December 13, 2018

(++++) SWEET AND SOUR


The Bad Guys #8: Superbad. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

Peep, Peep, I Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

Mama Loves Her Silly Goose! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

Our Little Love Bug! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

     There is nothing nice about the Bad Guys, the heroic antiheroes of Aaron Blabey’s extended series of ridiculous comic-book-style adventures. No, these guys are bad, even if in a good way. They are also, well, guys, which turns out to be part of the amusement in the series’ eighth entry, Superbad. This is emphatically not a satisfactory entry point for newcomers to Blabey’s sequence, because the book makes absolutely no sense if you have not read prior ones. It does not make a whole lot of sense if you have read the earlier volumes, but let that pass. The previous book was called Do-You-Think-He-Saurus?! It transitioned the series from one about formerly-bad-but-now-trying-to-be-good characters fighting an evil alien disguised as the world’s most adorable guinea pig into one about formerly-bad-but-now-trying-to-be-good characters trying to return from the age of dinosaurs to the modern world, just in time to encounter an alien invasion orchestrated by the aforementioned evil alien. Oh, and the equipment that returns the Bad Guys to modern life endows them with superpowers and brings along a dinosaur that said equipment transforms into the smartest creature in the world, or maybe the universe. Nothing complex here at all, right? Well, in Superbad, there is a hilarious opening sequence in which the Bad Guys use their newfound powers to fight off monstrous alien war machines – not. Unfortunately, the Bad Guys are completely unable to control their powers. Mr. Piranha’s super speed does nothing but get him to zoom head-first into walls and hard objects, very quickly. Mr. Shark’s transformational ability has him turn into a tremendously threatening….toaster. Mr. Snake’s ability to levitate objects works fine, but hurling the items in the right direction, or even putting them down properly, works much less well. And Mr. Wolf’s super-strength would be useful if it didn’t cause him to burst out of his clothing and realize that he is naked, causing him to flee in monumental embarrassment. As for Mr. Tarantula – well, he initiated the sequence that gave the others superpowers, but that means he did not get any himself, so he is in a major funk – until Milton, the dinosaur with an IQ of 512, picks Mr. Tarantula to hatch an alien-beating plan. Now, this is not nearly complicated enough for Blabey’s taste, so all these failures and plans and arrangements occur at the same time as the introduction of the members of the International League of Heroes, a group that has been alluded to in prior volumes but whose only visible member has previously been Agent Fox. In Superbad, readers meet the rest of the league members: Agent Kitty Kat, Agent Hogwild, Agent Doom, and Agent Shortfuse. And they are all, well, girls, which makes for some interesting sidelights on all the mayhem and ridiculousness. The International League of Heroes manages to more-or-less whip the Bad Guys into fighting shape by the end of Superbad, and everything seems to be going along as well as things ever go along in this series – until Rupert Marmalade, the evil alien/adorable guinea pig, shows up at the end of the book and spoils everything just enough to set the stage for whatever is going to show up at the beginning, middle and end of the next book. Whew.

     Matters are considerably calmer and animals considerably cuter and sweeter in the many board books by Sandra Magsamen, who is constantly finding new ways for parents to say “I love you” to young children and for kids to interact with all the adorableness. For example, there is a plush basket of multicolored eggs tightly bound into the cover of Peep, Peep, I Love You! This lets kids feel and push on something cute and squishy even before the book is opened – and they have plenty to do after it is opened, too. This one is a lift-the-flaps book about farm-animal parents and babies, all drawn by Magsamen in her usual looking-like-a-sampler style. First there is a mommy cow munching grass on a left-hand page – and on the right are three smiling flowers drawn on a flap that opens to the words “Moo, Moo” and a picture of a baby calf. Then there is a mommy sheep, looking sweetly woolly, on the left, while rows of vegetables adorn the flap on the right – which opens to the words “Baa, Baa” and a picture of a little lamb. After several farm animals are shown, Magsamen concludes the book by putting all of them, moms and babies alike, on a left-hand page, while the right-hand one shows an attractive red barn and affirms that even though there are lots of mommies and babies on the farm, “my favorite baby in the world is – YOU!” This is Magsamen’s usual message, delivered in her usual method, in a book whose interactivity is only part of its charm. One thing the book does not have, though, is a goose; but Magsamen offers that in Mama Loves Her Silly Goose! This is not an interactive book but is an unusually shaped one, much taller than it is wide (a bit like a heavy-cardboard pamphlet). The attraction here is the “goose” part – specifically Mother Goose. What Magsamen does in the book is to take well-known Mother Goose rhymes and abridge and twist them just enough to make them enjoyable – and non-scary – for the littlest children. The white rabbit in “Row, row, row your boat” looks thoroughly relaxed and happy, as do the little yellow fish jumping about. But that is a straightforward and pleasant rhyme. What about “Humpty Dumpty”? Well, he does have the traditional “great fall” in Magsamen’s version of the rhyme – and shows a big frown when it happens – but instead of the king’s horses and men unable to reassemble Humpty, Magsamen writes, “Mommy and Daddy knew what to do: They gave him lots of hugs and kisses, too!” So this turns into an ultimately happy experience – which is the direction in which Magsamen likes to take pretty much everything. Jack and Jill, for another example, do fall down the hill, but the “broke his crown” line about Jack is missing: he is a teddy bear who twirls around rather happily, upside down, as he heads downhill, and Jill is also seen twirling down the hill, right side up. By combining well-known Mother Goose rhymes with her own sense of how to bring comfort and enjoyment to the youngest children, Magsamen here encourages the same sort of parent-child bonding that she aims for in her other board books – all of which keep things short, sweet and enjoyable for parents and kids alike.

     There are no geese to be found in Magsamen’s Our Little Love Bug! But the basic cute cuddliness of her farm-animal and Mother Goose board books shines through in this one as well. As the title hints and the smiling, six-legged, multicolored caterpillar on the front confirms, this is a book inviting parents to “go buggy” about their little ones. And it encourages young children to touch and feel the illustrations, each of which has bug parts – feet, legs, wings – made out of soft felt (the cover calls this a “Heart-Felt Book” – awwww!). Magsamen creates her own text here, with her usual bright colors enhancing key words on each page: “Your smile is so sweet, it makes our days,” for example, has the word “smile” in a larger size than the other words and in multiple colors – with different designs for the different letters (red stripes on the white “i,” white polka dots on the orange “e,” and so forth). The book continues with, “You brighten our world in so many ways” – showing a black-and-green moth with yellow felt wings – and eventually wends its way to truly adorable adult and baby purple spiders, the little one’s eight legs all created in felt for a text that concludes with the book’s title, “you’re our little love bug!” Parents need not worry about any “ickiness factor” involving Magsamen’s bugs, which are about as un-icky as it is possible to be. She shows yet again in this book that characters of all kinds can be used to reach out to parents and very young children to affirm love, warmth, and all sorts of adorableness.

(++++) UNLIKELY PAIRINGS, WITH CATS


What Is Inside THIS Box? A Monkey & Cake Book. By Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

Catwad #1: It’s Me. By Jim Benton. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.

