March 31, 2011


Time to Sleep; Time to Eat; Time for a Bath. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin. $12.99.

Ten Little Puppies/Diez Perritos: Adapted from a Traditional Nursery Rhyme in Spanish. By Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. English version by Rosalma Zubizarreta. Illustrated by Ulises Wensell. Rayo/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Twosomes: Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom. By Marilyn Singer. Pictures by Lee Wildish. Knopf. $7.99.

Dizzy Dinosaurs: Silly Dino Poems. Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Pictures by Barry Gott. Harper. $3.99.

     Authors of children’s books can and do use animals to teach lessons, to amuse, and just to provoke exclamations of “ahhh, so cute” from young readers and their parents. Time to Sleep, for example, teaches about real-world animals’ sleep needs and can also be a wonderful bedtime book that will help kids doze off peacefully. Steve Jenkins and Robin Page – who share credit for both writing and illustrating – give basic information on the animals they portray: giraffes sleep less than two hours a day, armadillos more than 20; birds called bee-eaters sleep in a line, with the ones on each end staying awake to watch for danger and the birds changing places periodically so all can rest; warthogs sleep by moving backward into caves or rock crevices and leaving their sharp tusks facing outward to deter predators; the parrotfish makes a cocoon of mucus and sleeps within it; and so on. The facts themselves are unusual and highly interesting, and the illustrations are exceptionally well done: the animals are shown realistically, but are given human-like expressions that will help children identify with them easily. The hedgehog with one eye open and the smiling gorilla baby cuddled into its mother are highlights. The book ends with additional information on each of the 17 animals portrayed, including such fascinating tidbits as a note explaining that because the koala’s diet of eucalyptus leaves is not very nutritious, the animal must spend most of its waking time eating – and sleep up to 18 hours a day to save energy. Time to Sleep is an unusual and very effective mixture of fact and warm feelings.

     The same is true of these authors’ Time to Eat and Time for a Bath, which are built on the same model as Time to Sleep. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the three books as formulaic, although in a broad sense that is what they are. However, this particular formula is a winning one and is highly adaptable, so the books have very different feelings about them and are complementary – this is a case in which if you have seen one, you have not seen them all. Thus, Time to Eat explains that ticks eat only the blood of living animals – and may wait years for a meal, taking in so much when they do eat that “you’d have to slurp down 6,000 milk shakes to have a meal of equivalent size.” In contrast, the shrew cannot go more than two to three hours without eating or it may starve. Then there is the crucifix toad, which catches insects and sticks them to its mucus-covered skin – and then, when it sheds the skin, eats it, bugs and all. And the tiger shark is so voracious that it eats just about anything, including shoes, bottles and license plates.

     As for Time for a Bath, this book discusses animals that bathe in water – and ones that do not. Among the latter are the emu, a large flightless bird that bathes in mud (which also helps it get rid of parasites); the vulture, which takes sunbaths (and uses the sun to help kill its unwelcome bacteria); and dust-bathing animals both large (elephant) and small (the mouse-like jerboa). Like the other works in this series, Time for a Bath complements its excellent text and illustrations with additional information about each animal at the back of the book – 15 animals in all (Time to Eat includes 17). All these books offer science fact in a form that will engross young children and parents alike – reading them is tantamount to taking very well-illustrated, age-appropriate lessons in zoology.

     There is some fact in Ten Little Puppies/Diez Perritos, too, because illustrator Ulises Wensell chooses to make the puppies of 10 different purebred types, each of which is shown again at the end with information about the breed (“if you are not afraid of being outsmarted by your dog or of having her run circles around you, then you are ready to own a fox terrier”). The information, like the text throughout the book, appears in both English and Spanish – and Spanish takes the lead within the book itself, since the counting rhyme Diez Perritos is a longtime favorite from Spanish-language folklore. Countdown rhymes exist in English, too, and used to be quite popular in such now-politically-incorrect formulations as “Ten Little Indians” (whose earliest version was actually about African-Americans, and referred to them by a term now universally condemned). In the case of Diez Perritos, the original rhyme has the puppies disappearing one by one – getting lost or perhaps even dying. To soften the book for ages 4-8, Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy (and translator Rosalma Zubizarreta) instead have the puppies get adopted, one by one, until there is only a single one left, which stays behind to live with the little girl first seen at the book’s beginning. The authors even include the music that goes with the original nursery rhyme, so families that are so inclined can sing the text instead of (or in addition to) reading. It. The result is a book that is a bilingual winner.

     The two languages in Twosomes are English and the language of love: Marilyn Singer’s couplets range from the amusing to the out-and-out hilarious, and Lee Wildish’s illustrations are equally funny in a highly complementary way. A few examples: “Horses: Nose to nose, hip to hip,/ ours is a stable relationship.” “Porcupines: Hugging you takes some practice,/ So I’ll start out with a cactus.” “Elephants: I like your tusks, I like your trunk./ I like your size – you’re quite a hunk.” The picture of the porcupine “practicing” is a highlight here; so are those of two sharks smiling very toothily at each other, and of a caterpillar munching a leaf into the shape of a heart. This is a very short work – only 18 small pages – but would make a perfect brief read-aloud book or a great gift from, say, one parent to another (adults will pick up some puns that kids will miss, but children will enjoy the silly rhymes and pictures anyway).

     Dizzy Dinosaurs is strictly for children – it is a Level 2 book (“Reading with Help”) in the “I Can Read!” series, intended for ages 4-8. But there is more to it than to many of these easy readers. For one thing, there are 13 actual dinosaur names presented at the beginning, with their pronunciations, and then used in the poems – encouraging kids as young as age four to deal with words such as Acrocanthosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus and Pachycepholosaurus. And the dino names are incorporated into such phrases as “Torosaurus turtlenecks,” “I’m a Pterodactyl pilot,” and “the Sauropod stomp.” The poems themselves are a lot of fun. There are 19 of them in all, by 15 different writers, one of whom is Twosomes author Marilyn Singer. A sample of the verse: “I am Saltopus./ My brain is rather small./ I could be a Dino King –/ But I’m just one foot tall.” For kids in the target age range who are ready for a more challenging book than those usually offered at this reading level, Dizzy Dinosaurs will be a real treat. And parents would be well advised to familiarize themselves with the name pronunciations in advance, before attempting to read the book out loud!


American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $26.

Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. By Albert Marrin. Knopf. $19.99.

     Revolutions, whether peaceful or violent, do not occur because of a single event. They are the product of many occurrences, generally over many years. But certain individual events capture the public imagination, contemporaneously or when history books are written, and come to symbolize revolutionary fervor – whether accurately or not. Both the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the Triangle Fire of 1911 have assumed these near-mythic proportions, to the point that both events have particular resonance today: the Boston Tea Party in the name “Tea Party” chosen by a decentralized group of political protesters determined to shake up the U.S. election system, and the Triangle Fire because, a century after its occurrence and the huge boost for unions that resulted, the union movement itself has come under widespread attack for padding payrolls and providing excessive benefits to union members at the expense of society at large.

