February 25, 2021


Vulnerability Is My Superpower. By Jackie E. Davis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The “poor me” concept can be as distasteful as the “wonderful me” one: both focus attention on someone who asks, or rather insists, that he or she is and ought to be the center of strangers’ attention. This is part of what makes celebrity worship such a mass of self-denigration: people who do not know celebrities and never will, whose lives have nothing in common with theirs and never will, nevertheless feel obliged to behave as if the celebrities have some level of importance to the worshipers’ lives, concerns and worries. This is a little like believing that members of a professional sports team care whether individual fans root for them: at least naïve and at most delusional.

     Yet there are ways to reach out to strangers and share feelings and experiences effectively as well as vicariously, potentially doing some good on both sides of a relationship that, looked at objectively, does not exist. This is what art can do: representational or abstract art, music, anything that is driven by creative expression in a way that communicates shared (if not necessarily universal) feelings and helps both the artist and the audience perceive that “we are in this together,” even if that togetherness is, from a physical-proximity point of view, entirely imaginary.

     And this is what Jackie E. Davis tries to do, for the most part successfully, in Vulnerability Is My Superpower. Because she happens to have the talent to draw amusing/appealing cartoon characters and use them to communicate her own real-world hopes and fears, and because those hopes and fears are ones that she shares with a great many people, she is able to put together a book that can connect emotionally with people she never met and never will – and give those people the feeling that Davis, whom they have never met and never will, understands them and shares their worries and concerns.

     Unsurprisingly, the book has an Internet origin as Underpants and Overbites, which Davis describes as “a diary comic.” It works well in book form, though, precisely because Davis is both honest enough and self-effacing enough so her ruminations on her own worries, fears and inadequacies come across as if she is a kind of Everywoman, sharing thoughts and feelings that are hers alone but that closely parallel the ones her readers may very well be experiencing. In fact, Vulnerability Is My Superpower is suitable only for people who gravitate to Davis’ way of presenting her concerns and who share at least some of them: this is not a presentation that will come through effectively to people who have different experiences of life. And that is fine: Davis is creating this material as part of her own therapy and as a way to reach out to people in similar emotional circumstances – not to invite psychological voyeurs to observe and comment on what she has gone through and continues to go through.

     Within its structure and limitations, Vulnerability Is My Superpower often comes across very well. Although little in the material is funny, many points are made with a kind of sly wink. Thus, in one strip, Davis’ cartoon self – who looks like a buck-toothed (hence “overbites”) squishy potato with underwear frequently slightly visible (hence “underpants”) – says, “The more I share about myself, the more it can connect other people.” That perfectly sums up Davis’ intent – delivered by her cartoon self, who flies over a stylized cityscape. But to leaven things a bit, there are two more panels, in which an on-the-ground observer says, “Um, your ‘V’ [for Vulnerability] fell off, and I can see your underwear” – leaving cartoon Davis nonplussed.

     It is this sort of balancing act that prevents Vulnerability Is My Superpower from simply being a “poor me” comic strip that is used by its creator to work out her own issues, audience be darned. There is often a certain charm to Davis’ laments and worries about herself and her circumstances. For instance, a recurring “character” is a plush toy called Butter Udder, a “cow plushie” that cartoon Davis says she has had since childhood and carried into adulthood – and, indeed, a real-world fixture discussed on the “About the Author” page at the back of the book. Another recurring character is cartoon Davis’ cartoon husband, who is not always as understanding as she would wish: a two-panel page has her lamenting in the first panel that “writing stinks,” leading him to say, “Aww, why don’t you draw a wittle comics tantrum?” In the second panel, cartoon Davis has drawn crossout scribbles all over her cartoon husband – a neat conflation of real and comic-strip worlds.

