January 27, 2011


Something Old, Something New: “For Better or For Worse” 1st Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $25.99.

     This is the first, but not the first, collection of early cartoons by Lynn Johnston; and it is a complicated saga that Johnston herself feels obligated to explain at the start of the book and to try to clarify throughout. Johnston ended For Better or For Worse in 2008, but instead of simply dropping the strip – and to the annoyance of some younger cartoonists, who were hoping to take over Johnston’s slot amid the fast-shrinking availability of newspaper space – Johnston then proceeded to begin the strip all over again. And although many papers dropped the “starting over” strips, many did not. Furthermore, Johnston did not merely rerun or redraw her early panels. She polished them, improved the sometimes clumsy art that she created in the strip’s early years (1979-80), and added entirely new sequences to take the story in somewhat different directions or flesh out some characters or plot points to which she had paid scant attention in the original originals. To do that, she improved some of the early drawings – and attempted to re-create an improved version of her original style (which was quite different from her later, much more refined style), so that newly inserted strips would have both continuity and artistic complementarity with the redrawn originals.

     This was a very complex undertaking, and not a wholly successful one on all levels, since some of the early strips really were out of keeping with the much later ones, and in returning to her roots, Johnston also removed much of the depth and soap-opera elements that made For Better or For Worse such a big success for so many years. On the other hand, the early strips were frequently funnier than the later ones, albeit more superficial, and not all readers necessarily enjoyed the complex, interwoven and often rather dour plot elements of the later strips, which followed aging characters of multiple generations through life, love, disease, old age and death. Something Old, Something New, a handsome hardcover book, gives Johnston’s fans – including ones whose newspapers decided not to carry the “restarted” strips – a chance to judge for themselves whether the time-machine experiment was, as a whole, successful or not. And it includes a fair amount of commentary by Johnston, who (among other things) reveals which strips are based on real-life incidents (for example, ones about buying life insurance while young and about what different characteristics a woman might look for if she ever remarried after her husband’s death). Johnston knows the strips in the book do not flow entirely naturally: at one point, she says “you’re seeing this collection – warts and all!” But on the whole, they do flow reasonably well; and some of Johnston’s insights into her work are genuinely enjoyable, as when she comments that “you sometimes resort to an old gag” to meet a deadline, then talks about “the fun of drawing the third panel” in a four-panel strip in which husband John gets a shock while trying to fix a plugged-in toaster.

     There are also some very serious thoughts about parenting here, not only in the strips but also in Johnston’s remarks about them. In one especially sensitive Sunday strip, her surrogate comic-strip self finally loses it when little Elizabeth and Michael misbehave and don’t listen – there is yelling, there is anger, and afterwards there is regretful gazing at beautiful sleeping children, as a single tear rolls down the comic-strip mom’s face and she wonders, “How did you end up with a mother like me?” Beneath the strip, Johnston explains that the drawing was “an earnest plea for forgiveness,” and marvels at “children’s ability to see the best in you – even when you’re at your worst.” It is this sort of insight, built into the strip and expanded, in this collection, through Johnston’s comments on her early work, that makes For Better or For Worse special – and that ultimately makes Something Old, Something New quite a wonderful book, for all its occasional imperfections of continuity and style. The redrawn strips are by no means perfect, and Johnston’s decision to start again instead of making way for younger cartoonists who have been struggling to find their own voices and newspaper placements is certainly questionable, if understandable. But taken on its own terms, this sensitive, family-focused comic strip continues to charm, inform and entertain on a very high level indeed. In the final analysis, Something Old, Something New is simply a collection in which Johnston in her current form reexamines Johnston in her earlier form, letting readers see what has changed and what has remained the same – for better or for worse.


B Magical #1: The Missing Magic; #2: The Trouble with Secrets. By Lexi Connor. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

Dear Dumb Diary #11: Okay, So Maybe I Do Have Superpowers. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Simple but clever stories for middle-school girls, both the B Magical and Dear Dumb Diary series are quick reads that are fun without being too complex, their problems at the surface and their solutions enjoyable. The B Magical series was originally published as Spelling B, a cleverer title on several levels, since 11-year-old Beatrix is a witch (from a whole family of witches), and her particular skill lies in casting spells by spelling words (a rarity among witches, who must usually create rhymes in order to make magic). The Missing Magic starts the series with B determined to develop her powers – she is a late bloomer, magically speaking – and includes her discovery of her abilities, which Lexi Connor handles amusingly: B is practicing for a school spelling bee when she notices that words she spells have repercussions in real life (words such as “chaos” and “desert”). By the time B actually has to participate in the spelling bee, she discovers that she needs to lose on purpose, because the alternative is to spell the word “explosion.” B does not really have much of a personality, but one of the other characters does: a hamster named Mozart, who is able to speak under B’s spells and who turns out to talk nonstop – complaining about pretty much everything and everybody. The second book, The Trouble with Secrets, rings some magical changes on a typical middle-school plot, with B’s friend George willing, he says, to tell B anything, while B knows she must not reveal that she is a witch, so she cannot make the same promise to him. There is also a run-in with a typical middle-school bully, Jason (who also plays a villainous role in the first book), and there is a well-done scene in which a carnival witch curses George for not believing that her powers are real, which they clearly are not (clearly to B, that is). This woman, who calls herself Enchantress Le Fay, is the real villain of the book, disappointing even Jason, who thought he would learn magic from her but learns only how to fleece the public. It turns out to be up to B to expose the phony witch, which B does very neatly – but at the book’s very end, she makes a well-intentioned error that will change her relationship with George just in time for the next book, The Runaway Spell.

     There is no wayward magic at Mackerel Middle School, but there are always plenty of antics for Jamie Kelly to describe in her inimitable style. The 11th entry in the Dear Dumb Diary series is not quite at the level of Jim Benton’s best entries: its threads are woven together rather loosely, and the underlying idea (that Jamie received the superpower of understanding how boys think when she was bitten by a baby) seems too far out for even the sometimes-flighty Jamie to believe. As a result, the best elements of this story – which are often the best elements even when the story is better than it is this time – are the drawings that Jamie (well, Benton) sprinkles throughout the text. There is one hilarious one of Jamie and her attractive Aunt Carol running away from a slobbering monster, with Jamie’s caption explaining that it is important to “be the fastest person in your crowd AND be able to not look delicious whenever necessary.” There is one of Jamie imagining she is among the “tremendously talented people that make great commercials for awful movies,” with posters for “The Day They Invented Prunes” and “The Story Nobody Understood.” There is one in which dying ants act out a play in mock-Shakespearian language (the whole dying-ants plot, though, isn’t very good until its climax, which is hilarious). And there is a truly hysterical drawing to illustrate the funniest part of the book, which is about Jamie’s dog and unfortunately is irrelevant to the plot: “Once, there was a huge wart. Either it ate something terrible, or it contracted some kind of horrible illness, and a beagle broke out on its skin and began to grow. When it achieved maximum grossness, the beagle ate the wart and lived on by itself.” Unfortunately, Benton cannot keep everything in the book at this level of absurdity, but at least he finally has Jamie admit that she kind of likes the too-perfect Angeline, who has been her imagined nemesis through the first 10 books for no good reason at all (and Jamie still dislikes her a little bit, but now she knows it is for no good reason). Fans of Dear Dumb Diary will enjoy Okay, So Maybe I Do Have Superpowers, even though Benton is not at the top of his game here – but anyone unfamiliar with the series will do better starting with some of the earlier titles.


The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman. By Ben H. Winters. Harper. $16.99.

My Weird School Daze #11: Mr. Tony Is Full of Baloney! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $3.99.

