December 08, 2016

(++++) THE MANY FACES OF COMICS


Charlie Brown: Here We Go Again—A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Heart and Brain: Gut Instincts. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

The Bad Guys #1. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

     The 50-year history of Peanuts would seem to provide an inexhaustible reservoir of material that can be recycled into new collections featuring Charles Schulz’s iconic characters, but in fact this is not quite so: the earliest years of the strip looked little like the later, more-familiar ones. Still, at this stage there are plenty of recyclable Peanuts cartoons to go around, and the simple but instantly recognizable faces of the characters are as fresh, funny, and occasionally poignant as always. The latest re-collection (and recollection) of Peanuts features a particularly fine assortment of strips. Many of these focus on Charlie Brown’s hapless baseball team, and one sequence results in Charlie Brown’s decision to “go home and lie in a dark room,” resulting in three strips that are almost completely black and one that is 100% black – a virtuoso performance by Schulz (1922-2000) in the handling of a commonplace cartooning challenge to which few artists rise with this level of skill. There is also a touching and unusually pointed bit of social commentary in a sequence in which Linus starts patting birds on the head (“I think I’ve found my calling”), only to be told by his sister, loud-mouthed Lucy, that he has to stop. Linus asks Charlie Brown what is wrong with patting the birds (“They come depressed, and they go away feeling great”), Charlie Brown explains that it humiliates Lucy, and Linus says he understands that but does not see what is actually wrong with what he is doing – leading Charlie Brown to say, “No one else does it.” That level of commentary on conformity is the sort of thing that pops up periodically and unexpectedly throughout Peanuts and is one reason the strip retained freshness for so many years. Here We Go Again also includes several sequences involving Charlie Brown and the “little red-haired girl” on whom he has an unrequited crush. In the most heartrending of them, Charlie Brown is assigned to be her partner in a science project, but cannot drum up the courage to talk to her – a particularly big problem because Charlie Brown has become a safety monitor at school, and failure to do the project will mean a failing grade that will have him lose his safety-patrol position, which is “the first time I’ve ever really felt like I was somebody.” To make matters worse, Charlie Brown gets bumped by a car while helping students cross the street in the rain – but that, paradoxically, makes him feel happy and proud at being “injured in the line of duty.” To sequences like this, add the ones in which Charlie Brown’s kite gets hopelessly tangled, often in a “kite-eating tree,” and ones in which Snoopy becomes (among other things) a bird sanctuary, and several of the famous ones in which Charlie Brown tries vainly to kick a football held by Lucy and pulled away by her at the last minute, and you have a collection that is packed with smiles and some unanticipated tugs at heartstrings – a pretty good overall description of Peanuts.

     Peanuts was always intended for adults as much as for children, but few comics nowadays look for such a broad audience range. Web-based ones, in particular, tend to go decidedly in the “adult” direction – which does not, however, mean that they invariably have the sort of sexual themes that are usually classified as “adult.” In fact, there are plenty of other notions that are adults-only, since kids would simply not understand them. Nick Seluk has fastened on one of them to excellent effect in his Heart and Brain drawings – themselves a spinoff of a series called The Awkward Yeti, a blue-bow-tied, eyeglasses-wearing Bigfoot type named Lars, with self-esteem issues and, apparently, numerous body organs that spend their time arguing among themselves while pursuing their conflicting agendas. Heart and Brain focuses on two of those organs, but Seluk’s new collection, Gut Instincts, brings in quite a few more: tongue, lungs, liver, stomach, bowels, etc. Each gets a shape that is vaguely anatomically correct (perhaps 100% correct if you are a yeti) and a face that is surprisingly expressive considering its simplicity – in this way, and only this way, Seluk’s art is Peanuts-like. The basics of Heart and Brain involve the inevitable conflicts between being emotion-driven and intellect-driven. For instance, Heart – who is almost always accompanied by a nicely symbolic butterfly – makes an emotional decision to “get healthier” by going to the gym so he can “improve my resting me rate,” but within a few panels of stating his intention to Brain, Heart decides, “I don’t care what you think. I’m getting some chocolate.” While shopping, presumably at Costco, Heart reacts emotionally to the chance to buy “mustard by the firkin” (a great adult word), and Brain agrees to the purchase after analyzing the price and deciding that it is good – but once they get the condiment home, with some help from a forklift, Heart never uses it, because it is “gross.” As for the other organs, at one point they try to help with Brain’s anxiety: Stomach contorts, Bowels agree to “move things along REALLY fast or REALLY slow, depending on your preference,” and Eyes promise that only one will “twitch from time to time.” Tongue, a complete hedonist, has his own unique way of expressing things: “It tasstesss SSSO good” and “Replenish the cookiesss or I will ussher in a new era of darkness upon you all!” The theme of Heart and Brain is neatly encapsulated in a single panel showing the two facing in opposite directions as both say, “Just follow me and everything will be fine!” That is about as adult a way of looking at things as any contemporary cartoon offers – and with no “adult language” except the philosophical kind.

     The language is intended for kids, and so are the drawings, in a new series called The Bad Guys that is sort of a comic strip, sort of a graphic novel, but not really much of either one. Aaron Blabey makes no attempt to propel his story of traditional animal bad guys who decide to try being good for a change through meticulous graphic-novel art: his renderings are strictly of the crude-but-effective type. But neither does Blabey draw in ordinary comic-strip format: The Bad Guys #1 looks like a book and reads like one, too, with chapters and everything, except that every page is a single large panel, or two half-page panels, or (occasionally) three one-third-page panels, with text held to the minimum needed to keep the story going. And go it does. It starts with Mr. Wolf, the brains of the not-yet-created good-guy gang of bad guys, introducing himself and explaining that he is not the big-toothed, sharp-clawed, granny-imitating character he has been made out to be (although his police department rap sheet says that is exactly what he is). Mr. Wolf is determined to turn over a new leaf and have people stop hating and fearing him. To that end, he has invited some other notable bad guys over to learn about being good. They are Mr. Snake, whose rap sheet is a house-that-Jack-built sequence showing all the things he has eaten (including “the police dog who tried to save the policeman who tried to save the doctor who tried to save” a pet-store owner whose guinea pigs, canaries and mice Mr. Snake had already consumed). There is Mr. Piranha, member of the “Piranha Brothers Gang, 900,543 members,” and Mr. Shark, whose rap sheet is so frightening that Mr. Wolf blocks most of it from readers’ view. Eventually, though, the four bad guys agree to try being good for a change, starting with a hilarious rescue of a treed cat that they have all agreed not to eat – except that the cat does not know that, and reacts with suitable terror and some very intense use of its claws. And then the bad guys head off to free all the imprisoned dogs from the dog pound – a caper that puts Mr. Shark in a dress, Mr. Snake and Mr. Piranha through a window after several bad throws by Mr. Wolf, and the dogs themselves in a frenzy through their fear of the snake and “some kind of weird sardine type thing.” Matters may seem inauspicious in this attempt to go against type and typecasting, but by the end of the book, all the bad guys have decided that it feels nice to do good things for a change, and they are ready to head out on another adventure that they believe, against all the odds facing cartoon characters, will go off without a hitch. “To be continued,” as Blabey writes at the end – three words that the young readers at whom The Bad Guys #1 is aimed will surely take to heart. And maybe to brain.

(++++) VARIED VIEWS OF ANIMALS


The Princess and the Frogs. By Veronica Bartles. Illustrated by Sara Palacios. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

This & That. By Mem Fox. Illustrations by Judy Horacek. Scholastic. $17.99.

Christmas in the Barn. By Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Anna Dewdney. Harper. $17.99.

