January 17, 2019

(++++) IMP-PERFECTION


Perfect. By Max Amato. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There are so many variations on the “opposites attract” and “apparent enemies can turn out to be fast friends” themes in picture books for young children that it is always surprising when an author comes up with a new one. That is just what Max Amato has done in Perfect. Starting with photographs of a pencil and an eraser – the pink-parallelogram type, not the kind on the pencil itself – Amato gives these characters simple but expressive faces with a few lines and shapes, then sets them against each other. They are, after all, opposites: the pencil makes marks on pages and the eraser removes them. They are also expressive opposites: the eraser narrates the book, while the pencil expresses itself entirely by drawing – or, from the eraser’s viewpoint, by messing up all the nice clean pages.

     Any child who has read books about unlikely friendships will see where the book is going, but that will not matter: the fun is in how it goes there. The pencil (whose drawing portion is the only part that Amato shows, thereby avoiding the issue of whether it has an eraser of its own on top) repeatedly spoils things for the self-satisfied eraser. “No pencil can mess with me,” the eraser says at one point on a left-hand page, and sure enough, the facing, right-hand page is completely white, just as the eraser likes it. But turn the page and the eraser lets out an exasperated, “Hey!” The reason is that, on the next right-hand page, the pencil has drawn a really silly caricature of the eraser, complete with the “No pencil can mess with me” comment.

     The eraser runs through that drawing, of course, erasing most of it, but cannot quite catch the pencil, which draws a squiggle that soon develops tornado-like intensity and blows the eraser right off the page. The eraser lands on a later page filled with shading that the pencil has done – and before the eraser can remove any of it, an army of huge, angry-looking pencils suddenly shows up. They are in fact simply drawn by the pencil, but the drawings are soon chasing the eraser toward what turns out to be a thick forest drawn, of course, in pencil and by the pencil. “I’ll never be able to fix all of this,” the eraser laments, giving way to frustration with a series of inarticulate shouts. But then – in some of Amato’s cleverest drawings – the eraser figures out how to erase part of the pencil shading that is all over the page, creating through the erasures (that is, with white space) a rocket ship in which the eraser can ride speedily around the page, erasing more and more of it and finally escaping onto a couple of nice, tidy white pages.

     Unfortunately for the eraser, at this point the realization dawns that being “perfectly clean” is not really all that much fun – and Amato shows the character, in a small size, right in the middle of an otherwise completely white page, wearing an unhappy frown. This is clearly the setup for a rapprochement. The eraser shouts “Hey!” and the pencil obligingly drops down from the top of the page, creating a squiggle pattern above the top of the now-smiling eraser. And then the pencil does more and more shading, filling the page with darkness similar to what previously went into the forest. And then the eraser uses the same technique as before to remove some of the dark area, this time to create the letter “P.” And that becomes the first letter of the word “Perfect,” which appears on the book’s final page as eraser and pencil, reconciled and now obviously enjoying each other’s company, look smilingly out at the reader. There is nothing very unusual in the underlying plot of Perfect, and even the idea of animated drawing tools is not new: crayons, pens, paintbrushes and other objects have featured in plenty of children’s books. But Perfect is nevertheless special, thanks to the clever ways in which Amato builds the book around the real-world characteristics of pencils and erasers. The pages on which the pencil creates shapes and shades really look as if they have been done in pencil, and when the eraser passes through penciled areas, little eraser bits are left behind, as they would be with a real eraser. Perfect is fun and funny, and kids will enjoy seeing the ways in which the two characters get on each other’s nerves for a while and then decide they are better off cooperating than remaining in conflict. That is a simple message, to be sure, but certainly a worthwhile one – and all the better for being so entertainingly presented.

(++++) SCIENTI-COMICS


Some Clever Title: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Mother Is Coming: A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     There is no shortage of nerd comics online. The best of them is xkcd by Randall Munroe, but others also have much to recommend them, such as SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) by Zach Weinersmith. However, in the days before there were any Internet comics, or even any Internet in the sense in which we know it now, there was one comic strip that fearlessly (OK, maybe fearfully) carried the tattered banner for science geeks everywhere. That was Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, which dates all the way back to, believe it or not, 1988. FoxTrot was an unusual mixture of hoary suburban-family humor with highly sophisticated (especially for its time) play with math and physics concepts (Amend has a degree in physics). The strip had the usual three-kids suburban family: feckless father whose inability to light a simple barbecue grill was a recurring thematic element; down-to-earth mother whose obsession with healthful eating was her recurring theme; older, sports-focused high-school-age brother; early-teen, fashion-obsessed sister; and math-and-physics whiz kid brother whose antics quickly became the focus of the strip and its most unusual element by far.

     FoxTrot was genuinely funny, and Amend skillfully walked a fine line between too much geekiness for the strip to resonate with non-nerds and too little for it to be distinctive. And it is not quite fair to speak of FoxTrot in the past tense, because it is still around. But it is scarcely the same: Amend discontinued the daily strip at the end of 2006 and since then has produced it only on Sundays – during years when the newspaper industry, where FoxTrot thrived, has shrunk to near-unrecognizability and papers’ comic strips have shrunk along with it. The antics of father Roger, mother Andy, and kids Peter, Paige and Jason have continued in much the same vein in the years since FoxTrot became a once-a-week offering, but the strip’s continuity has disappeared, and it would now be quite difficult for someone who has never read FoxTrot to piece together its underlying approach from the Sunday-only strips.

     It is worth trying, though, at least when those strips appear in collections such as Some Clever Title and Mother Is Coming, which allow readers to absorb and enjoy more than 130 of the Sunday appearances per book and get a sense of the characters’ personalities somewhat akin to what readers of the dailies used to obtain. The mixture of FoxTrot themes has not really changed very much. Some strips offer traditional suburban-family humor, as when Roger announces that he put the charcoal in the grill upside-down and flames burst through the bottom of the unit, or Roger tells Peter about his plan to climb a ladder and lean out far enough to cut a tree branch that is next to a power line – asking Peter to talk him out of doing it. Or Paige carefully selects sherbet by color until she has eight scoops held in an arched rainbow shape between two cones, announcing that this is her way of getting rainbow sherbet. Or Andy has “the talk” with Paige – not about sex, but about Paige’s desire to have her mom stop posting on Paige’s Facebook wall. And that Andy-Paige talk is also a mild version of the real heart of the strip, which involves the many ways in which Jason confuses and upsets and occasionally charms family members and/or readers through knowledge, behavior and antics that have very definitely kept up with the latest trends in nerdiness.