     What exactly are teachers when they are not, you know, teaching? This is a recurring question for their students, and a recurring topic for books, movies and comic strips. There must be something more to teachers than all those boring lessons and homework that represent the usual interface between them and their students, right? Both Ben H. Winters and Dan Gutman have fun with this perennial question, although in different ways and with the intention of reaching readers of different ages. Winters’ The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, for ages 8-12, is about a teacher so determinedly ordinary that she is practically invisible. Ms. Finkleman is not a really bad music teacher, but neither is she really good; she dresses conservatively, but not to a great enough degree to draw attention to herself. Clearly there must be a mystery here – clearly, that is, to Bethesda Fielding, who just happens to have a social-studies assignment to solve a mystery in her own life. Bethesda focuses on Ms. Finkleman, and soon learns that the ordinary teacher has a tattoo that appears to be of Ozzy Osbourne. Aha! A connection with rock music! And Bethesda’s father, conveniently (rather too conveniently for believability), happens once to have fronted an indie rock band. So with his help and the discovery of a paper from Ms. Finkleman’s desk, they establish the teacher’s connection to an all-girl punk-rock band called Little Miss Mystery and the Red Herrings. So naturally Bethesda reveals the teacher’s secret rock-music life, and naturally the principal decides it would be a good thing to stage a battle-of-the-bands event right at Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School, and naturally – well, nothing here is really natural, and elements of the story are so forced that it often reads more like a fairy tale than a middle-school romp. So of course there needs to be a secret beyond the secret, a mystery behind the mystery: what has been revealed about Ms. Finkleman turns out not to be correct, not quite, and even that revelatory tattoo, although it exists, proves not to be what it seems. The school, of course, rallies anyway, and there is lots of good rockin’, but Winters is a little too determined to make rock some sort of “wonder music” and to denigrate other types, especially classical. And the twists in Ms. Finkleman’s story are really rather overdone. Still, rock-music fans in the target age range will find that The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman plays neatly to their tastes.

     The target readership is younger in Dan Gutman’s My Weird School Daze series, which is intended for ages 7-10, but the underlying theme of teachers who are not mere disseminators of facts is the same. Gutman’s series is played entirely for laughs, and Mr. Tony Is Full of Baloney! fits right in. Mr. Tony runs “After-School Kids’ Kare” (ASKK), which A.J. is going to because his mom just got a job. And Mr. Tony has an ambition: to make the world’s largest pizza. Well, actually he is really obsessed with getting into The Guinness Book of World Records, to the point of doing such things as juggling while on a pogo stick and jogging while holding a spoon with an egg on it in his mouth. But it is the pizza obsession that captures him after the kids of ASKK suggest it, and of course the whole project gets more and more complex, eventually involves the school principal parachuting from a plane while wearing an ape suit, and is so utterly silly that kids with as little as an ounce of maturity will likely find the whole story ridiculous. Gutman’s book – and the amusing Jim Paillot illustrations throughout it – are for all the kids whose maturity levels fall short of that ounce. And maybe for their parents, too.


Danger Zone 2: Ice Claw. By David Gilman. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Black Radishes. By Susan Lynn Meyer. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     The thrilling and utterly absurd Danger Zone ecological adventure series moves from heat to cold in David Gilman’s second entry, Ice Claw. Gilman, a screenwriter, approaches novels as if they are screenplays, with huge action scenes, minimal characterization, heart-tugging elements allowed to go on just long enough to bridge gaps in the narrative, and everywhere action, mystery and intrigue. His Jason-Bourne-like protagonist in these novels is 15-year-old Max Gordon, who rescued his father amid the heat of Namibia in the first book, The Devil’s Breath, and starts Ice Claw in mountains as cold as the desert was hot. Max has some sort of supernatural abilities in addition to the intrepid nature that is absolutely required of action heroes, but he cannot call on his magic at will – it has to find him, rather than the other way around. So when, within the first 40 pages of this 400-plus-page novel, Max engages in an extreme sports competition, survives an avalanche, prevents a murder by an assassin dressed in black, watches a man fall to his death, and overhears a mysterious warning in a language he does not understand, it only makes sense that he will awaken with severe hypothermia in a hospital where his brain shows unusual activity – and where he comes out of unconsciousness saying words in Basque, a language he does not speak. And the words, as interpreted by the nurses who are caring for him and who conveniently do speak the language, are a warning to trust no one, because “they” (whoever “they” are) will kill him. This setup is every bit as thrilling as it sounds, and every bit as silly. In action movies, skilled directors can arrange the cutting and pacing so that audiences have no time to catch their breath and pick apart gaping plot holes. Gilman seems to think the same thing works in print, or at least writes as if that is what he believes. It is nonsense, of course, and so is most of Ice Claw, but this is intended as a thrill-a-minute read for ages 11 and up, and it is successful on that basis. Max remembers bits of the last words of the now-dead man, who was a monk (thus bringing in the pseudo-religious element of The Da Vinci Code and similar thrillers), and those words portentously refer to a crocodile, a serpent and (who else?) Lucifer. Soon, Max finds himself accused of causing the monk’s death. The book’s clipped style fits right into hard-boiled mode, or what modern authors unfamiliar with Dashiell Hammett believe to be hard-boiled: “Max had a rendezvous with a dead man.” “Max fingered the pendant. It yielded no clue, but its secret had caused murder.” “Fedir wore his disfigurement like a badge of honor. If anyone averted their [sic] eyes in repulsion, they learned the harsh reality of his cold, unyielding will.” “Angelo Farentino had once known courage. He had worn it as lightly as one of his expensive suits.” “The wonderful thing about being corrupt is that it takes away any sense of guilt. You are wicked and you know it.” It turns out, in a bow to modern concerns, that the monk’s warning is of ecological rather than strictly religious catastrophe ahead, so Max’s mission turns out to involve saving the world from eco-disaster – aided by two other teens, who are quite capable of fending off hordes of well-trained adult killers. The style sometimes becomes genuinely laughable: “Welcome to the land of cuckoo clocks, chocolate and violent death.” But the action never flags – it barely pauses – and certainly Ice Claw, which must have been written from the start with an eye toward becoming a screenplay, will not disappoint readers who like near-nonstop adventure unencumbered by characterization, tight plotting or a great deal of sense.

     Black Radishes lacks the visceral appeal and over-the-top excitement of Ice Claw, and it is fact-based – although the events happened so long ago, from the point of view of readers in the target age range of 8-12, that Black Radishes might as well be set in a fictional land. It would be increasingly difficult to understand the preoccupation of publishers with World War II were it not for the fact that the war has continued resonance for many adult publishers themselves, and for their families. Whether it still has significance for young readers – for whom it must seem as distant in time as the Middle Ages – is another matter. Certainly Susan Lynn Meyer, in her debut novel, writes with sensitivity about a time and situation that are clearly very meaningful to her: the story is based on her father’s own experiences as a Jewish boy living in Nazi-occupied France. But giving those experiences relevance for today’s young readers will be difficult. Those who do know about the war will be aware that in 1940, when the novel takes place, the Nazis were triumphant everywhere, not only taking over the French government but also successfully invading multiple countries besides France. Yet in the book, Gustave’s parents, fearing for their safety in Paris, simply move to a small village called Saint-Georges. It is only after Paris is occupied (June 1940) that anyone starts to think about escaping France altogether; and by then, doing so is extremely risky. There are actually good historical reasons for this, and Meyer explains some of them in her author’s note after the story. Meyer also explains that the book “is not my father’s story,” although elements of his life “are woven into the novel.” Ultimately, of course, the book must stand or fall on its own as a story, not a memoir or a factual historical analysis. Whether it does so may well depend on who in the target range is reading it. The novel is, at bottom, a survival tale, a type already likely to be familiar to many readers in this age group – but in the context of fiction or even fairy tales. What is supposed to give Black Radishes additional resonance is its foundation in a family’s true experiences, but for those young readers for whom the experiences are hopelessly remote, the resonance will be absent. For example, the importance of the Swiss papers held by the father in the book is clear to those who understand how identity papers were managed in 1940, and Meyer makes an attempt to explain the situation within the book without bogging down the narrative too much; but will this make Black Radishes especially attractive to non-Jewish young readers unfamiliar with the time it describes? On balance, the most effective moments of the book are those connected primarily with small matters of family solidarity rather than grand social and political events – as, for example, the observation that the book’s Papa would sometimes have such a good day at the store, despite the Nazi occupation, that he would play with Gustave after dinner, once even climbing a ladder in the garage to admire a fort that Gustave had built. These are the details that will stay with readers, even though they are clearly not the elements that are intended to make Black Radishes meaningful to a generation far removed from the time in which it takes place.


Jack Gallagher: Diversions Overture; Berceuse; Sinfonietta; Symphony in One Movement—Threnody. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

Michael Daugherty: Route 66; Ghost Ranch; Sunset Strip; Time Machine. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

Thomas Bloch: Missa Cantate; Sancta Maria; Cold Song; Christ Hall Blues; Christ Hall Postlude. Jörg Waschinski, male soprano; Thomas Bloch, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, keyboards, crystal bells, waterphone, bells, ondes Martenot; Jacques Duprez, viola; David Coulter, musical saw; Paderewski Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fernand Quattrocchi. Naxos. $8.99.

