July 29, 2021


Calendars (wall for 2022): Heart and Brain; Adulthood Is a Myth—A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Calendar; The Good Advice Cupcake. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     There is nothing unusual about wall calendars that feature comic strips and cartoons: they have been around for many years and have generally been designed to provide a touch of pleasant humor, or perhaps uplift, whenever you look at them. But some comics by today’s cartoonists are edgier than most of those of the past. This is the Internet age, after all, and many comics now get their start online – and the result is calendars that are edgier as well. Furthermore, a few 21st-century cartoonists have actually hit on topics that offer a touch more depth than comics usually do, and that translate well to wall-calendar format on a visual basis while also offering material that is a bit more thoughtful than average. Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain is a good example. On the surface, it is very funny indeed: Seluk creates cartoon versions of a heart, with huge eyes and perpetual emotional attraction to instant gratification; and a brain, which wears rectangular eyeglasses and is always trying to analyze situations, plan ahead, and avoid the consequences of too much emotional attachment to momentary interests. Seluk also peoples the strip (“organs the strip” is closer to the truth) with cartoon versions of the lungs, tongue, eyes, liver, gall bladder, etc., giving each a personality reflecting the real-world functions of the real-world organs. Heart and Brain remain the center of the strip, though, and Seluk is effective at finding the many, many ways in which we everyday human beings are constantly pulled hither and thither by the conflicts inherent in having both emotional drive/attachment and intellectual concern/ability. The 2022 Heart and Brain calendar deals with the thought-vs.-emotion conundrum throughout every month – for 16 months, actually, since (like other Andrews McMeel wall calendars) it starts in September 2021, with the last four months of the current year appearing on a single page before the one-month-per-page layout starts in January. A perfect encapsulation of the heart-brain dichotomy is the four-panel September 2022 illustration, in which Heart wants Brain to channel Heart’s creativity into “something” that Heart “can’t really explain,” that is just “kind of a feeling” that Brain needs to make “tangible” – with the proviso that “it needs to be perfect or I will be very upset.” That is Heart and Brain in a nutshell. Some other months also offer four-panel interactions between the primary characters, with other body parts – tongue, muscle, lungs, stomach – showing up from time to time. And some months use only a single-panel illustration, which can be just as effective, amusing and thought-provoking as the four-panel series. In one of those, for April, Heart stands at one side of the panel with a few balls or balloons labeled “pro,” while Brain stands at the left with a much larger collection of them labeled “con.” Brain says, “Now do you see why it’s not the right decision?” And Heart answers, “I demand a recount!” Again, this is a great example of the underlying truthfulness of the whole heart-vs.-brain duality with which we all live all the time – and at the same time, given the characters’ words and expressions, it is certainly funny enough to provoke a wry chuckle each day of the month.

     Sarah Andersen’s Sarah’s Scribbles comics also exist simultaneously in the real world and the cartoon universe. At its simplest, Andersen portrays the 21st-century life of a twentysomething woman. But things are never quite at their simplest in this somewhat surrealistic strip. And the design of the Adulthood Is a Myth 16-month wall calendar for 2021-2022 is quite unusual. Each page features a large, full-color single panel, within which are nestled multi-panel black-and-white sequences that relate very little (in fact, usually not at all) to the large, color art. This lets Andersen express emotions, thoughts and concerns on, quite literally, two different levels, and the result is striking and a touch odd (a pretty good description of Sarah’s Scribbles in general). The full-color November illustration, for example, shows cartoon Sarah in a riotously colorful kitchen, happily flipping an egg in a frying pan; the four-panel black-and-white strip within the color panel has Sarah arriving in Heaven, where an angel says, “Here’s your dog,” leading cartoon Sarah to ask, “Where’s my cat?” The final, wordless panel shows plenty of cats, apparently dancing in a circle, surrounded by – flames. Who needs words for that? Certainly not cat owners! Then there is the March color panel, showing a very small cartoon Sarah feeding a treat to a snail that sits atop a mushroom – a kind of “Sarah in Wonderland” scene. The four-panel black-and-white strip here has full-size cartoon Sarah watching a TV show and “seeing a still that’s constantly used as a meme” online – and remarking, with wonder, “A meme in its natural habitat.” It takes a bit of thought to “get” that – which is the whole point. And in the February color panel, cartoon Sarah sits in a comfy chair, surrounded by shelves of books (yes, books!), quietly reading. In the two-panel black-and-white insert, Sarah is wondering what language to read Goethe in, given that “I am dumb in 3 languages.” That puncture-one’s-own-pretensions approach is one of the many charms of Sarah’s Scribbles and, as a result, of this calendar – which includes a bonus page of a dozen stickers, suitable for use as reminders or amusements (one shows cartoon Sarah with a stack of cookies taller than she is; one has her in a Halloween costume; one has her playing guitar; etc.).