     Animals play a wide variety of roles in children’s books, and just when you think pretty much anything they can do has been done, along comes someone like Veronica Bartles to prove you wrong. Bartles has taken the well-known fairy tale of the princess and the frog – a story that has been told and retold in many, many forms for many, many years – and given it a new twist that will delight young readers. Her story involves not one frog but many – and since it is, after all, a fairy tale, in which the kiss of a princess transforms a frog into a prince, Bartles’ story involves many princes as well. You see, Princess Cassandra wants a frog, not a prince: she is looking for a best friend, and apparently human boys just do not fill the bill. She asks the Royal Pet Handler to find her a suitable pet that will swim, jump, play, and lie on the princess’ pillow at night and sing to her. This is a tall order, and one that the Royal Pet Handler is unable to fill: aside from their other shortcomings, none of the animals he finds is green, and Princess Cassandra wants a pet to match her favorite green dress (it does not have to match the black high-top sneakers that she always wears: Sara Palacios’ illustrations are a big part of the fun here). Eventually the Royal Pet Handler, after searching the whole kingdom (Palacios’ map even shows a mermaid just offshore), finds – yes, a frog. And Princess Cassandra is delighted, until it gets to be bedtime and she kisses him good night. Then he turns into a prince and, of course, says, “Let us be married at once.” Well, they are both much too young for that, and besides, as Princess Cassandra laughingly says, “Princes aren’t pets. I want a frog!” So she finds the prince something to do around the castle and has the Royal Pet Handler resume his search. Kids will quickly see where this is leading. Frog after frog turns up and delights the princess, until she kisses each one and all of them turn into princes.  The people of the kingdom try to help by catching frogs and bringing them to the palace, but, again, one kiss from the princess and there is yet another prince roaming the halls, doing palace work or simply getting in the way. “Soon she ran out of jobs for them,” Bartles explains. The princess takes matters into her own hands and eventually finds a frog all by herself – but this one too turns into a prince, except with a difference: “I liked being a frog,” he complains. Well, the princess finally gives up and plays all by herself, but she is lonely; and then she happens upon the prince who had liked being a frog, who has nowhere to go and nothing to do. She feels sorry for him and gives him a kiss on the cheek – at which point, lo and behold, he turns back into a frog; and as Bartles explains, they lived happily ever after as long as the princess remembered not to kiss him again. The Princess and the Frogs is best for kids who already know the original fairy tale – otherwise a lot of its humor is lost – but for them, it is funny from start to finish, and a great turnabout in animal-character use.

     The basic critters in This & That are nothing unusual: they are mice, a mother mouse and her child. But Mem Fox’s bedtime-story book handles them in unusual ways. It opens with, “I’ll tell you a story of this,/ and I’ll tell you a story of that,” and “this and that” becomes a recurring phrase as the mother mouse weaves wondrous tales of other animals. Mother and child become participants in the stories: first there are caves filled with bats and “a chimp with a magic hat,” and the mice are seen approaching by floating in a box on a stream. Then they go over a waterfall and swim to land, and the next “this and that” is about boys and a cat and an elephant walking along a road. Then the mice, who have climbed a tree, jump onto the elephant’s back and proceed to a “this and that” bazaar filled with lots of people and lots of animals, all of them doing lots of things – this is one of  Judy Horacek’s best illustrations here. And so the mice go from story to story as the mother tells more and more tales, until finally it is time for bed; and now the words “this and that” change to “that and this,” so Fox can end the book with a rhyme in which the mother mouse gives her little one a kiss. This & That is a charmer, unusual enough to hold kids’ attention as bedtime approaches but not so intense or complex as to over-excite them and keep them awake past bedtime.

     The animal focus of Christmas in the Barn is of a very different sort. This (+++) book by Margaret Wise Brown is a rather odd retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. It originally came out in 1952 with illustrations – alternating black-and-white with color – by Barbara Cooney. A new 2007 edition featured all-color pictures by Diane Goode that placed the story in contemporary New England. Now illustrations by the late Anna Dewdney (1965-2016) also all in color, return the story to its original time – the narrative does, after all, say the tale takes place “in a big warm barn in an ancient field.”  Unfortunately, the writing here is not Brown’s best: she rhymes “hay” with “way” with “day” with “hay” again, and then the next line ends with the unrhymed word “inn,” and later she rhymes “grass” with “ass.” Dewdney makes the animals suitably wide-eyed and attentive, giving them somewhat anthropomorphic expressions; she also shows the “one great star…burning bright” to good effect, and portrays the Three Wise Men looking on with appropriate admiration and awe. It is a bit strange, though, that the name of Jesus is never mentioned, although there is a reference to “the dawning Christmas Day.” Dewdney’s use of white birds, presumably doves, flying from the barn, presumably to spread the news of Christ’s birth, is a nice touch, but the book as a whole seems a rather thin and weak retelling of the story of Christmas, for all its use of animals to try to involve young children in the tale and give the story a universality extending even beyond humanity. Intended for ages 4-8, Christmas in the Barn is probably best for children in the youngest part of that age range – ones whose families have already told them the story of Christmas, so they will understand that this is indeed that tale, looked at from a differing and more animal-centric viewpoint.

(++++) SOME CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL


Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (or, What Friends Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me about Life and Love). By Laurie Hess, D.V.M., with Samantha Rose. Da Capo. $24.99.

     You can never have enough James Herriots. Herriot – real name James Alfred Wight (1916-1995) – was the British veterinary surgeon whose fictional and real-world books about animals and their owners were published during a quarter-century starting in 1969. The American version of one book, made up of two British volumes, was called All Creatures Great and Small – a misquotation of Coleridge, whose The Rime of the Ancient Mariner refers to “all things both great and small.” This volume and its title have become something of a watchword, or catchphrase, for other books focusing on companion animals and their humans.

     To set themselves apart from animal caregivers who have written books already, authors such as Laurie Hess need an “angle” of some sort, and Hess’s is her type of veterinary practice: board-certified in avian medicine, she also treats all sorts of other animals beyond the traditional dog-and-cat realm. And it is the chance to read about those animals, their human companions, and their health needs – with all the triumph and tragedy that implies – that makes Unlikely Companions so attractive.

     Like the semi-autobiographical Herriot books, Unlikely Companions is in large part about its author, but her personal story does not intertwine quite as seamlessly with that of the animals as a reader might hope. One reason may be that Samantha Rose, who assisted with the book, is a TV writer who may be responsible for a somewhat more-breathless pace than is really necessary. For example, the book opens with a death, and it takes three pages of ominous prose before readers find out what sort of animal has died: a sugar glider. This opening mystery is scarcely necessary. But a good deal of the book is built around it, as other sugar gliders also die and Hess, in addition to caring for the ones that fall ill, tries to figure out what has happened to them. As a thread connecting what is otherwise an unfocused narrative, the sugar-glider story assumes outsize importance right through to its eventual solution, which stands as the book’s climax.

     But it is the small, encapsulated stories that are the most gripping elements here. There is, for example, the tale of the surgery on Daisy, “a five-foot-long and very pregnant iguana” with a condition called egg binding: she has numerous infertile eggs that she cannot expel. The details of the surgery – enough to make its difficulty clear, but not so many as to turn this into a veterinary-medicine textbook – are well presented, and Hess’s description of her concerns certainly comes through in what sounds like the authentic voice of a caring animal doctor: “To survive, Daisy needed a blood donor, and it’s not as though donor iguanas are out cruising the hallways of the animal hospital.” Another brief story – readers will be glad this one is not longer – is about “a sting operation” that “seized more than one hundred illegal reptiles, including rare species of tortoises and giant snakes,” from a warehouse that “smelled so bad from rotting flesh that we had to wear gas masks to retrieve the animals.”

     The animal tales are, inevitably, stories about humans as well, but few of the human beings come through here with as much depth as do their companions. One who does is Bernice, the 72-year-old owner of the iguana that needed surgery, who “had severe emphysema and required an oxygen tent to get from one room to another,” but who was so devoted to Daisy that “she somehow managed to lift the pregnant lizard into her Buick and drive three hours upstate to my hospital, wearing her oxygen mask the entire way.” Readers will be rooting for Daisy to survive for her own sake and Bernice’s, and the fact that she does is a real “up” moment in Unlikely Companions.

