-ed soccer squad trying to make the league playoffs, with nine-year-old Ben being a big reason for the team’s success. In the third book, though, Ben is benched for dangerous moves, barred from the rest of that game and from the next one – which will be against the Rabbits, the league’s best team. Ben, whose temper tends to flare at the wrong times, realizes that “he could blame Mark for today’s trouble. He could blame Loop for the fight they’d had at recess last week. And he could blame his parents for the way he’d been feeling, since he was upset about the arguments they’d had. But he knew who was mostly to blame. He was. And that didn’t make him feel any better.” So Ben has to figure out how to help his team even while benched – and then, when he is able to play again, has to harness his anger at trash-talking based on his red card, turning the negative energy positive so his team can win and move on to the playoffs. The story is quite conventional, and Rich Wallace tells it in straightforward prose; young soccer players will likely enjoy the action scenes more than the obvious messages about being a tough but fair player and not letting anger get the best of you.

     What gets the best of Alvin Ho is – well, just about everything. Lenore Look’s series about him, intended for the same age range as Kickers, is filled with action that is decidedly outside the sports sphere. With LeUyen Pham’s illustrations helping move the plot smartly along, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes provides more of the same sorts of trials and tribulations encountered in its two predecessors, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters. Alvin is what used to be called a fraidy-cat – he is frightened of pretty much everything, to the point that he actually cannot speak in school – but his adventures are amusing and endearing enough so he does not come across as pitiable. Alvin, who narrates the books, lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and in the latest volume goes on a field trip to the Old Hill Burying Ground – where there are costumed guides. whom Alvin regards as the actual historical personages they are pretending to be. Alvin, of course, takes along his PDK (Personal Disaster Kit), and makes it through the field trip – only to encounter another challenge when he gets home and finds an invitation to a girl’s birthday party, when what he really wants is to go Hobson’s very boy-oriented one. Alvin has to negotiate social occasions, a particularly stinky science experiment, and the appearance of one of the “ghosts” from the field trip in the guise of a modern teenager. He looks as if he manages quite well – the illustrations really do help the story quite a bit – and by the time you throw in some sort-of-Shakespearean insults (part of what goes on in Alvin’s family) and some references to being Asian-American (which crop up in all the Alvin books, since that is Alvin’s ethnicity), you have an amusingly far-fetched story that Look and Pham pull together nicely, although the stinkiness and “gas propulsion” that conclude everything are really rather overdone and overemphasized. Fans of Alvin will likely find the ending funnier than parents will, but this is one series that is really not written or illustrated for adults – not at all.


Saint-Saëns: Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano; Clarinet Sonata; Oboe Sonata; Bassoon Sonata; Romance in E major, arranged for horn and piano; Tarantella for Flute, Clarinet and Piano. Canada’s National Arts Centre Wind Quintet (Joanna G’froerer, flute; Charles Hamann, oboe; Christopher Millard, bassoon; Kimball Sykes, clarinet; Lawrence Vine, horn); Stéphane Lemelin, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

David L. Post: String Quartet No. 2 (2001); Fantasia on a Virtual Choral (2003); String Quartet No. 4, “Three Photographs of Abelardo Morell” (2005); String Quartet No. 3 (2003). Hawthorne String Quartet (Ronan Lefkowitz and Si-Jing Huang, violins; Mark Ludwig, viola; Sato Knudsen, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     Chamber music is music of compression: with a limited number of instruments, a composer’s ability to communicate must be less diffuse, more focused than in works written for orchestra or large ensembles. Over time, though, composers have evolved a wide variety of ways of coping with chamber-style works and giving them an individual stamp – and those ways differ considerably today (not surprisingly) from what they were in the 19th century. In the case of Camille Saint-Saëns, there is a certain Gallic charm and easy flow to all his music, orchestral or chamber – even The Carnival of the Animals, it is easy to forget, was written as a chamber work. But Saint-Saëns’ chamber music for winds is not very well known, so a new CD from Canadian players, featuring six chamber pieces for winds, is quite welcome. The three sonatas – for clarinet, oboe and bassoon – are the real finds here. All date from 1921, the last year of the composer’s life, and all are quite different from Saint-Saëns’ earlier music. The easy charm, the romantic flourishes, have quite disappeared: these are works of comparative austerity, with rather light piano accompaniment, and they have a distinctly French sound to them – albeit not the sort of sound being created by Debussy, Ravel and Roussel, whose more-modern music had largely supplanted that of Saint-Saëns in public favor. The bassoon sonata is especially interesting, starting with two quick movements (the second faster than the first) and concluding with a Molto adagio. This is quite out of keeping with the style listeners are used to in Saint-Saëns (and indeed, this is the only one of the three late sonatas with this structure); but it indicates that, even at the end of life, when modernism had taken over the musical world, Saint-Saëns was seeking new ways to express himself through his own tonal language. As for the other works here: the Caprice and Romance actually date to the time of Carnival of the Animals (mid-1880s) and are filled with singing lines, lovely melodies and plenty of fanfare-like passages. The Tarantella, offered at the end of this CD as a kind of encore, is the earliest work on the disc, dating to 1857 – when the composer was 22. Originally written for flute, clarinet and string orchestra, it sounds just fine with piano accompaniment: forthright, self-assured and ebullient, and filled with virtuosity – a light type of chamber music that remained quite popular throughout the Romantic era.

