November 23, 2016
Holiday Cards 2016: Charley Harper’s Cardinals; The Group of Seven—Lawren S. Harris and Tom Thomson; Adolf Dehn—Starry Night. Pomegranate. $15 each (Cardinals, Seven); $12 (Dehn).
At a time of year traditionally associated with good wishes, good times and a good life – and importantly, for many, the prospect of a good afterlife – there seems precious little about which to rejoice this year. Gratitude for what is seems largely to have given way to dismay for what is not; pleasure for what one has appears to have diminished, while unhappiness over what one lacks seems to have increased. To some extent, as winter takes hold in the Northern Hemisphere, feelings of gloom are exacerbated by limited daylight, day after day of darkness beneath overcast skies, and biting cold – it is worth remembering that Dante’s Inferno has its ninth and lowest circle not in eternal heat but in a vast, perpetually frozen landscape. A traditional time of year for joy and thanks – whether to each other, among family members, or to higher powers – seems to have gone awry: yes, people may acknowledge, if it is pointed out to them, that they are better off than others (materially and even spiritually), but for many, it does not feel that way. This is not so much a matter of Yeats’ oft-quoted lines from The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Rather, it is later lines in the same poem that seem to be operative this year: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
One saving grace at a time of deep dissatisfaction – and make no mistake, it is a kind of grace – is art. And although most of us will never be artists, that is no barrier to sharing uplifting art along with the simple words, “Season’s Greetings.” A great way to do that is with holiday cards from Pomegranate, a publisher that promotes the inspirational nature of art through many media, from books to calendars to puzzles, stickers and games. So diverse and wide-ranging are Pomegranate’s offerings within its holiday-card line that it is hard to imagine anyone not being able to find something to provide a touch of uplift that can then be passed along to light a figurative candle in a darkness that seems all too real.
An excellent way to connect with things beyond ourselves is through nature, and a number of Pomegranate cards this year offer ways to do that – using art that is as different as the elements of nature itself. For example, Charley Harper’s Cardinals celebrates a bird that is strongly associated with winter because it does not fly away from the cold and snow but stands out against ice and bare tree limbs in the males’ brilliant red color. Harper (1922-2007) was a poet of the natural world, with a drawing style emphasizing an unrealistic flatness that somehow accentuates the features of animals and makes them seem realer than real. The approach is unusual and instantly recognizable once seen – Harper’s drawings are quite unlike those of other nature artists. There are four of them in the 20-card box, five cards with each drawing. “Cardinal Courtship,” showing a male and female beak to beak with the male about to pop a treat into the female’s mouth, is clear enough, and food is also the focus of “Cardinal Cuisine,” which shows a male pecking seeds from the snow-covered ground. These two designs are attractive and basically serious, but in Harper’s art, there is always a hint of humor, and that comes further to the fore in the other two designs. One is called “Cool Cardinal” and features a side view of a male upon which big white dots of snow are falling – and there is a small pile of show on his head, which he does not seem to mind at all. The rectangular scene of the cardinal is framed on both left and right by red dots on a white background, creating a very pleasing color scheme with a whimsical twist. The final design is called “B-r-r-r-r-rdbath” and shows a scene of a male cardinal, his bright red feathers complemented by a red frame that is shaped so the bird is seen in a circle, flapping his wings rapidly while sitting in a birdbath on a snowy day. This cardinal is the only one in this box looking right out of the card at the viewer – all the other birds are seen in side views – and the effect is one of peering through a porthole or circular window as the bird looks back. Harper’s cardinals can bring much-needed smiles both to the cards’ senders and to their recipients, providing a connection with nature that offers brief respite from complex human affairs.
Nature is seen on a grander scale in 20 cards from the Canadian artists’ community called the Group of Seven. Again there are five cards in each of four designs. The original central person in the group’s formation was Tom Thomson (1877-1917), and two of his works appear here, both from 1916. Both are woodland scenes showing a distinctive and meticulous approach to portrayal of trees in the snow; one is called “Snow in the Woods” and the other is titled “Wood Interior, Winter.” Both offer almost-realistic but subtly emphasized scenes of woodland tranquility beneath a blanket of undisturbed white. Thomson had died before the group he inspired was organized under the aegis of Lawren S. Harris (1885-1970), whose art is quite different from Thomson’s and complements it intriguingly in this holiday-card collection. Harris offers a more impressionistic view of nature, favoring, in these cards, triangular central features that taper toward the top and appear to reach ever upward. “Mt. Lefroy” (1930) is just what it says: a portrait of a snow-capped mountain whose top pierces the clouds. But this is not a realistically portrayed mountain: it is one capped by snow that looks almost like combed human hair, with neat parallel valleys flowing from the mountaintop downward as the mountain’s peak juts up into concentric circles of clouds. There is something almost hypnotic about the scene, which is calming as well as majestic. “Winter Comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone” (c. 1935) is similarly built around a central upward-striving peak, but here the perspective is managed in such a way that distance is uncertain: the mounds of snow in the foreground are shaped like the mountain in the background but may simply be covering a tapering tree that is nearby, with the mountain much more distant. The framing of this central scene uses concentric not-circles – they are jagged shapes done in hues of the same colors used for the mountain – and the whole picture pulls the eye in and causes it to swoop gently upward in a wholly suitable seasonal response to the art.
What is missing in both the Charley Harper and Group of Seven cards is any sense of human beings in or interacting with the natural scenes. But Pomegranate has other seasonal cards in which humans do appear, whether in an idealized setting or in a realistic one. Adolf Dehn (1895-1968) was a Minnesota artist who often portrayed regional scenes, and one such appears this year on a set of 12 holiday cards. Called “Starry Night” and inevitably calling up thoughts of the famous Van Gogh painting, this is a scene in which the vast dark sky and its sparkling stars fill more than half the card – but the immensity is not in the least uncomfortable. The reason is that the card’s foreground shows bare, snow-covered trees whose branches are highlighted against the night sky, and amid the trees – providing the only bright colors in the watercolor – are three people on skis just starting to head down a hill, plus, in a particularly nice touch, a deer whose curiosity has apparently brought it closer than usual to people (although it is still keeping its distance). There is a distinctly homey quality to this card, which does not glamorize or romanticize a winter night – it certainly looks cold enough, as the bundled-up skiers show – but which draws the eye up from the foreground snow into the heavens above, using a technique very different from that of Lawren Harris but one that is equally effective and in some ways more subtle. Those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday find it a time of spiritual comfort, and even those who do not share that faith can look to the season as one of warmth, human connection and striving to be better than we are. That is the counterweight to all the dismal feelings that seem to permeate life this year – and if these Pomegranate cards cannot, on their own, relieve the widespread sense of disaffection and anomie, they can at least provide a small measure of beauty and comfort to offset distress with quiet hope.
Gross! “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 33. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Many Faces of Snoopy. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Virtuosos make things seem so simple. There are only four strings on a violin, after all, and what could be so hard about moving a bow back and forth on them? Good luck with that if you actually try it. Well, okay, but that is “high” art. Comics are “low” art, and what’s the big deal? Draw a circle and you have Charlie Brown’s head. Use a couple of ovals and squares and a blimplike shape here and there, and you have the MacPhersons; and as for what happens in Baby Blues, just use what happens in all families. No big deal, right? Oh yes, right – just try it. You’d be better off with the violin. The great thing about comics such as Baby Blues and Peanuts is that they encapsulate so much with such apparent simplicity. But the difficulty of doing what they do is quite obvious from the vast number of unsuccessful and less-successful strips out there, of interest to students and historians of popular culture but not to the mass audience that the best strips reach so effectively day after day, year after year.