     The material on Hess herself, and her family, is less interesting, simply because it is so mundane. When one of her sons comes down with conjunctivitis while at school, for example, Hess is at a farm where there is no cell-phone service, so the pickup has to be done by her husband, Peter: “I squirmed, feeling bad that I’d been so out of touch. I’d missed another maternal moment, and as he so often and dependably does, Peter had shown up in my absence. I was sure he’d done it without hesitation or any resentment toward me, and still I wished that I’d been there instead.” Passages like this are only mildly effective in contrasting the everyday reality of Hess’s family life with the everyday reality of her work – more about animals and less about familiar familial circumstances would have made Unlikely Companions more engrossing. On the other hand, the passage in which Hess, determined to open her own exotic-pet hospital, drives herself to actual collapse – it turns out she has adult-onset type 1 diabetes – gives a good sense of her strength and determination.

     Books in the Herriot mode follow a predictable pattern of mixing animal and human stories; and there is always plenty of heartache to go around – anyone who does not get weepy at some point during Unlikely Companions is too hard-hearted to share a life with a companion animal of any sort. Hess writes at one point of “the day’s full range of disappointment, rage, fear, and loss,” and that is a pretty good description of many of the days of an exotic-animal vet, or a traditional vet, for that matter. It is also a good description of the days of many doctors who treat human patients. But it is books like this one, focusing on creatures not of our own species but wholly dependent on us for the basics of life, and providing us in turn with a deep emotional connection, that connect with us in a visceral way – because these animal companions are wholly reliant on our care. Unlikely Companions is not the best animal-vet book out there – Herriot’s own still stand head-and-shoulders above those of his successors – but it has plenty of heart. The title of its final chapter says it all: this is a book about “Love without Reservation.”

(++++) MUSICAL GIFT WITH LASTING MEANING


My First Classical Albums. Naxos. $49.99 (9 CDs).

     The understandable and somewhat justifiable stampede to push education heavily in the direction of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has had a deeply unfortunate side effect, whose true impact may not be known for decades. Yes, the STEM fields are the economic engines currently driving much of society, in both the developed and less-developed worlds. But driving it where? The purpose of a so-called liberal education has always been to produce adults with at least some knowledge of and comfort in fields that diverge from immediate practicality and speak to what can be called, for want of a better term, humanity’s spiritual side. Without knowledge of or interest in the arts, we risk becoming a world devoid of ultimate purpose and ultimate aspiration, one in which we get better and better at making more and more things that do less and less for any aspect of life beyond the everyday and mundane. It is already quite possible for someone to graduate from college without, for example, taking a single course involving Shakespeare – indeed, such a course could be deemed a waste of time if a student could instead learn, say, a new programming language. But society as a whole loses something unquantifiable but crucial to its future when it wholly abandons fields that may not offer immediate technological gratification or brightened career prospects but that show us how much we are capable of thinking, and in what depth, in fields other than those that are obviously economically useful.

     Christmas, which after all has a religious and spiritual basis dating back to the Saturnalia and before – even though it has largely become a commercial holiday – can be a time for family members to connect with each other and, in the traditional exchange of gifts, perhaps exchange a bit of meaning as well. It can be a time to make a bit of an attempt to help people reach for their higher selves – however defined – instead of looking only at that which is immediately practical and practicable. Thus, well-chosen gifts of music can not only bring immediate pleasure but also help show the recipients – children and adults alike – that there is and ought to be more to life than what the STEM fields can offer, that the undeniable worth and importance of those fields is not all of which people are capable and not always indicative of the best that we can be. In the absence of schools teaching this extremely important but not particularly lucrative subject, it falls to true believers in the power of the so-called humanities (which are called “human” for a reason) to produce material that can help us connect with our potentially higher and better selves. Thanks to its enormous catalogue, Naxos is in the forefront of this effort, since there are so many ways it can package and repackage excellent performances of a wide variety of music, directing the material to different audiences in different forms.

     My First Classical Albums is a perfect example of this and a superb choice as a gift for a child or, for that matter, an adult who thinks the stupefying dullness of most pop singing is all that the word “music” means. This excellent and very well-priced nine-CD set includes albums labeled Classical Music, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Piano, Violin, Ballet, Lullaby and Orchestra. There is plenty of overlap among the CDs – encountering the repetition of some material and understanding the reasons for it is in itself a useful learning experience – but each of them also stands thematically on its own, to very good effect. The amount of music per CD is very generous – all nine approach the traditional 80-minute limit of compact discs. And the performances are uniformly good-to-excellent and, in this context, more than good enough to serve as well-thought-out introductions to the classical-music world. Indeed, considerable thinking has clearly gone into the programming here. The Classical Music CD serves as an introduction to the whole set and includes several pieces also heard on other, more-focused discs – and that is just fine. This CD starts with part of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, one of the few classical works likely to be highly familiar even to people with no knowledge of the classical-music field; and the disc includes easy-to-listen to pieces by Beethoven (first movement of the Fifth Symphony), Vivaldi (first movement of “Spring” from The Four Seasons), Haydn (finale of the Trumpet Concerto), Brahms (Hungarian Dance No. 5), and Bach and Grieg and Bartók and Dvořák and Saint-Saëns and others. It also includes pieces by John Adams and John Williams (the latter from a Harry Potter film) – an excellent way to show that classical music is not (or at least not always) super-esoteric and confined to erudite listeners and concert halls or opera houses.

     The music itself is only part of the excellence of My First Classical Albums. The included booklet is exceptional, because it brings music that many likely think of as esoteric down to earth, without in any way misstating its significance. For Fauré’s Berceuse, for example, the text says, “Time to be quiet as you let the music move around you. The tune on the violin wanders gently along, and the piano supports it like an older brother or sister.” That is a marvelous image for this work, and an apt one. And not all the images are verbal: Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt not only gets a brief description but also receives a wonderful cartoon drawing of a troll, something along the lines of Where the Wild Things Are. The important thing is that the text really does explain the music, but it does so in a distinctly non-threatening way. Thus, for Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk, there is an explanation that the work starts with “a jerky, jazzy dance,” followed by a slower section that “wanders around, as if it could go anywhere,” after which “the jazzy tune is back again!”  Exactly right.

     There is more. Every description comes with a “keyword” that neatly describes the music and should fit right in with the way young people now tend to relate to information. The Swan from Carnival of the Animals is “gliding,” for example, and the Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 is “sparkle.” These well-chosen words encapsulate the music well – not completely, but in a way that makes it easy for an inexperienced ear to latch onto the sounds and hear them with a degree of immediate comprehension and understanding.

     The presentation is exactly the same for the eight albums after Classical Music – in fact, written descriptions from the first CD are repeated word for word when the same music is reused; and that is a good thing in this context, since it reinforces the material. The booklet gives a brief general discussion of the material on each disc before getting into the specifics of the music, whether by offering a short biography of a specific composer or by explaining something about the different types of pianos and the basics of piano playing. Enlivened by pleasant general illustrations as well as ones specific to individual pieces, the booklet is an integral part of My First Classical Albums and a very valuable element of the release.