     American Tempest does a good job of putting the December 16, 1773 protest in the context of the protest movement as a whole at the time. Historian Harlow Giles Unger shows that, like today’s Tea Party movement, the one that culminated in the Boston Tea Party was in fact made up of many occurrences in different places. And in fact there were two Boston Tea parties, the second several months after the first. Furthermore, although Unger’s book mentions the expected Founding Fathers (Presidents-to-be George Washington and James Monroe, eventual Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, and many others), it also points out that most participants in the first Boston Tea Party were deliberately anonymous and remained so, wanting not only to escape British justice but also to make it clear that the destruction of tea was a citizens’ tax-protest movement rather than the action of a few specific disgruntled individuals. Given the high interest in self-promotion and publicity of many modern Tea Party supporters, this determined anonymity is one of the hardest things for a modern readership to understand, but the gap is worth bridging, for it shows how the Boston Tea Party so rapidly became symbolic of a group of colonies determined to fight against “taxation without representation.” That phrase itself is so widely misunderstood today that the District of Columbia, which under the Constitution has no senators or congressional representatives, has placed it on some of its license plates as a protest – and gotten the entire phrase backwards (the plates say “Taxation without Representation,” which means they support this approach, rather than “No Taxation without Representation,” which was the colonists’ rallying cry). Unger picks up so many details that those not interested in historical minutiae may find his book tough going, although it is generally well written and moves along briskly. For instance, modern readers would likely think the tea tax was a huge one, along the lines of current taxes that today’s Tea Party members (and others) are protesting. Not so: it was a mere one-tenth of one percent for a typical cup. The colonists objected not to the size of the tax, not even to taxes in general (which they accepted as necessary “to provide for the common defense,” among other things), but to the imposition of the tax from distant England without any involvement of or consultation with the colonists themselves. Theirs really was a principled stand, not one designed to save them a great deal of money. Unger provides interesting commentary on the disparate interests that were united by the forces that led to and emerged from the Boston Tea Party – the alliance among, for example, strongly pro-independence Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry and Paul Revere and wealthy, respected and (for a considerable time) distinctly pro-British John Hancock. Unger’s detail-oriented portrayals of these people help make history come alive – the fact, for example, that Adams was bankrupt and a convicted embezzler. Indeed, it is the details that provide much of the book’s interest – for example, Unger’s note that the Tea Tax was Britain’s fourth attempt to tax the colonies, not its first. There may actually be too much to absorb in this book for the casual reader, but those with an interest in American history and the roots of today’s Tea Party movement (roots of which many modern members are likely unaware) will find American Tempest fascinating reading.

     The American Revolution was in many ways a civil war, as Unger points out. And there was another type of civil war on the streets of New York City in the early 1900s, this one between factory owners and managers, on the one hand, and their largely immigrant workers and their supporters, on the other. Unlike the Boston Tea Party, which resulted in no deaths (directly), the war during which the tragic fire at the Triangle Waist Factory (sometimes called Triangle Shirtwaist Factory) occurred claimed lives and caused numerous injuries. “Both sides turned to the underworld for help,” writes historian Albert Marrin in Flesh & Blood So Cheap. “Employers hired Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond and his goons to protect them and their scabs, and beat up strikers and union leaders. The unions paid the ‘king of the East Side gunmen,’ Jacob ‘Little Augie’ Orgen, and his thugs to protect picketers and union leaders, and batter employers and scabs.” These were, in a sense, glory days for union organizing, when New York was a rough-and-tumble city filled with barely literate immigrants of whom employers could and did regularly take horrible advantage. The activist unions of that day were a far cry from what “establishment” unions were later to become as their power grew, culminating in the 1950s in arrangements in which management and labor – especially in such major industries as automobile manufacturing – worked together to, it seemed to some people, gouge the rest of the country, entering into ever-richer deals for union members until those workers ended up with pay and benefits packages of which most other Americans could only dream. But Flesh & Blood So Cheap takes place at a much earlier time, and the Triangle Fire occurs only on page 111 of this book’s 182 oversized pages. The earlier chapters set the scene, exploring the era of substantial immigration into New York, the use of impoverished workers – mostly women, most of them Italians and Jews – to produce clothing under horrific conditions for pitifully small wages, and the eventual awakening both within the garment industry and outside of it of a movement to protect workers’ rights and allow employees to have some power to balance that of management. Marrin’s book is written for younger readers (ages 10 and up), but it does not talk down to them or mince words, quoting (for example) a newspaper subhead, “Some Impaled on Pickets,” to show what happened to a number of women trying to escape a clothing factory blaze that occurred before the Triangle Fire. “The science of fire prevention was as advanced as that of firefighting,” writes Marrin, showing all the prevention elements built into the Asch Building, where Triangle operated – elements that either did not work properly or were undermined because, notoriously, doors that would have let workers escape the factory floor were locked. Marrin offers portraits of many individual Triangle employees – some of whom survived, some of whom did not – and of others involved in the events of the time, from leaders of the movement for women’s suffrage to New York Fire Department Chief Edward F. Croker, “among the bravest of the Bravest,” who “would not hesitate to charge into a burning building as the roof seemed about to collapse to see if it was safe to let his men enter” – but who was devastated when he saw the results of the Triangle Fire. “We will never know for sure what started the Triangle Fire,” explains Marrin. “Most likely, a cutter flicked a hot ash or tossed a live cigarette butt into a scrap bin.” But the cause matters less than the result: 146 people dead of the 500 Triangle employees at work that day – including 130 women. Marrin does a fine job of exploring aftereffects of the fire, from the unsuccessful attempt of Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris to resume business elsewhere to the eventual death, as recently as 2001, of the last survivor of the fire (at the age of 107). Flesh & Blood So Cheap is a one-sided book in which unions and their political backers, such as New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, are the heroes, and businesses and their owners are the villains. And the book ends with a warning that the lessons of the Triangle Fire, although learned in the United States, have not been absorbed in the rest of the world, where inhumane working conditions continue to lead to factory fires and deaths. The advocacy is laid on a bit too thickly at times, but the Triangle Fire was so horrific and the working conditions in factories of the time so awful that the author’s approach is generally justifiable. And Marrin does not shrink from showing how corrupt many unions became in the decades after the Triangle Fire. Flesh & Blood So Cheap is scarcely an uplifting book, and for that reason may be a tough read for many people, especially younger readers. But it is a well-told story of a pivotal time in the development of American capitalism and the union movement – subjects that are rarely taught in much depth, if any, in schools today, but that students may well find influencing their lives for many years after they complete their education.


How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy. By Crystal Allen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Kickers, Book 4: Game-Day Jitters. By Rich Wallace. Knopf. $12.99.

The Prince of Fenway Park. By Julianna Baggott. Harper. $6.99.

Take Me to the River. By Will Hobbs. Harper. $15.99.

Skate Fate. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Rayo/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Sports and related activities are at the heart of all these coming-of-age stories, which – not surprisingly – tend to have an action/adventure focus. Crystal Allen’s debut novel, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, is about the trials and tribulations of 13-year-old Lamar Alexander, whose thing is bowling and whose troubles are legion. His mom died of cancer a year ago; his basketball-star brother, Xavier, is the apple of their father’s eye and a constant source of torment, mental and physical, to Lamar; his supposed friend, Billy Jenks, is a Class A troublemaker; his best friend, Sergio, has issues of his own; and to top everything off, pro bowler Bubba Sanders – Lamar’s idol – is due in the town of Coffin, Indiana, for July 4, and Lamar is going crazy with the sheer joy of possibly getting to meet him. Where the book will go is obvious from descriptions of the characters: Billy will set Lamar up (he does); Lamar will do something supremely foolish (he does) and get in big trouble (he does); Lamar will have to find ways to make amends to everyone he disappoints (he does); Xavier will eventually turn out to be not such a bad guy after all (yup); there will be a tearful family-togetherness scene (uh-huh); and even though Lamar will not win the bowling gear he has coveted, he will get to meet Bubba and will learn a lesson that is worth more to him than the gear would have been (oh yes). There are some unexpected elements in the book – Lamar’s constant attempts to cope with his asthma, the way he gets a girlfriend, Xavier’s oversize rage, the uneasy truce that eventually emerges between the brothers – and the focus on bowling is unusual. Also, Allen tries hard to give Lamar, who narrates the book, a unique voice, having him tell Sergio, for example, “Luck is for chumps. Handle your business,” and tell the reader, “I stuff my pass in my pocket, shoot Dad a peace sign, and follow my brother out. Yeah, baby.” By and large, though, the novel’s structure and its eventual affirmation of family and goodness is formulaic.