Baby Blues has gotten to an almost embarrassing level of consistency and reliability. There just aren’t any “bad” strips in the world of Rick Kirkman (artist) and Jerry Scott (writer). The 33rd and latest collection continues a long history (perhaps longer than Kirkman and Scott would care to acknowledge, given what it implies about their own ages) of chronicling events that are realer than reality. They seem as if they could happen in any family – and indeed, some of them have happened in Kirkman’s family or Scott’s – but within the strictures of comic-strip panels, they happen with pointedness and sometimes poignancy beyond what Baby Blues readers encounter in their duller everyday lives. And that is one of the great strengths of the strip: readers recognize what is going on as akin to reality, laugh at things that would not necessarily be funny if or when they happened in their own families, and finish the few panels refreshed and hopefully ready for the next thing that raising kids will throw at them – secure in the knowledge that whatever it is will probably show up in Baby Blues eventually. Which brings us to Gross! There is nothing specifically gross here, or nothing any grosser than usual for the MacPherson clan, but there is plenty to laugh at, if not to gag at (although there are lots of, umm, gags). As in previous oversize-page collections, Kirkman and Scott provide snippets of commentary throughout the book – so readers learn, for example, that the great Sunday strip at the book’s start, in which Wanda rehearses lectures to her three kids, is based on Scott’s wife’s real-life behavior. On the other hand, a strip in which Zoe and Hammie send Darryl a card saying they love him, then imploring him to stop whatever fight they were in when they drew the card, may never have happened in real life, but it reads as if it should have. Or could have, anyway. In one comment, Scott reveals that he is a middle child, which may explain some of what Hammie does in his between-Zoe-and-Wren existence. In this book, the dynamic among the three kids gets even more interesting than it has previously been, since this is where baby Wren learns to talk – for example, Zoe teaches her to say, “Mom! Make Hammie stop!” Of course, some things in Baby Blues never change: Darryl goes shopping for Wanda and, when he tells the salesperson that he is looking for a gift for a woman with three kids, the woman suggests six weeks in Tahiti. Darryl is not very good at buying the right thing, but he has a knack for occasionally saying the right thing, as when he calls from work to tell Wanda, “Hi, beautiful,” and catches her kneeling atop a plugged toilet with the three kids playing in or trying to avoid the bathroom flood. An exhausted Wanda’s response, “Good timing,” is perfect. Then there are strips in which Zoe refines her ability to tell on Hammie: in one, she is “pinch-scolding” while Wanda is in the tub with Wren, and in another, she is “text-tattling” while Darryl and Wanda are trying to have a quiet restaurant meal. In addition to the humor, there are insights into the strip’s creation sprinkled throughout the book. For instance, Baby Blues is known for multi-day strips that are variations on the same topic, such as “5 Ways Parenthood Is Like College.” Each of the five strips is introduced by the same title panel, and Kirkman says those panels take longer to do than the strips’ content – and explains why. Kirkman also explains a couple of strips in which he cleverly muted the background colors to put the characters in the foreground into stronger focus. Also here is an amazing sequence in which a Kirkman family emergency led Scott to do some remarkable things to get newly written strips put together – with reused art. And the hybrid strips really work – talk about teamwork! On the much lighter side, Kirkman at one point notes that he sometimes uses his own kids’ art and lettering “for reference,” as in a series in which Hammie creates a “grafik novel” about “Robot Sister,” which goes pretty much as readers of Baby Blues would expect. And it is nice that the commentary is occasionally reserved for a touch of self-praise, as when Kirkman says, “One of the best opening lines, ever” in reference to Scott’s writing, for Hammie to say, “Mom, do we have any hand grenades?” After all, even virtuoso performers need to appreciate themselves and each other once in a while.
The appreciation of Charles Schulz has not diminished in the years since his death in 2000, and his Peanuts strips continue to appear in multiple forms: new collections, desk and day-to-day calendars, even gift books that would make great stocking stuffers – such as Many Faces of Snoopy. This little five-inch-square hardcover includes a small smattering of the iconic beagle’s appearances in eight roles – none of which is as spokesbeagle for MetLife, by the way. Several of these Snoopy alter egos were integral to Peanuts and responsible for a great deal of its weirdness – the strip was odder and more surrealistic than many people realized when Schulz was still drawing it. The World War I flying ace, eternally at war with the Red Baron, is perhaps the most famous “alt-Snoopy” of all, but the Beagle Scout leader (of bird scouts Woodstock, Conrad, Olivier and Bill) also appeared frequently; and collegiate big-man-on-campus Joe Cool showed up from time to time – much more often than his opposite number, Joe Preppy. In addition to those four roles, Snoopy is seen here as a secret agent in search of Linus’s missing blanket, the Masked Marvel arm wrestler, “Flashbeagle” (trading in his famed “happy dance” for a flashdance), and a fierce pirate sporting an eye patch originally given to Sally to help with her amblyopia. Many Faces of Snoopy will bring smiles of enjoyment to Peanuts fans and likely send them – and anyone out there who is not yet a Peanuts fan – in search of more-extensive stories about Snoopy’s multiple-yet-singular roles. And for anyone who might still think this sort of thing is easy – just check out the ways in which Schulz keeps Snoopy’s underlying personality the same even as he changes his outward appearance just enough to match whatever persona he may be donning. What’s the big deal? Many Faces of Snoopy is. And so is Gross!.
The Most Perfect Snowman. By Chris Britt. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Libby and Pearl: The Best of Friends. By Lindsey Bonnice. Harper. $14.99.
Winter warmth pervades both these books, in which friendship is a wonderful counterbalance for feeling left out and unappreciated. Chris Britt’s The Most Perfect Snowman is about a very plain-looking snowman named Drift who is mocked by other, better-dressed snowpeople. Drift has only two skinny arms made from sticks and a quickly thrown-together coal face – no hat, scarf or mittens, and worst of all from his perspective, no carrot nose. Because of his plain appearance, Drift is left out of the “snowy fashion parades,” snowball fights and “snowman dances that lasted all night.” But then, one morning, three children happen to discover Drift, and they decide to dress him up: one gives him a hat, one a scarf, and one some mittens. And then, best of all, a little girl looks in her pocket and finds “the most pointy orange carrot nose that Drift had ever seen!” This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship: the kids declare Drift to be perfect, and he plays all afternoon with his newfound friends and “had never been so happy.” But – well, after the children go home, leaving Drift nicely dressed-up, a blizzard blows Drift’s new hat and mittens off, and he cannot find them anywhere. And then, as the snow falls hard and the wind howls, Drift hears a small voice calling for help. It is a tiny bunny, “frightened and shivery cold.” And Drift knows the right thing to do: there is no shelter anywhere, so Drift takes off his scarf and wraps the bunny in it for protection. And then he hears the tiny bunny’s tummy rumbling, and with regret, but knowing what is he needs to do, he pulls off the last of the children’s gifts – his wonderful carrot nose. And he gives it to the hungry bunny – and now, with this selfless gesture, as Britt says on the book’s very last page, Drift becomes “the most perfect snowman of all.” This is a season for giving and receiving gifts, and there are many books that try to show children that it is better to give than receive – but few are as heartwarming as this one.
Lindsey Bonnice’s photographic story of a little girl named Libby and a little pig named Pearl is simpler, more amusing, and provides less opportunity for introspection. But it is easy to read and a delight to look at. Libby is Bonnice’s daughter, and they live on a farm, which helps explain the presence of the piglet. The story is an indoor one, though, and not many kids will likely have a chance to play in their rooms with an adorable little pig. Libby is cast as the narrator of the book, explaining that although she and Pearl may seem to be unlikely friends – after all, they look nothing alike – they really have a lot in common, such as the fact that “both look amazing in pink” (Libby’s outfit and Pearl’s skin). There are scenes here that are both funny and charming. A misadventure in the kitchen, with Pearl first watching from the floor as Libby stirs something in a bowl, then being seen up on the counter eating from the same bowl, is especially amusing, and the following scene – when food is spilled everywhere and both friends end up eating cereal that is strewn all over – is as cute as it is inevitable. Libby and Pearl are seen bathing together, playing together, snuggling together, and having all sorts of everyday adventures that are made more than ordinary by Pearl’s presence (on the bed while Libby reads, on top of a toy piano while Libby plays it, in a wagon that Libby is filling with toys, and so on). Libby and Pearl: The Best of Friends is a visual book above all, and a joyful one: Libby’s varied expressions as Pearl turns up here, there and everywhere are a delight. Clearly friends and friendships come in all sizes, styles and types, with love and acceptance at the heart of all of them – a wonderful thought not only for this season but also for the entirety of the year.
Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese-American GI’s Who Rescued the Lost Battalion. By Scott McGaugh. Da Capo. $25.99.
Terrible but True: Awful Events in American History. By Dinah Williams. Scholastic. $9.99.
For many people and in many ways, the good old days were horrible. Yet we cannot seem to stop revisiting them – not so much to learn lessons from them, which would be a useful approach, but to explore their horrors in detail and be glad that things are better today, for us personally if not necessarily for people in general. There are particular time periods that get more than their share of revisits on this basis, with World War II being among the most frequently re-explored. Honor Before Glory reexamines a part of it with more-direct relevance to the 21st century than many other elements. This is the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group of Japanese-Americans who volunteered for military service partly to demonstrate that they were not, as Japanese-Americans were feared to be, a fifth column; and partly out of understandable self-interest, to get out of the government internment camps in which the United States had placed them after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This group would become a much-decorated regiment, with 18,000 awards for valor and 21 Medals of Honor. More than that, though, the 442nd, with its motto of “Go for Broke,” would become known for its dramatic rescue of 211 fellow soldiers who had become trapped behind enemy lines in 1944 and were surrounded by German troops. That is the specific story that Scott McGaugh tells here. Readers already interested in World War II will know of the 442nd already, but this book is not solely for them. It is, in many ways, an absolutely ordinary wartime story of sacrifice, drama, intensity, loss, and the circumstances under which ordinary people rise above themselves to accomplish more than they or anyone else would have expected. But of course no such story is “ordinary” for those who were involved in it or those who are concerned about them. And Honor Before Glory has some extra poignancy, and extra importance for contemporary times, because the members of the 442nd not only suffered discrimination, suspicion and ill treatment before joining up but also returned home, after their heroic exploits, to confront many of the same circumstances again. Thus, these Japanese-Americans came back to lives in which they, like black soldiers in and after the same war, became second-class citizens all over – after their frontline successes were suitably recognized within a military context. Honor Before Glory may stand as a cautionary tale, one among many, about the ill treatment of those who fight to keep their country free – and, in this case, to rescue fellow fighters from imminent death. But McGaugh, although he is obviously aware of this aspect of the story, gives it fairly short shrift, being preoccupied with details of the battle in France’s Vosges Mountains that is his main focus. That focus limits the appeal of the book. It is further limited by its style: McGaugh starts with a dramatic attack scene but then jumps back and forth each time he tells the readers about a new soldier – a choppy stylistic approach whose necessity is scarcely obvious. Readers need to keep close tabs on chronology to understand what is going on. McGaugh carries his method through to the book’s end, in which he follows some members of the 442nd to the ends of their lives – then jumps back to the war. For those not enamored of return after return to battle after battle in a war that ended more than 70 years ago, the best parts of Honor Before Glory are the ones that connect most clearly to today. There is, for example, the story of Richard Naito, who was denied American Legion membership after the war – provoking a rousing defense of his honorable service from one of the commanders of the 442nd, who wrote that the discrimination against Naito would lead people around the world to “question the sincerity of American policies and ideals.” Such questions are still being asked today, in different circumstances – but ones that clearly echo those that faced the members of the 442nd.
Terrible but True is intended for younger readers and is as much a once-over look at multiple past events as McGaugh’s book is an in-depth exploration of a single one. Dinah Williams’ histrionic style is intended to alarm and upset readers while allowing them to assume comfortable positions of superiority – we 21st-century people are so far beyond all this old stuff, after all! Well, maybe. The stories here of assassination attempts against Presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt certainly have more-modern parallels, such as the attempted assassination of President Reagan. The medical misunderstandings and outright errors that led to the deaths of two other presidents, George Washington and James Garfield, have been followed in the 21st century by all sorts of other medical mistakes that have led to many other deaths, if generally ones that are not as high-profile. The hurricane that destroyed so much of Galveston, Texas, in 1900, has plenty of more-recent parallels, albeit ones in which the loss of life was lower. Actually, Williams herself provides some comparable information in certain of her entries, for example by listing the five deadliest hurricanes after discussing the Galveston storm, and providing information on the death toll from the deadliest 19th-century yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the United States. There are, however, no suitable modern comparisons with some of the items here, such as the speed with which cholera victims were buried to try to prevent the disease from spreading, resulting in premature burials and the development of “safety coffins” from which people who were buried alive could send signals. Some of the stories here are well-known: the cannibalism of the Donner Party, the heroism of Texans at the Alamo, the blizzard of 1888 that slammed New York City, the financial scheming of Charles Ponzi. Other information is much less familiar: the generosity of Confederate President Jefferson Davis when Richmond residents rioted for food, the kidnaping of Olive Oatman and her life with the Mohave, and the war between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over alternating vs. direct current (comparable in some ways to the war between computer and smartphone operating systems today). An occasional item here seems funny, but in reality was not, such as a molasses flood in Boston that occurred when a tank ruptured in 1919 and caused 150 injuries. By and large, though, what Williams wants to do in Terrible but True is cause shock, awe and dismay, whether writing briefly – all the entries here are brief – about the 602 deaths in a Chicago theater fire in 1903 or the 1,500-plus who died in 1865 after a boiler explosion on a steamship carrying recently freed Civil War prisoners. The parade of horrors becomes numbing after a while, even tedious, with no disrespect intended to those who lost their lives in these many events, but with no authorial voice putting any of these terrible occurrences in much of a perspective. Many of the most interesting items here are sidelights to the main stories that Williams tells. The attempted theft and dual reburials of Abraham Lincoln’s body, for example, is quite a tale, as is the church elders’ attack on Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod because it interfered with “the artillery of heaven.” Franklin, ever the pragmatist, asked if it was also against God’s will to build roofs to keep out heaven’s rain. A little more wry commentary along those lines would have been welcome in this amply illustrated cavalcade of sorrow.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5-8. Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lan Shui. Orchid Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 17, “Memory”; Suite for Orchestra. Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $12.99.
Michael Haydn: Symphonies, Volumes 1 and 2. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $12.99 each.
Some symphonies seem to lend themselves to complete-cycle recordings: the four of Brahmas, the four of Schumann, the eight completed ones of Schubert, the nine or 10 of Mahler, the nine or 10 or 11 of Bruckner – yes, sometimes “complete” gets a trifle slippery, but the urge to record entire sequences remains powerful. And then, of course, there is Beethoven, whose nine completed symphonies (he did actually start on a 10th) have been offered so many times, by so many ensembles, that the cycle seems something of a rite of passage for orchestras and conductors alike. As with the cycles of other major symphonists, the plethora of recordings does not mean there is a surplus: Beethoven’s works are subject to so many approaches, and continue to have so much to communicate to musicians and listeners, that there is always room for another set of the canonic nine. Lan Shui and the oddly named Copenhagen Phil (founded as a Tivoli dance orchestra in 1843) continue their unusual ways with this music in the second volume of their cycle for Orchid Classics, having earlier released their versions of Nos. 1-4. Not surprisingly, this followup of Symphonies Nos. 5-8 shares the strengths of the earlier recording. The orchestra uses original instruments or replicas, resulting in a sound very different from that of modern orchestras – especially in the brass, which Beethoven often has playing quite loudly but which, even at maximum volume, never overshadows the remainder of the musicians (because older brass instruments simply could not attain the volume of modern ones). And Shui insists on adhering to Beethoven’s own tempo indications, which remain controversial, with some musicians and scholars insisting that Beethoven’s Maelzel metronome was defective – or simply that the composer could not possibly have meant his music to be played as quickly as some of the tempo markings indicate. Also, Copenhagen Phil itself is an orchestra of modest size, about 70 players, so there is a cleanness of sound and an inherent sectional balance here that is far more difficult to attain in orchestras of 90 to 100 musicians. These factors produce uniformly interesting readings of this group of symphonies, although not all of them are ones that will necessarily captivate listeners on a first hearing. No. 5 is excellent throughout, the dramatic first movement for a change not overshadowing the blithe second; and Beethoven’s intention with the insertion of trombones in the finale seems splendidly obvious when instruments of his own time are used. No. 6 is more problematical. This is a relaxed symphony, but the walk in the country that opens it is more of a jog at Shui’s (that, is Beethoven’s original) tempo, and takes some getting used to. Even the scene at the brook is something short of languid, although it has to be said that that movement sometimes drags – and certainly does not do so here. The tempos and clarity of No. 7 make it a delight: this is not just the apotheosis of the dance, as Wagner famously and wonderfully described it, but a fleet whirligig of near-dervish proportions, the ability of the musicians to stay together in the finale being especially impressive. And No. 8 is a gem: although this is the most Haydnesque of Beethoven’s symphonies, it was written at quite a different time in the composer’s life from No 1, to which it is often compared, and Shui fully understands that this is a companion piece to No. 7 rather than a throwback to an earlier style. All these performances are fresh and exhilarating, and all of them repay repeated hearings that make it possible to get past any initial uncertainty caused by the tempo choices (especially in No. 6) and simply to luxuriate in the poise, clarity and exceptional instrumental balance throughout.
