January 18, 2018
Sparks! By Ian Boothby. Art by Nina Matsumoto. Color by David Dedrick. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
The Word Collector. By Peter H. Reynolds. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Start with a sentient Litter Box, and add – wait a minute. Adding anything to that start would seem ridiculous. And that is just what you get in Sparks! The story is ridiculous, with silliness piled on silliness and absurdity on absurdity, but Ian Boothby paces it so well and Nina Matsumoto illustrates it in so picture-perfect a manner that the graphic novel becomes a genuine page-turner and one heck of a lot of fun. Boothby throws just about every possible silliness into Sparks! Litter Box is the narrator. The story revolves around two cats who, thanks to a series of diabolical experiments, find they can perform heroic rescues as long as they do so from within a mechanical dog suit – because no one would believe that cats would bother to help humans, you know? The diabolical experiments are done by a couple of human-shaped aliens who are the servants of a powerful alien princess who looks exactly like a wide-eyed, adorable, diaper-wearing, cuteness-personified baby. The experiments cause August, the genius cat inventor of the suit, to become, you know, a genius, but the suit requires August to be in the back half operating the controls while a fearless pilot steers the thing from the front. That would be Charlie, the other freed-from-alien-captivity-and-experimentation cat. Unfortunately, a side effect of what has happened to the cats is that August is deathly afraid of going outdoors at all and doubly deathly afraid of ever touching the grass. And there’s more! There is an ambitious and completely wrongheaded reporter from “Channel 7 News” named Denise Denford, who keeps barely missing the “dog” rescues and therefore concludes that the “dog” is causing chaos rather than preventing harm; and there is another completely wrongheaded character, named Steve-o, who happens to be a squirrel and who is in league with the aliens – not because he is really bad but because he is wearing a helmet tuned to his DNA that forces him to do what Princess commands, which is invariably something evil. Princess has other ways of enforcing her demands, with most of those ways involving pain: her henchthings wear “pain pants” that she activates periodically, and when they question her, she gives them a “pain cookie” to eat. Princess has a “control ray” that makes Earth creatures obey her, and it works just fine on humans, but for some never-explained reason, she wants to use it on animals and have animals turn against human beings because that is, well, what she wants. Even her henchcreatures don’t quite understand this, but they don’t dare question anything she says – because when they eventually do turn against her, they end up as puddles of goo. Well, none of this makes a lick (ha, ha) of sense, and none of it has to, because it is so entertainingly ridiculous as to be ridiculously entertaining. And Boothby and Matsumoto are fortunate indeed to have David Dedrick as a colorist, because the colors he chooses for all the scenes and all the characters work just perfectly – especially when it comes to the adorably huge-blue-eyed, pink-wearing evil baby. And the robotic Litter Box is a real hoot, being the one who insists he will help August and Charlie don their special suit only if they “yell something cool like, CANINE CONFIGURATION COMMENCE!” This is quite a step up from being used to feed the experimental animals and offering to let them poop in him if necessary – which is how things start for Litter Box. Princess eventually gets her comeuppance, which is more like “go-uppance” (into a spaceship); but whether she returns for a sequel or Sparks (the “dog” operated by the two cats) returns for close encounters of a different kind, readers will certainly be hungry for more of the special kind of silliness here. Fans, follow further feline foolery!
Words and pictures blend far more modestly in Peter H. Reynolds’ The Word Collector, but the illustrations here give the story more heart and more of a whimsical twist than it would otherwise have. It is the tale of a boy named Jerome who, unlike kids who collect coins, rocks or art, collects words. Bushels of them. He collects ones that catch his attention when people speak them, ones he sees printed in books or on signs, short ones and long ones. What gives this notion its charm is the way Reynolds shows Jerome reacting to words and interacting with them. For example, when he collects “multi-syllable words that sounded like little songs,” such as “geometry” and “wonderful,” we see him standing surrounded by several such words, his eyes closed, waving a stick as if conducting the words in perfect harmony. Reynolds does a wonderful job choosing words that Jerome collects, from ones whose meaning he does not yet know (aromatic, vociferous) to ones “whose sounds were perfectly suited to their meaning” (smudge, bellow). Jerome places his collected words in scrapbooks, more and more scrapbooks, so many that when he is carrying the books one day, he slips and the words scatter everywhere – in one of Reynolds’ most amusing illustrations. But now something wonderful happens, as Jerome notices that his collected words have fallen in jumbled fashion, so he now has interesting and unusual phrases such as “blue harmony” and “infinitesimal cloud.” Jerome is becoming a poet – indeed, that is exactly what he becomes through his word juxtapositions. And then he sets some of his poems to music. And on he goes, learning more and more about the power of words to express feelings, and coming to realize that “the more words he knew the more clearly he could share with the world what he was thinking, feeling, and dreaming.” That is an absolutely perfect formulation for young readers (and for adults, for that matter) of the reason to expand one’s vocabulary. Eventually, Jerome, a generous collector, decides to share his collection with the world, which he does by pulling a wagon on which rests a gigantic bag of words up a hill and setting the words free in the wind. And sure enough, he watches as the children below discover the words fluttering down from above and start their own word collections – leaving Jerome, now wordless, very contented indeed. This is a lovely story that feels like a fairy tale with a soft-pedaled moral about the importance of words and of learning in general. Reynolds tells it with warmth, a great deal of heart, and illustrations that beautifully complement the sentiments of the words he collects and chooses to share.
Binge Parenting: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 34. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
“Being a parent was never like this, except that it is always like this.” That could be the motto of Baby Blues, if it had a motto, but Darryl and Wanda MacPherson are too tired to think up mottos anyway. Or at least coherent ones. “Arrgghhhblargglezzz” might work for them. And it might work for many, many other parents, too, which is exactly the point of Baby Blues, in which Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott channel experiences so common that readers are frequently and justifiably convinced that Kirkman and Scott have webcams in the readers’ houses. Readers who think that way are close to the truth, but incorrect: Kirkman and Scott have webcams, or the psychological equivalent thereof, in readers’ heads. That is the “always like this” part of the Baby Blues experience. The “never like this” part is the hilarity. Baby Blues is much, much, much funnier than the real life it reflects so amazingly well. In fact, it makes that real life more bearable by simply showing that the everyday events of raising kids can be seen as funny. Not by actual human beings doing actual parenting, mind you, or even by cartoon human beings doing cartoon parenting, but by actual human beings observing cartoon parenting.
The snippets of commentary offered in Binge Parenting and other Baby Blues collections provide some insight into how Kirkman and Scott pull off this minor miracle day after day, week after week, year after year. In fact, the miracle is “minor” only by comparison with the actual raising of real-life children, which is majorly major. In real life, parents get sick with whatever their children bring home; same in Baby Blues. But in the comic strip, when Darryl feels “miserable” and “the worst” because of a cold, son Hammie offers him “the same encouraging words” that Darryl has given in the past: “Suck it up.” And beneath this strip, Scott comments, “Don’t you love it when the stuff you say to your kids boomerangs back at you? Me either.” How about the strip in which baby Wren, who can now speak, asks Wanda for all sorts of things during a shopping trip, and Wanda says “No, Wren” so many times that when the cashier asks the baby’s name, the little one responds, “No, Wren”? That would be excruciatingly embarrassing in real life, but in Baby Blues it is excruciatingly funny. It is not, however, as funny as the Sunday strip in which, during a trip to the zoo, Zoe is completely freaked out by thinking that all the monkeys have Hammie’s face – which, thanks to Kirkman’s drawing skill, they do. But here Kirkman comments that while the idea was “really fun,” it was difficult to “manage all the wire caging in color so it didn’t distract from the drawing.” This is what keeps Baby Blues challenging, or interesting, or crazy-making to its creators.
