October 20, 2016
2017 Calendars: Page-a-Day—Dilbert; Pearls Before Swine; Baby Blues; The Argyle Sweater; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
There are many serious reasons to bemoan the precipitous decline of newspapers: far less investigative reporting, far fewer in-depth stories in general, a much smaller coterie of reporters looking into government and private-sector malfeasance, a general loss of writing quality and of stories that go beyond superficial headline-grabbing information, and more. There is also one distinctly non-serious reason to lament the state of the newspaper industry: what is going to happen to comic strips?
This is actually not a small question. The comic-art form long predates the modern newspaper, with editorial cartoons dating back hundreds of years and producing some genuinely wonderful art as well as pithy commentary – Thomas Nast’s and Sir John Tenniel’s pointed works come immediately to mind. But comics as entertainment, as opposed to comic panels as commentary, are intimately connected with the rise of modern newspapers, beginning with Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid and continuing through the marvels of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Walt Kelly (Pogo), and many others, right down to modern masters of the form such as Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and G.B. Trudeau (Doonesbury). What happens to comics when there are fewer and fewer newspapers available to run them, and those newspapers have less and less space for anything beyond basic news and the fast-declining ads that pay most of the bills? “Comics just migrate online” is a poor answer, since in the vast majority of cases, strips are designed from the start as art on paper and lose a great deal in translation to an electronic medium. “Comics just evolve to be created as electronic offerings” is correct for a few strips already and is likely an accurate remark as far as the future of others is concerned, but it begs the question of how cartoonists get paid for their work and how their static panels compete with a moving-video-saturated Internet – and even get discovered by new readers at all.
This is not a doomsday scenario for comics or the cartoonists who create them: there will certainly be adaptation, compromise, change and evolution of various kinds and to various extents, even if the future looks no clearer for newspaper-based comic strips than for newspapers themselves. In the present, though, there is a way for fans of the best newspaper-based comics to stay in touch with them every day of the year without needing to subscribe to a newspaper and without needing to read the comics in a less-congenial electronic format. To the rescue come 365-day calendars, especially those from Andrews McMeel, publisher of calendars based not only on comics syndicated by its own parent firm, Andrews McMeel Universal, but also of ones using strips from other syndicates. There just isn’t anywhere better to go for a daily date with your favorite cartoons than an Andrews McMeel calendar.
Need examples? Consider three of the best-known multi-panel strips being produced today: Scott Adams’ Dilbert, Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, and Baby Blues by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Each of them is available for 2017 in a stand-up, tear-off-a-page-at-a-time calendar version suitable for desktop, kitchen counter, bedroom nightstand, or – if you like all three strips equally – all three locations. Each calendar provides a daily offering (OK, not quite: some have a single strip covering both weekend days) of exactly the sort of humor that turns people into devoted fans of these cartoonists. In the ever-futile workplace environment of Dilbert, for example, one strip has laziness champion Wally asking to work at home because surveys of telecommuters show that they put in more hours – at which point the Pointy-Haired Boss asks, “What if those people are lying weasels?” and Wally has to admit he had not counted on “this level of awareness.” Elsewhere, Dilbert explains to the boss that he does not resist change – only terrible ideas – and when the boss tells him, “Whatever you’re doing, cut it out,” Dilbert asks, “Should I stop being rational in general or only in this one way?” Then there is the graphic designer who subcontracts his work to strangers online in return for 5% of his salary – and does nothing himself. And the robot who fills in for the boss and learns to use the boss’s technique of random rewards. And ever-optimistic Ratbert, who wants to go to Google after he dies for the “free food, bus service, and massages,” and would cope with being around smart people all the time by wearing earplugs. And the bullet-headed CEO, who wants consultant Dogbert to coauthor a book “to make readers believe success comes from hard work and wise decisions,” so “instead of hating me for being lucky, they will hate themselves for being lazy and dumb.” Dogbert himself eventually becomes CEO, is later offered $100 million to quit, and is insulted because “I spend that much on soft cheese.” You get the idea – and you will get it again and again all year with the Dilbert calendar.
Dilbert is absurdist and dark, but Pearls Before Swine is even darker. In this world, Rat puts together an emergency preparedness kit consisting entirely of hot dogs and beer; he notices that bad things happen on Tuesdays, so he eliminates them from all weeks and replaces them with extra Fridays; he absorbs a motivational speaker’s advice about setting realistic life goals by deciding to “get drunk and watch ‘Trailer Park Boys’”; and in another life-lesson strip, he writes one of his stories of Angry Bob, a character who always dies in some bizarre new way – in this case, after determining to “live a new life” and “seize the day” by going bungee jumping, inadvertently leaping before the instructor finishes securing the bungee cord. Oops. Among other recurring characters are the exceptionally dim crocodiles, led by Larry, who at one point encounters the top-hat-wearing Comic Strip Censor after Larry goes to Colorado, where marijuana is legal, and comes back with a “croc pot.” That is one of Pastis’ milder and less-fraught puns. A more-typical one involves single-appearance characters named Sam and Ella who invent a stopping device that can out-brake all others, but cannot make any sales because they call their establishment, which includes a café, “The Sam and Ella Out-Brake Store.” And of course there are frequent appearances by naïve and always well-meaning Pig, who at one point tells Goat, the strip’s resident intellectual, that even though he wants genetically modified food to be labeled, he voted against having that happen because he is “far too stupid for democracy.” Elsewhere, Goat tells Pig how appealing Pig’s “optimistic idealism” is when Pig says he is going to open a letter he wrote to himself when he was little – but it turns out that the letter asks, “Have you failed at everything yet?”
It sometimes feels as if failure is omnipresent in the Baby Blues world, too, but that is only because all parents find it impossible to keep up with a child or two. Or, in the case of Darryl and Wanda MacPherson, three. The 2017 chronicle of this family’s life will be especially appreciated by anyone who has children or, for that matter, ever was a child – that’s how generation-spanning it is. Darryl and Wanda are never quite able to keep up with Zoe, Hammie and Wren, but always somehow manage to come back for another dose of coping attempts – they are just like real parents, only funnier. Hammie, for instance, refuses to reuse the valentines he failed to give out in class the previous year, because they are all hearts and teddy bears and “people have come to expect more gore from me.” And when Wanda explains to Hammie that Zoe gets better grades because she tries harder in school, Hammie responds that his big sister is “not smarter, she’s just dorkier.” As for Zoe herself, she tells her brother not to “take this the wrong way, but you’re the most disgusting person in the history of the planet.” Zoe also tries so hard to kick a soccer goal that she herself flies into the net, leading her dad to say, encouragingly, “Way to lull them into a false sense of security, Zoe!” The point of Baby Blues is that just when things seem on the verge of settling down, they don’t – again, just as in real family life. One three-panel strip for 2017 shows this perfectly: Darryl and Wanda are sitting on the couch, commenting on how quiet things are because Zoe and Hammie are watching baby Wren while getting ready for bed. Wanda says “that sounds so normal,” Darryl replies that “maybe life is finally settling down around here,” and then comes the final panel – in which the three kids, drawn hilariously tied and stuck together with an everyday bathroom item, somehow make it into the living room to announce, “There’s been a flossing incident.” The incidents continue all year here and can help make all of 2017 that much brighter.
The one disadvantage to calendars featuring multi-panel strips is that the panels are small – generally no smaller than in newspapers, true, but that is quite small enough. Anyone interested in something larger may want to consider calendars featuring single-panel cartoons, one of the funniest of which is Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater. There are plenty of panels out there featuring non-recurring characters and wry takes on the world around us, but Hilburn’s work is even more offbeat than most others. Imagine, for example, hot dogs in business attire, carrying briefcases and walking toward a building in the morning, saying hello to each other: “Mornin’ Frank. Mornin’ Frank. Mornin’ Frank. Mornin’ Frank.” And so on. Can’t imagine that? No need – Hilburn has done it for you. Then there is the pregnant woman telling a man wearing scrubs that she has an appointment for a sonogram – not realizing that she has mistakenly come to the “OB-GYM,” where doctors are working out. And the quick police report showing a group of penguins, with the caption, “While assaults and violent crimes were down, once again, identity theft in the South Pole was up.” And the scene in a church for walruses, showing all the parishioners sporting double chest bandages, as the pastor says, “After last week’s incident, I’ve decided we will no longer bow our heads to pray.” And the snake cocktail party, at which a non-venomous pretender is trying to impress the lady snakes by using his tail to shake a human baby’s rattle. And then there is the scene featuring Dumbo the flying elephant caught on flypaper. You have to see it to believe it – in fact, you have to see all these panels, because it is the way the words and pictures go together that makes The Argyle Sweater such a good year-long companion.
