October 27, 2016


2017 Calendars: Page-a-Day—Shakespeare Insults; Brit Wit; Truth Facts; You Had One Job!; Medical Cartoon-a-Day. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     Pictorial calendars are all very well, but one of the neat things about the vast variety of page-a-day offerings from Andrews McMeel is that there are plenty of choices for people who get quite enough visual orientation day in and day out and would prefer to have one place each day to which they can look for some words of inspiration. Or amusement. Or, as in the case of Shakespeare Insults, personal attacks as only the Bard of Avon could frame them. We think of Shakespeare as esoteric these days, largely because his language – in style and vocabulary – differs so markedly from the one we speak now. But in his time, Shakespeare was quite down-and-dirty. Filthy, even. It was not the intelligentsia that filled the coffers of the Globe Theatre – it was the rougher trade of people who came to see death and mayhem, especially befalling royalty and other higher-class characters, and if there could be a touch of nastiness in the dialogue as well, that would be just fine, thank you. It is the way that Shakespeare combines the lowest of appeals  with the loftiest that is a source of continuing amazement to this day. And that means there is plenty of lowness in his works – a fine smattering of which may be found in this calendar. Shakespeare knew how to turn a phrase even when being nasty, as in the line from Henry IV, Part II in which one character accuses another of liking to “commit the oldest sins the newest kind of ways.” Or the notably non-fraternal comment from The Tempest addressing “you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth.” Of course, Shakespeare could be straightforwardly insulting, as in “thou art a traitor and a miscreant” from Richard II and, from Henry V, “Thou cruel, ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!” But many of Shakespeare’s more-notable attacks are written with the witty wordplay that pervades the serious elements of his plays: “I trust I may not trust thee” from King John, for example, and, from Coriolanus, “You are no surer, no, than is the coal of fire upon the ice, or hailstone in the sun.” Even in his insults, Shakespeare has a habit of making us think, so Shakespeare’s Insults is a wonderful calendar for those who like to bring a touch of the thoughtful to every day. True, there are a few mistakes in it: “You spotted snakes with double tongue” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not an insult but the fairies’ call to protect their queen, for example. But by and large, this is a calendar packed with insults beside which modern profanity-filled tirades show as having a distinct absence of intelligence.

     Shakespeare inevitably shows up in the Brit Wit calendar as well, but this is a somewhat more down-to-earth offering and one with a broader focus: pretty much anything pithy and of British origin may be found in this anthology of critique and self-criticism. Author Douglas Adams, for example, is quoted as saying, “I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t know the answer.” Aldous Huxley, a grimmer author, has a grimmer comment: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Philosopher Bertrand Russell offers an almost-Shakespearian-style insult: “The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego [sic] ordinary pleasures and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others.” This should really be “forgo,” but the point is neatly made even with the typo (which is the calendar’s, not the learned Russell’s). Bits of politics peek out here and there in Brit Wit, such as this from comedian Alexei Sayle: “Americans have different ways of saying things. They say ‘elevator,’ we say ‘lift.’ They say ‘President,’ we say ‘stupid psychopathic git.’” The specific president scarcely matters – it is the language differences on the two sides of “the pond” that produce the amusement here. There are some nicely turned phrases in this calendar about personal relationships. Prince Philip is quoted as saying, “When a man opens the car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.” And Lord Byron suggests, “Let us have wine and women,/ Mirth and laughter./ Sermons and soda water the day after.” Another famous poet, John Dryden, is represented by a well-known proposed epitaph intended, one hopes, not to be taken too seriously: “Here lies my wife./ Here let her lie!/ Now she’s at rest,/ And so am I.” For something a bit more recent, there is Rod Stewart’s wry comment, “Instead of getting married again, I’m going to find a woman I don’t like and just give her a house.” And if that is not twisted or bitter enough, there is always the comment of George Bernard Shaw, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” Think about it – and about the other entries here. Brit Wit invites both amusement and thoughtfulness.

     So does Truth Facts, but in a different way. Yes, this calendar is all about words, but it is the way they are presented – through illustrations such as pie charts and graphs – that gives them much of their pointedness and humor. Or, in some cases, social consciousness, such as side-by-side pie charts of “Where You Are Primarily to Be Found.” The first pie chart, “According to your Facebook profile,” is divided among “at a gourmet restaurant,” “at the airport,” “at an art opening” and “at an exclusive film premiere.” The second pie chart, “In real life,” is a single color representing “at home in front of your computer.” Consider that when using social media in 2017. Then there is a page called “Shooting Accuracy Against the Hero in an Action Movie,” showing a stylized heroic character in the center of the page and mock bullet holes pretty much everywhere else. Along the same lines, a pie chart called “What Helicopters Do in Movies” has only a single color, referring to the word “explode.” Another pie chart, called “What Getting Flowers from Your Boyfriend Means,” has three colors for “I cheated on you,” “I screwed up” and “It’s Valentine’s Day/Mother’s Day/our anniversary,” plus a fourth possible color for “You’re amazing – I love you” that appears in the color key but nowhere in the chart itself. Now there’s a cynical graphic commentary on relationships. Elsewhere, a round watch face becomes a pie chart called “Why Men Wear Watches,” in which a small sliver of color represents “To be able to tell what time it is” and a much, much, much larger colored area represents “Because they’re expensive.” And this calendar is not all pie charts, by any means. There is also, for example, a map of “Your Suburban Neighborhood” in which squares almost everywhere are white, representing “regular people.” One dark-green square, however, is called “You live here,” and the only four squares touching it are ones labeled “Garage rock band,” “Constantly mows the lawn,” “Creepy naked dude,” and “Pitbull enthusiasts.” Also here is a graph on which the Y (vertical) axis is called “How trivial and forced your relationship is” and the X (horizontal) one is called “How often you call one another ‘darling’ in public.” Of course, the graph plot shows that the more “darlings,” the more trivial the relationship. Truth Facts may not be entirely truthful or entirely factual, but it has enough truth and enough factuality (factuality?) to make it a bracing wake-up call for every day of 2017.

