December 06, 2012
(++++) HOW SWEET IT IS
BBXX: “Baby Blues” Decades 1 & 2. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $35.
The Nutcracker. By Patrick Regan. Illustrated by Natasha Kuricheva. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
The Daily Cookie: 365 Tempting Treats for the Sweetest Year of Your Life. By Anna Ginsberg. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.
There is so much sweet stuff in the Baby Blues comic strip by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott that it is a wonder that the strip’s MacPherson family is not stuck permanently in treacle. That they are not is testimony to the absolutely perfect balance that Kirkman and Scott achieve, again and again, between the sweet and the acerbic. Both are fathers (although that was not the case when the strip started, as readers of BBXX will quickly learn), and anyone who thinks that these cartoonists have secret cameras observing his or her everyday parental life is close to correct: they observe their own everyday lives – and turn events that would not otherwise be funny into consistent hilarity. This is undoubtedly therapeutic for Kirkman and Scott, and turns out to be equally salutary for readers of Baby Blues, who can relate to all the everyday weirdnesses that happen in the strip while using the MacPhersons’ good-hearted, perpetually befuddled confrontation with parenthood as an escape valve for real-world frustration. How remarkable is this? Well, 20 years of the strip means about 7,305 entries in the Baby Blues world (allowing for five leap years along the way), and although not every strip is a home run, the number that strike out can be counted on the fingers of your hands. Probably one hand. BBXX is one of Andrews McMeel’s super-elegant, beautifully designed hardcover coffee-table-style volumes, a distinctly weighty 338-page tome (it tips the scale at five pounds) packed from start to finish with wonderfully selected strips (that’s the easy part, since they are almost all wonderful), biographical material, looks at the strip’s early history and prehistory, a great couple of pages on “Mishaps, Mayhem, & Remakes,” a look at how Kirkman and Scott actually produce the strip, and more. But not too much more: the focus from start to finish is on the strip itself, its changes through the years and its consistencies, its tone as the MacPherson family has expanded from a one-child to a three-child one, and the many real-life events that have inspired specific strips. The pervasive commentary by Kirkman and Scott – short, to the point, and often highly amusing – is one of the book’s many charms. And it really does enhance the strips. For instance, next to a strip in which Wanda is so tired of breast-feeding her son that she says “moo” as she walks along, Scott writes, “We get a lot of letters thanking us for portraying breast-feeding in a realistic light. In this one the realistic light was turned up pretty bright.” Pretty much everything here is fun, and every reader will have favorite parts of this wonderful collection. For example, a section on “Sunday Title Panels” first explains what they are (introductory panels that editors have the option to run or not run), then shows dozens of absolutely marvelous examples, from a Rocky and Bullwinkle-influenced one to one based on the famous Jaws movie poster – portraying Zoe as a shark about to attack her little brother – to one in which a scene from The Matrix is reinterpreted to show Darryl dodging diapers rather than bullets. BBXX is just wonderful, one of those seasonal-delight books that are delightful in every season. Parents looking for an absolutely ideal Christmas gift should seriously consider giving it to themselves.
Speaking of seasonal family gifts – and sweet ones, at that – performances of The Nutcracker are a highlight of a number of families’ celebrations, although not all kids appreciate being taken to a ballet that requires a longer attention span than they are accustomed to needing for TV and all of the electronic toys and appliances that pervade so many homes nowadays. Patrick Regan and Natasha Kuricheva have created a version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet that may help bridge the gap: it is a handsomely produced, short volume that uses animation-producing lenticular printing to bring numerous scenes to life. Lenticular animation (Accord Publishing calls it “AniMotion”) uses plastic with vertical black bars to make scenes appear to move when a reader tilts the page. This form of printing is a multi-step process with which most adults and many kids are familiar in very crude form – prizes in Cracker Jack boxes have used it for years, for instance, and it has actually been around since the 1940s. But well-done modern versions of the technology can be quite marvelous, and The Nutcracker takes things a step further than usual by not requiring readers to move the page in order to see the motion. Instead, Regan and Kuricheva offer a book with movable flaps – and the flaps are used to produce the lenticular effects. This is exceedingly clever, and it fits the book’s story very well. Opening one flap causes Fritz’s colorful toy soldiers to march; opening another reveals Clara cuddling her damaged nutcracker after Fritz throws it to the floor; opening one during the scene of the toys’ battle with the mice causes a cannon to seem to be shooting peppermint candies (an especially nice effect); and the flaps in the Land of Sweets scenes show the enthusiastic Russian dance, the twirling Sugar Plum Fairy, and more. The original story of The Nutcracker, by E.T.A. Hoffman, was a dark and rather spooky tale about betrayal and transformation, but the version that came down to Tchaikovsky and became the basis of his beloved ballet is almost all sweetness and light – particularly sweetness in the entire second act – and is highly enjoyable with its “AniMotion” elements.
Ah, but there is no sweetness in Baby Blues or The Nutcracker to compare with what Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest grand-prize winner Anna Ginsberg offers in one of the gooiest and altogether most decadent – but easy-to-use – cookbooks around: The Daily Cookie. The premise here is just marvelous: yes, there are cookies for every day of the year, but that is not all – the cookies are tied to events for every day of the year. You know those silly holidays that politicians spend an inordinate amount of time creating? National Smile Power Day? World Mental Health Day? International Left Handers Day? Operating Room Nurse Day? Well, Ginsberg has collected them all, and found ways to tie cookie recipes into them: “Because OR nurses are always on their feet, here’s a cookie that can be eaten on the go,” she says of “White Chocolate Cherry Energy Bars” (November 14). For “Middle Child Day” (August 12), because middle children are sandwiched between older and younger ones, she offers “Oatmeal Sandwich Cookies.” For “Potato Chip Day” (March 14), there are “Potato Chip Cookies.” For “National Trails Day” (June 4), there are “Dried Cherry Chocolate Trail Bars.” For some days, Ginsberg acknowledges the official “day” but picks something else notable to commemorate: June 16 is “Fudge Day,” but it is also the day Cracker Jack was invented (in 1893), so it gets “Caramel Corn Cookies” (a two-part recipe showing, first, how to make the caramel corn, then how to use it in cookies). There are recipes here from the simple to the complex, tastes here from the sweet to the very sweet, forms of cookies (and dessert bars) from the ordinary to the offbeat, and ingredient requirements from the extensive to the minimal (“Fabulous Four-Ingredient Bars,” honoring the Beatles’ arrival in the United States on February 7, 1964, do indeed have only four ingredients, as does “Peppermint Cookie Bark” for December 26, “Candy Cane Day”). The recipes are easy to understand and usually easy to follow (some are more complex than others, but there is nothing highly demanding here), making The Daily Cookie a really wonderful treat and a simply delicious book. And what does it offer for Christmas (which, by the way, is also “National Pumpkin Pie Day”)? Ginsberg serves up a recipe for “Almond Ginger Toasts,” which she says is her favorite of all the recipes she has tested. The Daily Cookie will quickly become a favorite, too, for bakers of all ages, all skill levels, and all levels of enjoyment.