The symphonies of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) are being released piecemeal by Naxos, and a portrait of this major but neglected Soviet-era composer is beginning to become clear (although a chronological cycle of the works would have brought much greater clarity, much sooner). The latest recording featuring the very solid Vladimir Lande and the highly idiomatic Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) focuses on the first symphony of a trilogy that Weinberg wrote regarding World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in what was then the Soviet Union. It is about time that Symphony No. 17, “Memory,” has finally been released: No. 18, “War – there is no word more cruel,” came out in 2014, and No. 19, “Bright May,” appeared as far back as 2012. Heard as a trilogy, the works are impressive – a far cry from typical overdone socialist-realist musical banality. And No. 17, the longest of the three, is a significant achievement on its own. Written from 1982 to 1984, it shares some of the scale and some of the somewhat-overblown intensity of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies, Nos. 7 and 8. Shostakovich and Weinberg were something of a mutual-admiration society (Weinberg’s Symphony No. 12 is ““In memoriam D. Shostakovich”), and their stylistic overlap is evident in Weinberg’s No. 17. But the way Weinberg shapes this symphony is quite different from the way Shostakovich arranged his wartime (and other) ones. Instead of a massive first movement and enigmatically triumphant finale, with movements of less consequence in between, Weinberg treats the first movement here as something of a prologue, then produces a significantly longer second movement that starts quickly and dissonantly and remains both tense and intense until eventually subsiding into a kind of hesitant uncertainty that ends in ambivalence. It is an unsettling movement, and is succeeded by a short and forceful scherzo-like presentation that in spirit is the closest part of this symphony to Shostakovich. The finale is as large as the second movement and is emotionally complex, including some very effective instrumental touches (the celesta is notable) and an increase in tension – rather than its resolution – at the end. This finale makes more sense as the ending of the first part of a symphonic trilogy, especially in light of the symphony’s full dedication “in memory of the fallen in the Great Patriotic War.” Heard on its own, the symphony has an undercurrent of the puzzling and uncertain – an unusual stance and an interesting one. The pairing of this very serious work with the world première recording of the Suite for Orchestra of 1950 is quite intriguing. The suite is a set of five dance movements that, individually and collectively, very strikingly recall the theater music of, yes, Shostakovich, written several decades earlier. Weinberg here shows a light and uncomplicated side of his compositional personality that is quite surprising in view of the darkness of Symphony No. 17 and many other works. The movements’ titles are as straightforward as the music itself: “Romance,” “Humoresque,” “Waltz,” “Polka” and “Galop.” The last of them is a rousing conclusion that uses the harmonic language of Shostakovich but that channels everyone from the Strauss family to Khachaturian. The rediscovery of Weinberg is proceeding in fits and starts – his music is certainly worth meeting and exploring, and both his heavy and light aspects on this disc are ones whose acquaintance it is quite worthwhile to make.
The 43-or-so symphonies of Michael Haydn are also in the process of receiving somewhat helter-skelter release on Naxos, in bouncy and well-balanced recordings featuring the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Patrick Gallois. “Michael Haydn” is the answer to the trivia question, “Who wrote Mozart’s Symphony No. 37?” Mozart wrote only the slow introduction to the first movement – the rest of the work is by Michael Haydn, although it was long attributed to Mozart. Beyond that symphony, which was often played in the 19th century when thought to be by Mozart, Michael Haydn’s symphonic production has received little notice. There is a catalogue of the symphonies, called the Perger listing, but the first two releases in this series do not follow it sequentially and, indeed, are pretty much random: the first includes Perger 16, 21, 19 and 15, while the second has Perger 42, 18, 17 and 22. Unlike the symphonic style of his five-years-older brother, Joseph, Michael Haydn’s did not evolve appreciably. He generally wrote symphonies (labeled in the older style as “Sinfonias”) in three movements, although Perger 15 is in four; the works sometimes, but scarcely always, open with a slow introduction (Perger 21, 42 and 18); and the central slow movements are not intended to plumb significant depths – in six of the eight works released so far, they are marked some version of Andante, the exceptions being that of Perger 19 (marked Un poco adagio) and that of Perger 17 (rather charmingly designated Adagietto affettuoso). One thing the symphonies of Michael Haydn show quite clearly is just how far above other symphonic composers of the time Joseph Haydn and Mozart stood. Mozart may actually have based some of his early symphonies on ones by Michael Haydn, and certainly the case of “Mozart’s Symphony No. 37” (which even has a Köchel number, 444) shows that the younger composer admired the older one a great deal. But Mozart, who was born 19 years after Michael Haydn and died 15 years earlier, moved past the Michael Haydn model quite early and ended up expanding symphonic form greatly and in numerous ways. So did Joseph Haydn, whose works throughout his career show a questing, curious mind working within traditions but quite willing to move past them – among other things, it was Joseph Haydn who essentially created (and certainly solidified) the four-movement symphonic form by including in it the popular dance, the minuet, after dressing it in suitably symphonic guise. Yet it is unfair to point out all the things that Michael Haydn was not. As these two bright and generally bubbly CDs show, he was a composer of some stature, with a strong sense of rhythm, a fine feel for orchestral balance, and occasional instances of genuine creativity, such as the use of muted violins in the slow movement of Perger 17 and the interesting combination of solo violin and cor anglais employed in Perger 22. Michael Haydn was actually a very popular composer in his lifetime, and these CDs show why: his symphonies fit neatly into the expected categories of graceful Classical-era composition. They certainly deserve to be heard from time to time, and some very intriguing concerts could be created by carefully choosing a mixture of symphonies by Michael Haydn, Joseph Haydn and Mozart. These fine recordings are to be commended for giving listeners a welcome opportunity to arrange such concerts on their own.
Wagner: Die Walküre. Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Falk Struckmann, Matthias Goerne, Petra Lang, Michelle DeYoung, Sarah Castle, Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, Anna Burford, Elaine McKrill, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau, Laura Nykänen; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $51.99 (4 CDs).
Wagner regarded Die Walküre as the first night of the three-night Der Ring des Nibelungen, deeming Das Rheingold a prologue. And certainly Die Walküre starts in medias res, with all the stormy intensity that the story requires. It is only as the opera develops that the background of the characters is filled in, and as that occurs, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a family drama on the grandest possible scale. Pretty much everyone is related to everyone else, one way or another: Sieglinde and Hunding by marriage; Sieglinde and Siegmund by blood; Wotan to them both, also by blood; Wotan to Fricka by marriage; Wotan and the Valkyries by blood. The complex intertwining of familial lines is what makes possible the psychological drama underlying the opera’s dramatic story, and eventually makes Wotan’s abandonment of Brünnhilde so emotionally powerful an event.
