February 14, 2013


The Little Prince: 70th Anniversary Edition. By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Translated by Richard Howard. Includes CDs and downloadable audio read by Viggo Mortensen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Six: Day of Doom. By David Baldacci. Scholastic. $12.99.

      It is almost impossible to overstate the success and importance of The Little Prince. One of the best-selling books ever published, with more than 140 million copies sold, it is the most-read book written in French and the most-translated, with versions in 250 languages.  It has been modified, adapted, analyzed, thought and rethought, turned into graphic novels, TV shows, films, animations and more.  Its length has helped it remain popular – it is a novella, not a full-scale novel. And its overlay of mysticism, including some of what we today would call New Age thinking, has ensured its continued attraction for adults and academics. The Little Prince was never a children’s book, except on the most superficial level, but it is often sold as one, and it succeeds – more or less – on that basis, just as it does as an adult philosophical work.  The notion of an alien observing life on Earth and commenting wisely or enigmatically on it was not new in 1943, when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote (and beautifully illustrated) this work.  Jules Verne’s science fiction is a partial source for The Little Prince, but the novella’s provenance dates back even further, to Voltaire, whose 1752 short story Micromégas is one of the very earliest SF tales. The charm and naïveté (or pseudo-naïveté) of The Little Prince retain their attractiveness 70 years after the book’s first appearance, and the excellent 70th anniversary edition from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will certainly help Saint-Exupéry’s work speak to a new generation of readers while continuing to absorb and occasionally puzzle those who know the book already.  Richard Howard’s translation is elegant and unobtrusive, moving the story along at the pace that Saint-Exupéry intended, and Viggo Mortensen’s reading – included with the book and also available as an unabridged narrative download – is subtle and stirring, if at times a trifle too overtly emotional (one of the major attractions of Saint-Exupéry’s writing is its emotional restraint, sometimes to the point of quiescence).  The Little Prince: 70th Anniversary Edition is packaged as a gift set, but it is one of those offerings that will make as wonderful a gift for one’s own family as for anyone else.  Indeed, The Little Prince itself is a gift to the world from a writer, poet and aviator whose mysterious disappearance while on a World War II mission has only added to the mystique of his books, and to The Little Prince most of all.  What the book “means” remains an unanswered question, and that too is part of what continues to make it so attractive: it is subject to multiple interpretations, many of which feel right even if they contradict each other.  After all, as Saint-Exupéry wrote in the book’s most famous and ever-enigmatic lines, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

      There is nothing enigmatic about the rousing, explosive climax of The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers, which is a smash-up of a book written by thriller author David Baldacci.  Nor is there any subtlety in the sixth and final book of this spinoff of the original The 39 Clues. And there is certainly no need for or expectation of the subtle – this is an adventure series (or series of series) above all, its multimedia platform (books, trading cards and online world) being as much the point of its existence as the specific things that happen to 13-year-old Dan Cahill and his 16-year-old sister, Amy.  The Cahills vs. Vespers sequence has involved a series of improbable thefts that Dan and Amy have had to commit because the Vespers have kidnapped a number of Cahills, apparently being clever enough to do that but not to get the desired objects themselves.  Baldacci manages to write things with what is apparently a straight face that really ought to be embarrassing. “He’s only a child.” “Now you’ve cost me my henchmen.” “This is it.” “We’re planning to destroy Chicago and we have to get a move on.” “He is a homicidal maniac. In fact, we all are.”  (Actually, that last one is pretty good, and pretty accurate.)  It turns out that the various objects that Dan and Amy have been snatching are needed to create one of those destroy-the-world doomsday machines that seem to be at the climax of far too many books and book series nowadays.  In any case, Day of Doom really is a day of doom for a number of the characters in Cahills vs. Vespers, and Baldacci certainly wraps up the sequence entertainingly in mix-it-up-and-smash-everything fashion.  The contrast between this (+++) book and The Little Prince is about as abyssal as it can be, and the notion of there ever being a 70th-anniversary edition of Cahills vs. Vespers is laughable. But fans of The 39 Clues will certainly get their money’s worth from this sequence’s finale – and will just as surely look forward to the next sequence, Unstoppable, which will be released starting this fall.

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