     Rich Wallace’s Kickers series adheres to a formula, too. It is about a fourth-grade soccer team, the Bobcats, fighting its way toward a championship, with protagonist Ben learning about traditional values of sportsmanship – such as teamwork, never giving up, and enjoying the game whether you win or lose – along the way. The fourth and final book in the series, Game-Day Jitters, takes Ben and the Bobcats to the semifinals and then the finals, giving Ben many opportunities to show what he learned in the previous three books (including one in which he was benched) and also showing him confronting the nervousness that many players face as they move into important games. Ben is helped here by his brother, Larry, who reminds him to keep thinking that each playoff is just another game. But Ben has trouble believing that, to such an extent that he freezes when the team needs him most. And Ben has to confront an opposing player named Loop, who does his best to unnerve Ben – but turns out to be a good guy when the season is over and the young players look ahead to what comes next. There is nothing deep, difficult or particularly surprising in the Kickers series, but young readers with a strong interest in soccer are likely to enjoy it, and will have some of their coaches’ lessons reinforced if they take Wallace’s writing to heart.

     In contrast, there is little that is remotely formulaic in The Prince of Fenway Park, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback. And although this is a book about baseball, it is in a sense not about sports at all. It will, in fact, disappoint preteens looking for a sports-oriented read, and will have its full effect only for readers who are fans of the Boston Red Sox. But those readers – and ones interested in magical fantasy within a sports setting – will have a great time with Julianna Baggott’s book. Her premise is that the well-known (to Boston fans) Red Sox Curse really was an old-world-style curse, complete with creatures straight out of Irish mythology, such as the horse-headed Pooka and the wailing banshee. The Curse, under which the Red Sox were unable to win the World Series for 86 years, was broken in 2004 when the team defeated its arch rival, the New York Yankees. Baggott’s account of the Curse imagines that a young boy named Oscar – who has his own troubles – is key to relieving the team’s problems; and Oscar’s story is intertwined with a history of baseball itself, including racism in the game (which plays a significant role in the book). The Prince of Fenway Park is a complex book that tries to do so much that it may overwhelm some readers. But it is filled with lovely moments and wonderful ideas, such as one character’s comment about assembling the ultimate team to take the field in connection with the mystical elements of lifting the Curse: “What we need are the players with some sorrow to heal, some sorrow that burrowed down into the dirt of Fenway Park.” The book is also packed with baseball trivia and statistics that may be more than non-fans care about, and magic that may be something in which dedicated fans are less than interested. It is therefore a novel seeking a special audience – which will delight in it.

     Extreme sports are front and center in Take Me to the River, a book that also features a complex plot – but one that is strictly adventure-driven. The protagonist, 14-year-old Dylan Sands, travels from his North Carolina home to West Texas to meet his cousin Rio and Uncle Alan, a river guide. The three are supposed to paddle along the Rio Grande, on the Texas/Mexico border; but when Dylan arrives, Uncle Alan has left for a job in Alaska, so Dylan and Rio decide to travel the river themselves. That would be excitement enough – but not for Will Hobbs, for whom the river adventure is only the start of a complex story that also involves Black Hawk helicopters flying overhead from Texas into Mexico, on unexplained Army business; a Mexican gangster who is traveling with a kidnapped child; and an approaching hurricane. Considering how remote Big Bend National Park, the scene of the action, is, the way all the characters turn up in the same places at the same times strains credulity. But what Hobbs is after here is lots of action rather than careful plot structure. And action there is aplenty, along with appropriate dialogue – warnings about “a West Texas toad strangler” (a storm less severe than a hurricane), scorpions (“If you feel a scorp on your face or whatever, don’t grab it, just flick it off”), a roadblock because of “an incident at the lodge…a raid, and killings, and a kidnapping,” and much more. This is the sort of story in which the bad guy, who knows little about rowing, gets swept away in the rain-swollen river, leading to the comment, “I really don’t think he could get back here even if he tried,” which of course means that he will reappear very soon – and does. It is a foregone conclusion that Dylan and Rio will eventually escape with the kidnapped child, Diego, but there is plenty of excitement in how they get away, outwitting the evil Carlos; and the scenes of white-water rafting have enough realism to ensnare the imaginations of readers interested in intense sporting activities, even in circumstances less fraught with peril than these.

     The extreme sports in Skate Fate are urban ones, and not all would be called “sports” by many people – skateboarding, yes; drag racing, no. This is a book for somewhat older readers – ages 12 and up – because it deals intensely with pain, loss and serious injury, and its structure requires some unraveling. There are short narrative passages interwoven with long sections of free verse (but not too long – the whole book runs only 118 pages). In the narrative portions, Lucky Z tells what happens or happened to him: “got a steel rod in my back. and screws all up my left leg. right leg paralyzed. …it happened after my father came back from Iraq three years ago started talking to himself in his room. talkin’ in beeps. …it all happened after my mother died from breast cancer a year later and after i drag-raced into the night…that was two years ago and two years of therapy. and cryin’ stuff into this journal. nothing’ but cryin’ dude you’d think i was Niagara Falls. yup.” Lucky Z’s stream of consciousness seems contrived – the careful use of capital and small letters by Juan Felipe Herrera in the narrative is made to seem random, for example, but comes across as studied – but the verse in which the protagonist reveals his inner thoughts is more effective. For example, “On an Empanada Apple Turnover Behind the Lunch Line” reads, “you baked me/ you raked me/ you pinched me/ you cinnamon-danced me/ you oven-placed me/ you flour-tossed me/ then you let me cool/ you tall handsome fool.” Wheelchair-bound, Lucky Z nevertheless dreams of skating, and his poems about it – their type set in different line indentations and different sizes – reflect the turmoil of his mind as well as his determination not to let his nearly incapacitating injuries become the defining elements of his life. What eventually happens to Lucky Z is intimately bound up with the book’s dedication to a California boy who was shot and killed by another student after coming out as gay. But the book is less about violence and pain than about coping, about getting beyond what hurts and what will hurt in the future to a place of peace, beyond the turmoil of mind and body. Sensitively written, if perhaps too self-consciously complex and impassioned, Skate Fate is a short book that is far from a quick read. It may not have wide appeal, but to those who find it resonant, its interest will go deep.


Beethoven: The 11 Overtures. Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41. English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Beni Mora; Japanese Suite; The Planets. Manchester Chamber Choir and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade; The Tale of Tsar Saltan—Suite; Flight of the Bumblebee. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $8.99.