     Stickers are also an extra feature of the 2021-2022 calendar focusing on The Good Advice Cupcake, a distinct Internet-era creation that goes against the “anything goes, preferably in four-letter words” character of so much Web interaction. Cuppy (whose cat is named Sprinkles) is a pink-topped, huge-eyed, pithy commentator given sometimes to short observations and sometimes to short profane observations in which, unusually for the 21st century, asterisks are used to disguise (admittedly very mildly) the profanity being uttered. Much of what Cuppy says is funny precisely because the profanity is very slightly and very ineptly disguised – in the Internet world, such language is very rarely toned down to even the slightest degree. Whether or not Cuppy is using asterisks, though, the comments and exaggerated cupcake appearance make this calendar fun all year. In June, for example, Cuppy is seen relaxing in a kiddie pool, sporting an obviously unnecessary flotation device and wearing big sunglasses; a wine glass and pizza slice are next to the pool; and the caption is simply, “Living the dream!” The very next month, July, on the other hand, shows Cuppy actually melting (although still smiling) beneath a huge sun, with the caption, “You’re hot as f*ck.” Silliness abounds here: in February, Cuppy is insisting on holding Sprinkles even though the clearly distressed cat is grimacing and has scratched and clawed Cuppy abundantly; here the entire background consists of hearts, and the words are, “You’ll never escape my love.” And then there is April, with Cuppy sitting on the lap of the Easter bunny (in a Santa-like scene) and saying, “Bring me so much chocolate that I pass out.” Cuppy’s mixture of cuteness and almost-foul-mouthed expression may be a bit of an acquired taste, but those who already know the character will certainly enjoy all of Cuppy’s calendar appearances – and those who do not yet know the pleasures of an Internet-based talking confection will find this calendar a pleasant and, really, rather sweet introduction to a pleasant and, really, rather sweet cartoon.

(+++) YUMMY?

The Adventures of Veggieman, Book 1: Food Fight. By Karla Farach. Illustrations by Rob Foote. Mascot Books. $15.95.

     It is possible to have too much of a good thing, just as it is possible (even more easily) to have too much of a bad thing. Karla Farach’s intentions in The Adventures of Veggieman are certainly a good thing, but on the basis of Food Fight, they are a little too far on the preachy side to be fully satisfying – even for the very young readers for whom the book is intended.

     The teaching element of the book is as laudable as it is obvious: kids should eat fruits and vegetables and, in Farach’s view, should never, ever, ever have junk food. There is no moderation here: potato chips, doughnuts, sugary drinks, hot dogs and similar foods are evil and 100% to be avoided; avocados, tomatoes, chickpeas and similar foods are 100% good and are the only things to be eaten. The clarity of the message is unexceptionable, but its preachiness is a bit much, not least because there is no explanation for any reason that any kids might ever want to eat any junk foods – in fact, the story focuses on a school whose principal, a bloated and grotesque Mr. Gummbo, is the one supplying all the bad stuff, in monstrous quantities, to the students. Apparently kids eat bad foods because grown-ups make them do so – a message that parents and other adults who encounter Food Fight may have some difficulty countering.