Leonardo Balada: Caprichos Nos. 2-4. Pittsburgh Sinfonietta conducted by Andrés Cárdenes and Lawrence Loh. Naxos. $8.99.

     Wonder of wonders: some modern composers have come full circle, through the age of extreme dissonance, aleatoric composition and determinedly abstruse compositions, and emerged creating works that are no-holds-barred modern in terms of harmony, rhythm, and structure -- but that actually have clear visceral and emotional (not just intellectual) audience appeal (even for listeners outside the musical establishment and academic world). A number of the more brittle approaches of the 20th century still survive, and so do some of their strongest advocates, such as Pierre Boulez; but somewhere along the line, at least a few composers – including Jack Gallagher, Michael Daugherty, Thomas Bloch and Leonardo Balada – have discovered that being listened to with pleasure really does matter. The result is some works that are remarkably effective on their own terms, uncompromising in their modernity, yet rewarding to listeners in a way that many of the pieces of the mid-to-late 20th century were not.

     Gallagher (born 1947) creates music that is warm, inventive, melodic and carefully structured. His Diversions Overture (1986) features an opening reminiscent of Mahler’s awakening of nature in his Symphony No. 1, followed by a brass-emphatic main section with especially attractive use of harp and percussion. Berceuse (1977) is a gently rocking piece with calm demeanor, pleasant winds and warm strings – a surprisingly sweet work, given the date of its composition. Gallagher’s five-movement Sinfonietta (1990, revised 2007) is an expansion of his Two Pieces for String Orchestra and is something of a mixed bag. The third movement, Malambo, has the most rhythmic and harmonic interest, while the fourth, Pavane, is a bit insipid and rhythmically flaccid – but the fifth, Rondo concertante, features some highly attractive pizzicato writing and in parts sounds a little like something by Britten. The largest-scale work here is Symphony in One Movement: Threnody, a 2008 revision of a piece that originally dates to 1991. It shows Gallagher’s mastery of more substantive forms, sounding at times a bit like the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra in its multi-instrumental virtuosity, featuring a number of very well-conceived scoring touches (a section playing harp against solo violin is especially effective), and turning very modernistic at the end. One of the most interesting things about Gallagher’s music is that, while it often sounds (at least briefly) like the works of others, it never seems imitative or reductive; nor does it use earlier works for sly or sarcastic purposes in the mode of Shostakovich. Everything sounds heartfelt and sincere – and is played that way by the London Symphony under JoAnn Falletta, a conductor who has shown herself especially adept in effectively communicating a great deal of modern music to audiences.

     Marin Alsop also specializes in modern works, and she too often conducts them to good effect; in fact, she is better with moderns than with the classic repertoire. Alsop seems particularly well attuned to the works of Michael Daugherty (born 1954), whose music has a wry, often rather dry wit that sometimes bursts forth into genuine amusement. The works Alsop conducts with the Bournemouth Symphony constitute something of a travelogue, although they were conceived at different times and have only a few superficial elements in common. Route 66 (1998) is a short piece looking at an iconic American highway that has long since fallen victim to interstate-route progress but that still captivates a certain subset of drivers (it even inspired the Pixar movie Cars). Here, Daugherty is appropriately nostalgic. In Ghost Ranch (2006) he is more reverential, or as close to that as he ever gets: this is an extended tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted her wide-open-spaces works at the eponymous location. The second movement, “Above Clouds,” features an ensemble of five horns and an especially broad sonic canvas. Sunset Strip (1999) is another nostalgia-tinged work, tuneful in its outer movements (whimsically entitled “7 PM” and “7 AM”) and warm in its central Nocturne. Time Machine (2003) features travel of a different sort from that of the other works – and is the most rhythmically complex and overtly modern-sounding piece here. It justifies its full title, Time Machine for Three Conductors and Orchestra, through sheer complexity (Alsop is here joined by Mei-Ann Chen and Laura Jackson). But it is fair to ask to what extent the difficulties of the work are necessary for its effectiveness. Ives’ Fourth Symphony famously required two conductors until José Serebrier figured out how to manage it alone; Daugherty’s work seems designed to give a workout to everyone on and near the podium as well as to all the players – it is, in truth, a trifle overdone. But it also blares along just wonderfully, strictly from a sonic point of view, and provides an effective contrast between “Past” and “Future” (the titles of its two sections). Daugherty certainly knows how to please an audience.

     So does Thomas Bloch (born 1962), but his music sounds quite different from that of Daugherty and Gallagher. Bloch plays and writes for a wide variety of unusual and obscure instruments, using them for emotional connection with audiences through the sheer peculiarity of their sound. Even listeners familiar with the ondes Martenot (which is played without actually touching anything) and the glass harmonica (or “armonica,” as this set of tuned glasses was sometimes called after Benjamin Franklin invented it and Mozart, among others, wrote for it) may never have heard the cristal Baschet (or crystal organ), which uses oscillating glass cylinders to produce sounds, or the waterphone (an assemblage of stainless steel, brass and sometimes water). Adept on these instruments as well as on keyboards and bells, Bloch uses the unusual sonorities of what he plays to produce works ranging from the warm to the distinctly icy. Bloch is what is usually called a “crossover” artist – he often performs film music and with rock groups – and his music crosses a number of lines, too. Missa Cantate (1999), which is an orchestral work rather than the choral one that might be expected from the title, is the length of a Romantic symphony and is filled with yearning, poignancy and emotive expressiveness. In contrast, Cold Song (2009) is even chillier than its title, using instrumental timbres to produce a thoroughly frigid effect. There is an ethereality to much of Bloch’s music, including Sancta Maria (1998), and there is a definite flavor of jazz, film, rock and what is loosely called “world music” in his compositions as well – notable in Christ Hall Blues (1990/2005) and Christ Hall Postlude (2008). Bloch is usually identified as a classical performer, and is indeed expert in works by Messiaen, Varèse and others, but his own music picks and chooses among genres with an eye (or an ear) toward sonic effectiveness for listeners. It will not be to all tastes, by any means, but it is unusual and frequently moving.

     The Caprichos (Latin American dance suites) by Leonardo Balada (born 1933) are moving in a different way: they are bouncy, often jazz-inflected, using thoroughly modern techniques (including aleatory) to develop an underlying idiom that is foundationally tonal and participatory. The mixture of styles and sounds is sometimes an uneasy one but is more often fascinating – and it is worth remembering that Bach’s and Telemann’s suites often took the straightforward dance music of their time and deepened, enlarged and reharmonized it. Capricho No. 2 (2004) contains three freely interpreted dances and is the most straightforward of the three works played with strong commitment by the Pittsburgh Sinfonietta and soloists (conductor Andrés Cárdenes on violin; Jeffrey Turner on double bass). Capricho No. 3 (2005) is a more serious work, subtitled “Homage to the International Brigades” and devoted to the volunteers who fought during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. There are five short pieces within this work, loosely portraying different groups of volunteers. Capricho No. 4 (2007) is subtitled “Quasi Jazz” and is perhaps the most complex of these three works, including traditional jazz elements (harmonically and rhythmically) and mixing them with much more intense harmonic sections and a certain amount of “chance” music. Yet all three of Balada’s Caprichos recorded here retain their roots in dance forms, and all three preserve the rhythmic vitality of Latin American dance music in general: buried the original dances may be, but they keep peeking through to the surface from time to time. The result is an aural experience that engages the audience both through the underlying simplicity of the material and through the complexity with which it is developed – a very interesting combination indeed.

January 20, 2011


Space, Stars, and the Beginning of Time: What the Hubble Telescope Saw. By Elaine Scott. Clarion. $17.99.

Your Baby Is Speaking to You: A Visual Guide to the Amazing Behaviors of Your Newborn and Growing Baby. By Kevin Nugent, Ph.D. Photographs by Abelardo Morell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.95.

Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies, and “Cures.” By David Haviland. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. $12.95.