     For example, Jason is a longtime World of Warcraft devotee (as is Amend), and the game makes fairly frequent appearances that will mean little or nothing to the uninitiated. Jason is a comic-book fan as well, and readers need to be fans themselves to understand a strip such as the one in which a super-long arm stretches past Jason and others who are standing in line for a cartoonist’s autograph: “Wait your turn, Reed Richards,” Jason says, and if you do not know that is the name of super-stretchable Marvel character Mister Fantastic, the strip will be unintelligible. Some Jason behavior is a bit more mainstream, as when he and friend Marcus create geographical features such as Lake Jason and Marcustown National Park in the hope that Google Maps will be taking satellite photos at just the right time. Then there are the references to TV series such as Dexter, about a blood-spatter expert who is also a serial killer: Jason pours cran-grape juice into a topless blender, turns it on, and analyzes the resulting kitchen splatter patterns as a tribute to the show. Or take Game of Thrones: it provides the title of Mother Is Coming as well as cartoons in both these collections. And then there are the math strips: Paige has her rainbow sherbet, but only Jason would ask for ice cream in a hexagonal prism, dodecahedron or ring torus rather than an ordinary cone. And only Jason would bring math tests with perfect grades for show-and-tell – a different perfect one every time. And it takes Jason’s mind to come up with “trig or treat,” in which he and Marcus maximize their Halloween candy haul by telling people “you can either give us lots of candy or listen to us do trigonometry problems.”

     To be sure, FoxTrot has plenty of non-Jason humor, and some of it is really first-rate, such as the strip in which Peter discovers the apps that Andy, who is a writer, has on her phone: Instagrammar, Angry Words, Pendora, Nouncloud and Prefacebook. That entry is both nerdy and suburban-humor-y – a rare combination and a delightful one. FoxTrot itself is a rare and delightful combination of comic-strip tradition with the pioneering spirit of a strip whose focus on math and science was trailblazing 30 years ago and remains unusual even today. Some Clever Title and Mother Is Coming may not entirely make up for the absence of continuity that FoxTrot had as a daily offering, but these full-color collections show just how good Amend still is, even at reduced frequency (insert pun relating to electromagnetic radiation here).

(++++) INSIDE OUT


This Is MY Fort! A Monkey & Cake Book. By Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Drew Daywalt and Olivier Tallec have created one of the most improbable among a great many improbable pairings of best friends in children’s books. A talking, cap-wearing simian named Monkey is not really anything new or anything particularly special, but pairing him with a big, jolly, pink-faced, pink-armed, pink-legged, cherry-topped talking baked good – that would be Cake – is a stroke of something beyond absurdity. Daywalt and Tallec never explain how something like Cake could possibly exist or become friends with Monkey– these are children’s books, after all, and in that realm, Cake is not really much more outré than Monkey. And the point of the Monkey & Cake books is not really the characters, as offbeat as they are. The point is the way the characters interact, the sorts of disputes they get into, and the way they resolve their differences.

     There is considerable intellectual underpinning here. These are not little arguments along the lines of who gets to play with a toy (typical decisions: share it or take turns). The Daywalt/Tallec books are based on arguments grounded in philosophical concepts, never stated directly but foundational to the stories. Thus, the question of inclusiveness and how to define it is the basis of This Is MY Fort! The tale starts simply enough, with Cake building himself a make-believe fort that includes a comfortable chair with a blanket draped over it, a reading lamp, a broom, an umbrella, some books, and a few odds-and-ends. “I am making a fort to keep out Monkeys,” says Cake – never explaining why, just announcing his plan. Monkey, of course, is distressed to be told, “No Monkeys are allowed in my fort.” Monkey explains that he likes forts, and Cake says he knows, but this fort is for Cakes only.

     In other children’s books, the rejected character might get angry and upset, might cry, might even complain to an adult. Not here. Monkey looks a bit dejected and then simply sits on the floor looking at what cake is doing – being thoughtful. The wordless two-page illustration showing him intently watching Cake complete the fort by rolling up the edge of a piece of carpet to mark the fort’s perimeter is key to what happens next and is beautifully done. After this scene, Monkey asks Cake if the fort is done; and Cake, sitting in the chair with the blanket almost covering him, say yes, he is finished. That means, says Monkey, that he is finished, too. Confused, Cake asks just what Monkey is finished doing. And Monkey says his fort is now finished. Impossible, says Cake: “You are a fortless Monkey!” Not so, declares Monkey. The wall that marks the edge of Cake’s fort – that is, the rolled-up part of the piece of carpet – also marks the wall of Monkey’s fort, which consists of “the whole rest of the world.”

     “My fort is big. It is huge,” Monkey states, and “your fort is small.” And Cake realizes that his fort is small. Not just that, says Monkey: “Your fort is a trap! …Your fort is a cage. You are in a cage, Cake!” Now Cake is upset, saying he does not want to be in a cage – he wants to be free! Can he please leave his fort and go into Monkey’s fort – that is, into the world outside the Cake fort? No way, says Monkey – until, after teasing Cake a little, he says that of course Cake can come into the rest of the world: “This fort is for Cakes and Monkeys and everyone.”

     Lesson learned, Cake happily leaves his little fort and moves into Monkey’s huge rest-of-the-world fort, and the two friends join hands and dash off to eat pie, because – well, why not? The point here is an unusually clever one for a book for young children: the very youngest readers of the book will enjoy the silliness of the characters, the brightness of the drawings, and the easy progress of the story, while older-but-still-young kids will get more out of This Is MY Fort! Yes, it is a book about friendship, but it is also one about boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise – and about the way in which a redefinition (Monkey’s clever assertion that Cake’s fort’s wall is also the wall of his fort: the rest of the world) can change people’s (and Monkeys’ and Cakes’) perception of a situation and produce a breakthrough in understanding. This is in fact a very adult theme, and one that grown-ups can and do find enormously useful when dealing with intractable problems of all sorts. Finding this redefine-to-change-perception message used so effectively and humorously in a book for young children is highly unusual, and turns this book and this pair of most-unlikely friends into something significantly more interesting and useful than will be found in the great mass of pleasant but far more ordinary picture books.

(+++) DOUBLES THROUGH THE CENTURIES


Schumann: Märchenbilder; York Bowen: Phantasy for Viola and Piano; Clarice Assad: Metamorfose; Garth Knox: Fuga libre; Shostakovich: Impromptu for Viola and Piano; Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasy. Matthew Lipman, viola; Henry Kramer, piano. Cedille. $16.

Paul Lombardi: Holocene; Acquiesce; Persiguiéndose; Phosphorescent; Fracture. Megan Holland, Roberta Arruda and David Felberg, violin; Kimberly Fredenburgh, viola; Joel Becktell, Lisa Collins and David Schepps, cello; Mark Tatum, double bass. Ravello. $14.99.

Brendan Collins: Concert Gallop “Thunderbolt’s Pursuit”; Serenade; Stomp; Sonata; Pastorale for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano; Concerto for Two Trumpets; Scherzo for Trumpet, Violin, and Piano; Concerto for Trumpet. Phillip Chase Hawkins, trumpet; Maria Fuller, piano; Tyler Simms, trombone; Andy Lott, trumpet; Gabriel Lefkowitz, violin. Navona. $14.99.

Music for Flute and Saxophone by Chin Ting Chan, Phillip Sink, Michael Rene Torres, Scott Brickman, Thomas Wells, Dylan Arthur Baker, Marilyn Shrude, and Charlie Wilmoth. Tower Duo (Erin Helgeson Torres, flute; Michael Rene Torres, saxophone). Ravello. $14.99.