     Because The Adventures of Veggieman is cast in superhero mode, it is easy to say that it is not supposed to be “realistic” in any particular way and that its portrayal of the principal (the only adult human, or semi-human, in the book) does not mean anything. But because the book is designed to teach important nutritional lessons, Farach’s refusal to suggest that kids might actually like the taste of some things that are bad for them (especially in gigantic quantities) leaves parents and other real-world adults with a bit too much of an explanatory job.

     The superhero who comes in to make things right, Veggieman, is essentially the Jolly Green Giant of corporate-spokesvegetable fame, except that he looks a bit more like a broccoli stalk and sports a big “V” in green-on-green on his chest. But Veggieman cannot help the kids who are being victimized by Mr. Gummbo until one child, new to the school and appalled by the behavior of his hyper-energized classmates, seeks Veggieman out and asks for his help. “My job is to fight the evil forces of junk food wherever I find them,” Veggieman explains to Niko, promising to “bring order to your school” along with “health and vitality.” Veggieman accordingly assembles “a brigade of broccoli, carrots, and asparagus” and “a battalion of cabbages and kale,” along with the beautiful Aqualady (needed because kids should only drink water, never anything else), and they march past the hot-dog guards with their French-fry sticks and into the school.

     There is not much of a battle, but some elements of it are the most amusing part of Food Fight – such as the scene in which adorable gummy bears, here called “toxic candies” and drawn as un-adorably as possible, are quickly turned into “a squishy lump of messy sugar.” About that drawing: Rob Foote’s illustrations are the saving grace of Food Fight, lending the overly sober story a touch of wonder, amazement and, yes, humor – qualities that vastly help the message be, um, digested. For example, Foote figures out how to give carrots big mouths and teeth that they can use to rout the pointy-headed and panic-stricken corn chips arrayed against them.

     Even Foote’s abilities can only go so far, though. For some reason, during the battle, Niko happens upon a girl who is “standing in the middle of the playground, stuffing doughnuts, cupcakes, and cookies into her mouth” and swelling up larger and larger with every bite – and Foote makes the girl suitably grotesque. Farach’s narration has Veggieman assure Niko that “once she starts eating healthy foods, she’ll return to normal.” And that seems to be what happens just about instantaneously: after Mr. Gummbo is easily defeated (he runs at Veggieman, misses, slams into the wall and becomes “a pool of thick, slimy sugar”), the final pages show all the kids in school immediately becoming quiet, obedient, engaged, thin, healthy-looking and fully committed to consuming only fruits and vegetables forever. They are also much better-dressed than they were earlier in the book.

     Unsurprisingly, Veggieman concludes the book by telling the kids to “say no to harmful junk food, and say yes to healthy [sic: it should be ‘healthful’] foods that nourish your bodies and your minds.” And of course the kids, no longer influenced by the nefarious principal, all agree and cheer for Veggieman.

     If only things were that simple. Even superhero stories generally have a little more heft than this and are a bit less simplistic. Foote’s illustrations are so good that Food Fight will appeal (no pun on “a peel” intended) to very young readers, and to pre-readers to whom adults are willing to explain some of the overdone elements of the story. Quite obviously – in fact, somewhat too obviously – the Veggieman series will be well-meaning and will offer strong advocacy of more-healthful eating. But by implying that hot dogs, doughnuts and similar foods have nothing going for them at all, and that lentil soup and spinach will immediately be perceived by kids as tasting delicious and will immediately reverse any ill effects of eating all the bad stuff, Farach over-simplifies to such a degree that Food Fight in some ways undercuts its own admirable message.


Music for A Cappella Choir by Herbert Howells, Enrico Miaroma, Alexander L’Estrange, Zdenek Lukáš, Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfram Buchenberg, Jake Runestad, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Susan Labarr. Baylor A Cappella Choir conducted by Brian Schmidt. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Eloise Hynes Stowe: Psalms; Hymns; Odes. Stella Roden, soprano; Jon Hynes, piano; Lorraine Miller, flute; David Hays, violin. Navona. $14.99.