     But for David L. Post (born 1949), chamber works are altogether more serious – even though this American composer (who is also a practicing clinical psychologist) writes music that is as approachable in his time as the music of Saint-Saëns was in his. A new recording of three of Post’s four string quartets actually includes, as a fourth work, a piece tied firmly to the Romantic era: Fantasia on a Virtual Chorale, which takes off from Meditation on the Saint Wenceslas Chorale, written in Romantic style in 1914 by Josef Suk (1874-1935). Post’s Fantasia is respectful of the earlier work and exists mainly in the same tonal idiom, making it quite easy to listen to for a work written in the 21st century. The three quartets here are somewhat tougher going for listeners, but nowhere near as difficult as those of, say, Béla Bartók or Elliott Carter. Although Post studied with Lucas Foss (among others), his music communicates more directly than the often-difficult pieces of Foss and many other American moderns. In particular, Post’s fourth string quartet – called “Three Photographs of Abelardo Morell” and inspired by that Massachusetts photographer’s work – effectively paints, in musical sounds, three scenes that Morell captured with his camera, bringing the work of a visual medium into interesting display in an aural one. Although this quartet was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, it is no better constructed than the second and third quartets (although it is differently constructed). The Hawthorne String Quartet has made Post’s music something of a specialty, and these performances are full of conviction, intensity and, where appropriate, warmth. Like other modern music, Post’s will not be to all tastes, but it is convincing throughout on its own terms, showing that for moderns as well as Romantics (and, indeed, for Classical-era composers back to Haydn), the string quartet can be a highly effective communication medium despite its small ensemble size and the similar tone of its component instruments.

December 23, 2010


40: A “Doonesbury” Retrospective. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $100.

The Best of “FoxTrot.” By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $39.99.

     The many cartoonists who labored so long to produce throwaway strips as impermanent as the newspaper pages on which they were printed could never have imagined anything like this. Or rather like these. Here are two huge, heavy, slipcased collections of two of the most interesting comic strips of recent decades – priced up there with or even beyond coffee-table books and, in the case of the Doonesbury volume, looking and feeling exactly like them. These are not the first ultra-elegant hardcover volumes from Andrews McMeel, which has previously done outstanding collections of Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side in ultra-elegant formats. Nor is this company the only one turning comic strips into something like fine art: other publishers, notably Sunday Press, are reissuing classic strips in gigantic, limited-edition folios that reproduce the carefully restored comic-strip masterpieces of many years ago in the full-newspaper-page size in which they were intended to be seen. All this means that comic strips have finally been acknowledged as a legitimate, collectible art form – oddly, in parallel with their new role as major inspirations for Hollywood blockbuster movies.

     The 695-page, single-volume Doonesbury book and 560-page, two-volume FoxTrot collection both give wonderful overviews of the 40 and 20 years of the strips, respectively. Trudeau’s book, like his strip, is substantially more talky, from his excellent explanatory introduction to his even more excellent central four-page foldout that both narrates and shows the tremendously complex web of relationships among the amazingly broad range of characters in the strip. Doonesbury is primarily known nowadays as a political strip, and topicality does not wear well, so kudos to the cartoonist and publisher for making this superb collection an almost completely nonpolitical one. The book is laid out as a series of 18 focuses (each with its own explanatory introductory pages) on some of the specific characters whose interwoven lives make up the tapestry of Doonesbury and are shown in that centerfold – whose “Legend: A Partial Guide to Relationships” is itself so complex that readers unfamiliar with the strip will need a guide to the guide (and ones with less-than-perfect vision will likely find the multicolored solid and dotted lines connecting and re-connecting the characters surpassingly difficult to navigate). Not since Walt Kelly’s Pogo has there been such a huge collection of characters in a comic strip – and in truth, G.B. Trudeau surpasses Kelly in complexity, if not in exuberance or political acumen. The real-world (or almost-real-world) nature of Doonesbury is accentuated by Trudeau’s skill in creating distinctive individual characters and placing them in orbit (literally so, in the book’s centerfold) around the strip’s major players. Or major ex-players – Trudeau does not hesitate to kill off characters whose stories he feels have come to an end. In fact, one of the best things about this collection is that it shows Trudeau to be a wonderful storyteller when he is not sidetracked by politics – not that he himself considers politics a sidetrack, and not that political elements are entirely absent here. But the main thing this book does is give readers a chance to watch, in fast motion, the 40-year progress of an iconic comic strip, from its origins as what could charitably be called an artistic work-in-progress, focusing on real people at Yale University, through its early syndication period, into the increasingly complex and multifaceted alternative universe in which it exists today. Trudeau is more innovative than he sometimes gets credit for being, not in the political sphere but in the structural elements of the strip, from having characters narrate their own stories (an early and very interesting concept) to bringing utterly fantastic creations into the “real” world (such as Mr. Butts and Mr. Jay, underground-comics-inspired personifications of tobacco and marijuana smoking, respectively). 40: A “Doonesbury” Retrospective is so rich, so fascinating and so packed with great strips and outstanding stories that it will stand for years as a superb summation of the strip’s first four decades -- not counting those years’ highly topical material – while laying down a wonderful, firm foundation for whatever Trudeau chooses to do next. Or maybe it won’t “stand” so much as lie down, given its sheer heft.

