October 21, 2021

(++++) SOMEWHAT SCRUMPTIOUS

Every Cake Has a Story. By Christina Tosi. Illustrated by Emily Balsley. Dial. $17.99.

Deliciously FoxTrot. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     With its super-simple message, a clever illustrative twist, and a yummy recipe included, Christina Tosi’s Every Cake Has a Story has many of the ingredients needed for a delicious picture book. However, it is really suitable only for the very youngest readers, or even pre-readers, because it is missing…well…a story. The book opens on Samesday in Samesville, where all the houses look alike and everything is black and white and gray and the only cake is vanilla. The reason is – well, there is no reason. Really young children will likely accept this, although at some point even the youngest may wonder why things are this way. Tosi does not explain – but Balsley’s black-and-white-and-gray pictures certainly make the setup clear. The book’s protagonist is a girl named Sammi, whose name almost sounds like “same,” which is the opposite of Tosi’s intent. Sammi puts a recipe card under her pillow one night and, lo and behold, dreams in color (shades of The Wizard of Oz) and awakes to find her card transformed into a cookbook “full of cakes and colors, and ingredients she’d never seen.” So, all right, there is a magical transformation here, because – well, there is no “because.” Magic does not really require a “because,” but this transformation turns out to have affected everything, because the houses and yards and people and activities and animals and streets are all now different-looking and in full color. Again, Balsley’s art smooths the non-explanatory awkwardness of the narrative. The next thing that happens is that Sammi calls out to everyone to come home with her to bake a cake, so everyone does, and now somehow all the “ingredients she’s never seen” are right there in her kitchen, and Sammi and all the other kids know exactly what they are (strawberries, pretzels, cereal, peanut butter, marshmallows) and how they can be mixed into a cake. A list on the wall, which is never explained, has the words “glitter, gummy bears, balloons” – hopefully not all as cake ingredients, but who knows? Tosi is surely aware that in real life, cake ingredients must be compatible and must be mixed carefully and in correct proportions, but there is none of that in Every Cake Has a Story – somehow Sammi just puts everything together and, voila, the result is delicious and delightful and “things would NEVER be the same again.” Adults had better be ready to explain to young readers that this is not how cakes are made and that, in fact, baking requires careful attention to amounts and proportions, although there is something magical about doing all the mixing and combining and ending up (after careful preparation and carefully controlled baking time) with a finished product that looks very different from its component parts. Tosi ends the book with a recipe for “Dreamy Strawberry Frosting” that is easy to follow but does require just the right amounts of ingredients, mixed the right way for the correct amount of time – in other words, the opposite of what happens in Sammi’s world. Every Cake Has a Story is pleasant enough, and Balsley’s pictures help overcome its lack of any actual plot, but it does feel as if one ingredient is missing here: a clear narrative.

     Not everything is yummy in Deliciously FoxTrot, either, but this latest collection of cartoons by Bill Amend does not lack for continuity: each individual episode is unconnected to others, true, but the characters and their interactions have been around since Amend started FoxTrot back in 1988. Since the start of 2007, the strip has appeared only on Sundays, which means that to assemble enough FoxTrot sequences for a book takes something more than two years – a fact that makes Deliciously FoxTrot a feast for comic-strip gourmands. However, the strip has lost most of its topicality since becoming a Sunday-only offering – deadlines for Sunday strips are about a month in advance, limiting real-world references – and Amend has fallen back perhaps a bit too much on the “nerd” and “video game” elements that were always part of FoxTrot but were never as prominent as they have become in recent years. At times, Amend does a good job of bridging the gap between those who understand nerd culture and the rest of the world, as when ultra-nerd Jason (the youngest of the three Fox kids) develops “loot boxes” to sell and needs to explain to Peter (the oldest) just what they are before Amend can get to his punchline. At other times, Amend is a bit more obscure, as when he has Jason do “UFO Math” by calculating the area of a flying-saucer-shaped drawing and determining that its area is 51 (“area 51” being a place in Nevada long associated with possible alien encounters – something that this strip does not explain). A number of the FoxTrot strips work without requiring readers to have any special knowledge, such as one in which middle child Paige gets upset upon realizing that her class schedule of social studies, theater, art, biology, math and English has first letters that spell out “Stab Me.” And there are periodic forays into traditional comic-strip territory, such as comments on father Roger being overweight (he has never looked that way, but apparently everyone, including Roger himself, is concerned about it): in one strip, mom Andrea (Andy) refuses to let Roger get away with comparing himself to football players who weigh 300 pounds or more. And there are kid-interaction strips, too, such as one in which Peter counts from “one squirt of mayonnaise” up to “five squirts of mayonnaise” on his sandwich, only to be told by Paige that “that’s not what Cinco de Mayo means.” Amend does occasionally manage to do a strip mixing “nerd” and “silly” elements effectively, such as a two-panel one that first shows a detailed mathematical analysis of loop-the-loop construction, concluding that the largest possible loop would be 4/5 the starting height – and then shows Jason and best friend Marcus finishing building the loop as an out-of-panel voice asks why there is a Hot Wheels car “soaking in a bowl of olive oil” (because the calculations assume no friction). Not everything in FoxTrot will appeal to everyone, especially since the Sunday-only format creates limitations not shared with strips that appear all week; but there is certainly enough fun in Deliciously FoxTrot to make it a hearty helping of humor, if perhaps more of a generous snack than a full meal.