Kareem Roustom: Embroidered Verses; Kinan Abou-afach: Of Nights and Solace; Muhammad ’Abd Al-Rahim Al-Maslub: When He Appeared. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally; Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble conducted by Hanna Khoury. Navona. $14.99.

     Listeners fascinated by expressive modern sacred and secular vocal music can find some fine performances of largely unfamiliar works on a variety of recently released CDs. An MSR Classics disc featuring the Baylor A Cappella Choir conducted by Brian Schmidt offers nine brief pieces, most of them recently composed, and one extended work: Herbert Howells’ Requiem. This is the centerpiece of the recording in every way, appearing midway through the disc and exceeding in length the five pieces that precede it and the four that follow it. Howells sets his texts – Psalms 23 and 121, a passage from Revelation, and material from the traditional Requiem Mass – with warmth and sensitivity, and the work as a whole seems designed to comfort those who mourn, as is the traditional purpose of the Requiem Mass. The Baylor University singers are expressive and engaged in the music, especially effective as a group but also presenting thoughtful solos when they are called for, as in Psalm 121 and the Revelation material. This Howells score has been recorded fairly frequently, and the Baylor performance stands up well among the available versions. The CD starts and concludes with world première recordings. It opens with Light by Enrico Miaroma (born 1962) and ends with I Hear Thy Voice by Susan Labarr (born 1981) – and those two works serve well as aural bookends, complementing each other effectively in their use of the choir’s range and the mingling of the singers’ voices. In fact, all the music on the disc sounds fine – and, for better or worse, remarkably similar – as performed here. The Miaroma work is followed by Oculi Omnium by Alexander L’Estrange (born 1974); then by a Dies irae setting by Zdenek Lukáš (1928-2007) that is on the dissonant side but scarcely terrifying or wrathful; then by Mendelssohn’s Richte Mich, Gott, which provides aural balm for the soul; and then by Erbarme Dich Unser from Four Sacred Songs by Wolfram Buchenberg (born 1962), a rhythmically attractive setting with some resemblance to parts of Orff’s Carmina Burana. The Howells work follows this. Later on the CD is an elegant setting of I Will Lift Mine Eyes from Psalm 121 by Jake Runestad (born 1986); then O Vos Omnes, from Lamentations, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), with a suitably lugubrious sound; and then the traditional song The Dying Soldier, which is well-sung but does not quite fit with any of the surrounding material. It is the penultimate work on the disc, followed by Labarr’s. The pleasures of the choir’s sound are a major attraction of this disc, although the somewhat monochromatic nature of the music produces a degree of monotony – a surprise in light of the very different eras of the various composers.

     A single contemporary composer, Eloise Hynes Stowe, undertakes to communicate sacred moods of many sorts through a solo voice on a new Navona CD. Stowe herself is a soprano – she sang opera in that vocal range early in her career – and writes quite well for the high female voice. In the eight Psalms, three Hymns and five Odes heard here, she sets the music sensitively for soprano and piano – and the occasional touches of flute and violin are artfully handled, extending the expressiveness of the keyboard instrument without ever supplanting it. Unsurprisingly in this material, Stowe, like the contemporary composers whose music the Baylor choir performs, sticks fairly strictly to a tonal medium and to traditional word emphasis, pacing and rhythms. This makes her work sound comfortable and familiar, if not particularly innovative, although innovation, it can be argued, is scarcely the point of music intended to calm and uplift an audience. The texts that Stowe sets are varied, from the inevitable Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”) to the less-often-heard Psalms 8, 9, 32, 137 and 139. There is also a setting combining a portion of the book of Habakkuk with the start of Psalm 42; and there is a very short (minute-and-a-half) piece mixing lines from various psalms. Of the authors of the three hymns, the best-known is Isaac Watts, whose When I survey the wondrous cross gets a sensitive and emotive setting. The other hymns use the form of identical words at the start of each line, repeated multiple times throughout. These pieces are by Frances Havergal (“Take my” – life, hands, feet, voice, etc.) and August Storm (“Thanks” – to God and, among other things, for tears, prayers, storms, grace, love, roses, thorns, and hope). The unvarying verbiage in these hymns has, to an extent, a lulling effect, which Stowe’s music accepts and even accentuates. As for the five Odes, they bear the numbers 3, 8, 14, 15, and 26, and are drawn in part from the Psalms and in part from the Odes of Solomon that were discovered in the early 20th century. Stowe’s music is characterized throughout by sensitivity to the material and a strongly worshipful expressiveness. Stella Roden communicates these elements well, with Jon Hynes’ always-respectful pianistic support and the occasional contributions of Lorraine Miller on flute and David Hays on violin underlining the meaning of the words and emphasizing their emotional underpinnings. Listeners already attuned to the Bible as a source of strength and hope will find much uplift here.