Biber: Mystery Sonatas. Julia Wedman, violin; Felix Denk, cello and viola da gamba; Lucas Harris, theorbo and archlute; Charlotte Nediger, organ and harpsichord; Julia Seager-Scott, harp. Sono Luminus. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Erwin Schulhoff: Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass; Sonata for Flute and Piano; Sextet for Strings. András Adorján, flute; Walter Küssner, viola; Klaus Stoll, double bass; Yumiko Urabe, piano; Philharmonisches Streichsextett Berlin (Rüdiger Liebermann and Bernhard Hartog, violins; Walter Küssner and Matthew Hunter, violas; Georg Faust and Ansgar Schneider, cellos). Klassik aus Berlin. $18.99

Florent Schmitt: La Tragédie de Salomé—Suite (piano version); Ombres; Mirages. Vincent Larderet, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Cirque. Céline Ricci, soprano; Daniel Lockert, piano. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Verdi Opera Scenes. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano. Philharmonia of Russia conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $16.99.

     The proliferation of CD labels, many of them specialized, provides a welcome opportunity both to hear new versions of familiar works and to explore little-known or unknown byways of classical music. Or sometimes to hear old versions of familiar works, as in the recent PentaTone release of Kurt Masur’s recordings of all 11 Beethoven overtures with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. These performances date to 1972-74, when Leipzig was part of what was then East Germany, and are testimony to the continued excellence of the arts even in one of the world’s most repressive nations and at a time when international tensions were high. Masur and the orchestra bring a sure sense of style and some very fine playing to the four overtures to Fidelio (the one now used at the opera’s opening, plus Leonore Nos. 1-3) on one disc; the other contains Coriolan, Egmont, King Stephen, The Creatures of Prometheus, The Consecration of the House; Zur Namensfeier [Nameday], and The Ruins of Athens. The best performances here are of the more weighty overtures – a few of the lesser ones, including King Stephen, The Creatures of Prometheus and The Ruins of Athens, get rather short shrift. And The Consecration of the House is somewhat lacking in grandeur. Still, these are generally very worthy readings, although the remastered sound – even in SACD form – is somewhat thin and a touch shrill.

     John Eliot Gardiner’s readings of Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41 sound very good indeed, even though this is a live recording, slightly cleaned up from a version made during a concert in February 2006 and offered for sale to the audience at the end of that evening. No. 39 generally comes off more effectively here than the weightier No. 41, which has plenty of bounce but is a touch lacking in emotional depth. No. 39 is excellent, however, with the final movement – taken at quite a quick pace – being a standout, showing Mozart’s continued affinity for Haydn and in fact coming across as closer to the works of the older composer than it usually does. The music here is scarcely unfamiliar, and performances by orchestras of Classical-era size are no longer unusual, but Gardiner’s players take to the music and its style with aplomb, with the woodwinds being particularly impressive. The booklet notes about the difficulty of doing an instant-turnaround classical CD are quite interesting, too.

     Holst’s The Planets is very much a standard-repertoire item these days, but his other orchestral works are heard much less often, and it is good that Chandos – in the second volume of its series of Holst’s works for orchestra – has paired the well-known with pieces with which listeners are less likely to be acquainted. Sir Andrew Davis’ approach to The Planets is what might be called mainstream: well paced, well played and well structured, but nothing really special – a kind of middle-of-the-road interpretation. “Saturn” and “Neptune” are the most impressive movements here, the latter – the final movement of the suite – featuring lovely female voices and excellent orchestral sounds, none of which ever rises above pianissimo. Holst’s Japanese Suite, a set of six short movements written about the same time as The Planets, is more interestingly handled, its Orientalisms (which are rather Westernized) neatly brought out and its careful scoring showcased very well. Beni Mora, a set of three dances that Holst called an “Oriental Suite,” also features a somewhat Westernized handling of its material, and that material is less interesting than is the music of the Japanese Suite. But here too there is a combination of fine playing and close attention to some very interesting orchestral detail – a winning combination.

     Gerard Schwarz’ handling of the familiar symphonic suite, Scheherazade, is, like Davis’ way with The Planets, almost determinedly middle-of-the-road. But the Seattle Symphony never really digs into this music as the BBC Philharmonic does into Holst’s, so this CD gets a (+++) rating. The pacing of Scheherazade is fine, and the solo violin playing by Maria Larionoff is lovely, but this big, brassy and deliberately overwrought music simply sounds too controlled here, with the quietest movement (“The Young Princess and the Princess”) being the most effective and the dramatic finale lacking the power that it should have. There is also not a great deal of color to Schwarz’ handling of excerpts from the opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan­ – a three-movement suite and the highly familiar Flight of the Bumblebee. Everything is well played, with the “rocking of the sea” music in the first movement of the suite especially effective, but nothing comes across with a feeling of extra attentiveness or a strong sense that either conductor or orchestra is highly involved in the performance.

     Involvement is pervasive, though, in Julia Wedman’s (++++) recording of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. These are astonishing works by one of the most well-known violinists of his time (1644-1704), relying on scordatura tuning to produce effects impossible on a normally tuned violin. The 15 sonatas and following Passacaglia all require different tunings, and as Wedman explains in her notes on each piece, the effect on the performer can be quite extreme, to the point that certain sonatas can be genuinely unpleasant to play (No. 8, “The Crowning with Thorns”), while others can have tunings that seem impossible to use (No 11, “The Resurrection,” in which two strings are tuned to G and two to D, and the two middle strings are crossed, providing a visual reminder to the player of this central mystery of Catholicism). In addition to being brilliantly created to showcase the violin’s capabilities, and very difficult to perform, the sonatas are highly varied in mood, and Wedman takes listeners through everything from joy to despair to wonder in her finely honed, beautifully played readings. Her selection of accompaniments is a highly personal one, including a harp in No. 13, “Pentecost,” with each choice of continuo highlighting Wedman’s approach to a particular sonata. Biber’s Mystery Sonatas do not sound as strange to the listener as they feel to the performer, and it certainly seems that the devout composer was writing music designed to focus the player – perhaps even more than those listening – on the mysteries told in the Rosary. But even without the religious intensity of Biber and his contemporaries, even without a full knowledge and understanding of the programmatic nature of this music, these sonatas – which collectively last well over two hours – stand among the pinnacles of violin writing and playing, and Wedman’s performance is a beautiful, wonderfully played and highly involved one from start to finish.

     It is arguable whether the Mystery Sonatas should be considered well-known or little-known – violinists certainly know them as among the great heights to scale with their instruments, but the works are not often performed in recital, which the central importance of scordatura tuning would make nearly impossible with a single instrument. But there is certainly no question which category the music of Erwin Schulhoff falls into: “little-known” would be an exaggeration, with “nearly unknown” being far more accurate. On the basis of a new, very well-played recording of three chamber works, this near-total neglect of Schulhoff (1894-1942) is a real shame, since Schulhoff has some fascinating musical ideas and some very interesting ways of working them through. It is an exaggeration to call him Brückenbauer in die Neue Zeit (“Bridge-builder in the New Age”), the title of this CD, because he was more of a picker-and-chooser among styles, and if he built a bridge, it was one to nowhere – he was not particularly influential either in his Czech homeland or elsewhere, either musically or politically (a devoted Communist, he went so far in his later years as to create a musical version of The Communist Manifesto). Schulhoff’s career peaked in the 1920s, the decade of composition of all three works on this CD. Each piece displays a different and fascinating side of the composer. The Concertino (1925) shows considerable skill in writing for an unusual instrumental combination while giving each instrument its due (the flute even alternates with piccolo) – and also focusing on folk music, which imbues the work. The Sonata (1927) is an essay in changing moods and the use of different 20th-century approaches, sounding now impressionistic and now jazzy. And the Sextet (1924) is deep and sophisticated, including polytonality, Mahlerian harmonies, considerable intensity and a pervasive sense of loss. The music of Schulhoff – a Jew whose life was claimed not by the Nazis but by pneumonia, shortly before he was to emigrate to Soviet Russia – certainly deserves to be heard more frequently.