     Sentient animals and plants are not enough for some children’s book authors – such as Drew Daywalt, who has created the exceptionally improbable friendship of a monkey called Monkey and a cake. Yes, as in birthday cake, angel food cake, devil’s food cake, or, in this particular case, as in two-layer yellow cake with pink legs, flat pink face and pink filling between the layers, all topped with a single maraschino cherry. That visualization comes courtesy of Olivier Tallec, whose whimsy and weirdness are a fine match for Daywalt’s. And then there is the story told in What Is Inside THIS Box? This is nothing less than a child-focused rumination on the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger, which dealt with the counterintuitive elements of quantum physics by imagining a way in which a boxed cat could be both alive and dead at the same time, attaining its definitive state only when observed after the box was opened. There is nothing so gloomy (or potentially gloomy) here, however – and, in fact, nothing in the story specifically explaining where it comes from. But there is a very sly key to the origin on the inside back cover, where Tallec draws a small, big-eyed black kitten that has the words “Schrödinger’s cat” next to it. Young children will pass right over this, but adults will enjoy the book more if they look up the reference. What actually happens in the book is that Monkey presents a big box to Cake and insists that there is a kitty cat inside it. Cake becomes so excited that his cherry bounces off the top of his frosting, and he asks if he can please see the kitty cat. No, says Monkey, because “it is a magic cat” that “disappears when I open the box.” Cake cannot figure this out – not even when Monkey, donning a suitably pseudoscientific lab coat, attempts to draw illustrations explaining the concept. The two friends argue, with Cake stating, “I think that there is NO cat in the box when it is open, and when you close the box, there is still NO cat inside it.” In fact, since there could be anything in the box, or nothing, Cake declares that there is a dinosaur in the box. Now Monkey is the excited one, asking to see the dinosaur, and Cake is the one saying “it is a magical dinosaur” that disappears when you open the box. The friends conclude that “we will never know” what is in the box, and head away together to get some pie – leaving the box behind. And when there are no observers, what do you suppose happens? The box opens, and out comes a dinosaur with a cat on its back. But no one gets to see them – except, of course, delighted young readers, and adults who will find this particular version of “Schrödinger’s dino-cat” to be particularly delightful.

     Feline amusements are more straightforward in the first book of a new Jim Benton series called Catwad. Ever since he created snarky, greeting-card-like cynic and all-around sarcasm-spewing Happy Bunny, Benton has been casting about for other animal characters with a similar blend of the outwardly cute and inwardly devilish. Catwad is not quite in Happy Bunny’s league – Benton has in fact not come up with any character equally good – but the cover of It’s Me shows a lot of promise, with the title character drawn as a huge blue blob, with vaguely catlike ears and a mouth curved downward in a frown so emphatic that it takes up two-thirds of his face. If everything in It’s Me were at this level of characterization and amusement, the book would be up there in the Happy Bunny realm – but it turns out to be a (+++) book that is less about Catwad than about the usual “odd couple” relationship between a grouch and a bright and upbeat contrasting character. Catwad’s foil and best friend is Blurmp – who, it turns out in one of the best of the short vignettes that make up this graphic novel, got that name from his parents because that is the sound he makes when he passes gas. Yes, that is one of the best sequences here. Others, however, are duplicates of the sorts of things that even young readers will have seen elsewhere. There is the one about the relaxation chair whose remote control Blurmp misuses while Catwad, sitting in the chair, gets squeezed and pushed and mashed and generally disfigured. There is the one about the friends staying in a seedy hotel in a room filled with spiders, which crawl into Blurmp’s mouth – so he swallows them and says he loves the hotel because he gets breakfast in bed. There is the one in which Catwad tries to appreciate Blurmp’s love of rainbows – ending up standing beneath one that collapses on him. None of these is especially creative. On the other hand, some of the very short Catwad-Blurmp interactions are offbeat and highly amusing. In one, Blurmp gets a tattoo of his face on his back so Catwad can see Blurmp’s smile from either side (and that story gets a good deal more elaborate before it turns out to have been a dream). In another, Blurmp declares himself “a crime-fighting hero” and changes his appearance while trying on various “origin stories” before discarding them all – it turns out that his superpower is to see a criminal getting ready to steal something, so Blurmp swoops in and buys the item for him to prevent the crime. And there is a bit in which Catwad urges Blurmp to grow up, at least a little, so Blurmp decides he will “read all of the MATURE calorie and vitamin information” on foods and “fill out highly MATURE forms just for the mature fun of it,” and on and on, until even Catwad admits he prefers the immature Blurmp. The real issue with Catwad is that there is not enough Catwad in it: again and again, Blurmp steals the limelight, which means sweetness and innocence and naïveté win out time after time. That may be fun for the youngest readers who stumble upon It’s Me. But Blurmp has already worn thin before this first series entry is over – he is essentially too nice to have much staying power. Catwad at least has the potential to be the grumpy puss that he seems to be on the book’s cover. Hopefully he will grow into that potential in future installments.

(+++) FIGHTING FOR FIGHTING WOMEN


Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan. By Eileen Rivers. Da Capo. $27.

     The focus on women in the armed forces tends, in the United States, to be one of combat readiness: even after the first female Army Rangers graduated in 2015, questions continued to be raised about whether standards had been relaxed for them in the name of political correctness, making the women Rangers less fit than men. Strong denials from the military to the contrary, this issue continues to reappear from time to time. Yet women’s roles in combat zones amount to a great deal more than those on both sides of the female-readiness argument in the U.S. tend to realize. Just how much more extensive those roles are, and have been, is the topic of Beyond the Call, whose author, Eileen Rivers, herself served in the armed forces: an Army veteran, she was an Arab linguist in Kuwait following Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

     Rivers, now an editor at USA Today, focuses in her book on a Marine sergeant, an Army major and an intelligence officer, all of whom were members of FETs in Afghanistan. A FET is a Female Engagement Team with an unusual and crucial mission: to develop relationships with Muslim women, who are founts of information on their nations’ customs, needs and difficulties, but are culturally forbidden to speak to male soldiers. Never mind the facile notion that they should speak to male soldiers who are there to protect them: the FETs deal with the reality on the ground, not the wished-for social equality that is many years, if not generations, away in a place such as Afghanistan. Rivers’ book follows the three women – Sgt. Sheena Adams, Maj. Maria Rodriguez, and Capt. Johanna Smoke – as they go about their duties, developing relationships with Muslim women in a bid to gather intelligence vital to U.S. success in the country. Adams, Rodriguez and Smoke are on the front lines of attempts to engage hearts and minds and thus weaken the hold of the Taliban on parts of Afghanistan – and they have to fight some dyed-in-the-wool barriers of their own to do so.

     Thus, Beyond the Call is both a story of the little-known but important role of FETs in Afghanistan and of the lengths to which military women have gone – have had to go, according to Rivers – to serve in all the ways of which they are capable. The book actually starts with a short history of women in the U.S. military before the scene shifts to Afghanistan and the story of a woman named Jamila Abbas, who became a women’s-rights activist – a role placing her in great personal danger – after Taliban killers beheaded her husband. The way Abbas interacts with FET members is an important part of the book, which also details the personal struggles of the three women profiled within the U.S. military. Thus, Rivers shows how hard Adams fought her own chain of command to be assigned to Afghanistan – and what happened when, after she was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED), her advancement was blocked because she was not given credit for combat service. Is this a system glitch or systemic discrimination? Clearly the latter, Rivers suggests, and she says Adams is scarcely alone in suffering from it.

     Rodriguez’ circumstances forced her to fight both the provincial government in Afghanistan and her own chain of command. She was supposed to give Afghan policewomen training, but was not allowed, under U.S. military regulations, to leave base without a male escort. There are arguments explaining this – having to do with extra risks in a culture such as Afghanistan’s if women are out and about on their own – but Rivers suggests that the rules are part of a pervasive anti-female orientation in the U.S. military that is changing slowly when it changes at all. As for Smoke, Rivers shows her working with Abbas to register women to vote, contrasting this bid for female empowerment in a repressive society with the difficulties these FET members faced in their own military lives.

     Beyond the Call is as much an advocacy book as a military-history-and-analysis one, and, perhaps as a result, tends to drag: Rivers is not especially skilled at interweaving the two elements of her narrative, and her writing is matter-of-fact and rather unstylish. The underlying story of FET members helping the fight for women’s rights in a country whose entire religious and political system opposes them is a strong one. But what never quite gels is Rivers’ attempt to relate that level of systemic oppression to the comparatively small and certainly less dangerous facing of barriers involved in women’s service in U.S. defense. It is certainly true that the U.S. military has not been an equal-opportunity organization where men and women are concerned, and that the country as a whole continues to face many issues of inequality involving a wide variety of under-appreciated groups. But comparing the structural inefficiencies and slow-to-change policies of the United States with the vicious, violent, religiously based systemic oppression of the patriarchal system in Afghanistan really makes no sense. Adams, Rodriguez and Smoke certainly had to overcome barriers to be able to do the work that, by Rivers’ account, they all did well and with pride. But their difficulties are on an entirely different level from those of Abbas and the other women trapped in a system that, by the standards of the generally open and designedly secular one in the United States, is backward and borderline evil – just the sort of fertile ground in which cancerous growths such as the Taliban flourish and become extremely difficult to root out.