     The vocal material is far less familiar and considerably more exploratory on another Navona release, this one featuring the chamber choir called The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally. Most of this disc consists of two commissioned works based on Andalusian poetry; it is only the final, brief piece, When He Appeared, that is traditional – written, specifically, in an Arab poetic and musical form called muwashshah. Yet to most listeners, accustomed to Western or even Eastern (as in Oriental) music, Embroidered Verses by Kareem Roustom (born 1971) and Of Nights and Solace by Kinan Abou-afach (born 1977) will likely sound as if they were created as long ago as the muwashshah. The reason lies not only in the language but also in the instrumentation of the group that accompanies the singers. The Crossing is here joined by the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, which includes violin, cello, percussion, and – very prominently – oud (a pear-shaped, lutelike instrument) and qanun (a string instrument that resembles a large zither and has a unique, rather dramatic sound). This release showcases much of what is both good and not so good in presentations that are determinedly multicultural and as avant-garde as possible. On the one hand, there is real beauty as well as exotic-sounding material here: the rhythms of Embroidered Verses are hypnotically attractive in a way that is very different from that of typical Western settings of scripture or, for that matter, of secular verbiage. On the other hand, there is less musical interest, except for those determinedly devoted to the exotic, in the sounds of the solo singing by Dalal Abu Amneh in Of Nights and Solace, and here the instrumental accompaniment is not really varied or engaging enough to justify the 26-minute length of the six-part piece. The same soloist’s singing is more involving in When He Appeared, but here too the basic style of declamation, obviously inherent in the musical form, is not especially appealing even when well-delivered. It is scarcely surprising that The Crossing, committed as the group is to contemporary music and cross-cultural endeavors, would be drawn to (and into) this material. And certainly listeners in search of unexpected sound blends and unusual mergers of instruments and voices will find this music – at least some of it – appealing. But this is scarcely a disc that is likely to reach a wide audience or convince any significant group of listeners of the appeal of sound mergers of this sort. The esoteric nature of the CD may in fact be part of its charm for a small group of people. Reaching out to a larger audience seems not to be a matter of great concern, or much interest, to those involved in the project.

July 22, 2021


Calendars (wall for 2022): John Sloane’s Country Seasons; Anne Geddes; A Year of Snarky Cats. Andrews McMeel. $16.99 (Country); $14.99 each (Geddes; Cats).