     Things are not quite as weighty, either in book size or topics, in the land of FoxTrot. Bill Amend’s The Best of “FoxTrot” comes as two paperback volumes rather than the single hardcover of the Doonesbury collection. And Amend’s strip – only half the age of Trudeau’s, which is still an impressive level of longevity for a comic – is lighter, character-driven family humor of a type that has been around for 100 years. But Amend does it exceptionally well, and this through-the-years collection is a pleasure from start to finish. Amend’s introduction to his collection is more modest than Trudeau’s to his, and Amend sprinkles comments throughout the book rather than including elaborate chapter setups. There are, in fact, no chapters here at all – just sequential strips, one book basically covering the first decade of FoxTrot and the other the second decade, going past the final daily strip of December 30, 2006 (FoxTrot has been a Sunday-only production since then). Those looking for Amend’s deep insights into FoxTrot will not really find them – Amend often likes to do things simply because…well, simply because. For instance, he gave Peter, the oldest Fox child, a girlfriend who was blind. Why? It “seemed like an interesting break from the usual stuff you find in comic strips.” No big societal statement here – just a try (and a successful one) for something unusual. The impression Amend gives is one of having a lot of fun. When middle Fox child Paige tries out for the cheerleading squad, she is so nervous that she says “pus” when she means “bus.” Amend’s comment: “Any time you can work a word like ‘pus’ into your strip counts as a win.” Amend, a physics major in college (but only a “B” student, he admits), puts a lot of math and physics into FoxTrot, almost always through the youngest Fox child, Jason. It may not add a lot to the strip to know that the name “J.D. Parker,” which appears on a computer-programming book that Jason reads in one strip, is the name of Amend’s computer-science professor in college, but it is fun to find that out. FoxTrot is fun in so many ways that this collection’s comments only make it more enjoyable. How cool is it that Amend makes up math problems for Paige to see in a nightmare, then finds out later that “the second one is crazy hard and this strip is actually cited in a math book”? Reading or rereading FoxTrot is a real joy – although this collection will likely make fans, both old and new, wistful for the seven-day-a-week strip, which provided so much of the character continuity that Amend does so well. In any case, though, having all this FoxTrot in such a fine package is a great gift from Amend and Andrews McMeel….and, come to think of it, both The Best of “FoxTrot” and 40: A “Doonesbury” Retrospective would be great and much-appreciated gifts for any super-special comic-strip fan you may know.


Robots. By Steve Weston. Kingfisher. $16.99.

Legendary Journeys: Trains. By Philip Steele. Illustrated by Sebastian Quigley. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Story County: Here We Come! By Derek Anderson. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     The whole point of some books is visual: text is secondary to the sheer impact of the book’s appearance, even if it is the text that carries most of the information. Steve Weston’s Robots is a perfect example – and a wonderful book, too. Less a traditional book than a three-dimensional diorama with play pieces for interactive games, Robots is not about cartoon or movie robots but about the real-world ones doing important jobs today. The book’s design is simply delightful. In the middle are four pack-flat scenes that tuck into tabs and open up into three-dimensional representations of the Moon, the ocean floor, a volcano, and an ancient tomb. Real-world robots are in fact used in exploring all of these. In a pocket to the right of the pop-up scenes, packed flat, are punch-out pieces that readers (or, more accurately, participants) fit together by folding them as shown and placing the correct tabs in the right slots. The result is nine three-dimensional robots and robot-related parts that are then used to explore the four central scenes. What exactly should book users do? That is where the text comes in – packaged as an “Operator’s Manual” in a pocket to the left of the 3-D scenes. Weston’s text explains just what robots do at Moon Base, Reef Wreck, Fiery Volcano and Egyptian Tomb, including information on what the locations are like (the lava of a volcano, for example, can reach a temperature of 2,200° Fahrenheit; the Volcanobot is built to withstand the searing heat). The information is not extensive, although it may whet the appetite of young readers and encourage them to go elsewhere for more details. But Weston explains enough to make the pop-up scenes and exploring robots both interesting and connected to real life. The result is a book designed for serious play – and serious fun.

     There is more text in Legendary Journeys: Trains, and there are more things for somewhat older readers to do – Robots is recommended for ages 3-6, Philip Steele’s and Sebastian Quigley’s book for ages eight and up. The subtitle of Legendary Journeys: Trains explains the format very well: “The Slide-Out, See-Through Story of World-Famous Trains and Railroads.” In an age in which young people know little or nothing about trains as an elegant, exclusive and impressive means of travel, this book provides a window into history and a whole series of extremely clever interactive devices. For example, a page showing an elegant first-class railway car has the instruction “pull” at the right, and pulling the tab brings out two full additional pages that show the engine and coal car ahead of the passenger coach – and give additional information on this line, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Similarly, pulling the tab in a section called “Rail Underground” reveals a very impressive scene of the early Paris Metro system, including a picture of civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenue (who supervised the system’s construction) standing on a platform. There are maps here, and photos, and bits of information in unexpected places. For example, opening a flap on the side of a freight car reveals hobos inside, along with is a brief explanation of the use of railroads by people seeking work during the Great Depression. Although Legendary Journeys: Trains is not a lengthy book, it is packed with information, from the route of the famed Orient Express (within which a reader can see Agatha Christie’s fictional detective, Hercule Poirot) to the development of diesel power and the reasons it quickly made steam engines obsolete. By the end, when Legendary Journeys: Trains discusses modern bullet trains and the quest for ever-higher rail speeds, young readers will have learned, perhaps for the first time, that even if the grand days of rail travel are over, modern railroads continue to play a very important role in transportation in many countries – and are also quite impressive to look at.

