June 30, 2011


Basic Anatomy for the Manga Artist: Everything You Need to Start Drawing Authentic Manga Characters. By Christopher Hart. Watson-Guptill. $21.99.

     One of the best of Christopher Hart’s many books on drawing manga characters, Basic Anatomy for the Manga Artist goes far beyond guides that emphasize the facial features of manga characters and differentiate them from those in traditional comic books (although Hart has written on this subject, too). What Hart does here is build up manga characters according to the principles of human anatomy, emphasizing those elements of the body that give manga its particular look while also making sure that the exaggerated physiques of the characters are not completely out of line with the bodies of real-world humans.

     Starting with the head – including a short explanation of how manga eyes are drawn – Hart moves quickly to the rest of the body, showing how the skeleton is structured and simplified, then explaining proportions used in various manga characters: “Generally, a cute character is 4 to 6 ‘heads tall.’ An average character is 6 to 7 heads tall. A tall character can be 8 to 9 heads tall.” Exactly how this works in practice is made clear by Hart’s excellent drawings of the various character structures.

     Even more importantly for manga artists, Hart then moves into more-complex elements of human (and therefore manga) anatomy, showing how real-life musculature works in an overlay of muscles on the skeleton, then explaining how muscles are simplified, emphasized and altered in manga to create typical characters’ appearances and produce a pleasing flow of apparent motion: “You must be sure to draw a smooth transition between the [muscle] groups, even if that requires losing some definition. …Note how fluid the black ink outline is on these figures. The heavily muscled areas occur on the interior of the form.” The examples are super-clear and very well rendered, showing a character in multiple poses and emphasizing the way body position and musculature interact.

     Then Hart gets more complicated still, pointing out that many artists go astray by creating symmetrical bodies, although “the only bodies that are perfectly symmetrical are mannequins” – and showing how to introduce real-looking asymmetry into manga drawings. Here matters get very detailed indeed, as Hart shows the subtle ways in which muscles produce different forms of body movement while also indicating, step by step, the methods by which to draw arms, hands, legs, knees and other body parts in a way that is realistic but also suitable for manga creation. Hart leavens these sometimes complex discussions with humor, which helps quite a bit: “When the foot lifts off the ground in preparation to take a step, use a little shading to indicate the sole and give form to the arch. In a normal walk, only one foot leaves the ground at a time, of course, otherwise we’d all fall over.” A follow-up discussion of “how movement, light and perspective affect the body” shows how to apply the basics of character drawing within the sorts of scenes typical of manga. The detail here is especially useful when Hart deliberately draws character elements that do not quite work: a pose in which a figure’s back is too straight, one in which a character’s arms look too long, etc. Then he shows why the error occurs, and what to do to avoid it. Equally helpfully, he explains ways in which the apparent realism of manga figures is not correct from a real-world perspective. For example, in an average person, “the crotch would mark the halfway point of the body,” but “manga characters are not average. They’re often drawn slightly taller to create an idealized look. …So the average manga character’s crotch ends up as the halfway point between the top of the head and the ankles.

     Eventually, Hart gets into the way all these elements of drawing affect storytelling, as when he discusses forced perspective and warns against overusing it, since “too much causes what’s known as ‘eye fatigue.’” Finally, he shows how the underlying figure construction is crucial to drawing costumed characters – even when their anatomy is nearly 100% hidden by what they wear. Basic Anatomy for the Manga Artist is more than an instructional book for those interested in drawing manga and anime – although that is certainly its primary purpose. What makes it especially interesting is its insights into the way manga characters are created and how the drawing techniques produce the effects that so many readers enjoy in graphic novels and anime shorts and features. Although mainly for those who want to create manga characters, Hart’s book is also highly informative for those who simply want to enjoy this field of entertainment more by understanding how its effects are produced.


True (…sort of). By Katherine Hannigan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Pretty Little Liars 8: Wanted. By Sara Shepard. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Alice-Miranda at School. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. By Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf. $16.99.

     Here are a couple of books where truthfulness takes center stage…and a couple of others where the stage itself – that is, the location – is a big part of the story. Katherine Hannigan’s True (…sort of), for ages 8-12, is another of those amusing and heartwarming but serious-at-the-core books about a plucky middle-schooler and her unlikely friendship with a classmate. Delly (short for Delaware), a fifth-grader who loves “surpresents” (surprise presents), is sure she is getting one when the Boyd family moves to town – and although this eventually turns out to be true, it doesn’t seem so when Delly initially meets quiet, secretive Ferris Boyd, who has a strong attachment to animals and a personality that is the opposite of Delly’s in almost every way. Ferris proves to be a “mysturiosity” (mystery + curiosity), but her oddities turn out to be complementary to Delly’s own. “Delly was drowning in the dullness,” writes Hannigan at one point. “She stopped feeling sunshine.” But dullness disappears with Ferris around, always accompanied by wild animals that are attracted to her. This is good both for Delly and for Ferris: “For a half hour Ferris Boyd wasn’t the head-down-hunched-over kid she was everywhere else.” The portmanteau words and odd expressions here (“bawlgrammit” and even “bawldoublegrammit”) are fun, and the writing is breezy and easy to follow. The characters are attractive, too, although the plot is nothing special. Still, this is a pleasant book about some nice young people learning what friendship is – and what truth is, too.

     Truths are more complex and darker in the Pretty Little Liars series – no surprise in books intended for ages 14 and up. In Wanted, the eighth of these novels, Sara Shepard picks things up three years after Alison’s disappearance – an event still puzzling and troubling to her friends, Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily. The lies are like a miasma in these girls’ lives, and when a chapter is called “The Secrets Now Buried,” it is clear that whatever secrets there may be won’t stay buried for long. Complicating matters here is the appearance of Alison’s twin, Courtney, who looks so much like Ali that the friends are nonplussed. Who is Courtney really? The answer, which isn’t much of a surprise, appears midway through the book, and produces entirely clichéd dialogue: “‘I was awful to you. But I’ve changed. I want us to be friends again, just like we used to be when we first got together in sixth grade. Remember how awesome it was?’” This is a book in which the chapter titles alone pretty much sum up everything that happens, as in the sequence “Missing Persons,” “True Colors Shining Through,” “A Reinvention of the Past,” “Best Friends Forever” and “What Dreams May Come” (although the Hamlet reference in that last one may escape the intended readers). There is nothing at all believable in Wanted, but believability is not its point – the novel is a tie-in to a TV series, after all, and can scarcely be expected to be more profound, or truer to life, than the series itself.

