February 02, 2023

(++++) ASSORTED AMAZEMENTS

Amazing Animals Around the World. By DGPH Studio. Penguin Workshop. $17.99.

Amazing Insects Around the World. By DGPH Studio. Penguin Workshop. $17.99.

     There are innumerable books for young readers including more-or-less-random collections of critters large and small, and there is a good reason for this: we live on a fascinating planet whose sheer variety of life is, and should be, a source of continued amazement. Kids and adults alike can benefit from developing a sense of wonder – and thus a sense of appreciation – for the variegated creatures that live with, around, adjacent to or distant from us. Books of this sort vary in focus, with some featuring endangered species, some looking at very large or very small creatures, some focusing on specific types of living things (ones that fly, for instance) – the possibilities are virtually endless, and all the books tend to be worthwhile as long as their presentations are consistent and their information accurate.

     Amazing Animals Around the World and Amazing Insects Around the World are much less targeted than most books of this type: the authors/illustrators collectively designated DGPH Studio have simply picked and chosen living things that can be effectively pictured (the illustrations are simple and clear) and readily discussed (the descriptions are brief, correct, and inclusive of various interesting tidbits of information). By casting a very wide net, the books invite young readers to dabble in the material, searching here and there for items of interest without expecting any particular entry to be connected strongly to any other. Take the “flying” notion in Amazing Animals Around the World, for example. There is a single section intriguingly titled “They Fly, but They Are Not Birds,” within which the flying fox (the world’s largest bat), sugar glider, paradise flying snake and common flying dragon (a small lizard) are among the animals shown and discussed. Another section, “Armor and Scales,” has brief discussions of the armadillo and echidna – and a full two pages on the pangolin, which the authors clearly find fascinating, calling it “one of the most amazing creatures on earth” and explaining that it is the only scaled mammal, is named from the Malay word for “roller,” eats 70 million ants every year, and more. The organization of each of the book’s sections varies: “Living Fossils” is one chapter, “Giant vs. Tiny” another, and then there is “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,” a chapter about camouflage that spends more time on the little-known potoo or ghost bird (a genuinely weird-looking avian that, among other things, lays its single egg out in the open atop a log or broken branch) than on any other animal. Again and again, the chapter focuses are unpredictable, and that is one attraction of Amazing Animals Around the World: young readers may think they already know about, for instance, animals with “Long, Sticky Tongues,” but the specific ones featured in this book may still come as a pleasantly intriguing surprise (numbats, anybody?). Some concluding thoughts on conservation, plus a two-page glossary, complete this engaging tour of Animalia.

     Amazing Insects Around the World is quite similar in layout, appearance and content, even to the same back-of-book material on conservation and this volume’s own concluding glossary. This book has somewhat more introductory material than does the one on animals – chapters explain, among other things, how to define an insect and how insects develop. Once the specific insects begin to be discussed, though, matters proceed as in the book on animals. Kids will likely meander through Amazing Insects Around the World with the thought that the critters here are largely familiar – bees, caterpillars, butterflies, and so on – only to be brought up short by a two-page chapter entirely devoted to the scorpionfly. This “strange combination of fly, butterfly, and scorpion” is little-known but by no means rare, with 400 species found in dense forests throughout the world (but scorpionflies are just an inch long, which helps explain why readers of this book may know nothing about them). Incidentally, although a 400-species insect may sound impressive, that number is nothing compared to the speciation of the largest order of insects, Coleoptera, which has 400 thousand species identified so far (and surely others not yet known). Amazing Insects Around the World scatters details like this throughout its pages. It also provides comparatively in-depth discussions of topics such as insect homes and defense systems, plus two-page explanations of the characteristics of the praying mantis and fire ants – and several pages on spiders, which are not insects (as the book quickly states). The material on spiders does a good job of countering the sometimes negative impression that people have of arachnids, which “are among the most feared creatures on the planet.” The book talks about using spiders to control insect pests in apple farms and rice fields, for example – but does mention spiders that are dangerous to humans, including the black widow and the funnel web spider. Amazing Insects Around the World is scarcely an in-depth look at insects – the material is hit-or-miss, presented in no particularly apparent order – but just like the very similar Amazing Animals Around the World, it is a genuinely interesting foray into real-life information. Although not especially challenging to read, both books are packed with enough intriguing elements to draw young readers in and perhaps encourage them to seek out greater breadth of material elsewhere after sampling the facts in these easy-to-enjoy presentations.