     The visuals are less striking and the design more conventional in Derek Anderson’s Story County: Here We Come! But this too is a book designed in large part to be fun to see: Anderson is best known as an illustrator, and he certainly works his visual magic here for young readers. There really is a Story County – in Iowa – but it is neither as magical nor as ridiculous as Anderson’s fictional one. In the book, amusingly angular characters (Farmer, Pig, Cow, Chicken and Dog) get together to build a farm, cooperating in constructing a barn and painting it, creating fields, planting crops, and so on. The fun here is in watching the characters’ antics. Dog studies architectural plans while Pig builds a scale model of the barn out of mud; Farmer paints while one of his feet is stuck in a can; Chicken drives a tractor pulling a trailer heaped with such farm necessities as corn and, um, jelly beans; Cow insists on putting lipstick on the scarecrow; and so on. Dog is the most practical character, designing and measuring and pulling the others back from premature exuberance. Eventually the farm is finished, or so everyone thinks until Dog tells the others to look up: they have forgotten to make the sky. So they do – a night sky, since it is late. Then everyone celebrates and goes to sleep beneath a wall hanging that says, “Farm Sweet Farm.” The story is simple and silly, and would be of only moderate interest without the illustrations. But with the illustrations, it is simple and delightful. Still mighty silly, though.


Walt Disney World with Kids, 2011. By Kim Wright Wiley. Fodor’s. $18.99

The Cheater’s Diet: The Sneaky Secrets to Losing Up to 20 Pounds in 8 Weeks Eating (and Drinking) Everything You Love. By Marissa Lippert. Plume. $16.

     Given the cost of a single meal, snack or souvenir at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Kim Wright Wiley’s annual Walt Disney World with Kids is not only a must-have for families but also a really inexpensive “how to cope” book. The 2011 edition, which includes the latest phone numbers, Web site URLs and much more, is so packed with useful information that anyone contemplating a family trip to this ever-popular tourist attraction should really read the book before putting down a deposit – then carry it along while traveling and consult it often. From advice on the best times of year to visit Walt Disney World and the best amount of time to stay, to suggestions on choosing hotels (with lots of cost information, plus recommendations or complaints from families who have stayed in the available places), to specifics on seeing the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Animal Kingdom and more, Wiley’s book is focused on travel with kids, specifically recommending (for example) “Great Off-Site Hotels for Families” – not simply hotels that may receive good ratings but may cater more to businesspeople or single travelers. Wiley has obviously “been there” (repeatedly, in fact), and her writing shows it: “If an attraction holds appeal for only one or two family members, there’s no need to drag the whole crew along.” “Head for the most crowded, slow-loading attractions first. …Ride as many of the big-deal rides as you can in the morning, when waits are shorter. …[If necessary] try again during the parades, or during the last hours before closing.” It is hard to encapsulate just how detailed and well-focused this book is – there is something good to know on every page. “The princess character meals at Epcot are popular but not as well-known as those in the Magic Kingdom.” “Although Muppet*Vision 3-D tested highly among kids ages 2 to 5, some parents reported that children under 2 were unnerved by the sheer volume of the finale.” “Guests give Disney chefs major (trans-fat-free) brownie points for their willingness to address specific dietary needs.” In addition to these and many, many other narrative comments, the book contains highly useful tables, such as “Quick Guide to Full-Service Restaurants in the WDW Hotels,” with star ratings based on families’ reactions to each establishment, information on costs and suitability for kids, and brief comments on specific foods offered and the pluses or minuses of particular choices. Chapters on “Disney After Dark,” Disney cruises, Universal Studios and other Orlando attractions complete a book that is chock full of information that will save you money, point you in many right directions and away from some wrong ones, and make sure that the overwhelming and exhausting experience of visiting Walt Disney World with children is much easier and more pleasant than it would otherwise be.

     Marissa Lippert’s The Cheater’s Diet is more conventional, less exceptional and less distinctive, although it does contain some good advice and a number of attractive recipes. This book, which gets a (+++) rating, over-promises in its lengthy subtitle and really does not tell readers how to eat and drink everything they love and still lose weight. That is physically impossible, and Lippert, a registered dietitian in New York City, knows it. For example: “A good glass of wine is one of my favorite indulgences, but one or five too many a week (or a night) will zap your weight loss efforts in a flash.” In other words, even if you really love wine and really love drinking it in significant quantities, you have to cut back and consume it in moderation – the exact advice you will get from any number of diet books (and any number of nutritionists). Portion control (which is scarcely a new discovery) is integral to Lippert’s recommendations: “Stick to an ounce of cheese at a time.” “The French eat bread, cheese and wine nearly daily, yet somehow they’ve magically managed to stay much slimmer and much healthier than their U.S. counterparts. It isn’t magic, it’s called quality and quantity of what you’re nibbling on.” And so forth. Lippert’s book is full of perfectly reasonable recommendations: know your triggers so you can find ways to avoid them, create “cheat and eat” meals in which “you’re still being cognizant of portion sizes,” consume “mostly real, fresh, single-ingredient foods,” and so forth. Sprinkled throughout the book, rather than collected in a single section where they might be more readily accessible, are recipes of all sorts – poached halibut, poached salmon and several types of poached eggs appear in the same chapter as minestrone soup, for example. Lippert has organizational reasons for presenting the recipes this way, and readers who decide to follow her dietary recommendations exactly as she presents them will find the chapter-by-chapter recipes helpful. But others, who may want to try some of Lippert’s ideas but not all – or in a different order – will find themselves flipping pages back and forth constantly or repeatedly searching the index (there is no list of the recipes themselves). The Cheater’s Diet is packed with good advice and solid information (“Stop Stress Eating without Depriving Yourself and Make a Comeback after Overdoing It,” as one chapter title puts it); but there is little in the book that is truly new, and anyone naïve enough to pick it up in the belief that it really is possible to eat and drink everything you love while still losing weight at a good pace is fantasizing. It can’t be done – and Lippert knows it, no matter what the cover of her book says to the contrary.


The Graveyard Book. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrations by Dave McKean. Harper. $7.99.

The Vampire Diaries: Stefan’s Diaries #1—Origins. Based on the novels by L.J. Smith and the TV series developed by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec. HarperTeen. $9.99.