     Not that there is anything especially true to life about Alice-Miranda at School, either. But this book for girls ages 7-10 – the first entry in a new series – is as much about the places where adventures happen as it is about the people having those adventures. Alice-Miranda is another of those typical spunky-and-charming middle-schoolers, but the setting in which she is schooled is unusual for books of this type: Jacqueline Harvey sets the novel at the Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale Academy for Proper Young Ladies. And Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones (to give the heroine her full name) is enthusiastic about the boarding school and cannot wait to start there. But things quickly go from sweet to sour as Alice-Miranda picks up an enemy, mean and spoiled Head Girl Alethea Goldsworthy, and learns that she must get through three difficult tests – defeating Alethea in the process – in order to stay at the school. Does she really want to stay there, though? Things are not as they should be, Alice-Miranda notices: there is a mysterious stranger lurking about (mysterious strangers always “lurk”), and the school’s headmistress is conspicuous by her absence, and even the grounds are not as they should be at a proper boarding school (Harvey should know: she is a boarding-school teacher). Readers will have to enjoy a particular sort of dialogue to have fun with this book: “‘My mineral water from Switzerland is delicious. But it’s not very good at all for washing hair. When I went with Mummy and Daddy to visit their old friend the baron last year, Mummy commented how simply splendid it would be to have water as beautiful as this to wash her hair in The baroness did not agree. Apparently she had tried it and found that the water was far too hard. Her hair lost all its shine for a month. It was terribly dull and flat.’” The juxtaposition of this sort of dialogue with inventions such as complete and elegant freeze-dried meals is part of the fun here, while the conventional underlying plot of nice new girl vs. spoiled-rotten Head Girl provides the framework within which the fun can take place. Eventually, not at all surprisingly, everything works out well for Alice-Miranda, and even the awful headmistress recognizes her as a “surprising child,” which should be enough to propel Alice-Miranda into the next adventure in this series.

     The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is Jeanne Birdsall’s third book about this warm and quirky family. Like The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, the book is intended for ages 8-12; and like the earlier books (and presumably two more still to come in this planned five-book series), it will appeal mainly to preteen girls. These are summer stories about a well-meaning and mildly offbeat family – a straightforward plot and characterization if there ever was one – and at this point, the differences among the family members are well established. In The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Rosalind heads for the beach, while Aunt Claire takes the other Penderwick girls to Maine, along with their friend, Jeffrey. Here as for Alice-Miranda, the setting is a big part of the story: the Maine town turns out to have rocky shores, cozy homes, charming neighbors and a lovely corner store. The great accomplishments here involve producing “a real pancake” (albeit an unevenly browned one), singing songs from The Sound of Music, roasting marshmallows, sighting seals, and so on. That is to say that there is nothing highly dramatic here. “What could happen to Jane in a half hour? Other than losing her mind and giving herself a haircut worthy of a two-year-old?” This is the level of worry and trouble here; that is, there is not much of either. But it does not matter: fans of the Penderwicks will revel in a non-complicated, non-intense adventure with a distinctly old-fashioned flavor. Birdsall keeps the problems resolutely solvable, the characters resolutely pleasant, and the overall effect of the book resolutely nice – which will not be to all readers’ taste, but will surely please those who already enjoy summers with the Penderwicks, wherever the novels may take place.


Ashes, Ashes. By Jo Treggiari. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Vampire Stalker. By Allison van Diepen. Point/Scholastic. $17.99.

     There are only so many scare settings in books for teens (or ones for adults, for that matter). What distinguishes books of this type is therefore less the environment in which the stories take place than the characterization of the people in the books and the seamlessness (hopefully) of the plots. Thus, there is nothing especially new about the post-apocalyptic setting that Jo Treggiari offers in Ashes, Ashes. This is New York City after the world, or most of it, has ended – an old, old idea. Lucy Holloway, the 16-year-old protagonist, lived through “the end” and is now surviving a huge number of dangers, some hidden and some obvious, by hanging out alone in the wilds of Central Park. This is not a very believable scenario, but it does set the stage for an inevitable romance, which soon emerges in the guise of a boy named Aidan – who helps Lucy escape from vicious dogs and urges her to join a band of survivors. This would seem to make eminent sense, especially since there are evil Sweepers about, picking up some surviving city residents and infecting them with plague. In fact, it turns out that the Sweepers are particularly interested in Lucy, who is more than a mere survivor…. Well, this is a very, very ordinary plot indeed, and much of the writing is equally straightforward: “Nothing seemed different, but lately she’d had the unsettling feeling of eyes on her.” “The rain fell in heavy sheets, reducing everything to slippery mush.” “Aidan was nowhere to be seen. She pictured him glowering in the shadows somewhere, breaking sticks or punching walls, or something equally useless.” Well, it turns out that not everyone was a victim of this particular disease-generated apocalypse: “The majority of the deaths were adults aged thirty to sixty. The kids and teenagers were okay ’cause they were up to date on their shots…” It eventually turns out, not surprisingly, that much of what Lucy and Aidan have long believed may be exactly the opposite of reality; and Lucy turns out to be “an anomaly,” which is scarcely a surprise. There are betrayals, and betrayals of the betrayers, and basic questions about the world-ending (or almost-ending) plague and whether Lucy may unknowingly hold a key to preventing its resurgence; and there is an eventual confrontation with the baddies, and a thrilling escape, and a somewhat hopeful conclusion. Ashes, Ashes is so filled with clichés in plot and characterization that it can almost stand as a “type” of the post-apocalyptic novel for young readers. It has both the pleasures and the flaws of familiarity: it is easy to read and will please teens who like action-packed adventure without many surprises, but it will offer nothing to readers looking for unusual twists or clever approaches to a highly familiar setting.

     The setting of The Vampire Stalker is familiar as well, although it is quite different from that of Ashes, Ashes. Allison van Diepen (a high-school teacher with a surprisingly typical name for a writer of supernatural fiction) actually gives her book an intriguing title, because it could mean that a vampire is stalking someone or that someone is stalking a vampire. And the plot premise has a twist, although scarcely a new one: Amy, the book’s protagonist, is in love with a vampire hunter who is the hero of a fictional series of adventures. That is, he doesn’t exist – until he does. It turns out that the hunter, Alexander Banks, has come to life from the pages of the books about him in order to pursue the evil vampire Vigo, who has also emerged into reality. Umm…yeah, sure. “No way. This couldn’t be happening,” comments Amy, who narrates the book, at one point. But of course it is, somehow. And the librarian at Amy’s school knows it, even though Amy says, “What I wanted was to hear her explain why none of this was real. Why Vigo couldn’t possibly be here in Chicago killing innocent people.” There turns out to be a thoroughly ridiculous “explanation” of why Vigo and Alexander really can be in Chicago, having to do with infinite dimensions and particles jumping among universes and certain books created by “some people [who] are able to tap into parallel dimensions and write about them, often without knowing they are doing so.” Anyway, back at the supernatural adventure, Amy is falling for the now-actual Alexander, who may be falling for her, too, but is determined to take Vigo down even at the cost of his own life (so heroic!). Of course, there are the inevitable confrontations, and there are amusing scenes here and there (going to a mall, grabbing a hockey stick, and breaking it to use as a vampire-destroying stake). There are also some inevitable family issues, which become more complicated after a Vigo attack traumatizes Amy’s sister, Chrissy. Eventually the good guys win, there is hope for worlds on both sides of the mysterious energy portal connecting Alexander’s world to Amy’s, and there is considerable hope for Alexander and Amy as well – and for some other book characters who have conveniently wandered over from the other side. It is sometimes hard to tell how seriously van Diepen wants readers to take The Vampire Stalker, which tends to lurch from intensity to humor rather uneasily. But the book has enough offbeat elements to attract vampire-tale lovers looking for something a bit different – and enough wholly conventional ones to interest readers who simply want another story about vampires and those who stalk or are stalked by them.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Michael Gielen. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Apex. $6.99.