     Words are the source of much of the humor of the You Had One Job! calendar, too, but this is also an offering in which the visual elements plus the words are often needed for the full effect. For example, here you will find a “One Way” sign with arrows pointing in two directions – the arrows are what make the words amusing. On the other hand, the sign on a store’s wall, “Open 9 Days a Week,” is a clear enough mistake without needing much to be visible besides the sign itself. The same is true of the sign atop a bank lane for cars that says “Drvie Thru.” And the sign at a garage pointing to the “Exix.” And the similar sign in a building’s hallway, with the “T” mounted upside-down. Well, actually that one does need to be seen for its full effect – and that is why the You Had One Job! calendar is only partly about words. Oh – it is also about word misuse. There is, for example, a perfectly legible and properly spelled sign saying “Homemade Soups: Cream of Broccoli” on one page; the problem is that it is attached to a loaf of bread. A sign saying “Men’s Swimwear” also looks fine, but the problem is that it is prominently placed at a display of heavy winter coats. On the other hand, the trash truck labeled “Municipal Waist” offers wordplay at its best, or worst, or most ignorant, or something. And what about the package of bread sticks with a big label that says “ready in 4-5 minutes” and small-type instructions saying to bake for at least six minutes? Or consider the “clearance” sign that reads “Big Going Out Sale Business Now!!”  And the sign that reads, “Customer Parking Only. All Others Toad.” And the one advertising a “Chubby Chicken Bugrer.” And the especially embarrassing one that reads, “Nothing is imposable [sic] for god.” And the end-of-race line with the painted word “FINISIH.” And the Halloween decoration that spells “BOO” backwards – yes, as “OOB.” There are also upside-down signs and labels, “sale” prices that are the same as regular prices, misplaced coupons ($1 off on cheese in the lipstick section), and lots of other examples of jobs done in less-than-ideal fashion. You Had One Job! is a 2017 calendar that just may make it easier to get up every day and go to your job, determined never to do it in a way that might land you in the 2018 version.

     The words in Medical Cartoon-a-Day for 2017 also supply much of the enjoyment, but since this calendar does, after all, feature cartoons (by Jonny Hawkins), it is the mixture of art and writing that provides the full effect. Not that the art is completely necessary to get the point – for instance, it is obviously a “try this medicine” scene in which the doctor is saying, “The only side effect is that you may experience kick ups, a cross between a cough and a hiccup,” and it is clearly a temperature-taking situation in which a patient is told, “According to this, you should be emitting lava,” and obviously the scene shows a very heavy person asking someone in a medical office, “My lipo-suction – is there a bulk rate?” On the other hand, it does help to have the visual impact of the wolf at a gym to go with the caption, “I’m trying to increase my lung capacity for huffing and puffing.” And to see the down-on-his-luck man carrying a sign reading, “Utterly lost – can’t even find a search engine” (not that that has anything particular to do with medical matters). And to read the tombstone that says, “Read something that I was dying to read.” And the sign on an orthopedist’s office: “No knee-jerk decisions beyond this point.” Some of the funniest cartoons here are only marginally medical, such as the one of an elephant seen making a withdrawal from an ATM labeled “Memory Bank.” And some of the word play is deliberately on the silly side, with a man whose leg is in a cast entering an elevator and saying, “Twentieth floor, please. I have to keep it elevated,” and a police officer handcuffing a man while telling him he has a bad heart that has to be taken in for questioning – that panel is captioned, “Cardiac Arrest.” There are no guffaws in Medical Cartoon-a-Day, and there is nothing here with the wit and wisdom and articulateness of, say, Shakespeare. But for people in the medical profession – and anyone who has ever been a patient – there are lots of words here that can brighten the days of the coming year, no matter what your diagnosis.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Illustrated Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $39.99.

     Jim Kay is doing something amazing with his illustrated editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books – the second of which, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is now available. The visual elements of Rowling’s books were always important to their effectiveness: Jonny Duddle did the British children’s editions, Andrew Davidson the British adult paperback versions, and Mary GrandPré the U.S. editions published by Scholastic. But as fine as these illustrators’ works were, they were incidental to the stories that Rowling told, not integral to them. Now, however, the Harry Potter books are affirmed as modern classics on the level of the works of C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, perhaps even J.R.R. Tolkien (three other British authors known by their initials rather their full names). And this makes it possible for Kay to envision the novels with illustrations that are completely integrated with the story from start to finish, drawing upon and expanding the textual elements and turning the series into something lying somewhere between graphic novels and traditional illustrated books.