     The fact is that the whole boxed set is very valuable. Of course, most of the material is excerpted from longer works – but Naxos has done a wonderful job of selecting a few pieces in their entirety: Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture on the Beethoven disc, Chopin’s “Minute” waltz on the piano-focused one, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on “Greensleeves” on the orchestra-focused CD. And while almost all the works on these discs will be familiar to anyone already involved in classical music, there are a few pieces here and there that are a bit off the beaten path, or at least unexpected in this context: the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, a Beethoven military-band march, one of Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances, a Scarlatti sonata, and so on. There is truly a wealth of music here, and a wealth of material for opening doors to a life that is not exclusively focused on everyday practicality and the exigencies of competition and career. It is unfortunate that a wonderful release such as My First Classical Albums must be seen as a replacement rather than a supplement for in-school (and in-home) music education and musical experience, but that is the inevitable consequence of there being only a limited amount of time for teaching young people, and thus a limited number of topics on which it is possible to focus. The current educational environment gives short shrift to the arts, kicking the consequences of the STEM orientation down the road to a time when today’s teachers will be gone and their students will likely face a world of substantial technological advances while lacking the background to understand that there is more to human beings than the sum of their parts and their inventions. It would be utterly naïve to believe that My First Classical Albums can turn the tide of unending (and, as noted, somewhat justifiable) technology focus on its own. But as the old proverb has it, “it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness,” and My First Classical Albums has the content and presentation needed to be a bright spot through this holiday season and for many years to come.

(++++) CHOOSE YOUR AUDIENCE WISELY


In Search of Great Composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin—Four Films by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art. $48.99 (4 DVDs).

Cello Stories: The Cello in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Bruno Cocset, cello; Les Basses Réunies; text by Marc Vanscheeuwijck. Alpha. $27.99 (5 CDs).

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5; Adagio in E, K. 261. Henning Kraggerud, violin; Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Naxos DVD. $24.99.

     Context matters. Special-purpose releases that might generally be of only limited or targeted interest at most times of the year can in some cases gain in value and suitability when considered as gifts. Here are three fine recent releases that, from a strictly musical perspective, reach out in only a specialized way. But if you are looking for a meaningful seasonal gift for someone whom you know to have an interest in the material presented here, then each of these items can be a perfect match and can bring joy that extends well beyond the holiday season.

     In Search of Great Composers is a compilation of four films in which Phil Grabsky seeks out the venues in which major composers lived and puts together an assemblage of pictures and words – many taken from the composers’ own letters – to create a portrait of each of them: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Chopin. Strictly as music, the films are somewhat lacking: the performances are uniformly fine and sometimes a great deal better than that, but they are also uniformly brief – inevitable in films that seek to encapsulate entire lifetimes and entire sets of musical production in about two hours (the Haydn film runs 102 minutes, Chopin 115, Mozart 128, Beethoven 139). Anyone who already knows the music will be at least a touch disappointed that comparatively little of it is heard in any of these movies – but on the other hand, anyone who does not know the music will get enough of a taste of it to be able to decide for himself or herself whether it is worth seeking complete performances elsewhere. In a somewhat similar vein, anyone already familiar with these composers’ lives will find little or nothing that is new here: Grabsky’s search does not take him or his audience into any particularly unfamiliar or ill-plumbed territory. But, again, anyone who does not know these composers as people and is not aware of their struggles and successes, their trials and triumphs, will get plenty of material here to whet his or her appetite for seeking out additional more-in-depth information somewhere else. The discussions with musicologists and historians that pervade all four films are something of a mixed blessing: they tend to be too wordy and at times pompous to interest people just learning about the composers, but do not offer anything especially revelatory to people already familiar with Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Chopin. These academic elements are probably inevitable in biographical films like these, but they are less interesting than the composers’ own words, the words of musicians who perform the composers’ music, and the music itself. The fact is that reams of biographical material have already been produced about all four of these giants of classical music, and plenty of dramatized versions of their lives have been offered in the past. For example, the relationship between Chopin and George Sand had more than enough crisis and controversy to sustain a 1991 film called Impromptu. Grabsky is not trying for “docudrama” here, though, or for films that are entertaining above all. He is striving to convey a sense of the men behind the music, to provide viewers with information showing how the composers’ lives were reflected in what they created – or, if the music did not directly respond to specific biographical occurrences, at least to associate the composers’ creativity with the lives they led and the times in which they led them. Grabsky’s films are skillfully made and nicely paced, but not revelatory for anyone who already knows their topics and focuses. For someone not well-versed in these composers’ lives and music, however, they can make an excellent gift that can open the door to all sorts of additional exploration of both the music and its creators.

     Cello Stories is, on the face of it, an even more rarefied release, an almost-six-hour-long exploration of one specific instrument in one specific long-ago time period, 300 to 400 years in the past. Certainly, even as a gift, Cello Stories, on the Alpha label, must be for someone who plays the cello, loves it, has always wanted to know more about it, or is fascinated by its role in musical history. These “stories,” though, are not as dry or as academic as might be imagined, thanks in part to the intelligent writing of Marc Vanscheeuwijck, in part to the numerous contemporary illustrations that show the instrument at various points in its history, and in part – large part – to the excellent choice of illustrative examples of the cello’s development, and the excellence of much of the music in its own right. The titles of the five CDs clearly reflect their content: “The Origins: Bonizzi, Degli Antoni, Frescobaldi, Galli, Ortiz, Vitali”; “Italy-France: Barrière, Marcello, Vivaldi”; “Johann Sebastian Bach #1”; “Johann Sebastian Bach #2”; and “From Geminiani to Boccherini: Boccherini, Cirri, Geminiani.” The music and text go together exceptionally well, and Bruno Cocset’s playing is careful, idiomatic, and historically very well-informed. There are some little-known composers and some little-known musical gems here, such as Giovanni Battista Vitali’s Chiacona per la lettera B, coupled with some music of towering reputation and extreme difficulty: Bach’s complete Cello Suites Nos. 3, 5 and 6, plus excerpts from his other three. There are three Vivaldi cello sonatas and two by Boccherini, plus the latter’s Cello Concerto in G, G. 480. And there are short pieces galore, from all the composers named on the individual discs. The set as a whole gives a wonderful impression of how variegated cello music was in the 17th and 18th centuries; how the instrument developed and attained capabilities that grew and grew; and how composers increasingly insisted on pushing it in new directions. Giving Cello Stories as a gift requires some care. It is a very attractive offering, packaged as a book with the CDs at the back; and it contains both text and music presented with a great deal of knowledge and even erudition. It is exceptionally well-priced for so many CDs with so much ancillary material. However, it is, as noted, almost six hours long, and while that will be enormously attractive for those interested in the cello and its role in the Baroque, it will be overwhelming for anyone – even an ardent music lover – who has something less than an all-consuming preoccupation with and attraction to this specific instrument and the music written for it in this specific time period. Choose a recipient for Cello Stories wisely and you will be giving a gift of significant value, one that the receiver will dwell on for a long time and likely return to again and again for its insights, its interesting music, and its fascinating historical material. Misfire on the choice of a recipient, though, and you will be giving something that will be appreciated on an intellectual level for its depth and quality but that will likely wind up on a bookshelf, or music shelf, unread, unheard and unused.

     Careful recipient choice is also key to deciding what to do with the new Naxos DVD featuring Henning Kraggerud and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra playing three of Mozart’s violin concertos and the Adagio in E, K. 261. Unlike much of the material in Cello Stories, these pieces are well-known and widely available, and in fact there is a CD version of Kraggerud’s performances, also on Naxos, available at a lower price (without the Adagio). Kraggerud’s readings of the concertos are very fine. His violin tone is warm and rich in the lower register, sweet and even in the upper, and the concertos’ cadenzas – Kraggerud wrote his own – are sparkly to the point of effervescence, if perhaps not entirely in conformity with cadenzas of Mozart’s time, being of considerable length that is somewhat out of keeping with the movements within which they appear. This is a quibble more than a significant criticism, though: lovers of this music will get a great deal of pleasure from Kraggerud’s handling of it, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s light and poised support is an additional big plus. But the question remains: for whom might this DVD be suitable? It was recorded during a live performance in Norway in January 2015, and the video is quite fine and does give something of a sense of being present at the concert – with the ever-present caveat that when one attends a concert for real, one decides where to look, at what and when, while when one watches a DVD, those choices are made by the producer and director (Sean Lewis fills both roles here). Anyone not yet acquainted with Mozart’s five violin concertos will probably be better served with a CD recording of the full cycle than with a DVD of the last three, so the most-appreciative recipient of this DVD would likely be someone who has one or more recordings of all five concertos already and would like a chance to bask in the atmosphere of a concert performance done at a high level of quality and featuring some lovely playing and unusual cadenzas. Yes, that analysis means that the potential recipients of this DVD will be quite limited – but it also means that if you know someone who meets those criteria, or if you come up with other criteria that you feel better indicate who would like this recording, then this will make a very enjoyable holiday gift for someone who will be impressed with how well you know his or her musical tastes and interests. Let the giver beware – or, more precisely, let the giver be aware of the personality and preferences of the recipient.