     Mahler’s cantata, Das Lied von der Erde, composed after his Eighth Symphony because the superstitious composer feared composing a Ninth – which he expected to be his last, as it was for Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvořák and Schubert – did not prevent the “curse of No. 9,” since Mahler’s actual Ninth did indeed become the last symphony he finished. But the not-yet-the-Ninth cantata did accomplish a great deal, showing Mahler’s ability to create on a small scale (for him) and to produce a work vastly contrasted to the huge Symphony No. 8 – also a vocal work, but a tremendously different one. Indeed, Das Lied von der Erde gained Mahler some popularity that his symphonies did not, for it is quieter, more inwardly focused and less (to some) bombastic than the symphonies, although it is very forward-looking indeed in its harmonic structure. In some ways, Das Lied von der Erde does sound like a symphony: the first song is akin to a first movement, the second to a slow movement, the three short ones that follow resemble a scherzo with trio, and the huge concluding Der Abschied is a finale worthy of what was to come in Symphony No. 9. In other ways, though, this work has a simplicity and directness that the symphonies lack – and although it is very dark, the flashes of optimism provide opportunities for singers and conductors alike to shine forth despite the inevitability of a downbeat ending.

     These two new releases are both reissues, both at least more-or-less from the same period, and both use the same tenor; but they are quite different in effect and effectiveness. Michael Gielen’s is an oddity: the three movements featuring Siegfried Jerusalem were recorded in 1992, the three with Cornelia Kallisch in 2002. Yet the sound is remarkably even throughout – the engineers deserve high praise for that – and the performance seems thoroughly integrated and, indeed, very well thought out. Jerusalem’s is not an ideal voice for this music, but it is more than satisfactory here, with warmth and understanding and little of the harshness or strain that the singer sometimes exhibits elsewhere. Cornelia Kallisch starts a bit shakily, but she warms up part of the way through Der Einsame im Herbst and really makes Von der Schönheit sound like a scherzo, abetted by Gielen’s fine handling of the song’s rhythms. Jerusalem, for his part, makes the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde heartfelt, if not particularly deep: a little more feeling of despair is in order for the repeated line, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” Still, Jerusalem is effective both here and in the two “scherzo” songs, if a little harsh in Der Trunkene im Frühling. In the huge concluding movement, Kallisch emotes very impressively, and if she becomes a little breathy near the end, the sound actually seems to go well with the exhalations of the music – and the final Ewig sequence subsides gracefully and appropriately. Gielen also does a fine job with the orchestral bridge midway through the finale, between the section based on poetry by Mong-Kao-Jen and the concluding one, based on the work of Wang-Wei. Taken as a whole (despite being recorded in two sections a decade apart), this is a well-structured and involving reading.

     The Daniel Barenboim performance on Apex is a bargain-basement affair – no notes and no texts – and is a live recording, assembled from concerts in April and May 1991. It is at best a (+++) rendition: Barenboim does not seem fully in control of the music, which wanders and seems to get away from him at times. And although this performance is shorter, overall, than Gielen’s, it tends to feel draggier, especially in Der Abschied (which is actually about the same length in both these readings). Waltraud Meier sounds fine throughout the CD, but her singing is not especially interesting and does not seem to plumb the depths of the words or the accompanying music. And Jerusalem is simply not in good voice here. His voice sounds strained from the start and does not improve in the later songs: it is tight and often unfocused, with an unpleasant shrillness much of the time. How much of this is the voice itself and how much the venue or the recording, it is impossible to say. But the fact is that this entire performance never quite gels: the Chicago Symphony plays well, and Barenboim manages occasional elegant balance within the orchestra, but as a whole, the reading meanders and does not build effectively toward its depressing conclusion. Indeed, those seven nearly whispered instances of the word Ewig at the end come across more as an afterthought than as something climactic. There are much better versions of Das Lied von der Erde available, and if you want one featuring Jerusalem, the Gielen is a clear choice over the Barenboim.


Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—La boîte à joujoux; Six épigraphes antiques; Estampes No. 1—Pagodes; Estampes No. 2—La soirée dans Grenade; L’isle joyeuse; Le triomphe de Bacchus. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $9.99.

Liszt: Aprés une lecture du Dante—Fantasia quasi sonata; Lacrymosa (Mozart); Ballade No. 2; Liebeslied (Schumann); Mazeppa; Nuages gris; Ständchen (Schubert); Funérailles; Isoldes liebestod (Wagner). Lise de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Stephen Barber: Chanson Rond Point; Conversatio Morum; Marbles; Elvis and Annabelle; Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare; String Quartet No. 1; Les Mots; The Killing. Tosca Strings, American Repertory Ensemble, the Boiler Makers and others. Navona. $16.99.

Lee Actor: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra; Dance Rhapsody; Concerto for Horn and Orchestra; Opening Remarks; Celebration Overture. Debra Richtmeyer, alto saxophone; Karol Nitran, horn; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Navona. $16.99.

     Sometimes there is a sense that a CD is tightly knit, its pieces naturally flowing from one to the next or being connected in some musically clear way – even better, a musically intriguing one. At other times, though, CDs are simply compendia of not very strongly related music, tied together by the composer’s name (or composers’ names) or by some loose and not always apparent production concept. The fifth volume in the very fine Naxos Debussy series by Jun Märkl and Orchestre National de Lyon offers works with very little in common except for the fact that they were all orchestrated by someone other than Debussy. Well, almost all: the composer himself did some of the work on La boîte à joujoux (“The Toy Box”), with the balance handled by André Caplet, whose best-known Debussy orchestration is of Clair de Lune. Other orchestrations here are by conductor Ernest Ansermet, in Six épigraphes antiques; Caplet again in Estampes No. 1; Paul-Henri Büsser in Estampes No. 2; Bernardino Molinari in L’isle joyeuse; and Marius-François Gaillard in Le triomphe de Bacchus, which Gaillard also arranged. The works themselves are of varying interest and quality. Debussy conceived La boîte à joujoux as a ballet both for and by children, to be performed by young people or even by marionettes; but the work was not staged until after the composer’s death. It has some affecting moments, although it is less effective, overall, than the better-known Children’s Corner. The Six épigraphes antiques and Le triomphe de Bacchus are rather naïvely evocative of scenes from the ancient world, tending somewhat to the precious. The two Estampes (taken from a set of three piano pieces – the title means “Prints”) are well-proportioned miniatures, especially the first, which evokes the sound of the Balinese gamelan. L’isle joyeuse, inspired by a picture by Antoine Watteau, is an attractive piece of wistful, pastoral tone-painting. As in the other volumes of this series, Märkl conducts with a sure hand and the orchestra plays with a fine sense of style. The CD will be most appealing to collectors interested in having the entire Naxos series.