And for those of a nostalgic bent, concerned not only about the deterioration of the newspaper industry but also about the loss of some of the great comic strips of the past, the 2017 Andrews McMeel calendar collection offers a real treat: Peanuts. Schulz died in 2000 after drawing the strip for half a century, but his concepts and characters are as fresh, funny and frequently offbeat as ever. They are cultural icons now, not just stars of the comic-strip world. And revisiting them every day for a year is a distinct pleasure. There is a strip in which Lucy makes a frightening face after Linus says he is wearing “a disarming smile,” then comments that such a smile “doesn’t stand a chance against my total-warfare frown.” There is a series in which Sally takes a crayon home from school, breaks it, and says her teacher will be furious – so she asks big brother Charlie Brown to “get me off the hook,” and when he replies that it is her problem and she should solve it, she yells, “I hate your generation!” Another series has Snoopy pretending to be a piranha – until Lucy warns that “any piranha tries to chomp me, I’ll pound him!!” Elsewhere, Snoopy has trouble figuring out Woodstock, saying the irregularly fluttering little bird is “either a lousy flyer or his blood sugar’s down.” And Charlie Brown agonizes over whether to respond to a chain letter by making copies of it by hand and mailing them to others, finally decides “to defy bad luck” and break the chain, and is immediately seen in the middle of a sudden downpour of rain. On the philosophical side, a Schulz specialty given special poignancy because the philosophers are little kids, Linus asks Sally, “Wouldn’t you like to have your life to live over if you knew what you know now?” There follows a completely silent panel of the two standing side by side – after which Sally asks, “What do I know now?” Well, one thing Peanuts fans know now, and will know every day of the coming year, is that this truly is a comic strip for the ages, one giving as much enjoyment throughout the new year as it gave when Schulz was creating it anew and afresh – indeed, one that seems just as new and fresh now as it did in the past. Whatever the eventual fate of newspapers and the comics designed for them, it seems incontrovertible that Peanuts will be around in some form well into the future – as will other strips worthy of appearing on calendars like these to brighten people’s days throughout the year.
I Don’t Want to Be Big. By Dev Petty. Illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday. $16.99.
Mouse Scouts No. 3: Camp Out. By Sarah Dillard. Yearling. $6.99.
Little things mean a lot to little people – that is, to children – and also to the little animals that serve so often as stand-ins for kids in books for young readers. The little frog who did not want to be a frog in his first book appearance (suitably titled I Don’t Want to Be a Frog) eventually realized that there are advantages to self-acceptance. He returns in I Don’t Want to Be Big with another completely-unreasonable-from-an-adult-standpoint concern: he likes his size just fine and has no interest in getting any larger. As before, Dev Petty and Mike Boldt make the little frog’s determination amusing while at the same time taking it seriously enough so human children will relate to it. Frog’s father is again required to be the voice of reason and reasonableness, for all the good it does him. His son insists he does not have to become tall, because Dad can simply carry him everywhere; does not have to grow big enough to meet the tree frogs (who, in truth, look rather overwhelming in Boldt’s two-page wordless extreme close-up view); and does not have to be able to reach high-up things as long as he has friends – such as a cooperative nearby elephant – to get them for him. Father frog’s reasonableness does little good here, and Frog’s friend Pig is not much use either: he says the best part of being big for him is that “I get the biggest pool of mud and the biggest bucket of garbage,” and that leads Frog to ask, with disarming reasonableness, “Is there anything good about being big that isn’t about mud or garbage?” Of course, Frog has to change his mind before the book ends, and he does so when his father and Pig explain that growing big does not require growing up, a statement that leads to a very messy plunge into mud for everyone, Frog’s decision that it will be all right to get big after all; and his new determination about something not to do – specifically, to take a bath. Parents will especially enjoy this lighthearted, off-the-cuff presentation of a world in which one problem solved leads immediately to the next to-be-solved one. And kids of all sizes will find Frog as amusingly silly in his second appearance as he was in his first.
Camp Out is the third mild adventure of the six Mouse Scouts, in what Sarah Dillard apparently plans as a 16-book series – there are 16 badges to be earned, shown at the end of each book. The “Wilderness Survival” badge is the aim this time, with scout leader Miss Poppy leading Violet, Tigerlily, Hyacinth, Petunia, Cricket, and Junebug on a hike into the woods. What puts these books, including Camp Out, a cut above the many other easy-to-read friends-doing-things-together chapter books for ages 7-10 (specifically for girls in this particular case), is the seamless way Dillard integrates the entertaining mouse world with useful information for the world of human kids. For instance, Camp Out includes an excerpt from The Mouse Scout Handbook called “It’s Wild Out There!” The pages correctly warn humans and mice alike against poisonous plants and possibly dangerous mushrooms – but in the latter case, they say not to climb or sit on them, which is clearly a concern focused on little mice; and a section called “Predators” warns that “foxes, snakes, and owls are known to hunt mice. Avoid these fiends at all costs!” And then the text goes on to advice that is just as good for humans – about securing food safely and not storing it in your tent. Another “handbook” section, specifically about hiking, has excellent-for-everyone rules about studying a map, watching the weather, bringing water and a snack, and never going into the wilderness alone. Dillard makes sure that errors have consequences. In Camp Out, the do-not-go-alone warning proves to be a linchpin of the plot – not because of one of the Mouse Scouts but because of Miss Poppy, who turns out to need rescuing and help from the scouts she has been leading. This produces a suitable, not-too-scary climax for a book in which other difficulties are at the mild level of homesickness and allergies. Like the two earlier Mouse Scouts books, this one concludes with pages showing the music for the Acorn Scout Song and Friendship Song, encouraging young human readers to become part of the Mouse Scouts vicariously. The character differentiation in these books is minimal and Dillard’s art, while nicely supportive of the text, is nothing special, but Camp Out, like the earlier books in this series, is nevertheless a first-rate mixture of adventure and learning for the human children in its target age range.
Little Babymouse and the Christmas Cupcakes. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $17.99.
Time Traveling with a Hamster. By Ross Welford. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
From central character to sidekick – that is the rodent road traveled between a picture book for ages 3-7 and an over-400-page novel for ages 10-14. Many adults may not think of rodents as particularly cuddly or endearing, but clearly many children do – as do plenty of authors. Babymouse, the creation of sister-and-brother team Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, has always been a charmer in elementary-school guise, as the protagonist of a series of graphic novels in which, among other things, she and the books’ narrator have some rather snarky give-and-take. Now the Holms are introducing a younger Babymouse, who at age four is already imaginative and trouble-prone and narrator-interactive. Little Babymouse and the Christmas Cupcakes starts with Babymouse eating all the Christmas cookies put out for Santa, then explaining to the mildly disapproving narrator that everyone bakes Santa cookies and that she, Babymouse, wants to make something different – maybe parfaits or tuna casserole or something. Or cupcakes! That’s the idea. So Babymouse helps her mom – making a mess, of course – and the cupcakes are left cooling while mom goes to take care of little brother Squeak. Babymouse decides to help by frosting the cupcakes, despite the narrator’s reminder that she is not supposed to touch them, and of course the kitchen is soon covered in pink frosting. Then Babymouse hears a dragon – she has asked Santa for a suit of armor in case a dragon shows up – and soon dresses herself in pots and pans and prepares to face off against the fire-breathing monster while riding boldly atop her giant squid. Giant squid? Babymouse is nothing if not inventive. A grand battle ensues, won by Babymouse with a well-placed binky (the roaring dragon, readers will quickly realize, is Babymouse’s loudly shrieking little brother); and then Babymouse celebrates by, um, eating just about all the cupcakes. By book’s end, even Santa is dismayed. But the inside back cover reveals that Babymouse does indeed get the suit of armor she wanted (from Mom and Dad) – as well as the tea set that the narrator suggested would be a more-appropriate gift (from Santa). So all ends, inevitably, happily.
