September 30, 2021


Big Nate: Aloha! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     In the Nate Wright multiverse-that-never-changes, where sixth grade is an infinite loop and much-looked-for summer vacations end only to dump Nate and his friends right back at the start of sixth grade again – presumably a different version of sixth grade – Lincoln Peirce continues to find clever ways to provide variety within the 30-years-and-counting of sameness that is the Big Nate comic strip. The latest book-form variations on a theme appear in Aloha! The characters are mostly the same as usual; Nate’s endearing combination of self-centeredness and positivity is mostly the same as usual; the predictable foibles involving friends Francis and Teddy, Nate’s feckless father and his largely inconsequential teenage sister, Ellen, are, well, predictable; and the ways in which Nate accumulates a series of small triumphs and small failures are as varied as always.

     Yet Peirce finds ways to emphasize elements of the strip and its characters that are different from what they have been elsewhere (or elsewhen), and this is precisely what makes Big Nate an ongoing success: it is all the same, but not quite the same, and the small differences add up to a large portion of enjoyment that feels familiar but is not identical to what Nate has gone through before.

     For example, Nate’s peculiar hair – seven tufts that sprout from the top of his head, a small one in the middle and six larger ones, three on each side – is an identifying feature of the character and the strip. In the latest collection, all the tufts disappear – temporarily, to be sure, but no less surprisingly for that. This happens when Nate’s dad gives him money for a haircut, friend Teddy suggests Nate spend the money at the arcade instead, and Teddy says he can give Nate a haircut so Nate can use the money for game-playing. This is, as a narrative panel points out, “the beginning of a very very very very very bad idea.” It is also a very very very very very amusing one, as Teddy predictably messes up the trim after proclaiming, “You have incredibly weird hair, dude.” And it is incredibly weird, but Peirce does not usually draw readers’ attention to that. And soon, with a zwanng and a whoops and a bzzzonk, the haircut proceeds about as badly as might be expected, leaving Nate completely bald and causing his father to remark, upon seeing what has happened, “Sweet sticky molasses!” That is somehow a very Nate’s-father comment. And the eventual outcome of the entire lengthy haircut series is somehow very Nate-ish, as Nate first tries to conceal his haircut (to predictable mockery at school), then comes to accept his fate, then makes the best of it as girls “come feel how fuzzy.” And then Nate’s hair gets some accelerated regrowth thanks to Nate’s usual poor performance on a social-studies test administered by his nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey (“I think you just added an inch,” observes Teddy – correctly).

     The haircut story is not the only one here that is out of character for Big Nate – or, more accurately, that expands the characterization of the strip’s central preteen (who is 11 in this collection; he has sometimes been 12 in other parts of the multiverse). Another extended sequence has Nate catching a shoplifter at the comic-book store where Nate is an intern – and the boy is one of Nate’s least-liked classmates, Randy. Randy’s attempt to weasel out of responsibility, Nate’s way of taking advantage of the situation while still remaining true to his basic-good-guy personality, and the eventual deal between Nate and Randy to reduce their enmity – a deal that quickly unravels – all make perfect sense in a Big Nate context, even though Peirce has never before done a series quite like this one.

     The new collection also includes variations on themes that Peirce has explored before: Nate’s misadventures with girls, his family relationships (including the discovery that his IQ is slightly higher than his sister’s or his father’s), his involvement in sports and music, his dealings with distinctly odd neighbor dog Spitsy – all these elements are here. And eventually, Nate and Francis get together for some end-of-summer back-to-school shopping, in which their very different personalities again are made abundantly clear as the two of them get ready to go, for the umpteenth time, to sixth grade. How long can they and Peirce continue running on this endless hamster wheel of sameness-that-is-different? Certainly for quite a bit longer: neither Nate nor Peirce shows any sign of slowing down. Aloha!


The Best 387 Colleges, 2022—Special 30th Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, Anna Goodlett, and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $24.99.