     The appeal of Lise de la Salle’s new Naïve disc is straightforward: it is for her fans. The CD is all-Liszt, but it is hard to find a unifying foundational theme of any sort here. Four of the pieces represent Liszt’s arrangements or interpretations of works by Mozart, Schumann, Schubert and Wagner; all are very well played, but their relationship to the formidably difficult Fantasia quasi sonata (“Dante Sonata”) is far from clear. This sonata, first published as part of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, is a tour de force for any pianist, and something of a coming-of-age piece for virtuosi: it is one of the most difficult of all works in the standard piano repertoire. De la Salle takes a poetic approach to it, perhaps not fully plumbing its sheer technical difficulty (certainly not for its own sake) but instead showcasing the free-flowing complexities of the music – which, however, is more fantasia than sonata here (that is to say, the underlying subtleties of Liszt’s structure are not entirely clear). This is by any standards a very fine performance, although in some ways it lacks foundational strength. The remaining works on the CD are also nicely handled, especially Ballade No. 2, whose B minor tonality is insistently melancholy here. De la Salle is a very fine pianist, and her fans will surely enjoy this CD; but she is not an especially adept interpreter of Liszt – there is nothing wrong with any of her performances, but they seem a trifle less than idiomatic, and the scattershot approach of the programming of this CD makes the whole thing seem a bit more like a vanity project than it was probably intended to be.

     One could argue that recordings of many modern works are vanity projects, likely to be of interest to the composer and/or performers, their supporters, and few others. In some cases this is true, but it unfairly maligns some genuinely interesting music and some genuinely interesting creators of it. Two new Navona CDs will, to be sure, not be for all tastes, and make no attempt to be; they get (+++) ratings here, primarily for their narrow focus. And one disc, devoted to music of Stephen Barber, is at least as unfocused as de la Salle’s Liszt CD. Three works here, Conversatio Morum, Elvis and Annabelle, and Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare, are presented as separate movements, with other works offered in between – but then why did Barber conceive of the split-up works as unified wholes in the first place? Barber’s music is best described as eclectic, which means it has little readily identifiable style of its own, but tends to sound like a lot of styles of other composers. In addition to composing, Barber is a producer and arranger, and this may account for the many different approaches his music takes and its overall lack of focus, style or strong personal imprint. The works are generally well made, and some have particularly attractive elements – there is a sort of Ivesian flare to the music (and title) of the Fanfare piece. Other pieces, though, have little to them, such as the five-minuet String Quartet No. 1, which starts nowhere in particular and stays there. Barber does have some unusual ideas (soprano plus piano plus steel-drum trio), but they generally seem to be exist mainly for their aural effect, not for any particularly communicative purpose.

     Lee Actor’s music adheres more closely to traditional classical forms than does Barber’s, and Navona’s new Actor CD is a better-unified disc than the others considered here. The five works are all from the 21st century, and all show some skill in orchestration and structure, although they are not quite as innovative as they may appear at first glance: Actor’s saxophone concerto (2009) was written 75 years after Glazunov’s, which (despite a different harmonic language) also explored the emotional potential of the solo instrument. The horn concerto (2007) is well constructed and suitably challenging for the soloist, but from an audience perspective is not especially revelatory or emotionally gripping. Dance Rhapsody (2010) is more interesting, alternating strong rhythms in dancelike sections with slower interludes that sound as if they have no rhythm at all. On the lighter side are Opening Remarks (2009), designed as a concert opener and quite effective in making listeners sit up and take notice; and Celebration Overture (2007), a longer (perhaps slightly over-long) work of orchestral color and drama whose overall brightness makes for pleasant listening and whose sheer bravado makes it worth repeated hearings.

June 23, 2011


2012 Calendars: 365-Day—Cul de Sac; Dilbert; Non Sequitur; Zits; Cartoons from “The New Yorker”; Wall—Dilbert; Cartoons from “The New Yorker”; Home Is in the Kitchen. Andrews McMeel. $13.99 each (365-day); $14.99 each (Dilbert; New Yorker); $15.99 (Kitchen).

     When is it too soon to start looking ahead to next year? Odds are that with 2011 not even half finished, you have spent no time at all considering what calendars you might like to use during 2012. You may not even realize that you can get 2012 calendars this early in the year. Well, maybe you can’t – shelf space at stores is limited, after all – but on the other hand, isn’t there something optimistic about looking back at the portion of 2011 that has been completed, and starting to think about possibilities for a new year that is admittedly still distant? So for those forward-looking enough to want to consider where to go in the new year while the old one is still relatively young (all right, middle-aged), here are some excellent possibilities.

     Andrews McMeel specializes in calendars made from the best and most popular comic strips now gracing newspaper pages (and Web sites), and 2012 will be no exception: the company has a full line of comics-themed calendars in the works. Richard Thompson’s wonderful Cul de Sac, about the adventures of four-year-old Alice Otterloop and her friends and suburban family, is a standout, because the strip itself is so good – intelligently written, very well drawn and increasingly well wrought in characterization. The cover of the 2012 calendar really encapsulates Thompson’s humor, with Alice “drawing a happy face or a mad face on each page to plan my moods for the year” as her spike-haired friend, Dill, looks on admiringly, complimenting her on her thoughtfulness. Home and family, Blisshaven preschool and scene-stealing eight-year-old neurotic-in-training brother Petey – all are here and all are delightful. Better known and even more popular, Scott Adams’ Dilbert returns for 2012 with the usual gang of idiots (the phrase is from Mad magazine, but it applies just as well here). Adams has made Dilbert, Alice, Wally and even (sometimes) Asok more willing to confront the absurdities of a workplace run by the Pointy-Haired Boss and his ilk – they talk back more directly in this calendar than they used to. But whatever they say, or don’t say, nothing much changes – which is exactly the point, and helps explain the strip’s continuing tremendous popularity.