Invisible Things. By Jenny Davidson. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     Treatment of the supernatural can range from the astonishing and deeply moving to the wholly conventional and unconvincing – witness the differences among these three books. The Graveyard Book is excellent in every way, fully worthy to be the only novel ever to win both the Newbery medal (U.S.) and the Carnegie medal (England). Told in a series of interconnected short stories, it is the tale of Nobody (Bod) Owens, who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard after his family is brutally and mysteriously killed by a man named Jack. The premise sounds outlandish, and would be if Neil Gaiman had not surpassed his usual narrative skill here with a level of stylishness and emotional connection that he has not previously achieved. Gaiman produces scenes that are genuinely weird in a dreamlike way – the chapter called “Danse Macabre,” in which the living and dead trip the light fantastic with each other but never discuss what has occurred, either before or after, is a marvel. He also produces strong emotional connections and characters who truly seem to be of their time, as in “The Witch’s Headstone,” which has Bod trying to help a young, long-dead witch buried in unconsecrated ground and wanting only a memorial above her final resting place – a quest that has repercussions throughout the rest of the book. From his creation of a wholly new and wholly bizarre “guardian” character called the Sleer, to his moving reinterpretation of werewolf and vampire legends, to his production of a Lovecraftian chill in a chapter about the habits of ghouls, to the tearjerking but optimistic finale in which Bod must finally leave the land of the dead and truly join the living, Gaiman creates a fascinating universe filled with memorable characters, astonishing and often genuinely frightening events, and a level of warmth that readers would scarcely expect to find in a graveyard. Originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, The Graveyard Book is one of the best supernatural novels you will find anywhere, with an approach to the spooky that is unique in its sensitivity and storytelling polish.

     Few books stand up to Gaiman’s. Few try to. The latest spinoff from the TV show The Vampire Diaries is much more conventional fare, from its tie-in to television (the book’s actual author, if there was one, is never mentioned; it seems to be a committee production) to its focus on a single aspect of the background of the story that is told visually whenever The CW Network shows the program. The Stefan’s Diaries books (this is the first of a trilogy) join the original The Vampire Diaries book series and the sequences called The Return and The Secret Circle as in-print spinoffs from the show. Set during the Civil War, Origins tells how Stefan Salvatore, engaged to Rosalyn, a girl he does not love, falls for another, whose name is Katherine – who turns out to be a vampire. Katherine becomes the center of a love triangle when Stefan’s brother, Damon, also falls for her, and thus, so the novel goes, begins a story that will span time. There is nothing the slightest bit surprising in the plot or the dialogue (which makes no attempt to be in anything but 21st-century in form – in contrast to the way Gaiman has ghosts from various ages look, speak and behave much as they would have in their times). Although intended for ages 14 and up, Origins is surprisingly reticent in its language: “The kiss was so soft and tender that I felt her essence and mine combine, creating a force that was larger than ourselves. We explored each other’s bodies as if for the first time. In the dim light of her chambers, I was never sure where reality ended and my dreams began.” It is unfair to compare a deliberately constructed potboiler with a genuinely thoughtful and sensitive novel, so Origins gets a (+++) rating for doing just what it sets out to do and for likely being pleasing to fans of the TV show on which it is based. But it is a shame that those fans may never realize how much more there can be to supernatural concepts than they will ever see on The Vampire Diaries.

     Invisible Things is another (+++) novel, but is somewhat more ambitious and certainly better written than Origins. It too is for ages 14 and up, and it too is set in the past – a more recent past, the 1930s. This sequel to Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist resumes the story of 16-year-old Sophie, who is seeking the truth about her parents’ death (a very standard plot device, which even Gaiman uses). With the help of her friend Mikael and against the backdrop of looming war in Europe, Sophie is determined to wrest the secrets of decades past from her parents’ former employer, billionaire Alfred Nobel. Nobel is not the only historical character introduced and reinterpreted in this alternative history – physicist Niels Bohr, for example, also plays a role. And Davidson constantly reaches for the exotic and pseudo-historical in settings, as by talking of “the Hanseatic identity of Denmark,” whose capital she spells as the Danes do (København), and by tossing about the names of Scottish physicist Charles Thomson Rees Wilson and the aggregate god Hermes Trismegistus. Davidson seeks a certain exoticism of style, too: “The name Elsinore was romantic to Sophie because of Hamlet, the character and the play, but whatever turrety erections might grace the Danish coastline, the trip that night was so chaotic, and the evening so dark and overcast, that Sophie was left with only the vaguest impression of crenellations and looming battlements.” All this style is at the service of what is essentially a standard quest story that turns out also to contain elements of the old “B” movie, Donovan’s Brain. Sophie eventually learns what she seeks to know, including more of her own history than she suspected, and the book comes to a conclusion reminiscent of that of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Snow Queen – which, as it turns out, was Davidson’s original inspiration for this book and its predecessor. There is rather too much going on here for the novel to be wholly effective, and Davidson does not always handle the various threads of the story seamlessly. But certainly readers who enjoyed The Explosionist and wondered what happened afterwards will find Invisible Things a satisfying followup.


Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 1: Liszt—Sonata in B Minor; Grandes Etudes de Paganini. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 8: Beethoven—Sonatas Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”) and 29 (“Hammerklavier”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 3—Sonata in C Major, Op. 9, No. 2; Sonata in F-sharp minor (“L’infortunée”), Op. 26; The Dream, Op. 49. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 4—Sonata in D major, Op. 9, No. 1; Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 141. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     Fans of Turkish pianist Idil Biret, who may have been trying to keep up with the impressive number of her recordings being released on the IBA (Idil Biret Archives) label, now have yet another IBA series to appreciate – or contend with. And on top of that, an existing IBA series is complicating decision-making for listeners who may want to do something other than collect every disc that IBA ever releases. These are not bad problems to have: Biret is a wonderful pianist, with technique to spare and a thoughtful approach to the music she plays that, when it works well and does not interfere with a certain feeling of abandon and apparent spontaneity, produces top-notch recordings that show Biret to be a worthy successor to her mentor, Wilhelm Kempff. The two newest IBA releases are in fact among the label’s most impressive, for all that they may create some confusion among collectors.

     What is new here is the Idil Biret Solo Edition, whose very first volume includes an outstanding performance of an exceptionally difficult piece, and one that Biret has clearly thought through to an unusually impressive degree: Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B Minor. More an extended tone poem than a sonata in a traditional sense, this half-hour work progresses through six movements (or six sections of one gigantic movement) with implacability and tremendous demands on the pianist’s technique. The recording here is the most recent released on any CD by IBA, dating to January 2010, and it shows that Biret, who is now 69, has lost none of her fervor or pianistic or analytical ability. Her Liszt performance soars: she tracks the multiple themes that permeate it with skill, providing it with overall structural integrity – so crucial in this work, which can easily get away from the performer if not held tightly in check. Biret emphasizes the unity of the sonata’s disparate elements, effectively bringing out everything from the uses and reuses of the themes to the fugal handling of part of the second theme – and she observes the work’s wide-ranging dynamics very impressively indeed. This is, in short, a performance that succeeds on all levels. Next to the sonata, the Grandes Etudes de Paganini seem almost slight – not in their virtuosic requirements, which are enormous, but in their musical content. Biret’s performance here, which dates to 1987, is not quite as impressive as her reading of the sonata, largely because her thoughtfulness is somewhat misplaced in a series of pieces that are all about display and unceasing virtuosity. These studies are on works as different – and yet as similar – as Paganini’s solo-violin etudes and the famous “La Campanella” finale of his second violin concerto. Liszt’s transformation of the pieces for piano is extremely clever and very, very difficult, and certainly Biret handles the technical demands here quite well. What the performance lacks is a certain élan, perhaps a touch of insouciance, as if it is no big deal to toss off all these fireworks. Biret’s pianism is nevertheless highly impressive, and the new Idil Biret Solo Edition is poised to be a real treat for her fans.

     The Idil Biret Archive Edition, however, is now making things rather complex. The latest volume in this series, which is the eighth, includes two Beethoven sonatas recorded in 1985 – one of which, the “Pathétique,” is already available in the Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 12, which in turn is the sixth volume of the sonatas in that edition (the numbering is more than slightly confusing). The Beethoven Edition reading of the “Pathétique” dates to 2006. The “Hammerklavier” has yet to appear in the Beethoven series but will surely do so in the future. Will listeners, even devoted Biret fans, want multiple Biret performances of the same music from different times, sold in different IBA series? This is not an easy question to answer, since the Archive Edition version of the “Pathétique” differs in several ways from the Beethoven Edition reading, but not to such an extent that a listener will likely feel the need to own both. The Archive Edition recording is speedier in all three movements, especially the first, and has a generally lighter feel to it than the Beethoven Edition one. Biret here clearly avoids an overly Romantic view of this sonata, keeping it expressive but within the bounds of Mozart and early Beethoven. The finale, in particular, trips along effectively. Neither of the two Biret recordings is better or worse – they are simply different, showing her somewhat different views of this music two decades apart. As for the Archive Edition version of the “Hammerklaivier,” it is very fine indeed. The huge sonata marches strongly from the start in Biret’s interpretation, and she manages to keep its sprawl coherent through her entire 46-and-a-half-minute performance – a most impressive achievement. The one movement that is a touch less successful than the others is the third, which Biret does not hesitate to take as slowly as its tempo indication of Adagio sostenuto indicates – but which tends to flag rhythmically from time to time, losing some of its admittedly slow forward motion. Nevertheless, this is a highly successful performance of a very difficult sonata, showing again – if additional showings are needed – that Biret and Beethoven go together very, very well.

     The sonatas by Beethoven’s sometime pupil, Ferdinand Ries, are far lesser creations than those of the master, but Susan Kagan’s ongoing recordings of them make a strong case for them to be heard at least occasionally. The works in both volumes 3 and 4 of Kagan’s series are unmistakably in line with those in the first two volumes: melodically charming, strong in their forward impetus, and existing mostly on the borderline between Classical times and Romantic. Far less challenging to play or hear than Beethoven’s sonatas, those by Ries nevertheless have numerous moments of virtuosity and quite a few of lucidity. And some of Ries’ piano works definitely look forward. The Dream, for example, stands out in Kagan’s third volume as a moody tone poem – and, at nearly 19 minutes, a substantial one. It meanders like a fantasy, its moods shifting almost capriciously, and eventually ends with a level of playfulness somewhat out of keeping with its earlier emotional underpinnings; but taken as a whole, it is a very fine and convincing work – and one that shows Ries exploring directions that Beethoven himself did not. On the other hand, the same volume’s Op. 26 sonata – “The Unfortunate,” the only Ries sonata with a title – shows the composer clearly walking in Beethoven’s footsteps: this work, dating to 1808, is very similar in style and mood to Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata of 1799, of which it seems a pale reflection (although it is written in the key of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony). In volume 4 of the Ries series, the more interesting work is the Op. 141 sonata, the second-to-last that Ries composed. It dates to 1826, the year before Beethoven’s death, and was written for a piano with greater range and sonorousness than those in use in earlier times. Here the first movement, the most successful of the three, mixes fingerings that will remind listeners of Chopin with sections of considerable drama. The second movement is expressive enough, but shows much of Beethoven’s influence, as do so many of Ries’ works, and therefore seems rather derivative; while the concluding rondo, which bounces along in a bright and effective manner, seems rather too light and buoyant for what has come before. The Ries works in Kagan’s third and fourth volumes confirm the impression made by those in the first and second: Ries was more craftsman than innovator, certainly a skilled pianist and fine composer for his instrument, but only rarely able to move beyond Beethoven’s shadow to develop works stamped with his individual personality. And yet all these rarely played sonatas have elements of interest – in some cases, quite a few of them – and are worth hearing at least once in a while.