     Add to the list another of the countless depredations of the Pandemic Year of 2020 (not to be confused with the Pandemic Year of 2021). In fact, add 26 lists to an already over-long accumulation of things that have been messed up, spoiled, rearranged, altered in subtle and unsubtle ways, and generally turned on end by the massive realignment of society caused by COVID-19 and by the frequently confused and inept government responses to the disease. The long-running Princeton Review series of best-colleges books is changed by considerably more than one number in its 2022 edition (the 2021 edition included 386 colleges). And it is a fair bet that while the label Special 30th Edition may have been planned for some time, the nature of that special-ness could not have been anticipated.

     What happened to this edition is that some of the underlying basics of the book’s approach were yanked out from under it. These thick, well-researched books contain a certain amount of information gleaned fairly easily from data analysis, such as total number of students in a college, financial facts, application deadlines, selectivity, and so on. The books also give college admission offices a chance to do some self-promotion in sections called “The School Says” – again, not a difficult task. But what really sets these college guides apart from others, and what has made them so special and advantageous to families for three decades, is their inclusion of student comments, both positive and negative, on on-campus experiences. Those experiences can change from year to year, so having updates is important: students discuss everything from dorm life and meals to helpfulness and accessibility of professors – including whether teaching is even done by professors or is largely relegated to grad students.

     In 2020, all that information disappeared, simply because remote learning became the norm for so many colleges and universities and therefore for so many students who would otherwise have been surveyed about their on-campus experiences. However, the Princeton Review was certainly not going to let a little thing such as unavailability of some data derail its data-driven approach. So what we have in this Special 30th Edition is a pivot to a different form of data use, with some different emphases. Students and families are here given 26 so-called “Great Lists” of “schools that have consistently placed on our ‘Best Colleges’ ranking lists over the years in various high interest categories.” But this is more a nice-to-have than a need-to-have feature. The lists showing which schools consistently have “Great Professors” and “Great Professor Accessibility” can be useful for planning purposes – especially for readers who look at those two lists carefully and discover that only 11 schools appear on both of them. But the value of lists showing which schools consistently score well for “Most Beautiful Campus” and “Great College Newspaper” is at best questionable. The 26 “Great Lists” are essentially rewards for consistency, which is a notable quality for schools to have from a public-relations standpoint but not necessarily very germane to individual students’ and families’ search for the best school to attend right now.

     For those more-practical purposes, though, fear not: The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 is still packed with actionable information that students and families can use to match their specific concerns and interests to various schools that will score high on their personal compatibility index. One of the most-interesting small-type features for that purpose appears on the right-hand page of many (unfortunately not all) schools: lists of alternative schools that “Applicants Also Look At and Often Prefer” and, separately, “And Sometimes Prefer.” The reason this is so helpful is that a student who thinks a school looks good on the basis of the two-page outline in the book – and who wonders if there are similar colleges also worth exploring that might be even better (geographically, perhaps, or in terms of cost) – can use these two little sections to broaden his or her search quite easily.

     The issue with a college search, in general, is not broadening it but narrowing it – there are so many schools out there, with the 387 in this book representing only about 7% of the 5,000-plus schools of higher education in the United States. As always, most of the “narrowing” work falls onto students and families, with a book such as The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 being helpful if its criteria and its data sets are in line with what students and parents are seeking. Yet it is important to remember just how different the criteria for college attendance can be. For example, Brigham Young University in Utah is consistently given a high ranking in these books and is mentioned in particular for its business, finance and accounting departments, and for political science and government studies. But there is another Brigham Young University – in Rexburg, Idaho – that is well-regarded for its departments of humanities, business, and human development, but that does not appear in The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 at all. Why might students consider it? Apart from academic matters, there is the fact that this Brigham Young University accepts 97% of applicants – a fact that may loom large for highly stressed and uncertain students. The point is that The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 does the same fine job that these volumes have done for three decades, even though this year’s book was produced under more-difficult-than-usual circumstances and could not include some crucial material. But the word “best” is a subjective one, and that is something students and families should remember as they search for a school that will be the best for them, under their unique circumstances, in the current pandemic-shadowed world of higher education.


Juliana Hall: Letters from Edna; Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush; Theme in Yellow; Cameos. Molly Fillmore, soprano; Elvia Puccinelli, piano. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Alastair White: WOAD—Seven Scenes from the Tale of Tam Lin. Kelly Poukens, soprano; Suzy Vanderheiden, alto saxophone. Métier. $18.99.