     The popularity of Non Sequitur rests largely on Wiley Miller’s willingness to take a skewed look at just about anything, not merely the workplace. Politics, dating, celebrity obsession, home life and more are gently poked or more forcefully prodded every day in panels that may not connect with what comes before or after (non sequitur means “it does not follow”) but that all come very clearly from a finely honed sense of the absurd. And speaking of absurdity, Zits plumbs the depths of life as or with a teenager, featuring Jeremy Duncan (who is now 16) and parents Walt and Connie attempting to live in the same general orbit without colliding more often than absolutely necessary. Jerry Scott’s writing is always on point here (e.g., Jeremy explaining to Connie that so much happened at school that “I don’t know what not to tell you first”), with Jim Borgman’s superb art – which features ultra-pliable teenage bodies, tremendous exaggeration of circumstances in ways that seems truer than reality, and a healthy dose of surrealism at all times – constantly enlivening the strips. Surrealism is also present a good deal of the time in Cartoons from “The New Yorker,” where the usual topics (money, work, relationships) are handled in distinctly New Yorker-ish ways. Generally witty and wry, and often rather dry, the humor here has a distinct urban and sophisticated slant, and the bemused and befuddled characters will be immediately recognizable to New Yorker fans and anyone who has ever had the fortune (good or ill) to interact with residents of the real New York City and its environs.

     The New Yorker and Dilbert are also available for 2012 in a particularly interesting wall-calendar format that Andrews McMeel calls a “Weekly Wall Organizer.” These ought to be fairly easy to find right now, since they actually start with September 2011 and run through December 2012 – a 16-month arrangement that helps bridge the old (okay, not so old) and new years. The design of these calendars is clever and renders them highly useful. They are spiral-bound and are really two forms of calendar in one. Monthly planning pages simply display an entire month at a glance, with no art but with plenty of room to make notes for each day of the month – and with a small year-at-a-glance calendar running along the bottom of each page. In addition, there are weekly planning pages that do contain art at the top, plus extra (lined) space for writing down specific appointments, and the same year-at-a-glance strip along the bottom. There is space for notes as well at the top of each weekly layout – more space in The New Yorker calendar than the Dilbert one, because of the difference in size and layout of the illustrations. Be sure to hang either of these calendars with a suitably strong nail or picture hanger: both are heavier than typical wall calendars, and both include a pocket for storage of receipts, notes, invitations and the like – which means they will get still heavier through their 16-month lifespan even as they become increasingly useful.

     Those who prefer a more traditional wall calendar have plenty of choices, too, and not only in the cartooning sphere. One especially attractive option is Dan DiPaolo’s Home Is in the Kitchen calendar, in which a rotund and happy chef displays everything from wines to cupcakes to soup (depending on the month), while other drawings feature a “Mom’s Diner” menu, wine list, fresh jellies and preserves, and even a big fat hen. DiPaolo’s drawings are an amusing celebration of the gustatory without being overdone, created in pleasant earth tones that go well with any décor and are a delight to look at again and again. Whether you cook all the time or just wish you had time to cook, Home Is in the Kitchen will accompany you through 2012 with flair, delicious month after delicious month. And it’s never too early to consider that sort of enjoyment.


How to Get a Job…by Me, the Boss. By Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrated by Sue Heap. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Pinkadoodles. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $12.99.

The Sleepless Little Vampire. By Richard Egielski. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #12: Me! (Just Like You, Only Better). By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

     It doesn’t get more charming than the series by Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sue Heap that includes How to Be a Baby…by Me, the Big Sister and How to Get Married…by Me, the Bride – and, now, How to Get a Job…by Me, the Boss. There is just enough truth in the writing to give the books a real-world connection, and just enough exaggeration to make them both fun and funny. And the illustrations have just enough of everything: humor, cuteness, appropriateness for the story, and appropriateness for the targeted age group (4-8). How to Get a Job features a girl narrator explaining that, to get a job, “you need to decide what you want to be when you grow up,” and that “a good job is something you love.” Straightforward, yes, but not in the specifics: “It’s not suitable to be a World-Famous Chef if you can’t even cook cereal. …Or a Spy if you don’t know any good hiding places and you just sit there and everyone can see you.” As for how jobs work, “If you are a Magician first you have to find someone you can cut in half who won’t mind. Then you call them ‘My Lovely Assistant’ and do Friendly Smiling at them so they won’t run away.” Other jobs “explained” here are doctor, teacher, mommy or daddy, and more. The interview process is discussed (don’t bring your gerbils), along with the importance of behaving well “except if you’re getting a job as a Horrible Monster, and then you HAVE to be HORRIBLE.” The illustrations follow the words and expand on them – that monster is delightfully non-scary, and the persistent penguin that pops up throughout the book is just adorable. In fact, parents who have any job at all – including the job of being parents – are likely to enjoy this book just as much as their kids do.

     A delightful little girl of another sort – Pinkalicious – is the star of Pinkadoodles, a coloring book with every page done in pink outlines. Here is a chance for Pinkalicious fans to frost and decorate pink cupcakes (which turned Pinkalicious pink in the first of Victoria Kann’s books about her), to draw “what Pinkalicious looks like when she’s angry that she’s not allowed to eat another cupcake,” to imagine what “a Pinkadoodle breed of dog” would look like, and to make up words that start with “pink” to go with ones such as Pinkerrific and Pinkatastic. Pinkalicious fans can draw themselves on a pink playground slide, list three foods they would never eat, imagine the contents of Pinkalicious’ pink purse, draw hats for Mrs. Pinkerton and a mustache and beard for Mr. Pinkerton, and generally explore their artistic interests in the pinkest of contexts. Designed, of course, only for fans of the whole Pinkalicious concept, Pinkadoodles will give those fans something to do beyond rereading pink adventures and dressing up as pinkly as possible.

     Fans of things that are creepy, but not too creepy, will have a wonderful time with Richard Egielski’s amusing The Sleepless Little Vampire. This is the simple story of a little vampire who cannot sleep despite having his Frankenstein’s-monster doll, and who just cannot figure out why he isn’t able to rest. Could the problem be the spitting spider, the crawling cockroaches, the clacking skeletons? Each possibility comes with its own sound effects, from “Flappity! Flap!” for bats to “Awhoo! Awhoo!” for a werewolf. And each creature, or group of creatures, is drawn to be more funny than scary (the skeletons smile, for example, and so does the blue-faced witch riding by on her broomstick). The little vampire simply cannot figure out which of these creatures, or what combination of them, might be preventing him from sleeping. But then he does figure it out, in an amusing twist that leaves him, at the end, surrounded by all the many supernatural denizens of his neighborhood as he yawns and drifts peacefully off to rest, his protruding canines showing clearly as he smiles…well….beatifically. There is nothing at all threatening about this little vampire or any of the other creatures here. There is, however, a great deal that is amusingly offbeat.