Indeed, it is at the conclusion of Die Walküre that the performance conducted and shaped by Jaap van Zweden reaches its pinnacle. The warmth of Wotan’s feelings, which he has such trouble acknowledging, merges with the warmth of the magical fire whose flickering intensity is so beautifully portrayed in the music, and the work’s quiet but highly portentous ending is simply captivating. A Die Walküre done at this level throughout would be a performance for the ages.
That is not, unfortunately, what van Zweden delivers here, but this is nevertheless a more powerful and ultimately more compelling reading than what he provided in Das Rheingold, which was the first Naxos release in a four-year project that will eventually produce the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen as played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. There are several “firsts” in this undertaking, which will be the first-ever Ring cycle performed by a Chinese orchestra, and which marks the debuts both of Matthias Goerne as Wotan and of Michelle DeYoung as Fricka. The never fully answered question in Das Rheingoldi was whether Goerne and van Zweden have the necessary heft to make the tetralogy as effective as it can be.
Things are less equivocal here. The first three of these four operas can be seen (and effectively staged) as Wotan’s story, with the greatest of the gods diminishing in stature from opera to opera until he is left powerless in Siegfried and disappears altogether from Götterdammerung – a downfall even before the final collapse. But Die Walküre belongs as much to its central human pair of Siegmund and Sieglinde as to its central immortal pair of Wotan and Brünnhilde. And this performance is blessed – that is not too strong a word for it – with the presence of Stuart Shelton, who is first-rate both vocally and in voice acting: his technique is wonderful, his musicianship obvious and pervasive, and his portrayal of Siegmund absolutely convincing. And he is wonderfully partnered by Heidi Melton as Sieglinde: she offers a warm, touching portrayal featuring emotional radiance and tonal beauty. They are a thoroughly captivating pair, and they bring the human heart of Die Walküre marvelously to life.
Matters are more difficult among the gods. Petra Lang is an unusually girlish Brünnhilde, her impetuosity quite clear and her voice bright and vivid, if somewhat thin in its higher register. And that brings us back to Goerne and DeYoung. Goerne is better here than he was in Das Rheingold, more generally authoritative in his delivery and apparently quite comfortable with van Zweden’s tempo choices, which tend to be somewhat broad. If Goerne’s heartfelt delivery of the last part of the final act is the highlight of his performance, there are many other beauties in his interpretation, although he does seem to strain at times to be heard over the full orchestra. As for DeYoung, she is far more important here than in Das Rheingold, in fact being crucial to the plot as she faces Wotan down and forces him into an untenable position that makes the eventual tragedy of Götterdammerung inevitable. Fricka is a thoroughly unsympathetic character, but in her own way is as much at the mercy of events beyond her control as Wotan is. She is the event beyond his control, and needs to come across with an implacability and determination that match and, indeed, outmatch his. DeYoung does this by handling her role so imperiously that she, not he, appears to be the leader of the gods. It is an impressive performance.
The other roles are also well-filled, many by singers with considerable Wagnerian experience who here have smaller parts than they are capable of handling. Falk Struckmann makes a stolid but determined Hunding, and the Valkyries – Sarah Castle, Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, Anna Burford, Elaine McKrill, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau and Laura Nykänen – are one and all in fine voice throughout. What keeps the overall performance just below the very highest level is van Zweden’s orderly, cohesive but generally rather bland way with the score prior to the last part of the opera. The family squabbles here are utterly deadly ones, for all the parties involved and ultimately for the gods themselves, but there is little sense of this building immensity of destruction in this Die Walküre. Right from the start of Das Rheingold, it is clear that the gods suffer from pretty much all the same weaknesses as humans (even though there are no humans in that opera). It is in Die Walküre that the pettiness of the gods comes home to roost even as the nobility of the doomed human lovers shows them to be better and more deserving of never-to-be-attained happiness than those who rule Valhalla. It is this sense of role reversal that van Zweden never quite makes clear, or perhaps does not grasp. The whole of Die Walküre involves humans being elevated in love and honor even as the gods diminish themselves by twisting and being false to both. There are genuine profundities here that van Zweden’s rather superficial performance glosses over. Yet there is a very great deal to like in this Die Walküre, and its conclusion raises substantial hope that by the time he gets to Götterdammerung, van Zweden will be prepared to convey as cataclysmic but cathartic a conclusion of the cycle as Wagner wished to present.
November 17, 2016
Caveboy Dave: More Scrawny Than Brawny. By Aaron Reynolds. Illustrated by Phil McAndrew. Viking. $12.99.
Business Cat: Money, Power, Treats. By Tom Fonder. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Man, I Hate Cursive: Cartoons for People and Advanced Bears. By Jim Benton. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Comic strips and panels, and editorial cartoons, have always been drawn in multiple styles, but it sometimes seems as if their evolution has recently accelerated – just as other aspects of life appear to change more quickly now than they did in the past. At least part of the reason is the number of venues in which comics now appear. Graphic novels, for example, are a relatively new phenomenon, and they have opened up new opportunities both for writers and for artists. Caveboy Dave: More Scrawny Than Brawny, the first book of a planned series, is a good example of just how interesting the medium can be. Mind you, there is nothing profound here: the book is for preteens and young teenagers (its protagonist is 12), and a lot of it is essentially middle-school humor transposed to “caveman” days, which are about as realistic here as they were in The Flintstones (although at least Aaron Reynolds does not bring in any dinosaurs). The story is a pretty standard “find out who you really are” one, and the characters are pretty standard, too: Dave Unga-Bunga comes from a family that invented both fire and the wheel, but his own attempted inventions are far less successful; he has buddies, an appreciative boy named Ug Smith and a smart and sarcastic girl named Rockie Firegood; and there are the usual typecast minor characters, including strong and handsome but mentally rather slow Bane Bonesnap, class clown Gak Clubberson, and the standard feckless adults (Dave’s father, the gym teacher, the tribe’s shaman). Reynolds’ story follows a familiar arc: Dave and his friends all turn 12 at the same time and are required to go on a hunt to prove their foraging abilities. Dave tries to get out of hunting by creating inventions instead, but they fall flat. The hunt becomes, predictably, a mess, but eventually leads to the discovery of a new animal; to Dave’s revenge against the creature responsible for his mother’s death years earlier; and to the finding and presentation of a new food source, complete with Dave’s highly useful (and extremely silly) invention of a way to distribute it to the villagers. The anachronisms and layered ridiculousness are entirely deliberate – and nicely accentuated by Phil McAndrew’s illustrations, which are so exaggerated that they produce characterization far beyond anything offered in the text. Shaman Faboo, for example, has his eyes and extremely long nose at the very top of his head, his ears and mouth at the very bottom, and a long featureless space in between. Gym teacher Mr. Gronk is so hairy that he barely needs to wear the traditional caveman clothing. Dave’s own hair looks as if it is trying to fly into the clouds, and Rockie’s hairdo is about five times the size of her head. McAndrew also manages to make classroom instruction about the six best beasts to hunt amusing by showing the equivalent of a caveman textbook illustrating them, while Reynolds provides “caveman-style” names for the creatures – slothopod, pokeyhorn, rippy-beak, blobby-goo, slugasaurus, and stabby-cat. The naming and misnaming are part of the story: when the kids discover a huge tusked animal that is “really woolly” and so big that it is “mammoth,” they call it “the deadly fuzzy hose-nose.” Silliness of all sorts abounds here – and the art reflects and exaggerates the text in just the right way.