(+++) KEYBOARD CONNECTIONS

Janáček: Sonata 1.X.1905; Josef Suk: Jaro (Spring), Op. 22a—No. 5; Things Lived and Dreamt, Op. 30; Dvořák: Humoresques, Op. 101—Nos. 4, 7 and 8; Vítězslava Kaprálová: April Preludes, Op. 13; Smetana: Czech Dances—Polka No. 2. Francine Kay, piano. Analekta. $18.99.

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances—Op. 46, No. 8 and Op. 72, No. 2; Mozart: Andante and Five Variations in G; Wang Jianzhong: Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon; Gong Huahua: Mountain Harvest; Manuel de Falla: La Vida Breve—Two Spanish Dances; Amy Beach: Summer Dreams, Op. 47; Florence Price: Three Negro Spirituals; Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (arranged by Henry Levine). Deborah Moriarty and Zhihuang Tang, piano four hands. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

     We live in an age when fine pianism is virtually a given: interpretations and reactions to them will always vary, but the underlying quality of piano performances today is almost uniformly high – so high that what differentiates one reading from another is usually just a matter of emphasis or nuance. With pianists playing so well and so consistently, the selection of repertoire that they offer becomes ever more important for audiences to determine which recitals to attend and which recorded music to own. So when well-performed, well-recorded CDs like two recent ones from Analekta and Blue Griffin, respectively, are released, a listener’s decision-making about ownership will depend to a large extent on whether the specific works offered by the performers add up, in their totality, to a satisfying aural experience. The quality of the playing can be assumed to be very high – as indeed it is for both these offerings.

     The primary piece on Francine Kay’s new disc is Josef Suk’s 35-minute, 10-movement suite whose title translates from Czech as Things Lived and Dreamt. Dating to 1909, this is an Impressionistic work with considerable personal content and a smattering of nationalistic material: Suk quotes from some of his other pieces, employs attractive coloristic effects here and there, and uses rhythms and accents in interesting ways. Kay clearly enjoys the many and variegated elements of this suite, treating each piece as its own small-but-complete element of the whole while still fitting all the movements into a larger picture that provides an attractive view of Suk as a composer. The placement of Things Lived and Dreamt midway through the CD does create some awkwardness, though, and indeed is rather hard to understand. The disc opens with Janáček’s dramatic and tragic two-movement Sonata 1.X.1905, prompted by the composer witnessing the killing of an unarmed protester in a demonstration in the city of Brno. Kay plumbs the dramatic tension of this work effectively, bringing out the strong emotion that the composer put into it. After this, though, matters become a touch strange. The next work on the disc is a piece by Suk that dates to 1902 and is quite different from Things Lived and Dreamt and from Janáček’s sonata. It is the fifth and last number from Jaro (Spring), and is pleasantly lyrical in salon mode. It sounds more than a bit like the music of Suk’s father-in-law, Dvořák, three of whose Op. 101 Humoresques (1894) are presented next. These are small gems, especially the justly famous No. 7, but they bring an overall lightness to the disc that somewhat undermines the strength and vigor with which Janáček’s sonata opens the recording. After the Dvořák material comes Things Lived and Dreamt – and then a real shifting of gears to the four-movement April Preludes by Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940), a student of Martinů whose death at age 25 (probably from typhoid fever or tuberculosis) was a genuine tragedy: she had already accomplished far more as both composer and conductor than was usual for women (or most men) at the time. April Preludes is Kaprálová’s best-known piano work: it was composed in 1937 for Rudolf Firkušný, who played it often. And certainly this is more than an occasional piece: in many ways it strives to go beyond typical slice-of-life-in-springtime music, mixing its Impressionism with considerable dissonance, strong rhythmic emphases, and even some bitonality. Listeners hearing the piece for the first time will likely want to experience more of this composer’s music – yet hearing April Preludes immediately after Suk’s Things Lived and Dreamt is a bit odd, producing a somewhat emotionally dislocated feeling. And then the CD concludes with an outright encore that dates back to a much earlier time, 1877: Smetana’s Polka No. 2 from his Czech Dances. This is a slight and pleasant two-minute work that in certain ways is foundational to the music of Dvořák and Suk; but it fits somewhat uneasily here, as the earliest work on the disc. Certainly Kay’s performances of all these pieces are worth hearing for their sensitivity and adept handling of varied repertoire; but the disc as a whole has a somewhat disconnected feeling about it, as if it lacks any underlying theme beyond geography – it would likely have been more effective if presented chronologically, starting with Smetana’s little dance and ending with Kaprálová’s April Preludes.