(+++) SURPRISING SOLOS


Music for Solo Horn. Johanna Lundy, horn; Ellen Chamberlain, violin; Sarah Toy, viola; Robert Chamberlain, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Bassoon Unbounded: 21st Century Music for Bassoon and Piano. Christin Schillinger, bassoon; Jed Moss, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Jean-François Charles: Electroclarinet 1-6; Lina. Jean-François Charles, clarinets. JFC. $15.99.

     As showcases for instruments that are not usually thought of as “showcase instruments” – that is, ones heard far less often in a front-and-center role than violin or piano – these two MSR Classics CDs give performers plenty of chances to show the breadth and depth of their instruments and the types of pieces designed to highlight their technique. Not all the works are filled with virtuosity, but some certainly are. The first piece on Johanna Lundy’s CD, Interstellar Call (from Des canyons aux étoiles…) by Messiaen, is intended to reflect some of the natural majesty of the United States but is notable mostly for the extreme demands it places on the performer, from glissandos to passages where the keys must be kept half-closed. Lundy’s ability to surmount the technical issues and make the music sound communicative is quite an accomplishment, even if what the piece communicates is not particularly notable. Next on the disc is Fantasy Pieces by Jay Vosk (born 1948), one of three world première recordings here. In this work, the horn’s sound is considerably more traditional, although Vosk, like Messiaen, tries to use it to express feelings about American natural beauty. Concert Étude by Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958) has some attractively playful melodies and rhythms: it sounds less serious than the Messiaen and Vosk works, although it is scarcely frivolous. Next comes the longest and most interesting work on the disc, as well as the oldest: Bach’s Partita in A minor, BWV 1013, in Lundy’s adaptation of an arrangement by Michel Rondeau. This work was originally designed to display the virtuosity of the transverse flute, and thus might be expected to sit rather uneasily on the horn – certainly the natural horn of Bach’s time could not have managed it. But Lundy handles the piece with sensitivity and skill, and with considerable emotion in the Sarabande – not, perhaps, a particularly historically informed performance, but one that connects emotionally in a way that the horn is particularly capable of doing. Any work following this one would be a bit of a letdown, which is the fate of Night Storm by Dan Coleman (born 1972), another world première recording. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Proud Music of the Storm,” the piece moves in strong bursts alternating with sustained passages, and while the sound and fury are there, what it all signifies is rather modest – although the conclusion, in the horn’s very lowest register, is impressive both in sound and in Lundy’s playing. The Bach might better have been followed by the next work on the CD, Laudatio by Bernhard Kroll (1920-2013), which was inspired by the hymn Te Deum Laudamus and effectively presents a series of emotional touchstones. Kroll’s piece is followed by Sea Eagle by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1944-2016), a tone painting celebrating a bird that was reintroduced to an island off Scotland. The work has a thrilling and exceptionally difficult concluding Molto presto that Lundy takes in a single breath – a genuinely breathtaking achievement. This would have been a wonderful ending for the disc, but there is one more piece, the final world première recording. It is Canyon Songs for horn and strings, by Pamela Decker (born 1955). It is actually this particular arrangement, which dates to 2017, that has not been recorded before; and it is nicely done, with an overall feeling of meditative peace that contrasts in pretty much every way with the conclusion of Davies’ work. In this context, though, it seems rather pale and wan, yet another celebration of natural beauty whose intended expressions about the wonder of creation are comparatively straightforward – although, as with everything here, played with sensitivity and tremendous skill.

     All seven bassoon-and-piano works performed by Christin Schillinger and Jed Moss are world premières, and the intent of this CD is as much to put the composers in the limelight as to focus on the bassoon’s capabilities in contemporary music. This is not an entirely happy approach, because the works, while pleasant and well-made enough, are by and large not especially distinguished, while Schillinger’s performance abilities are sufficiently impressive to entice listeners into wanting to hear her cut loose in some music that is less self-consciously modern than are many of these pieces. The disc opens with Three Miniatures for Bassoon and Piano by Michael Van Bebber (born 1976): works of about a minute each that are unsurprising harmonically and rhythmically. Next is Double Helix by Jenni Brandon (born 1977), which blends and contrasts bassoon and piano more effectively and to better effect, but has less to say than its five-movement structure would seem to indicate. Diaphonic by Kyle Hovatter (born 1986) is for bassoon and tape and is just one of innumerable pieces in which composers merge acoustic and electronic sounds without really enhancing either. Swing Shift by Adrienne Albert (born 1941) is considerably more interesting, including percussion as well as bassoon and piano and proceeding through a pleasantly jazzy sonic landscape. Three Night Pieces by Damian Montano (born 1976) is the longest work here – its three sections run 17 minutes – and has some moments of effective tone-painting, notably in the second movement (“Mysterious Elixir”). But it overstays its welcome, especially in the outer movements, which initially make their points effectively but insist on returning to them again and again. Victoria Rooms by Geoffrey Burch (born 1979) is designated as being “for improvised bassoon and tape,” and this presumably gives it an extra dose of contemporary flair, but it just sounds overdone and rather silly in a kind of Grade B horror-movie way. The disc ends with Goodbye, Old Paint by John Steinmetz (born 1951), which draws on a cowboy song of the American West and has a suitably folksy and rather old-fashioned feeling about it. Schillinger’s talent is substantial, as is her artistry; and she apparently feels drawn to the works here out of a commitment to bring contemporary composers and their music to a wider audience. That is all well and good, when the music is sufficiently worthy – but by and large, the pieces here are not special enough in sound or structure to tempt listeners to seek out more works by the same people. The audience will, however, likely be interested in hearing more performances by Schillinger, hopefully in repertoire that allows her to display her prowess while it better engages listeners’ interest.

     The situation involving a new CD featuring performances by clarinetist Jean-François Charles is somewhat analogous, except that in this case, Charles is both composer and performer. The reaction of listeners who are not already deeply committed to the form and sound of the music here, however, is likely to be similar to that of listeners who hear Schillinger’s excellent playing: it would be good to hear Charles in somewhat  more-forgiving and more-engaging repertoire. It is possible to understand the motivation for music composed as Charles has composed the works on this disc, and even to admire the skill with which the material has been created and put together, without necessarily liking the end product very much. The issue of the genuinely unpleasant sound of some of these works is especially acute because the inherent sound of the clarinet is so beautiful. Charles mixes live electronics with his clarinets in such a way as to give the overall impression – to modify a comment made by Hans von Bülow about Brahms’ Violin Concerto – that Charles is composing not for the clarinet but against it. The first Electroclarinet is for B-flat clarinet, the second for contrabass clarinet, the third for basset horn, the fourth for E-flat clarinet, the fifth for clarinet in A, the sixth for bass clarinet, and Lina is for contrabass clarinet (and is the only piece on the CD that does not include live electronics). As in the works of John Cage, these pieces by Charles seem designed to extend the definition of music to include pretty much everything that a listener may hear while attending and ostensibly paying attention to a concert or recital. The physical sound of the clarinets’ keys, the breaths taken by Charles during performances, and of course the multiplicity of the usual electronic yawps and screeches and outbursts – all these are part of the “musical experience” here. So are the quite obvious attempts to push the instruments beyond what could be described as their (not just the audience’s) comfort zone: for example, near the end of Lina, it actually sounds as if the instrument is being strangled by a rather inept executioner (it is interesting to compare the sound here with that at the end of the “March to the Scaffold” in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique). Charles describes several of the Electroclarinet pieces as homages – to Debussy, Weber, Messiaen, and Stravinsky – but whether the audience (as opposed to Charles himself) will pick up any sense of tribute is doubtful. A great deal of focus in contemporary music is to bring listeners sounds that they have not heard before, using nontraditional methods (especially computers and other forms of electronics) to accomplish what Charles Ives said more than a century ago, to create music that should “stretch the ears.” But there is a certain point at which what is being heard is no longer music but a concatenation of sounds. Indeed, some of Ives’ own music was accused of being just that – but Ives was never trying to force an audience to reconsider what “music” is, any more than, say, Edgard Varèse was. It was Cage who insisted on that reconsideration, and composers such as Charles have continued to insist on it. Some audiences will surely thrive on aural experiences along the lines of the one offered on Charles’ disc, but others can surely be forgiven for wishing they could hear Charles’ obviously very considerable performance skill employed in the service of pieces that work with the clarinet’s inherent warmth and melodiousness rather than so very determinedly against them.