     The use of two and only two instruments in a composition provides, on the face of it, a ready template for musical conversation between equals. But the reality of composers’ handling of duos is more complex. Although equality between the two performers, as a partnership, is sometimes present, at other times one of the two is distinctly subservient to the other and plays a support role pretty much from start to finish. Furthermore, the roles of the two instruments and the people playing them have changed considerably over time – and also may change even within a single composer’s output. The variability of the relationship between two players is particularly evident on a new Cedille recording featuring violist Matthew Lipman and pianist Henry Kramer. The CD includes works from three centuries: the 19th, 20th and 21st. That alone gives a sense of the recording’s considerable range. The pieces chosen by Lipman for the program are further evidence of it. Schumann’s Märchenbilder (“Fairy Tale Pictures”) is a moody, often very beautiful four-movement suite written in 1851, in which viola and piano intertwine effectively. The melancholy finale is especially well done in this performance, with Lipman giving it a pervasive gentleness to complement the underlying sadness. The Schumann work lasts as long as the single-movement Phantasy by York Bowen (1884-1961), which dates to 1918 but partakes largely of 19th-century sensibilities. Here the viola is more dominant than in the Schumann, although the back-and-forth “conversational” elements of the music are pronounced. However, by the time of the Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman (1906-1967), the prominence of the string player is undoubted, although virtuoso showpieces like this one (originally written in 1947 for violin) have been around for some time. Lipman seems to have particular fun with this work, presenting it with exuberance and genuine enjoyment. The remaining pieces on the CD are something of a mixed bag. Metamorfose by Clarice Assad (born 1978) was written for Lipman in memory of his mother, who died in 2014. It is a conceptually interesting two-movement work based on the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, and both Lipman and Kramer play it with feeling, but its expressiveness seems rather formulaic. Fuga Libre (2008) by Garth Knox (born 1956) is also based on an interesting idea – using Baroque-sounding musical fragments to produce a fugal work filled with contemporary techniques – but it is somewhat too rarefied to be fully engaging even when played as well as Lipman plays it. The CD also includes a world première recording, but a very minor one: Shostakovich’s Impromptu for Viola and Piano, which dates to 1931 but was only recently rediscovered. Lasting just two minutes, it allows the viola to sing above a rather formulaic piano part. Its short, almost abrupt conclusion is its most interesting element. As a whole, this recording is really a showpiece for Lipman and, to a lesser extent, Kramer: the diversity of the works is considerable, but their totality does not hang together very convincingly – although several are very much worth hearing as individual pieces.

     Three compilations of 21st-century duets, two on the Ravello label and one from Navona, show relationships between instruments that are in the main very different from those in the Lipman/Kramer pairing. The string duets by Paul Lombardi employ different two-stringed-instrument combinations: Holocene (2004) is for violin and viola, Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello, Persiguiéndose (2007) for two cellos, Phosphorescent (2008) for cello and double bass, and Fracture (2017) for two violins. But all are constructed using similar mathematical concepts and techniques that composers and listeners alike will immediately recognize as standard in contemporary classical music – which means atonality, intervallic variation, frequent rhythmic changes, recursive patterns, and performance requirements that stretch the players’ abilities as well as the sound of their instruments. There is certainly an occasional attempt at reaching out to an audience – a short pizzicato section in Phosphorescent, for example, is one instance, but it is cut short abruptly. But by and large, the music sounds as if it is written primarily for the cognoscenti, including the composer himself, rather than for anyone seeking emotional connection or any form of enlightenment through music. Knowledgeable audience members will discern some of the building blocks of the pieces fairly readily – for example, the essentially canonic structure of Persiguiéndose, whose title comes from a Pablo Neruda poem about days that “go chasing each other.” But the involvement here is of a strictly intellectual kind: the music does not really speak to anyone who is not “in the know” about its inner workings and the means by which it is made. The overall sound of the material is a balanced one: no matter which strings are involved, Lombardi treats both instruments as equals. But the material comes across more as a set of exercises in modern compositional approaches than as any kind of heartfelt appeal to listeners’ understanding, much less to their empathetic involvement.

     The trumpet-focused works of Brendan Collins could not be more different. All are quite recent: Concert Gallop dates to 2010, Serenade to 2013, Stomp and Sonata to 2015, Pastorale to 2018, Concerto for Two Trumpets to 2017, Scherzo to 2014, and Concerto for Trumpet to 2011. And all the trumpet-and-piano duos place the emphasis strongly on the trumpet, casting the piano strictly in an accompanying role. The result is a disc that is more immediately appealing, if less intellectually stimulating, than the one featuring Lombardi’s string works. Collins writes quite well for the trumpet and has a good sense of the wide expressive range of which the instrument is capable: the material here can be martial, but by no means is it that way all, or even most of, the time. For example, the third and last movement of Sonata provides the most-extended piano material on the CD, an introduction lasting well over a minute that is followed by a warmly flowing trumpet melody that is almost film-music-like in its emotive character. The disc is interesting for including three pieces for three rather than two instruments. Pastorale, originally for string orchestra, is a very tuneful work in which both trumpet and trombone have opportunities for expressive outreach. Concerto for Two Trumpets originally was for trumpets with wind ensemble. It is a three-movement work that treats the two trumpet soloists equally whether or not they happen to be playing together, and the music seems always on the verge of bursting into more-enthusiastic sections, as when the first movement, Misterioso, suddenly erupts in bright trumpet calls that are not mysterious at all. And Scherzo, which feels like an encore even though it is not placed last on the CD, is a bright and largely forthright piece that plays off the violin sounds against those of the trumpet to pleasant although not particularly memorable effect. The final work on the CD, Concerto for Trumpet, does not adapt very well to being played by trumpet and piano, because the material given to the piano has the feeling of orchestral garb about it and really does sound reduced in a piano reduction. The trumpet writing here is among the most virtuosic on the disc, but Phillip Chase Hawkins handles it every bit as well as he manages everything else, while Maria Fuller gamely holds up her end of things as well as possible under the circumstances. Whether writing for two players or three – or just one, as in the extended and complex cadenza in the final movement of Concerto for Trumpet – Collins keeps the spotlight on the trumpet and produces music that is often exciting, even when it is on the superficial side.

     The native sound of the instruments played by the Tower Duo – that is, the flute and saxophone – is quite different from that of the trumpet, but exploring the instruments’ inherent sound quality is not the point of this release. Instead, the works on the CD, mostly either written for Erin Helgeson Torres and Michael Rene Torres or initially performed by them, are examples of the common approach of some contemporary composers to instruments’ established sounds: take them as a jumping-off point and expand and extend them into new territory. Thus, the ethereality of the flute and the deep warmth of the saxophone are almost nowhere in evidence here. Instead, there are snippets of disconnected sound in Chin Ting Chan’s Crosswind (2013) and short intermingled phrases in Phillip Sink’s Places Never Painted (2012). There are bits of dialogue, mostly dissonant but occasionally consonant, in Michael Rene Torres’ Four Short Episodes (2011), and a venture into twelve-tone that uses the octatonic scale in Scott Brickman’s Epic Suite (2012). There are extremes of range and sound for both instruments in Thomas Wells’ Tower Music (2017), and an attempt to use the instruments to paint a nature portrait in Dylan Arthur Baker’s Precipital Pairing (2014). There is a 2007 arrangement of the 1996 Notturno: In Memoriam Toru Takemitsu by Marilyn Shrude – the original version was for violin, alto saxophone and piano, with the later one using flute instead of violin (the piano in this recording is played by Maria Staeblein). Shrude’s work, although quiet and nocturne-ish enough, really is a tribute to Takemitsu’s compositional style, which means that an audience unfamiliar with Takemitsu will not get the piece’s full effect. Finally, there is extreme sonic repetition, almost like an extended set of études, in Charlie Wilmoth’s Three Pieces (2013), which features flute and saxophone in a kind of pointillist back-and-forth in which they occasionally collide with each other. This is a piece that sounds as if it is more fun to play than to hear. In all the works on this CD, the instruments and performers are balanced in terms of their contributions. What changes from piece to piece is the nature of those contributions and the extent to which the composers have an interest in appealing to listeners other than the players of their music. By and large, there is much less appeal to hearing these pieces – which do little with the basic sonorities of the instruments and much with extensions of their sounds – than there would likely be to performing them as exercises in exploring the further reaches of the flute’s and saxophone’s technical capabilities.