     This approach would never work without an artist of exceptional skill undertaking it. Kay has the skill – and, equally important, the willingness to look at the Harry Potter books anew, not being bound by the images created by previous artists or in the eight-film series based on the main Harry Potter sequence. Rowling does give some clear descriptions of certain characters and places, with the result that some of Kay’s work resembles what others have done – for example, his portrait of Dobby the house-elf, who appears for the first time in this book, is, except for the extra-long nose, unsurprising (although rendered with exceptional care). But even when Kay follows others in general terms, he gives his illustrations their own individual character – for example, by showing Dobby rushing downstairs in the Dursleys’ home, his bare bottom protruding from his ill-fitting garment. More frequently, Kay puts his own inimitable stamp on Rowling’s work, often through the way he handles minor scenes or subsidiary characters. A beautiful two-page spread of the flying car rescuing Harry as birds flap all around it uses perspective beautifully, for example, and the garden gnomes infesting the Weasley homestead are drawn as a perfect blend of the cute and the troublesome. Elsewhere, Harry’s fireplace-mediated trip to Diagon Alley is suitably scary, the first appearance in this book of Hagrid is quite ominous enough, and the view of Diagon Alley itself, which stretches across four pages, is so enthralling that repeated visits to the illustration are an absolute must – it is jam-packed with suitable, superbly rendered detail.

     Indeed, detail is a specialty in Kay’s illustrations and a major reason they significantly increase the depth and seeming reality of Rowling’s story. A page about the mandrake root, for example, really does look like something out of a medieval manuscript. And pages in which background and type color are reversed – dark background with white type – are beautifully placed throughout the book, in such a way that they enhance the story and expand its effectiveness. On top of this, character portraits are excellent: one showing Hermione carrying a stack of books almost as big as she is fits her perfectly, one of Moaning Myrtle manages to combine scariness and pathos in just the right mixture, and the colossal fraud Gilderoy Lockhart looks exactly as phony and self-important as he should. There are marvels throughout the book, often showing up unexpectedly: the full-page illustration of the label of the bone-growth medicine “Skele-Gro,” in which a large grinning skeleton is feeding a baby bottle of the liquid to a small skeleton wearing a top hat, is both gruesome and hilarious. Again and again, Kay finds ways to make both the small details of the story and its grand events and important characters come brilliantly to life – even more brilliantly, in many ways, than in the films based on Rowling’s novels, as good as those movies were.

     What Kay has done with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s [or Sorcerer's] Stone and, in this second volume, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is to re-launch a now-classic series in an entirely new way. The books are not better this way – they are, after all, still driven by and dependent on Rowling’s prose, which is standing the test of time very well indeed. But they are different, even more involving than before and often more intense – the two-page view of Harry being pulled inside the mysterious diary, to cite one example, is both extremely colorful and deeply unsettling. There is pervasive darkness in Kay’s view of the Harry Potter books, darkness that creeps in earlier and more furtively than in the novels as originally illustrated: practically every view of Hogwarts, for example, is a dark one, and even the happy ending of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets retains a sense of gloom, thanks to the spiders that crawl all the way into the endpapers. Kay is a superb interpreter of the world of Harry Potter, an artist whose vision enthralls in and of itself while never stepping beyond the bounds of the novels as Rowling created them. These illustrated versions of the Harry Potter books are the best possible way for readers who already know the series to revisit it – and an unequalled path into this world for anyone new to the novels to use in experiencing the Harry Potter tales for the first time.


Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt. By Mary Kay Carson. Photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships. By Catherine Thommesh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.

     The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series has never gone so far into the field as it does in Mission to Pluto. Of course, the scientists themselves do not go to the dwarf planet at the outer limits of our solar system – or to the ninth planet, for those who insist that Pluto deserves to be considered a full-fledged planet. Actually, the discussion of Pluto’s status is one element quite clearly presented in Mary Kay Carson’s very well-written book, in which the excitement of science comes through with particular clarity – thanks in part to Tom Uhlman’s photographs, which show the sheer joy on the researchers’ faces as revelation after revelation streams back to Earth from the enormously distant New Horizons spacecraft. Solar distances are well-nigh incomprehensible in human terms, and young readers will marvel – as will adults – at contemplating just how far away Pluto is: it took New Horizons nine-and-a-half years to reach it. Practically everything about the mission involved a “first” of some sort – beyond it being the first mission to Pluto. Pluto is now considered a binary object (which, by the by, is why it is no longer deemed a planet: it and its largest moon, Charon, are essentially paired); this mission was the first ever to such an object. It was the first to the Kuiper belt, a vast region at the edge of the solar system in which the first object ever discovered was Pluto itself. The mission was the first to discover Pluto’s fourth moon, Kerberos – and, later, the first to find its fifth moon, Styx. There is so much here that is genuinely new, so great a sense of really (not in science fiction) going where no one, no human-made object, has gone before, that Mission to Pluto is a can’t-put-it-down read akin to an exciting novel. The mission itself is continuing today, after more than a decade, but Carson’s compression of it makes it seem real and visceral in a way that the vast time spans it requires cannot. In addition, Carson’s portrait of principal investigator Alan Stern humanizes the science and the exploration wonderfully: Stern’s enthusiasm, which borders on fanatical devotion to space exploration, is infectious, and his insights, sprinkled throughout the book, make this a story of people and dreams as much as one of scientific equipment and analysis. Just reading how Stern chose the name New Horizons for the mission and spacecraft will help readers understand science to be as human as it is rarefied. There is considerable pure science here as well: a page showing how the Crab Nebula looks when observed using seven different instruments that detect seven different wavelengths of light is one fascination among many. By the time Stern says of New Horizons that, after its flyby of Pluto, “We’re going exploring into the Kuiper belt,” readers will include themselves in that we and will be quite ready to learn what new discoveries the spacecraft will make as it continues outward, ever outward, from Earth. Those discoveries, which will likely be reported as minor news items amid the constant flood of more-immediate concerns on our planet, will seem all the more important to readers of Mission to Pluto – and all the more indicative of humanity’s capabilities – than the umpteenth iteration of nonsense news involving celebrities, sports figures, politics and other everyday dross.