Music for Saxophone and Piano by Kevin Day, Leonard Bernstein, Olivia Kieffer, Lucie Robert, Bruno Mantovani, and Edvard Grieg. Nicki Roman, saxophone; Casey Dierlam Tse, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

     Contemporary composers continue to find inspiration in the words and stories of the past, but generally try to give them a modern expository twist or two. Recent song cycles by Juliana Hall (born 1958), for example, are based on some writings by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and other well-known sources for musical treatment. Letters from Edna (1993) consists of eight songs on Millay texts, including three drawn from her epistolary love affair with Arthur Davison Ficke. The sequence of the songs has nothing apparent to do with their content, which ranges from the mundane (“Spring is here and I could be very happy except…”) to the philosophical; and the three Ficke songs are given out of chronological order and separated by other material (the latest Ficke piece dates to 1943, two years before Ficke’s suicide: “I have wanted so often to write you”). The settings are pleasant, by and large, with varying degrees of consonance and dissonance, and with vocal technique ranging from the straightforward to the swooning-and-swooping style often associated with more-modern art songs. The last song, “To Mother,” is the most affecting in its simplicity. Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush (1989) has seven songs set to words – from letters, not poems – by Emily Dickinson. The settings vary in tempo and in use of the piano, which contributes more here than to the Millay songs. Again, the connection among the texts is pretty much arbitrary: because both the Dickinson and Millay cycles involve letters rather than poems, one may expect the prose chosen to build toward or circle around a particular point, but in neither case does this occur. Theme in Yellow (1990) does, however, turn to poetry, its six songs using words by Millay, Amy Lowell, and Carl Sandburg. Here the color connection is the unifying theme (“Ripe Corn,” “Haze Gold,” and so on). Delicacy and an overall pastoral feeling distinguish these settings, and the vocal lines tend to be more forthright and audibly clearer than those in the prose-based Millay and Dickinson cycles. The fourth cycle on this Blue Griffin Records disc is based on poems by soprano Molly Fillmore herself, although Cameos (2018) is written for mezzo-soprano (as are all these cycles except the Dickinson-letters-based one). Cameos is the most deliberately contemporary of the works here in its approach and orientation: its six songs use words Fillmore wrote in tribute to six women artists, and the music is more dissonant and aggressive than anything else on the CD. Of course, the common “inclusive” bona fides are here, with Fillmore careful to include black and Native American artists. The most-interesting setting focuses on symbolist Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), and in general the songs are more effective when they explore the artists’ own themes instead of coming across as advocacy pieces in and of themselves. The performances by Fillmore and pianist Elvia Puccinelli are fine and clearly dedicated to the spirit of Hall’s settings, whose unevenness often seems intentional. The audience for contemporary song cycles tends to be quite limited, but its members will likely find a good deal worthwhile in this recording.

     The instrumentation is more unusual in WOAD by Alastair White (born 1988): soprano voice and alto saxophone. The subject matter is older than anything set by Hall: White’s basis is the medieval Scottish ballad Tam Lin. And his approach is more deliberately “contemporary” in sound, featuring plenty of atonality and lots of nonverbal expression. The most-interesting material on the Métier release is the way White intermingles the instruments – for he generally treats the voice as an instrument rather than a presenter of narrative. Unsurprisingly, White twists, turns and reinterprets the original Tam Lin story, in which the title character is rescued from death at the hands of the Fairy Queen through the ability of his pregnant human lover, Janet, to hold onto him even as the fairies change Tam Lin into a variety of frightening and possibly deadly shapes to try to throw Janet off and retain Tam Lin for their own purposes. This is quite a good story that has inspired various treatments, novelistic and otherwise, for it contains enough drama and fairy-tale elements to please some writers and enough female empowerment and assertiveness to resonate with others. For White, though, the story is a gateway to surrealism and to a reconsideration of reality, its focus the invented question of whether Tam Lin really changes or the world around him does. The underlying narrative is straightforward and not particularly adaptable to the sort of portentousness that White wants it to have, so he loads down the music with electronic effects and has soprano Kelly Poukens and saxophonist Suzy Vanderheiden sound sometimes in support of each other, more often at cross-purposes, and frequently as if they are engaging in two different works at the same time. This is one of those pieces that insist on being seen as avant-garde and also insist on having listeners try to figure out their genre – opera, song cycle, cantata, declamatory story, or some mixture of those. The reality, though, is that the specific genre does not matter, and neither does White’s insistence on being looked at as “with it” in whatever genre WOAD inhabits. The question is just what the work communicates, and how effectively, and it is precisely in communication that it falls short. It is intellectually intriguing and at times quite creative in its use of voice and alto saxophone, but nothing in WOAD really touches listeners except in a rather cold and reserved way. It is easy to see White attempting to dress up and restate the old ballad’s meaning, much harder to see why he bothers or why the audience should care.