     It is hard to make the same assertion about the works of Florian Schmitt (1870-1958) – at least the piano works played by Vincent Larderet. Schmitt was prolific and a skilled orchestrator – Stravinsky admired the full-length 1907 version of The Tragedy of Salomé, a ballet including vocal elements – but Schmitt’s piano works, even when played as well as they are here, come across as mainly derivative, even though they are certainly well made. The composer’s own piano version of the suite he created from The Tragedy of Salomé here gets its world première recording, and it certainly lies well on the piano and contains a fair amount of drama. But the orchestral color that Schmitt brought to the ballet is missing, and in its absence, the work sounds somewhat dated and not especially original. Ombres (“Shadows”) is an extended three-movement suite that is reminiscent of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, but not as cleverly worked or as interesting to hear, although it certainly poses technical challenges for the pianist. And Mirages is a bit of impressionism in the Debussy mold, combined with – again – some highly virtuosic requirements, which Larderet handles very well. The disc gets a (+++) rating for very fine playing and some moments of real interest in the music – moments that, however, are far from pervasive.

     Performer-focused vocal collections seem equally likely to include a mixture of better-known and less-known works, or a set of pieces that are very well-known indeed. Two new (+++) CDs provide one example of each approach. Cirque is an all-French disc, devoted principally to the music of Henri Saugnet (1901-1989): the CD’s title comes from a song of his that here gets its world première recording, and Céline Ricci also sings his extended cycle La Voyante and a piece called Le Chemin des Forains (another world première). Saugnet wrote some interesting music – he is principally known for his ballets – and there is considerable expressiveness and some pleasant lightheartedness sprinkled through the pieces that Ricci sings. But they scarcely come across as major 20th-century works. The other composers heard here are better known: Darius Milhaud (represented by Trois Poèmes, which is lovingly sung, Le Tango des Fratellini, Caramel Mou and Six Chansons de Théâtre, which go nicely with some of Saugnet’s music); Erik Satie (Rag-time Parade); Francis Poulenc (Cocardes); and Georges Auric (Huit Poèmes de Jean Cocteau). Daniel Lockert ably accompanies Ricci, whose voice is well suited to this music and who gets to what emotional core the works have – although some of them do not have much of one. A specialty item for listeners interested in 20th-century French songs, Cirque nicely combines works of greater and lesser familiarity within that category.

     Verdi Opera Scenes is almost but not quite all Verdi – it also includes three “encores” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s Tosca (the inevitable “Vissi d’arte”). Being a live recording with orchestra, this CD has more heft than the studio recital with piano of Cirque, and its music is designed for a wider audience. There are four Verdi scenes here, all delivered with considerable intensity but all losing something by being wrenched out of context. They are Act 3, Scene 1 of Un Ballo in Maschera; Act 4, Scene 2 of Don Carlo; Act 1, Scenes 6-7 of Simon Boccanegra; and the confrontation scene from Act 4 of Il Trovatore. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky both have full, rich voices in their respective ranges, and both are very good vocal actors, so the scenes come through with Verdi’s typical melodramatic flair. Fans of the singers, the clear target audience for this CD, will enjoy it, but it does not seem designed to reach out beyond the core group already interested in hearing these particular voices in this particular repertoire.


James Hewitt: Medley Overture (1798); New Medley Overture (1799); New Federal Overture (1796); Benjamin Carr: Federal Overture (1794); Alexander Reinagle: Miscellaneous Overture (1801); Occasional Overture (1794); Overture in G (1787). Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $8.99.

Charles Wuorinen: Scherzo (2007); First String Quartet (1971); Viola Variations (2008); Second Piano Quintet (2008). Peter Serkin, piano; Lois Martin, viola; Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello); Curtis Macomber and Jesse Mills, violins; Fred Sherry, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Richard Danielpour: The Enchanted Garden—Preludes, Books I (1992) and II (2009). Xiayin Wang, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Michael Colina: Three Cabinets of Wonder (Concerto for Violin) (2010); Goyescana (Concerto for Guitar) (2008); Los Caprichos (2008). Anastasia Khitruk, violin; Michael Andriaccio, guitar; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ira Levin. Fleur de Son. $18.99.

     It would be easy to make the statement that American music has never been so internationally acknowledged and accepted as it is today. But the statement is correct only with a host of qualifications and a very careful definition of “American music.” For in fact, American music was in a sense “international” from the time the United States was founded – a time at which, after all, there were no “American-born” composers. There were, however, composers working in the fledgling nation and creating music intended to be identified with it – composers such as James Hewitt (1770-1827) and Benjamin Carr (1768-1831), both born in England, and Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809), born in Scotland. A selection of their works on a new Naxos CD shows little that is substantive: most of the overtures are pastiches of popular music of their time and some famous tunes from European classical composers. And there is little to distinguish the composers from each other stylistically – although, since all these works have been edited, reconstructed and/or orchestrated by the same person (Bertil van Boer), it may also be that that composer/musicologist has left a strong imprint on everything. In any case, this is pleasantly rousing music, nearly all of it in the bright major keys of C, D and G (although Hewitt’s Medley Overture is partly in D minor); none of it is especially consequential except historically. It is, however, of passing interest to notice that these works from the early days of the United States as an independent nation are played – and played very well – by an ensemble from Finland, which did not gain its own status as an independent country until as recently as 1917.

     Two centuries after the time of Hewitt, Carr and Reinagle, composers such as Charles Wuorinen have elevated American music to the forefront of many modern trends. Wuorinen (born 1931) has written some 250 works, generally demanding considerable virtuosity from performers while presenting a mixture – sometimes comforting, sometimes discomfiting – of modern techniques with references to Baroque and even earlier polyphony. His First String Quartet, in the traditional three movements but with a distinctly nontraditional sound, dates to 1971 and is the oldest piece on a new Naxos recording of his chamber music. It is played here, with great skill and understanding, by Curtis Macomber, Jesse Mills, Lois Martin and Fred Sherry. Martin is the violist for whom Wuorinen wrote his Viola Variations, and she handles this highly virtuosic solo work – which looks back to Bach but clearly features Wuorinen’s personal style – with considerable élan. The stylistic similarities and differences between this solo-viola work and Scherzo for solo piano are fascinating, with Peter Serkin (for whom Scherzo was written) managing the work’s considerable technical demands with unfailing virtuosity. Serkin and the Brentano String Quartet gave the first performance of Wuorinen’s Second Piano Quintet, and their recording of it surely deserves to be called definitive: they handle the interplay among instruments with elegance and ease, and the sometimes prickly structure with sureness and understanding.