     Not everything in Vulnerability Is My Superpower is at this level, though. The least-appealing sequences are the ones that most directly and humorlessly address Davis’ angst about herself and her life. For instance, in “Two People,” she goes on for six full pages about being both sure of herself and pitifully anxious – an understandable matter for an artist to dwell on, and one that may well connect with her intended audience, but not an example of especially trenchant thinking or cartooning.

     What keeps Vulnerability Is My Superpower interesting is that the better and less-good strips appear in no particular order, so if something does not quite work, something on the next page or a few pages later often will. And some of Davis’ observations really are telling – and effectively communicative. For example, she explains about “a door opening inside me” (actually showing that happen on the torso of her cartoon self), saying that she kept it closed for a long time because she was “so afraid of all the bad getting in” – but now realizes “how much bad needed to get out.” That analysis shows considerable self-awareness, and is presented well in cartoon terms: squiggly black things emerge from inside the torso door and, in the final, wordless panel, fly away. The “poor me” elements of Vulnerability Is My Superpower are sometimes overdone, but the elements of self-analysis and the issues Davis explores are ones that will often connect with readers, and in doing so may bring them some of the same insights and satisfaction that revealing them brings to Davis herself.


Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 19: Ravel—Miroirs; La valse; Le tombeau de Couperin. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $11.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 20: Ravel—Gaspard de le nuit (1965, 1975, 1984); Sérénade grotesque. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $11.99.

     The long-running Idil Biret Archive series has reached the point of being reissues of reissues. The very first of the CD remasterings of the Turkish pianist’s performances that previously appeared on various LPs over a period of decades included Biret’s 1975 recordings of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Sérénade grotesque, and the identical recordings of those works have now reappeared on the series’ 20th volume, in the context of a two-CDs-in-a-row exploration of Biret’s handling of Ravel’s solo-piano music.

     Biret, whose studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris are at the core of her pianistic training, has considerable affinity for French piano music, and does not hesitate to put her substantial virtuosity at the service of the delicacy and somewhat effete quality of Ravel’s Impressionistic tone painting. That makes the 19th and 20th volumes released on the IBA label an immersive experience of immediacy for listeners, even though the music was recorded over a period of several decades. In Volume 19, Biret’s Le tombeau de Couperin was recorded in 1965, with Miroirs and La valse dating to 1987. In Volume 20, the unusual mixture of material presents the 1975 Ravel recordings, made in New York, along with versions of Gaspard de la nuit from Paris (1965) and Stuttgart (1984). Taken together, the two CDs not only show Biret’s adept handling of Ravel’s music but also provide insight into approaches that she changed – and did not change – in performing the music over a two-decade time span.

     What is noticeably the same in these recordings is the way Biret’s virtuosity takes a back seat to her skill at tone-painting. The works certainly have hyper-virtuosic elements: Ondine and Scarbo from Gaspard de la nuit are long-established challenges for pianists and frequently used to highlight sheer technical skill. But it is in the more-delicate works on these discs that Biret’s interpretative sensitivity really shines. In Volume 19, in Miroirs, that means accentuating the note cascades of Noctuelles as well as playing the far-more-familiar Alborada del gracioso with sensitivity and rhythmic awareness. It means accepting La Valse as a look back and summation of the Viennese waltz, which is what Ravel intended it to be – not a condemnation of old, vanished empires or a paean to decadence and its welcome disappearance, as it seems to be in some interpretations. True, Biret handles the music as seen “through a glass, darkly,” and plays it as a kind of in memoriam to a vanished age; but she does so without focusing overmuch on the notion that, having been completed in 1920, La valse must of necessity be an ironic postwar commentary on what was lost in World War I. Instead, Biret offers nostalgia uncomplicated by any sort of sarcasm. And in Le tombeau de Couperin, which was actually written during the Great War and intended as a memorial to fallen friends, Biret manages to extract emotional heft from Ravel’s use of 18th-century forms – while not overstating the “wartime tribute” aspects of the music to the diminution of its role as a tribute to Couperin himself, and the age in which he flourished.