     If Kay’s geographical reach is limited by design, that of Deborah Moriarty and Zhihua Tang is very widespread, also by design. Dvořák, interestingly enough, appears here as well, with two of his Slavonic Dances (one from each of the two sets) opening the disc. Then, however, we are suddenly in a very different world, that of Mozart’s Andante and Five Variations in G, K. 501 – a lovely and too-infrequently-heard piece, and one that Moriarty and Tang present with bounce and upbeat enthusiasm throughout. The contrast with Dvořák is so marked that listeners will wonder just where this recital could go next. The answer is to somewhere very, very different: Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon by Wang Jianzhong (1933-2016). Filled with trills and arpeggios designed to approximate the sound of Chinese instruments on the piano, this is an interestingly atmospheric setting of a traditional Chinese folk song. It actually sounds more Western than Oriental in everything but the theme itself – although its juxtaposition with the music of Mozart remains puzzling. Having established a Chinese element on this CD, the performers then offer another one, Mountain Harvest by Gong Huahua (born 1978). Twice the length of Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon and considerably more dissonant and rhythmically irregular, the piece contrasts interestingly with the one that it follows, but just what it is doing after the Dvořák and Mozart works is not entirely clear. And after this work, the pianists bring us back to Western music, with two dances from Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve, arranged for piano four hands by Gustave Samazeuilh. These are ebullient, even effervescent pieces, strongly redolent of Spanish rhythms – perhaps the reason for offering them after the two Chinese-inflected works. After this, we get to something closer to an American sound, to the extent that the varied and polyglot influences on American music may be said to have a single “sound.” This is Amy Beach’s six-movement Summer Dreams, an Impressionistic work from 1901that paints a series of very brief and focused pictures, with the fourth and fifth, Katy-dids and Elfin Tarantelle, being especially evocative. After this foray into Americana – Beach’s work actually bespeaks multiple musical influences, but then so does much American music of its time – Moriarty and Tang present Three Negro Spirituals by Florence Price, in the composer’s own arrangement. These are pleasant pieces that, to some extent, mirror the interpretation-of-earlier-material approach of Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon, although this is scarcely a significant parallel. The comparative rhythmic intricacy of Price’s third piece, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit, is especially attractive in this performance. And then, at the very end of the CD, the longest piece on the disc is presented: Henry Levine’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work of Americana that is quite different from the pieces by Beach and Price, although related to them in certain distinctive ways. Levine’s piano-four-hands version of Rhapsody in Blue is workmanlike and careful, translating the material well enough but certainly not enhancing it in any way. The coloristic elements of Gershwin’s music, so apparent in its band and orchestral versions, seem somewhat faded here; and while the performance is certainly effective enough, it is hard not to think of this as a kind of rhapsody in very pale blue indeed. There is considerable intriguing music on this disc, and the pianists work quite well together and are attentive to the unique elements of each piece they play. But the recital as a whole, despite its overall title of “Connecting Cultures,” has an arbitrary feeling about it: the connections, to the extent that they exist, are on the forced side, and the disc will be most enjoyable only for listeners whose musical interests happen to match those of Moriarty and Tang particularly closely.

January 26, 2023

(++++) WONDERS SEEN, WONDERS TOLD

Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections. By Shaun Tan. Levine Querido. $35.                                            

     Here is a coffee-table book for which it is worth buying a coffee table if you do not already own one. Shaun Tan, an Australian artist and illustrator who nominally works mostly on books for preteens but in reality creates for anyone, of any age, whose imagination is stretchable, here offers an extensive sampling of his creature-focused art and some introspective and highly enlightening comments on it and on his own creative process.

     Creatures need not be monsters, although the terms are often conflated and, looked at objectively, most of Tan’s creatures are monsters, or at least monstrous. But there is something far more subtle going on in Tan’s work, as readers and viewers will quickly discover here. Tan’s prose is on point when he discusses what he has wrought: “semi-mechanical creatures” producing a feeling “of equal delight and disquiet.” Or to put it more poetically – still in Tan’s words – he produces “mutant children of some antique future.”