     Xiayin Wang’s pianism in The Enchanted Garden by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) is also highly impressive. Wang gave the first performance of Book II of this work in New York City in 2009, and she has clearly studied the seven preludes of this book carefully and found ways to bring out their coloristic and occasionally eerie qualities (each work draws on an experience or memory that Danielpour found significant). Wang also does a top-notch job with Book I of The Enchanted Garden, whose five movements are described by the composer as musical responses to dreams. There are many interesting international elements to this Naxos CD and the music on it – not just Wang herself (who studied in China and then the United States), but also the clear influence on Danielpour of French Impressionism and the composers who interpreted it sonically. Yet there is very little that is derivative in this music except for the basic notion of painting tone pictures associated with specific scenes (in this case, mostly dreams and reveries rather than realistic appearances). Danielpour’s early music was strongly serialist, but his more recent works, including both books of The Enchanted Garden, show the influence not only of international (and more accessible) musical trends but also of rock music (notably the Beatles). He also has a fine sense of juxtaposition, as when, for instance, he follows Book II’s “Surrounded by Idiots” with a moving piece simply entitled “Elegy.”

     Michael Colina’s influences are international, too – and his music has attracted considerable attention outside the United States, as a new CD with performances by the London Symphony Orchestra shows. Colina’s earlier work was strongly jazz-oriented; indeed, he came to modern classical style only within the last five years or so. But he quickly made that style his own by imbuing it with soul, gospel and Latin music (his father was Cuban, and Colina [born 1948] considers a visit to Cuba with his father in 1999 to be a milestone in his musical development). Even when he works in traditional classical forms such as the concerto, Colina’s music never really sounds like straightforward classical works. He attaches evocative programmatic titles to his movements – the three for Three Cabinets of Wonder, for example, are “Fanny’s Brother,” “Buddha’s Assassin” and “Guardian of the Glowing” – and imbues all his works with elements that are distinctly Cuban or otherwise redolent of Latin America. Los Caprichos, for example, is a set of 11 short movements based on prints by Francisco Goya, inviting comparison with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but sonically worlds apart from that 19th-century work (and the 20th-century orchestration by Ravel in which it is usually heard). Colina’s music is mostly quite accessible, easy to hear and absorb, and just exotic enough to sound not quite American but not quite like music of any other country, either. It truly has an international flavor – and all the performers on this CD sound thoroughly comfortable with it in their solid, idiomatic readings.

March 24, 2011


The Voyage of Turtle Rex. By Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt. $16.99.

Looking for the Easy Life. By Walter Dean Myers. Illustrated by Lee Harper. Harper. $16.99.

LaRue Across America: Postcards from the Vacation. By Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

Ants in Your Pants, Worms in Your Plants! (Gilbert Goes Green). By Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.

A Green, Green Garden. By Mercer Mayer. Harper. $3.99.

     For kids ages 4-8 – and some even younger – the line between what is easy and what is hard keeps changing. All these books shed some light on life’s difficulties through their animal stories. True, no child today will ever face a life as tough as that of the giant sea turtles of the dinosaur age. In fact, it can be argued that today’s sea turtles, despite being endangered, have an easier time of it than the ancient ones did. In The Voyage of Turtle Rex, a companion book to his excellent Tadpole Rex, Kurt Cyrus imagines the life of a prehistoric sea turtle, showing parallels and differences between its world and the world of today. The just-born sea turtle hides in the sand until nightfall, as sea turtles still do; and one of the creatures on the sand with it is a horseshoe crab – a species that has survived to this day. But the dinosaurs surrounding the turtle’s hiding place, and the pterodactyls aloft, are long gone. The turtle, with many others born at the same time, rushes for the sea when it gets dark – as sea turtles still do. But what blots out the sun in ancient times is a tyrannosaur. The baby sea turtles must avoid predators, as today’s must, and some specific risks the ancient archolon faces are familiar (sharks) while others are not (plesiosaurs, mosasaurs). Cyrus shows the ancient turtle, and others that have also grown to massive size, returning to their birthplace to breed, as many sea turtles do even now – and then he draws the parallels together by showing how closely modern turtles resemble the extinct ones. Cyrus makes a direct plea for human help to save sea turtles only in his author’s note at the end of the book, but the entirety of The Voyage of Turtle Rex is really such a plea from start to finish, showing the determined struggle for survival of the ancient archolon and, by extension, that of modern sea turtles as well. Parents can reinforce the lesson by explaining that turtles are among the most ancient creatures on the planet, having survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, and are worthy of protection from their greatest enemies: human beings, whose activities – sometimes by design, sometimes by accident – threaten many turtles’ environment and therefore their future.

     Things are tough all over, even when the animals are anthropomorphic rather than realistically depicted. And so we come to Looking for the Easy Life, in which five monkeys decide they want to have a more laid-back time of it than they have been getting with Uh-Huh Freddie, their chief. Freddie, after all, insists that all the monkeys work hard picking fruit and making things comfortable for themselves – and he works hardest of all. That doesn’t sit well with Oswego Pete, who challenges Freddie for the leadership by promising, “I will lead us to the Easy Life, where a monkey don’t have to work hard for nothing. All we will have to do is lay back and relax!” This sounds pretty good to Drusilla, Freddie's monkey girlfriend, and Betty Lou, Drusilla’s best friend. Beauregard, “the best-looking money on the island,” isn’t so sure, but he – and Freddie – go along with Oswego Pete’s plans to take the band of five to the good life. And the plans, not at all surprisingly, go quickly awry. Pete thinks lions have a pretty easy life, so they head for lion country – and Pete loses some of his tail to a hungry lion. Then Pete decides the seaside is the place to be – just relaxing and taking it easy all the time – but it turns out that a certain shark lives in Bitem Bay and has his own agenda, which includes getting more of Pete’s tail. So Pete leads the band to the river “where some hip-hop hippos lived,” and sure enough, the hippos say the monkeys can stay and have all the food they want, just for holding umbrellas to keep the sun out of the hippos’ eyes. Of course, it’s hippo food, not monkey food…and the umbrella work is mighty boring…and – well, suffice it to say that the monkeys end up heading back to where they started, wiser now and happier as well. Walter Dean Myers tells the story with relish, not always grammatically accurately but with consistent stylistic snap, and Lee Harper’s illustrations fit the tale very well indeed – with the pictures of the cavorting hippos being high points.

     There are several high points in LaRue Across America, Mark Teague’s latest tale of the authorial canine Ike LaRue and his various foibles. This time his trouble is a road trip with cats – the latter belonging to neighbor Mrs. Hibbins, who has been hospitalized after fainting in high heat. So Ike’s owner (well, nominal owner) Gertrude LaRue helps out with a spur-of-the-moment vacation for herself, Ike and the cats. The result is a hilarious road trip across America, with Ike sending Mrs. Hibbins postcards from a water park (not much fun for the cats), the Empire State Building (not much fun for Ike, who, ahem, innocently tries “holding them up so that they could get a better view” from the observation deck and ends up getting cat scratches – and being questioned by a security guard), the “Dino-Land Theme Park” (which inspires the cats to go after Ike with a slingshot), and other places. As always in Teague’s LaRue books, there is a wonderful contrast between what actually happens (as shown in the illustrations) and what Ike claims is happening (in his postcards). “Days of endless travel, poor food, lumpy mattresses, and unpleasant company (!) [sic] have left me but a pale shadow of my former self,” writes Ike, but the illustration shows him happily leading an expedition down into the Grand Canyon from atop a mule, while Mrs. LaRue and the cats follow on mules of their own. Eventually, Ike and the cats, along with Mrs. LaRue, end up aboard a cruise ship – Ike had wanted to be on one all along – and Ike writes of the cats, “It seems that the difficulties of our recent travels together have made us friends at last!” And all ends happily, as Ike learns to accept what he cannot change (the presence of the cats) and even to enjoy it (he and they are certainly having fun together in the final picture). The lessons, here as in Looking for the Easy Life, are pretty darned clear, but told in both books with sufficient good humor so nothing seems preachy.