     To be sure, there are wonderful stories on Earth as well as in space, even if they tend to be under-reported. The Internet is a notable breeding ground for positive as well as negative material, with many of the positives involving animals – although it can be virtually impossible to determine whether pictures and videos featuring animal behavior have been artificially created or enhanced. That makes books such as Catherine Thommesh’s Friends all the more valuable, since for all their cuddlesome cuteness – which is available online in abundance – the animals featured here are real and their relationships really happened. Originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, Friends is essentially a picture book: the text appearing on pages opposite the ones showing full-page photos of the animals is minimal. Each page of writing intends to draw an amusingly heartfelt lesson from the animals shown – for instance, “No matter/ who has/ a snout/ or a beak,/ connecting with friends/ is something friends seek.” This bit of doggerel appears opposite a photo of an ostrich and giraffe literally getting their heads together at a Serengeti exhibit in a Florida theme park. The brief explanation of the relationship, offered beneath the lines of poetry, is that a young giraffe once came close to an old ostrich and licked it – and the ostrich, instead of running away, licked back – and now the two continue to interact periodically. The stories here are varied and fascinating. At an animal rescue home in England, an injured basset hound was sprawled on a couch in front of a TV one day when a tawny owl flew over to the dog and cuddled up – and the two continued snuggling on the couch on a regular basis for more than five years. In the wilds of Manitoba, Canada, a 1200-pound polar bear approached some chained Eskimo sled dogs – and observers expected one or more dogs to become the bear’s meal. Instead, the bear nudged one of the dogs and the two animals wrestled and played all evening – a performance repeated for 10 days before the bear disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared. In an Indonesian zoo, a baby orangutan and baby Sumatran tiger – natural enemies in the wild – started grooming each other one day, for no known reason, and continued playing together for months until attendants felt they had to separate them for the orangutan’s safety. Friends is a heartwarming book whose ultimate message, although never explicitly stated by Thommesh, is that the need for comfort and companionship can sometimes transcend species differences, even to the point of temporarily short-circuiting instinctive predator-prey relationships. Of course, the word sometimes is key. But it is nice to know that there are occasional real-world instances in which the lion really does lie down with the lamb – or, in this case, with the piglet, as shown in one of the many adorable photos that are this book’s primary attraction.


Heroes for My Daughter. By Brad Meltzer. Harper. $17.99.

Heroes for My Son. By Brad Meltzer. Harper. $17.99.

Forward: My Story. By Abby Wambach. Harper. $16.99.

     Determined to provide his newborn daughter with a list of people she could look up to as she grew, Brad Meltzer wrote Heroes for My Daughter shortly after Lila’s birth in 2011. A new, revised version of the book shows that, for a few years at least, Meltzer’s choices have stood up well – not least because he avoided the politically correct notion of choosing only females for his daughter to admire. In fact, Heroes for My Daughter is attractive for readers unrelated to Meltzer precisely because his choices are such an interesting combination of the mainstream and the determinedly offbeat. Yes, he includes Marie Curie and Helen Keller and Amelia Earhart and Anne Frank and Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Sojourner Truth and Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. All those are fine, admirable, utterly conventional picks. But Meltzer also includes Alex Scott, who was diagnosed with cancer at birth and lived to be only eight years old – and who created, at the age of four, the idea of “Alex’s Lemonade Stand,” a fundraiser for cancer research that has raised more than $45 million. He includes Lisa Simpson, who does not exist: she is the middle child in the cartoon Simpsons family and the family’s smartest member by far. He includes the Three Stooges, not because of their slapstick comedy in general but because one of their movies was the first Hollywood film to make fun of Adolf Hitler – nine months before Charlie Chaplin’s famous The Great Dictator, the Stooges were seen in You Nazty Spy! He includes Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball manager who signed Jackie Robinson. He includes autism activist Temple Grandin, World War II paratrooper Hannah Senesh, and “The Heroes of Flight 93,” whose counterattack on Islamic murderers on September 11, 2001 resulted in a plane crash in a Pennsylvania field rather than at the White House or U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Meltzer is not just eclectic in Heroes for My Daughter: he is invariably thoughtful, analytical, pointed and emotionally involved. Yes, the last three entries in the book are entirely personal: they are Dotty Rubin, Meltzer’s grandmother; Teri Meltzer, his mother; and Cori Flam Meltzer, his wife and Lila’s mom. But in the context of this book, these three completely personal choices are every bit as worthy, every bit as heroic, every bit as meaningful as all the picks of well-known and less-known people in the rest of the book. There are 57 short chapters here, each only two pages long, followed by an invitation to Lila – and every reader – to choose a hero and affix his or her photo, and then followed by blank pages on which to write his or her story. What Heroes for My Daughter shows with acumen and sensitivity is just how many choices are possible, just how varied they can be, and just how meaningful each and every one of them is capable of being.