     There is as much subtlety to Tan’s art as to his writing and the thinking underlying it. He produces a delicate poise of prose hovering just on the edge of full intelligibility – and that is also what he visualizes in the monstrous non-monsters made of organic and mechanical parts in an impossible admixture of perception and activity. Consider, for example, “Never Give Your Keys to a Stranger,” a black-and-white pencil drawing from the book Rules of Summer, showing a boy standing outdoors, looking in through a window at a room in which another boy sits on a sofa watching television; beside this boy sits a huge cat or cat-like being, dressed in adult-human clothing. SO: who is the stranger here? The two boys look alike – are they the same? But, given the title, is the one watching TV the stranger? True, the cat-like creature is the obvious choice as “stranger,” but the room reflects that being as if he (it?) belongs there: there is a cat knickknack on the TV set, a cat-family picture on the wall, and a pair of slippers whose multiple toes seem perfectly suited for the unshod feet visible on the cat creature. Who gave keys to what stranger? And what is the picture labeled “T.S. Eliot” doing on the wall?

     Tan’s art almost always invites quizzical speculation and interpretation along these lines. His pastel-on-paper “Future Eater,” for example, is a colorful work at whose center an organic-looking four-limbed creature with smokestacks for ears and a shield-shaped metal object for its one visible eye (it is seen in a side view) is biting into a green plant stalk and apparently moving toward other organic food, while mechanical debris that appears to be the creature’s waste products can be seen behind the creature. Is this creature going to become an eater of some sort in times to come and is therefore called “future eater?” Or is it somehow consuming the actual future and being a “future eater” in that sense? In his discussion of this work at the back of the book, Tan says the title comes from a book that is an ecological history of Australia – but although that is the truth, it is not all the truth of what Tan has created. There are truths within truths throughout these art pieces. And half-truths within half-truths, as befits a creative process in which Tan explains that he is “trying to be honest while making things up.” And he communicates that honesty in these strange ways because, he writes, “little clockwork animals are so full of the heart they are clearly missing.”

     Well, that explains a lot and at the same time explains nothing – paradoxes of that sort abound in Tan’s worlds, both the visual one and the one created through words. Tan says he has always been interested in “an empathetic reading of otherness,” and perhaps it is just that – empathy – that prevents the monstrous creatures in this book from being the sort of monsters that would visit depredations upon other denizens of Earth. If there are lessons to be had from Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections, from its marvelous picturing of impossibilities interacting with humans and its sensitively rendered prose descriptions of those interactions, perhaps the foundational bit of learning here is, as Tan notes at one point, that “we are all mutually strange.” That all encompasses humans, near-humans, nothing-like-human creatures that nevertheless are capable of interacting with and even empathizing with humans, and all the other marvelous members of Tan’s uniquely indecipherable mythos, which in this book explains itself so well while remaining, at its core, inexplicable.

(++++) GRUMPS AND GROUPIES

Grumpy Monkey: Valentine Gross-Out. By Suzanne Lang. Illustrated by Max Lang. Random House Studio. $10.99.

Big Nate: Prank You Very Much. Based on Nickelodeon episodes written by Sarah Allen, Mitch Watson, Emily Brundige, and Eric Shaw. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The curmudgeon with a heart of gold is a longstanding trope of stories of all kinds, and can be especially appealing when readers get to see the complainer’s expressions in addition to reading about them. That makes grump-focused children’s books a natural fit for characters of this sort, and grumps just don’t come more entertaining than Suzanne Lang’s Grumpy Monkey – with Max Lang’s picture-prefect illustrations showcasing the simian shenanigans to excellent effect. The latest incarnation of Grumpy Monkey is love-themed, which seems a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t, really: Valentine Gross-Out allows Jim Panzee, aka Grumpy Monkey, plenty of pages to complain about all the lovey-dovey stuff that animals are doing, and the best pictures in the book appear on those pages – the ones of lovingly entwined snakes and of turtles slow-dancing are laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly appropriate. Of course, this being a book for children, the complaints can be taken only so far – which means about halfway through the narrative. At that point, the thoroughly grossed-out Jim hears from buddy Norman the gorilla that “Valentine’s Day isn’t just about couples” because “there are lots of kinds of love” – parents’ and children’s love for each other, for example, and love for one’s friends. This starts the inevitable transition from grumpiness to pleasure, as the increasingly wide-eyed Grumpy Monkey sets about “showing the people you love that you love them.” And so Jim Panzee makes valentines for all his friends and family, gives them out to everybody, and basks in the smiles and enjoyment of all those around him – except…well, even Norman has said that “all the kissing is pretty gross,” and this wouldn’t be a Grumpy Monkey book unless a touch of grumpiness had a chance to re-emerge at the end. So it does – with an illustration of two birds pecking bills with each other as Jim shouts, “GROSS!” Kids who share Jim’s disdain for kissing will especially enjoy one of the more than three dozen stickers included with the book – the one showing two smooching frogs with a cross-out line through the scene and the words “NO kissing.” The close-up of Jim saying “GROSS!” makes a pretty neat sticker, too. Other stickers are simple hearts, scenes of individual animals and animal pairs, a touch of word play (the words “Heads Over Peels” with Jim leaping over a banana), and even one sticker that adults will have to explain to kids and may need look up themselves: a bear with heart and honeycomb and the words “You Are the Bee’s Knees.” Good luck with that. But little luck is needed to enjoy Grumpy Monkey: Valentine Gross-Out, because the whole lighthearted book is created with so much un-gross skill.