On the readership side of things, the strip is simply packed with things that make child-rearing challenging, or interesting, or crazy-making to parents. And the way Scott writes those things and Kirkman shows them provides exactly the sort of perspective that it is impossible to find while actually raising real-world children. For instance, Wanda yells at the kids to stop fighting, comments (as so many parents do) that she wishes she had a dollar for every time she has said that, then says that would be enough to get a referee – “or,” says Darryl, “rent better-behaved children.” What parent has not dreamed of that? Then there is the strip in which super-frustrated Zoe cannot decide what to say to her little brother, and tells Wanda she has run out of names to call him, leading Wanda to ask, “Does that mean you met a goal, or are you asking for suggestions?” Wanda has some good zingers, and the occasional great idea, such as responding to Zoe’s and Hammie’s comment that they cannot decide what to wear to school by having them choose clothes for each other – a solution whose outcome Kirkman renders in laugh-out-loud fashion. But Wanda does have her share of frustrations: she learns that a college friend “married a hedge fund guy, they live in a nine-thousand square foot house, and she has a nanny,” and all Darryl can offer by way of reassurance is, “We have this new melon baller.” There is always something realistic, no matter how exaggerated, in what happens in Baby Blues, as Kirkman and Scott are well aware. Scott writes at one point, “I like how Darryl and Wanda act like real parents, not reacting to every little irritant.” This is his comment beneath a strip in which Darryl checks on the kids and finds Zoe and Wren sleeping peacefully, while Hammie is bouncing on his bed so intensely that he is turning somersaults; Kirkman shows him upside-down in mid-air. The punch line of the strip has Wanda asking Darryl if the kids are all in bed, and Darryl responding, “On average, yes.” That is parenting, both in Baby Blues and in the real world of parents who, like Darryl and Wanda, can barely manage the occasional “Arrgghhhblargglezzz.”
One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll: A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Júlia Sardà. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Mr. Gedrick and Me. By Patrick Carman. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There seems to be no end of ways to enjoy and re-enjoy Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Kathleen Krull has come up with an especially clever one: a sort of “Lewis in Wonderland” story combined with “Through the Looking-Back Glass” in the form of biography. Scarcely a complete study of Carroll’s life, One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll lives up to its subtitle, especially the part about wordplay, by including many of Carroll’s invented words in Krull’s narrative and offering some of the oddities and grotesqueries of his books in the illustrations by Júlia Sardà. The unusual tidbits of biography that creep in here and there are used to further Krull’s storytelling design – for example, the fact that Carroll was the oldest of no fewer than 11 children gives Krull a method of introducing young Lewis as the leader of an adventure/parade featuring 10 younger children, some shown by Sardà looking like characters from Carroll’s not-yet-written books and some more closely resembling the characters in Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s 1963 fantasy that owes a considerable debt to Carroll’s work. Throughout One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll, Krull includes some of the 200-or-so words invented by Carroll, showing them in red so young readers know they can learn more about them in a back-of-the-book glossary. But anything overtly instructional is strictly downplayed by Krull in favor of assembling an interesting story for today’s readers – made up of snippets from Carroll’s life, such as the fact that “he encouraged pranks, such as climbing up a clock tower to strike the enormous bell at the wrong time of day.” Sardà’s illustrations complement Krull’s writing exceptionally well, making clear the straitlaced Victorian settings of Carroll’s reality while including within them sly visual references to the surreal versions of those settings that Carroll put into his books. Thus, for example, a perfectly proper Victorian tea party contains hints of the “Mad Tea Party” found in Alice in Wonderland, and an imagined scene of Carroll and three little girls in a canoe, flinging playing cards into the air, seems to emerge from the scene late in Alice in Wonderland in which Alice is subjected to a shower of cards. Krull describes Carroll as “the man who never forgot how to play,” and while that is a vast oversimplification, it is perfectly sensible in the context of this book – which, at the very end, offers two pages of additional, straightforward information on Carroll’s life, followed by a source list to which young readers can turn to learn more about the man and to read his two Alice books for themselves and enter a wonderland of their own.
The name of P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers is far less known than that of Lewis Carroll, but the name of Travers’ most famous creation, Mary Poppins, is familiar just about everywhere. Mary Poppins (1934) and its seven sequels endure in multiple media today, admittedly thanks in large part to the 1964 Disney film that somewhat sanitized the title character by smoothing the rough edges with which Travers endowed her. Even when contemporary children do not know the Mary Poppins books themselves, they have likely encountered the character in some form in other books, because so many authors have found it irresistible to imagine the very proper British nanny in different situations and different guises. That is just what Patrick Carman does in Mr. Gedrick and Me, the thoroughly modern story of a family troubled by thoroughly modern issues that finds itself pulled back together and strengthened through the presence of a somewhat magical and not always explainable nanny. This particular nanny happens to be a man, not a woman, wears a jacket that seems to be made of pool-table felt, and turns up because of an Internet search. And the family has been shattered by the father’s death, leaving nine-year-old Stanley Darrow (the “me” of the title) and his two older siblings trying to cope with deep and largely unexpressed sorrow as their mother, an architect, desperately tries to keep her job by creating an important project for which her slimy boss intends to take full credit. This is scarcely a Travers setup, but there is no mistaking Mr. Gedrick’s Poppins relationship: he may not say “spit spot,” but he does say “a pinch and a twist,” “a flick and a sniff,” and similar phrases, and he does have a pointer (rather than an umbrella) that does a wide variety of surprising things, and he does possess a car named Fred (rather than a carpetbag) that seems to have infinite storage capacity. He seems to channel the dearly departed and dearly loved father so often that Stanley actually asks at one point whether Mr. Gedrick is magic, and gets the reply, “Magic is difficult to explain, Stanley. But the best kind is always for a good purpose.” And as with Mary Poppins, that explains exactly nothing. Mr. Gedrick also has the ability to take the kids into a museum that is not open – with the museum guard’s permission – and to cut out all the parts needed to assemble a treehouse in a particularly inviting tree in the back yard, and to produce yard gnomes one of which looks exactly like Mr. Gedrick himself, and much more. He also – and this is the central point of Carman’s book, which is aimed at readers around Stanley’s age – has a way of making all the kids, but especially Stanley, much more self-confident and much better at learning that even someone small can do big things (a statement that is one of Mr. Gedrick’s echoes of Stanley’s father). Unfortunately, Mr. Gedrick and Me has a significant flaw, and that is Stanley himself: his unfailingly upbeat personality, his overly easy interaction with Mr. Gedrick and with his surly siblings, his constant insistence on the bright side of everything, are at odds with the early-in-book portrait of a boy who is barely keeping himself together since his father’s death. Stanley is simply not interesting enough or challenged enough to provide Mr. Gedrick and Me with the sort of heart that Travers brought to her books and that Disney was able to pack into the simplified film version of Mary Poppins. The result is that Mr. Gedrick and Me is a (+++) book with some enjoyable scenes and some elements that are effective tributes to Travers’ work – but it is nowhere near as enjoyable as Travers’ books, and it never approaches their level of characterization, emotional involvement, or sense of the possibility of magic in everyday life.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. By Margot Lee Shetterly, with Winifred Conkling. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Harper. $17.99.
Mae Among the Stars. By Roda Ahmed. Illustrated by Stasia Burrington. Harper. $17.99.