     The nonfictional universe is a huge one – in fact, as huge as a big chunk of the astronomical universe, at least in Space, Stars, and the Beginning of Time. Starting with a fictional book that will likely be familiar to many young readers – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time – science journalist Elaine Scott explores the mystery of vastly distant star systems observed by the Hubble Telescope, after first delving into some history of telescopes in general and the Hubble in particular. The notorious but now largely forgotten manufacturing error that originally made Hubble images blurry and unfocused is explained, as is the correction that made it possible for the orbiting telescope to produce the crystal-clear and fascinating views of the universe at which scientists and non-scientists alike have oohed and aahed for almost two decades. The history is well and accurately presented, but it is the Hubble photographs, and what they tell about the universe, that will attract most readers to this book. Scott delves into some difficult concepts, including the Big Bang, gravity, stellar life cycles, black holes, and the fact that the more distant an object is in space, the more distant it also is in time – and in all cases, she explains things with clarity and illustrates them with gorgeous Hubble views that quickly come to seem to be as much art as science. Beautiful to look at, filled with fascinating information and packed with behind-the-scenes stories about space exploration via telescope and the people whose lives are built around it, Space, Stars, and the Beginning of Time will whet the appetite of budding astronomers, astrophysicists and astronauts for more in-depth information on the subjects that Scott covers – and her end-of-book listing of books and Web sites will be an excellent place for the fascinated to start learning even more.

     Curiosity about the world and what makes it tick starts at birth, although what constitutes “the world” changes over time, becoming a larger and larger concept. In the very beginning of life, when a typical baby’s world includes only itself (imperfectly understood) and an adult or two (also imperfectly grasped), the infant is already trying to make sense of the world and communicate with it – according to Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Children’s Hospital, Boston, and a specialist in early parent-child relations. Your Baby Is Speaking to You is Nugent’s attempt to show parents and caregivers that “your infant does come with caregiving guidelines embedded in his behavior,” although “these guidelines do have to be decoded.” This book is the codebreaker. Using a combination of excellent close-up photos by Abelardo Morell and straightforward text, Nugent explains the fine points of deep sleep (“babies with low tolerance for outside stimulation have to use a great deal of energy trying to protect their sleep”), light or REM sleep (“the eye movements…activate a gelatinlike substance that helps keep the eyes fully oxygenated”), the “fencer response” (the baby turns its head to one side, extends the arm on that side and flexes the other arm at the elbow), the smile of discovery (“she is beginning to form a model of your face in her developing cortex and is now trying to match the face before her with that vague internal model”), and much more. Nugent’s interpretations will give parents and caregivers a kind of road map to preverbal babies’ feelings. For example, Nugent explains that one reason babies yawn is to stop looking into an adult’s eyes and stop the adult from looking into theirs, “taking the lead in regulating your time together, dictating the pace and rhythm of the interaction between you.” For another example, it is a baby’s “sense of hearing that may permit the fullest communication during her very earliest days,” since babies do hear sounds in the womb and adults spontaneously adopt a style of speaking to infants that is “slower, higher-pitched, more melodic and repetitive” than everyday speech. There is nothing prescriptive here – Nugent does not tell parents and caregivers what they ought to or must do, except when suggesting that certain problems (such as nonstop crying for no discernible reason) merit a call to the pediatrician. The purpose of Your Baby Is Speaking to You is to show that communication really does start from the very beginning of a child’s life, and that adults can understand that communication is occurring – even if its precise form cannot be perfectly interpreted – by simply paying close attention to the way babies move, glance and even sleep.

     But enough of serious stuff! There has to be a place in nonfiction for ridiculousness as well – or something approaching it – and the offbeat “Why” series continues doing its best to supply fact-based absurdity. David Haviland’s Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar is the fourth book in this group, following Why You Shouldn’t Eat Your Boogers, Why Fish Fart and Why Dogs Eat Poop. That last book, although fun to read, contained some irritants – for example, it stated that snakes have no teeth (which is 100% incorrect, since all snakes have teeth), and it failed to explain why dogs eat poop, retreating behind the old “no one really knows” non-explanation. But the newest book seems more consistent and accurate. It focuses on medical matters, of which there are certainly plenty of gross ones (grossness being a matter of singular importance in this series, in case that wasn’t clear from the titles). In such chapters as “Disgusting Diseases,” “Curious Cures” and “Bad Medicine,” Haviland offers information on “chimney sweep’s scrotum” (a type of cancer caused by exposure to carcinogenic soot); why urine was used to clean soldiers’ wounds (it is usually sterile and “was infinitely preferable to some of the alternative battlefield balms”); the Guinea Pig Club (a group of burn victims treated with experimental reconstructive surgery during World War II); paraffinomas (hard, painful lumps caused by paraffin-wax injections, which were used for early cosmetic surgery, including breast augmentation); the crypts of lieberkühn (glands found in the lining of the colon and small intestine); and Miss Jenny’s launderette (where condoms, which in the 19th century were made of the intestines and bladders of sheep and goats, were washed for reuse). To say this book is a potpourri is somewhat to understate the case: it is a true mishmash, in which Haviland throws in obscure fact after obscure fact, for no apparent reason other than that he finds these snippets of medical information interesting. Actually, that turns out to be a pretty good reason, since many of them are fascinating – and because the entries are uniformly short, it is easy to skip over those that are really a bit overdone and move on to ones that a reader may find a tad more pleasant to peruse. Oh – and Hamilton this time does answer the title question. The storage of unpleasant odors was done when the Black Death was rampant, a time when medicine was based on the belief that “like cures like.” In other words: “Since it was believed that the plague was caused by deadly vapors, it therefore made sense that other foul smells might help to ward off the disease.”


Drawing Fantastic Furries: The Ultimate Guide to Drawing Anthropomorphic Characters. By Christopher Hart. Watson-Guptill. $19.99.

Tastes Like Chicken: An “Argyle Sweater” Treasury. By Scott Hilburn. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

You Can Draw in 30 Days: The Fun, Easy Way to Learn to Draw in One Month or Less. By Mark Kistler. Da Capo. $19.

     Animals with human characteristics – or, if you prefer, human-like characters that are part-animal – are known as “furries” in comic-book and fantasy illustration. Ranging from the adorable to the alluring to the active and warlike, these characters people (if “people” is the right word) graphic novels, movies, manga and anime. They are tremendously varied in appearance, style and purpose – and prolific cartooning-book author Christopher Hart shows the basics of all the types in Drawing Fantastic Furries. Hart’s lessons are excellent, his writing style and sense of self-importance less so: “Most how-to-draw books offer only two poor choices: They either present subjects that are so advanced that you can’t copy them, or conversely, they present drawings that are so simple that even though you can copy them, why would you want to?” Still, get past the stylistic irritants here and you will get a series of very valuable tips on how to draw furries of all types. For example, Hart points out that “most mammal skeletons are basically the same configuration,” then gives examples, showing how the ability to draw one mammal-based furry can be readily translated for drawing many others. When it comes to the specifics of the art, his advice is first-class, as when he explains the importance of counterbalance to create an interesting pose (“one side emphasizes a bent leg, while the other emphasizes a bent arm”), emphasizes the derivation of fantasy outfits (“fantasy costumes are a splashy take on medieval costumes”), and shows excellent comparative drawings of realistic vs. furry legs – although accompanied by irritating prose: “This ought to be taught in every high school biology class, because believe it or not, they don’t offer very much in the way of furry studies. Most of it is about DNA and other useless stuff like that.” Focus on the drawing techniques here and you will gain valuable insight and considerable technique. Hart is at his best in showing just how varied the forms of furries can be, from a pig wearing a zip-up jacket and cargo pants to a cute stuffed-animal-like beaver to a slinky cat-based “tabby furry” to a dramatically posed elk swordfighter (“the trick is to give this gal furry fighting armor but to make it look like [sic] it was manufactured by a high-end Italian clothing designer”). Writing about one particular pose, Hart says, “Never doubt the possibilities in the land of furry fantasies.” That statement could apply to the whole book: it shows just how varied and interesting this particular kind of drawing can be – and helps young artists who want to draw these characters understand what makes them tick (and leap, jump, walk, ride, sashay and bounce).