(++++) WORDS TO LIFT, OR TICKLE, THE SPIRIT

Calendars (page-a-day for 2022): The Untethered Soul; Church Signs. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     Daily calendars generally tend to the quick-and-easy rather than the profound: each page gets a glance (weekend pages get two glances, since one page suffices for both Saturday and Sunday), and then it is time to get on with the day. A few calendars, though, try to offer instruction and even emotional support, such as the 2022 one based on Michael Alan Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey beyond Yourself. This is not a calendar that will appeal to everyone: it is for readers of the book who want reminders about Singer’s ideas and suggestions, and for people who may not know the book but who are seeking spiritual improvement and guidance and find the specifics on this calendar’s pages congenial. Like other word-focused calendars, this one has no pictures, although there is some differentiation among pages in terms of design. The focus throughout is thought, not amusement. The sincerity of the sentiments is quite clear: “What actually gives life meaning is the willingness to live it.” “To live life is to experience the moment that is passing through you, and then experience the next moment, and then the next.” “Life itself is your career, and your interaction with life is your most meaningful relationship.” “You were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience.” People who find Singer’s words trite or naïve are not the target audience for this calendar. Those who find his comments wise, or at least insightful or thought-provoking, are the ones for whom The Untethered Soul 2022 calendar will be a positive experience and a good way to start the day. The calendar intersects traditional religion but is not dependent on it. “Every one of life’s experiences is different, and every experience is worth having,” one page says, and certainly if that provides reassurance at a time of a continuing pandemic and all the stresses each individual experiences, it is a worthwhile sentiment with some religious overtones. And Singer does bring God into the calendar pages from time to time: “Just as rain makes you wet and fire makes you warm, so you can know the nature of God by looking into the mirror of your transformed self.” True, if that remark seems too heavy or off-kilter for your thinking, Singer’s words may not resonate – but of course, the words on one calendar page quickly give way to the words on the next, which may be more congenial. And it can certainly be reassuring when Singer says, “Let go of the idea of a judgmental God. You have a loving God.”

     If all this is a little on the heavy side and you prefer your spirituality leavened with a bit of humor, consider the 2022 Church Signs calendar. This one is subtitled “Little Sayings to Help You on Your Way,” and indeed, the signs in front of churches are meant to help people walking or driving past on their way with a smile and touch of uplift – while also helping believers on “their way” to a better life overall. Each page of this calendar looks like the sort of display that many churches have in front to announce upcoming services and other events – a display that really may be used for short comments and quips from time to time. The degree of “think about it” varies quite a bit from page to page of this calendar: “Everyone smiles in the same language.” “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” “Let’s spend less time congratulating people who have succeeded and more time encouraging those who have not.” “Not every cloud brings a storm.” “Joy is peace dancing. Peace is joy resting.” “When you invite trouble, it’s usually quick to accept.” “The platypus proves that God has a sense of humor.” “You don’t have to understand God to trust God.” Clearly the Church Signs calendar mixes a certain degree of thoughtfulness, even profundity, with a considerable amount of cuteness and a level of “groaner” jokes and puns. What makes it attractive is that you never know on one day what the next will bring – there may be several comparatively serious items in a row, or several comparatively lighthearted ones, or alternating heavy and light remarks. It is all thoroughly unpredictable. There are behavioral suggestions here, to be sure: “”Positive thinking must be followed by positive doing.” And there are thoughts that twist “common knowledge” and clichés a bit: “A man is also known by the company he avoids.” But there is little overt “churchiness” in Church Signs, although there is enough to remind you of where these nuggets of amusement or enlightenment come from: “Those who walk with God always reach their destination.” Religious elements aside, Church Signs can be a good way to start the day for anyone looking for a bit of positivity and a small helping of humility: “Love difficult people. You are one of them.”