Comics aimed at adults have undergone many stylistic changes, too – largely driven in recent times by the proliferation of both static cartoons and animations on the Internet. The Internet is also the repository of uncounted numbers of cat-related postings – so what would be more natural than a comic-strip twist on cats? This being the Internet, something unnatural would appear most apt, and that is what Tom Fonder serves up in The Adventures of Business Cat. Some of those adventures have now been collected in traditional book form in Business Cat: Money, Power, Treats, which is a fair sampling of the strip and its peculiarities. Fonder deliberately makes the cat’s-head-on-a-human body completely unrealistic-looking and quite obviously clumsily attached. The body itself is drawn much more realistically, and all the other human characters in the strip are also realistic – which means that Fonder knows how to draw people but, when it comes to Business Cat himself, chooses not to create a seamless (or even semi-seamless) blend of human and feline. The idea of the strip is that Business Cat is all cat when it comes to most of his habits and activities – but exists as a CEO in a human world. So he understands that it is “time to dial up the charm” before a meeting with important clients – then does so by rubbing himself, business suit and all, against the clients, getting cat hair all over them. He uses the executive bathroom – where he has a private litter box. He has a pet of his own, named Kevin – a cat’s body with a human head. Like real-world cats, Business Cat likes to climb up onto desks and squat on computer keyboards – but since he is in fact a full-grown man who happens to have a cat’s head, what he leaves behind is a keyboard smashed and crushed to pieces. He scratches at the door of his office until his assistant, Janet, opens it to let him in; then he just stands there for a while and turns around and walks away – a habit cat owners know well. He sends people to “racial sensitivity training” because they find Internet pictures of cutely posed cats funny; and one thing the instructor does is show a drawing of Garfield and ask, “can anyone tell me why this is a harmful stereotype?” He is afraid of vacuum cleaners, distracted by laser pointers, and forced to cancel a meeting because he has treed himself – again (he knows the firefighter who rescues him by name). The Business Cat strip is essentially a single joke spun out at length, but the unusual drawing style, in its mix of realistic and deliberately unrealistic elements, keeps it interesting – and allows Fonder to come up with some “what did you expect?” plot elements, such as the rivalry between Business Cat and, of course, Business Dog.
There are some Internet cartoons whose audience is a bit hard to pin down – kids, adults, both or a combination? In the case of a series of Reddit cartoons by Jim Benton of Happy Bunny fame (or notoriety), the “audience” answer seems to be “anyone who knows what Reddit is and how to use it, and doesn’t mind a certain degree of childishness and a smattering of four-letter words.” At least that is a reasonable conclusion based in Man, I Hate Cursive, a collection of some of Benton’s Reddit cartoons. There are occasional Happy-Bunny-like characters here – that is, ones that look cute but talk and behave in an anything-but-cute way – but no recurring ones. These cartoons, both in topics and in style, go wherever Benton seems to feel like going at any particular moment. There is one panel set on an airline, with the captain asking the passengers whether perhaps someone brought along “some of that special airplane gasoline.” There is one panel funny enough to be on the cover – it is on the cover – showing a frustrated wizard saying, “Man, I hate cursive,” while looking at a scroll called “How to summon a [demon?] [lemon?].” Inside the mystical symbol the wizard has created is a smiling, walking lemon, but Benton does indeed make the cursive on the scroll perfectly ambiguous. Some cartoons are multi-panel, like a wonderful one in which a blue-skinned genie emerges from a lamp offering three wishes, and the lucky man holding the lamp first wishes for the genie to develop breasts, then to turn fully human, and then to live happily with him – the final panel shows the man, now older, sitting on a couch with his blue-skinned, bikini-wearing mate, as two children, one of them blue-skinned, play nearby. Then there is the sequence in a coffee shop in which a customer orders an incredibly elaborate drink before walking away disheartened because “I just realized I have more goals for my coffee than I do for myself.” And there is a two-panel strip in which Princess Leia pushes a button on the front of Darth Vader’s armor and piles of freshly popped popcorn emerge from his helmet. And a three-panel one in which Death, tired of harvesting souls one at a time with his traditional scythe, goes online to buy a power mower that is much more efficient. What Benton does so well in this collection is to change drawing styles according to his topics – he not only shows multiple characters but also shows similar ones, such as humans, drawn in distinctly different ways that fit their settings very well indeed. In fact, perhaps the whole collection really is intended, as its subtitle suggests, “for people and advanced bears.”
Find the Constellations. By H.A. Rey, with additional material by Ian Garrick-Bethell and Chris Dolan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $19.99.
Andromedan Dark, Book One: Altered Starscape. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
The stylistic naïveté and unfettered delight with which H.A. Rey (1898-1977) approached stargazing continues to come through clearly decades after its author’s death in Find the Constellations, whose original version dates to 1954 and whose current, much-modified one includes such extras as an online planet locater, information on why Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet in our solar system, and much more. The basic Rey approach to the material, however, stands up well despite the scientific advances that have rendered some of the specifics of Find the Constellations obsolete. “Simple shepherds 5,000 years ago were familiar with the heavens; they knew the stars and constellations – and they could not even read or write – so why don’t you?” Rey asks at the book’s outset. And he points out that “you simply must know [the constellations] if you are interested in space travel.” So begins a clearly explained, very well-illustrated exploration of the Big Dipper, Great Bear, Herdsman, Lion, and other star groupings to which we humans have given fanciful names: “One star, for instance, is called Betelgeuse. You pronounce it like ‘beetle juice’ but it has nothing to do with juice for beetles. It’s Arabic and means “giant’s shoulder.’” To make his point amusingly, Rey illustrates this comment with a picture of four beetles drinking from, or waiting their turn to drink from, a glass of juice. Amusing little pictures like that enliven the entire book, which is written with a straightforwardness that is as charming today as it was in the 1950s. The presentation of material remains effective, too. Rey shows the magnitude of stars in the various constellations, offers views of them with connecting lines and without, and provides some excellent basic astronomical information in easy-to-digest form – for example, a list, in order of brightness, of the 15 brightest stars as seen from Earth, and a comment that Cassiopeia “is a W when it’s low and an M when it’s high.” Charts of stars in various seasons are interspersed with stories about how some constellations got their names – the fanciful tale explaining why “Orion shines in winter, the Scorpion in summer, and when one rises the other sets, to this very day,” is particularly enjoyable. Rey’s attitude toward constellations is highly personal and quite delightful: “Hercules was a Greek hero famous for his strength, but as a constellation he is rather weak, without bright stars. Don’t bother about him much but try to find the Dolphin. …The Dolphin is not hard to find, and you’ll like him.” Rey’s astronomical introduction remains one of the best ways to encourage young children’s interest in studying the stars, and perhaps reaching for them in the future.
In the far future, humans have reached for the stars in innumerable science-fiction works; and adults who have long since given up any notions they may have had of interstellar travel are only too happy to take journeys of imagination with SF authors of all sorts. One of those is William H. Keith, who writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including the name Ian Douglas. In that guise, he has now begun a series called Andromedan Dark with a book called Altered Starscape. There is nothing light or innocent here, and nothing for kids – this is adult-oriented military space opera in which characterization is wholly absent and action is the primary plot element. The central character is Lord Commander Grayson St. Clair, who commands a warship and two accompanying habitats containing more than a million beings: scientists and soldiers, diplomats and robots, and AIs (one of which, Newton, the AI that runs the ship, has more personality than any human character). The expedition is heading toward the galactic center to help the awkwardly named but technologically advanced Coadunation in its war against the mysterious and peculiarly named Denial. Things go wrong rather quickly as the Earth vessel finds alien headquarters, known as Harmony (the names here are not a high point), destroyed. Debris fortuitously hits the ship in a way that does not wreck it but leaves it at the none-too-tender mercy of a black hole, which promptly knocks it four billion years into the future and a war with brain-sucking aliens that can warp space and seem to be made of dark matter. Ridiculousness mounts on ridiculousness in this (++) novel, which does contain bits of intriguing scientific speculation but which delivers them in an extremely irritating manner: the author simply stops the plot in its tracks to insert background information – a characteristic of Keith/Douglas elsewhere in his work, too, and not an endearing one. Fans of the author will enjoy the book and probably award it an additional (+) for one element or another – perhaps for its political subtext, which involves disputes between St. Clair and the ship’s civilian leader, Lord Director Günter Adler, who will have none of this military-control nonsense and demands formation of a civilian administration. Those not already enamored of the work of this author, under whatever name he may be writing, will find little here to draw them into this mostly formulaic story or its characters, who throughout the book remain relentlessly unidimensional.