     Meltzer has sons, too – Theo and Jonas – and even before he created his daughter-focused book, Meltzer wrote a son-focused one, in 2009; this book too is now available in a new, revised edition. It is easy to form a picture of Meltzer’s own personal heroes by looking at the ones duplicated between the two books: both contain Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks, for example. And just as in the daughter-oriented book, the son-directed one ends with personal entries, one being (again) Teri Meltzer and the other being Ben Rubin, the author’s grandfather. Beyond that, one element the books share is an understanding that people of both genders can be heroes to both sons and daughters – thank goodness Meltzer does not insist that only women can be girls’ role models and only men can be heroes for boys. Also, Heroes for My Son offers a similar mixture of the expected (or at least well-known) people and ones who are much less familiar. In the former category are rather more baseball players than might be expected – three of them: Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. Other sports figures appear, too, including Jesse Owens, Pelé and Muhammad Ali. But there are, thank goodness, heroes from other fields as well in the 52 chapters here, including Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Harry Houdini, Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Steven Spielberg. And then there are less-familiar names: scientist Norman Borlaug, whose development of high-yield, disease-resistant crops saved a billion people from starvation; Dan West, the Indiana farmer whose project of sending livestock to the poor and malnourished became Heifer International; Eli Segal, who helped launch AmeriCorps and for whom, not coincidentally, Meltzer himself worked for a time; and highway-patrol officer Frank Shankwitz, co-founder of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. This book too ends with a choose-your hero section and blank pages to write his or her story. And the message of Heroes for My Son, like that of Heroes for My Daughter, is that some people end up better known, some less known, but either way, people in all walks of life are capable of having a positive, even heroic impact on the world.

     Other than Pelé, a possible hero for devoted soccer fans – especially ones who are advocates of same-sex marriage – could certainly be Abby Wambach. But the young readers’ version of her autobiography, Forward: A Memoir – abridged and titled Forward: My Story – is not a particularly compelling book, much less a heroic one. This (+++) presentation of the life of Wambach, who is only 36, seems at the very least premature; and the issues she has dealt with – good and bad life decisions, ambition and uncertainty, love and marriage, success and failure – are not really unusual in any way for people in her age group or, indeed, for those of other ages. What is special about Wambach is her involvement with soccer: she won two Olympic gold medals and was named World Player of the Year by the now-scandal-scarred international soccer federation, FIFA. She also won the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award – six times. And she played regularly on the U.S. Women’s National Team from 2003 until her retirement in 2015. This book is therefore for soccer fans, who will find the behind-the-scenes information, the triumphs and failures, the perceived slights and injustices, the real teamwork and individual competitiveness, to be worth exploring in a fair amount of detail (although less than in the adult version of the book). But away from the soccer field, Wambach is simply not a particularly interesting storyteller; nor  is she one whose interpersonal relationships are all that unusual, once her lesbianism is accepted as an integral part of her story. At times, indeed, she seems to be strikingly without self-awareness, as when she mentions the breakup of her marriage and talks about the necessity of selling her home: she says she “couldn’t imagine staying there, trapped in four thousand square feet of ruined paradise, surrounded by the ghost of dead dreams,” in what is clearly a play for sympathy – but one that ignores the reality that a 4,000-square-foot home is, if not palatial, a very large house indeed, one far beyond what most readers of this book likely live in or to which they can even aspire. Wambach, in her relentless self-focus in this book, is simply tone-deaf to the fans who are its most likely readers. Removing the outer book jacket of Forward: My Story reveals a signed Abby Wambach poster inside, showing her holding the top of an American flag, pointing and looking upward, and wearing a FIFA gold medal. This is carefully designed mass-marketed inspiration. Whether it will inspire readers in some way, and in what way, is an open question. The likelihood is small that non-soccer fans will find anything particularly heroic, or even engaging, in Wambach’s life so far or in her recounting of its ups and downs.


Mozart: String Quartet in B-flat, K. 589; String Quartet in F, K. 590; String Quintet in C minor, K. 406. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajarovan de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello); Michael Tree, viola. Cedille. $16.

Lalo: Symphonie espagnole; Joan Manén: Violin Concerto No. 1, “Concierto español.” Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.

Accompanying Herself: Works for Solo Violin by Lera Auerbach, Grażyna Bacewicz, Henriette Bosmans, Aleksandra Maslovaric, Deon Nielsen Price, Jeannine Richer, Hedda Seischab, Pauline Viardot, and Diane Warren. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin. Feminae Records. $19.99.

Soaring Solo: Unaccompanied Works II for Violin and Viola by Grażyna Bacewicz, Ernst Toch, Alessandro Rolla, Telemann, Biber, Ursula Mamlok, Alan Hovhaness, Fazil Say, Kenji Bunch, Miguel del Águila, Hindemith, and Alfred Schnittke. Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, violin and viola. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     There is nothing delicate about late Mozart – elegant, poised and perfectly balanced, yes, but there is an underlying robustness to the music that performers sometimes overlook. It is in their attention to this element of Mozart’s final two string quartets, Nos. 2 and 3 of the “Prussian” group, that the Dover Quartet’s new Cedille recording excels. Yes, there is warmth aplenty, and marvelous ensemble work, in movements such as the Larghetto of K. 589, but what is striking here is the heft of the opening Allegro and the intensity of the concluding Allegro assai, which is all the more remarkable in a quartet deliberately written in the style of Haydn. Certainly the work is upbeat, even cheerful, but the Dover Quartet plays it with an understanding that it is not Haydn, that its light veneer lies atop a considerable level of thoughtfulness. This is even clearer in K. 590, whose first movement continually hints at depths even as it proceeds with apparently effortless poise. The Andante here is all wistfulness, the Minuetto has more strength than would be expected, and the finale’s contrasts between soft and loud passages are handled with consummate skill. The Dover Quartet cites the justly famous Guarneri Quartet, which performed from 1954 to 2009 with only a single change in personnel, as its model – an ambitious reach for young performers – and has modeled this, its first recording, on the initial Guarneri release, a 1966 performance of the same two Mozart quartets. Comparisons are of little value, for sonic reasons among others, but suffice it to say that the Dover Quartet has a sound all its own, one whose clarity is as noteworthy as was the warmth of the Guarneri players. Fascinatingly for students of musical history, the CD provides a direct Guarneri connection: in the third work, the C minor quintet K. 406, the second viola is played by Guarneri founding violist Michael Tree – one of the teachers of the Dover Quartet’s members. The amazing richness of the first movement of this performance actually does recall Guarneri readings: this is the warmest-sounding movement on the disc. There is palpable release of tension in the Andante and a return to intensity in the Menuetto in Canone, after which the final Allegro brings the quintet right to the verge of the Romantic era. The performance is exemplary, and the entire CD is evidence that the Dover Quartet is a new ensemble that any lover of string quartets will want to discover as soon as possible.