     The saxophone itself is the “voice” on a new Ravello CD featuring an eclectic mixture of works that saxophonist Nicki Roman seems to have chosen simply as a personal recital – so personal, in fact, that the last piece is Roman’s own arrangement of Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, the sixth of his Lyric Pieces. The rather arbitrary nature of the mixture of material here means the disc will be of considerable interest to saxophone players but somewhat less to non-performers. Still, the CD has much to recommend it. It opens with Kevin Day’s Unquiet Waters for alto saxophone and piano, which offers some rather straightforward mood painting in the first movement (“Fast, Turbulent”) and the last (“Disturbed”), while never providing the expected contrast or relief in the second (marked “Still,” it is anything but). Next is an alto-saxophone version of Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, the composer/conductor’s first work to be published (in 1942, although it was mainly written in 1941). The piece is not highly individuated, but it shows how well Bernstein had absorbed influences from earlier in the 20th century, and it sounds effective enough on alto saxophone, if not quite as expressive as in its original version. Then comes Floating Bones by Olivia Kiefer – a three-movement work for alto sax alone that certainly explores the instrument’s range and requires skillful application of multiple performance techniques (plus some speaking by the player). The piece is well-crafted and at times inventive, although more involving for performer than for listener. Lucie Robert’s Cadenza is not, despite its title, for alto sax alone, but for sax and piano. A single movement that lasts as long as Kieffer’s three, it is even more of a tour de force for the performer and is somewhat exhausting for listeners, never letting up in intensity and insistence. Bruno Mantovani’s Bug is, like Kiefer’s work, a solo. Its title refers not to an insect but to a computer bug, and the piece is suitably discontinuous, complex and disjointed – it is clever and highly virtuosic, although a bit of a chore to hear. After this, Roman’s arrangement of Grieg’s work – for soprano rather than alto saxophone, plus piano – is an unalloyed pleasure, its simplicity and gentleness communicating much more directly and effectively than most of the far more complex and driven pieces heard earlier on the CD. Given the athleticism that Roman has displayed in most of the music on this disc, the gentility called forth here makes a welcome conclusion to a variegated recital that saxophonists will relish – although it is something of an auditory mixed bag for a more-general audience.

September 23, 2021


Lotería. By Karla Arenas Valenti. Illustrations by Dana Sanmar. Knopf. $16.99.

     A novel of remarkable sensitivity and considerable beauty, and one that gives far more credit for maturity to its intended preteen readers than do most books aimed at this age group, Lotería is an immersive experience from which adults – who really should be among its readers – will take away just as much as younger readers do.

     Like the Pixar movie Coco, Karla Arenas Valenti’s novel draws on el Día de los Muertos, a celebration that shows a vastly different attitude toward death from the typical one in the United States and most other Western nations. There is camaraderie between the living and the departed inherent in el Día de los Muertos, and the close-knit relationship between life and death is made explicit in Lotería by having two of the primary characters in fact be Life and Death. Valenti personifies them exceptionally cleverly: Life is a very-well-dressed man referred to as Catrín, Spanish for “dandy” and the name of one of the tarot-like cards in the Lotería game that gives the book its title. Death is depicted as a lady named Catrina, based on an etching showing a female skeleton wearing elegant clothing. The verbal closeness of the words Catrín/Catrina emphasizes the interrelationship of Life and Death, who are continually referred to in Lotería as friends – and Death, more often than not, brings touches of beauty to the scenes and people the two encounter.