Scholastic Year in Sports 2017. Scholastic. $9.99.
Best & Buzz Worthy 2017: World Records, Trending Topics, and Viral Moments. By Cynthia O’Brien, Michael Bright and Donald Sommerville. Scholastic. $12.99.
Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge: The Dirty Secrets Behind Early American Medicine. By J. Marin Younker. Zest Books. $13.99.
It can be fun, instructive or both to take a look ahead by taking a look backwards, and in a sense that is what both these books do, albeit in very different ways. The latest Scholastic Year in Sports volume, like those of earlier years, includes material only through August – in this case August 2016 – because of the time needed to assemble the book. So it is a “2017” edition only in the sense that sports enthusiasts may want to know who did what in the first eight months of 2016 in order to watch for what those same players or teams may do in the coming year. There is, for instance, no way to include the 2016 Top 10 college football teams here – the timing does not work – so the 2015 Top 10 are included instead. And the list of the final Associated Press rankings will be of more interest for its earlier entries – it goes back to 1936, the poll’s first year – than its most-recent ones, since it runs only through 2015. The various records set during 2016, early enough in the year to appear here, are of greater interest (and presumably have more staying power) than lists and rankings. For example, there was a triple play – the first ever recorded in baseball in the 115 years records of this type have been kept – made by the Chicago White Sox against the Texas Rangers. In basketball, there was a single-season record for three-point baskets – 402 of them – set by Stephen Curry. In hockey, Patrick Kane scored a point in 26 consecutive games, the longest streak since 1992, and superstar Gordie Howe died in June 2016 at age 88. In NASCAR racing, 2016 was the first year of digital dashboard displays in all cars – certainly the sort of thing whose effects fans will want to watch for in 2017. In figure skating, American skaters had their best showing in a decade – they won two of the four top places at the 2016 World Championships and will certainly bear watching again in 2017. Scholastic Year in Sports 2017, like its predecessor annual volumes, is packed with photos and statistics, contains minimal supportive text, and is – obviously – only for dyed-in-the-wool sports fans, since it covers a large number of sports in once-over-lightly fashion. As a book to provide an overview of a fan’s favorite sport or sports through August 2016, and perhaps get him or her interested in something new for 2017 because that sport looks particularly interesting as presented here, this volume certainly has its place.
Sports are among the topics in another highly visual, once-over-lightly book that clearly is strongly influenced by the Internet and that casts a wider informational net to see what it can catch. This is Best & Buzz Worthy 2017, which in addition to a sports section has ones called “Music Makers,” “Screen and Stage,” “On the Move,” “Super Structures,” “High Tech,” “Amazing Animals,” “Incredible Earth,” and “State Stats.” This is nothing more or less than a “greatest hits of the moment” survey, with some entries certain to hold their place only temporarily (longest music video, highest-paid TV actresses, top-grossing movies) and others equally certain to hold them in perpetuity (world’s most dangerous mushroom, deepest cave on Earth, largest hot desert). The direct Internet tie-ins here come at the start of each chapter, which note items that are “trending.” In “Super Structures,” for example, this includes Denmark’s production of 42% of its electricity from wind turbines and the Eiffel Tower being the building most likely to be seen on Instagram in 2015. In “On the Move,” there is the note that the race car driver with the most Twitter followers is (or was, at the time the book was assembled) Danica Patrick. In “Amazing Animals,” there is a remark that a video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down a subway staircase in New York City had two million views in 24 hours. The whole book is a fount of trivia and miscellany. There is a graphic showing the largest stadiums in the United States, another showing the world’s smallest owls, and a table listing the 10 most-popular dog breeds in the country. There is a note that Arizona is the state with the largest collection of telescopes, and one that North Dakota has the tallest scrap-metal sculpture. There is a picture of RoboBee, the world’s smallest robot (smaller than a paperclip), and one of the person with the most Facebook “likes” (soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, not to be confused with the product with the most Facebook “likes,” which is Coca-Cola). The point of all this is that being “buzz-worthy,” or even “best” (however that may be defined), is not the same as being “important.” As long as readers keep that in mind, they will find Best & Buzz Worthy 2017 to be a pleasantly skimmable volume that makes no claim to in-depth coverage of anything – and really does not need to provide any.
Also skimmable, but scarcely pleasantly so, is a book that goes farther back into history and delves into some areas less salutary than sports, movies and celebrities – but far more significant. J. Marin Younker’s Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge is overstated and overdone – the “dirty secrets” subtitle is really not necessary – but is nevertheless a fascinating foray into American medicine in the days before antibiotics, anesthetics, or even an understanding of the existence of germs and their role in disease. There was nothing particularly American about this ignorance; it was worldwide. But Younker in general selects specifically American cases to illustrate it. Some are quite well known, such as the medical treatment of George Washington in his final illness: when dried beetles applied to his neck did not draw out the throat infection that was tormenting him, doctors had him bled, as was customary at the time, resulting in an 80% blood drainage that was fatal. Others cases are almost equally notorious, such as the treatment of a later president, James Garfield: his three-inch bullet wound expanded to 20 inches because physicians were constantly poking their dirty fingers and unsterile instruments into it in a vain search for the bullet that a frustrated would-be politician named Charles Guiteau had shot into Garfield’s back. On the other hand, many of the stories here are less familiar, such as Reverend Theophilus Packard’s commitment of his wife to an insane asylum because of her “dangerous” religious views (she disagreed with him); his later imprisonment of her in their own home after the asylum released her; and her eventual successful court case against him, which led her to found the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and become an advocate for women’s rights. There is a great deal of fascinating information in this book, delivered, however, in rather scattershot fashion, and sometimes written confusingly: “There is a well-known urban legend about [18th-century surgeon] John Hunter auto-experimenting, i.e., trying out medical procedures on himself, which might or might not be an urban legend.” The book is at its best when showing how societal attitudes and lack of medical knowledge often combined to make matters worse for patients – for example, in 1788, “angry rioters in New York City tried to murder doctors who were known to be teaching human dissection,” and a similar riot in 1824 led to an attack on Yale University’s medical school, all because people believed it was wrong to study dead human bodies to gain information for use in medical treatment. In passing, Younkers makes reference to the theories, both insightful and wrong-headed, of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, as well as those of the later Roman physician Galen. Younkers talks about why bloodletting was done, and how – by cutting, leeches, or cupping. He explains most of his book’s subtitle by noting that “to ‘bleed, blister, and purge’ was deemed heroic therapy because of ‘the strength of its combined actions.’” And he notes that “heroic therapy” remained in use “because physicians didn’t have a solid understanding of diseases and their causes.” All true, but Younkers sensationalizes needlessly – noting, for example, that doctors sometimes bled patients 16 ounces a day for up to 14 days, while today blood donors are limited to those 16 ounces per session, “with a mandatory waiting period of two months between sessions.” So all he is really saying is that science has advanced and medicine is practiced now in a better, more-scientific way. This is inarguable, but scarcely very surprising. There is much of interest in Younkers’ book, but the obviousness with which it is communicated, and the rather unseemly notion that doctors prior to the modern era were somehow deficient because they did the best they could with the knowledge of their time, make Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge a less-valuable guide to now-obsolete medical practices than it could have been.
Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness. By Tim Murphy, Ph.D., and Loriann Oberlin. Da Capo. $15.99.