There is also a happy ending in Time Traveling with a Hamster, the rather convoluted debut novel by Ross Welford, but the plot here is deucedly more complex and likely to stretch the thinking of preteens and young teenagers in some intriguing ways. The hamster, though, has a very distinctly subsidiary role: aside from having an unusual-for-a-hamster name (Alan Shearer), and helping get the plot going, it is not particularly germane to what happens. The reason it matters is that it is one of two gifts received by the book’s protagonist, a British Indian boy named Albert Einstein Hawking Chaudhury, on his 12th birthday. The other gift is what stirs the plot in ways quite clearly reflecting the central character’s name: it is a letter from Al’s father, written just days before his death when Al was eight. And the letter asks Al to save his father’s life, retrospectively, as it were, by finding the time machine – yes, time machine – that his father created (out of, as it turns out, an old Macbook, the traditional black box packed with electronics, and, amusingly, a zinc tub). Al, a solitary and rather lonely boy who is also intelligent and brave, is ideally suited to connect with readers who see themselves in him – and also ideally fit for the quest on which his father’s letter sends him. The book smacks to rather too great a degree of the Back to the Future movies, not only in plot and in features such as a mauve scooter (an obvious stand-in for the movies’ DeLorean), but also in its sometimes-uneasy mixture of light and serious narrative styles. There is some genuine thoughtfulness about the paradoxes of time travel here, though, and that renders Time Traveling with a Hamster more interesting than the usual escapist fare and may make it attractive to slightly older readers than the preteens who are general the target readers for books of this type. The writing is well-paced and age-appropriate, and the many mistakes that Al makes in trying to return to the time when his father was 12 – to prevent a portentous accident – are, within the limits of this genre, believable ones. Some elements of the book are a little odd, though, beyond the relative unimportance of the hamster, which at least makes it possible for Welford to give the novel an intriguing title. For one thing, the primary relationship in the book is not between Al and the hamster or even between Al and his father, but between Al and his grandfather, Byron, a fascinating character who immigrated to northeast England from the Punjab as a child and who is a memory expert – just the right expertise to play a crucial role in a book that, on a philosophical level, is about remembering the past and figuring out which parts of it can and cannot be changed. For another thing, Al’s father is a faintly unpleasant character: neither Byron nor Al’s mother (who has moved on with a new man, thus setting up the usual “coping with family changes” element of the plot) seems to have been particularly close to or enamored of him. In many ways, this book is about Grandpa Byron more than anyone. For example, when Al inadvertently changes the future in a failed attempt to fulfill his mission, Byron is changed the most by what has happened, and his pain is deep and real-feeling to an extent that Al’s own is not even though, after this change, Al is not even supposed to exist (Welford never explains how he does exist if his father and mother never met). Ultimately, this is a book that fits snugly in the fantasy genre and the time-travel subgenre. But it offers enough unusual twists and enough thoughtful handling of major issues (grief and loss, memory and change) to make it stand out despite some formulaic elements, unexplained occurrences, and plot creakiness. There is really not much here for rodent lovers, but there is plenty for preteen and young teenage readers to nibble on.
Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words & Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology. By Lise Lunge-Larsen. Illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Celestial Battle, Book Three: Black Jade. By Kylie Chan. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
A fascinating foray into linguistics by way of mythology, Lise Lunge-Larsen’s Gifts from the Gods, originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, is an unusual and very successful melding of storytelling with educational explanation. Lunge-Larsen takes various names of ancient Greek and Roman gods and shows, through stories, what their personalities were – then explains how their names have stayed in circulation to the present day, with meanings derived from the old beliefs about the gods and their behaviors. She introduces each story with a short quotation from a modern children’s book, in which the word that will be in focus appears. That means, for example, using Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination in connection with “fortune” and Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope to introduce “fate.” This is more than clever – it is offbeat enough to pull in readers who may know the quoted books but have not focused on the specific words that are the topic here. And the stories themselves are gripping. The chapter on “fury” starts with Gareth Hinds’ appropriately macabre illustration of the three Furies, with snakes used to fasten their robes and blood dripping from their black eyes; then explains how the Furies hounded three murderers to madness; and then discusses the modern words “infuriate,” “furious” and “furor,” whose derivation from these goddesses makes perfect sense. There is an interesting chapter on the two-faced god Janus and the way his name appears not only in “January” but also in “janitor,” and a chapter explaining that the Muses not only gave us the word “museum” but also gave us “music” and “musical.” A few elements here need more explanation than the book has room for, such as the fact that the personal spirit in which Romans believed, a Genius, was identical to what the Greeks called a Daemon – but the Roman concept came down the ages as a positive one and the Greek concept as a negative (the detailed reasons for this, relating to early Christianity, would be far too complex for this book, but a brief hint about them would have been possible). Lunge-Larsen is generally a fine storyteller – helped, to be sure, by the fact that the Greek and Roman myths are such wonderful stories. And it is both revelatory and a lot of fun to learn that, for example, the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos, gives us the word “hypnosis,” while the identical god as named by the Romans, Somnus, gives us “insomnia.” Gifts from the Gods is a fine gift of knowledge for contemporary mortal children.
Black Jade, the long-awaited conclusion of Kylie Chan’s Celestial Battle trilogy, is about a whole different set of gods and is a wholly different sort of story. It is written for adults and intended as a grand and sweeping series finale. But this (+++) novel, while a must-read for those who have already gone through Dark Serpent and Demon Child, is disappointingly bland after all the build-up that has come before. There is the requisite doom-and-gloom through much of the book’s early part, as the good guys lose and lose again and have one bad thing after another happen – but any reader will know they will triumph eventually, so this goes on too long. There are nine final chapters concerned mainly with knitting up loose ends, which makes for a rather dull, if necessary, narrative. But some crucial elements of the complex plot are simply dropped – for example, much has been made of the lost, damaged “stones,” and they are talked about at considerable length here, but Chan never says what happens to them. Emma, who narrates the book, is carried along by events rather than being a prime mover of them; this weakens the entire plot line. She does get married – twice – but she is mostly someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes them happen. There are also some tying-it-up elements that are just plain sloppy: the Eastern Demon King is eventually killed simply because he is caught off-guard by a character he has underestimated. That is an anticlimax, not a climax. Indeed, in many ways Black Jade as a whole is anticlimactic. It may have been asked to carry far too much weight: in some senses it concludes not only Celestial Battle but also the previous trilogies, Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang. And in other senses it is no conclusion at all: its final chapters open up new vistas for several characters, and it seems inevitable that Chan will spin out additional trilogies now that this one is finished. Treaties, impersonations, grand battles, one-on-one duels, politics, family issues – they are all here, and fans of Chan’s earlier books in Celestial Battle and her other series will not be disappointed in the pacing and much of the activity here (although the climaxes in general, not only that of the Eastern Demon King, tend to be on the mild side). But on balance, this is a workmanlike conclusion to an epic, not one showing much spark of inspiration – it does the job of finishing things and paving the way for the future, but lacks the sort of sit-up-and-take-notice intensity that one would hope to encounter at the end of a gigantic series of battles involving demons and gods.
Handel: Cantata—Mi Palpiti il Cor; Rameau: Cantata—Orphée; Agostino Steffani: Cantata—Guardati O Core; Giuseppe Sammartini: Sonata in B minor, Op. 1, No. 6; Telemann: Quatuor No. 3 in G from “Nouveaux Quatuors.” Dominique Labelle, soprano; Musica Pacifica (Judith Linsenberg, recorders; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; Josh Lee, viola da gamba; John Lenti, theorbo and guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.
James Matheson: String Quartet; Violin Concerto; Times Alone, for soprano and piano. Color Field Quartet (Baird Dodge and Gina Dibello, violins; Weijing Wang, viola; Yi Xin, cello); Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano. Yarlung Records. $19.99.
Michael Slayton: Fantasy and Fugue for Two Pianos & Percussion—Hommage Á Bartók; Le Soir Tombe; Sursum; Sonate “Droyßig”; Sechs Miniaturen Für Das Meer (Six Miniatures for the Sea); Dreamers’ Meadows. Navona. $14.99.