     Even before the days of the Internet, digital photography and easy-to-use photo-modification programs, the notion that pictures don’t lie was at best strained. Anyone who thought about this for a moment realized it: did you really feel like smiling broadly at the exact moment when that family photo was being taken and you were told to smile? Pictures do capture moments in time, but they also create a kind of alternative reality, in which life is sanitized and scrubbed to a greater degree than it is while being lived – or, in the case of photos taken to root out some problem or injustice, in which life is made to seem worse and more demeaning than it is in truth. The ability of photos to reflect some portions of life and downplay others is increased when the pictures are modified and manipulated in various ways to bring out specific elements and accentuate the positive, the negative, or the unusual. And if that thinking seems a bit lofty when it comes to everyday items such as wall calendars – well, it isn’t. Just consider John Sloane’s Country Seasons, whose 2022 version is the 36th annual collection. As with Currier & Ives or Norman Rockwell, there is a veneer of reality throughout this wordless, handsomely designed, full-color calendar; but it is only a veneer. The old-timey sylvan scenes in this calendar surely did not occur exactly as the photograph-style illustrative art indicates. Everything here is just too perfect. There is the October scene of a horse and buggy crossing a stream, with beautifully colored autumnal trees in the background – the horse stopping midstream for a drink of what is certainly cool, refreshing, unpolluted water. There is the April scene, a perfect encapsulation of “April showers” in the country, with a little boy in full-body slicker, carrying a gigantic umbrella, walking toward a flock of ducks and ducklings spread out neatly in a V shape in front of him. And there is the December scene, gently dusted with snow, of a perfect white country church with a huge wreath on the front and a fence surrounding the building, at which sheep stand gazing toward the church as if in wonder that approaches worship. Surely none of these or the other scenes in this calendar ever happened just as shown here – but surely they create a feeling of what could once have been in country life, a pleasantly nostalgic look at a world that is not the one we live in but that can adorn our walls for a full year as a vision of what a parallel world just might include.

     A very different sort of 2022 calendar that also has a photo-realistic feeling but also creates impossible scenes is the latest from Anne Geddes, whose adorable composites of real babies (usually sleeping) and real-world objects (generally flowers, flowerpots or seeds) are at once hyper-real and surreal. These pictures reinforce, again and again, the notion of babies as founts of opportunity, cute little beings that have not developed fully – just as Geddes’ flowers have not fully opened, seeds have not begun turning into plants, flowerpots have not started showcasing the growth of what is planted in them. Geddes’ photo art is instantly recognizable and sure to be a year-long delight for fans of the adorable-and-somewhat-outlandish. Most months feature a single super-cute baby positioned very carefully within a plantlike setting, each a little sleeping angel nestled between enfolding petals or perched atop a stem amid just-opened green leaves. And a few months go further, raising the infant-photographic ante by including multiple little ones: three of them inside blue-and-white-polka-dotted flowerpots, for example, and another trio peeking perkily out of old cans that have intriguing labels. It is hard not to smile when looking at the Geddes photographic babies and their realer-than-reality poses – and that is of course the point: whatever sort of day (or week or month) you may be having, this calendar gives you one thing to look at that will make you smile.

     Somewhat less photographic than the Sloan and Geddes calendars, but based just as clearly, in its own way, on reality, A Year of Snarky Cats features Dan DiPaolo illustrations that in some cases could almost be real-world cats and in others clearly could not be – except that the attitude (or, rather, cat-itude) of the felines on this calendar clearly is of the real world, or the world as cats perceive it (which, as any cat will tell you, is all that matters). Snarkiness does seem, to the humans who share their space with cats, to go with the territory, and DiPaolo manages to make these calendar cats both cute and, well, snarky. The February cat, wearing a crown and string of pearls and identified as being “Queen of my own little world,” seems to stand for all the felines here as she proclaims, “Now fetch my supper, wench,” thereby indicating the entirely appropriate relationship between cats and those who laughingly believe they are cat “owners.” The scenes here, although not exactly photographic, have a greater element of the real world than many pictures do. For example, there is the picture of a cat perched on a countertop and saying, “Your spray bottle doesn’t scare me.” And there is the one of a cat looking at a woman’s slippers, which have make-believe decorative cat’s heads at the front, and commenting, “My human is a nutjob.” From the January cat proclaiming, “Nope, not today,” to the December one remarking, “I was good – the dog, not so much,” these felines have the sort of realism that goes beyond anything in photos or photo-like illustrative art: they sound real even though real cats cannot talk (as far as we know). Anybody who loves cats, anybody that cats tolerate (“love” sometimes seems to be pushing it), will find plenty that is recognizable in A Year of Snarky Cats, and will enjoy encountering these pictures and thoughts on the wall as an everyday reminder of what is probably going through the real-life thoughts of real-world felines.