     It is easy to see what makes Scott Hilburn’s Argyle Sweater single-panel cartoons tick: fairy tales, mad scientists, historical figures, popular culture and pretty much anything else that pops into Hilburn’s rather twisted mind. Tastes Like Chicken is the first oversize “Treasury” book of Hilburn’s cartoons, which means it contains in a single volume the same material that previously appeared in two smaller-format books, The Argyle Sweater and 50% Wool, 50% Asinine. Hilburn fans who already have those books do not really need this one for the panels – but they may want it for the comments, many of them self-deprecating, that Hilburn sprinkles throughout the pages. Next to a panel displaying “The Throw-Like-a-Girl Baseball League Tryouts,” for example, Hilburn mentions receiving a complaint about the cartoon from an offended woman, and he adds, “To read comics, watch sitcoms, or enjoy comedy in any form, you need to, first, have a sense of humor. It’s just a joke.” Next to a cartoon showing Spock giving his famous “live long and prosper” hand sign (which Kirk has discovered, thanks to his computer, really means “die soon and suffer”), Hilburn notes that he originally wanted the translation to be “something like, ‘Stand back. I am flatulent’” – but that his editors decided it was not worth the risk of upsetting people. As for the panels themselves – well, a number of them try too hard to be funny and/or absurdist, but a number of others come across very well indeed. Moses meets the “burning brush,” which warns him about split ends; a crotchety conductor welcomes kids to “the bi-polar express”; g artists who want to draw these characters understand what makes them tick (and leap, jump, walk, ride, sashay and boa panel showing six examples of “majestic mustaches” includes Col. Sanders and Yosemite Sam; Fred and Wilma Flintstone go for marriage counseling (“she wears the same dress every day!”); Hello Kitty develops mood swings and claws an animal psychologist; and so on. Obviously, people who are not familiar with all the pop-culture icons and historical events that Hilburn plays with won’t care for or even understand a number of his cartoons; and some of his jokes are groaners that are scarcely worth figuring out (such as a panel labeled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” that is a hospital scene in which the white-bearded patient has “passed it”). The Argyle Sweater is something of an acquired taste, but those who have acquired it will likely enjoy acquiring this collection – and those new to Hilburn’s odd sense of humor may acquire an interest in it from this “Treasury” volume.

     How long does it take to learn to draw like Hilburn or Hart? Some people looking at Hilburn’s rather crude pictures will say, “About an hour,” while some viewing Hart’s elaborately designed and very elegantly finished ones will likely say, “Years.” But the basics of drawing can be learned in just a month, according to Mark Kistler, host of Mark Kistler’s Imagination Station on public television. Kistler lays out his upbeat viewpoint at the very start: “Even if you have little or no previous drawing experience, and even if you don’t believe you have natural talent, if you can find a few pencils and twenty minutes a day for thirty days, you can learn to draw amazing pictures.” Kistler lays out the “Nine Fundamental Laws of Drawing” that create the illusion of depth – foreshortening, placement, size, overlapping, shading, shadow, contour lines, horizon line and density – and explains how each works. He gives encouraging before-and-after examples of drawings made by people using his teaching methods. And he then proceeds through 30 separate lessons, from sphere and cube to specific flowers (rose and lily) to pyramids, trees, and eventually the human face. Two chapters are devoted to one-point perspective (“alignment of all objects to a single point in a picture”) and four to two-point perspective (“using two guide dots on a horizon line to draw an object above and below your eye level”). The verbal explanations are not always crystal-clear, but the lessons themselves are generally quite easy to follow, especially if you are careful to go through the book sequentially so you build skills and then build on skills. Again and again, Kistler returns to those “nine fundamental laws.” In discussing advanced-level spheres, for example, he writes, “Draw another circle behind the first. Push it up a bit (placement). Tuck it behind the first (overlapping). Draw it a bit smaller (size).” This focusing and refocusing on drawing basics is what makes You Can Draw in 30 Days especially useful. Within lessons, Kistler presents examples of work done by students, illustrating the lessons themselves as well as his argument that “each student will have his or her own unique approach.” What is missing in the book is, of course, the feedback that students would get from direct interaction with Kistler; but by and large, the illustrations are clear enough without it. Kistler’s over-enthusiasm may be a bit much for some people to take, though: “Draw the two inside ‘peeking’ lines. This is our ‘BAM’ punch-out in 3-D moment; you’ve got to love this!” In terms of people interested in drawing cartoon figures like Hilburn’s or filled-out fantasy ones like Hart’s, Kistler’s book can show the way – even though it does not deal specifically with either type of visualization. The chapter “Constructing with Cubes,” for instance, contains a number of distinctly cartoon-like drawings, while the chapters on the human face, eye and hand show how it is possible to create lifelike characters that you can then turn to whatever purpose you wish. You Can Draw in 30 Days lives up to its title, but not necessarily to the time scheme that Kistler outlines: many would-be artists will find they need a great deal longer than 20 minutes a day to develop the techniques here. Still, for those with enough time and desire, the book offers a set of valuable introductory lessons in putting what you see – in the real world or your mind’s eye – down on paper.


The Inheritance Almanac: An A-to-Z Guide to the World of Eragon. By Michael Macauley. Knopf. $18.99.

The Keepers Trilogy, Book I: Museum of Thieves. By Lian Tanner. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Fans of Christopher Paolini’s highly derivative but very popular Inheritance cycle now have a single place to go in order to keep track of the many characters and settings in the first three books (Eragon, Eldest and Brisingr) and the still-untitled, still-in-progress concluding fourth novel. The Inheritance Almanac was put together by Michael Macauley, webmaster of the fan site www.shurtagal.com – whose name, spelled shur’tagal, is what the elves call the Dragon Riders in Paolini’s books. Macauley’s book is strictly for those who are thoroughly steeped in Inheritance lore and trivia. Every entry assumes knowledge of the novels’ contents. Under “Siege of Feinster,” for example, is a paragraph that begins, “The Varden leader Nasuada, weakened by the arduous Trial of the Long Knives, asked Eragon to lead the attack against the coastal city of Feinster, an Empire stronghold considered pivotal to their cause. (Once the Varden took Feinster, they could march on the cities of Belatona and Dras-Leona and from there attack Galbatorix’s stronghold of Urửbaen.)” These entries are clearly not for the uninitiated. There are some explanatory illustrations here that merit more than a passing glance, though. For example, Helgrind, a “bare mountain with three soaring peaks and one small peak,” was “inspired by Shiprock Peak in New Mexico. It means ‘The Gates of Death’ in Old Norse.” And the Ra’zac (“considered the most evil race in Alagaësia”) are “based on Jerusalem crickets.” Both these entries include photos showing the real-world bases of Paolini’s fictional creations. A great deal of The Inheritance Almanac is simply forthright and explanatory: Hlordis is, “in dwarven myth, the first woman created by Helzvog, the god of stone,” and nalgask is “a lip balm made of melted beeswax and hazelnut oil.” Longer entries are provided for major events and characters: the discussions of Eragon and Galbatorix, for example, run nearly three pages apiece. Some of the earlier works on which Paolini’s draws are made clear through the derivations of names given in The Inheritance Almanac. For example, “the name Bid’Daum (the first dragon to be paired with a Rider) spelled backward yields Muad’Dib, the main character from the novel Dune. Fans of Paolini likely do not care much about his books’ many borrowings from Frank Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien and Star Wars, and The Inheritance Almanac is quite prosaic in its mentions of some of those relationships. Macauley’s book will not bring any new readers to Paolini, but it may help existing fans keep some of the complexities of the nearly complete tetralogy straight.

     Paolini originally intended to write a trilogy, which is a more typical approach to modern fantasy novels and the one that Lian Tanner is following with The Keepers. The first book in this series, Museum of Thieves, introduces protagonist Goldie Roth and the dystopia where she lives, Jewel – a city ruled by the Blessed Guardians (anyone called “Blessed,” with a capital B, is almost sure to be evil in today’s fantasies). The museum of the book’s title is the Museum of Dunt, whose constantly changing rooms will put readers in mind of the frequent architectural changes encountered by Harry Potter at Hogwarts. But Tanner, although her writing clearly derives in part from that of J.K. Rowling and other modern fantasists, creates from the start a darker world than do many other fantasy authors. Goldie, like all children, wears a silver “guardchain” that will not be removed until she is allowed out on the streets alone after Separation Day – another bland name that almost but not quite conceals something evil. Then Separation Day is cancelled, and Goldie decides to run away despite the danger to herself (if caught, she will be put into Care, yet another euphemism) and to anyone who helps her (they may be sent to the frightening House of Repentance). There is considerable unrest in Jewel, and political undercurrents threatening to erupt any moment into violence. And when Goldie finds herself at the Museum of Dunt – where she meets a boy named Toadspit – she discovers (not surprisingly in a coming-of-age tale such as this one) that she may be a key to the future of Jewel and may have to fight to clean out its cesspool of corruption. Some characters here have brief but interestingly evocative names – Favor, Frow, Sinew, the Fugleman, Morg, Broo – while others have more conventional ones; and the evil city rulers have names such as Guardian Hope and Guardian Comfort. Toadspit ends up becoming a tutor to Goldie, and they have some interesting and amusing initial miscommunication; but there is little levity in Museum of Thieves, as Goldie learns the “Three Methods of Concealment,” passes through the Dirty Gate, and makes a bargain with Bald Thoke, one of the city’s Seven Gods, before having to deal with a Great Storm that changes Jewel dramatically and derails the Fugleman’s plans – at least until City of Lies, the second book in the trilogy, appears to move the story further ahead.