Intersections: Music of Jeffrey Jacob, Heidi Jacob, Steven Block, Sergio Cervetti and Christina Rusnak. Ansonica. $14.99.
Ars Nostra—But Now the Night: Music of Eun-Hye Park, Lewis Nelson, Gerald Chenoweth, Paul Reller and Daniel Perlongo. Sang-Hie Lee and Martha Thomas, piano duo; Kyoung Cho, soprano. Ravello. $14.99.
We tend to think of Baroque music as straitlaced, balanced and controlled, and are surprised to find examples that are anything but emotionally cool – doubly so when performers find ways to elicit the music’s underlying emotions while remaining true to Baroque style and historical performance practices. This is a tall order, but one that Musica Pacifica and soprano Dominique Labelle fill beautifully on a new Navona disc featuring three vocal and two instrumental works that have little in common except for their willingness to use Baroque structural formalities to capture emotions with unerring skill. Baroque music was far from monolithic – in particular, the German, French and Italian styles differed markedly and were sometimes seen as being in conflict with one another. The fact that works in these styles sound similar to modern ears means only that we now find their distinctiveness subtle, while Baroque audiences found it pronounced. One thing the performers here do particularly well is explore the important differences among the three cantatas (one in Italian by the German Handel, one in Italian by the Italian Steffani, and one in French by Rameau). Rameau’s work, based on the familiar Orpheus legend, is the most variegated, with nine recitatives and airs alternating to express feelings of love, loss and grace. The cantatas by Handel and the less-known Steffani (1654-1728) are more modest in scope, their five movements expressive but restrained at the same time – although Handel’s central one, the aria Ho tanti affani, is quite heartfelt. Labelle has a wonderful voice for this repertoire, clear and light but with plenty of staying power for the extended vocal displays; and the instrumental playing that backs her up is impeccable. Musica Pacifica shines on its own in the Sammartini and Telemann works that break up the succession of cantatas. Again, Baroque stylistic distinctions are much in evidence here, with Sammartini’s rather straightforward four-movement sonata being on the dark-hued side, while Telemann’s seven-movement work, with all movement titles in French, is in effect an orchestral suite scored for a smaller complement of players, and has a particularly happy balance of faster and more moderately paced movements. This is a lovely disc that bears the strong personal stamp of the performers: there is no inherent musical reason to create a CD featuring this particular grouping of material, but the musicians’ interest in exploring the emotional qualities of the compositions are more than enough rationale for the mixture.
The musical language is far more modern, but the emotional underpinnings are just as important to the works on a new Yarlung Records recording featuring music by James Matheson (born 1970). Here too there is both vocal and instrumental material, although in this case the non-vocal elements predominate. But it is the vocal work, Times Alone, that is most immediately striking. It is a setting, in English, of five surrealist poems from the 1907 collection called Soledades, galerias y otros poemas by Antonio Machado (1875-1939). The emotional progression of the poems is handled particularly adeptly by Laura Strickling and Thomas Sauer: the first three poems are on the light, even playful side, but the last two become more thoughtful, serious and introspective, and the works’ imagery is well-reflected in Matheson’s nicely proportioned settings. Like the other works here, Times Alone was recorded live in performance – and in the case of the Violin Concerto, the performance heard here was the work’s 2011 première. The concerto was written specifically for Baird Dodge, principal second violin of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he and the orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen take to the work with great gusto and a particular focus on maintaining the clarity of Matheson’s writing for soloist and ensemble alike. The concerto, in the standard three movements, makes for accessible listening and considerable virtuoso display by the soloist, although it is never quite clear what, if anything, it is trying to say. The opening movement, Caprice, is generally unsettled and has some particularly facile instrumental touches, notably a solo flute picking up a scurrying violin figuration that proves just as intriguing for a woodwind as for a stringed instrument. But the movement eventually drifts away, and the other two, which are shorter and played without pause between them, never resolve whatever question the first movement may be raising. Matheson says the slow Chaconne was inspired by the slow movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, but the comparison does Matheson no favors: he gets the darkness and angst right without the underlying, compelling emotional connection – although the orchestral bleakness here does echo some of Mahler’s. The final Dance is a rather straightforward, lively, bright showpiece for the soloist, propulsive and pleasant to hear, but existing on an altogether different plane from that of the preceding movements. Indeed, Matheson seems to front-weight his music. The longest work on this CD is a dense and strongly rhythmic String Quartet whose first movement alone takes up more than half the piece’s 34 minutes. As in the Violin Concerto, this quartet movement seems always to be on the verge of asking substantial and substantive questions without ever quite clarifying what they are. Certainly it gives a workout to the Color Field Quartet (violinist Dodge and three other soloist-quality performers), and the central section, which brings each instrument to the fore in turn, shows just how good these players are. The sad and passionate slow movement goes through the right motions in search of the right emotions, and the finale is a real display piece for all four instruments – again, as in the concerto, seeming somewhat detached from the earlier movements. Matheson is a highly interesting composer whose work genuinely seeks to reach out to audiences, and this recording is as good an introduction to (or exploration of) the forms in which he works as anyone is likely to offer. It is also a particularly handsomely produced release, with a very extended booklet packed with information and fine color photos – not a reason in and of itself to own the CD, but a particularly nice bonus for purchasers.
Matheson’s homage to Mahler is far from the only case of a modern composer looking backwards to produce something intended to communicate to a contemporary audience. A new Navona CD of the music of Michael K. Slayton is every bit as variegated as the recording of Matheson’s music, if not more so, and it opens with two movements tied explicitly to Bartók. The Fantasy and Fugue for Two Pianos & Percussion (performed by pianists Laura Berger and Jacob Rhodebeck and percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg, the four being collectively known, rather quaintly, as “Yarn/Wire”) does not directly echo pieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, but it has some of the same blend of acerbity and smoothness. Le Soir Tombe for soprano (Amy Jarman) and piano four hands (Melissa Rose and Jerome Reed) is a mildly atmospheric operatic aria. Sursum is a work for string quartet, commissioned by and here performed by the Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skærved and Mihailo Trandafilovski, violins; Clifton Harrison, viola; Neil Heyde, cello); the music seeks to emulate its title, which is Latin for “upward,” by striving toward higher notes as if in pursuit of transcendence, or perhaps evanescence. More emotionally compelling is the longest work on the disc, Sonate “Droyßig” for solo piano, which Evan Mack takes compellingly through its paces as a piece that negotiates familiar terrain – from darkness and depth through struggle to light – while also seeking to explore, impressionistically, the actual setting of the village of Droyßig in the Saxony-Anhalt area of Germany. Some of the same impressionism, also with a German accent, is offered in the series of attractive short pieces called Sechs Miniaturen Für Das Meer (Six Miniatures for the Sea), performed by Joshua McGuire on guitar and Jennifer McGuire on piano. There is nothing particularly deep or even deep-water here – among the scenes evoked are ones of fog, morning, wind, docks, and night – but these short items, each bearing a German title, are pleasantly rhythmic. The final work here is Dreamers’ Meadows, a piano quartet featuring the Atlantic Ensemble (Wei Tsun Chang, violin; Seanad Dunigan Chang, viola; Kirsten Cassel Greer, cello; Jennifer McGuire, piano). Here the impressionism is somewhat strained – the work relates to hiking trails in West Virginia – but the three movements are well-constructed. The finale, Tramontaine, makes a suitably upbeat conclusion for this (+++) disc, on which the piano sonata is considerably more gripping than the rest of the material.