     The playing of the Lotería game is essentially a framing tale for the story of 11-year-old Clara and the otherworldly adventure she experiences after promising to care for her eight-year-old cousin, Esteban, whose mother dies in a freak accident that may nevertheless have been fated – the whole notion of free will vs. determinism, a longstanding and very profound debate in philosophy, underpins the events of the book and is handled in an age-appropriate way that will nevertheless stretch the bounds of young readers’ thinking (and probably that of adults as well). The idea of Life and Death playing cards, with the fate of random mortals hanging in the balance, is scarcely new. Adult readers may think of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (“the game is done – I’ve won, I’ve won,” says “the nightmare Life-in-Death”); moviegoers may think beyond Coco to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal, whose protagonist plays chess with Death in the full knowledge that he will lose – but who loses in a positive way. Indeed, Bergman’s vision is comparatively close to Valenti’s, although Bergman is not mentioned by Valenti as a source (she does cite plenty of other sources in an excellent, extended Author’s Note at the back of the book).

     Clara is neither more nor less than the human whose fate will be determined by the outcome of the game played by Life and Death – or rather whose fate is already determined if you accept Death’s argument that the order of the cards to be dealt is already set once the pack is shuffled, so Catrín and Catrina are simply revealing Clara’s fate, not in any way causing it. The focus of Lotería shifts again and again between the card game and Clara’s magical-realism journey to a strange land where she needs to learn and obey (or find ways to disobey) a series of rules in order to catch up to Enrique, who is in the clutches of none other than El Diablo (not a figure of overwhelming evil here, however, although certainly a “bad guy”).

     The rules of the magical place that Clara visits require her to give something in order to get something – information, help, anything. After initially believing she has nothing to give, Clara finds more and more within herself that she is able to trade with the denizens of the strange land, eventually becoming no less than a giver of hope – to the equal astonishment of Life and Death, who are compelled by forces that are even beyond them to play Lotería and accept restrictions and requirements, including the need to find a suitable gift for the mortal enmeshed in the game.

     Lotería is a complex, beautifully interwoven novel written with rare perception and a willingness to treat preteen readers with far more respect than authors of novels for this age group generally accord them. The climax is complex and the ending very definitely sad, but there is hope and a kind of bittersweet uplift as well (in this way too Lotería resembles The Seventh Seal). Most of the book’s flaws are niggling ones. At one point Valenti says “the rules [of the game played by Life and Death] were clear: if they failed to complete their game in the allotted [three-day] time, it would be their final round, and they would never meet again.” Why three days? Who sets the rules? What would happen if Life and Death never met again? These are questions never answered, never even asked. Also, there is an intriguing scene in which “a curious bird” lands on the table where Life and Death are playing cards; they, distracted by watching events nearby, are not aware when the bird flies away, “unseen by the two friends as it carried away the top card of the pile, thus unfurling a different destiny for the girl on the bus [Clara].” In what way is Clara’s destiny “different”? What has the bird changed? Was the change foreordained? How is it that neither Life nor Death notices the card deck now numbers 53, not 54? What exactly is the purpose of this scene? Again, these are questions neither answered nor asked.

     But despite a few matters like these that may perplex attentive and curious readers, the book as a whole is so tightly assembled, so elegant in its progression from place to place and event to event, that it becomes a journey of wonder and a very thoughtful exploration of just what it means to make promises, to discover one’s abilities, to protect others, to give of oneself, to do all the things that constitute living life while on a journey to the inevitability of death. The unobtrusive illustrations by Dana Sanmar complement Valenti’s prose well, especially the repeated portrayal of changes in the boards of Life and Death as new cards are revealed and markers are placed upon suitable pictures in bingo-like fashion. Lotería is, in fact, the game of life, or one game of life, and it is one that Clara must lose (as everyone must) but one filled with beauty, care, concern, love and hopefulness – the elements that are preserved through one’s influence on others (as Clara’s are) even when one has passed into the realm of Death. Lotería is an altogether remarkable book, made all the more so by its steadfast refusal to talk down to preteens or try to shield them from difficult choices and life’s inevitable end. More words from Coleridge come to mind regarding the effect of Lotería on sensitive young readers: after the novel is over, they will find themselves, like the poet’s unnamed wedding guest, sadder and wiser.