     Tianwa Yang was a major discovery back in 2000, when her first recording – of the Paganini Caprices, no less – established her as already, at age 13, combining exceptional technique with musical understanding well beyond her years. More recently, she has done some discovering of her own, notably recording the complete violin-and-piano and violin-and-orchestra works by Pablo Sarasate for Naxos. Her latest appearance on the label also includes a very interesting discovery, or rediscovery: the first of the three violin concertos by Catalan composer Joan Manén (1883-1971), who is now almost completely neglected but who was a formidable performer and well-thought-of composer during his lifetime. Manén’s “Concierto español” is truly a tour de force for the soloist, who barely gets any breathing room or any chances for finger relaxation. It is a superficial work, more concerned with virtuosity than with any particular depth of feeling – its ties are as strongly to the Paganini concertos as to the works of Sarasate, with whom Manén was often compared. The work’s three-movement structure is wholly conventional, front-weighted to an extended first movement that is followed by a Lamento more steeped in pathos than anything approaching tragedy, and a finale requiring near-perpetual motion of the soloist and a wide variety of techniques, all of which need to be flawlessly executed for maximum effect. Yang handles the music, which is redolent of Romantic sensibilities (it was revised in 1935 but originally dates to 1898), assuredly and with evident enjoyment of its technical hurdles. There is no real depth to her performance, but it is arguable whether that is more a matter of Yang’s interpretation or of the inherent qualities of the music. Certainly this concerto is an interesting display piece, but despite its challenges for the performer, it is neither moving enough nor colorful enough to make it likely to become a more-frequent concert offering. Yang is very ably abetted in the performance by Darrell Ang and the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya – and conductor and orchestra also do a fine job with Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, whose coloristic effects, fast-changing moods and appealing rhythms have deservedly given it a place in the standard violin-and-orchestra repertoire. Although this five-movement work is arranged as a fantasy, there is a solidity to the handling of the individual movements that provides structural strength and justifies the Symphonie title. The nearly endless flow of appealing and quite clearly Spanish-accented melody, coupled with the soloist’s required virtuosity – which, however, never overwhelms the melodiousness of the music – makes this piece a delight. Yang and Ang have a fine sense of the easy flow of the themes and the intricacy of the relationship between soloist and ensemble, with the result that this performance simply sings. The pairing of this work with Manén’s concerto is perhaps a trifle unfair, since Lalo’s piece easily outshines Manén’s, but the chance to hear these two skilled composers’ very different approaches to violin showpieces with a Spanish accent is a most welcome one.

     Pretty much everything on a new Feminae Records CD will be a discovery for listeners: there are 15 short pieces (the whole CD runs just 43 minutes) by nine women composers. The desire to discover or rediscover works by women is admirable but is scarcely enough reason in itself to own the disc, especially since much of the music is quite brief and, more to the point, rather thin. However, Aleksandra Maslovaric’s sensitive, nuanced and thoroughly winning way with this material is a major plus for the (+++) CD, which includes three little pieces by Maslovaric herself: Ringelspiel, 67 Moons (composed  for a video game), and Interruptions, the most interesting of the three works in its hither-and-thither meanderings. Other composers contributing more than one piece here are Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952), represented in quite an out-of-context manner by her cadenzas to the first and second movements of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216; Lera Auerbach (born 1973), with the very short Dancing with Oneself and the somewhat-more-extended T’filah (“Prayer”); Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), two of whose songs, Tarentelle and Madrid, are here transcribed by Maslovaric for solo violin; and Hedda Seischab (born 1957), whose two tracks, both called Verwandlungen (“Transformations”) but differently structured, are the longest and most elaborate pieces here. The remaining composers heard on the CD – none of them particularly familiar – are represented by one work apiece: Grażyna Bacewicz’ Polish Caprice, Jeannine Richer’s Rupture, Diane Warren’s I Learned from the Best (another Maslovaric arrangement), and Deon Nielsen Price’s Stile Antico: Tonos. There is little connection and less flow from work to work, the arrangement of the pieces clearly carefully thought out but not particularly compelling from a strictly musical standpoint. The main attractions of the disc are the very high quality of Maslovaric’s playing and the chance to hear a collection of mostly encore-length works in a variety of styles, all of them in an intimate setting. The fact that the composers are all women is a matter of sociopolitical advocacy; the fact that they are all reasonably skilled at the craft of composition is a more compelling reason to consider this recording. However, the abilities of only two people here really come through clearly: Seischab as composer and Maslovaric herself as composer, arranger and performer.