Once in a Full Moon. By Ellen Schreiber. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Vampire Crush. By A.M. Robinson. HarperTeen. $8.99.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group. By Catherine Jinks. Graphia. $8.99.

     There’s still plenty of fodder for paranormal fans out there. Plenty of secrets, too, even if readers acquainted with this thrice-familiar territory will guess them long before the characters in the books do. Both Once in a Full Moon and Vampire Crush try to build tension by indicating that there are dark doings about, dark secrets to be uncovered, dark deeds to be done or, possibly, avoided. But exactly 0% of readers will likely be surprised when it turns out that 17-year-old Celeste’s love in Once in a Full Moon is a werewolf, and 16-year-old Sophie’s in Vampire Crush is, well, a vampire. Ellen Schreiber has apparently decided to branch out beyond the vampiric into the werewolfian, having enjoyed some success with her Vampire Kisses series. Her new sequence starts with Celeste, who is popular but doesn’t quite fit in with the “in” crowd, meeting wrong-side-of-the-tracks Brandon, who saves her from a wolf pack at the expense of an injury of his own, then kisses her under a full moon that brings with it magic beyond the usual lunacy of young love. Schreiber handles this very familiar scenario, or set of scenarios, with professional skill and stylistic aplomb, even if she brings nothing new to the whole boy-as-werewolf concept. There are the usual secrets kept for many generations, the usual “right” guy (Celeste’s previous boyfriend, Nash) and “wrong” one (Brandon), the usual unnerving visit to a psychic, the usual – well, pretty much everything in Once in a Full Moon is the usual stuff. But of course that is a big part of the book’s attraction for its intended readership (ages 12 and up): no real surprises, just otherworldly romance. “I gazed outside. I could see the moon hanging in the cloudless blue sky. It looked lonely, staring back at me. I wondered if it thought the same of me.” Schreiber does not make even an attempt at style here, and really does not need to. Her book is well paced, satisfyingly romantic and unashamed in embracing all the conventions of its genre.

     Vampire Crush is for the same age group and is much the same in plot and characterization (or lack thereof). New student? Yep – new students, plural, actually. And the re-entry into Sophie’s life of a boy from her childhood, James, now all (or mostly) grown up and very attractive indeed. Secrets and mysteries? Got ‘em. Not that everything runs smoothly in A.M. Robinson’s book (which is her first novel), any more than in Schreiber’s. In fact, Robinson gives her first-person narrator a touch of humor that Schreiber’s lacks: “When it comes to anything involving a ball or special shoes, I’m not very athletic, but once upon a time I attended a weekly karate class with the same fervor as a nun attending Mass. It was three years before my sensei told Marcie that he was afraid I was there for the wrong reasons. I believe the word ‘bloodthirsty’ was used. Right before the phrase ‘I think you should get her checked out.’” Of course, Sophie will soon learn what “bloodthirsty” really means, but not before she gets to produce some really inane dialogue: “I didn’t know they were vampires – I just thought they were part of some sort of weird cult thing.” You’d think that the fact that one of them is named Vlad would be a tipoff – although who knows what to think in a book in which one of the vampires steals Sophie’s father’s Wall Street Journal? It is the glints of humor, not the plot points, that make Vampire Crush enjoyable to read, even if they are not the main reason fans of paranormal romance will pick the book up.

     It is, however, the reason people will pick up Catherine Jinks’ The Reformed Vampire Support Group, which requires familiarity with vampire legends and their modern incarnations precisely so Jinks can play games with them. The whole book is a game: instead of being hugely powerful, shadowy figures of menace, the vampires here are fearful addicts (addicted, of course, to blood), members of a support group that 15-year-old Nina has been stuck in for 51 years and counting. The group’s aim is reform: vampires must overcome their evil urges and be productive, or at least non-bloodthirsty, members of society. What a yawner. Tuesday nights (support-group meeting nights, that is) would be a total waste if Nina didn’t have vampire punk rocker Dave in her group. Still, things are dull, dull, dull – until a member of the group turns up dead, as in really dead, as in turned-to-ashes dead. Why? Whodunit? There’s Jinks’ plot: Nina, Dave and the other vampires need to find out what happened and why there is suddenly a threat to the boringly “normal” vampires. The search quickly brings Nina into contact with a werewolf, and what a werewolf: “Reuben was gorgeous. It’s a mystery to me how that mangy, skulking, ill-formed beast from the pit could have turned into such a beautiful boy. …[But] Reuben was still the most stunning guy I’d ever seen.” But Reuben has a story – although the attempted humanizing elements of Jinks’ book are its weakest part: “Until the age of fourteen, he’d led a very disorderly life. His mother should never have had children. Of the seven sons she bore (to three different men), one is now dead, one’s in jail, one’s a drug dealer, and one has mental health problems.” Werewolves turn out to be rare – born, not made, in this particular novel – and this one is protected; and by a priest, no less. So the investigation ends up involving Nina, Dave, Reuben and Father Ramon, and it leads to some really nasty humans, and to vampire remarks like this one: “‘Violence begets violence. …It’s the last resort of any rational human being. You should understand, Reuben, that as vampires we’ve spent most of our lives battling against the violent compulsions borne [sic] of our diseased instincts.’” Yeah, right. Eventually, mystery solved, the vampires go back to living quietly among us, and Nina feels better about herself and vampires in general, so all ends satisfactorily, if perhaps not really happily. The ending is, in fact, a bit of a letdown, but The Reformed Vampire Support Group has enough other things going for it to make it an unusual and decidedly non-formulaic entry in the paranormal genre.


Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Massenet: Deux Impromptus; Toccata; Deux Pièces pour piano; Valse folle. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Pierné: Piano Concerto; Marche des petits soldats de plomb; Divertissements sur un Thème Pastoral; Ramuntcho Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Chandos. $18.99.

Bach: Partitas Nos. 3, 4 and 6. Jeremy Denk, piano. Azica. $16.99.

Bach: French Suites Nos. 1-6; Overture in the French Style in B minor; Italian Concerto. András Schiff, piano. EuroArts. $34.99 (2 DVDs).

     Anyone interested in the contrast between the French school of piano writing and playing and the German – and between the Romantic and Impressionist schools of composition and the Baroque – can get a considerable education in similarities and differences from these releases. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is an excellent advocate of French piano music, having a sure touch, a fine sense of color, and an unerring ability to bring out the harmonic flavor as well as the melodic interest of the works on two new Chandos discs. Bavouzet handles the two Ravel piano concertos especially well, emphasizing not only their long lines and elegant craftsmanship but also a great deal of drama – more than is sometimes heard in these works. The BBC Symphony under Yan Pascal Tortelier backs him up very well, if perhaps not entirely idiomatically – the conducting is a bit more foursquare than Bavouzet’s very fluid pianism. Nevertheless, the combination is a very effective one, as it also is in Debussy’s Fantaisie, which is really a concerto in all but name (and in fact lasts longer than either Ravel concerto). Here the thematic flow is particularly effective, with Bavouzet playing the work with élan, and the very fine SACD sound helping the interplay between piano and orchestra come through to excellent effect. As encores, Bavouzet offers half a dozen short works by Jules Massenet, playing all of them with delicacy, rhythmic vitality and a fine sense of both sound and style.

     Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937) was a contemporary of Ravel, Debussy and Massenet, but his music is much less known – which is, on the basis of a new Chandos recording, something of a shame. Pierné’s only piano concerto is an early work, dating to 1886, and is more traditional in the Romantic mode than the piano-and-orchestra works of Ravel and Debussy, but Bavouzet makes a strong case for this well-constructed concerto, showing that it is surely worthy of something better than complete obscurity. Ramuntcho is a stage work from 1908, from which Pierné created two orchestral suites in 1910, and these are quite attractive as performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena: colorfully orchestrated, rhythmically interesting and quite clearly designed in theatrical mode. The Pierné disc also includes the late (1932) Divertissements sur un Thème Pastoral, which is an effective and stylish orchestral work, if not one with a wholly original sound. And one of Pierné’s most famous works – famous for a time, anyway – is also here: Marche des petits soldats de plomb (“March of the Little Lead Soldiers”), heard first on the CD but in the past often used as a concert encore. It is an effective miniature that will inevitably remind some listeners of Gounod’s charming Funeral March of a Marionette, whose piquancy it does not quite match. It would have been interesting to hear more of Pierné’s music for piano and orchestra on the CD – such as his Scherzo-caprice or Fantaisie-ballet – but perhaps those will appear on a future Chandos release featuring Bavouzet’s knowing and elegant pianism.

     The technique required to play Bach on piano is quite different from Bavouzet’s for newer French music – and indeed, although it has become commonplace to hear piano versions of Bach’s harpsichord pieces, even the best piano versions will by no means be to everyone’s taste. Bach did have some familiarity with very early fortepianos, and it may be historically justifiable to play some of his works on them, but modern instruments like those used by Jeremy Denk and András Schiff in two new recordings are another matter. These releases are only for listeners who are fans of the artists and who not only accept but actually revel in the use of modern pianos for Bach interpretation – for both Denk and Schiff play with skill and sensitivity, but there is never any doubt in these performances that modern pianos, with all their tonal and harmonic capabilities, are being used. With that caveat for historically minded listeners, the performances themselves are quite good, with both pianists doing an especially fine job with the suites’ dances. There has been an increasing realization in recent years that these dance movements – which make up the majority of every suite Bach wrote – are by no means always lightweight, and are certainly intended to have all the rhythmic vitality of the dances themselves. Denk does an especially fine job of contrasting the slow Sarabande movements of the three Partitas with the faster surrounding movements, with the Sarabande from Partita No. 6 especially broad and heartfelt. The opening movements in these three works – the short Fantasia in No. 3 and much longer Ouverture in No. 4 and Toccata in No. 6 – provide strong contrast to the lighter dance movements, and Denk is quite adept at drawing out the different moods.

     Schiff does an equally fine job in the French Suites, delving perhaps a little more deeply into the emotional side of the music than does Denk, while playing with equal flair and a good understanding of most period practices. The dual-DVD Schiff set raises the usual question about the attractiveness of visual performances of classical works to an unusual degree, since here we have a single player at a keyboard for more than two hours, with a director choosing a variety of shots to try to keep the visuals interesting – thus distracting from a listener’s focus on the music itself and providing an experience very different from what one would have in attending a solo recital. This type of recording is very much a matter of taste: it is certainly not badly done, but whether the visuals add anything significant to the performance is entirely an individual matter. One thing that does add value here, though, is a half-hour “explanation” of Bach that Schiff offers in addition to the performances themselves. This provides some genuine insight into how Schiff sees the Baroque master and his music, and helps explain a number of Schiff’s performance choices. Although not integral to the musical material, this discussion actually adds more to the performances than do the visuals of Schiff’s playing. Certainly fans of Schiff’s carefully considered approach to Bach will find the DVDs interesting and valuable; and even those who are not familiar with Schiff’s considerable knowledge and ability will be impressed with his understanding of the music he plays and the composer who created it.

January 13, 2011


Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. By Gerald McDermott. Harcourt. $17.

Those Darn Squirrels! By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Clarion. $16.

Flappy and Scrappy. By Arthur Yorinks. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov. Harper. $3.99.

     Here are some timeless tales that are fun in any year, in any season. Raven, a Caldecott Honor Book, is a wonderful retelling of Native American legends about the bird-shaped trickster who, along with other animal tricksters such as Coyote and Anansi the spider, manages to do good for people in addition to making mischief. The story is about how Raven brings light to a world in which humans have been living in perpetual darkness. Raven is extraordinarily clever, discovering that light comes from the house of Sky Chief and then insinuating himself into the home by turning himself into a pine needle that Sky Chief’s daughter unknowingly drinks – resulting in her giving birth to a child who is actually Raven in boy-child disguise. And a most endearing child Raven turns out to be, so completely charming his mother and Sky Chief, his grandfather, that eventually he is allowed to approach a big glowing box…in which is a smaller glowing box…in which is a still smaller one…in which there turns out to be a ball of light – the sun. Raven promptly grabs it, changes back into bird form, and flies off, placing the sun in the sky to bring light to the world. This thoroughly absurd and thoroughly charming story is especially interesting as Gerald McDermott tells it, because his illustrations are simply wonderful. Raven appears in stylized form on many totem poles, and McDermott turns him into a totem-pole carving come to life, in bright colors that look just like those of recently painted wood. Raven’s shape and colors persist when he transforms himself into a pine needle and a boy, so he is always recognizable to readers – although not to Sky Chief, his daughter or the elders invited to Sky Chief’s house. Raven’s colors glow more brilliantly than ever when he grabs the sun, making a fine contrast to the earth tones of the other characters and showing at once his difference from them and his cunning and brilliance. In this tale, although not in all the stories about him, Raven is helpful and heroic – and, in the guise of a child, an absolute delight to see.

     Equally well illustrated and much funnier, Those Darn Squirrels! is a book whose silly premise is complemented by hilarious drawings that will have young children (and their parents) laughing out loud. Adam Rubin tells the tale of Old Man Fookwire (what a name!), who doesn’t like much of anything except his snacks of cottage cheese and pepper…his painting (he isn’t good at it)…and birds. So he builds bird feeders – which turn out to be very tempting to squirrels, who hatch a multiplicity of plots to get the birdseed. Rubin makes the story more and more absurd, starting from the reasonable proposition that “squirrels are the cleverest of all the woodland creatures” and interpreting the statement in ridiculous ways: his squirrels make box kites, do math on an abacus, and wear adorable hard hats while hatching their food-stealing plans. In fact, everything about the squirrels looks adorable, thanks to Daniel Salmieri’s willingness to treat them with just as much absurdity as Rubin does. The whole book takes on a surrealistic tone and appearance, as Old Man Fookwire eventually creates a Rube Goldberg-ish “veritable fortress around his birdfeeders,” leading the “floogle bird” to snort “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” at the squirrels and the squirrels to decide to launch themselves by air over the Fookwire contraption (a decision made after a night of drinking cherry cola and eating salt-and-vinegar chips). And even this is not the height of absurdity in Those Darn Squirrels! No, that height is attained after the birds fly away for the winter, the squirrels realize that Old Man Fookwire misses them, and so the squirrels dress up as birds to try to make amends for their thieving ways. The illustration of the disguised squirrels is hysterically funny, and is the climax of the book – whose denouement then shows that the squirrels’ personalities and Fookwire’s have not really changed…but it’s all right that they haven’t. Hilarious.

     Flappy and Scrappy, a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series, is a different sort of animal-focused work – more conventional in writing and illustration, and less distinguished, even though many kids will enjoy it; it gets a (+++) rating. Arthur Yorinks’ book includes three short chapters about two canine friends. In one, Flappy, a collie, thinks other farm animals are insulting him when they are simply greeting him while their mouths are full. In another, the two friends find a way to play ball together. And in the last chapter, Scrappy – a sort-of-poodle mixed breed – has an unhappy birthday, with no one congratulating him, until Flappy makes everything all right at the end. The dogs do not have much individual character, and the illustrations by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov are serviceable but not especially distinctive. Still, the stories will be enjoyable for dog-loving developing readers (the book targets kids ages 4-8), and the underlying message of friendship is certainly an unexceptionable one.


The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham and Carol McGuirk. Wesleyan University Press. $39.95.