     As for Volume 20, the inclusion of three decades’ versions of Gaspard de la nuit allows for some fascinating listening. The third piece in the suite, Scarbo, sounds largely the same in all the recordings and runs about the same amount of time, from 9:11 to 9:25. The nightmarish characteristics of the devilish dwarf are made clear throughout but are never overstated: there is a subtlety to Ravel’s portrayal that Biret captures very well. The first piece, Ondine, has somewhat more variability, from 6:34 to 7:36, but again Biret’s approach is largely the same: she looks for regularity of accentuation within the work, allowing emphases of specific elements to come to the fore without interfering with what in some respects is an extended ostinato. But the central piece, Le gibet, varies quite a bit among the three versions, from 6:58 (Paris) to 7:07 (Stuttgart) to a full 9:20 (New York). Listeners can almost sense Biret thinking and rethinking this piece over time, moving it smartly (if atmospherically) along in the earliest recording, slowing it substantially to extract the maximum impact of the scene portrayed for her second rendition, then returning in her third approach to something like her first one, but with subtly different emphasis that makes the scene expansive without slowing the actual pacing of the music to any significant extent.

     After the three versions of Gaspard de la nuit, the inclusion as an encore of Sérénade grotesque, Ravel’s first piano composition (written when he was 18), is interesting mainly because the work in some ways foreshadows Ravel’s handling of similar grotesquerie in Gaspard de la nuit. On its own, Sérénade grotesque is an effective enough encore (Biret plays it in three-and-a-half minutes), although it is somewhat pale when heard after the 15-years-later suite – especially when one hears Biret play that suite three separate times. Still, this small piece works well with all the miniatures from which Ravel built up not only Gaspard de la nuit but also Miroirs and Le tombeau de Couperin – and Biret’s skill in assembling those small elements into larger continuities, while allowing each individual movement to express its individuality, is what makes the latest Idil Biret Archive releases so satisfying to experience.

February 18, 2021


Living with Mochi. By Gemma Gené. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     The adorableness of dogs, especially in comics and often in real life, knows no bounds. And among the most adorable of the adorable are pugs, which – again, especially in comics – tend to look like animated potatoes with gigantic googly eyes. In the real world, pugs are subject to a host of health problems relating to their pushed-in faces and their pronounced tendency to overeat, making them attractively pudgy but seriously undermining their well-being. The fact that they also shed a lot, despite what seems to be an almost nonexistent coat, is another aspect of reality with which pug lovers quickly become acquainted.

     But pug lovers really don’t care about the negatives. Certainly Gemma Gené, who built the webcomic 157ofgemma around her pug and her life with him, is not concerned. Everything about Mochi (rhymes with “low key,” which Mochi is not) is adorable, and the book collection of Gené’s comics simply oozes appreciation and love for the dog with which she shares her life and the life of those closest to her.

     The sweeter sorts of animals-and-people comics fall into a predictable pattern, showing activities that will have instant meaning to readers who have experienced them but not much significance to others; and that is exactly the situation in Living with Mochi. In some of the strips, Mochi simply behaves as a dog does. In one, for example, Gemma buys a “fun new cooling mat” so Mochi can lie on it and not get uncomfortably hot, and Mochi tries it out and promptly lies down – next to the mat but conspicuously not on it. In another sequence, Gemma loudly calls Mochi’s name repeatedly, but Mochi does not come to her – and then she barely whispers the word “food,” and he shows up instantaneously. Owners of dogs – well, certain kinds and personalities of dogs – will laugh out loud at the reality and recognizability of these scenes, in which Mochi is silent.