(++++) THE POETIC PIANO

Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler, piano. Steinway & Sons. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Chopin: Ballade No. 4; Mazurkas, Op. 6, No. 1; Op. 7, Nos. 1 and 2; Op. 17, No. 4; Op. 24, Nos. 2 and 4; Op. 33, Nos. 1, 2 and 4; Op. 63, No. 3; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4; Op. 68, Nos. 2 and 4; Études, Op. 25, Nos. 1 and 2; Preludes Nos. 4, 7, 10 and 18; Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2; Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2; Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66, No. 4. Irina Feoktistova, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Here are a couple of recent releases characterized by beautifully considered and emotive piano playing combined with some peculiar presentation decisions. Liszt’s complete, 80-minute-plus set of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1847) is not heard particularly frequently, which is a shame: inspired by the poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine, whose work also underlies the famous symphonic poem Les Préludes, these 10 pieces go beyond virtuosity to bring out tonal color and harmonic experimentation in ways quite different from what the composer did elsewhere. They are more inward-looking than the superficially similar but more-popular, more-externally-focused first two books of Années de Pèlerinage (1848-1854 and 1837-1849) and less dark-hued than the third book of Années (1867-1877). The dates of composition (not publication) are noteworthy, because they show that although Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is a comparatively early work, it was created when Liszt had already attained the same mastery of form and technique put on display in the first two Années, but without the near-mystical darkness of the third of those suites. Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is intensely personal Liszt with pervasive spiritual underpinnings, not solely in the overtly religious Ave Maria, Pater Noster and Funérailles (the most-often-heard piece from this set), but throughout. It is a very difficult suite to perform complete and in some ways a difficult one to hear from start to finish: there is just so much going on, with such great intensity of feeling. It is nevertheless rather peculiar that the new Steinway & Sons release of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses splits the 10 pieces between two pianists, giving five apiece to Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler. Both performers are quite fine, certainly equal to the suite’s numerous technical challenges and equally well attuned both to Liszt’s expressiveness and to his structural creativity. But Liszt did not write Harmonies poétiques et religieuses to be played as a collaborative exercise, and although there is nothing particularly jarring here when one pianist is succeeded by the other on the next track, the whole performance-mixture concept comes across as more than a little strange. Tendler plays Nos. 1 (Invocation), 4 (Pensée des Morts), 5 (Pater Noster), 8 (Miserere d’après Palestrina), and 9 (Andante lagrimoso), which means, among other things, that he handles the intense lament in No. 4 but does not get to compare and contrast it with the mood of No. 7, Funérailles. Jenny Lin handles No. 7 along with Nos. 2 (Ave Maria), 3 (Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude), 6 (Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil), and 10 (Cantique d’amour). Thus, Lin presents the simple beauties of Ave Maria, but Tendler handles the expanded versions of older forms in Pater Noster and Miserere d’après Palestrina. There is certainly nothing wrong with any of this, and in fact the playing throughout is first-rate, the performers in such close emotional harmony with the music and each other that this recording is an easy one to recommend with enthusiasm. It is nevertheless inescapable that if either Lin or Tendler had recorded Harmonies poétiques et religieuses in its entirety, there would have been differences of style and emphasis from what is heard here – most likely subtle ones, true, but ones that would have provided additional insight into the way a single pianist, either Lin or Tendler, had accompanied Liszt on a journey more inward than that of the first two books of Années de Pèlerinage.