December 16, 2010


The Robot Book. By Heather Brown. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Stick to It: Pets—A Magnetic Puzzle Book. By Milena Kirkova and Jeff C. Cole. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Books don’t come any cleverer than these two. Very simple words – texts so minimal that they almost fade into nonexistence – are combined with such delightful visual and tactile elements in both these books that even the youngest children will be absolutely entranced. Parents will, too: the books are participatory, not at all passive, and will stimulate kids’ cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. The Robot Book harks back – not overtly, but in a way that all parents will recognize – to the Tin Man’s plea for a heart in The Wizard of Oz (both the L. Frank Baum book and the movie). Gorgeously created in three-dimensional, multicolored glory, Heather Brown’s book takes children through a robot’s body, part by part, with every page having something to lift, turn, move or rotate. The super-heavy cardboard pages show a robot’s gears, nuts and bolts, connectors and more – and everything slides up and down, moves back and forth, rotates, or otherwise invites kids to a hands-on delight. But that is not all: the book has a message, one that is simple and truly heartfelt. For Brown explains that, despite all the wondrous things on the outside of the robot, it is what’s inside that really counts – and the final page displays the robot’s heart, within which are three gears (one large and two small) that interlock, moving together as children turn any one of them. This is a book that young kids will want to explore again and again – and it is sturdy enough so they can do just that. Well crafted, well thought out and just, well, delightful, it makes a wonderful gift for any child who is just waking up to motor abilities and story comprehension.

     Stick to It: Pets is a great gift item, too, and it too challenges young children’s motor skills. It is both simpler and more complicated than The Robot Book – simpler because there is no story at all, only the names of various pets (cat, dog, hamster, turtle and so on); more complex because kids create the shape of each pet by attaching magnetic puzzle pieces to a graphic outline with a metallic core. Educationally aware parents will recognize what Milena Kirkova and Jeff C. Cole have done here: used the Tangrams concept in a new and very attractive way. Each two-page spread shows a picture of a particular pet – say, a fish – on one side, and a schematic of the same pet on the other side, indicating exactly what puzzle-piece shapes need to be placed in which position in order to assemble the “pet puzzle.” There are seven pets included in the book (the five already mentioned plus a rabbit and a parrot), but they are only the gateway to further magnetic enjoyment, because by the time children have worked their way through all the pages, they will likely start putting the magnetic pieces together in their own unique ways – creating blobs and geometrical shapes and (who knows?) maybe a whole different set of animals. Thus, Stick to It: Pets lets kids find out about shape placement and puzzle solving at their own pace, then move on (also at their own pace) to turn the magnetic pieces into whatever their own minds can imagine. Both this work and The Robot Book are tactile delights, wonderful to touch and feel and play with – and to look at, too. And unlike far too many gifts given to kids at this time of year, both should continue to interest children through and well past the holiday season.


I Am the Dog. By Daniel Pinkwater. Illustrated by Jack E. Davis. Harper. $16.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s Fairy Tales: Twelve Timeless Treasures. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $19.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s A Merry Little Christmas: Celebrate from A to Z. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $6.99.

     Families with children ages 4-8 who are just settling down for a long winter’s nap, or simply coming in from the cold and seeking some warmth from entertainment as well as from the heating system, will find plenty of fun in these books of new and old fairy tales. I Am the Dog is one of those role-reversal stories whose outcome is entirely predictable. But it’s by Daniel Pinkwater, which means it is not so predictable after all. A boy, Jacob, and dog, Max, agree to change places one day, so Jacob lazes about in the morning while Max brushes his teeth (making a mess that Jack E. Davis shows very amusingly) and then gets ready for school. Jacob’s parents seem to find nothing unusual in the role swap: his mom puts his cereal and orange juice in bowls on the floor, while Max eats at the table, and then mom drives Max to school, where he has a great time. Jacob enjoys being a dog, too: the scene in which Max throws a ball repeatedly and Jacob keeps running after and catching it is especially amusing. Max does have a problem when the dog – that is, Jacob – eats his homework; but otherwise everything goes smoothly. And the next morning, of course, the two resume their rightful roles, both realizing that boys should be boys and dogs should be dogs, right? Umm…nope. It wouldn’t be a Pinkwater book with such an expected conclusion – and there is a twist at the end that kids and parents alike are sure to enjoy.

     There is nothing unexpected in the fairytale retellings written and illustrated by Mary Engelbreit, but fans of this prolific artist will sure give the book a (++++) rating – although anyone who does not care for Engelbreit’s nostalgic and rather overdone illustrative style would be well advised to avoid the volume altogether. The 12 stories here come from multiple sources, ranging from “Aladdin” and “Sleeping Beauty” to Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and “The Princess and the Pea.” Engelbreit leaves in, but downplays, some of the more frightening elements of the stories, such as the blinding of the prince in “Rapunzel.” But she takes out others, such as the stepsisters’ self-mutilation in “Cinderella” (here, “they pinched their heels and curled their toes” to try to get into the glass slipper, but that is all). There are no particularly scary figures here – Engelbreit has little interest in drawing anything frightening, so even “Beauty and the Beast” features a character who looks strange and stern but not horrifying. The pictures are what will attract Engelbreit-loving families to this book: everyone is chubby, childlike in appearance even when planning to marry or getting married, and tragedy is kept always at bay, even in “The Little Mermaid” (which is shorn, as it usually is in modern adaptations, of its overtly religious message) and “Rumpelstiltskin” (the title character simply runs away at the end). If Engelbreit-style cuteness and fairy tales lightly retold please your family, so will this book.