The strength of stories of disadvantages overcome lies in their ability to reach out to a wide audience. After all, practically everyone must overcome difficulties of some sort in order to succeed. A troubled family, parental disapproval, financial hardship, emotional or psychological troubles, outright poverty, religious discrimination, ethnic typecasting, being born at a time when certain fields were forbidden to certain people, and more – all these and many others are factors affecting people’s ability to do what they want to do in life and get where they want to go. Books that understand the universality of such difficulties and discuss one particular form of them in a larger context are invariably more effective at exploring their topics than ones implying that “everybody else” has things “easy” while some chosen group faces hardship that no other group ever has faced or ever could even imagine. Finding the right balance between specificity and universality seems especially difficult for authors writing about African-Americans, because while it is certainly true that black people have a unique distant history as slaves, it is untrue that they alone faced enormous legal and quasi-legal discrimination for many years: the 19th-century Know-Nothing political party was vociferously anti-Catholic, for example, and forms of anti-Oriental and anti-Italian discrimination persisted well into the 20th century. Margot Lee Shetterly did a particularly fine job of highlighting both the unique challenges facing African-Americans, especially female African-Americans, and the universality of the means by which they overcame those difficulties, in her book, Hidden Figures. Now there is a version of the book for children ages 4-8, written by Shetterly with Winifred Conkling, and it is just as good for its age group as the original was for adults. What works particularly well here is the repeated refrain that the four women on whom the book focuses – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – “were good at math. Really good.” It was this accomplishment, this level of knowledge, this extent of education – however difficult it may have been for the women to obtain it – that led to their recognition and participation in the early years of space exploration. They were not admitted to the inner circle of scientists and mathematicians making space travel possible because of “affirmative action” or any other appearance-based approach. They earned their way in, and if the old saying is true that a woman needs to be twice as proficient as a man in order to be considered half as good, then these four may have had to be four times as good as others to be accepted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and its successor, NASA. It was their knowledge and ability that eventually won them that acceptance, as Hidden Figures shows again and again. Thank goodness no one was insisting on some mythical “equal treatment” based on race when human lives and gigantic sums of money were at stake in the “space race.” Instead, those involved insisted that anyone and everyone participating be super-knowledgeable, super-adept, and really, really good at math. The obstacles specifically faced by African-Americans, especially in the years of and immediately after World War II, were real and are shown clearly in this edition of Hidden Figures for young readers. But the message of the book, again and again, is that, yes, the circumstances were difficult, troubling and unfair, but instead of demanding special compensating treatment, these four women used grit, determination and tremendous skill to function, often brilliantly, in a world that would otherwise have shunted them to its periphery. An excellent story about the power of knowledge, education and ability to help lift anyone out of any difficult negative circumstances, Hidden Figures, including this version for children, is a book that reaches out to everyone who has ever felt and ever been disadvantaged in any way, showing that even severe barriers can be overcome by people who, far from requesting special treatment for irrelevant reasons, prove themselves better than the system that kept so many others like them down.
A much easier astronomy-focused book to read, and one featuring a girl actually within the 4-8 target age range, Mae Among the Stars is also about a pioneering woman. But Roda Ahmed’s is a lesser book, precisely because it falls into the trap of making skin color its focus and never showing just how Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, overcame the difficulties of her early life and became successful in her chosen field. Indeed, Jemison was successful in her chosen fields, plural, and her story is far more inspiring than this (+++) book indicates. Jemison had degrees in both chemical engineering and medicine, and actually worked as a medical doctor for a time – and as a Peace Corps medical officer in Africa – before starting to train as an astronaut. This is a remarkable story indeed. But Ahmed simply says that as a little girl, Jemison was a “dreamer” and was encouraged by parents who told her, “If you can dream it, if you believe it and work hard for it, anything is possible.” That is a lovely sentiment, and it does make passing reference to hard work, but all readers actually see in Mae Among the Stars is a classroom setting in which the only white adult in the book disparages Jemison’s desire to be an astronaut and almost derails the little girl’s entire plan. This evil-white-people angle does nothing to help the book reach out beyond a core skin-color-based audience, and in the absence of anything in the book showing how hard and diligently Jemison worked to become, eventually, an astronaut, the scene leaves the impression that all the little girl had to do to become a big success was to avoid allowing that bad teacher to keep her from her dream. Even for very young children, this is a simplified and deeply unfortunate lesson, and it also happens to be untrue – certainly in Jemison’s case. Although Mae Among the Stars appears to be well-intentioned, its strictly skin-color-based focus and its failure to address the importance of long, hard work and attention to education and knowledge prevent the book from carrying a widely useful message. And that is really too bad, because Jemison’s story is a wonderful and inspirational one that, like the stories of the women in Hidden Figures, is really about the tremendous powers of learning and of hard work – powers that can and do bring success to people of both genders and of any race, color or creed.
Georg Schumann: Symphony in F minor, Op. 42; Overture to a Drama, Op. 45; Overture “Joy of Life,” Op. 54. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by James Feddeck. CPO. $16.99.
Georg Schumann: Symphony in B minor, “Prize-winning Symphony”; Serenade for Large Orchestra, Op. 34. Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Christoph Gedschold. CPO. $16.99.
Imre Széchényi: Complete Dances for Orchestra. Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV conducted by Valéria Csányi. Naxos. $12.99.
Highly respected in his own time and completely unrelated to Robert Schumann, Georg Schumann (1866-1952) was director of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin for half a century, from 1900 to1950. He was a violinist and pianist of more than usual skill and a well-respected composer in his time. And he has disappeared from the concert hall and from the knowledge of nearly all musicians and listeners – a most unfortunate state of affairs, as two CPO discs of his symphonic works demonstrate. Schumann was not a great composer, true, but he was a sensitive one who produced excellent late-Romantic music that fits firmly in its time and certainly deserves as much attention as the orchestral works of, say, Charles Villiers Stanford in Schumann’s time or Ferdinand Ries somewhat before it. Nor is that “damning with faint praise,” since both Stanford’s works and those of Ries are distinctly under-appreciated but have regained a measure of performance frequency, while those of Schumann have not. Perhaps these recordings will change that, because there is a great deal to admire and enjoy in Schumann’s music. His F minor symphony of 1905 is a kind of “variations symphony,” structured interestingly from essentially a single subject that is expanded and developed throughout the whole piece – not as an idée fixe in Berlioz’ mode or a leitmotif in Wagner’s, but as a kind of “source kernel” forming the structural basis of the symphony’s four movements. The symphony is on the cusp of later musical developments without ever quite reaching into the future, being highly chromatic and almost but not quite atonal in some sections (notably in a lower-string theme in the slow second movement). The influence of earlier composers is certainly present, among them Beethoven and Robert Schumann, and the Scherzo has nearly Brucknerian heft – although here that is a bit too much for the work, this third movement being longer than the finale. Actually, there is something Brucknerian about the finale itself, in an impressive chorale near the conclusion. Expansive without being massive, the symphony has a somewhat Brahmsian darkness about its scoring but a style that is certainly its own. It is very well played by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under James Feddeck, and nicely complemented by two concert overtures that show Schumann’s abilities in more-compressed form. Overture to a Drama (1906) is not attached to any specific drama, just as Brahms’ Tragic Overture is not about any specific tragedy. Schumann builds the overture very effectively, with themes having clear emotional resonance (dramatic, warm, turbulent, etc.) and playing effectively against each other in modified sonata form. In contrast, the Overture “Joy of Life” (Lebensfreude) (1911) is packed with multiple themes, a dozen or more, and they tumble over one another in just the sort of joyful cascade that the work’s title indicates. Near the end, a popular song called Freut Euch des Lebens (“Let us cherish life”) appears, producing a distinct resemblance between what Schumann creates here and what Brahms does with Gaudeamus igitur in his Academic Festival Overture. Indeed, these two Schumann overtures, although not created as a pair as Brahms’ were, serve to showcase Schumann’s compositional skill in similar fashion.