     There is somewhat more heft to a new MSR Classics solo-violin-and-viola CD featuring Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, partly because of the sheer amount of music (more than 73 minutes) and partly because of the substantial communicative quality of several of the works. Interestingly, Bacewicz’ Polish Caprice appears here too, and in fact leads off the recording – in a somewhat more expansive performance than Maslovaric’s. Only three of the works here are for solo viola, but they are nicely placed on the CD. The first, Three Impromptus by Ernst Toch, is a world première recording and is rather on the slight side despite the warmth that Sant’Ambrogio brings to the material. For Alessandro Rolla’s Capriccio No. 1, the viola appears in a lighter mood; then Sant’Ambrogio returns to the violin and offers considerable stateliness and a fine sense of form for Telemann’s Fantasie No. 10, whose three movements offer the expected degree of elegance. A big surprise here for anyone not familiar with it is Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor, a very substantial and considerably extended work (twice the length of Telemann’s Fantasie) that gives Sant’Ambrogio plenty of chances to explore her instrument’s emotional range. This is a real highlight of the CD – which is a tad unfortunate for the next piece here, Ursula Mamlok’s From My Garden, which is pleasant and well-constructed enough but suffers from the juxtaposition with Biber’s work. Next is Alan Hovhaness’ Chahagir, which brings back the solo viola and some welcome warmth as well as the exoticism typical of Hovhaness’ music. Fazil Say’s Cleopatra is for solo violin and is somewhat too extended for its musical content – a little more compression would have been welcome. Kenji Bunch’s Sarabande is a knowing modern use of the pleasant flow of an old form, although it is a bit surprising that the work is for solo violin – both because of its sound and because Bunch is himself a violist. Next on the disc is another world première recording, Cortando Limones (Cutting Limes) for solo violin by Miguel del Águila; this is a well-crafted work but not one of much consequence. The following piece, however, is one of the disc’s highlights: Hindemith’s Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, with the unusually pleasant title, “Es ist so schönes Wetter drausen,” which translates as “It is such nice weather outside.” This heimische title is scarcely what one expects of Hindemith, whose music can be learned to the point of turgidity; furthermore, the sonata is for solo violin even though, as with the Bunch work, viola might be more what a listener would expect. But put expectations aside: this piece is a real charmer, its first three little movements meandering pleasantly and its fourth, somewhat longer one offering five variations on Mozart’s song, “Komm, lieber Mai,” K. 596 – a work from the composer’s last year that gives not the slightest hint of anything beyond childlike enjoyment of springtime. The Hindemith would have made a fine conclusion to the CD, but there is one additional work here, and it returns to a more-serious mien: Alfred Schnittke’s Fuga for solo violin, which nicely showcases Sant’Ambrogio’s technical abilities but is, in its formality, a bit of a letdown after the Hindemith. On balance, this is a (+++) CD offering very fine playing, quite a few little-known works to discover, and some significant highlights in the form of the pieces by Biber and Hindemith. The disc’s title includes the numeral “II” because Sant’Ambrogio has already recorded an MSR disc of solo works for violin and viola – and listeners who own and enjoy that earlier CD, titled Going Solo, will surely find this one a companionable addition to their collections.


Aksel! Arias by Bach, Handel and Mozart. Aksel Rykkvin, treble; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Nigel Short. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Donizetti: Arias from “Rita,” “La Favorite,” “Don Pasquale,” “Dom Sebastien,” “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “La Fille du Regiment”; Bellini: Arias from “I Puritani.” Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Kansas State Choir and Kansas City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $16.99.

So Many Things. Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello). Naïve. $16.99.

Mohammed Fairouz: Zabur. Dann Coakwell, tenor; Michael Kelly, baritone; Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Stark. Naxos. $12.99.

     Performer-focused vocal recordings are all about the sound of a particular voice – that sound generally matters more than the specific music in which it is heard. These are usually “fan” recordings, offering listeners familiar with the singer a chance to hear him or her at length without giving any particular thought to musical or dramatic continuity. Once in a while, though, a performer-focused recording also sheds new light on the music performed, and in so doing may bring a previously unknown singer to a much wider audience. That is the case with the Signum Classics release called Aksel! Aksel Rykkvin is a 13-year-old Norwegian boy soprano who sings in a way that few listeners are likely to have heard. Boy sopranos are not quite as rare in classical music as the long-gone castrati, whose voices were somewhat similar – but they are rare enough. Leonard Bernstein once used a boy soprano as soloist in the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, which is a child’s view of heaven, producing an interesting experiment – however, Mahler wrote the movement for a female soprano quite deliberately. Most of the time, boy sopranos are heard within choral works or in short recitals, and their careers are quite short, limited by the reality of male vocal changes during the teenage years. All of this makes the material sung by Aksel Rykkvin that much more precious. The CD features almost an hour of his singing and includes six works by Bach, nine by Handel and three by Mozart. The purity of Rykkvin’s voice is quite wonderful, and his assuredness in negotiating the very high register and complexities of musical lines – notably in the Handel arias – is exceptional. The biggest surprise here, though, is the very high degree of musical intelligence underlying these performances. Despite his age, Rykkvin has been thoroughly trained in the structure and emotions of classical music, and while he may lack the life experience to relate personally to some of the material, his sensitivity to its strictly musical nuances is considerable. This is especially noticeable in his handling of the two arias sung by Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro: Rykkvin brings just the right blend of naïveté and enthusiasm to Voi, che sapete and Non so più cosa son. But these are only two of the highlights here; in fact, the whole CD is nothing but highlights. Rykkvin shows himself able to sing and emote in multiple languages: Italian, Latin, German and English – the Messiah arias, How beautiful are the feet and Thou art gone up on high, are especially effective, although immediately following them with Let the bright Seraphim from Samson is a bit odd. Actually, the sequence of material here is the only real negative: there is little textual or musical reason for hearing these particular pieces in this particular order. That fact, however, speaks to the “vocal showcase” element of the disc: this release introduces a remarkable young voice, one that listeners will find captivating, but the specific pieces Rykkvin sings matter less than the fact that he is the one singing them.