     The pleasures are of a different order in a new Big Nate book based loosely on Lincoln Peirce’s long-running comic strip but illustrated in the style of the Nickelodeon animated series about Nate and his friends. Followers of Peirce’s original will have a strong sense of anticipation when reading the title Prank You Very Much, since Nate, in the strip, is the grand master of Prank Day at P.S. 38, and the creative weirdnesses that Peirce creates to showcase Nate’s mischief-making ability are always delightful. Alas, the (+++) Prank You Very Much has far too little to do with pranks: of the book’s four chapters, only the two short sequences are prank-focused, with the two much longer stories trying much, much too hard to be clever and illustrative of…well, of something-or-other, although just what that might be is never quite clear. The first prank-oriented short piece has Nate discussing how to create successful pranks, but the examples do not rise to the level of the ones in Peirce’s strips. In fact, they are actually out of character at times – for instance, when shy and neurotic neighbor dog Spitsy is here portrayed as a menacing pooch attaching himself to the rear end of Nate’s feckless father. The second prank story is somewhat better: Nate pranks yearbook editor Gina, his student nemesis, by getting into the yearbook’s photo file, “improving” the pictures of his friends and himself, and making a mess of other visuals. Again, consistency with Peirce’s strip is not a hallmark of this story: Principal Nichols, usually a benign (if often overwrought) figure in Nate’s life, here becomes explosively angry – his head is actually rendered as an erupting volcano at one point. This might be funny on TV, but in a book, it draws too much attention to the ways in which the adaptation of Peirce’s strip falls somewhat short. As for the longer stories in Prank You Very Much, they are focused less on Nate himself and more on the groups, or groupies, with which he interacts – in fact, the de-emphasis on Nate and the attempt to create multi-person “character comedy” is a significant difference between the TV series and the comic strip, and does not work to the television show’s benefit. One long story is about the huge pimple that Nate finds on his forehead one day, and the ways in which it becomes a source of power and miracles throughout the school – a premise so ridiculous that it never quite gets off the ground, and is made worse by an attempt to mingle it with a story about a stuck-up and incompetent drama teacher and his relationship with Nate’s drama-queen friend Dee Dee. The kids’ shouts of “Blessed be the pimple!” and Nate’s own, later on, of “Pimple, pimple, why have you forsaken me?” are a touch too far on the sacrilegious side to be genuinely funny, and the ways in which characters learn that the pimple has no real power are also overdone: for example, Principal Nichols is here again misused, saying, “my big score didn’t pay off and now I gotta skip town before some very angry monkeys tear my face off!” The other extended story has Nate’s friend Francis tutoring a girl from P.S. 38’s arch-rival school, Jefferson – although just why Principal Nichols would arrange this is never explained. The tutoring occurs as the two schools’ very different costume balls are being planned, with the theme of the P.S. 38 one involving a sort-of-scary “Corn Girl” school legend that makes no sense at all. In addition to all this, Nate plans to have his whole friend group (including Francis) costumed as “Time Disruptors,” a ridiculous superhero squad – but Francis becomes involved with Sabina, the girl he is tutoring, which complicates matters. One extended section of this story has Francis singing to and about Sabina – another of those elements that might work on TV but that just come across as rather pathetic in print. And speaking of pathos, again there is Principal Nichols being thoroughly demeaned as a character: “Please don’t judge me. I’m an underpaid middle school academic with a 401k matching at two percent.” Oh well – individual elements in Prank You Very Much are enjoyable, even if the overall story arcs are disappointing. The couple of pages of actual Peirce drawings in the book, however, show just how far the TV show has drifted from the Big Nate comic strip – and not to the show’s advantage.