100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By without Even Trying. By Sarah Cooper. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Draw What Success Looks Like: The Coloring and Activity Book for Serious Businesspeople. By Sarah Cooper. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Given the dysfunctional nature of American politics, it is reasonable to think that U.S. legislators would know something about passive aggression – the use of indirect means rather than directly aggressive ones to further one’s cause, by employing techniques such as procrastination and buck-passing. The new edition of Overcoming Passive-Aggression (hyphen in the original) lends credence to this notion: the primary author, Tim Murphy, is not only a psychologist but also a congressman from Pittsburgh. But he and Loriann Oberlin, a licensed therapist, do not turn their insights on passive aggression toward Congress – they are concerned with the everyday effects of this approach to conflict and the way it harms career, family and other interpersonal relationships. The watchword here is, “It’s sometimes okay to be angry, but it’s never okay to be mean.” But passive aggression, like any behavior that likely originates in childhood and in any case becomes ingrained into a person’s everyday life, provides psychological benefits that make it difficult to confront or overcome: “Passive-aggressive people slickly brush off blame. You react, and they are the misunderstood victims. They win on two counts, so they gain attention twice and dump anger on you, to boot.” This is a powerful set of motivations. Furthermore, as the authors point out, passive aggression stems from hidden anger, and “as long as anger remains hidden, we can’t change it.” So Murphy and Oberlin explore the topic of anger – in part by using a list of characteristics taken from a previous book coauthored by Oberlin – and discuss reasons that anger may become hidden and thus express itself in a passive-aggressive manner. This is all well and good, although some of the formulations of Murphy and Oberlin are a bit too pat – for instance, their blanket statement that anger represents pain in a Troubled Family, stress in a Frantic Family, power in an Angry Family, and desire in an Indulged Family (capitalizations are the authors’). The subtitle of this book is ambiguous: is it directed at people who are passive-aggressive and looking for ways to change their behavior to improve their lives, or is it intended for people trying to cope with other people’s passive-aggressive behavior? Given the reality that people are not even necessarily aware of being passive-aggressive, it is likely that most people who pick up this book will probably not see themselves in it – they will see others’ behavior as being passive-aggressive, and will be looking for ways to cope with it. Murphy and Oberlin do not make this particularly easy, because they offer scenarios in which passive aggression may be at play and then ask readers to consider whether the problem may be in themselves rather than others. This is not unreasonable, but it may be frustrating (and may even seem like authorial passive aggression). Regarding workplace issues, for example, the authors have readers take a 25-question self-evaluation test to determine their performance style, with an eye toward finding out whether their own foundational approach and their likely reactions to colleagues and subordinates may be the source of significant difficulty at work. They warn against becoming too much of a people pleaser, saying that “the one healthy route…means taking a stance for what you believe,” and that you have only yourself to blame if you feel remorse when you agree to take on additional tasks. There is a streak of utopianism here that does not match reality particularly well: “Angry people need to express themselves, but they need to do so when it’s appropriate and find ways to surface their frustrations without venom. They need to give others feedback without attacking them.” Comments like this are unexceptionable, but not, ultimately, very useful. However, there is much that is useful in Overcoming Passive-Aggression, especially in identifying the topic in the first place and showing the many ways in which being passively aggressive can be harmful. And this updated version of the book (the first edition appeared in 2005) includes some brief but potentially helpful suggestions regarding social media, texting and other contemporary forums in which passive aggression may appear, although the specific comments tend to be old-fashioned: “You have one opportunity – only one – to influence your child, so don’t squander it comparing your path to anyone else’s progress. Live your values, and value the lives you have!” The prescriptive elements of Overcoming Passive-Aggression are, on the whole, less valuable than the descriptive ones; but as an introductory overview of one element of what seems often to go wrong in everyday life (including political life), the book does offer some worthwhile analyses.
There is nothing funny about passive aggression, but if you want to harness something along the same lines in at least a semi-humorous way, you can – that is the message of Sarah Cooper’s 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and, for those preferring the material in digest form with some connect-the-dots and coloring opportunities, Draw What Success Looks Like. It does help to have a sense of humor about the excesses and sillinesses of the typical corporate workplace – Scott Adams has taken advantage of that reality in Dilbert for a quarter of a century – but Cooper comes at the material from a different angle. Her underlying assumption is that the workplace is inherently competitive in ways that prevent overt undermining of colleagues but allow the use of passive-aggressive techniques (not that she exactly calls them that) to get the better of one’s fellow sufferers. Since meetings at work are, if not a necessary evil, an omnipresent one, the ability to excel in meeting performance is crucial to one-upmanship and career triumph. One could, of course, excel by calling meetings only when necessary, attending only ones that are important, preparing thoroughly for each of them, and presenting one’s material clearly, concisely and with openness to the contributions and team-oriented success strategies of your equally well-prepared and helpful co-workers. That would be great in Cloudcuckooland. Here on Earth, Cooper says, what works is to seem to have done all that good and important stuff while in reality behaving in ways that appear to be smart and productive but in reality are a mixture of Dilbert-style jargon with Murphy-and-Oberlin-style passive aggression, suitably adapted for meeting protocol. For example, Cooper explains, “Like most women, I’m not a man,” but because she must work with and among men, she has “8 favorite tricks for dominating the male-dominated workplace.” They are using sports metaphors, giving good high fives, learning how to talk about cars, making everything you say sound like a forceful statement, complimenting men’s socks, laughing it off if asked to do something because they need more women doing it, playing pranks frequently, and finally, quoting “The Big Lebowski. Or Animal House. Or Rudy. Or Hoosiers. Or whatever stupid movie they can’t stop talking about.” Cooper has plenty of advice for men, too – most of her suggestions are gender-neutral. Among her recommendations are to sit next to the person leading the meeting so you look sort of like the co-leader; suggest taking a topic offline when you have no idea what everyone is talking about; start sentences with “objectively speaking” so they seem factual even when they are opinions; make fun of yourself; learn how to draw meaningless diagrams (Cooper provides 21 examples); and adjust your techniques depending on where you are – for example, in the Northeast, show up late for your own meeting, while in the South, always say “bless his heart” after bad-mouthing someone. Cooper even has meeting-success suggestions for around the world, including, in Canada, “apologize after everything you say,” and in Japan, “when you need to say no, say maybe instead.” The passive-aggressive nature of 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings is pervasive and obvious, but the odd thing is that the techniques can work even if you recognize them and even if they are being used on you. Cooper explains the strategies to employ when a meeting starts, when it ends, and afterwards; and for a sense of history, she explains famous meetings of the past: the Second Continental Congress was “one of the earliest-known instances of a team that decided to apologize later instead of asking for permission first,” while the Last Supper involved Jesus getting “full approval for a lavish dinner from his CEO. Shortly thereafter, he received the highest promotion.” Sometimes silly, occasionally tasteless, periodically spot-on in its observations and its mixture or wry wit with outlandish fun, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings is the sort of book that you will want to carry into meetings just to see if anyone reads the title.
Or you can bring along Draw What Success Looks Like and do the activities in it while trying to appear involved in the meeting (trying to appear involved is a lot of what Cooper’s notions are all about). In this book are activities such as “design your secret sauce bottle and list the ingredients,” with drawings of two basic bottles provided – since everyone knows a company must have a “secret sauce” to set itself apart from other companies doing the same thing. There are two otherwise blank pages called “What does success look like?” and “What does failure look like?” – you are supposed to draw each one. There is a page of 25 addition problems to be used as practice for adding value. There are to-be-colored pages built around buzzwords such as “disruption,” “innovation,” “traction” and “transparency.” There is a page of “Meeting Speak: match the common meeting phrase to what it really means.” There is a suggestion to “Make an Impact: hit this page as hard as you can.” There is even a page called “Get on the Same Page: Get all of your coworkers to look at this page at the same time. This will be a huge accomplishment.” Just as snarky as 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and just as overdone – Cooper does like to belabor her points – Draw What Success Looks Like is a compressed and more-visual presentation of the high (or low) points of Cooper’s ways-to-appear-smart book. Neither book has the pithy silliness or surrealistic peculiarities of a Dilbert cartoon, but for anyone wanting to channel his or her workplace passive aggression actively instead of passively noting it by posting comics on cubicle walls, Cooper offers plenty of ways to be successful in a meeting-dominated environment. It all comes down to calculating methods of being sly and snide with sufficient subtlety so your co-workers will not quite be able to pin down why you are so incredibly annoying but always seem to come out on top.