     Something similar may be said of tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s new Delos CD, which features nine arias by Donizetti and two by Bellini. Brownlee is firmly in mid-career – he was born in 1973 – and well-established as a master of the bel canto repertoire. Thus, there is nothing surprising about the selection of material on this disc, the purpose of which is simply to give Brownlee fans a chance to hear him performing the sort of material in which he excels. The fans will not be disappointed: Brownlee’s full, rich tone is everywhere apparent in these mostly well-known arias, and his pinpoint accuracy extends throughout his vocal range – there is no sense of strain even at the top. The result is a very fine exploration of material that has been sung very well by very many tenors over the years. Brownlee does bring a sense of heightened emotion to a number of the arias in operas that are, after all, melodramas, in which emotion is supposed to run at fever pitch; and he humanizes characters effectively, as in Una furtiva lagrima from L’Elisir d’Amore. Unfortunately, one of Brownlee’s remarkable accomplishments is missing here: the two arias from Bellini’s I Puritani are A te, o cara and Son salvo, and he certainly handles both of them well, but it is Credeasi, misera, with its near-impossible high F, that Brownlee has mastered to exceptional effect (the note used to be sung falsetto, at a time when tenors used their voices differently from the way they use them today). Of course, anyone unfamiliar with Brownlee will not know what is absent here and will be more than satisfied with the vocal quality he brings to all the material that he does present. This is nevertheless a (+++) CD, simply because it offers a spate of well-known material sung by a very fine but scarcely unknown singer. None of this will matter to fans, however: they will want the disc as further evidence of the consistently high quality of Brownlee’s performances.

     Fans of Anne Sofie von Otter may be the target audience for the mezzo-soprano’s (+++) CD with the quartet known as Brooklyn Rider, but it is far from certain that fans will find the recording congenial. This Naïve release is neither more nor less than a crossover disc, using elements of vocal and instrumental classical music to present material that is all over the musical map: two works by Björk, one by Sting, one by Elvis Costello, one by John Adams, and others by Kate Bush, Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Anders Hillborg, Brad Mehldau and Rufus Wainwright – plus one by quartet member Colin Jacobsen. The quality of the musical material is also all over the place. The sort of listener who will be attracted to this disc is one who not only wants to hear music by the specific composers represented – in arrangements for voice and string quartet – but also wants to listen as von Otter presents herself in various vocal guises. Thus, her operatic self shows up in Am I in Your Light? from Adams’ Doctor Atomic – which is juxtaposed with Bush’s Pi, in which von Otter more or less channels her inner Lotte Lenya. Later, Costello’s Speak Darkly, My Angel comes across with considerable tenderness and proves to be the most moving track on the disc. There is less to the two new works heard here, Shaw’s Cant voi l’aube and Jacobsen’s For Sixty Cents. Von Otter has done crossover before, and clearly finds it a pleasant break from the exigencies of opera: there is little here that calls fully on the richness of her vocal capabilities. A fine presentation for fans of both the singer and the quartet, the CD makes no attempt to reach out beyond that core group: it is neither a very good or serious introduction to von Otter’s very considerable vocal talents nor an especially attractive or well-organized collection from a musical standpoint.

     The seriousness of Mohammed Fairouz’ latest oratorio, Zabur, is beyond doubt: indeed, the nearly unending gloom of this hour-long work insists again and again that listeners pay attention and share in the doom-laden atmosphere. Written in 2015 to a libretto by Najla Said, Zabur (Arabic for “Psalms”) pulls the Biblical David and Gabriel into the modern age of unceasing war in the Middle East and showcases the Psalms against the background of a doomed group of refugees in a soon-to-be-destroyed temporary shelter (Fairouz’ music starts with the destruction, backpedals, then moves forward until the destruction happens again – as gloomy a structure as he and Said can imagine).  The unremittingly dour setting is sometimes reflected in David’s songs and poetry, which he and the other refugees sing and chant; at other times, David reaches out, through his Psalms, for a sense of wonder, beauty and meaning beyond the everyday terrors of death and destruction. Fairouz clearly wants there to be something positive here to prevent the oratorio from being unremittingly depressive, but the attempt does not work: the eventual destruction, foretold at the beginning, hangs over the entire oratorio and permeates even the more-uplifting poetry and song. What Fairouz is doing is seeking timelessness for his message by combining Biblical elements with a contemporary setting – but it is not entirely clear what his and Said’s message is intended to be. If it is one of enduring the travails of the world despite everything, a notion that somehow something (art? poetry?) survives even when the human creators of that something are dead and gone, then it is a fine concept, if scarcely a new one. But there remains discordance between the war-requiem aspects of Zabur and its attempts to find some way to provide some semblance of some sort of hope. This world première recording is well-paced, well-sung and sensitively played by all concerned – the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir actually commissioned the work. But while those who admire Fairouz’ music will find what he does here in line with his other work, others will likely discover that this (+++) CD never quite seems to gel either musically or as an attempt to garner emotional outreach that transcends the unending wars around which it is conceptually built.

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.