Schumann’s ability to handle a full orchestra emerged early. He created his B minor symphony in 1886, when he was just 20 and a student at the Leipzig Conservatory, and the piece won the top prize two years later in an orchestral competition among 57 entries – hence “Prize-winning Symphony,” although Schumann himself did not give the work that designation. There is considerable maturity already evident in this symphony, along with some felicitous touches, such as Schumann’s use of a short introduction to each of the four movements. True, this is a much more derivative work than the later symphony in F minor – the B minor is distinctly Mendelssohnian – but there is nothing that actually sounds duplicative of Mendelssohn’s music: there is only a flavor, not identical ingredients. The performers here, Christoph Gedschold and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, treat the music well, paying particular attention to the effective contrasts that Schumann offers among themes that range from the dancelike to the hymnlike to the gypsy-influenced. There is even a slight hint here of the chromaticism that Schumann would explore more fully in later works, through the juxtaposition in the finale of the keys of B and B-flat. This CPO disc pairs the symphony with Schumann’s Serenade for Large Orchestra of 1902, and if the symphony has ties to Mendelssohn, the serenade distinctly reflects Richard Strauss in Ein Heldenleben mode. In fact, the work’s structure is quite similar to that of Strauss’s 1898 tone poem, which Schumann may well have known. Schumann arranges the serenade as a five-section work telling the story of a rejected lover. But there is nothing depressive or even deeply sad here – this is a work more of wistfulness than despair. True, that limits its emotional impact, but it prevents the work from sounding dour. Again and again, Schumann introduces light and slightly sarcastic music said to come from “opponents and ridiculers” who presumably upbraid the would-be lover for his failings or rejoice in his discomfiture. But they do so with a much lighter and less snide touch than do those of the artist’s critics in the Strauss tone poem. The warmest part of the work is its third, which is an actual serenade in which the clarinet carries along a lovely theme and is supported, in one of many felicitous touches of instrumentation, by a harp. The imprecise program of the work leaves plenty for listeners to think about in terms of whatever may have happened and what the whole matter may mean – but really, a program is not especially necessary to enjoy the music fully (as it is needed for Ein Heldenleben). Schumann gives this half-hour piece much of the sumptuousness and emotional effectiveness of his symphonies, and that is a great deal. Nothing on these CDs suggests that Schumann is an undiscovered genius, but everything on them shows him to have been a skilled composer with command over a wide range of moods and a strong ability to carry listeners along the dramatic arc of his works. His music is a reminder of the many pleasures to be found in well-crafted pieces by composers who were overshadowed by the handful of greats whose works are heard again and again, sometimes to the point of over-familiarity.
The pleasures of the less-known extend to the realm of light music as well as that of major concert-hall pieces, as is clear from a new Naxos CD of dance music by Count Imre Széchényi of Sárvár-Felsővidék (1825-1898), an important diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an almost exact contemporary of his friend Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899). Széchényi was neither a great composer nor a prolific one – this world première recording of his dance music includes just 18 works, arranged in six groups of three. But Széchényi was an assured stylist in the standard non-waltz dance forms of his time, producing 11 polkas, five polka-mazurkas and two mazurkas. The works as presented here are grouped as two character pieces followed by a generally more-extended concert work. And they have much of the lilt and charm of the music by Strauss himself and his many competitors – although Strauss was quite far from considering Széchényi’s music competitive, even programming some of it in his own concerts. Széchényi has a pleasantly light touch in his works, giving them more humor than many other dance composers provided (he dubs one Polka prétentieuse) and using some of the pieces to call up specific scenes (Polka hongroise and, for the snowy clime of St. Petersburg, where Széchényi wrote most of his music, Neige-Polka). The Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV under Valéria Csányi performs these semi-precious musical gems with fine polish and a sure sense of style – providing further evidence of the extent to which the Strauss family overshadowed a very large number of fine composers who, if they did not produce really first-rate material, did offer audiences in their time and ours a great deal of verve and enjoyment.
Charles-Valentin Alkan: Études dans Touts les Tons Majeurs, Op. 35. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.
Dizzy Days: Ragtime. Sam Post, piano. Blue House Productions. $15.
Messiaen, Debussy, Ligeti, György Kurtág, Andy Akiho and Scott Wollschleger: Piano Music. Jenny Q. Chai, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Alla Elana Cohen: Book of Prayers, Volume 1 Series 7 and Volume 2 Series 4; Sephardic Romancero, Series 2; Three Film Noir Pieces; Third Vigil—Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Spiral Staircases; Querying the Silence, Volume 1 Series 2. Sebastian Bäverstam, cello; Alla Elana Cohen, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
McCormick Percussion Group: Kid Stuff—Music of John Liberatore, Seunghee Lee, Hilary Tann, Ciro Scotto and Matt Barber. Eunmi Ko, solo piano; McCormick Percussion Group conducted by Robert McCormick. Ravello. $14.99.
Exceptionally fine and thoughtful performances of some of the most difficult piano works ever written are offered by Mark Viner for Piano Classics on a CD of Alkan’s Études dans Touts les Tons Majeurs. Probably the second-most-difficult set of études ever composed – the first being Alkan’s Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs – these major-key pieces call on every possible pianistic technique and a few that are not possible with modern pianos, such as the now-standard Steinway D that Viner uses. Like the other greatest pianists of their times, Alkan composed for the instruments to which he had access, obviously not for instruments that did not yet exist. In Alkan’s lifetime (1813-1888), piano keybeds were shallower than they later became and than they are today, and actions were lighter. This made possible speeds and fingerings that are simply not attainable on modern pianos – and Alkan, being brilliant at pushing instruments of his time to their limit, did more than most composers to produce works requiring extremely intimate understanding of those instruments’ capabilities. Modern pianists without access to historic pianos, or without experience playing them, have to figure out ways to produce Alkan’s effects on instruments not designed to produce them. Viner succeeds wonderfully at this, offering readings of remarkable clarity, brilliant lightness, exceptional finger work, and altogether amazing control. This is a pianist who really studies what he plays and really thinks through its complexities, which are enormous in Alkan’s music, before sitting down for a performance. As a result, this recording is beautifully nuanced from start to finish – which is saying a lot, since these dozen études take nearly 70 minutes to perform. Pretty much every one of them is a highlight: the amazingly quicksilver No. 4 in C, the rhythmically pounding No. 5 in F (Allegro barbaro, which despite the key signature is performed entirely on the white keys), the tone-poem-like No. 7 in E-flat (L’incendie au village voisin, in which you can practically feel the heat of the fire that Alkan conjures), the astonishingly delicate No. 8 in A-flat, the pounding intensity of No. 9 in C-sharp (Contrapunctus), and the deeply weird and disturbing conclusion of No. 10 in G-flat (Chant d’amour – Chant de mort). Several great and daring pianists have brought their skills to recordings of Alkan’s music over the decades, from Raymond Lewenthal to Marc-André Hamelin; now, superbly technically accomplished younger pianists, such as Vincenzo Maltempo and Viner, have discovered the exceptional joys and peculiarities of Alkan’s music and come up with their own ways to amaze and delight listeners with it.