January 10, 2019

(++++) HOT DOG (ACTUALLY COLD)


Dog Man #6: Brawl of the Wild. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Dav Pilkey’s absurd and often very funny forays into classic literature, reinterpreted through the minds of his fifth-grade alter egos and the adventures of a character with a dog’s head and a man’s body, continue in a book that is actually based (very, very, very loosely) on a book about a dog. That would be Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Pilkey’s Brawl of the Wild except that Dog Man gets hitched to a snowgoing dogsled in a couple of scenes and proves his loyalty to the other seven sled dogs in ways that lead to those dogs becoming heroes during a fire that Dog Man eventually puts out through a truly extraordinary amount of vomit.

     Classic literature this isn’t. But Pilkey still manages to create graphic novels that are enormously enjoyable even for people who have not read the classics that are their jumping-off point. In fact, it helps not to have read those classics, to lessen the chance that readers will themselves spew copiously when they discover what Pilkey has done. Pilkey’s Dog Man books are ostensibly created by George Beard and Harold Hutchins: they are the fifth-graders who have been reading real classic novels and are thus being inspired to produce new Dog Man adventures. The graphic novels’ coloring is done by Jose Garibaldi, whose form of inspiration is never mentioned but who is to be thanked for making Dog Man’s substantial vomit a not-unpleasant shade of tannish brown rather than something truly disgusting. Garibaldi shows a certain level of restraint in coloring dog poop, too, and that is a good thing, since Pilkey shows no restraint whatsoever in arranging for some of the bad guys in Brawl of the Wild to fall into a hole and have a great deal of the stuff dumped on top of them. But see, they deserve it, which makes everything OK.

     It helps to read all six (so far) Dog Man books in order to get the full, um, flavor of Pilkey’s humor, but it is certainly possible to pick up any of them and understand more or less what is going on, since Pilkey has George and Harold provide a synopsis of the story (stories) so far as each new book opens. Brawl of the Wild includes the reappearance of three minuscule bad guys from Lord of the Fleas – not that they were minuscule at first; they were shrunk as part of the climax of that book. Here they are described as “flagitious fleas” (Pilkey enjoys throwing in real-but-little-known words from time to time). The bad guys manage to frame Dog Man for crimes, so he gets thrown in Dog Jail and forced to help pull a sled on which is perched a huge bag of dog poop that the evil warden transports to the local fertilizer factory so he can pocket the money he is paid for the poop. Meanwhile, Dog Man’s sidekick, Li’l Petey – adorable kitten clone of bad-guy cat Petey, who at this point in the series is trying hard to become a good guy – is working with robot buddy 80-HD on trying to prevent his dad from being sad all the time. That isn’t going well, and the little kitten remarks, “At least things can’t get any worse!!!” So of course the very next page of the book starts a chapter called “Things Get Worse!”

     Also here are some heroics by heroic reporter Sarah Hatoff and her heroic dog Zuzu, accompanied by heroic “Yolay Caprese, the world’s greatest actress,” who does a great job defeating the charmingly named Booger Breath shortly before everyone gets to watch the première of Dog Man: The Major Motion Picture, a Claymation extravaganza whose Claymation monster/villain comes alive, steps out of the screen, and wreaks a suitable amount of temporary havoc. If all this sounds confusing, that is only because it is confusing. But have no fear: everything works out just fine in the end, especially the underlying theme of the book, which is that Dog Man may be a misfit because he is part dog and part man, but everybody is a misfit in some way or other, so being a misfit is just fine. And that is about as much of a moral as Pilkey provides in Brawl of the Wild – and it is plenty. After all, the Dog Man books are not about morals: they are about – well, they are not really about very much, but they are so much fun and packed with so much humor and silliness and occasional heart that readers are very unlikely to notice the lack of about-ness, or be upset if they do notice it.

(++++) PREACHING CLEVERLY TO THE CHOIR


#SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Imagine the furor – a furor fueled by and filled with glee – at this Trump tweet: “I should own all land and buildings in NY! Decide what gets built where! Who lives where! Who pays how much! #MakeNYGreatAgain!” How Doonesbury would go to town over that one! So why didn’t Garry Trudeau make a big deal about it? Well, because the statements (modified only slightly, and without the hashtag) actually came not from Donald Trump but from Bill de Blasio, a hyper-liberal mayor so popular in New York City that he won re-election in 2017 with 66.5% of the vote. De Blasio even said (on November 28, 2018) that his strong “socialistic impulse” to have government own and control all property, determining who lives where and at what price, is reinforced every day by his constituents.

     There is immense comic fodder in that, and the fact that it never appeared or could appear in the Doonesbury universe is a key both to Trudeau’s popularity and to his limitations. Like great satirists of yore – Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope come to mind, although both wrote far more stylishly than Trudeau does – Trudeau hammers home the same point of view again and again, shining the glaring light of his perceived truth on areas he considers to be filled with darkness and falsehood. Like satirical cartoonists of the past such as Thomas Nast – who was a better artist, albeit in a somewhat different medium – Trudeau digs and digs and picks and picks at sociopolitical scabs, although Nast genuinely wanted change and successfully brought it about, while Trudeau seeks mainly to complain as loudly as possible about discerned wrongs and wrongdoing and be the mouthpiece for his many like-minded followers.