     Engelbreit’s A Merry Little Christmas will please the same families in its new paperback edition (the book originally appeared in 2006). Huge-eared, cuddly mice are the central characters in this seasonal alphabet excursion, filled with poetry that looks as if it belongs on crocheted samplers: “G is a gingerbread cottage. How grand!/ The best decorations are those made by hand.” With L standing for letters to Santa, M for mittens, O for ornaments, P for (of course) presents, and Y for the Yule log, Engelbreit’s book includes nothing surprising or unexpected, and is perhaps even a little overly sweet for her fans – giving it a (+++) rating. The elaborately cute pictures are what will please families that enjoy the Engelbreit approach: a mouse-size sled with rulers for runners and a shoe in which to sit; a white-bearded mouse making toys in a workshop while his hat hangs on a hat stand made of a sharpened pencil; a gaily decked-out mouse village located partly in a tree, partly in a stump and partly on the ground nearby. This is for Engelbreit fans only – but for many of them, it will make this a season to be jolly.


Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters. By Barack Obama. Illustrated by Loren Long. Knopf. $17.99.

Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me. By Condoleezza Rice. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Politicians are people, too, but it would scarcely be surprising to find them scoring political points when writing about themselves and their families. After all, everything in a politician’s life comes under scrutiny, certainly including his or her writing and family life; so why not position things in the best possible light? Yet neither Barack Obama nor Condoleezza Rice gives in to that impulse – at least to any great degree – in two new books intended for young readers. Obama’s Of Thee I Sing, officially targeting ages three and up but likely to be too simplistic for children older than eight or so, offers short portrayals of 13 Americans, using their examples as teachable moments for Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha – and, through them, for American children in general. The political subtext here comes in the selection of the 13 people, of whom three are black (Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), one is Hispanic (Cesar Chavez), one is Native American (Sitting Bull), and one has a very strong connection with Obama’s Chicago (Jane Addams). But it can be argued that this is really a civics rather than political subtext, a message of inclusion for everyone living in the United States, and that is certainly how Obama himself presents it: “Have I told you that America is made up of people of every kind?” Furthermore, every author is entitled to make a personal selection of heroes and exemplars: pretty much anyone doing so in the context of American history would include George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as Obama does, and if not everyone would pick Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Maya Lin or Neil Armstrong, that is no reason to gainsay Obama’s choices. Loren Long was clearly given the task of making all these people seem as noble as possible, and many of her illustrations tend to look more propagandistic than Obama’s words sound: the impossibly chiseled features of King, Chavez and Washington are the stuff of poster art and hagiography. The two best illustrations are of Sitting Bull, whose face is constructed from foliage, horses and bison, and Maya Lin, who appears in soft focus behind her best-known design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Families may well quibble with the specific descriptions assigned by Obama to each person who receives a brief profile: Robinson, for example, is “brave,” while Armstrong is “an explorer” and Addams is “kind.” But, again, this is Obama’s book (written before he took office as President, and with his proceeds being donated to a scholarship fund); whatever social or political shaping it has is ultimately less important than its message of uplift and inclusiveness.

     Obama, an unabashed liberal, is the first black President of the United States; Condoleezza Rice, an unabashed conservative, was the first black woman to be Secretary of State and the first to be National Security Advisor. The version for young readers of Rice’s autobiography is aimed at older youths than is Obama’s book – ages 11 and up – and is more overtly personal. But it too largely eschews political posturing and leverage. Rice, an only child, was born in 1954, in the last apparently placid days of the segregated South, and came of age during the turbulent 1960s. A direct descendant of slaves (“my great-grandmother, Julia Head, was a favored household slave who had learned to read as a young girl”), she could easily have become a rabble-rouser and left-wing activist. But she had many interests that transcended politics: music (for a time, she dreamed of becoming a concert pianist), figure skating (although “I was simply not very good”), and history. It was this last field, and the relationship between the past and current affairs, that set Rice on her eventual political course – although her initial work was in academia (she was, among other things, provost of Stanford University from 1993 to 1999, and returned there to teach after leaving office). It would be remarkably easy for Rice to use her book to boast of her accomplishments – they are so many and so varied that merely listing them sounds like bragging – but what is interesting about Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me is that Rice really does spend much of the book focusing on her family and its meaning for her. Her parents, John and Angelina, come across in this book as unfailingly supportive and strongly focused on educational accomplishment as the way to realize one’s dreams. From the time they “found the money one day to rent a real piano” so Rice could play as she wanted to, right up through her school days and into adulthood, John and Angelina seem to have backed Rice in every possible way – and even if the adult Rice is wearing rose-colored glasses in some of what she writes, her parents’ love and support come through quite clearly. Both have died, but Rice seems absolutely sincere when she says “they remain by my side.” Incidentally, Rice ends her book with a glossary that contains a far broader spectrum of influences than those in Obama’s. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil-rights leaders are included (Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X); but so are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Ku Klux Klan and The Mickey Mouse Club. Young readers will find Rice as impressive for the breadth of her knowledge as for her accomplishments.