(++++) THE PERSONAL TOUCH


Bach: The Six Partitas for Harpsichord from the “Clavier-Übung” I, BWV 825-830. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Sono Luminus. $19.99 (3 CDs).

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Shostakovich: Three Fantastic Dances. Linus Roth, violin; José Gallardo, piano. Challenge Classics. $18.99.

Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art. John Bullard, banjo. Bullard Music. $14.99.

21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 2. Adam Levin, guitar. Naxos. $12.99.

     People who think there is anything standardized about classical-music performances, or that there is one and only one “right” way to play this music, have never heard readings like these. Jory Vinikour’s robust, bouncy handling of Bach’s Six Partitas for Harpsichord for Sono Luminus is thoroughly unexpected and convincing from the start. Vinikour looks above all to the fact that these works are made up of dance movements, and if the dances are often idealized – along the lines of those in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, if not to the same extent – that does not stop them from having rhythmic clarity and a certain regularity of beat underlying their contrapuntal complexity. Vinikour’s tempos are well-chosen, his overall approach dramatic and theatrical, his expressive language well-attuned to the works’ colors – and he is unafraid to make these pieces playful as well as profound. The sheer breeziness of the opening Praeambulum of Partita No. 5 is engaging here, the very expansive Allemande of No. 4 is wonderfully serene, the dramatic opening Toccata of No. 6 proceeds with magisterial seriousness, the oddly accented Sarabande of No. 3 is exceptionally graceful – there are beauties aplenty in all six works, and there is not a single movement that seems ill-paced, balanced indelicately or in any way stodgy. In some ways that is the most remarkable thing about what Vinikour does here: he removes the stodginess of tradition from Bach, treating each of these six extended harpsichord suites as a wholly individual creation while still showing clearly that they all come from the same mind. His differentiation of individual movements is equally impressive: for example, Partita No. 3 has a Burlesca followed by a Scherzo, and both words mean “joke,” but the humor is very different between the two and very effectively highlighted here. From the lyricism of the Praeludium opening of No. 1, to the considerable virtuosity needed for the Capriccio of No. 2 and the Corrente movements of Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 6, to the structurally unusual Sarabande of No. 6, Vinikour’s readings are striking, highly involving and intelligent both in concept and in execution. There are many first-rate recordings of these old but ever-new harpsichord suites, making it always harder to imagine yet another top-of-the-line approach that is non-duplicative. But such imagination, if difficult, is not impossible, as Vinikour here proves to sublime effect.

     The personal nature of Linus Roth’s approach to the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg is evident as well, in a new Challenge Classics release featuring Weinberg’s three solo-violin sonatas interspersed with violin-and-piano versions of the Three Fantastic Dances by Weinberg’s friend, colleague and longtime supporter, Shostakovich. The CD actually begins with the first Shostakovich dance (the transcription of the dances is by Harry Glickman); it serves as a kind of curtain-raiser, with the other two dances being palate cleansers of a sort between the substantial servings of Weinberg’s sonatas. All the Weinberg sonatas date from the 1960s and 1970s, specifically 1964, 1967 and 1978. The first is a five-movement, 26-minute piece in which slow-to-moderate tempos dominate. The work is characterized by substantial dissonance and frequent wide leaps that are challenging to play and to listen to; its fastest portion, a Presto section that opens the finale, scurries about very speedily indeed until the movement’s later Adagio segment returns the piece to its essentially contemplative core. Sonata No. 2 is in seven short movements – the whole work lasts just 18 minutes – and has a lighter overall flavor than No. 1; but there is enough Shostakovich-style sarcasm here to show the clear kinship of the two composers, especially in the third movement, marked Presto agitato, and the concluding Vivace marcato. Weinberg explores but does not exploit the outer limits of violin technique and violin sound in these two sonatas, and Roth plays them with exemplary tone and a sure sense of pacing and rhythm that together bring out the works’ structures to very good effect. Sonata No. 3 is an even bigger challenge to perform and hear: the longest of the sonatas (27 minutes), it is written in a single movement that gives the violinist no time to rest and allows listeners little aural respite. A work of anguish and dismay – dedicated to the memory of Weinberg’s father, who was also a composer and who died in the Holocaust – this sonata reaches for and eventually finds a measure of tenderness, which Roth brings out to very fine (and rather surprising) effect; but it is a tough work to absorb and not one that reveals itself fully without multiple hearings. Roth’s technical and interpretative skill combine to reveal the depths of this sonata and of all the Weinberg works on this CD.

     Yet nothing Vinikour or Roth offers is quite as surprising as what John Bullard provides on a CD that ostensibly contains familiar music by Bach, Telemann, Handel, Schumann, Grieg and (somewhat less familiarly) Alessandro Marcello. Bullard plays the banjo. Yes, the banjo. Approaching this disc with considerable skepticism is entirely justifiable, but Bullard will win over all but the most dyed-in-the-wool skeptics with what he does here. The sensitivity, tonal color and outright beauty that Bullard extracts from his five-string instrument – and thus pulls from (or puts into) the music – is nothing short of astonishing. The ornamentation of the Baroque works is flawless, the lyricism of the Romantic ones surprising and highly effective, and the impossible is made possible when, for example, Bullard performs a transcription of Schumann’s Three Romances for Oboe and Piano with restraint, sensitivity and exceptional beauty. In the D minor concerto by Marcello, Bullard’s banjo sounds like a lute and mingles wonderfully with archlute and Baroque violin and cello: the CD includes excellent backup performances by a variety of fine musicians. Telemann’s Partita No. 5, another minor-key work (E minor), also lets Bullard bring out a surprising amount of warmth and subtlety from an instrument that is generally considered to have little of either. Handel’s Trio Sonata, Op. 2, No. 8, is yet another piece in a minor key (G minor), and here Bullard blends the banjo to exceptional effect with the other instruments – the engineering of the recording, which is excellent, also deserves some credit for this. Grieg’s six Lyric Pieces are not quite as successful as the other works on the CD, although the banjo does have a pleasing folk-instrument resonance for the concluding Halling. On the other hand, the two Bach works here deserve to be called revelatory. The fugue from Sonata No. 1, BWV 1001, not only has the requisite Baroque sound – again, that lute-like resonance – but also shows Bullard’s command of form to quite an extraordinary degree. It is actually hard to remember that this is a banjo, of all things, playing this music. And the thrice-familiar Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the conclusion of the cantata BWV 147, is a remarkable surprise. It is heard here with full choir and strings as well as Bullard’s banjo, and sounds altogether new and different from what listeners are likely to expect, a re-exploration to top all the re-explorations on this remarkable CD. This is a recording that reexamines a much-maligned folk instrument that sounds – in the right hands – as if it can do practically anything. Bullard’s hands are clearly the right ones.