     Those followers will very much enjoy #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump, and will enjoy being able to understand all of it – which will not be so easy for any casual reader. Trudeau’s superb caricatures are mixed here, as they always are, with a Doonesbury trademark: invented cartoon characters reflecting specific aspects of society, such as “Jimmy Crow” for the supposedly revived popularity of long-gone “Jim Crow” laws; even “Mr. Jay,” a talking marijuana joint drawn in underground-comic style, makes a token appearance in this book. Casual readers will have trouble figuring this out. Even more confusing are the ways Trump creates hilarious (to those “in the know”) but puzzling (to those not “in the know”) representations of individuals. For example, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is Austrian-American, is seen in Doonesbury only as a gigantic, well-muscled arm and hand, and is repeatedly referred to as “the Gröpenfuhrer.” That is, for those “in the know,” an amusingly snide reference to his ways with women. It is also deeply offensive, since it is a pun on “Gruppenführer,” a Nazi paramilitary rank. To understand just how offensive this is to someone of Austrian heritage, imagine telling a white person who dislikes spending a lot of money that he or she is a “cheapskate,” while telling a black person that he or she is “niggardly.” The words mean the same thing, but choosing to apply a specific one under specific circumstances would surely cause some people to take offense. But not Doonesbury fans in the case of Schwarzenegger. Those unfamiliar with the multi-decade evolution of Trudeau’s strip will not know what to make of the talking arm at all (it is actually a bit of homage to Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame: he invented a crimefighter named Jack Jawbreaker, portrayed only as a muscular arm).
     Of course, the main character in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump is Donald Trump, whom Trudeau hates with all the fervor of his fellow coastal residents, who refer to the heartland of the U.S. as “flyover country” and continue to ask how “they” could foist Trump on “us,” the intelligentsia that by rights ought to be in charge. There is plenty, plenty, to dislike about Trump, but there is also plenty to dislike about elitism and self-importance, and those have increasingly become the characteristics of Doonesbury over the years. That is too bad, because Trudeau is enormously talented, not only artistically but also in managing what may be the largest cast of characters ever assembled in a comic strip (although, interestingly, he does not seem to care about his characters: he selects ones for specific strips based solely on the editorial point he wants to make and the characters who can best make it). #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump is a collection of Sunday strips from a multi-year period, not presented chronologically but grouped loosely by Trump-related topic. Some elements are brilliant, such as a Trump board game that takes off (very loosely) from one that really was a Trump offering at one time. There is also an amusing, if self-referential, explanation of the role of the strip’s title character, in the context of the many news reports of sexual harassment  in various fields: the strip’s female characters send Mike Doonesbury a letter saying he is “mostly a harmless goofball, passive and inoffensive, doing the best he can.” This is excellently descriptive as well as a nod to Walt Kelly, whose title character in Pogo was sometimes described as dull: Kelly explained that the good-natured, moderate-thinking possum was the glue holding the strip (also a politically charged one containing a great many characters) together.
     Readers need not wonder whether Trudeau is really aware of where Doonesbury stands in terms of past comic strips and past cartoonists, including high awareness of the strip’s own history. There is an absolutely marvelous strip in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump in which longtime radio host Mark Slackmeyer, commenting on ways in which Trump “acts guilty” about a variety of topics, suddenly flashes back to a notorious Doonesbury strip from 1973 in which Slackmeyer, obviously much younger and at the time a host on his college radio station, comments that he thinks then-Attorney General John Mitchell is “guilty, guilty, guilty” of Watergate-related crimes. Reproducing a color version of the 1973 panel within the 2017 Trump-focused strip is a touch of comic genius and ingenuity – and may make longtime readers lament the loss of the more-stylized Doonesbury art of earlier decades. In another Slackmeyer strip, in which the radio host interviews a student determined to change the way Washington works, 2018-version Slackmeyer suddenly finds himself face-to-face with college-era Slackmeyer, the comparatively urbane older host being angrily confronted by his intense younger self. This too is marvelous, and has a cleverness far beyond Trudeau’s comparatively mundane and ultimately not-very-interesting ongoing attacks on Trump as a blowhard, disaster, egotist, etc. Trudeau’s political views are the main reason for the existence of Doonesbury, but they are, by and large, unexceptional and passé. His method of expressing them, however, and his ability to mold and model the comic-strip form in ways unlike those of any other cartoonist working in the medium today – those are unique to him and to this strip. And those, more than the political jeremiads, are the reasons to revel in #SAD! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump – even though, as political commentary, it brings very little that is new to the nation’s ongoing discussions, debates, and demonizations.

(+++) LIFE, DIGITIZED


Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology. By Diana Graber. AMACOM/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     The tide of books intended to help parents negotiate child-rearing in our digital age is on the verge of becoming a flood, if not a tidal wave. Inevitably well-meaning and frequently filled with very similar recommendations, these many books – not to mention the even-faster-proliferating shorter-form articles and Web sites – can be difficult for parents to sort through, partly because they sound so similar: Raising Your Child in a Digital World by Kristy Goodwin; How to Fix the Future—Staying Human in the Digital Age by Andrew Keen; and so forth. Diana Graber’s entry is called Raising Humans in a Digital World and, like others in the field, offers the considered views of an intelligent adult and parent whose own lifespan, of course, encompasses both the time before ubiquitous digital life and a current time in which everything is computer-driven, or at least seems to be.

     A parent who knows erudite-but-puckish satirist Tom Lehrer may be reminded of his line about what was once charmingly called smut: “When correctly viewed/ Everything is lewd.” Thus, seen through the lens of a world that is now digital but was not always digital (from the viewpoint of Graber and the many other authors of similar works), everything is digital – and that fact is the determining factor in family life.

     It may seem that way from an adult viewpoint, but young children – it is helpful to speak directly with some of them – are a great deal more matter-of-fact about things. For them, Wikipedia is not a marvel of instant information access: it has as much and as little importance in everyday life as the Encyclopedia Britannica did for earlier generations. The computer-in-your-pocket-or-purse known as a smartphone is not a piece of astonishment, as it can be for those who remember floppy discs (five-and-a-quarter-inch or even eight-inch ones): it is simply there, a bit of everyday life as commonplace as pens and pencils carried in pockets and purses used to be. There is a fundamental disconnect between the well-meaning and worried authors of books such as Graber’s and the young people they are worried about – the inevitable conflict between what are really two different worlds and, as a result, two different worldviews.

     That said, parents certainly have a role to play in the digital age, as in all prior ages, and the parental concerns with which Graber deals are legitimate ones that are not, at their core, very different from the concerns that parents have had since time immemorial: show children how to negotiate elements of the world with which they are not familiar, warn them about possible hidden dangers, protect them against bad people and bad circumstances with which they may unwittingly become involved, and help them grow into adults who use their tools (in contemporary times, digital tools) responsibly. Indeed, one of Graber’s most salient points is that the Internet and all the means of using it are, collectively, tools – a view that it may not be easy to put across to children, for whom they are something closer to a basic landscape of life. For example, Graber, founder or co-founder of several online and school-based digital-literacy programs, wants kids to use technologically enabled communication as a means of strengthening real-world relationships; but today’s children are more likely to see tech connection as the norm and real-world interaction as a necessity (in school, for instance) that is not inherently better or more useful than the digital type. The difference between the two forms of interacting, so clear to parents, is largely meaningless to today’s children.

     To be sure, Graber’s concerns are real and, from a parental/adult standpoint, legitimate. Young children cannot realize that the online postings they make constantly and casually may come back to haunt them years or decades later when, for instance, they are looking for a job. Young children may recognize cyberbullying but not think much about it if they are not themselves victimized. Young people exploring their sexuality may engage in sexting as casually as kids in earlier generations “played doctor,” not realizing that items sent electronically may persist in the cloud – and on friends’ and frenemies’ cellphones – essentially forever, and that there can be legal as well as emotional consequences to transmitting highly personal screenshots and selfies. Legality and privacy are not concepts that are easy for children to grasp or for adults to discuss with them, and Graber’s recommendations on how to tackle these difficult topics are welcome, if not much different from those of others writing about modern digital life. Also useful is Graber’s willingness, even eagerness, to have parents use technology to monitor their kids’ technology – a sensible way of “keeping an eye on children” in our contemporary world, although it helps to accept the reality that kids can and will find workarounds for parental supervision that they deem too intrusive.