A couple of new (+++) anthology CDs, from Ansonica and Ravello respectively, also offer well-made music that does not sustain interest at the same level throughout – but certainly does so intermittently. Intersections is a further exploration of the cross-cultural attractions made possible by rapprochement between the United States and Cuba – the same area explored, rather more consistently, on an earlier release called Abrazo. Those who enjoyed the previous issue will be prime candidates for this one, which offers similar cross-pollination of stylistic, harmonic and rhythmic musical elements. Jeffrey Jacobs is solo pianist in a performance of his Awakening for Piano and Orchestra, backed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba conducted by Enrique Pérez Mesa. Essentially a concert overture built around a lyrical melody, the piece also features bell sounds throughout that provide contrast with the flowing warmth of the primary melodic elements. The piano material is less interesting than the orchestral, having a distinct sound of lounge music. Untouched by Morning, Untouched by Noon by Heidi Jacob is a suite of eight short movements for bass clarinet (Aiden Ortuño Cabeza), trumpet (Yasek Manzano Silva), trombone (Marisel González Valdés), baritone (Brian Church), and piano (Charles Abramovic). It starts with percussive sounds like those of the finger-snapping in West Side Story and continues through various strongly jazz-inflected gestures to a surprisingly gentle final movement with the ambiguous-in-this-context title of Distratta. Steven Block’s Puttin’ It Together, for drum set (Abiel Chea Guerra), alto saxophone (Jorge Sergio Ramírez Prieto), tenor and soprano saxophones (Carlos Alejandro Gonzales Guerra), and two double basses (Rubén Gonzales López and Liset Toppe Benítez), offers a clear melding of American jazz with Cuban music, including Cuba’s own version of jazz. The work is well-conducted by Enrique Pérez Mesa – it is complex enough to need a conductor – and makes an interesting juxtaposition with And the Huddled Masses by Sergio Cervetti, in which Pérez Mesa conducts an ensemble consisting of clarinet (Alden Ortuño Cabezas), two violins (Leonardo Pérez Baster and Luis Alberto Mariño Fernández), and cello (Lester Monier Serrano). Both Block’s work and Cervetti’s have clear political purposes, with Cervetti’s being more direct in its focus on the hopefulness of immigration to the United States (from Cuba and elsewhere: Cervetti himself moved to the U.S. from Uruguay). Strictly as music, Cervetti’s three-movement piece – the longest work on this CD – is more heartfelt and emotionally trenchant. The disc concludes with two choral works by Christina Rusnak, sung by Ensemble Vocal Luna conducted by Sandra Santos González. Both Dearly Beloved and Dearly Departed – the pairing is rather over-obvious – are intended to convey a sense of hope for Cuba’s future in a repaired relationship with the United States. Both are well-meaning, but neither is especially memorable despite some nicely balanced choral writing.
The anthology called Ars Nostra—But Now the Night is held together, to the extent that it holds together at all, by the fact that all the music here is for piano duo. The target listenership seems to be duo pianists, or people simply wanting to hear the sound of two pianos rather than one as an aural exploration of what can be done with 176 keys instead of 88. The first work here, Chera in Nain (A Widow in Nain) (2009) by Eun-Hye Park, includes narration by soprano Kyoung Cho, but its primary content is percussive keyboard contributions that seem to exist independently of the words. The remaining pieces here involve only the pianists. Aber Jetzt Die Nacht (2013) by Lewis Nielson starts as an overlong exploration of dissonance and turns into an overlong use of modernistic techniques such as hitting the piano’s case and playing the strings inside the instrument. There is nothing genuinely new here – just a veneer of contemporaneity. Celestial Phenomena (2008) by Gerald Chenoweth is more intriguing in its exploration of Big Bang, Starshine, Black Hole and Night Sky—Dawn, but its use of two pianos rather than one seems arbitrary for most of the effects it produces (although its very beginning certainly has more clout on two instruments than it would on a single piano). Sonata for Two Pianos (2008) by Paul Reller is another of the innumerable contemporary compositions that seek to find something unusual in combining rhythms and stylistic elements from jazz, rock and pop music within a classical or pseudo-classical form. The stop-and-start nature of the music and its repeated forays into dissonance are less impressive than its occasional calmer moments. The final work here, Windhover for Piano Duo (2009) by Daniel Perlongo, has more calm, even lyrical moments than does Reller’s work and is less afraid to venture into tonality. As a result, it sounds less self-consciously “with-it” than the other works and more like a piece that seeks to reach out to an audience beyond that of pianists. The precise nature of the reaching-out is never quite clear, however, and the work ultimately comes across as more gestural than explicatory. Still, it is one of the highlights of a CD that features first-rate pianism in the service of music that, however well-constructed, generally seems to lack any powerful communicative reason for being.
October 13, 2016
The Magic Word. By Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Elise Parsley. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Dinosaurs in Disguise. By Stephen Krensky. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Everyone knows that “the magic word” when a child wants something is “please.” Everyone, that is, except Paxton C. Heymeyer, star of a hilariously offbeat “what if kids ruled the world?” jaunt by Mac Barnett and Elise Parsley. The scene opens in a super-messy living room, with Paxton jumping up and down on one end of the sofa, his toys scattered everywhere, while a bored and oblivious babysitter reclines on the sofa’s other end, reading a magazine. Paxton wants a cookie, but when the babysitter tells him to say the magic word, Paxton decides, for some unknown reason, to ask, “Can I have a cookie, ALAKAZOOMBA?” And – well, it turns out that that really is the magic word, because Paxton not only gets a cookie instantly but also, much to the babysitter’s annoyance, uses the word again to ask for another cookie – and gets it. And a glass of milk. And “a walrus that will chase the babysitter up to the North Pole” after her annoyance erupts into one of those familiar “I’m going to count to three” moments. Yes, Paxton conjures up a North-Pole-bound walrus. He has really latched onto something here – and Parsley’s illustrations, which use perspective in highly striking and imaginative ways to convey the drama and amusement of Barnett’s hilarious story, show just what happens when the walrus shows up. Paxton certainly thinks big. By the time his parents return home, he has created a giant swimming pool in the living room, complete with waterslide, and when his parents are more than a wee bit annoyed, Paxton realizes that there are plenty of walruses around. Soon he is on his own again, happily munching cookies in a room that features a drum set, a couple of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank, a Segway, a big piece of modern art based on the first half of his name (“PAX”), and more. And “the next morning he got right to work,” Barnett explains, while Parsley shows the modest home at 23 Larch sprouting all sorts of Paxton-focused rooms and extensions and slides and flags and a roller coaster and – oh, it is all just too marvelous for words. Then Paxton, whose robot chef brings him cookies on demand, gets a visit from his friend Rosie, who is brought in by the butler just as Paxton and his elephant are playing in the pool. Rosie, however, is unimpressed, telling Paxton he is a terrible host, and Paxton certainly cannot stand for that in “his very own castle with a helipad and pink-lemonade moat.” One walrus later, Paxton is by himself yet again, but – well, at a certain point a surfeit of everything perfect becomes merely a surfeit, and Paxton is at that point. He brings everyone back – his parents’ and Rosie’s bemused expressions are nothing compared with the babysitter’s explosive one – and Paxton apologizes, realizing that there is no magic word to make Rosie accept the apology. As she explains, “You just have to mean it.” He does, and she forgives him, and all is fine. OK, almost fine. The babysitter is having none of this sweetness-and-light ending, and Paxton has not really reformed, at least not all the way, and – well, let’s just say that the walruses have the last word. And that word is ALAKAZOOMBA.
There are no magic words in Stephen Krensky’s Dinosaurs in Disguise, but there is something magical in the book’s concept – and in the very funny drawings by Lynn Munsinger. The little boy who narrates the book explains that he just doesn’t accept the notion that all the dinosaurs died out long ago “after something really big crashed here from space.” No, he says, dinos ruled Earth for so long that he is absolutely sure “they could survive one fiery blast” – and in his imagination, the boy is riding atop a Triceratops as it and many other dinosaurs, running in a distinctly human-looking way and with human-looking expressions, flee the dangerous celestial visitor. The boy figures that what happened scared the dinosaurs so much that they went into hiding and “stayed hidden once some strange new creatures showed up” – and here Munsinger shows a bewigged, garment-and-boot-wearing T. rex helping a little caveboy figure out that a wheel really ought to be round, not square or triangular. “Hiding soon became a habit,” the boy narrator explains, on a page featuring laugh-out-loud portrayals of dinos as the Sphinx, a pyramid and a camel. The boy is quite sure that he can find dinosaurs here and there if he only looks closely enough – and Munsinger offers, among other disguises, one dino dressed as Santa Claus and another as the Statue of Liberty. The boy says he would really like to show dinosaurs all the conveniences of the modern world, including drive-up takeout food, supermarkets packed with good things to eat, cars to use to go visiting, buses and airplanes for longer trips, and TV and snacks for “just relaxing at home.” The pictures showing dinos fitting in (more or less) to the modern world are just wonderful – until they are not, as the boy realizes that contemporary society might make them uncomfortable (and Munsinger shows dinos struggling with everything from traffic to cell phones). Maybe, after all, this isn’t the right time for dinosaurs to reveal themselves to the modern world, the boy concludes. Maybe it is best they stay hidden for now – although he wants them to know, as the book’s final words put it, that “their secret is safe with me.” And there is the boy, cuddled in bed, sleeping peacefully with the stuffed dinosaur he carries everywhere and surrounded by a bevy of actual dinos cuddling him, standing nearby (disguised as a lamp), lying underneath the bed (and raising it well off the floor), and so on. A charmingly imaginative story, Dinosaurs in Disguise is sure to be a hit with dino-loving children – although parents should be prepared to explain that dinosaurs really are gone, no matter how many inventive and ingenious ways kids can come up with to explain that they must still be around somewhere.