     Diane deGroat’s new story of Gilbert the opossum does seem preachy, which somewhat undermines its charm and leaves it with a (+++) rating. Still, Gilbert’s many fans will enjoy his latest adventure, which has a strong environmental-advocacy angle. Gilbert has two school-related issues of modest difficulty to deal with here: he has to write a poem about springtime and come up with an Earth Day project, and is having trouble getting started on even one thing, much less two. Gilbert’s parents give him helpful advice about relaxing so an idea can pop into his head – and looking “right in front of you” for an idea that is there already. And sure enough, Gilbert, lying under a tree, comes up with an environmentally friendly idea about trees, even arranging to plant one near his school – and also thinks of a poem to write about the tree, thereby fulfilling his poetry assignment as well. DeGroat’s characters are as pleasant as usual, and the presentation of their various school projects is well handled: ride bikes instead of driving, turn out lights when not using them, dry clothing outdoors instead of using a machine, recycle, and so on. The book is somewhat obvious and a little too earnest – the message would go down better with a touch of humor, and while there is a little of it here, there isn’t much. But parents seeking age-appropriate ways to get their four-to-eight-year-olds involved in ecological causes will find much to like here.

     The environmental emphasis is the same and the target age range even younger in another (+++) book: Mercer Mayer’s A Green, Green Garden, which is a “My First” book in the “I Can Read!” series – meaning it is designed for preschoolers, ages 3-5. Little Critter and his family set out to plant a garden, and the book shows just what they need to do – including picking up stones and clumps of grass (“this is not fun”) and doing a lot of weeding, watering and waiting. These are not major difficulties in the grand scheme of things, but it is hard to teach young children the lesson of patience from a book, much less in the real world, so Mayer’s wait-and-see information may not translate readily into everyday life – gardens do need an awfully long time to grow, and when the vegetables eventually can be picked, kids may not take to them with as much enthusiasm as Mayer’s characters do. The family-togetherness angle is always a good one in Mayer’s books, though, and anyone considering a gardening project – and whose kids enjoy Mayer’s characters – should be able to tailor this book nicely to do-it-together earthy plans. The final line about enjoying an entire dinner “from my green, green garden” may be a bit much, but parents can always pull back from that and suggest that it could be fun to grow some vegetables as side dishes, even if not for every course of a meal.


Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America* (*and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope). By David Anderegg, Ph.D. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.

The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.

     Why, exactly, is it good to be smart in America? The societal answer is pretty clear: smart people, collectively, make life better for everyone, creating innovations from the Internet to 3-D blockbuster movies to television programs…well, maybe not all those things have much value. But there are computers and computer software and scientific discoveries that make it possible for people (smart and less-smart alike) to live longer and better lives – even people who do not pay particular attention to basic elements of healthful living, such as proper nutrition and exercise …well, maybe not all those innovations are unlimited blessings, either. But accepting, for the moment, that there is societal benefit to being collectively smart, why is it good for an individual to be smart in the United States? If the collective accomplishments of the intelligent are at best a mixed blessing, the individual value of intelligence is even more difficult to pin down. Few U.S. presidents and even fewer senators and U.S. representatives have been notable for their intelligence – smart people are more likely to be relegated to pursuits such as academia, where they are woefully underpaid, while those who pretend to be what they are not (that is, actors) and those whose main skill is entertaining crowds while often damaging other people (that is, sports figures) are grotesquely overpaid and observed with attention that borders on (and sometimes crosses over into) fanaticism.

     The issue of the importance of nerds is the foundation of psychotherapist and Bennington College psychology professor David Anderegg’s Nerds, a book with significant points to make that seems a trifle unsure how serious to be while making them. Anderegg’s underlying argument about the importance of the subgroup called “nerds” certainly makes sense, but he spends a great deal of time talking around the major issues of nerds-vs.-non-nerds (a sort of modern revision of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, in which both the “cultures” were intellectual ones) before he gets to his primary points. Maybe that is his way of enticing non-nerds into the book – but non-nerds probably won’t read it, anyway (reading is so, like, dorky). Anderegg spends time, for example, trying to divine the differences between nerds and geeks – after admitting that the terms are often used interchangeably. “Some view the geek as a less technically skilled nerd.” “‘Geek’ is now more likely to be used when people describe themselves, because it is slightly less pejorative than ‘nerd.’” “One version of the distinction, provide by a college friend of mine: Nerds are the ones who don’t go to the party[,] so they can stay home and do homework; geeks bring their homework to the party.” Entertaining, all this, if not very enlightening or significant. Anderegg also tends to glibness when discussing serious matters, such as underachievement in math and science by American students: “Policy makers in education and government are full of answers for these questions, but, as you might expect, their answers strongly suggest remedies that can be implemented by policy makers.” Then there is the matter of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which “apparently everyone enthusiastically embraces” even though it “teaches the lesson that reading is stupid and teachers are ridiculous, unappealing, self-deluded bores.” This is absolutely true – but Anderegg stops short of calling for getting rid of the story as a tale for young children, although he does eventually suggest counterbalancing it with Harry Potter and Homer’s Odyssey. Often, Anderegg is too busy moving on to his next point to focus on the one he just made, tossing about chapter titles such as “They Can’t Help It, They’re Just Sick” that include such subchapter headings as “The Nerd Genocide.” This book is very well written in a breezy style that belies its underlying seriousness. Unfortunately, it belies it so well that some readers may not dig down to the foundational elements at all. Anderegg gets into a discussion of the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore, “the archetypal nerd,” and George W. Bush, “the all-American popular kid, the jock’s jock, the regular guy whose ignorance of facts was noted by the press…but was never held against him by the press or by the public.” Uh, come again? The press regularly lampooned and lambasted Bush, but in the end it did not matter – “the end” being less the disputed outcome in 2000 (“a mythic struggle that was in some ways thrust upon” both candidates) than the overwhelming victory of Bush in 2004 (about which Anderegg has nothing to say). The book’s conclusions are certainly valid. One of them: “The kids who will really be hurt by nerd/geek stereotypes are the kids who will shut down parts of themselves in order to fit in.” And Anderegg’s recommendations to find appropriate positive models for people good in math and science, prevent kids from watching TV shows “that explicitly denigrate intelligence” (which ones don’t?), help brainy kids find their own groups into which they can fit, and so on, are unexceptionable – if more difficult to implement than he suggests. Nerds is a book with important (if not really original) points to make and an easy-to-read style – it is unfortunate that, at least to some extent, the style gets in the way of the seriousness of the underlying message.