     One thing that sets Graber’s book apart from similar ones, and that parents may find especially useful, is her creation of specific suggestions for things parents and kids can do together to explore the digital world and put it in context. She correctly observes that “many kids – even those already using social media – are unfamiliar with the terminology of the digital activities they are so adept at engaging in,” and she offers ways in which this kind of more-adult knowledge (which kids may find largely irrelevant to their everyday lives) can become part of activities whose aim is, above all, to help kids put the digital world in perspective and avoid its seamier and more-dangerous sides. The extent to which today’s young people will want to participate with parents in the scenarios that Graber thinks up is arguable and will vary greatly from family to family, but the notion of turning digital interaction into a series of participatory activities is a good one that can help open the door to some serious discussions of the pluses and minuses of the world in which today’s young people are growing up. However, parents be warned: Graber, like so many other authors of books on aspects of child-rearing, pays insufficient attention to the sheer amount of time needed to implement her ideas and strategies. Anyone who wants to follow Graber’s lead must be prepared to become thoroughly familiar with digital matters that will inevitably have a steeper learning curve for parents than for today’s kids. Digital communication may be instantaneous, but learning how to use it – for those who did not grow up with it permeating their lives – can be very time-consuming indeed.

(+++) IN SEARCH OF SWEET SOUNDS


Tanguero: Music from South America. Christoph Denoth, guitar. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Music for Saxophone and Harp. Admiral Launch Duo (Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, saxophone; Jennifer R. Ellis, harp). Albany Records. $16.99.

     The word “tanguero” means “one who sings or dances the tango,” and although neither Christoph Denoth’s voice nor his feet may be heard on a new Signum Classics CD, his sense of song and dance rhythms is everywhere present. Of the 21 tracks on the disc, one-third are by Ástor Piazzolla – scarcely a surprise, since it was he who moved the tango past the dance hall and into the concert hall. The seven Piazzolla arrangements here, many with origins in the theater, get their full emotional due in Denoth’s playing. They include Piazzolla’s own stated favorite, Adios nonino, whose subtle mood changes are beautifully communicated, along with the more-urgent Libertango and Verano porteño, the more-inward-looking Oblivion and Milonga del ángel, as well as Triunfal and Chiquilín de Bachín. The depth and variety of the Piazzolla works is reflected in Denoth’s choice of pieces by other composers as well – and not only tangos, since Denoth is looking for ways in which South American dance forms, plural, intersect with classical music, which means exploring more widely. Thus, although there is a high-quality tango here by Carlos Gardel, El día que me quieras, there are also Venezuelan interpretations and expansions of the waltz in the works by Antonio Lauro: El Marabino, Valse Venezelano No. 2, and Valse Venezelano No. 3. The saudade makes an appearance as well, in Egberto Gismonti’s Agua y vinho, and there is even a tango that is not quite a tango, the tongue-in-cheek Tango en Skaï by Roland Dyens. Denoth, who is Swiss, shows considerable sensitivity to the ways in which South American dance forms, broadly defined, explore and interpenetrate European norms in the classical-music field. There is actually little on the CD that is new, whether arranged for guitar or written for it: Denoth appears more interested in presenting a carefully arranged and thoughtful program than in offering anything truly revelatory. So listeners interested in tango have likely heard El choclo by Ángel Villoldo, La Cumparsita by Gerardo Motos Rodriguez, Sueño de barrilete by Eladia Blázquez, Sons de Carrilhões João by Teixeira Guimarães de Pernambuco, Se ela perguntar by Dilermando Reis, Te vas milonga by Abel Fleury, Milonga by Ernest Cordero, and Violetas by Julio Sagreras – or at least some of these. Familiar or unfamiliar, though, all the works share a folkloric background to which the composers in their own ways have applied rhythmic changes, traditional variation form, extended harmonies, and other techniques common to classical music. By bringing these elements to the forefront while performing the pieces with sensitivity, Denoth offers tango lovers – especially those of a refined and perhaps somewhat academic bent – a fascinating exploration of the ways in which simple dance forms have evolved into something more complex and of greater emotional depth.

     Emotional expression is not the primary reason for being of a fine-sounding new Albany Classics CD featuring the Admiral Launch Duo. This is a disc for curiosity seekers, strictly for listeners intrigued by the unusual combination of saxophone and harp and interested in hearing the ways in which 10 composers of the 20th and 21st centuries have chosen to explore the instruments. Yet even those listeners will obtain what they are looking for only in part, because – as often happens in contemporary music – some of the composers are more concerned with extending the sonorities and ranges of the two instruments than they are with exploring them. Given the fact that the repertoire for this combination is quite limited, one might expect composers to be eager to add to it, but that is so in only some of the works here, not all. Particularly successful is Romance for Soprano Saxophone and Harp (1991) by Yusef A. Lateef (1920-2013), whose three movements allow the saxophone and harp to intermingle with charm, warmth and joyfulness. La Lettre du Jardinier (1912) by Marcel Tournier (1879-1951), originally for voice and harp, offers an outpouring of feeling that comes through clearly even without the original words by Henry Bataille. And parts of the five-movement suite Eolienne by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933) – arranged by the composer in1978 for saxophone and harp after originally being written in 1969 for flute – also lie well on the instruments and allow them the expressiveness of which they are capable. On the other hand, Thaumaturgy (2015) by Patrick O’Malley (born 1969), Amhrán na Cásca (2014) by Christine Delphine Hedden (born 1990), and Kitchen Dance (2015), also by Hedden, seem mostly interested in pushing the saxophone and harp to extremes that undermine their natural beauty – and in the case of Kitchen Dance, which is essentially an electronic composition, making the acoustic instruments almost irrelevant. The remaining works here fall somewhere between effective use of the instruments and their, in effect, deliberate misuse: starshine & moonfall (2014) by Natalie Moller (born 1990), one of those works whose absence of capital letters in the title may be intended, like the music itself, to convey a level of intimacy, but which does so only imperfectly; Whirlwind (2015) by Stephen Rush (born 1958), the longest piece on the CD (nearly nine minutes), which lacks sufficient breeziness to sustain its duration; Still Here (2017) by Angélica Negrón (born 1981), one of those sociopolitical works (in this case about emotionally abusive relationships) that asks the instruments to convey more than they are capable of putting across; and the thoroughly look-how-clever-I-am ...nice box! “Oh So Square” (punctuated exactly that way for no reason whatsoever), written in 2014 by Jasper Sussman (born 1989) and conveying not much of anything, which appears to be its intent. The sound possibilities of saxophone and harp are quite intriguing, and at their best, the works on this CD show how fascinating the combination can be. Unfortunately, too many of the pieces seem only to want to show off the composers’ belief in how clever they are at writing for this instrumental combination. The result is that the sound mixture in their pieces never comes across as effectively as it does in the few works here in which the focus is more on performers and audience communication than on the self-assertion of artful craftiness by the creators of the musical material.