Big Nate: Revenge of the Cream Puffs. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Cat vs Human: Fairy Tails. By Yasmine Surovec. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Some cartoonists have come up with characters whose adventures seem to unfold naturally, so carefully have the characters’ personalities been established over the years. Big Nate and his friends in Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate comic strip are just everyday sixth-graders with few outlandish elements in their lives – the cats and dogs in the strip may not be totally realistic, but they do not talk or fly, and there are no supernatural characters or occurrences driving the action. Instead, the strip’s humor evolves naturally from the characters’ personalities and the kids’ interactions among themselves and, in particular, with Nate. There is nothing new in this approach to cartooning – Walt Kelly perfected it decades ago, and it even predates his unequalled Pogo – but Peirce uses this storytelling form particularly well, so that the episodes unfold in ways that seem inevitable. In the latest Big Nate collection, for example, Nate’s admiration for Brad Linsky, the artist who draws Nate’s own favorite comic, “Femme Fatality,” leads naturally to Nate wanting to use better materials for his own cartooning endeavors (which, unfortunately, get short shrift in this book and even within this specific sequence). Nate’s desire for self-improvement – which is at best intermittent, but does show up in this specific area – leads him to ask his feckless father to provide “a super heroine-ish nude model or two” for an anatomy study, and to discover that professional drawing tools are a lot harder to use than he thought. In another set of strips, Kim Cressly, the large and aggressive girl who has a crush on Nate – much to his annoyance – discovers that she has a bigger crush on the even larger and even more aggressive Chester Budrick, one of those comic-strip characters who are never seen but whose effects are quite apparent (an approach recalling Charles Schulz’ handling of adults in Peanuts). Elsewhere, Nate hatches one of his usual over-ambitious plans, this time to make a movie that will bring in as much money as The Hunger Games, and this means he recruits plump and gentle Chad to be transformed into a fearless warrior – although Chad would prefer to spend his time playing with “Andy the Acorn” and “Mr. Mushroom.” There is more to Chad than appears on the surface, as Peirce makes clear in a sequence in which Chad is the only remaining player on Nate’s unfortunately named Cream Puffs baseball team who can pitch, and manages to surprise everyone, including Nate, by winning the Little League championship game. None of these sequences is especially notable in terms of plot – what makes them work is the way they revolve around Nate, depend on his personality for their effect, and deepen Peirce’s development of his character. Peirce (pronounced “purse”) gives the supporting cast plenty of personality as well, but most of the non-Nate characters are comparatively one-dimensional: Nate’s friend Francis is a typical fact-spouting nerd; Nate’s older sister, Ellen, is a thoroughly typical foil for Nate, being as responsible and hardworking as Nate is lazy and inclined to cut corners; Nate’s rival, Gina, is the annoying school know-it-all; and so on. Nate himself, though, for all his lack of self-awareness and inflated sense of self-importance, has some genuine intelligence and ability beneath all the bluster – the way he beats Gina at chess in this latest collection is a perfect example. Walt Kelly once said that Pogo was the glue holding the Pogo strip together. In Peirce’s Big Nate, Nate is more like the sun around which all the other characters revolve – although it would be overdoing things to say that Nate casts light on the others in the strip. Heat, maybe, but not light.
The central characters in Yasmine Surovec’s Web comic, Cat versus Human, are cats – well, duh. Humans are never the primary focus of a “versus” sort of comic. Surovec’s cartoon world is filled with the many-faceted perfections of felines – the opposite, in this way, of Nate’s world, since Nate is afraid of cats and constantly tries (unsuccessfully) to show that dogs are better. Unsurprisingly, the felines are the stars in Surovec’s collection, Cat vs Human: Fairy Tails, in which humans exist primarily to admire, feed, care for and dote on cats – making these stories not all that unlike the real world. In this version of “Rapunzel,” for instance, there is no witch – how Rapunzel got into the tower is never mentioned – and the prince who climbs up is looking for his cats, which he and Rapunzel take back to his castle so everyone can live purringly ever after. In “Goldilocks,” the title character is a cat looking for a place to sleep and finding all the bears’ beds unsatisfactory – ending up happily resting in a cardboard box instead. “The Princess and the Pea” is another sleep story – the crown-wearing cat can finally fall asleep after finding the pea under a pile of pillows and eating it. “The Pied Piper” in this version gets the rats out of town and, after the chintzy mayor refuses payment, gets even by taking away all the town’s cats – so of course the rats return. “The Little Mermaid” wants to live on land and play with kitties – which turn out to be mer-cats, so she is unhappy until one comes back on land to stay with her. The prince in “The Sleeping Beauty” fails to wake the title character with a kiss and leaves in a huff, declaring the whole story “a waste of time,” but a kitty’s kiss awakens the princess successfully and proves that the cat is “her true love.” The variations on classic fairy tales here are predictable and in most cases mildly humorous, but the (+++) book will be fun for cat lovers – although of no real interest to anyone else. Surovec’s art is simple to the point of being simplistic, and while it is pleasant enough, it fits somewhat better on the Internet than between the pages of a book, where its lack of detail and much-simplified renderings and colors are appealing enough on first reading but do not invite many return visits. Cats have been Internet video sensations pretty much forever, and still are, but not everything feline translates perfectly (much less purrfectly) to the printed page.
Jubilee. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
Moo. By Sharon Creech. Harper. $16.99.
Some authors of books for preteens specialize in novels designed to evoke tears, an overall feeling of warmth, and a kind of gentle catharsis that comes from the protagonists learning something about themselves through events that readers may never experience but to which they can relate. For Patricia Reilly Giff and Sharon Creech, if the books can also include some sort of special feature, such as typography changes or illustrations integrated into the stories, so much the better. Jubilee fits this pattern perfectly. It invites readers to find it “touching” and “heartwarming” – typical adjectives for typical books of this type – through its story of a girl who stopped talking after her mother left her when the girl was small; who communicates through gestures and drawings; and who, eventually and inevitably, regains the power of speech. Despite the summary’s gloomy sound, this is really a book of pervasive happiness – in small things if not large ones (until the end, anyway). The protagonist, Judith, is cherished by the wonderful adults around her (they are all wonderful) and has as perfect a relationship with her dog, Dog, as with her Aunt Cora and the other humans here. There is a great deal of scene-setting intended to show the delights of living amid the everyday wonders of nature. The difficulties, so serious to Judith (who narrates the book), are much milder than in many books for preteens: there is no violence and little high-level angst, although there is, of course, the underlying mystery of why Judith stopped talking when her mother left – was it something Judith did then, or thinks she did? To the extent that there is any drama here, it lies in Judith’s departure from the small special classroom she has been schooled in, which is on an island off the Maine coast, and the need for her to establish some sort of communication within a mainstream fifth-grade class. Ultimately, the book is all about acceptance – Judith’s acceptance of difficult or bad choices in others’ lives (including her own and her mother’s); Judith’s acceptance of her inability to speak and the sounds and visuals she uses instead to communicate (her drawings, peppered throughout the book, include everything from cartoonish stick figures to greeting-card-like cuteness); the adults’ acceptance of Judith just as she is, which seems very easy for them; and so on. Judith’s care for Dog, who was abandoned, clearly parallels the adults’ concern for Judith herself, and indeed, everything here is designed to relate to everything else with the sort of sweetness and warmth so dear to authors of tearjerkers. The events in Giff’s book never approach the tragic, although the novel is steeped in pathos; and the natural setting, including the evocation of the Maine countryside, is as positive as the personalities of every single grown-up in Judith’s world. The kernel of the message here is spoken by Judith’s mother when Judith finally finds her: “Don’t worry about anything. We’ll work it all out.” Actually, there is never any doubt of that from the very beginning of Jubilee: it is the kind of book in which it is certain from the very first that everyone will work everything out.