The music itself is of far less interest on a new CD featuring another excellent young pianist, Sam Post – but the presentation on the disc is so striking and unusual that the recording is a fascinating one. There are a dozen ragtime or ragtime-like pieces offered here, eight of them by Post himself, two by William Bolcom (one offered both as “Take 1” and “Take 2”), and one by Scott Joplin. Post and Bolcom have so effectively absorbed Joplin-style ragtime that their works could have come from the same era, if not the same composer. That is both a strength here and a weakness: it shows remarkable sensitivity to and understanding of ragtime music, but it makes the dozen musical tracks sound disconcertingly similar – the only really different one, interestingly, being Joplin’s, since Gladiolus Rag is one of his slower, quieter and more-thoughtful pieces. Post’s own Three Dedicated Rags: 2. Mournful comes closest to Joplin’s in spirit. The most intriguing Post composition here is Kinhaven Sonata Finale, in which the piano is joined by a clarinet (played by Lauren Cook) to interesting rhythmic and sonic effect. But the three-quarters of an hour of music is not in itself the sole attraction of the disc. After the pieces have been played, Post takes listeners on a verbal journey through ragtime that neatly complements the aural one they have already experienced. In nine snippets of discussion over a total time of half an hour, Post explains how he came to his personal enjoyment and performance of ragtime and delves into the structure of this musical form – with demonstrations. This is a kind of aural “chalk talk” designed to communicate Post’s own enthusiasm for ragtime and to engage listeners more deeply by giving them a broader and deeper understanding of what they have heard earlier on the CD and will hear elsewhere when they encounter similar music. Along the way, Post provides some insight into his own compositional method and interests, as well as the way he approaches performance of music in this genre. To be sure, half an hour of talk on top of three-quarters of an hour of music may seem like an imbalance to anyone primarily interested in simply hearing and enjoying the type of music offered here. But Post’s infectious enthusiasm and his willingness to share personal opinions and information make the spoken part of the CD, which is called “Ragtime Reflections,” a genuine complement to the musical material rather than merely a supplement to it. The result is an unusual combination of entertainment and educational value, and a disc worth hearing either for the pure enjoyment of the performances or for the elucidation of the thinking that prefaced and then went into the playing.
Another piano-focused CD with a fascinating underlying premise features Jenny Q. Chai. Chai’s MSR Classics recording, however, is even more rarefied than Post’s, because it focuses on something that the vast majority of listeners do not, will not and cannot experience: synesthesia, the blending of senses in which, for example, a work written in a particular key has the sound of a specific color or range of colors. Chai experiences synesthesia, and intends with this disc to communicate elements of it – as she experiences them – to listeners. The intention is admirable, but the concept does not work particularly well. This should not really be a surprise, since Chai herself acknowledges that even people with synesthesia do not experience it the same way – two composers may, for example, have entirely different experiences associated with the identical key. Move beyond that reality to attempting to bring a sense of synesthesia to listeners who do not personally experience it, and you are in a realm in which performer and audience are essentially speaking two different languages. Music itself can and does bridge language barriers – it is nearly the only thing that does – but expecting it to bridge experiential, sense-based barriers as well is a bit much. Furthermore, it is hard to comprehend why Chai chose the specific pieces on this (+++) recording, since they have little apparent interrelationship except, it seems, for someone who experiences synesthesia. Probably the best-known composer who had synesthesia and tried to make artistic use of it was Alexander Scriabin, but this disc includes nothing by him. Since the CD runs only 49 minutes, there would have been plenty of room for one of Scriabin’s highly unusual late sonatas, but Chai comes at synesthesia from a different angle. She offers one extended work, Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ (1949), which combines Hindu rhythms with the structural elements of sonata and rondo. The rest of the material here is much briefer. Included are two short pieces by Debussy, two by Ligeti, four by Kurtág, and one each by Akiho and Wollschleger. In a few cases, the composers’ intentions can be seen as synesthesia-related: Akiho’s piece, which is for prepared piano, is called Karakurenai (Crimson), and one of Kurtág’s is Shadow-Play. Certainly Chai plays all the works with enthusiasm and apparent enjoyment, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her desire to have listeners experience this material in a way similar to her own. But that desire is not in itself enough: taken strictly as music, the pieces here have little relationship to each other or among themselves, and without the binding element of Chai’s synesthesia, they simply come across as parts of one of the innumerable personal-preference recitals offered by so many performers. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and listeners who share Chai’s attraction to these particular composers and these specific works will enjoy her sensitive, knowing handling of the material. But nothing here really gets listeners into the mind and experience of someone for whom what is heard ties inevitably and inexorably to senses beyond hearing.
The mystical elements of Scriabin’s synesthesia and of a work such as Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ are present in somewhat different form in the spiritual/mystical music of Alla Elana Cohen on a new (+++) Ravello CD. Here the piano sometimes appears solo, played by the composer, and sometimes is paired with a cello (Sebastian Bäverstam). There is also one work here, Sephardic Romancero, Series 2, for cello alone. All the pieces here are multi-movement ones, but in all cases the designations are simply “Movement 1,” “Movement 2,” and so forth. Any connection among movements is therefore left to listeners to discern. Some of the pieces have distinct extramusical relationships: Three Film Noir Pieces for solo piano are not about just any film noir but specifically about Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, whose atmosphere the short works attempt, not very successfully, to replicate. The other solo-piano work, Spiral Staircases, is connected to a film about a mute woman trying to verbalize her needs and wishes. This work, although somewhat more intense than Three Film Noir Pieces, is neither more nor less emotionally trenchant. The solo-cello work, Sephardic Romancero, Series 2, is intended to draw spiritually on Sephardic Judaism; as with the solo-piano pieces, familiarity with Cohen’s inspiration is necessary for full understanding of the music, which to the non-initiate simply sounds like a fairly typical contemporary work in which extremes of the cello’s range are repeatedly tested. The four remaining works on the disc – the ones for both cello and piano – require less specific knowledge of Cohen’s source material, all being intended in one way or another to deal with spiritual issues such as grief, loss, and connection with the divine. Although close listening reveals some differences among the pieces – greater dissonance in Book of Prayers, Volume 1 Series 7 than in Book of Prayers, Volume 2 Series 4, for example – many of the pieces are interchangeable, using the same musical language when supposedly expressing different feelings. The result is that listeners will not easily perceive any significant distinction between Querying the Silence, Volume 1 Series 2, intended to connect with personal feelings of loneliness, and Third Vigil, a cello-and-orchestra work heard here in a version for cello and piano and intended to address grander questions of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Because of a certain sameness throughout the music, this is a disc that listeners who already know and like Cohen’s music will appreciate, but one that listeners unfamiliar with her work will likely find too uniform in sound to be attractive.
Matters are far more down-to-earth both for solo piano and for percussion ensemble on a new Ravello CD featuring the McCormick Percussion Group. The piano, itself a percussion instrument, fits neatly into the ensemble and stands out when needed: Eunmi Ko is clearly comfortable both within a larger group and out in front of it. The five works on the CD, as handled by the ensemble under Robert McCormick’s direction, share a certain ebullience and experimental sound, although the general lack of distinctiveness among the composers makes this a (+++) disc. Still, it is fun for those who fancy fine percussion work in pieces that are, by and large, far from pretentious. John Liberatore’s This Living Air clicks and bounces pleasantly and has some nice instrumental touches. The third of its four movements, “This Light That Pours,” shows an unusually delicate side of percussive sounds. Seunghee Lee’s Pung-Kyung is more typical of contemporary works in its abrupt contrasts and minimalist “background music” sound. Hilary Tann’s five-section, single-movement Solstice is more attractive, thanks to a wider-ranging aural palette that encompasses solemnity, verve and delicacy. In contrast, Ciro Scotto’s Dark Paradise is mostly quiet, reserved to the point of being withdrawn, and so similar in sound and volume throughout that it seems to go on forever. The most successful piece here is Matt Barber’s Kid Stuff, subtitled “Five Figments for Piano and Percussion,” which bounces and meanders all over the place, through both the piano and the percussion group – pulling out blended and contrasting sounds willy-nilly and encompassing within its five movements pretty much all the techniques and sonic approaches of all the other works on the disc. The movements’ titles here actually do provide some connection with the music: “Chimera,” “Night Owl,” “Quench,” “Cuddleys” and “Goofball,” with the penultimate section offering gentle rocking and a rather sweet sound that contrasts effectively with the outgoing ebullience of the concluding part. This disc will be a lot of fun for listeners who simply want to hear well-played percussion for its own sake. None of the works reaches out successfully for significant musical or emotional meaning, but all, especially Tann’s and Barber’s, are pleasant-enough divertissements to showcase some highly skilled performers and a wide variety of intriguing sounds.