December 06, 2018

(++++) THEMES AND VARIATIONS


The Prince Problem. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.

Bird & Squirrel #5: All Tangled Up. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Some authors hit their stride and never leave it – or need to leave it. They find something they do well and, by virtue of doing it slightly differently time and time again, create an ongoing (and sometimes nearly unending) series of books that can capture readers at any point and keep them interested and entertained. Vivian Vande Velde manages to do this without actually producing “sequence” books. She simply returns, time and again, to fairy-tale tropes, twisting them just enough to keep them amusing and interesting for young readers while retaining enough of their original structure to imply (rather than state) that the background of all her books is essentially the same. This is all formulaic in a sense, but it does not feel formulaic, because Vande Velde rings just enough changes on the modified-fairy-tale formula each time to keep things both light and interesting. Vande Velde’s latest version of this approach, The Prince Problem, is frothy and fun and silly and overdone and thoroughly enjoyable, which is a pretty good set of adjectives to describe her work in general. The title is very slightly misleading, since there are actually two “prince problems” here, although if read as “the problem involving the ‘prince’ issue in general,” the title makes perfect sense. The primary prince here is named Telmund and is the typical youngest-son-with-great-potential – or wishes he could be. Unfortunately, he is merely the fourth of fifth children of the local king and queen, who inconveniently had a fifth child seven years after Telmund’s birth – leaving Telmund, at age 13, as little more than a glorified babysitter, unceasingly reading fairy tales in the hope of someday finding a way to be heroic. The princess here – of course there is one in a nearby kingdom – is intelligent, studious, determined Amelia, whose naïve fairy-tale-like parents very much want her to select a prince, any prince, to whom she can be betrothed, to protect their kingdom from being allied against their will with the odious Prince Sheridan, who covets their land because every Vande Velde story needs a dyed-in-the-wool bad guy. So Sheridan is one “prince problem” and Telmund, it turns out, is another, because while babysitting youngest brother Wilmar, who is making a major mess of the peasants’ and tradespeople’s goods at an open-air market, Telmund attracts the unwanted attention of a nearby witch. She thinks he is bullying Wilmar and decides to teach him a lesson. Knowing how such things go and unable to dissuade her, Telmund begs not to become a frog, so the witch gets clever (that is, Vande Velde gets clever) and Telmund is bespelled to become a different animal every other time he falls asleep. Thus, he sleeps and becomes a rat; sleeps and becomes himself; sleeps and becomes a rabbit; and so on. This is the sort of clever twist on fairy tales that makes Vande Velde’s books fun despite their underlying familiarity of plot. Will Amelia escape the depredations of Prince Sheridan? Will Telmund find a way to be the hero he wants to be, or at least a hero of some sort, and eventually throw off the transformation spell? Of course, the answer to both questions is “yes,” but the way Vande Velde merges the characters’ stories is what makes for the enjoyment here, along with wondering what sort of animal Telmund will change into next time. The humor can even be sly, as when Telmund awakens with feathers and thinks things are not so bad, since he can fly and explore things and help Amelia, who by this point he has decided to rescue after Prince Sheridan has her kidnapped – only to discover that he is a mere rooster and can barely get off the ground. The inevitable happy ending and friendship of Telmund and Amelia – which may grow into something more, even though she is two years older than he – detracts not a whit from the pleasure of watching that friendship develop despite numerous stumbles and pitfalls.

     James Burks takes a more-standard approach to creating variations on a theme in his Bird & Squirrel graphic novels: the books form an actual sequence rather than standing on their own. Of course, it is quite possible to read them independently, but anyone who does will miss out on some of the back story that is taken for granted in each new volume. The fifth of the books, Bird & Squirrel All Tangled Up, makes the characters’ personalities clear at the start, with happy-go-lucky Bird flying in loops while cautious and nervous Squirrel is having nightmares about protecting his daughter, Birdie (whose mom, Red, has gone off to help Grandmole; how Squirrel and Red got together is part of the back story that readers can only get if they read the previous book, On Fire). Squirrel is such a stick-in-the-mud that Birdie pleads to go with Red instead of staying home and being bored. But of course when Bird comes to visit, things get more interesting: Bird says it is a good day to go hunting Bigfeet (not “Bigfoot,” because “they have two feet, not one,” as Bird explains). Squirrel points out that Bigfeet do not exist, but is eventually roped into going along on the outing that Bird and Birdie want so much. The adventures here are generally quite mild – this is a graphic novel for readers just old enough to be interested in graphic novels – as Squirrel gradually loosens up and starts to enjoy things. Then, of course, something goes wrong, through an encounter with a gigantic spider – and it is Squirrel, with Birdie’s help, who saves the day after Bird’s adventurous nature leads to more problems than solutions. Birdie, after at one point saying she would rather have Bird as a dad than Squirrel, comes around to realizing that Squirrel is a better father. “I’m much better at being the fun uncle,” Bird says, accurately. And Squirrel tells Birdie, “I wasn’t doing you any favors by trying to protect you from everything.” Lessons learned and fun experienced, the three characters head back to Squirrel’s home for the return of Red and a cameo appearance by, yes, Bigfeet (or Bigfoot). The family-focused themes and the importance of balancing caution and adventure appear in all the Bird & Squirrel books, with Burks varying them enough to keep things interesting even while building each of the graphic novels on the same foundation of personality contrast between Bird and Squirrel. It is a formula, yes, but a winning one, with just enough variety to keep all the books enjoyable.

(+++) TEEN TIME (AGAIN)


A New Theory of Teenagers: Seven Transformational Strategies to Empower You and Your Teen. By Christa M. Santangelo, Ph.D. Seal Press. $14.99.

     Teenagers are essentially two-year-olds a decade or so later, requiring parents to allow them the same sort of exploration they were allowed around age two while the parents practice meditation to calm themselves, keeping a small part of their brain in “aware” mode to be sure teens’ wide-ranging search does not result in significant harm. That is essentially the “new theory” of California clinical psychologist Christa M. Santangelo, which is not really a very new theory at all. Santangelo herself knows this: A New Theory of Teenagers has more footnotes than typical books for general readership, as Santangelo is at pains to show how her ideas incorporate and build upon those of many others.

     Parents, understandably, will be most interested in what those ideas are and how exactly they work in practice. The “what” element is handled by Santangelo by dividing the book into seven “transformative strategy” chapters whose New Age-y titles are not, unfortunately, particularly helpful: “Endure Emotions,” “Enlarge the Lens,” “Don’t Grasp—Let Go,” Discover Profound Purpose,” “Contemplate Infinite Possibility,” “Heal Thyself,” and “Go Within.” Santangelo’s emphasis is on seeing conflict as a growth opportunity: the unending difficulties that are common between parents and teens, she argues, are the method by which teenagers form themselves into adults, and the job of parents is to accept the inevitability of those conflicts while being available when necessary to prevent or mitigate actual harm.

     This sounds good, but as in so many prescriptions and proscriptions, the devil is in the details. Santangelo has what is essentially a one-size-fits-all approach to the frustration, anger, unhappiness and trauma that parents sooften feel from teens’ words and actions: meditate. A very Californian approach to difficulty, meditation is scarcely the panacea that Santangelo thinks it is, but her emphasis on it is quite strong. Again and again, A New Theory of Teenagers comes back to it: “Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, I urge you to give this exercise a chance. …This is the home of your soul. There is no fear here – only peace. I want you to imagine that a Spirit is now in your midst. You feel the profound love of this Spirit. …Let the love of this Spirit touch you. It reaches your fear, your sadness, your sense of separation.”