Moo is a bit less even-tempered, and even includes a sort-of-tragic twist toward the end (readers of Creech’s other books will see it coming: this sort of thing is part of her style). Here the special visuals are in the form of words typeset to indicate their meaning: “vibrating” has its letters at varying positions above and below the main line of text, “drip” is set vertically as if the letters are dripping, and so on. Some readers will find that this affectation wears thin quickly; others will accept the approach as integral to the storytelling. Much of the tale is in blank verse, and there is plenty of white space on many pages – this is, like Jubilee, a very easy book to read in one sitting. Also like Jubilee, it is set in Maine, which seems for both Giff and Creech to have the attraction of a distant and wondrous land where life is tied closely to nature and the everyday pace is a slow and steady one. “Little changes, day by day,” as Moo narrator Reena puts it at one point, are the stuff of life here – for Reena; her brother, Luke; their parents, who have moved to Maine specifically to get away from city life; and Mrs. Falala, the stereotypically cranky elderly neighbor whose stubborn cow Reena and Luke help prepare for a show. The story is basically as sweet as it is clichéd, leading to an eventual climax explicitly designed to tug at readers’ hearts. Of course the city kids must learn about country and farm life, and of course they must adapt to the way animals are handled Down East, and of course there is a touch of quirkiness in the characters (especially cantankerous-but-with-a-heart-of-gold Mrs. Falala, in case that was not clear from her name), and of course by the end the young people are sadder and wiser and more in touch with their caring side. Designed from the start to be touching, Moo is just that for readers who can ignore its many formulaic elements and the occasional plot points that go awry or never go anywhere (such as the virtual absence of attention to the farm animals other than the cow). The book is low-key throughout, the setting is as important here as it is in Jubilee, and Moo will be an easy and pleasant read for kids who are interested in yet another story of yet another family trying to adjust to yet another new set of circumstances and to learn in yet another way about their own innermost cares and concerns.
Not Quite Black and White. By Jonathan Ying. Illustrations by Victoria Ying. Harper. $14.99.
Thankfulness to Color. By Zoë Ingram. Harper. $15.99.
Cleverly conceived but drifting a bit away from its central premise, Not Quite Black and White, by the brother-and-sister team of Jonathan and Victoria Ying, starts out as a delightful way to show young readers about colors. The Yings’ idea is to take animals known to be black and white and introduce splotches of color when portraying them. So an anthropomorphic, cartoonish zebra, walking on two legs and carrying a basket of flowers, is shown wearing a pink-polka-dotted skirt. A scene of penguins includes one in yellow boots. A Dalmatian puppy sports a bright red cape. So far, so good in the illustrations – although there is already a bit of strain in the text, with the book’s very first entry reading, “Most zebras wear stripes, but this one does not./ She much prefers dressing in pink polka dot.” That really ought to be “dots” – the verbiage needs some added thought here. But putting that aside, the choice of animals starts to come a bit unglued after a while. Skunks in blue bathing suits are fine, but a half-black, half-white llama? Even when it is wearing a brown scarf, that coloration is more than a bit of a stretch. A black-and-white tiger? Well, it could be, although even young children surely know that tigers are normally black and orange. But then, all of a sudden, we get a horse (dressed as a traffic-control officer). There could be a black-and-white horse, but choosing that animal for this color scheme is less than obvious. The approach works for a panda and is justifiable for a cow and a kitten – cows and cats can be many colors – but a badger? Well, it is true that their heads are black-and-white, and that is all readers see here (this badger is wearing a spacesuit and posing on the moon) – but the choice of this animal in this specific color combination just seems rather strained. And right after showing the badger, the Yings change the tone of the book, trying to make a societal comment at the end by saying “we’re each pretty special, not quite black and white.” Well, that is an admirable sentiment, surely, but it is out of keeping with the rest of the book, which suddenly switches from amusing ways to illustrate colors to social commentary. However well-intentioned this conclusion may be, it is jarring. Kids will enjoy the portrayal of the various animals, even if they may need the specifics of the coloration explained to them, but the book’s conclusion, like the use of “dot” rather than “dots” for the text’s initial rhyme, just makes it seem that the Yings are trying a little too hard in their first picture book.
Black-and-white illustrations are the centerpiece of a whole series of beautifully designed coloring books by Zoë Ingram, and Thankfulness to Color fits right into the Ingram parade. It is not, however, quite as enjoyable as other Ingram books in the same format – an approach that includes highly detailed black-and-white pictures (digitally scanned and enhanced after Ingram initially draws them in pen), with quotations or statements relating to the book’s theme on most pages. Thankfulness to Color is more limited than other Ingram books because it is tied so obviously to the Thanksgiving season, even though its subtitle, “Gratitude to live and color by,” makes it seem to be connected to the whole year. Many of the chosen quotations here, though, lack the attractiveness of those in other Ingram books, being on the pedestrian side. “Rest and be thankful. – William Wordsworth.” “My thanksgiving is perpetual. – Henry David Thoreau.” And the words from Ingram herself do not even try to go beyond the straightforward: “There is always something to be thankful for,” “Give thanks,” “Be kind,” “Be thoughtful,” and so on. The to-be-colored pages here are as carefully crafted as always, featuring a wide variety of leaves, fruits and vegetables, flowers, butterflies, and geometric designs, many of them being very pointedly seasonal. A lattice-topped pie on one page, for example, goes with a George Bernard Shaw quotation on the facing page: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Thankfulness to Color is a pleasant enough book, and one that fans of Ingram’s intricate art – which always looks good even before color is added – will like. It is, however, a more thematically and seasonally limited book than some of her others, and families will likely enjoy it most if they find a way to use it as a harbinger of Thanksgiving or an element of their celebration of the holiday itself.
Out of the Shadows: Rediscovered American Art Songs. Lisa Delan, soprano; Kevin Korth, piano; Matt Haimovitz, cello. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Richard Danielpour: Songs of Solitude; War Songs; Toward the Splendid City. Thomas Hampson, baritone; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Let Me Fly: A Celebration of American Choral Music. University of South Dakota Chamber Singers conducted by David Holdhusen. Navona. $14.99.
Aidan Andrew Dun: Honeyland. Adan Andrew Dun, spoken poetry; Lucie Rejchrtová, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Cadence: New Works for Voices in Verse by David Kirtley, Joanne D. Carey, Timothy Kramer and Christopher J. Hoh. Navona. $14.99.
It is always a pleasure to rediscover first-quality lost music – or music that has been misplaced, if not exactly lost. And that is just what the performers have done on a new PentaTone release offering 31 songs by 10 American composers of both the recent and more-distant past. One of the most affecting works here, and the longest single song, is the only original composition by a living composer on the disc. And interestingly, the material may be familiar to listeners even though the song itself probably is not. This is A Letter from Sullivan Ballou by John Kander (born 1927), whose text is a letter used by Ken Burns in his widely watched documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Kander gives the lengthy and deeply moving letter a straightforward yet evocative setting, allowing the words – in which Ballou expresses both his deepest love of family and his equally heartfelt love of country – to flow freely and to evoke listeners’ feelings effectively, without any knowledge of Ballou himself being necessary. Ballou was a Union Army officer from Rhode Island who was killed at age 32 at the battle called First Manassas by the South and First Bull Run by the North. His letter – found in his effects after he died – anticipates his likely death and places it in both a personal context and a societal one. The writing is eloquent in its straightforwardness and is not that of an uneducated man: Ballou was a lawyer and politician. Kander’s song and Ballou’s words are all the more touching at a time when the United States is so riven by 21st-century divisions – some of which trace back to Ballou’s time and even before. Other living composers are also represented in very fine performances on this release – although their works are arrangements of existing material, not entirely new songs. David Garner (born 1954) contributes Auld Lang Syne in an arrangement for soprano, cello and piano; Gordon Getty (born 1933) offers Shenandoah for the same forces; and Jack Perla (born 1959) proffers Home, Sweet Home in a similar arrangement. The remaining works on this recording – all of them performed with very considerable sensitivity and attunement to the composers’ expressive intensions – are groups or song cycles. There are six selected songs by Paul Nordoff (1909-1977) and three by Randall Thompson (1899-1984), the four Blue Mountain Ballads by Paul Bowles (1910-1999), seven Songs of Love and Longing by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), Songs on Four Poems by e.e. cummings by John Duke (1899-1984), and Three Songs of Adieu by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) – one of the best-known composers here, whose songs immediately precede Kander’s Ballou setting in a way that both leads into it effectively and gives it well-thought-out context. A number of the works here are première recordings or premières using a female voice, but the attractiveness of the release lies less in what has or has not been recorded before than in the overall high quality of all the settings and performances, and the skill with which the various composers evoke emotions of many kinds, each of them heartfelt in its own way.