     Maybe Dan Gutman can better lead the way toward literary tales in which proto-nerds can rejoice. The prolific author (of My Weird School Daze and other lightweight series) begins a new action-adventure series called The Genius Files, for ages 8-12 (the age group most vulnerable to nerd/geek stereotyping, as Anderegg points out) with Mission Unstoppable, in which twins Coke and Pepsi (Pep) McDonald have more brains apiece than both their parents combined. The twins, whose adventure begins eight days before they turn 13, start getting mysterious notes, have to unravel the coded messages, and along the way (“the way” being a cross-country family vacation) get trapped in the basement of their school (which is on fire), have to jump off a cliff, and are thrown into a giant vat of Spam. Among other adventures. The book is, of course, a romp – Gutman always writes romps – but it is a romp with a difference that puts it into not-bad-for-nerds territory. This is, after all, a road trip across America, so the McDonald family visits various offbeat real-world places, such as the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia and Bonneville Salt Flats State Park. And Gutman provides Google Maps information so readers can follow Coke and Pep’s adventures, seeing just where they are going and how long it takes to get there – a clever form of interactivity that uses the Internet without being entirely bound by it. As for the series title, Gutman has it come from a secret government document whose author, Dr. Warsaw, has concerns mirroring Anderegg’s, including “older generation inflexible, stagnant,” “start over – geniuses – standardized test scores – find them.” Gutman writes that later, after having his inspiration, “Dr. Warsaw would sit down and synthesize his shorthand audio notes into a 434-page manifesto titled ‘The Only Way Out: The Simple Solution to America’s Most Pressing Problems of the 21st Century.’” Or, in fewer words, the Genius Files. So Coke and Pep are part of a save-the-world (or at least save-the-country) plan from the benevolent government (a concept that really does seem far-fetched these days) – and their adventures are part of Something Bigger. This is good, because otherwise it might be hard to understand why the kids and their family visit the two biggest balls of twine in the world, and why the twins do something “as foolish, dangerous, and yes, let’s say it – stupid – as going on a joyride in a recreational vehicle” (the reason has something to do with poop; Gutman is not really writing for intellectuals). Mission Unstoppable is surface-level fun, yes, but it does offer some forms of involvement beyond a straight read, and it does celebrate (admittedly quirkily) kids who are both smart and clever. Parents looking for entertaining but not entirely mindless books to engage their children’s intelligent minds could do a lot worse.


Tall Story. By Candy Gourlay. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Daddy-Long-Legs. By Jean Webster. Random House. $10.99.

Four Seasons. By Jane Breskin Zalben. Knopf. $15.99.

     The tall tale – essentially an elaborate bit of clever folkloric lying – may have become less popular in recent years, but stories in which something or someone is unusually tall continue to attract writers and readers. Take Tall Story, for example. A family story with a twist, intended for ages 10 and up, Candy Gourlay’s novel is about a short English girl named Amandolina (Andi) who wishes her Philippine half-brother, Bernardo, would come live in London. And he does. And he turns out to be eight feet tall. This could become a bonding-over-basketball book – Andi, despite her height, has long dreamed of being on the school basketball team – but Gourlay initially takes it in a different direction, although basketball does figure importantly after a while. Bernardo, it turns out, has a glandular condition called gigantism, and believes that things in his own past are the cause of his height. The novel is told in alternating chapters by Andi and Bernardo, who share perspectives that differ not only because of their different sizes but also because of their differing cultures. Bernardo remembers being the victim of a gang of girl bullies, led by the daughter of a witch, and Andi remembers all the time she spent wishing she and Bernardo could play basketball together, and how things all seem to have gone wrong: “If someone eight foot tall with sincere brown eyes ever makes you wish upon a stone – don’t. Even if you don’t believe in magic anyway – don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Spare yourself the aggravation of something opposite coming true.” But Andi’s worries pale beside Bernardo’s, which are deep-seated and intimately bound up with his culture. And Bernardo has significant real-world issues as well – health matters that eventually combine, at the book’s climax, with an earthquake in the Philippines for which Bernardo feels he is somehow responsible. The threads of the story weave together into a somewhat forced but certainly satisfying happy ending for everyone, with a reaffirmation of family values the key to the conclusion. Tall Story is, in fact, something of a tall tale for modern readers, but it is a well-told one that holds up nicely as long as readers do not question its premises and structure too closely.

     Daddy-Long-Legs is a much older story, originally published nearly a century ago, in 1912. It is an epistolary novel – a book consisting of letters. That form is nearly obsolete in a modern culture in which writing actual “snail mail” letters is nearly unheard-of for young people in this book’s target age range of 8-12. But it is not a difficult form to follow, and the use of letters keeps individual segments of this once-famous book short and easy to follow. The author, Jean Webster (1876-1916), was a grandniece of Mark Twain and a strong advocate of women’s rights, and she possesses some of Twain’s sense of humor and willingness to shake up stereotypes and conventional thinking. The new Random House edition of Daddy-Long-Legs, which features an introduction by Anne M. Martin, author of The Baby-Sitters Club series, has the potential to interest a new generation of girls in this story of orphan Judy Abbott, who finds herself with a wealthy benefactor who will pay for her further education – provided that she sends him letters about all the good and bad things of college life. Much of Judy’s writing will appeal to equally spunky girls today, even though changes in language in the past century may make some passages a bit harder going than Webster intended them to be: “It’s really awfully queer not to know what one is – sort of exciting and romantic. There are such a lot of possibilities. Maybe I’m not American; lots of people aren’t. I may be straight descended from the ancient Romans, or I may be a Viking’s daughter, or I may be the child of a Russian exile and belong by rights in a Siberian prison, or maybe I’m a Gipsy – I think perhaps I am. I have a very wandering spirit, though I haven’t as yet had much chance to develop it.” This being a coming-of-age tale – and it is amazing how little those have changed in the past hundred years – there is sure to be romance as well as learning at college, and modern readers will surely relate to that, even if the romantic elements are naïve and quite innocent by today’s standards. Also, Judy’s sunny optimism may be a bit much for some readers today: “The world is full of happiness, and plenty to go round, if you are only willing to take the kind that comes your way. The whole secret is in being pliable. …I’ve discovered the true secret of happiness, Daddy, and that is to live in the now. And references to being a Socialist or Plutocrat certainly have a long-outdated feel to them. But if the book is overly sentimental and in some ways a fairy tale (that is, a type of tall tale) that is very much of its time, in other ways it tells the sort of story that continues to resonate – and tells it very well indeed.

     Four Seasons, for ages 10 and up, is both a tall tale and a realistic novel, being based in part on the experiences of Jane Breskin Zalben’s son at the Juilliard School in New York City. The title is taken from the famous set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, and the book is told in sections called Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. This book too is a coming-of-age story, but unlike Judy Abbott, who comes across as a smart but otherwise typical child of her time, Allegra Katz in Four Seasons is a prodigy who has played piano since she was four years old and is clearly destined for a great career. If she wants it, that is, and if she can handle the unending pressure of competing with other super-high-achievers at Juilliard. This is a book for driven preteens and young teenagers, who – even if their particular passion is not music, or not classical music – will identify with Allegra’s hyper-scheduled life and the intensity of her practice requirements, school assignments and all the other must-do elements of her existence. Not surprisingly, Allegra comes in time to have some self-doubts and uncertainties about the way her entire world has been structured by her parents, who are a professional violinist and a singer and who, Allegra is sure, cannot conceive of their daughter being anything but a musician. The pressures mount on Allegra – both those from the grueling schedule at Juilliard and those from within – and she realizes after a time that she is going to have a huge decision to make about who she is and where her future lies. The story arc here is nothing special, including some young love with a boy named Brad, a number of internal back-and-forth moments, and the eventual discovery that “any doubts I had were cured like a bad case of chicken pox – like Grandma said, with maybe a scar or two left as a reminder. And with time, scars can sometimes heal.” The specifics of the theme are what set this book apart, not the telling of the tale. And the birthday-cake recipe at the end is a nice touch. Still, the novel is not for everyone – only young people who know how it feels to be driven, and to drive themselves, will fully appreciate Allegra’s worries, her doubts, and her ultimate confrontation with herself.