     Those who find this guided approach and this style of writing congenial are the natural audience for Santangelo’s book. Others will find it superficial at best – doubly so because Santangelo is remiss in not showing exactly how her recommendations have actually worked in her clinical practice or could be expected to work in readers’ everyday, real-world life. For example, one of her many stories is about a woman she calls Lisa, who “drew the line at tattoos” because she was “the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were tattooed as part of the extermination process.” Lisa’s 17-year-old son “got a large image of his dog, face in a menacing growl, across his shoulder.” Santangelo says the tattoo “stood for his deep bond with his dog” and that “Lisa’s relationship to her family’s past was keeping her from being able to step back and let go appropriately.” Really? Santangelo apparently believes that one of the most horrific occurrences of modern times, which directly affected this family, should be downplayed for the sake of a teen’s “deep bond with his dog.” Or does she believe this? She states directly, “To be clear, I was not counseling Lisa to ‘accept the tattoo.’ Parents set the moral and behavioral directives.” But Santangelo never says what she did counsel Lisa to do, how she did recommend moral and behavioral directives be set, how she did help Lisa and her son reach across the abyss of the son’s tattoo. Again and again, Santangelo’s book frustrates in this manner: it lapses into generalities and platitudes when parents who pick it up are quite likely and quite rightly going to want specifics of what works, and what has worked in Santangelo’s experience. Saying that parents “need to allow your teen the space to become themselves [sic]” is simply not enough.

     What is irritating in A New Theory of Teenagers is this repeated contrast between statements that are well-considered and practical applications that are missing. “I have found that the first step toward learning how to let go while also guiding and staying connected to your teen is to know your fears.” That makes sense, as does the partial list of typical parental fears that Santangelo supplies. But it fits poorly with a statement such as, “Teens use minor, not harmful, moments of deception to create distance and their own space as a developmentally appropriate movement away from parents.” But a great many deceptions are far from “minor” and “not harmful,” and they are the ones with which parents need more help than to be told, “When you learn to accept and embrace painful feelings, then true transformation can occur.”

     The sixth of Santangelo’s chapters, “Heal Thyself,” is in many ways the core of this book. Here she urges “inviting the inner child to take form and speak” as “a handy tool to go back in time and talk about this place that often doesn’t get articulated but rather is repressed, denied, or acted out – often with your teen.” This is a valid psychoanalytic approach, but one that is virtually impossible to do without considerable therapeutic guidance. A glib statement that “this isn’t easy work” and another, a couple of pages later, saying that this “is slow, painstaking, yet ultimately deeply rewarding work” are ultimately valueless to readers of the book except insofar as they suggest that parents of teens – perhaps all parents of teens – need psychological therapy in order to help themselves and their children through the teenage years. Santangelo never says that outright, but that would indeed be a new theory, one going well beyond the facile notion of self-analysis mixed with meditation that is supposed to help parents cope with the extreme (scarcely minor) behaviors and activities of their teenaged children.

(+++) FROM GRIM AND GLOOMY TO GRAND AND GLORIOUS


Bound Gods #3: The Shattered Sun. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

Star Carrier, Book Eight: Bright Light. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     As Rachel Dunne’s dour, dismal Bound Gods fantasy trilogy moves to its conclusion and Ian Douglas’ SF trilogy-of-trilogies moves to its penultimate adventure, both authors stay true to the worlds and universes they have created and the characters and motivations that have moved the plots of these sequences – for better or worse. Dunne’s action-packed, often gruesome 500-page The Shattered Sun features the same unpleasant characters as In the Shadow of the Gods and The Bones of the Earth, the two prior novels, and forces readers to accept the notion that the less-awful characters are on the better of the two bad sides. Dunne’s interpretation of dark fantasy is very dark indeed, making it unusually suitable that the plot of The Shattered Sun involves the “Long Night,” a time of unending darkness ushered in by the evil Twins, long-imprisoned gods who – at the end of the previous book – returned to a measure of power by taking over the bodies of human twins. Twinning is crucial to the entire Bound Gods trilogy, explaining why infant twins have long been slaughtered without mercy (because they might eventually become vessels for the evil gods) and why two of the less-bad characters have long been in hiding under a cloud of desperation (because they are twins who have managed to grow up). The first two books of the trilogy involved attempts to revive – or prevent the revival of – the fallen gods Fratarro (obviously and rather strangely named from Latin frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister, with one twin god’s name having an “o” ending and one having an “a” for gender differentiation: the use of vaguely Latin names in a world that is supposed to be utterly unlike ours is a peculiarity of this trilogy). With the Twins’ re-emergence into what appears to be full power at the end of the second book, the third must involve a grand battle to defeat them, lest the world be plunged into the never-ending darkness that is the Twins’ preferred form of existence. Why? Well, Dunne never really says: the Twins’ sole motivation is to get back at their unseen “parent” gods, “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (again from Latin: pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings). Dunne distracts from the frivolity of the underlying motivation by focusing again and again on the depredations of the Twins and their followers on many characters, themselves included (some especially powerful Twins backers pierce their own eyes so they can share the darkness for which the Twins stand). The problem with The Shattered Sun and the whole Bound Gods trilogy is that the Twins’ opponents are just as brain-damaged and body-ruined as are their supporters. The antiheroic leader of the opposition, a former priest of the Twins named Joros, is a really nasty, vicious and duplicitous piece of work, and the people who follow him – all more or less unwillingly – are not much better, being deeply damaged in brain, body or both. The drug-addicted, mind-addled sorcerer Anddyr is one of the more-coherent and more-sympathetic characters, in contrast to now-grown sewer rat Rora, a supposedly first-rate fighter who, earlier in the trilogy, returns to her former haunts – where her “family” members mutilate her and nearly beat her to death in a very explicit way, resulting in her decision in The Shattered Sun to return to the same people again and yet again be nearly beaten to death in a very explicit way that also results in several of her companions being imprisoned and tortured. Add Scal, a mass murderer who silently stalks and kills pretty much anyone at pretty much any time, at the command of a deeply scarred and even more deeply vicious woman named Vatri, who is the self-proclaimed seer of the “parent” gods, and you have a pretty accurate picture of the “good” characters here. Eventually, since it is better for the sun to exist than to have the world plunged forever into night, the more-or-less-good guys win out over the less-or-more-bad ones, and Dunne produces a very slightly positive conclusion after suitably grand and gory battles, betrayals and general mayhem. Dunne actually writes well, but the Bound Gods trilogy is so downbeat and depressing that readers who have ground their way through it and who prefer anything other than the very darkest of dark fantasy will likely feel mostly relief when the whole thing lurches to its essentially foregone conclusion.

     There is also a certain amount of lurching going on in the Star Carrier thrice-trilogy as the eighth of the nine books arrives. Ian Douglas (one of the pen names of William H. Keith, Jr.) has been stringing plots and readers along for many, many pages with this interstellar/military/consciousness/religion/multiple-alien-encounters tale, in which humanity triumphs again and again when confronted with a growing series of supposedly superior races and technologies (the latter including its own AI and super-AI creations). Underlying the particular form of humanity that Douglas creates here is a series of religious wars that led to a decree called the White Covenant, under which public displays of religion were banned, as was proselytizing. Religious or pseudo-religious elements continue to peek and poke their way into Star Carrier, though, being intertwined with the whole notion of a higher consciousness, evolution, species that have developed along lines entirely different from that of humanity, and other typical (and typically overdone) SF tropes. At the center of the multiple plot lines is Trevor “Sandy” Gray, a longtime military leader and apparently a closet Christian (in the seventh book, Dark Mind, he mentally objects, at some length, to the celebration of the winter solstice rather than Christmas). Gray both depends on machine intelligence (as do pretty much all the characters here) and is skeptical of it and worried that it could endanger humanity; this is nothing unusual in SF or, for that matter, in real-world news stories. In Dark Mind, Gray took on a mission from a super-AI called Konstantin to investigate a star system that might have a super-advanced alien race that might help humanity fight a race of sentient bacteria that controls a wide variety of alien species. To investigate this system, Gray had to disobey orders from his superiors, a major no-no in military circles, but Gray did so because he is heroic and upstanding and an all-around good guy. The result was that Gray’s command of his starship – the America, no less – was taken away, and he has been left without the organizational, hierarchical moorings of his longtime military service. This, it turns out, is exactly what Konstantin (at least the Konstantin clone aboard the America) wanted, because without a starship to command, Gray can be sent in Bright Light on a mission to the remote star Deneb, where Konstantin will arrange for him to encounter yet another mysterious and immensely powerful alien civilization that may be able to prevent humanity from being wiped out again. Umm, no, that may again prevent humanity from being wiped out. Something like that. Anyway, the title Bright Light refers to an all-new artificial intelligence, although how far superior it can be to the virtually all-knowing (or at least all-manipulating) Konstantin is hard to determine. It is scarcely surprising that a series as extended as this one is packed with characters and plot lines, but Star Carrier at this point seems overextended and a trifle tired. Planet-sized brains not enough of an enemy for humans? How about minuscule bacteria? That sort of thing: Douglas seems to be reaching for greater and greater complexity and complication at the service of what is, foundationally, a rather simple premise under which superior alien races nearly destroy humanity repeatedly but are beaten back because humans, gosh darn it, just have so much pluck and such willingness to risk everything by doing stuff they don’t fully understand but that, by golly, actually works. It is a kind of country-bumpkin view of humanity, and it leaves Gray and the other Star Carrier characters seeming something less than vibrant, never mind intelligent. Still, readers who have stuck with the series so far will find Bright Light a solid advancement of the whole Star Carrier sequence and will surely be looking ahead to the coming final book. For that matter, readers who dipped into the series early – its first few books were its best – will also look forward to the coming last entry, if only because Douglas, who is nothing if not an adept writer, is likely to use it to provide a suitably uplifting finale.