     Here is a thick, educationally oriented SF anthology that transcends its academic purpose to become an excellent introduction to science fiction, in all its guises, from the mid-19th century to the present. The six editors of the journal Science Fiction Studies have here assembled a collection of short stories representing, collectively, many of the best writers and many of the most trenchant themes of the SF field. Beginning, rather arbitrarily, with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” of 1844, and continuing, also rather arbitrarily, through Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” of 2008, the book presents 52 stories by such giants of the field as Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick and James Tiptree Jr. It also includes stories by some SF oddballs, such as the wonderful R.A. Lafferty and Alfred Bester. Readers unfamiliar with the enormous stylistic and topical variety of SF will find here a veritable feast of works by Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Wilhelm, James Patrick Kelly, William Gibson, Samuel R. Delany and Frederik Pohl.

     The “academic-ness” of the collection comes through in some pleasant ways: in addition to the chronological table of contents, there are separate ones by topic (“Alien Encounters,” “Evolution and Environment,” and so on), so interested readers can focus on specific fields of interest to SF writers. And the introductions to the stories blithely toss out authors’ full names in addition to the names’ more-common forms with initials – Catherine Lucille Moore, James Graham Ballard, Clifford Donald Simak – although a few authors retain any mystery their initials may invite, such as Arthur C. Clarke. On the negative side of academia, the book’s general introduction and some of its specific ones may be off-putting to readers seeking, at least in the beginning, to enjoy this genre and form their own opinions, as in the note that SF’s “linguistic openness or indeterminacy means that sf always operates at a sentence-by sentence level in the subjunctive mode,” or the comment that readers must “negotiate the distance between the estranged world of an sf story and their own reality – a process in which they must reconstruct an absent paradigm and decode the text’s subjunctivity.”

     Still, it is possible to skip the general introduction altogether and go straight to the stories – and that may be a good idea. A more serious criticism of this generally thoughtful and well-assembled book is that its early authors are chosen rather arbitrarily (no Edgar Allan Poe, for example), and that it leaves out some of the giants of the field, such as A.E. van Vogt and Fredric Brown. The latter omission is particularly odd, since Brown was the greatest master of the short-short story (one or two pages), and this volume includes five blank pages after its 767 pages of text – plenty of room for a Brown short-short. Nor is this the only oddity: the introduction to James Patrick Kelly’s 1995 story, “Think Like a Dinosaur,” notes that “its most striking feature” is the way in which Kelly makes use of “one of the field’s most famous examples of hard sf, Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954)” – but the Godwin story is not in the anthology.

     Readers, however, are unlikely to care very much about such matters, especially if they are unfamiliar with SF and therefore have no way of knowing what is missing in this anthology. What is not missing is a sense of the many ways in which the field has changed over the years – how it has, indeed, developed on multiple levels from the time of such very early SF authors as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Readers who already know SF will find this collection less useful than will people new to the field, because the editors include story after story that has been anthologized and re-anthologized – these are mainstream selections within the genre. Still, there is something to be said, even for longtime SF readers, in favor of having a single book containing such gems as Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” J.G. Ballard “The Cage of Sand,” Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed,” and many more. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction can be used as the basis of a course in the genre – in fact, there is a free online teacher’s guide available at www.wesleyan.edu/wespress/sfanthologyguide. But it can also be used simply as an excellent compendium of top-notch stories by an amazingly diverse set of writers whose interests, concerns and styles are all over the map – not only the map of Earth but also the map of the stars and beyond.


Warrior Princess, Book Two: Destiny’s Path. By Frewin Jones. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Warrior Princess, Book Three: The Emerald Flame. By Frewin Jones. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys. By Norton Juster. Illustrated by Domenico Gnoli. Yearling. $5.99.

     Adventures in the fairy-tale realm, sometimes disguised as historical or pseudo-historical fiction, retain considerable popularity for teenage readers. The Warrior Princess books, featuring a headstrong 15-year-old who is said to be destined to save medieval Wales from the depredations of the Saxons, are effective enough in taking Branwen ap Griffith along familiar paths of destiny, and are exciting enough to keep teen readers turning their pages; but they are not especially creative in plot or scene-setting, as Frewin Jones relies on familiar characters and entities to surround Branwen, challenge her, help her and guide her. The second book, Destiny’s Path, has Branwen, not surprisingly, rebelling against the notion that she is destined to be Wales’ savior. The Shining Ones, the land’s ancient gods, have chosen her, but she does not feel ready to be a leader and is not sure she wants the assignment. This is typical self-doubt for the hero or heroine of an epic fantasy, and the Shining Ones counter it in a typical way: by showing Branwen the horrible fate of her friends and her country if she refuses to accept her destiny. Yet still Branwen hesitates, so the Shining Ones send her a half-human helper (again, a standard character in stories of this sort). This is Blodwedd, who is part owl (or, as Branwen puts it, “nothing more than an owl wrapped in human shape, save for her eyes”), and who is charged with making sure that Branwen treads the right path. By the end of the book, Branwen has accepted what she must do, although with misgivings – again, a typical stance for the protagonist of such a tale. Branwen is an action heroine when she must be – her knifing to death of a powerful Saxon invader, followed by her throwing an ax to kill another, makes her battlefield prowess abundantly clear. But her future looks bleak as Destiny’s Path, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, comes to an end.

     In The Emerald Flame – the title refers to what Branwen herself will come to be called – Branwen has fully (if still somewhat reluctantly) accepted her role as her land’s savior, and has embarked on a supernaturally tinged quest to rescue the spirit of the wind. She has also begun having romantic feelings for Iwan, who is traveling with her. So Branwen – again, in a typical setup for this sort of quest – must find ways to balance her heart and her mind, growing into her destiny and into womanhood as well. Branwen must also face a variety of grave dangers, the worst of which is betrayal by someone on whom she has come to rely. And then she must arrange for a climactic battle not only between herself and an old enemy but also between the opposing gods of two sides. When that battle is won, at least for a time, Branwen again shows her self-reliance and insistence on living her own life, telling the Shining Ones, who threaten her if she does not obey them at once, that they “‘must act as you see fit. …Neither by coercion nor threats will you deflect me from the duty I have set myself.’” And so she grows still further into her ordained role, insisting to herself at the last, “I shall walk the path of my destiny – but I shall do it in my own way.” True enough; but it is a way that many central characters of many other epic quests have taken many times before.

     Warrior Princess repeatedly insists on its uniqueness, even as it follows familiar threads of plot and characterization. In contrast, Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys accepts fairy-tale conventions at face value and simply tries to develop them in some new ways. Norton Juster, best known as author of The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), created this slim, three-story volume four years later, with a different illustrator (Domenico Gnoli, not Jules Feiffer). Unfortunately, this later book has almost none of the charm and wit of the earlier one, and proves much heavier going than fairy tales usually do. The problem is that Juster, whose insouciance and frequent puns made The Phantom Tollbooth such a delight, decides in Alberic the Wise that he is going to create something Serious and Meaningful (you can almost hear the capital letters). What he ends up doing is creating something Peculiar and often Dull. The title story is about a young man “who knew nothing at all,” who gets interested in traveling and learning things, who fails at multiple endeavors, and who is eventually acclaimed wise when he starts telling people everything he has done and learned. Then he finds that acclamation is also unsatisfying, ending up, now an old man, going back on the road. This is followed by “She Cries No More,” a tale in which a young boy named Claude, who doesn’t care about much of anything (and who is, in this respect alone, similar to Milo of tollbooth fame), gets mysteriously pulled into a picture at a museum, where he meets a girl from olden times and finds he cares a lot about what happens in the picture’s world. But the story has neither sense nor charm: somehow Claude takes over whole armies, fights great battles, plots strategies and inspires troops, then has his whole world collapse when he thinks he has imagined everything. The story just doesn’t work. The best tale here is the final one, “Two Kings,” which is the only story with a modicum of wit and amusement. It is about the poorest king in the world, known as King RNP, and the richest, King Magnus, and how each decides to journey to the other’s kingdom to find out if everything is as miserable – or as wonderful – as in his own land. The story is all about role reversal and finding what you expect to find, and much of it is amusing – although the ending, in which Juster refuses to button up the story as any good fairy tale ought to be pulled together, is a disappointment. Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys is a mere 88 pages long, and a number of those pages are taken up by Gnoli’s very detailed but not very inspiring illustrations. But the book somehow seems much longer, lacking the very lilt and lightness that continue to make the fairy tales of long ago (and such modern ones as The Phantom Tollbooth) so appealing.