     “Amusingly offbeat” is a pretty good description of several books in the Dear Dumb Diary series by Jim Benton – including the 12th and most recent, whose title really sums up diarist Jamie Kelly’s attitude throughout. Me! (Just Like You, Only Better) is just what Jamie thinks of herself and her musings – unrealistically, perhaps, but rarely in any less-than-amusing way. The plot here revolves around Jamie’s upcoming birthday, whom to invite and disinvite to her party, and which band’s music to like and which not to like. This last point has Jamie thinking about her father’s musical taste: “Since he is very, very old, he only likes a certain category of song – songs that he can sing along to while he bangs on the steering wheel to inform other drivers that…he has decided to embarrass his daughter to death, and he is really prepared to throw his neck out of joint in order to do it.” (The accompanying illustration is one of Jamie’s best.) Jamie is determined to find a band that she and only she likes, and keeps getting frustrated when other kids at Mackerel Middle School turn out to like the same ones she does. While coping with this, she creates illustrations to go along with such comments as, “I became aware of a sound you would imagine a rhinoceros might make if you dragged it out of a sewer by its tail.” Eventually, as in all the Dear Dumb Diary books, everything becomes a complete mix-up, and nothing goes the way Jamie wants or expects it to, but then it’s all okay, because the mix-up gets mixed up – and that leads everything to be sorted out, and Jamie gets to have a great birthday and even go to a concert with a band that she actually wants to see and hear. Benton manages to wrap these books up neatly, even adorably, without making them seem overly sentimental – a neat trick if you can do it, and Benton usually can; and in this case he certainly does.


The Last Apprentice, Book Eight: Rage of the Fallen. By Joseph Delaney. Illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Vampire Kisses 8: Cryptic Cravings. By Ellen Schreiber. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Vampire Diaries: Stefan’s Diaries #3—The Craving. Based on the novels by L.J. Smith and the TV series developed by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec. HarperTeen. $9.99.

Poison Apple Book: Her Evil Twin. By Mimi McCoy. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Once readers settle comfortably into a supernatural series, they frequently want more of the same – variations on a theme, as it were. And that is just what all these books provide. The Last Apprentice series is a British creation that is called, in England, the Spook series – but apparently that title was deemed too spooky (or something) for U.S. consumption, just as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for Britain’s onetime American colonies. The eighth book in Joseph Delaney’s well-paced and generally well-written series, originally published as The Spook’s Destiny, is called Rage of the Fallen in its Greenwillow edition – and follows the continuing path of the Spook’s apprentice, Thomas Ward, and his witchy friend, Alice. The three have fled their own country, where war rages, and now find themselves in a thinly disguised Ireland, with new supernatural evils to battle and the overhanging threat of the Morrigan, goddess of witches – added to the previous overhanging threat of the Fiend, a sort of Satanic master of all evil who is nevertheless fond of producing human (or partly human) children and can, under the right circumstances, be trapped and thwarted, at least temporarily. That is one part of the plot here, with much of the rest revolving around goat mages (bad guys) and the sometimes-goaty god Pan, who can appear benign or terrifying, depending on his mood and how he is treated. Tom’s interactions with the various good and bad characters are, as usual, well crafted, and Patrick Arrasmith’s illustrations are a major plus for the book, being genuinely atmospheric and downright eerie – one of a witch’s mouth pouring forth thick, black smoke is truly scary. The problem with this series is that Tom, on some levels, learns so little from book to book: he still goes off on ill-fated adventures, conveniently forgetting all his protective items even though by now (after three years as an apprentice) he really should know better. In addition, for the convenience of the plot, Delaney still manipulates characters a little too obviously: when a witch bent on revenge is allowed to live by a vicious assassin who has her at bay, it is quite clear that the witch will cause further mischief and nearly cost Tom his life later in the book. The creakiness of the plot aside, Rage of the Fallen is a fine addition to this ongoing series, by whatever name it is known.

     The word “craving” seems to be a natural for vampire series, appearing in the titles of the latest Vampire Kisses and Vampire Diaries books. Of course, the titles have little to do with the books’ plots – they are designed simply to pull in fans of these well-established series. Vampire Kisses, set amusingly in a town called Dullsville, is one the vampire-wanna-be sequences, with Raven continuing to wonder whether her glamorous vampiric boyfriend, Alexander, will ever turn her so they can spend eternity together. Come to think of it, that’s a long time – is that what Raven really wants? The relationship question plays out against a plan by the evil vampire Jagger to open a club – rather transparently called the Crypt – in Dullsville, and what sort of evil that plan (barely) conceals. It is utterly impossible to take this book seriously: “I imagined creating a custom coffin for Alexander and me – perhaps a double-wide coffin that looked like a huge heart.” But fans of the series will find it to be just what they expect – and want. Ditto for fans of Vampire Diaries, a TV series on The CW network that has spawned (and that is the right word) a series of book series, including Vampire Diaries itself, The Return, The Secret Circle and Stefan’s Diaries. The third in this last sequence continues exploring (although not very deeply) the relationship between brothers Stefan and Damon, with the former (nominally “good”) trying to get closer to his lost humanity, while the latter (nominally “bad” and therefore more complex and interesting) becomes less human all the time. Enter a truly evil, revenge-seeking vampire who forces the brothers to overlook their deep (well, not very deep) differences and work together, and you have the plot. You also have the writing: “A quick, silent trip to the kitchen revealed exactly what I had hoped – rats, of course. …With a flash of my hand I grabbed one and broke its neck, sucking the poor thing dry, all without losing control. It was easy, with such disgusting fare.” Those who consider this stylish will consider the book likewise.

     There is no particular pretense of style in the Poison Apple books, either. They are not a numbered series and are all self-contained, but all follow similar plot lines in which possibly supernatural events affecting tween girls turn out to have rational explanations. Or sometimes not. The balance between natural and unnatural varies from book to book, but the scares remain mild and the writing straightforward. Her Evil Twin, the sixth Poison Apple book, brings back the author of the first, The Dead End. But Mimi McCoy’s writing is not significantly different from that of other series contributors: “The waitress sloshed coffee into two cups that were already on the table. Emma ordered a turkey sandwich for them to share. The waitress wrote their order down on a little pad, stuck her pen behind her ear, and shuffled off to the kitchen.” As for the plot, it involves rather timid nice-girl Anna and her fearless new friend, Emma, a troublemaker whose antics tend to result in Anna -- not Emma herself – getting caught. “Was she trying to set Anna up? But why? That is about as profound as the questions get here. Is Emma an imaginary “bad girl” who has somehow come to life, or a real person who is victimizing Anna for reasons of her own, or what? Anna eventually learns who and what Emma is, has a narrow escape, and manages to re-make some shattered friendships, slamming a door with satisfaction on the Emma experience and getting Poison Apple fans ready for the next book, an excerpt of which appears at the end of this one. The chills are mild, the stories forgettable, but the Poison Apple books are fine for girls looking for just a taste of the sort of writing that will eventually blossom (if that is the right word) into series such as Vampire Kisses and Vampire Diaries.


Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 Studio Series – Artist Edition. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP 64-bit) or Mac OS X 10.4-10.6. $29.95.

     The commoditization of computers is no longer debatable: businesses, consumers and manufacturers alike all acknowledge that one unit is much like another, with minimal feature differences rarely being worth any significant difference in price. Furthermore, the commoditization of peripherals means that there is little inherent reason to buy one company’s keyboard or mouse rather than another’s. What is a manufacturer to do? Some have, in effect, rushed for the exits, finding the lowest-cost ways they can to produce items that they assume users will buy, use for a short time, then throw away (even in an increasingly ecologically sensitive world). Microsoft’s hardware division, though, has a more interesting approach: having created products at particular pricing tiers, it then expands the product offerings within those tiers, allowing consumers to pick and choose among a wider variety of similarly priced and similarly functioning peripherals whose design (rather than functionality) becomes a strong expression of individual taste.

     Generally, the higher the number of a Microsoft hardware series, the pricier the item, which means a mouse in the 3000 series will cost less than one in the 4000 series. The 3500 series, with a $30 price point, has proved particularly conducive to expansion and differentiation. There are, for example, black mice designated Mobile Mouse and Mobile Mouse Special Edition in this series. In addition, there are Studio Series mice in the 3500 series – essentially the same as the black ones, but with attractive geometric overlays that give users a chance to express color and design preferences. And now Microsoft has gone a step farther – from 3500 series to Studio Series to Studio Series—Artist Edition. The latest incarnation of the 3500 series, still at the same price level as the others, gives users a chance to hold the work of five artists in the palm of their hands. There are six mice in this series altogether: two designed by Mike Perry of Brooklyn, New York, and one apiece by Matt Moore (Portland, Maine), Linn Olofsdotter (Sweden), Kirra Jamison (Australia), and Jonny Wan (Sheffield, England). The designs are all modernistic, but they vary quite widely in appearance, from Wan’s black-and-white robotic head (which might feel a little eerie to some) to Olofsdotter’s stylized and rather romantic flowers to one Perry design that looks like an explosion of lines and another that resembles multicolored geometric graffiti.

     Functionally, there is absolutely nothing different among these six mice – all use the same optical tracking technology in which Microsoft specializes, all use a nano transceiver that stores within a cavity in the mouse, and all offer lengthy battery life (projected by Microsoft to be eight months). They all work just as well as other Microsoft mice in the 3500 series – which, for that matter, work just as well as higher-priced Microsoft mice that come with additional features and in other styles. But the Artist Edition is really all about bringing a little bit of personalized art into the workplace (or wherever you use a computer). There is a Web site where you can see all the mice, for example – nothing unusual about that – but you can also download wallpaper that reflects the design of each mouse (the URL is http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/en-us/mice/artist-edition). Does any of this make the Artist Series a must-have? Of course not. No mouse currently on the market is a must-have; in fact, many users have decided to forgo mice entirely and use only built-in track pads or other forms of data entry. Indeed, touchscreens may well supplant mice in the not-too-distant future, although they are generally too quirky and imprecise to do so at the moment. So users who want to use a mouse can go the disposable-hardware route and simply get a basic, functional unit (for as little as $10) that will get the job done; or they can enliven their computer environment a bit with something a little jazzier, a little more reflective of personal taste, than the computer itself – which, after all, has become simply a commodity item. It is for users seeking that bit of extra “me-ness” that the Artist Edition is designed, and it is to them that it will most definitely appeal.


Schubert: Symphony No. 9. Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Nielsen: Symphony No. 1; Sibelius: Symphony No. 7. Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu. Scandinavian Classics. $9.99.

Brahms: Symphonies Nos.1-4; Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Tragic Overture. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Newton Classics. $27.99 (4 CDs).

     Schubert’s final symphony long ago picked up the sobriquet “The Great,” and the nickname has stuck even though little thought is given nowadays to the reason for it: “The Little” was Schubert’s Symphony No. 6, also in C (and No. 9 is still at times called “The Great C Major,” which helps explain where this all started). There is no question that Philippe Herreweghe wants the symphony to live up to its title: this is a monumental performance from start to finish. With warm, rounded brass, very strong pacing, clear thematic delineation, a fine sense of balance between strings and winds, and excellent SACD sound in which even Antwerp’s slightly reverberant Queen Elizabeth Hall becomes part of the composer’s sonic environment, this is a triumphal reading from start to finish. Well, almost to finish – the very last note seems to wobble a bit and fade out, and it is impossible to tell whether the conductor, engineers or both wanted it that way. It is a bit of a comedown after what is generally a truly wonderful reading of this biggest of Schubert’s symphonies. Until that very last moment, Herreweghe seems fully to have taken the work’s measure: the opening of the first movement is very stately, with tremendous warmth in the brass; the second movement really does move at the Andante con moto pace that Schubert wanted, but remains expansive for all that; the Scherzo is bright and lively, not as heavy-handed as it can sometimes become, yet still has considerable weight; and the finale, after a great flourish at the beginning, is a beautiful blend of fervor and lyricism, its gorgeous second theme given full opportunities to flow while its main theme attains truly heroic stature. The fact that Herreweghe takes the exposition repeats in both the first and last movements is a major plus: only when this is done, as Schubert intended it to be, is the full scale of this symphony made clear. In all, this is a well-proportioned, excellent-sounding performance with one seeming oddity at the very end. It is hard to know what to make of that.

     The sound is not the major attraction of a new Scandinavian Classics release of Nielsen’s first symphony and Sibelius’ final one. This recording, originally issued in 2002, has a rather cramped sound, and the Copenhagen Philharmonic, although a more-than-serviceable ensemble, is not among the world’s (or even Europe’s) top orchestras. Nor is Finnish conductor Okko Kamu especially well known – but he takes the full measure of this particular music, and the performances here are top-notch. Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1, which dates to 1892 (when the composer was 27), has a definite Romantic sound without any of the usual Romantic soul-searching. Formally, it already shows Nielsen’s fondness for moving from key to key (here, between G minor and C major, with the latter eventually triumphant), and its rhythmic vitality and orchestral balance look ahead to Nielsen’s later works. The final Allegro con fuoco is especially dynamic in this performance, with Kamu very effectively contrasting the forward-striding and more-relaxed elements before eventually concluding the work with a blaze of affirmation. The CD also includes Sibelius’ single-movement Symphony No. 7, a work quite different from the composer’s previous six (he originally called it “Fantasia Sinfonica”). The challenge for a conductor here – one that Kamu meets effectively – is to keep the symphony’s essentially slow tempo flowing throughout as a kind of foundational element, even while encouraging a sense of ebb and flow as individual sections of the work speed up and slow back down. The Sibelius Seventh is almost a set of variations – on both a theme (the ascending scale heard at the beginning) and a tempo (the one established at the outset). This is a work in C major, the same key in which Nielsen’s First concludes, but the fluidity of key is much more apparent in this much later piece (the symphony was finished in 1923 and first performed in 1924). Kamu and the Copenhagen players show a strong affinity for this music and play it with warmth, understanding and a clear comprehension of the Sibelius style.