(++++) WITH STRINGS ATTACHED


Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $16.99.

Brahms: Hungarian Dances. Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, violin; Fabio Bidini, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     The idea of re-scoring Mahler for chamber forces is neither new nor entirely out of character for the composer’s music. In the 1920s, Mahler’s works were among those performed under the auspices of Arnold Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School at their Society for Private Musical Performances, whose concept was to present large-scale modern works by both well-known and little-known composers, played by first-rate musicians – but only 12 to 20 of them, using arrangements made by Schoenberg himself or by members of his circle. The reason this works rather surprisingly well for Mahler is that, for all his demands for gigantic orchestral forces, Mahler very often used the instruments in chamber-music fashion: he needed a great number of them to allow the production of a wide variety of sonic combinations, not (or at least not always) to produce a sheer mass of weighty sound. Thus, the Foghorn Classics  release of string-quartet arrangements of three Mahler song cycles by Zakarias Grafilo, first violinist of the Alexander String Quartet, deserves to be seen (and heard) as a way to elucidate some of the music’s emotional and structural impact – employing forces different from those Mahler chose and therefore able to communicate in their own distinct way. There are, however, some pitfalls in arranging these particular cycles for string quartet, because of Mahler’s acknowledged brilliance in orchestration. In particular, one of the five Rückert-Lieder is scored by Mahler for no strings at all: Um Mitternacht calls only for woodwinds, brass, timpani, harp and piano. So transforming it into a work that is only for strings is, at the very least, a bold undertaking. Furthermore, one of the Kindertotenlieder – the midpoint of the five-song cycle, Wenn dein Mütterlein – uses no violins, making half of a string quartet potentially intrusive into the mood. This song too emphasizes woodwinds, although it does include some string parts. Grafilo’s sensitivity to Mahler actually comes through particularly well in this very piece, where he gives the extended English-horn solo to the viola, whose tone fits the material to fine effect. The reality is that all these quartet adaptations can and perhaps should be regarded as experiments in sonority and emotional communication, and if they are not entirely Mahlerian in the former of those ways, they are highly effective in the latter. Much credit for their expressive impact goes to mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who is equally adept with the lilt of parts of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually sung by a male voice, in accordance with the texts, but aptly fitting a middle-range female voice); the quiet anguish of most of Kindertotenlieder; and the explosive beginning and middle of the latter cycle’s final song, In diesem Wetter. Scharich feels as well as sings the music, and varies her delivery of the texts to mostly excellent effect.  Only the Rückert-Lieder fall a bit short: Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen are both rather too matter-of-fact – particularly surprisingly in the case of the latter song, given Scharich’s sensitivity to that song’s emotions as expressed elsewhere. Most of the singing and emotion here, though, are first-rate, and the Alexander String Quartet is excellent throughout, supporting Scharich when called for, interacting with her when the music so requires, and providing contrast to her vocalizing when that is appropriate. Grafilo’s arrangements almost always lie well on the instruments (no small feat), and while listeners familiar with these song cycles will surely miss some of the many elegant and piquant touches that Mahler brought to them, anyone who loves and appreciates the music should easily hear the respect reflected both in the instrumentation here and in the singing. Certainly this is not the version of these song cycles to own, but certainly it is a version that is very much worth having.

     The violin-and-piano arrangements of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances have a much earlier provenance than Grafilo’s quartet arrangement of Mahler songs: the Brahms works were arranged during Brahms’ own lifetime, and very much with his approval, by violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim – in 1871 and 1880. Joachim was the great violinistic influence on Brahms, responsible for inspiring both Brahms’ Violin Concerto and his Double Concerto, and Joachim’s handling of the Hungarian Dances is a particularly happy melding of form with virtuosic function. This version of the 21 dances is very much a violinist’s dream (and, to some technical extent, nightmare): the piano is relegated to an almost wholly subsidiary role by Joachim (something Brahms, himself a fine pianist, would not likely have done). Yet without the piano providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the dances, the violin would be unable to soar to the heights that Joachim wants – and what heights they are! Listening to Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker’s performance on a new Delos CD is a tremendously involving and exhilarating experience, likely to make anyone familiar with this music wonder why Joachim’s transcription is not heard more often. Part of the reason surely involves the diminution of the piano part – although Fabio Bidini scarcely seems to see himself in a lesser role, throwing himself into the music in full-partnership mode. It may be that this version of the Hungarian Dances simply requires so much abandonment, such intensity of expression in old-fashioned Romany (Gypsy) mode, that only a violinist capable of merging over-the-top musical emoting with impeccable technique can bring the work off with genuine élan. Höpcker is an ideal exponent of the material: she is never dismissive of its folk-music and popular elements (most of the dances were probably Brahms’ arrangements of tunes he had heard rather than ones he himself composed), but neither does she try to make the dances overly serious or, heaven forfend, somber. The Hungarian Dances are almost, in their way, proto-film music, overdone both in their emotional evocation (which is melodramatic rather than dramatic) and in their celebratory vivacity. The best-known dances, such as Nos. 1 and 5, sound fresh and new in the hands of Höpcker and Bidini, while the less-known ones come into their own both as individual pieces and in the overall context of the set of 21. Surely every classical-music lover needs to have these dances in both their orchestral and piano-four-hands versions, and surely they are already a staple of many people’s collections. But this wonderful recording of a version that is just as valid as Brahms’ own comes close to being a must-have for anyone who loves this music: relatively few people will have heard the Hungarian Dances this way before, which means few will realize just how much they have been missing by not knowing what Joachim put into the material and what Höpcker has now extracted from it.

November 29, 2018

(++++) WHEN 9 TO 5 SEEMS LIKE FOREVER


Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     What exactly keeps the newspaper business going these days can be rather hard to fathom, but part of the answer must be, “the comics pages.” These collections of daily bits of amusement and/or visual commentary and/or drama help balance the generalized awfulness found pretty much everywhere else in the traditional newspaper. And although it is certainly possible to read most newspaper comics online – and to read some comics that are actually created online, for Internet-only dissemination – the comic-strip medium originated in print and still seems to fit most comfortably there. To be sure, the reduction in comics’ printed size in recent years has made life extremely difficult for artists whose work shows painstaking detail, and the long tradition of four-panel daily strips has given way in many cases to three-panel ones to allow a smidgen of additional space per panel. Yet some strips have emerged that thrive under these far-less-than-ideal circumstances, and Scott Adams’ Dilbert, which appears in a remarkable 2,000 newspapers worldwide as well as online, is a kind of poster child for modern-strip success.