January 11, 2018
Bobo and the New Baby. By Rebecca Minhsuan Huang. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Horses. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
Water. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
101 Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles. By April Jones Prince. Illustrated by Bob Kolar. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
There are plenty of books for kids about sibling rivalry when a new baby arrives, but not nearly so many about “dogling rivalry,” which is essentially what Rebecca Minhsuan Huang charmingly explores in Bobo and the New Baby. Bobo is an absolutely adorable dachshund with a doggone good life that basically includes snoozing, digging, eating, chasing and, um, snoozing again. His humans, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, spoil him and take him everywhere, and that is just fine with Bobo. But somehow Mr. and Mrs. Lee have neglected to warn Bobo in advance that they are about to bring home a new member of the family. Well, Bobo is only a dog, right? But dogs have feelings, too, and when the two humans return with a third, miniature human, suddenly Bobo is very, very excited and happy – his enthusiasm beautifully communicated in one of Huang’s most-delightful illustrations. Unfortunately, Bobo’s happiness gets him scolded: “‘You will scare the baby,’ says Mr. Lee,” and poor Bobo, who never meant any harm, is left downcast and dejected and just plain miserable. He walks away into a room whose darkness reflects his unhappy mood, leaving behind the three people in a room that is full of light. And now, whenever Bobo wants attention – even to go for a walk – Mr. and Mrs. Lee tell him “no,” because the baby is eating, sleeping, needs changing, or something else. Poor Bobo! And then, to make matters worse, Bobo sees a bee that has gotten into the house, and knows he has to protect the baby. So he chases the bee everywhere, making quite a mess, and just as he leaps to catch it, Mr. Lee comes in and tells him to stop because he will “hurt the baby.” Mr. Lee’s shadow completely covers the poor, sad little dog, whose downcast eyes tell the whole story – up to this point. But then Mrs. Lee spots the bee and realizes that Bobo was only trying to help, and Mr. Lee understands, too, and apologizes, and so Bobo is formally introduced to the baby, and the four members of the family are last seen happily relaxing together. For a story aimed at young children, Bobo and the New Baby is a surprisingly realistic look at how dogs may feel when a baby is brought home. It was created by Huang as a counterbalance to a true story of a couple who got rid of their dog once they brought home a baby – a terrible thing to do to a loving, loyal family member who just happens to belong to a different species. Huang’s book, in addition to being a sweet story in and of itself, can be a valuable teaching tool for kids and adults alike, hopefully making it possible for more stories like Bobo’s to have endings as happy as this one.
Children looking more for facts and beautiful photography than for a warmhearted fictional story (even one with a real-life tie-in) will enjoy the new, updated edition of Seymour Simon’s Horses, a book originally dating to 2006. Simon has written hundreds of books – more than 300, a remarkable number – and manages again and again to provide a well-thought-out, clearly presented set of facts that he mixes with attractive photographs to help young readers learn about the natural world. Horses, like dogs, are longtime human companions, and Horses starts by pointing out the animals’ usefulness ever since they were tamed some 5,000 years ago. Pictures of fossils show how prehistoric horses gradually evolved into the animals we know today, and then Simon moves to more-recent times to explain how horses came to America and how wild herds grew from horses that escaped captivity. The photos of horses, with and without people, tell all by themselves a great deal of the story here: one horse is seen attached to a cart that it is supposed to pull (and Simon notes that pulling strength is still called “horsepower”); two are shown nuzzling each other; two are shown competitively rearing up on their hind legs to assert dominance; and so on. Again and again, Simon inserts small and fascinating facts that neatly complement the photos: horses can see in almost a complete circle; they can see yellow and green, but not all colors; they can sense when people are angry or scared, possibly by detecting changes in humans’ smell; a foal can walk less than one hour after birth; and so on. His discussion of the way a horse moves is especially interesting, since the way horses’ legs move together varies depending on the animal’s gait. The strength of horses is also amazing to learn: some teams of two can pull 50 tons, as much as the weight of 10 elephants. There is also an explanation of the difference between horses and ponies. Simon’s books are formulaic in layout and fairly standardized in narrative, but because they are books of facts for young readers, that is all to the good: a book like Horses is involving, educational, easy to read and understand, and very helpful in giving information about an animal that has been enormously important to human civilization for thousands of years.
Even more important to humans – and to horses and all other living things – is water, the subject of a brand-new Simon book whose layout and writing style are every bit as accessible as those in Horses. Here too, Simon includes plenty of interesting facts about something that we usually take for granted: “Water is the only substance on Earth that is found naturally in all three states of matter: as a liquid (water), as a solid (ice), and as a gas (water vapor).” “Water…dissolves more substances than any other liquid. Even rocks are dissolved by water, though it may take many years.” “Almost two-thirds of an adult’s weight is water and nearly 80 percent of a newborn baby’s weight is water.” Coupling this recitation of well-selected facts with fascinating photos – such as one of an insect standing on water, illustrating the principle of surface tension – Simon in Water explains the water cycle, the way ocean levels change during periods of worldwide cooling and warming, the way water in rivers can carve valleys and shape the ground, the areas where ice and snow exist year-round (about 10% of Earth’s surface), the existence of frozen deserts in the Arctic and Antarctic, and more. Simon has a well-honed talent for covering a lot of material in a small amount of space – and making the facts interesting by including relevant photos, such as one of a scuba diver near a school of beautiful tropical fish opposite a page explaining just how heavy water is and just how much pressure there is in the oceans, whose average depth is two-and-a-half miles. Informative and intriguing, fact-packed but presented in a simple-to-understand way with easily followed style, Water is a first-rate introduction to what is, so far as we humans know, the basis of life: “When we look to find life on distant planets or moons, the first thing we look for is water.”
Indeed, although we cannot be 100% sure about the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe, we do know that water is crucial to life on Earth – all kinds of life, from the smallest to the largest, from life as we know it today to life as it was long, long before humans existed. And way back before the first horse, and even before the first horse’s ancestor, Hyracotherium, which lived 55 million years ago, the world was dominated not by mammals such as horses (much less humans) but by reptiles, most famously by dinosaurs. A book that is at once simple and surprisingly comprehensive in discussing and showing what is known about many extinct reptiles is April Jones Prince’s 101 Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles. This oversized, unusually shaped board book, with pages cut to resemble the spinal scales of the Stegosaurus on the cover, relies heavily on Bob Kolar’s clear and simple illustrations to show young readers how different the many types of ancient reptiles were. And they were very different indeed: Kolar’s pictures use the latest scientific findings to indicate, for example, the distinction in head shape between superficially similar long-necked dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus and Barosaurus, or between flying reptiles (which were not dinosaurs) such as Dimorphodon and Pterodaustro. Those long, complicated-looking names are given pronunciation guides throughout the book: Prince breaks each into syllables and shows just which of those syllables carries an accent. The repeated refrain of the book goes, “Every dino has a name./ No two dinos were the same!” Sometimes this is varied – for non-dinosaurs – to, “Every reptile has a name./ No two reptiles were the same!” This encourages kids to look closely at Kolar’s pictures to find out just how the various sort-of-similar-looking creatures really did differ in important respects. The book also serves to familiarize interested young readers with dinos that are far less frequently mentioned than “superstars” such as Tyrannosaurus rex: the same group of powerful meat-eaters includes Herrerasaurus, Troödon, Tarbosaurus, and others, all of them shown as clearly as current scientific knowledge allows. This is a short book, but it is packed amazingly full of information – and the end, which spreads pictures of dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles out over two pages and invites kids to examine and count all of them, is a fine summation of the entire book and an intriguing invitation to examine each of the creatures more closely while counting all of them.