     Bullard plays guitar, too, but classical guitar is, unlike classical banjo, already well-established among performers. Brand-new music for classical guitar is less familiar, though, a matter that a planned four-CD Naxos series featuring Adam Levin has set out to remedy. Not all the music on the second volume is equally intriguing, however, and in the absence of the curiosity value of Bullard’s CD, this release gets a (+++) rating for most listeners – although guitar players will likely find it an attractive source of potential new material for their recitals, assuming they can perform at anything like the very high level at which Levin plays. Eight of the nine works here are world première recordings: Caprichos No. 11: Abstractions of Granados (2014) by Leonardo Balada (born 1933); Interiores (2010) by Jesús Torres (born 1965); Autumn Elegy (2012) by Marc López Godoy (born 1967); Ivory Tower (2013) by Luis de Pablo (born 1930); I’ve Got You Under My String (2013) by Eduardo Soutullo (born 1968); Upon 21 (2012) by Jacobo Durán-Loriga (born 1958); Tres piezas para guitarra (2011) by Benet Casablancas (born 1933); and Orion (2010) by Juan Manuel Ruiz (born 1968). The only work that has been recorded before is Dos cantares (2010) by Antón García Abril (born 1933). Certainly there are some impressive pieces here. Highlights include Torres’ exploration of the guitar’s capabilities of both inward focus and extroversion, Godoy’s use of the instrument to evoke deep sadness before he dispels it with brilliant figurations, and Durán-Loriga’s evocation of Baroque dances (which compares interestingly with Bullard’s banjo performance of actual Baroque works). Other material here is, on the other hand, a good deal more mundane: Casablancas’ contribution is derivative in sound and structure, Balada’s homage to Granados is unexceptional, Pablo’s piece is rather bland, and Ruiz’s extended work plumbs the guitar’s technical depths and is highly challenging to perform but not especially rewarding to hear. This Naxos series is a welcome one that will be of considerable value to guitarists, but only listeners who simply cannot get enough of classical guitar music will likely enjoy sitting through the 71 minutes of this second volume.

December 01, 2016

(++++) BIGGER AND BIGGER


Epic Big Nate. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $50.

     An exceptional extravaganza of a slipcased, hardcover celebration, Epic Big Nate marks 25 years of Lincoln Peirce’s strip with a mixture of compilation, commentary, discussion, analysis and insight. This is more than a treat for Big Nate fans – it is a feast of epic proportions. There are nearly 500 oversize pages of strips, interviews with Peirce (pronounced “purse”), commentary by Peirce on specific stories, and a truly wonderful year-by-year look at selected strips that shows with abundant clarity how Peirce’s style has evolved through a quarter of a century.

     Pretty much everything a Big Nate fan might want to know about the strip and its creator is here: its slow start, the way it eventually became super-popular, its hits and misses in other (non-newspaper) media, Peirce’s contact with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz (including a spectacular four-panel tribute in which Nate’s baseball team plays Charlie Brown’s), Peirce’s mentor relationship with Jay Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and tons of tidbits from Peirce about how and why he has changed the strip, added characters, and tried to deal with mistakes (for example, hyphenating the last name of Nate’s nemesis, Gina, after realizing that he had given her two different last names at two different times). Readers find out why Nate’s mom never appears: Peirce basically forgot to put her in and now thinks it is much too late to introduce her – in retrospect, he would have made Nate’s dad a widower. They learn why the cast of characters keeps getting larger: Peirce originally thought it would be confusing to have too many characters (he started with six), but when he realized that the centerpiece of the strip would be Nate’s school, he also realized that lots and lots of people pass through a preteen’s school life. They learn why Peirce has, to the disappointment of many fans, stopped showing Nate’s own comics, which were integral to developing his personality in earlier years: after a number of readers commented that they did not understand the strip on days when it featured Nate’s comics, Peirce decided that Nate’s creations “might not be serving the strip’s best interests,” so he phased them out “even though I miss them.” Readers learn a bit more about the never-seen Chester, whose influence and invisibility are taken right from the Peanuts world, where adults are unseen but occasionally potent presences: “Based on Nate’s interactions with him, Chester sounds like a cross between Bigfoot and King Kong. That’s why I’ll never draw him. I couldn’t do him justice.”

     There is so much here that it is hard to know where to start. Well, at the beginning is as good a place as any, of course, but the comments by Peirce are scattered throughout the book, and it is not necessary to read them in any particular order. In fact, doing some serendipitous browsing in Epic Big Nate is a great deal of fun. You might happen upon the page on which Peirce explains something about Spitsy, the neighbor’s dog that is never sufficiently doglike for Nate and always wears an Elizabethan collar: “Nate and Spitsy are like opposite sides of the same coin. Nate’s exasperated with Spitsy because he’s not the dog Nate wants him to be, but he loves Spitsy just the same. Turn the coin over and you see the same thing. Nate drives his friends and family crazy, but they can’t help loving him. At the end of the day, Nate and Spitsy are a lot alike.” Or you might turn to the page on which Peirce discusses how he came up with some subsidiary characters: “Take School Picture Guy. He’s this übernerd who originally appeared in the strip as a once-a-year adversary: Nate didn’t like him because his pictures always made Nate look bad. But the guy was so [much] fun to write for, I couldn’t confine him to only one appearance per year. So I started writing him into other story lines.” Another example: “Nate went to soccer camp one summer, and I thought it would be funny for one of the coaches to be a psycho drill-sergeant type. But I didn’t have a character like that in my arsenal. So I invented Coach John. And he’s fun to draw, so he stuck around.” It is clear from these and many other comments that Peirce has a genuine relationship with his characters – yes, he creates and draws them, but they “want to” be used more or less, in various new ways, and even “want to” look somewhat different: Peirce actually says that he did not realize his style was evolving over time, but was just doing what the characters seemed to want done.

     Peirce is a jovial and genial host in Epic Big Nate, with enough self-deprecation to come across as charming. He notes, for example, that calling Nate’s school “P.S. 38” was a spontaneous decision that wrongly made it seem to be in New York City (he actually envisions Nate as living in Maine, where Peirce and his family live). On the plus side, he comments, “I’m not sure exactly what was going on in 2008, but the creative juices must have been flowing. I came up with some story lines that year that I’m very proud of.” Peirce is also proud of the fact that he hand-draws and hand-letters Big Nate, and writes all the material himself. It is that constant personal touch that makes the strip so special – that, and Peirce’s continued ability to stay in touch with his inner preteen: “Just because Nate’s young doesn’t mean his feelings are frivolous. You can be in love when you’re eleven. You feel things pretty intensely at that age.” As for the fact that Nate has stayed 11 (sometimes 12) for a quarter of a century, Peirce says he has no intention of changing that: he still has plenty of material to develop based on Nate’s age and school life: “Nate never ages, which I suppose for some people would be paradise. But it also means that he’s trapped in sixth grade with Mrs. Godfrey for all eternity.” That may be hell for Nate, or at least purgatory, but for the many, many fans of Big Nate – likely even more if they encounter the strip through Epic Big Nate – the situation is a little bit of comic-strip heaven.

(+++) THE PLOTS THICKEN


Yael Azoulay #3: The Reykjavik Assignment. By Adam LeBor. Harper. $15.99.

Lock and Key #1: The Initiation. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $17.99.