     In other strips, however, Mochi talks to Gemma and other characters; whether he “really” speaks or the strips simply turn “Mochi-think” into human words is irrelevant. In one of these strips, Gemma is curled on the couch complaining that she has horrible cramps; Mochi says, “I’m also having horrible cramps”; Gemma asks if that is true; and Mochi says, “Your pain is my pain.” Exactly right! In another strip, Mochi works his way onto Gemma’s feet as she sits working at her computer; she struggles to slip her feet out from under him so she can stand up; and he says, “Before getting up, please consider if whatever you are about to do is worth waking me up for.” Also exactly right!

     The reason real-life (or almost-real-life) cartoon stories about people and the pets who own or are owned by them are enduringly popular is that nonhuman animals skew human reality just enough to help us see the funny side of life – and dogs and cats (plus reptiles and other critters) do this simply by being themselves. The “deviousness” and “manipulativeness” of a dog or cat is nonexistent: humans impose their standards of slyness and manipulation onto a pup such as Mochi – which is really funny, since the Mochis (or is it “Mochies”?) of the world are simply being themselves, day in and day out, and forcing the poor benighted humans to confront their own uncertainties, inadequacies, and all-around levels of discomfort with seeming to be in control of life when in fact they are not.

     Living with Mochi is so much fun precisely because there is nothing outré about it. Mochi’s appearance may be tremendously exaggerated – if you think it is impossible to exaggerate the super-funny look of a pug, you haven’t seen Gené’s art – but his behavior is not. On one page he is chewing paper despite being told by Gemma that paper is not food – and he responds, “Anything can be food with the right attitude!” That is a perfect encapsulation of dog thinking: if it fits in my mouth, it’s food. At the top of another page in the book, Gemma is on the phone, weeping and bemoaning some sort of human failing or frailty: “Why is this happening to me? It’s so unfair!” Then Mochi flops down on her feet, and she notices him, and she ends the call, and at the bottom of the page she is smiling, holding Mochi in her lap, cuddling him, and saying, “I am the luckiest person in the world!” That is what Living with Mochi, and with every other Mochi everywhere, is all about.

     There is comic fodder aplenty in the antics and everyday activities of human families that include nonhumans. But it is not for humor that we humans share our space and our lives with other animals – certainly not ones such as Mochi. It is the pure, unadulterated nature of the connection between people and non-people companions that makes these interspecies relationships so meaningful, no matter how good our interactions with humans may be. It all comes down to a kind of love, a kind of connectivity, that humans never quite seem able to have with each other. The interhuman relationships in Gené’s book are loving, supportive and altogether positive ones, but there is a reason the book is not called “Living with Other People.” That just wouldn’t have the levels of believability and charm that appear on every page of Living with Mochi.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Christina Landshamer, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Werner Güra, tenor; Shenyang, bass-baritone; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

     What, listeners may well ask, is the purpose of yet another of the innumerable recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth? No matter how fine it may be, no matter how many details of performance may differ between it and the many, many other versions available, exactly what benefits will an audience get from considering the purchase of Beethoven’s Ninth again – especially the year after the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, in which the pandemic-diminished celebrations nevertheless produced a significant number of new discs of all things Beethovenian?

     This is something of an eternal argument when it comes to the best-known classical music. To some, it seems obvious that “enough is enough,” that no matter how good any additional recording of a well-known work may be, it is simply not needed. To others, there are near-infinite ways of presenting a symphony as crucial to all of classical music as Beethoven’s Ninth, and any recording that has something new to say is certainly entitled to say it.

     In the case of the performance led by Manfred Honeck and released by Reference Recordings, it happens that there is much new to say – both in words and in the music. Honeck is a conductor for whom, no matter how well the music speaks for itself, it speaks even more powerfully when coupled with explanatory words. To that end, he provides, in the booklet accompanying this SACD, some exceptional insight into how a conductor thinks about a work as seminal as this one, and as frequently performed. And he makes it possible, even easy, for non-experts to follow his thinking, since the extended essay gives a host of specific references to measures of the music and the timings at which those specific measures can be heard in the recording.