Heart and Brain 3: Body Language. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Lady Stuff: Secrets to Being a Woman. By Loryn Brantz. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Where better to turn for the secrets of life than comics? At least they can’t do a worse job of exploring and explaining the vicissitudes of everyday existence than all the professional gurus out there. And cartoonists’ distinctively skewed perspectives can sometimes offer insights that just can’t be communicated through any means except silly drawings and pithy writing. Take The Awkward Yeti as an example. Said yeti, a big-eyed, perpetually befuddled, bow-tie-wearing blue-fur-covered biped, is the nominal presenter of Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain, a comic sequence whose third collection, Body Language, is the best so far. The idea here is that The Awkward Yeti’s organs have a life of their own, intertwined with but somewhat independent of his life, and they pursue their own agendas based on which body parts they are – and find themselves in conflict with each other from time to time, thereby causing all sorts of systemic distress for the person, or creature, in whom they live. This all makes a lot more sense in cartoon form than in descriptive words – which is the whole reason to turn to comics like this one for tips on living life better. Or more amusingly, anyway. The primary “frenemies” in the Heart and Brain collections are, of course, the methodical and results-oriented brain and the emotionally driven instant-gratification-seeking heart (the latter always accompanied by a butterfly that sometimes takes part in or accentuates the action). Brain is a big pink brain wearing square eyeglasses (the same ones The Awkward Yeti wears, naturally); Heart is a not-anatomically-correct heart-shaped red character with big googly eyes and a nearly perpetual smile (yes, smile: Heart has a small, expressive mouth; Brain has none). Some of Seluk’s cartoons are single panels, such as one showing Heart and Brain struggling together to carry a gigantic rock labeled “Self Doubt” up a hill whose top has the word “Goal” on it – as Brain says, “Maybe it would be easier if we put this down.” Other cartoons are multi-panel sequences, such as one in which Brain makes a budget, Heart flicks on a lighter to burn it, and Brain explains that a budget will make Heart happier “in the long term by taking care of needs before wants.” So Heart turns the lighter off – until Brain says “you just won’t be able to buy whatever you want whenever you want it,” and Heart flicks the lighter on again. Then there are peripheral characters who appear from time to time. A great one is Gut, who is all instinct and given to flatulence and to phrases such as, “It’s all a conspiracy, you know,” and “Just trust me, I know.” There is cute and happy Fat, who refuses to go away even when The Awkward Yeti asks him to, and who explains, “I make you CUDDLY!” There is Muscle, who suffers a cramp that Brain tries unsuccessfully to cure with a stretch. There is Tongue, whose main concern is, of course, eating, and who says, “If nobody sees you eat it, it didn’t happen.” There are Eyes, and Teeth, and Stomach, and even Gall Bladder, each with a unique personality. But it is Heart and Brain who hold The Awkward Yeti’s body, and Seluk’s cartoons, together, often in very surprising ways – as when Heart pours a jar of “new experiences” into Brain, picks him up and shakes him hard, then turns a wheel that opens a spigot into which liquid flows from Brain into a container labeled New Ideas. Think about that one a bit. In fact, think about a lot of the Heart and Brain cartoons – that’s what they’re there for.
Loryn Brantz’s Lady Stuff is there for a different purpose: to help readers appreciate the oddities of everyday life, or at least let them know they are not alone when experiencing them. Brantz takes her own day-to-day experiences and interprets or reinterprets them through her cartoon self. This frequently leads to a version of before-and-after panels: “How I look at the beginning of the day” shows a neat, nicely made-up, well-dressed cartoon woman, while “How I look at the end” shows a smelly garbage can with eyes and a frown. Or “Bathroom floor before I brush my hair” shows a clean tile floor, while “bathroom floor after I brush my hair” shows brown, messy hairlike squiggles everywhere and the word “UGHHHHHHHHH.” In other panels, Brantz offers “Life Ambitions” (that being the title of one section in Lady Stuff) – for instance, one panel says “Follow Your Dreams” and shows her cartoon self wrapped tightly in a comfy blanket and saying, “I’m a professional blanket burrito.” Another panel, in “dress for success” mode, shows cartoon Brantz in a full-body hoodie, trying to become a “professional napper.” Another starts with her being advised to “find a job doing something you’re passionate about” and continues with an Internet search for career options in napping, taking baths and eating cheese. And then there is the admonition that starts, “When life gives you lemons,” which Brantz concludes, “make a small bed out of them and take a nap” (and she looks mighty comfortable doing just that). The book also includes “Mating Habits,” one of which is an amazingly funny multi-panel seduction technique built around guacamole, and “Self-Care,” in which one panel is a food pyramid with wine at the base, cheese and chocolate in the section just above it, wine above that section, and “more wine” at the top. There is even a touch of perception here about animals: excitement when a dog jumps onto cartoon Brantz’s lap, but super-wide eyes and the comment, “I have been chosen,” when a cat does so; and a dog walk during which cartoon Brantz is thinking, “This is nice,” while her dog is in utter ecstasy and thinking, “This is the best time of our lives!!!!!!!” Brantz may not have a clue about better ways to live, but she has plenty of clues about how ladies (and, for that matter, gentlemen) do live, and that is plenty funny enough to fill Lady Stuff with wry chuckles, available to readers as needed. Which, life being what it is, will be frequently.
Wed Wabbit. By Lissa Evans. David Fickling Books. $17.99.
Shards #1: Sisters of Glass. By Naomi Cyprus. Harper. $16.99.
Preteen readers, ages 8-12, have many fictional lands they can visit and many fictional journeys and adventures they can have in them – with many different things to learn and many different ways of learning them. This is true even though the stories’ outcomes are, by and large, fairly similar in their level of uplift and in the way they conclude with protagonists learning about their strengths and weaknesses. Just how different the tales can be is shown in comparing a hilarious and inventive new book by Lissa Evans with a much more serious and much more formulaic one by Naomi Cyprus. Evans’ is called Wed Wabbit and revolves around a red rabbit, sounded out with the “w” sound by four-year-old Minnie (short for Minerva), sister of the central almost-11-year-old character, Fidge (short for Iphigenia). Fidge’s dad, whom she resembles physically and in her neat, orderly and organized personality, has died, so the family includes only the two girls and their decidedly ditzy mom, whom Minnie resembles. Minnie is obsessed with book-and-toy characters called Wimbley Woos, garbage-can-shaped things that come in various colors with differing personalities and abilities: “Yellow are timid. Blue are strong./ Gray are wise and rarely wrong.” And so on through green, pink, orange and purple – seven colors in all. The Wimbley Woos speak only in verse, just one irritant for Fidge when she meets them. Yes, meets them. Minnie is injured in a car accident (not terribly seriously), so Fidge has to go live for a time with Uncle Simon and Auntie Ruth, whose son, Graham – Fidge’s cousin – is an extreme hypochondriac, hilariously spoiled, very smart in an in-your-face way, and altogether unpleasant. At Graham’s house, Fidge soon falls down some cellar steps – along with Graham himself – and the two find themselves in the actual land of the Wimbley Woos. Yes, this sounds like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it does have some of that resonance, but it is much funnier in a slapstick way (if less thoughtful and elaborate). The Wimbley Woos, it soon develops, need Fidge to rescue them from something – which turns out to be an exaggerated, evil version of Wed Wabbit. While Fidge struggles to figure out what is going on, Graham – separated from Fidge after the cellar-steps incident – is dealing with his “transitional object,” a rather rigid and dogmatic (but sensible) plastic carrot from a supermarket giveaway that calls itself “Dr. Carrot” because the small platform on which it stands says “DR” (standing for the store, “Douglas Retail”). The Lewis Carroll elements of Wed Wabbit merge surprisingly well with some from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as Graham (who, of course, eventually learns the error of his intelligent-but-misguided spoiled-brat ways) and the sensible, clever Fidge try to understand their predicament and figure a way out of it. The charming stuffed Ella Elephant, rather given to over-dramatization, adds additional humor to the proceedings, and the Wimbley Woos’ riddles prove crucial to the plot: Fidge and Graham need to solve them and deal with Wed Wabbit in order to get home. The oddity of the Wimbley Woos, the well-balanced characterizations of Fidge and Graham, and the consistently funny writing and sure pacing of Evans’ book make Wed Wabbit weally wonderful.