January 03, 2019

(++++) AS WILD AS USUAL


You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     One of the most subtly erudite, yet compellingly sweet, comic strips of all time, Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts has an enduring underlying simplicity that meshes amazingly well with McDonnell’s in-depth knowledge of earlier strips and his interest in art in general. Again and again, the Mutts collections show McDonnell trotting out foundational themes of the strip – concern for the planet’s ecology, “Shelter Stories” emphasizing the importance of adopting animal companions – with recurring patterns: single-panel horizontal strips in which a scene enacts or responds to a quotation; “Mutts Book Club” sequences, in which Mooch the cat presents book titles to Bip and Bop, the acorn-hurling squirrels, who respond wryly, amusingly or sarcastically; strips in which an animal character is cast as a classroom teacher; ones showing Mooch as “The Mighty Shphinx,” responding to the comments of other characters with something less than wisdom; and more. Yet McDonnell keeps Mutts ever-new within its elements of familiarity through sheer force of will, prodigious talent, and the willingness to tweak the strip constantly to prevent it from becoming formulaic.

     Thus, the latest Mutts “Treasury” volume pays occasional homage to other strips’ treatment of animal companions, and to the way cats and dogs behave in real life, as when Mooch meows loudly in the early morning, waking up the people he lives with, and is told, “It’s too early. Wait for the alarm” – leading Mooch to observe, “I thought I was the alarm.” Exactly right! This “Treasury” also refers several times to a McDonnell-illustrated poetry volume from 2017, Daniel Ladinsky’s Darling, I Love You, even showing that book’s cover in one Sunday strip. And You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch plays more games than usual with some of its regular elements, such as the “News” panels featuring Sourpuss the cat reading from behind a desk: he barely starts reading at one point when the shout “FAKE NEWS!” emerges loudly from outside the panel – leading to the remark, “What do you expect!? I’m in the comics section!”

     McDonnell is always well aware of being in “the comics section” and of the place of Mutts within the long history of comic strips. One full week of six strips contains the same quotation every day from Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame: “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day without repeating himself.” In marvelously self-referential style, that is exactly what McDonnell does in all six strips, using Mooch and his best friend, Earl the dog, slightly but significantly differently each time. This is a real tour de force that perhaps only McDonnell’s fellow lovers of the comic-strip medium will fully appreciate, but that even casual readers are sure to enjoy.

     The cleverness of McDonnell’s handling of the comic-strip medium is hard to overstate. In one three-panel Sunday strip, Mooch is “the cat wizard,” casting a spell for Earl. The first panel is right-side-up. The second is upside down, but with the word “oops” right-side-up. The third, with the punchline, must be turned over to be read – and the punchline is, “My book was upside down.” (This strip also contains a very rare McDonnell error. Mooch calls himself “Prosphero,” which is not quite how his usual speech pattern goes. On the next page, a daily strip on the same “cat wizard” theme has it right: “Proshpero.”) The “cat wizard” sequence proves to be a wonderful encapsulation of McDonnell’s skill and several of his themes. In one three-panel strip, Mooch tells Earl he can see the future and then peeks around the side of the second panel to a blank third panel, telling Earl the future is “empty for now.” In another, Mooch brings himself and Earl “into the future” – that is, to the third panel, which is certainly the future because, Mooch explains, “the copyright don’t lie” (pointing with his wand to the copyright notice at the bottom). Yet the sequence ends with one of McDonnell’s homey and deeply felt themes, one that explains the wonderfulness of animals and what they bring to humans’ lives: Earl tells Mooch that “you can’t live in the past or the future. You can only live in the now.” And Mooch agrees: “Yesh. That’s the real magic.”

     One other special feature of this very special “Treasury” bears noting. One strip in the “cat wizard” sequence takes Mooch and Earl back in time, “back to when we were pencil sketches,” with a third and last panel showing the two friends barely formed, made up of just a few basic shapes. This is very funny in itself. But anyone who wonders at the expressive detail pervading Mutts will find the panel almost too simple – and will therefore be doubly amazed at the last 10 pages of You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch, which include actual early versions of many sequences in the book. Lo and behold, McDonnell really does start with simple, basic shapes, just like other cartoonists – and lo and behold, he refines those shapes with such delicacy and skill that he consistently produces wonderfully individualized and emotionally communicative characters of all sorts (including humans, despite their distinctly subsidiary role in Mutts). McDonnell is something of a marvel, which explains why You Have Those Wild Eyes Again, Mooch, is something marvelous.

(++++) BLARP AND BEYOND


Misunderstood Shark #2: Friends Don’t Eat Friends. By Ame Dyckman. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Ame Dyckman and Scott Magoon tried very hard not to make the ending of the first Misunderstood Shark book too upsetting, since, after all, it was a picture book, likely to attract kids as young as six years old – who might well be scared by seeing a huge shark consume a hat-and-glasses-wearing jellyfish TV host who had just been explaining to underwater viewers that sharks aren’t really all that bad and are generally, as the book’s title said, misunderstood. So Dyckman and Magoon played the ending of Misunderstood Shark for laughs, so effectively that many young readers may not even have realized that if a shark (even a talking shark) really did eat a jellyfish (even one that was hosting a TV show), that would be, well, the end.

     So that end becomes the beginning of the second Misunderstood Shark book, Friends Don’t Eat Friends. It is not necessary to have read the first book to figure out the second – Dyckman and Magoon give a written-and-illustrated recap on the inside front cover and the pages before this book’s story actually begins – but of course, kids who did read the previous book will find this continuation of the story more enjoyable. What happens here is that Bob, the jellyfish, has been unceremoniously ejected from Shark’s mouth with a loud “BLARP!” And Bob is not happy about what Shark did to him – which Shark denies doing to him. Shark, who is as starstruck about being on TV here as in the first book (his eyes actually show stars when he realizes the cameras are capturing what he is doing), insists that Bob misunderstood what happened:  “I was just giving you a tour,” says Shark, showing a diagram of “Shark’s Place Restaurant & Lounge” with the anatomical features crossed out and replaced with words such as “Front door (welcome!).”

     Bob, understandably, is unconvinced, even when Shark swears “on all the bones in my body” that he did not really eat Bob. And this is where Friends Don’t Eat Friends really gets interesting, because this book – like the previous one, but in a way even more tightly worked into the story – is filled with facts about sharks and other sea creatures, presented so easily and amusingly that kids will not even realize how much they are learning. Thus, in the case of swearing on Shark’s bones, Bob – reminded that he is supposed to be hosting his TV show – informs the audience that sharks do not have any bones at all: “Shark skeletons are made of cartilage!” And Bob’s crew members explain that cartilage is “the squishy stuff in a human nose.”