     The trilogy-plus centered on a United Nations covert negotiator (a strange concept) named Yael Azoulay comes to a conclusion in The Rejkjavik Assignment, which is better read after The Geneva Option and The Washington Stratagem than as a standalone (the “plus” part of the series, a short story called The Istanbul Exchange, is optional). The basic idea here is a typical one for sort-of-political sort-of-thrillers: the world is dirty and requires dirty dealings in the name of goodness, and someone has to put together deals that the rest of us would rather not know about, interacting with all sorts of unsavory characters while keeping his or her personal life compartmentalized, all for the betterment of humanity. It is a trifle naïve to see the United Nations as the fount of goodness, but even when settings are realistic – and Adam LeBor is good at making them believable – there has to be some sense of fantasyland to justify the inevitable derring-do in a sequence such as this. The U.N. is as good an imaginary landscape as any. The sequence’s conclusion brings much of Azoulay’s personal life and past into the foreground as she comes to New York City from Istanbul and has to deal with various shady dealings possibly perpetrated by Iranian agents, the bad-guys-du-jour. Among the disturbing events are shootings of top U.N. officials and the re-emergence of the usual sneaky-type operatives from the usual sneaky-type security firm, an outfit run by Clarence Clairborne, who gave Yael considerable trouble earlier in the series. In addition to her recent past coming back to haunt her, or at least track her, the thirtysomething Yael is encountering trouble from her more-distant past in the form of rumors about the death of her brother in Rwanda many years earlier. Between the family-connection concerns and her own worries about her unsatisfactory love life, Yael has a lot to juggle in The Reykjavik Assignment. That would be all right, but the problem here is that the reader has to do the juggling, too, and there are so many plot threads that it can be hard to know what to follow at what time – the sense of major elements vs. minor ones is not always clear. Furthermore, LeBor creates a kind of perils-of-Pauline style here, to a greater extent than in the previous novels: there are so many cliffhangers that readers will start to expect them, which is scarcely the point of setting them up. The strengths of LeBor’s writing remain evident here, notably in the verisimilitude he creates by tying his fictional protagonist to real-world events: “If she really was a prisoner, eventually they would have to get her out of the building and into a vehicle. It was just a question of waiting. Entering and exiting buildings and vehicles always made for the most vulnerable moments. Former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic had one of the heaviest security details in the world, but it had not prevented a sniper from killing him as he stepped out of his car one afternoon in Belgrade.” Readers who want a fictional sense of going behind real-world headlines, and who believe in the U.N. as essentially a force for good – and an adept one at fielding agents as competent as Yael – will enjoy this novel and find it a more-than-satisfactory series conclusion. Its formulaic elements, though, are ever-present, and those not enamored of LeBor’s writing will find the book alternately thin and overdone.

     Aimed at younger readers but packed with the kinds of ins and outs to be expected from an experienced writer of crime novels for adults, Ridley Pearson’s Lock and Key series sets itself a highly ambitious goal: nothing less than the reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes canon from the point of view of Holmes’ greatest antagonist, James Moriarty. The notion of having the “bad guy” become central to a rethinking of a well-known plot is nothing new – think of Wicked, for instance – but doing so in the Holmes context is a rather bold move. It is also something of a stretch. To make it work, Pearson invents a younger sister for Moriarty, giving her the unlikely name of Moria (yes, “Moria Moriarty,” and perhaps the echo of Tolkien’s Moria is intentional). Pearson then moves the Holmes story to modern times and to the United States, although Holmes remains British and the location where the action occurs – a boarding school called Baskerville (what else?) Academy – has been brought brick by brick across the pond to the U.S. The awkward namings and relocation will not matter to readers encountering Holmes and Moriarty for the first time, and are presumably designed to make the story more appealing to 21st-century Americans. The Initiation is an “origin” story, designed to probe and explain the enmity between Holmes and Moriarty that eventually ended both their lives, or at least seemed to, at the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes and Moriarty are roommates at school, and both are forceful and stubborn – apparently those characteristics are intended as stand-ins for the “genius” label, since the two are supposed to evolve into polar opposites of equal intelligence and cunning. Pearson is inclined to tell people how smart the two are instead of actually showing them doing smart things; this is especially the case for Moriarty, who comes across as a whiner. Holmes, for his part, keeps trying to be friendly to Moriarty, for no apparent reason. Moria makes a good enough narrator, her own cleverness more evident than that of her older brother, her sneakiness about on par with his but her moral compass more acceptable. The book’s plot is almost incidental to the layout (it is not quite “development”) of the characters. The story revolves around a red envelope with a clue that is left for Moriarty; he intends to pursue matters on his own, but Holmes and Moria are determined to help, whether he wants them to or not. There are other clues as well, and of course a secret society, and the notion is that Holmes and Moriarty have to work together to assemble all the bits and pieces and solve the mystery. But plotting is actually not the book’s strong point: Pearson throws in so many details and such long explanations of event that matters sometimes become difficult to follow and, worse, tedious. The early part of the book is stronger than its second half, and perhaps readers pulled into the novel will stay with it through the rather rougher, highly explanatory time in its later pages. Those who already know Holmes will find little intriguing in this reimagining, but those encountering him for the first time may welcome this entry into a New World version of the Holmes-Moriarty conflict.

(+++) WEB CONNECTIONS AND OTHERS


Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal. By Dan TDM (Dan The Diamond Minecart, real name Dan Middleton). Illustrated by Doreen Mulryan and Mike Love. Harper. $19.99.

404 Not Found. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $9.99.

Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes. By Kimberly & James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.

     The cross-pollination between the Internet and printed books is now proceeding at a furious pace, apparently on the assumption that people who like things they see bouncing around online will like them just as much when they appear in static form between covers. The notion works better in some cases than others. In the case of Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal, it does not work particularly well. “Dan TDM” has a popular YouTube channel, but the superficiality and motion that characterize such an online presence do not hold up very well when translated to a graphic novel. Certainly fans of “Dan TDM” and his characters, which are very obviously Minecraft-inspired and Minecraft-derived, will enjoy seeing them here, and certainly Doreen Mulryan and Mike Love do an adequate job of bringing them to the printed page. But readers ages 8-12, at whom this book is aimed, have many, many better graphic novels from which to choose: the attraction here is purely a matter of wanting to see these characters in a new form. There is essentially no plot: bad guy wants to rule world and good guys want to stop him. There is no explanation: enchanted crystals suddenly show up, and just how and by whom or what they were or are enchanted is never known. Action is suitable for four-year-olds but far too tame for preteens. Dialogue is super-bland: “Whoa! It exploded!” “Run!” “Watch out!” “Let’s begin!” “Are you ready to go?” “What are you talking about?” And of course there are the usual “ha-ha-ha-ha” exclamations. The animal characters are far more interesting than the human (or more-or-less-human-shaped) ones: Grim, a dog who “is now a living skeleton version of himself” (never explained), and some pigs that have encountered a crystal shard, with the result that one can talk. The whole production is puerile – not that there is anything wrong with that for typical Web use. But books invite closer looks at characters and plot than YouTube channels do, and Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal just does not have enough originality, much less enchantment, to attract readers unless they are already strongly committed to the online versions of its characters and settings.

     The Oatmeal is somewhat more successful at making the transition from Web to print. Matthew Inman has a sufficiently bizarre sense of humor so the move from Internet to book form is often successful. His latest foray into this changeover is a coloring book, of all things, and that is something that is not to be found in electronic form (“color this” apps are a whole different experience). Whether anyone will actually want to color 404 Not Found is another matter: the fun here comes from the extremely weird sort-of-story that runs through the black-and-white pages, and from the drawings themselves. The title of course refers to the common error message that computer users get when attempting to follow a broken link – except that here Inman makes a joke of the phrase by having “404” refer to a robot (all the robots have numbers) that has mysteriously disappeared from its usual cubicle. The book sets forth a series of weird and sometimes very funny scenarios as the other robots try to figure out what could have happened to 404 – as Inman produces illustrative drawings that, colored or not, are highly amusing to see. The rhyming here is imperfect, but readers probably will not care – they will be too busy looking at the pictures. Thus, “Perhaps he left this worldly place [404 seen strapped to the outside of a rising rocket]/ and found an evil race of cats from space [strangely shaped cats carrying chainsaws]./ Maybe those cats from space [all now cutely round, one wearing underwear, but still carrying chainsaws]/ returned to this world with murderous haste [Earth completely surrounded by the cats].” And so on. Some of the scenarios here are much shorter than the space-cats one, taking only two pages: “He could have gone to the chatter holes [holes in the ground with empty speech balloons rising from them]/ and made the mistake of feeding the trolls [sharp-toothed, large-mouthed creatures emerge and attack].” The other robots think maybe 404 “went golfin’/ with a pregnant dolphin,” or “met a pair of baby owls,/ and they became the best of pals” (although that possibility does not end well for 404). Eventually 404 turns up nearby, all is fine, and everybody gets cake. Robot cake, that is. 404 Not Found is enjoyable (if overdone) silliness entirely on its own – no Internet connection necessary, even though it is the Internet connection of The Oatmeal that led to the book’s creation in the first place.