     Warmth and a monumental approach are the primary characteristics of the Newton Classics release of Carlo Maria Giulini’s Vienna Philharmonic Brahms cycle, which goes from the start to the end of the composer’s symphonic production and throws in a couple of bonuses as well. The Vienna Philharmonic, arguably the world’s greatest orchestra even today, was surely deserving of that title in 1989-91, when these recordings were made. And Giulini (1914-2005) was expert at bringing out the warm sound of every orchestra he conducted – with the result that things are at times almost unbearably lush in this cycle. Giulini leans toward expansive tempos that become a touch draggy here and there, and sometimes more than a touch; therefore, the set gets a (+++) rating. The very slow pacing does repay listening marvelously at a wide variety of key points. For example, the conclusion of the introduction to the finale of Symphony No. 1 is wonderful – broad, intense and heartfelt. The first movement of No. 2, however, plods (it is long even though Giulini does not take the repeat of the exposition), even though it flows beautifully into the second movement. By the time the finale rolls around – also at a slow pace – this symphony has come to seem as monumental as the First; but any sense of lightness has disappeared. Giulini structures all four symphonies on a grand scale: the tightly knit Third moves easily from movement to movement, its pacing deliberate but not overly slow in the first three movements, then more flowing in the finale; while the heavily Bach-influenced Fourth swells from the start into a genuinely monumental work – whose finale, unfortunately, is simply too slow in many places, to such an extent that the music seems to congeal. The Haydn Variations and Tragic Overture are very well played – but it is too bad there is no Academic Festival Overture as well, to lighten things up a bit. For these are by and large very serious, even somber readings of the symphonies, the works’ darkness accentuated by the pacing on which Giulini insists. The burnished orchestral sound is complemented by a warm recording in which the orchestra’s superb strings stand out from start to finish. This Giulini set is, above all, thoughtful, showcasing a conductor who has studied these symphonies with care and found a very personal approach to them that focuses on bringing forth their depth and darkness. But the ponderous tempo choices will mean this is not a first-pick Brahms cycle for most listeners.

June 16, 2011


Big Nate: From the Top. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Big Nate Out Loud. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     One of the more attractive child-oriented comic-strip characters found on today’s funny pages (or funny Internet sites) is Nate Wright, aka “Big Nate,” a sixth-grader on the cusp of hormonal insecurity and already very much involved with authority defiance, impossible schemes that he is sure will succeed, and a vastly inflated sense of self-importance. Lincoln Peirce’s creation is drawn with unusual simplicity, more or less in Charlie Brown mode (except that Nate’s head is oval, not round, and his seven tufts of hair are his biggest distinguishing characteristic). Nate’s adventures are simple, too, revolving around comic-strip standards such as verbal byplay with friends (primarily Francis and Teddy); an unrequited crush (Jenny); a really nice schoolmate who is unfailingly polite and whom Nate, for that reason, cannot stand (Artur); mildly irritating home life (Nate has a father and a big sister, Ellen; no mother is ever mentioned); and various school-based irritants (primarily Mrs. Godfrey, a good teacher who insists on challenging Nate and thus earns his unending enmity, which expresses itself in constant misbehavior that gets Nate sent repeatedly to detention or the principal’s office). The plots are reminiscent of Peanuts plots in some ways, even to the inclusion of a character who, like Charles Schulz’s adults, remains “off screen” at all times (in Nate’s case, this is a hulking and violent student named Chester whose antics, if you can call them that, are nevertheless funny when they intersect Nate’s sense of joie de vivre). There is even a dog in Big Nate, but this is no Snoopy: Peirce’s Spitsy spits all the time, always wears an Elizabethan dog collar, refuses to behave as Nate thinks a dog should (he loves cats, for example), and is generally considered by Nate to be a poor excuse for a canine.

     The elements of Big Nate are simple, but Peirce mixes them up entertainingly and with consistent, gentle humor, sometimes revolving around the idea that Nate himself is a cartoonist (as Peirce was when he was in sixth grade) and often using a one- or two-week set of strips to take Nate through some mini-adventure or other. In the first Big Nate collection, From the Top (both collections are presented in the shape of a traditional softcover book, not the thinner and wider comics-collection format usually favored by Andrews McMeel), Nate spends several days trying to show Artur how to do a “yo mama” smackdown, but all Artur can come up with is, “Peter! Your mother makes very delicious oatmeal cookies!” This sequence ends when Nate promises to hurl a “yo mama” insult at the next person to come around the corner of the hall at school – who turns out to be Chester. In another sequence, Nate’s comic-book action-heroine crush, Femme Fatality (who is occasionally described but never seen), turns out to be the crush not only of Ellen’s boyfriend, Gordie – but also of Nate’s dad. Then there is Nate’s attempt to write a Valentine’s Day poem to Jenny, his longtime real-world crush – who doesn’t return his feelings at all. Nate ends up writing that Jenny is his “destiny” and that “one day we will be mated” – and then rhymes “mated” with “Nated,” which earns him a trip, courtesy of Jenny, into a school trash can.

     One reason Big Nate works so well is that Nate, unlike Charlie Brown, is not a loser at everything. He is a chess savant; can identify foods solely by smell (except school-cafeteria food); and occasionally comes up with an outlandish idea that actually works – such as gently tapping angry or upset people on the head with an empty plastic bottle and “easing their psychic pain.” In Big Nate Out Loud, the second collection, it turns out that Nate also has a way of persuading teachers to hold class outdoors on a nice day; has a remarkable but selective memory (he has total recall for pop-culture facts but cannot remember anything school-related); and is the school’s “nickname czar,” who explains that “a good nickname works on many levels.” Also in this volume, Nate – a total slob, albeit one who can find anything in the complete junk heap that emerges whenever he opens his locker – is hypnotized into becoming neat, and soon drives everyone crazy with his transformation; and starts a rock band, but sings so badly that he is soon demoted to tambourine player (with Artur becoming lead singer). There are no grand societal themes in Big Nate; indeed, there is no major exploration of anything of consequence. That is a big part of the strip’s charm: it is determinedly old-fashioned in many ways, but has enough of a contemporary feel and enough goofiness in Nate himself and in the supporting cast to be a great deal of fun, day in and day out.