     This does not stop Shark from insisting on his innocence and demanding that Bob prove that Shark ate him – which leads to a scene that gives Dyckman and Magoon the chance to explain (and show) what happens when a shark consumes something indigestible: “The shark expels his stomach out of his mouth, ejects the object, then sucks his stomach back into place!” The indigestible object is not Bob but Bob’s glasses, so now Shark complains that Bob was littering in his stomach. The misunderstandings (and obvious evasions) continue along these lines until Bob insists that, as the book’s title clearly says, “friends don’t eat friends!” So Shark races off in a huff, easily outpacing the TV crew trying to catch up to him, because “great white sharks can swim up to 35 miles per hour!” Bob and the others do find Shark, though, in his “Man(eater) Cave,” where he is soothing his feelings by eating tons of sugary foods that will not give him cavities because “shark teeth are coated in fluoride” and therefore “sharks don’t get cavities!” The constant mixture of silliness with interesting facts works very well as the story progresses, until Bob eventually apologizes for hurting Shark’s feelings and Shark, in turn – albeit reluctantly – apologizes for eating Bob, even temporarily. So all ends happily, with a promise on the inside back cover that the series will be back with another story that “you can really sink your teeth into” – and yes, that groaner of a pun wraps up the whole book. And very neatly, too, with no additional blarping required.

(++++) TRIFLES BY THE SCORE


Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 8—Chamber Music and Rarities 1. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Massimo Quarta, violin; Enrico Dindo, cello; Ugo Favaro, horn; Lilly Jørstad, mezzo-soprano; Bruno Taddia, baritone; Ars Cantica Choir conducted by Marco Berrini. Naxos. $12.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 9—Chamber Music and Rarities 2. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Laura Giordano, soprano; Alessandro Luciano, tenor; Bruno Taddia, baritone. Naxos. $12.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 10—Chamber Music and Rarities 3. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Giuseppina Bridelli, mezzo-soprano. Naxos. $12.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 11—Chamber Music and Rarities 4. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Laura Giordano and Maria Candela Scalabrini, sopranos; Giuseppina Bridelli and Cecilia Molinari, mezzo-sopranos; Alessandro Luciano, tenor; Bruno Taddia and Vittorio Prato, baritones. Naxos. $12.99.

     The last four volumes in the somewhat misleadingly titled Naxos series of Rossini’s “Complete Piano Music” bring to an end an ambitious, more-than-decade-long project released starting in 2008 and including recordings made between 2006 and 2017. Although the 11 discs are indeed packed with piano music and although all of them feature Alessandro Marangoni, their real reason for being is not the piano alone: they are a presentation of the charmingly titled Péchés de vieillesse or “Sins of Old Age,” some 200 salon pieces written by Rossini after he retired from composing following his spectacularly successful operatic career. That ended with William Tell in 1829, when Rossini was all of 37 years old – but the composer lived an additional 39 years, during which the Péchés de vieillesse were essentially all he created. Being a savvy businessman as well as a prodigious composer of operas – 39 of them in 20 years, not counting a couple of pastiches created by others with his permission – Rossini arranged the Péchés de vieillesse in 14 albums in such a way that his wife, Olympe Pélissier, would eventually be able to sell them, as she did after his death.

     Collectively, the Péchés de vieillesse constitute a mishmash of a mishmash. That is, each album is in itself a compendium of largely unrelated works of various types (although some albums have a clearer overall theme than do others); taken together, the albums are a mixture of mixtures. In the Marangoni-focused Naxos series, the Péchés de vieillesse become a mishmash of a mishmash of a mishmash, because every CD contains bits and pieces from various albums, thereby guaranteeing utter confusion among listeners interested in finding any sort of order in the material, or imposing some on it. What makes the Péchés de vieillesse so charming, however, is that none of this matters. Even in their original collected form, these little gems (some precious, many more semi-precious) make minimal organizational sense; this means that the Marangoni series is as good a way to enjoy the music as any – and is likely to be the only such way to hear the Péchés de vieillesse in their entirety, since there seems little chance of any company other than Naxos undertaking a project of this magnitude.

     That said, the final four CDs in the series end up being even more of a potpourri than the earlier ones: if the Péchés de vieillesse are a miscellany, these discs are a miscellany of the miscellany, or perhaps a set of appendices. They include not only pieces from the official 14 albums but also ones written as if they belong in those albums but remaining, for one reason or another, uncollected or unassigned. No one seeking organizational clarity need apply to be a listener to these discs. But they will be enormously appealing to lovers of Rossini, of musical trifles in general, and of insights into the way composers produced their works. Those abound here. Just how skilled at vocal composition was Rossini? Well, Volume 10 contains a very moving Elégie in which the singer sounds only one single note, and Volume 11 includes an Ave Maria setting sung on only two notes – apparent impossibilities that Rossini not only makes possible but also turns into genuinely involving pieces. The Péchés de vieillesse as a whole contain only four works for two voices, all of which are included in Volume 11, and here Rossini’s adept vocal writing is shown through the way he combines different vocal ranges: soprano and mezzo-soprano, soprano and tenor, tenor and baritone, and tenor and mezzo-soprano.

     Not everything here is a trifle. Volume 8 includes the dramatic cantata Giovanna d’Arco for soprano and piano, essentially a 17-minute operatic scene. Volume 10 includes two songs, each called Ariette espagnole, that are mezzo-soprano showpieces and are beautifully proportioned. And how did Rossini choose texts to set? That turns out to be a fascinating question, since (on the one hand) he had “house poets” from whom he requested words, notably Émilien Pacini, but (on the other hand) he often used exactly the same words for multiple pieces of music, considering them a sort of template that he could use to construct a song whose final words would be created sometime later by Pacini or someone else. Hearing how this works is amazing: Rossini’s most-favored “template words” were six lines by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), and they are heard twice in their original forms (with different music) on Volume 9, then five separate times (again with different music) on Volume 10, and then six times (two for soprano, two for baritone, and one each for mezzo-soprano and contralto) on Volume 11. Talk about variations on a theme!

     Rossini was quite well aware of his unique style and approach to vocal writing. He considered himself, with some justification, to be the last true Classical-era opera composer, emphasizing middle voices (that is, the middle of vocal ranges) rather than pushing singers to their extremes for stage effect. The amusing ways Rossini expressed his self-knowledge show up repeatedly in these recordings. Volume 9 includes one song “rossinizzata” and one “rossinizée,” both words meaning “Rossini-ized” in, respectively, Italian and French (those are the primary languages of Péchés de vieillesse, but Latin and Spanish crop up as well). And an occasional song is designed for deliberately crude humor, such as La chanson du bébé on Volume 10, in which Pacini’s words involve repeated cries of “pipi” and “caca.”

     Not everything in Péchés de vieillesse or on the final four discs of this series is vocal, of course. The piano is ever-present, both for song accompaniment and for a variety of themes, variations, interludes and the like. And Volume 8 combines piano to quite good effect with several other instruments: violin, cello, and horn. This volume also includes the very unusual Tarantelle pur sang (avec traversée de la procession), which is written for choir, harmonium, clochette and piano: in its 11 minutes, outer sections sandwich an entirely different inner one (the “procession” of the title) as the unusual instrumental combination contributes to the atmosphere. This is one remarkable piece among many. Rossini wrote the Péchés de vieillesse for his own amusement and that of his friends, as well as for pecuniary reasons. It is a rare privilege to join that circle of friends 150 years after the composer’s death through the ever-excellent pianism of Marangoni, the enthusiastic contributions of the various vocal and instrumental soloists, and the willingness of Naxos to devote so many years to the creation of a genuinely revelatory CD sequence of works that, although often unremarkable individually, are quite remarkable as a totality when presented as they are on these discs.