     Adams has drawn Dilbert for almost 30 years and, it can be argued, scarcely draws it better now than he did when he started the strip in 1989. But the quality of the art did not matter in the 1980s and matters very little now. The strip’s backgrounds may be blank most of the time and barely sketched the rest of the time, the characters’ poses may often be virtually identical from panel to panel, and the characters’ facial expressions may range from simple to nonexistent, but that too does not matter – because the strip, not long after its inception, found a perfect focus for Adams’ abilities: the workplace, specifically the Kafkaesque large-corporate workplace. It does not matter that Dilbert has no mouth (except in occasional times of more-extreme-than-usual stress) and that his eyes are invisible behind glasses, because his very facelessness reflects his role as a smart but soul-crushed member of the unappreciated workforce. It does not matter that Wally’s mouth usually consists of pursed lips and that he too has eyes invisible behind glasses, because he represents another common corporate type: the competent but useless employee whose main skill is work avoidance and who keeps his job because firing him would reduce the empire of his boss. And it does not matter that that boss, although he does have visible eyes and mouth, has no name and sports two tufts of hair that look suspiciously like devil’s horns – because a nameless boss just seems to go with faceless characters, and the boss does in fact bedevil his subordinates in a wide variety of soul-stealing ways (and, as longtime readers know, is in fact the brother of a sort-of-actual devil known as Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light).

     The consistency with which these typecast characters stand up to scrutiny is shown anew with every Dilbert collection, including Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead, the 46th numbered volume. Much of the genuinely wry commentary on office life and the world that encourages it comes at Dilbert rather than from him. Dogbert, Dilbert’s dog (who also has no mouth and eyes hidden behind glasses), is a frequent source, as when Dilbert is falsely accused of lying at work and Dogbert tells him, “I know you aren’t a liar” – which makes Dilbert feel better until Dogbert adds, “I see you as more of an idiot.” Short-time or infrequently seen characters also become commentary repositories, as when a new company app has “triggered a zombie apocalypse” by being so addictive – and when tested on Zimbu the monkey, leads Zimbu to say that he gets “a strong dopamine hit every time I click on it. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” (Parallels to social-media apps are very much intentional.)  And at one point in the latest collection, the boss hires “a story-telling mothman,” who really does have an insect body, complete with wings and with antennae that look suspiciously like boss-style horns. The boss explains that the mothman “identifies the employees with the greatest workloads and wastes their time telling long stories,” and when Dilbert protests that the firm does not need a story-telling mothman, the boss asks, unarguably if you have any familiarity with big-company workforces, “Then why does every company have one?”

     And that is what has kept Dilbert in the front rank of comic strips for so many years: not the art, which is “suboptimal,” as Dilbert would (and sometimes does) say, but the way Adams taps into corporate culture day after day, creating characters who (objectively) cannot possibly exist in terms of appearance but who (also objectively) do exist in terms of how they think and what they do. Whether big-corporate life has gotten better since Dilbert started is purely a matter of opinion. What is a matter of certainty is that it has not gotten sufficiently better to stop Adams from continuing to mine what appears to be an unending lode (or load) of soul-crushing mediocrity and everyday dehumanizing behavior that is somehow just shy of preventing all productive work from stopping altogether.

(+++) VISUALIZE IT!


Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe. By Dan Green. Scholastic. $9.99.

What if You Had T. rex Teeth!? And Other Dinosaur Parts. By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     The place of the written word in our highly visual age is increasingly difficult to determine. One approach to preserving writing while accepting the apparently unending fascination with visuals is to create books in which the words are adjuncts to pictures – even when it is the words, not the pictures, that contain virtually all the information. That is Dan Green’s approach in Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe, whose title doubly emphasizes what people will see (“visual” and “graphics”) but whose actual content, much of it quite fascinating, lies in the verbiage that the title downplays to the point of omission. This is a six-section, visually striking book that, despite the title, is scarcely universal in any sense: it is a compendium of miscellaneous facts, a kind of “trivial pursuit” of reality, a book whose many pleasures of discovery are almost incidental to the way the highly visual, photographically rich pages look. This is not a “reference book” in any traditional sense, since the facts it presents are random, organized only in very general terms in sections called “Wacky World,” “To the Max,” “Super Senses,” “Pig Out,” “Supertech,” and “Dangerous and Deadly.” Nevertheless, many of the facts here are fascinating. Young readers may already know that the vast majority of Earth’s surface is covered by liquid water (71%), but are unlikely to be aware that temperature rises one degree Fahrenheit for every 70 feet of depth inside our planet. The fact that Everest is the world’s highest mountain is well-known, but the fact that the highest mountain in Europe is Elbrus is much less familiar. Readers aware that the blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, and indeed believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived, may not know that the strongest creature on the planet is the horned dung beetle, which can lift 1,141 times its own body weight. This is the way the entire book proceeds, mixing comparatively familiar information with decidedly abstruse facts. For example, the male silkworm moth can pick up the scent of a female a mile away; a mollusk called the West Indian fuzzy chiton has eye lenses made of limestone; muscles represent 31.56% of a human’s body weight, skin 7.81%, and the digestive tract 2.07%; worker bees travel the equivalent of two to three times around the world for each pound of honey they make; what is believed to have been the largest volcanic eruption of all time occurred under what is now Yellowstone Park; the most toxic natural substance is botulinum, made by bacteria – and used in Botox injections. There is a great deal more than this in Insta Graphics, with those pages that do not have bright and prominent photos having bright and prominent geometric shapes within which the information is presented in very short paragraphs. In one sense, the book represents a capitulation of words to pictures: certainly its basic appearance is a strongly visual one. In another sense, though, it represents a well-meaning attempt to continue to present and transmit information to young readers at a time when screens, smartphones and such have become their dominant method of perceiving and interacting with the world.

     There is also a strongly visual element to the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam. Here too there is interesting information accompanying the visuals that dominate the individual pages and the overall appearance of the books. The main attraction of these volumes, though, is not what they explain but how McWilliam creates fascinating and often bizarre hybrid creatures by visually attaching animal parts to children. The bizarre element is especially strong in the latest series entry, which also has the most-complicated title to date. All the earlier books refer to an animal something-or-other (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.); ask What if You Had… the body part; and follow the question with both an exclamation point and a question mark. This time, though, the word “animal” is missing from the title, and the book does not simply substitute “dinosaur” to create What if You Had Dinosaur Parts!? Instead, apparently going for grossness, the title focuses on the always-reliable attraction of Tyrannosaurus rex, shows a huge-toothed hybrid boy-dinosaur with wide-open mouth on the cover, and throws in the after-title phrase And Other Dinosaur Parts to indicate that this is not simply a tooth or T. rex book. The whole thing is a bit awkward, and so is the book itself. A lot of the fun of these books involves showing how the possession of animals’ parts would simplify (or at least change) everyday childhood activities, but the mixture does not work here as well as in earlier volumes. For instance, one entry is about the vicious Velociraptor and the frightening sharp toes and serrated teeth it used to catch and devour prey – that is the informational part of the entry. On the facing page, the notion of a girl using those “sickle-tipped toes” for the innocent and mundane purpose of opening birthday presents seems just a bit too far over-the-top. Similarly, a page on the head crest of Parasaurolophus, apparently used to amplify sounds so they could be heard at long distances, is informationally interesting; but the facing page, suggesting that such a crest would somehow help a girl “lead the school marching band,” is weak. The hybrid drawings are even odder here than in earlier series entries, and the factual material is presented as simply and straightforwardly as always – and both those elements of the book are pluses. But the imaginary way that dinosaur parts would enhance children’s daily lives today are just not as interesting as are the imagined uses of animal eyes, ears, tails and so forth in other books from this series. Still, kids who have enjoyed earlier Markle/McWilliam creations will find things somewhat amusing as well as somewhat informative here. And certainly the book provides further evidence, if any is needed, about the emphasis on strictly visual elements in books that try to interest today’s young readers in the material that is contained in the words.

(++++) COMPOSERS IN DEVELOPMENT


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Funeral Song; Jeu de Cartes; Concerto in D “Basel”; Agon. Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. PentaTone. $33.99 (2 SACDs).