Also well-written but much more conventional in plot – and more strongly directed at preteen girls rather than at both girls and boys – Cyprus’ Sisters of Glass is the first entry in a series called Shard. The sequence’s title makes perfect sense, since it is a shard of glass – in the form of a mirror – that lies at the heart of a traditional prince (here, princess) and pauper, good-vs.-evil plot. Princess Halan is heir to a kingdom where magic is crucial – it is even called the Magi Kingdom, no reference to Disney apparently intended – but she herself lacks magical powers, even though every ruler before her has had them. She dreams of escape from the palace and of living somewhere where she will not constantly feel the pressure of her inadequacies and inabilities. Into her life, quite unexpectedly, comes Nalah Bardak, a Thauma (magic user) who lives in a land where magic is strictly outlawed on pain of penalties ranging up to death. Like other Thauma, Nalah lives quietly: she helps her father make glass knickknacks to sell at a local market. But these are not as well-crafted as the ones made by the family of her friend Marcus Cutter, because his family is rich and has connections that allow them to use some magic to produce beautiful Thauma crafts. Hoping to better her own family’s lot, Nalah secretly accepts a commission from an old family friend named Zachary Tam, who wants an illegal mirror to be re-created. Nalah succeeds – but as soon as he gets the mirror, Tam kidnaps Nalah’s father and escapes to another place through it. So Nalah, aided by Marcus, goes after Tam on a rescue mission. This is how Nalah and Halan meet – their names being a reversal of each other is an overly obvious clue to their intertwined importance and to what is going on in their worlds. The tale is told in alternating chapters, but the voices of Nalah and Halan do not sound sufficiently different for this common device to be particularly effective: the girls’ backgrounds stand in for any genuinely differing personalities that Cyprus might otherwise need to develop. On the other hand, the determination and independence that both girls possess will be attractive for the intended readership, and Cyprus does a good job of creating settings that differ from the usual vaguely medieval European ones so common in fantasies for young readers: here there is a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor to the geography. But the basic story of similar characters from two different worlds, joined by unexpected events and needing to fight the good fight for their respective homes, is nothing new, and Cyprus handles it competently but without any really unusual angles. Sisters of Glass is an effective enough genre entry to deserve a (+++) rating, but it breaks no new ground and is content to remain in the same action/adventure territory where many fantasy novels for preteens, and indeed for adults, reside comfortably but without much distinction or distinctiveness.
Best Food Writing 2017. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $16.99.
The First World indulgence that is food writing is by definition an exercise in wretched excess. With so many people worldwide living at subsistence levels, there is something faintly obscene in the notion of a magazine called Bon Appetit or an article about a restaurant in a neighborhood where median household income is $217,070 per year – a piece titled “In New York City, What’s the Difference Between a $240 Sushi Roll and a $6.95 Sushi Roll?” And concerns such as “Who Owns Southern Food?” and “I Want Crab, Pure Maryland Crab” are so rarefied, even by First World standards, that the audience for writing of this sort is an exceptionally self-limited and self-indulgent one. That does not, however, preclude the possibility of there being good writing on the topic, and it is that sort of writing that appears in Best Food Writing 2017, as it has in earlier editions of this book for more than 15 years.
There is pervasive irony in the way some of the writers represented here try so hard to be inclusive, for-all-people, neatly liberal and diversity-aware. One piece here is actually called “Can S.C. Barbecue Family Rise Above Their Father’s History of Racism?” Even food is all about politics; even food has the good guys and the bad guys…sorry, that’s “the good people” and “the bad people.” Yet there is a recurring sense of noblesse oblige about the articles, such as “What’s True About Pho,” whose author is described as “making a pilgrimage of sorts” by visiting Vietnam to learn about the dish. Very, very few people anywhere in the world, never mind outside the richest nations, can ever make a pilgrimage for the sake of noodles in broth. This author, Rachel Khong, who pointedly explains that it “seems relevant” to mention that she is “not Vietnamese” (all that burden of political correctness!), and who always refers to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, is determined to find ways in which differences in pho have deep meaning: “The meat in Saigon is more varied; here there is tendon and tripe in addition to the less colorful cuts found in the North [in Hanoi]. …As it turns out, pho is always a product of place and history, and of people. …Just as straitlaced Northern pho says something about the North, and Southern pho says something about the South, and pho says something about Vietnam, American pho says something about us.”
This is a typical approach for the authors in Best Food Writing 2017: find the meaning in food and in eating; never regard what is consumed merely as the necessary fuel to keep the body going. John Kessler, writing after a move north to Chicago, says, “Home. That’s surely what I miss when I miss Southern food. I get it. When I mutter that the grits at some trendy brunch place suck, I’m also saying that it shouldn’t be 42 degrees outside in May, that I miss my backyard garden and my friends, and that I fret I will never experience in Chicago that sense of food and place, of season and cook, that was the soul of every meal at Cakes & Ale in Decatur.” Food has a soul in Best Food Writing 2017; it is scarcely mere nutrition. Food is a highly competitive area, too, as Gustavo Arellano writes: “The luxe lonchera revolution has seen the children of immigrants push their mother cuisine to all sorts of levels, picking and choosing from other cultures to create dishes of dizzying heights.” And it is extremely political, and not only in the United States. Writing a piece called “The Last European Christmas,” Marina O’Loughlin laments the coming British departure from the European Union: “Brexit – ugly word, ugly situation – shines a light onto these family holidays that helps me see them with new eyes. …I don’t know what a Brexit-flavored Christmas would consist of, stripped of its elements from elsewhere. Ashes, I suspect.” Best Food Writing 2017 is all about people who have plenty of time and plenty of money to contemplate the societal implications of food, and plenty of inclination to make eating an integral part of the ever-widening sphere of discourse in which everything, everything, is political – and in which there are always good and bad sides, winners and losers. The first of the five sections of the book is called “The Way We Eat Now,” and there is something rather sad in realizing that the title is accurate – not for everybody, not even for a majority of people, but for the self-proclaimed cognoscenti who hold forth on what is good and right and admirable and forward-looking and inclusive and politically correct. Readers with sufficient leisure to see food in this context will encounter a considerable amount of piquant writing here; those not enamored of the underlying assumptions will find the book rather over-seasoned with self-importance and arrogance.