      Listeners who still think a conductor’s work consists mainly of standing on a podium and waving a stick will learn definitively from this essay-plus-performance what conductors themselves know very well: the vast majority of their work happens well before the performance, much of it even before the rehearsals. The insight Honeck offers into the process is exceptional, and the ways in which his thinking results in audible differences between this performance and others are many – and are abundantly clear to anyone who reads what he has to say and hears how those thoughts turn into an interpretation.

     Of course, not everyone will hear everything Honeck says he does – being able to hear details and place them within a totality is one major element of conducting, but is not necessary for audience members – but the chance to understand a conductor’s thinking, and its effect on the musical experience, takes this already excellent performance to an exceptionally high level. “Admittedly, these are small nuances and details,” Honeck says after explaining some elements of the score; but it is an aggregation of little things that produces the overall effect of an hour-long score. So when Honeck writes that, at one point in the first movement, he asks “the winds and timpani (all marked fortissimo tenuto) to radically withdraw so as to allow the important original motive in the violins to shine,” he is explaining why conductors do not follow scores slavishly – or, to put it another way, why performances do not all sound the same. Similarly, when he says that, near the first movement’s end, “I reduce the tempo and pay particular attention to the wave-like secondary figures in the strings,” he makes it clear that he knows he is deviating from the precise layout of the score – but believes he brings forth its communication more effectively by not taking it 100% literally.

     Honeck, like every first-rate conductor, has studied the score in excruciating detail before beginning any rehearsals with the Pittsburgh Symphony: that, the studying and analyzing and figuring out, is the biggest part of what a conductor does, no matter how well-known the work being presented. This lets Honeck explain to listeners the rhythmic joke that Beethoven gives to the timpani in the second movement; the difficulty posed by Beethoven’s use of the rare-for-him indication mezza voce in the third movement; and some of the many, many challenges posed by the finale. Honeck discusses the always-perplexing issue of Beethoven’s tempo markings, the “exactly six recitative sections” that open the last movement, the controversy over the tempo that Beethoven wanted for the finale’s Turkish march, and much more. Honeck’s writing, although erudite enough, is easy to follow and understand, and his repeated references to specific times in this specific performance make it possible to hear Beethoven’s Ninth with a new level of understanding. That is one major value of this new recording of an oft-recorded work.

     And it is worth mentioning that the performance is exemplary in and of itself: skip Honeck’s verbal explanations altogether and you will still find this reading exceptionally communicative – you just will not know as much about why and how it communicates so well. Of course, Beethoven (unlike many of today’s composers) did not expect his audience to “read up on” his music before hearing it so as to maximize their understanding of what he was trying to say. And one of the great things about the Ninth is that it comes across with such potency in so many different ways, so many different approaches, that it is not necessary to understand intellectually how Beethoven achieved his effects in order to experience and respond to them. Nevertheless, additional understanding makes Beethoven’s accomplishment in this symphony all the more impressive.

     So reader/listeners get to find out here that in the third movement, “the main voice is written in the low fourth horn part instead of the first horn,” and that Honeck (in common with most conductors) nevertheless gives it to the first horn player – a questionable decision if one is inclined to question such things. Honeck also mentions that for the finale, “it was important to me, contrary to tradition, to choose lighter, more agile voices.” Again, one can question this decision if one wishes to do so – although the agility is clearly crucial when Honeck drives the music at an unusually fast pace, as he does in much of the finale. In any case, performance decisions like these are exactly what set one reading of Beethoven’s Ninth apart from others – and very much justify additional releases of the music. Ultimately, what matters is whether all Honeck’s analysis – the part he shares with readers and the much larger part that goes into his planning and execution of this performance – results in a convincing and meaningful performance. Anyone who hears this beautifully played and sung, excellently recorded rendition of the music, whether or not he or she chooses to quibble with some of the details and decision-making, will have a marvelous musical and emotional experience. That is ultimately what this music is all about – what so much great music is all about. And that is the most meaningful lesson of all.