Haydn: Symphony Nos. 49 (“La Passione”) and 87; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers; Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Max Mandel, viola. CORO. $18.99.

Franz Schreker: Vorspiel zu einem Drama; The Birthday of the Infanta—Suite; Romantische Suite. Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

     The style of composers inevitably changes over time in accordance with the changes in their lives, reputations, expectations, and interests in taking their music in new directions. But these changes can be either subtle or substantial. Two composers for whom they were substantial were Stravinsky and Haydn: Stravinsky’s style changed so much over his career that there almost seem to be multiple Stravinskys, while Haydn’s developed so substantially that he became a bridge from the Baroque era to the edge of the Romantic. Occasionally, a recording will explicitly or implicitly show just how extensive a composer’s progress (or at least change) turned out to be. That is the case with an excellent new two-SACD PentaTone Stravinsky recording featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. Stravinsky lived to be nearly 89 (from 1882 to 1971) and had a remarkable 70-year career, during which he absorbed and worked within styles and techniques ranging from 19th-century Russian nationalism (learned from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov) to neoclassicism (with which Stravinsky is especially closely identified) to serialism (to which Stravinsky came late in life, handling it in his own distinct way). Bits of several Stravinskys are in evidence under Gimeno’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic direction. The earliest work here, Funeral Song, is not only redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov but is also a tribute to him: it was composed after the older composer’s death in 1908 and first played in January 1909. It was then lost for a century, eventually rediscovered, and first played in modern times as recently as 2016. An attractive work that gives instrument after instrument its chance to pay its respects to Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song is a piece that in no way presages The Rite of Spring, written in 1911-12 and given its still-notorious first performance in 1913. Gimeno gives the primitivism and rhythmic vitality of this piece its full due while never losing sight of its origin as a ballet: this is a danceable version of The Rite of Spring as well as one that works nicely as a concert presentation. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism actually has its roots prior to The Rite of Spring, in Petrushka (1911), but he developed it fully only in later years, and certainly it is abundantly clear in Jeu de Cartes (1937). The balletic elements remain in the forefront in this reading – creation of ballets is one thing Stravinsky did throughout his compositional life – but the sparer scoring and greater transparency of orchestral parts clearly show Jeu de Cartes to date from one of the later Stravinsky styles. A decade after the ballet, Stravinsky remained in largely neoclassical mode with his Concerto in D “Basel” (1946). Although created as a concerto for string orchestra, the short (12-minute) work has elements of divertimento about it, along with overall neoclassical poise and a kind of rhythmic accentuation that stayed with Stravinsky throughout his oeuvre. Matters certainly did change in some ways, though, by the time of Agon (1957, but begin as early as 1953). Yes, it is a ballet, and it includes Stravinsky’s first use of strict twelve-tone technique, but it combines the nod to Schoenberg with a look back many centuries, to dances such as the Saraband and Gaillarde, managing to cram 16 separate sections into less than 22 minutes – a Webernesque miniaturization process, and in fact some of the use of thematic fragmentation is actually reminiscent of Webern. The performances of all five works in this release are very well done, thoughtfully presented and stylishly played, and the two discs, taken together, create a fascinating portrait of quite a few of Stravinsky’s multifaceted compositional approaches.

     The latest recording of Haydn symphonies by the splendid Handel and Haydn Society period orchestra is also, in its own way, a portrait of the development of Haydn’s style, even though it contains only two works by Haydn. The contrasts between the Symphonies Nos. 49 and 87 are, however, so many, that this CORO disc becomes a fascinating exploration-in-miniature of the way Haydn’s style changed over time. Separated by some 20 years, the two symphonies are worlds apart in approach and effects. No. 49 is so emphatically in F minor that all four movements are in the home key, with just a flicker of major-key writing in the third movement’s trio. It is the last Haydn symphony written in Sonata da chiesa style, with the slow movement placed first instead of second. It is a deeply serious work, called “La Passione” even in Haydn’s lifetime (although not so named by the composer), possibly first performed at a church service where Christ’s Passion was the center of attention. Wide leaps, intense expressiveness, and virtuosic demands on a small orchestra combine to make this an exceptionally moving and unusually intense symphony even within Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period, of which it is one of the very best representatives, in some ways the best. No. 87 is as different a work as can be, created for a significantly larger orchestra and written in a sunny A major. Amusingly, this recording’s booklet notes include one writer saying that this was the first-written of the six “Paris” symphonies and another stating that it was written last. What matters, though, is simply its position as one of that symphonic group, which cemented Haydn’s international reputation and brought him considerable celebratory acclaim (as well as a considerable amount of money). Harry Christophers does not vary his orchestra’s size for the two symphonies, but he handles the works with so sure a sense of sectional balance and overall style that No. 87 sounds as if a larger ensemble is playing it. And the work’s ebullience comes through with abundant clarity, along with the precision and excellence of its construction. Haydn certainly developed a great deal in the years between these two symphonies – but it is worth pointing out that each of the works is equally impressive and equally effective, albeit in a very different way. Christophers has been including Mozart violin concertos with his Haydn symphonic releases, providing an intriguing contrast between the two composers, and on this CD he presents the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, for violin and viola – a wonderful work by any estimation. Aisslinn Nosky, concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society, is joined as soloist by violist Max Mandel, with whom she has played for more than two decades – and it shows in the remarkably easy, good-natured give-and-take between the solo instruments as well as the consummate skill and sensitivity to period style of both solo players. This is an altogether lovely disc, its program seeming somewhat arbitrary on the surface but proving, on closer examination, to be exceptionally well-thought-out both in terms of giving listeners the experience of two very different Haydn symphonies and in offering some wonderful Mozart that separates the Haydn works on the CD while placing them beautifully in context from a musical standpoint.

     The context of the music of Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is quite different, and the extent to which Schreker’s style evolved over the 20-year period of the works on a new Naxos CD is debatable. Once deemed as important an opera composer as Richard Strauss, Schreker fell into obscurity even as Strauss’ reputation was cemented and soared. From the standpoint of musical development, it is easy to see why: Strauss’ style changed significantly between that of his early, famous tone poems and that of his final opera, Capriccio (1942). Yet Strauss (1864-1949) was scarcely a slavish follower of the many musical changes that occurred during his long life. Schreker, on the other hand, seems to have remained firmly with late Romanticism in terms of musical style and emotional communication – with the result that his works, although very well-constructed and often quite engaging to hear, do not really stand out stylistically from those of other composers of the era (including those of Strauss that date to the same time period). All this is hindsight, though, and a bit unfair to Schreker, whose works – thanks to the tireless devotion of JoAnn Falletta to the rediscovery of interesting, neglected repertoire – show considerable skill in orchestration and, often, a fine flair for the dramatic. “Often” is not “always”: Vorspiel zu einem Drama (1914), an expanded version of the overture to Schreker’s lurid opera Die Gezeichneten (which was not performed complete until 1918), is rather shapeless and surface-level impressionistic. However, the work is filled with beauty and lyricism that make it certainly worth hearing, and Falletta does quite a good job of holding it together with greater cogency than one might expect. The protagonist of Die Gezeichneten is hunchbacked and deformed, and Schreker evokes considerable sympathy for him in the opera, at least for a time. A similar protagonist, an ugly dwarf, lies at the heart of the pantomime The Birthday of the Infanta (1923); indeed, his death of a broken heart (when he realizes that the haughty princess does not love him and has been laughing at rather than with him) is the climax of the music and of the Oscar Wilde story on which the theatrical production is based. Here as in Vorspiel zu einem Drama, Schreker combines lush orchestration with emotionally affecting lyricism, especially in the last few pieces of the 10-movement suite. Yet there is little significant musical development between this work and the richly scored, conservatively harmonized Romantische Suite (1903): over a 20-year period, Schreker’s style solidified without changing in any significant way. Falletta makes about as good a case for these works as they are likely to receive, thanks not only to her sure-handed orchestral direction but also to the absolutely first-rate playing of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (more often listed as Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin). This is a world-class ensemble whose tonal richness and exceptional sectional balance fit Schreker’s music beautifully, giving listeners who enjoy late-Romantic music multiple opportunities to bask in Schreker’s expressive richness.