A new Naxos recording of music by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) includes two extended song cycles that are both world première recordings and that show yet another first-rate American composer turning thoughts and compositional skills to matters fraught with considerable emotional resonance. Danielpour’s five War Songs (2008) actually have a strong connection with Kander’s setting of Ballou’s letter: Danielpour here sets five texts by Walt Whitman, whose Civil War activities and poems are well-known, the most popular of them being the most conventional, O Captain! My Captain! That is not one of the poems chosen by Danielpour, and for good reason: although the words in War Songs are by Whitman and the cycle was written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Danielpour’s motivation for writing the music was a conflict of the 21st century: the Iraq War, and the young men and women whose lives it claimed. Thomas Hampson, whose Hampsong Foundation commissioned War Songs, performs the music with just the right blend of evenness and emotional intensity, and the effect of the final and longest song, Come Up from the Fields Father, which lasts half the length of the whole cycle, is especially affecting here. The accompaniment by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero is nuanced and subtle throughout, fitting the music very well indeed. Hampson and Guerrero are also well-teamed for Songs of Solitude (2002), yet another of the many, many works written as a response to the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001. Danielpour manages to make his evocative six-song cycle stand out, however, because here as in War Songs, he chooses texts not directly related to the events that inspired the composition but fitting them closely and often in surprising ways. The poems here are by William Butler Yeats, and again it is the longest song of the cycle, The Second Coming, that comes across with greatest intensity and seems most strongly related to the overall theme (although here the climactic song is the penultimate one, before Epilogue). The CD concludes with the only work on it that has been recorded before, Toward the Splendid City (1992), an orchestral portrait of New York – again, something that has been done innumerable times, by many composers. Danielpour’s distinctiveness here comes from a somewhat acerbic take on the city, which, on the basis of this music, he seems to find fascinating, even enthralling, but scarcely an always-positive place to experience even in the decade before the terrorist murders.
The songs are far more straightforward on a new Navona CD called Let Me Fly, which highlights the exceptional quality of the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers under David Holdhusen. The 18 works here collectively create a pleasing mixture of the secular and the sacred, albeit with some slightly jarring transitions from one to the other. James Erb’s version of Shenandoah on this disc makes a very interesting contrast with Gordon Getty’s, since the original lyrics are the words of a man, while Getty gives the song to a female voice and Erb arranges it for chorus. The simple harmonic beauty of the song stands out in each case. Other traditional pieces – especially Dixie (arranged by Norman Luboff) and Go, Tell It on the Mountain (arranged by Stacey Gibbs) – are also especially attractive as handled by the 40-member South Dakota chorus. Stephen Chatman’s setting of the World War I song, In Flanders Fields, is also very emotive. But there is lighter material here as well, including a kind of crossover-to-pop song, Someplace by Jocelyn Hagen, and Ward Swingle’s pleasant and lively arrangement of Country Dances. It would be exaggerating to say that there is profundity in these choral works, but there is certainly emotion, considerable pathos if little tragedy, and many opportunities for this well-balanced, well-conducted choral ensemble to show its ability to handle American works ranging from folk and gospel material to light and bouncy fare.
Matters are considerably more rarefied and intellectual – and less emotionally telling – on a (+++) Ravello CD featuring poetry written and spoken by Aidan Andrew Dun. This is material that strives to show how offbeat (sometimes literally) and unusual it is, insisting that it is special rather than showing how special it is in a more-modest way. Dun tends to draw attention to himself to a greater extent than to his poetry, wanting to emphasize to the audience how poetic he is through titles such as Her Feet as Two White Swans and Invitation to the Golden Quatrain. In striving for a new way to present material – for reasons that are never particularly clear – Dun comes up with something akin to old-fashioned melodrama (words spoken over music) with an overlay of Sprechstimme. Essentially, what he does is to recite words over keyboard accompaniment that, despite the more-than-dutiful playing of Lucie Rejchrtová, has a distinctly subsidiary role that often involves simply repeating rhythmic material again and again – although Rejchrtová’s periodic use of electronic enhancements is occasionally intriguing. Dun’s expressiveness is quite conventional as poetry (“the sadness of my disconnection,” “the heaviness radiates out of my disenchanted being,” “monstrous stratifications of ugliness,” etc.), although some of his evocations of specific places or states of being come through tellingly (Insomnia, for example). This is not so much a recording of music as it is a spoken-word poetry disc whose appeal will be exclusively to those who find Dun’s verbiage attractive and his emoting convincing.
A (+++) Navona anthology CD called Cadence is also of limited appeal – although in this case, the inclusion of material by four composers with some significant differences in style increases the likelihood that listeners not already familiar with the material will find at least some of it congenial. Certainly there is poetry on this disc that is far more involving than Dun’s rather maundering work: poems by William Blake and Carl Sandburg are among those set by the composers here. However, the fact that these poets’ works are well-known and have often been set to music before puts a high burden on contemporary composers’ use of the material – a burden borne here with varying degrees of success. Joanne D. Carey offers sophisticated settings of Blake’s The Lamb (performed by the Stanbery Singers under Paul Stanbery) and The Tyger (performed by Vox Futura under Andrew Shenton), but Blake’s mysticism and use of straightforward language to communicate multifaceted and multilayered concepts does not meld particularly well with Carey’s dissonances and insistent rhythms. As for Sandburg, five of his works are set by Christopher J. Hoh in a cycle, is also performed by the Stansbery ensemble, called Remembering All: Five Sandburg Poems. Here the music is generally fairly effective at elucidating or underlining the emotions of the words to Joy, Monotone, Under the Harvest Moon, I Sang and Follies. The existential simplicity of the works’ settings is nicely reflected in music that, even at its most upbeat, retains a veneer of lyricism that fits the material well. The five Haiku Songs of Karigane by David Kirtley are set in a way that is not always in accord with the material but sometimes manages to deepen it. Kaoru Karigane’s haiku follow the familiar syllabification of these three-line miniatures, and soprano Jennifer Bird and pianist Mutsumi Moteki together extract a sense of open sparseness from the material as Kirtley sets it. But there is rather a lot of openness here, with three of the five settings lasting more than four minutes apiece and the others two minutes each. The compression of thoughts that makes the haiku form so distinctive is here subsumed within pieces that spin out long piano lines – sometimes not even lines but singular, distinct notes that just happen to occur one after the other – in a way quite foreign to the underlying form and intent of the poetry. On the other hand, some of the poems’ implicit lyricism is here made explicit, and that results in occasional instances of quite striking warmth and beauty, even though the cycle as a whole does seem vastly overextended. Interestingly, the shortest work on the CD, Lux Aeterna by Timothy Kramer, produces some of the emotional impact of haiku even though the words (sung by the Kühn Choir conducted by Marek Vorlíček) represent only part of a traditional Mass. Kramer’s harmonies are not consonant in an old-fashioned sense, but neither are they self-consciously dissonant; and the composer’s sense of the meaning of individual words leads him to emphasize them convincingly without appearing to overdo their message. This work shows that however up-to-date a setting may be, it is likely to have the greatest impact if it stays as true to the spirit of the material as composers of yesteryear strove to do.