     The connection is not online but with an already-popular character in kids’ books in a different coloring-and-drawing book, James Dean’s Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw. The star here is big-eyed, sleepy-eyed Pete, of course, and this is an interestingly conceived book. Yes, it has things to color, but the idea is that before kids color anything, they should draw it on their own. There is already a lot of color in the book, to serve as a guide and provide visual interest as Dean gives step-by-step demonstrations of ways to use simple shapes to create the characters in Pete’s world: his brother, Bob; Robo-Pete; Cavecat Pete; dog pal Emma; Farmer Pete; a donkey on which Pete can ride; Cowabunga Pete, with surfboard; Pete in a baseball uniform and construction outfit; Toad using a bulldozer; Pete painting a picture of Goldie; Pete’s pirate pumpkin; and many more. The basic instructional material appears on crosshatched sections of the pages that look like graph paper, allowing kids to try each shape and character in the same size and orientation used by Dean. Then there is considerable white space for freehand drawing, including Dean’s own renditions of scenery that goes with the characters. For instance, Dean shows a train and station on a page where kids learn to draw Pete’s grandma (who is waiting for him to arrive), and includes a “Bus Stop” sign and sidewalk to use when drawing Pete, Callie and their lunch boxes at the stop. Dean offers a nice mixture of characters, plus some props – a sand castle, drum set, wrecking-ball crane, skateboard and more. Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw is clearly intended only for Pete’s fans – it will not attract kids unless they know the character and his settings already – but for those who do like Pete and his world, this book will provide an enjoyable and colorful additional level of involvement that will be most welcome.

     A regular, story-focused Pete the Cat book would be just the thing to get kids interested in Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw, and a new one that could fill the bill is Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes. It is not, unfortunately, one of the best entries in Kimberly and James Dean’s ongoing series, but it does have some pleasant elements and does include a number of Pete’s friends. It is sort of a counting book and sort of a mystery: Pete and Gus the platypus make 10 cupcakes for a party, but the cupcakes disappear two by two until eventually all are gone. There is no counting up to 10, but there is counting down from 10, by twos. There is also the question of where the cupcakes have gone. Unfortunately, the text here is choppy – it is not a matter of poor rhymes, as in 404 Not Found, but one in which lines are very different lengths: “They counted the cupcakes lined up straight./ Now there were only eight!” “Now there were only six!/ Someone must be playing tricks!/ But who?/ Pete and Gus did not know what to do!” Eventually this very small mystery is solved when it turns out that one of the friends could not resist the yummy cupcakes and ate them all – so of course he is disinvited to the party. But then Pete decides that he deserves a second chance because he only “made a mistake,” and sure enough, he brings even more cupcakes to the party than Pete and Gus originally made – 16, in fact. So everything ends as happily as usual, and the drawing style is as exaggerated and big-eyed as usual. The front and back inside covers offer added treats in the form of many types, sizes and colors of cupcakes, including one that looks like a baseball, one sporting an electric-guitar decoration, one that says “meow,” and one that has teeth. Those inside covers are actually more fun than the book itself, but longtime Pete fans will enjoy the story in any case – no Internet access required.

(+++) THE SWAMPS OF HEROISM


The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution. By John Oller. Da Capo. $26.99.

     The American Revolution was not won by any individual, but the search for “big man” heroes is an ongoing one that started with George Washington, still a prime candidate, and has continued through the years with focuses on this or that indispensable person without whom the colonies would have failed to establish the United States. The whole premise is nonsense, especially when the American Revolution is seen in the geopolitical terms in which Great Britain largely viewed it (the New World was in large part a new location for ongoing Old World balance-of-powers conflicts between the British on the one hand and the French and Spanish on the other). Still, there are always new candidates for the mantle of “indispensable man,” the latest of whom has duly emerged in a well-researched biography by John Oller – a book that shows its academic seriousness by having 250 pages of narrative and more than 100 of notes, bibliography and index. Oller’s subject is Francis Marion (c. 1732-1795), a South Carolinian of French Huguenot descent who joined the fight against the British in 1780, at the age of 48. Marion weighed 110 pounds, stood five-feet-two-inches tall, and was knock-kneed – not the physical portrait of a fighter of any repute. He was a plantation owner and, scarcely surprisingly in his time and place, a slaveholder. More to the point for the American Revolution, he proved to be a master of what we now deem guerrilla tactics, disrupting the regular British army in more than two dozen engagements – which is a better word than “battles,” because Marion was a master of harassment, of worrying the enemy from its fringes, of avoiding direct confrontation in favor of attacks that would keep the larger, far-better-equipped British army of General Charles Cornwallis off balance and prevent it from marching north from South Carolina to join General Henry Clinton’s troops in New York and trap Washington’s army between the two forces.

     Oller writes something just short of hagiography where Marion is concerned, although he is uncomfortable acknowledging the quite ordinary fact of Marion owning slaves – Oller eventually declares that Marion does not appear to have been a cruel master, which sounds like damning with faint praise. But this foray into political correctness and imposition of the values of the 21st century on the 18th is only a small part of The Swamp Fox. Most of it is about the facts and fiction surrounding Marion and the difficulty of separating them. Certainly Marion’s use of guerrilla tactics was notable, but it was scarcely new: Marion himself said he learned it from the Cherokee during the French and Indian War, in which Marion served as a lieutenant. Certainly Marion had more-moderate views of the rapine of warfare than other combatants did: a strict disciplinarian, he specifically forbade his men to plunder and commit other punitive acts after victories. In fact, defeated Tories who swore allegiance to the new nation were given full pardons and allowed to keep their property. And certainly Marion did have many victories: almost all his engagements against the British were successful, including one notable direct battle – an exception to Marion’s usual method of fighting – in which Marion’s forces ambushed a British column on a bridge near Charleston, killing 25 soldiers and wounding more than 80 while suffering only one dead and three wounded themselves.

     Few except dedicated students of American history will realize how serious the war in South Carolina was in Marion’s time: Oller, whose research is nothing if not meticulous, notes that of the thousand colonists killed in battles in 1780, 66% died in South Carolina – and of the 2,000 wounded, 90% were injured there. So Marion’s contribution surely came at a crucial time for the Revolution. But there were so many crucial times, so many crucial places – as is only to be expected in a war that dragged on for six years – that highlighting Marion’s role as the one that “saved” the Revolution is at the least an overstatement. Still, Oller’s book is packed with fascinating tidbits for those who cannot get enough of military histories and/or accounts of the American Revolution. For example, Marion’s sobriquet, “Swamp Fox,” was given to him by an admirer, but in fact he kept out of swamps if at all possible, avoiding insects and diseases by maintaining encampments on high, dry land whenever he could. In truth, it is arguable whether Oller’s book is rich in detail or overloaded with it – the descriptive decision will depend on the extent to which a reader is gripped by Oller’s narrative. And that in turn will depend on the reader’s response to the rather effusive praise that Oller heaps on Marion and the substantial credit he gives Marion for derailing a potential death blow to the American Revolution. Marion has not gone wholly unnoticed in recent times: a Mel Gibson film from 2000, The Patriot, was loosely based on Marion’s activities, and there was even a Disney TV series based (again loosely) on Marion (1959-1961). The Swamp Fox is, however, the first full-scale biography of Marion in more than 40 years, and is intriguing for the way it sheds considerable light on a man whose name now adorns 29 American cities and towns, 17 counties, a university, a national forest, and a park on Capitol Hill – more locations, Oller notes, than have been named for any Revolutionary War figure except George Washington.