     When it comes to the MSR Classics release of Chopin works performed by Irina Feoktistova, we certainly do have the viewpoint and interpretative approach of a single performer, although not in a particularly recent recording (the performances date to 2010-2011). The oddity here, though, is the choice and arrangement of material. This is a very personal selection of Chopin’s works, more than an hour and a quarter of presentation of music that clearly has considerable meaning to Feoktistova but that comes across in this sequencing as if the recital is tossed together rather than carefully curated. These pieces are all standard-repertoire works both for pianists and for audiences, and it may very well be that listeners who have often heard these mazurkas, preludes and other short pieces will simply sit back and enjoy listening to them in the pretty much miscellaneous order in which Feoktistova chooses to present them. It can also be argued that each work here can be viewed independently rather than as part of a set, so there is no reason to play pieces in a particular grouping just because they were written and/or published that way. Still, there is something about this (+++) CD that does not quite work, despite the polished skill and emotional surety with which Feoktistova performs all 25 pieces. It does make sense to open and close the disc with more-substantial material: the first work (and the longest) is Ballade No. 4, whose gentle flow is winningly presented; and the last is the Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66, No. 4, whose intensity and complex note runs provide a strong conclusion to the disc. But everything between the first and last pieces here seems rather arbitrarily arranged. At one point there are three separate A minor mazurkas in a row, for example, and elsewhere there are two in C major framing one in A minor, so key relationships may be part of the sequence determination here – but the moods of the works do not admit of performing them this way to strong effect, and they are followed by an étude in A-flat major that is jarring in key after the comparatively extended A minor. Furthermore, there are pieces here whose order does not seem explainable either technically or emotionally: there are more mazurkas offered than works in any other form (15 out of 25), but the final four pieces are prelude-waltz-prelude and the Fantasie-Impromptu. The tile of this CD, “Chopin the Enchanter,” is presumably intended to explain its organizing principle, but although so much of Chopin’s music is certainly magical – including what is heard here – the is something less than complete enchantment in the specific order in which Feoktistova chooses to play these pieces. Listeners who find themselves in tune (so to speak) with the pianist’s thinking about juxtapositions of some very different works from very different sets of pieces will certainly enjoy this disc. And anyone already familiar with Chopin’s music in general and these pieces in particular will find much to like in the individual performances here, even if the totality of the disc produces a somewhat quizzical effect.

October 14, 2021

(++++) NOWHERE NEAR THE END

The Last Kids on Earth: June’s Wild Flight. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth No. 6: The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth: Thrilling Tales from the Tree House. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate, Lorena Alvarez Gómez, Xavier Bonet, Jay Cooper, Christopher Mitten, and Anoosha Syed. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth No. 7: The Last Kids on Earth and the Doomsday Race. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $14.99.

     The release of the seventh main-sequence novel of the enormously successful Max Brallier/Douglas Holgate series, The Last Kids on Earth, is as good a time as any to take an overview of the sequence and observe how it has evolved through the years, how it has stayed the same, and whether it deserves its continuing popularity. In fact, it has changed very little since the first book, simply titled The Last Kids on Earth, came out in 2015 – but there have been some alterations and modifications in the end-of-world-action-adventure formula, and those have cemented the continuing popularity of the series while making it a tad more diffuse than it really needs to be.

     Both Pandemic Year 1 (2020) and Pandemic Year 2 (2021) have brought the arrival of not one but two entries in the sequence, one in the “main line” of the story and one with a lesser connection – although not quite constituting a “spinoff.” Given the somewhat apocalyptic nature of the entire experience of living through COVID-19 lockdowns, not to mention deaths and widespread severe-but-not-fatal illnesses, The Last Kids on Earth seems, if not prescient, certainly a series for our time. But that is not quite what Brallier and Holgate intend it to be. The very first book was the most serious, making it seem as if the four protagonists really were the last kids on Earth after a terrifying, zombie-producing “end of the world as we know it” scenario. The series initially focused on the budding relationships among Jack Sullivan, Quint Baker, June Del Toro, and Dirk Savage, the whole starting as an end-of-the-world dystopia, with monsters taking over everything and four preteens/young teenagers being the only survivors and needing to find a way to fight off the zombies that had appeared everywhere – after first developing ways to overcome their personal differences and unite into a cohesive zombie-fighting unit and a real post-apocalyptic team. The series also started, and has continued, with Holgate’s usually bizarre and often clever illustrations, which have been a highlight of the books all along. Not content to leave well enough alone, though, Brallier started widening the series’ scope: it turned out that the last kids on Earth were not the last kids on Earth, and it turned out that even though Earth was now overrun by zombies and other monsters, there were also good monsters out there, ones that just happened to get together with the four not-really-last kids to help them out. The series remained enjoyable (and commercially successful) even when the fourth book, The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond, turned into a grotesque Christmas-y thing.

     However, the fifth book, The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade, got back to the teamwork-in-a-cartoonish-video-game-apocalypse approach that lies at the heart of the sequence, and the sixth and seventh main-sequence books have continued in much the same vein. Not completely the same vein, though, because Brallier has now extended the series with a couple of more-or-less standalone books. And The Last Kids on Earth now has a “meta” component, with the kids seeming to have become aware that they are being chronicled. Thus, June’s Wild Flight happens after the fifth book, and it starts with June and other characters addressing the reader directly. Then, on the title page, the four protagonists are hanging out together and Dirk is saying, “Hey, waitaminnit. June gets her own book before us? What gives?” And then, when one of the usual video-game-style monster battles results in June being separated from the group, Holgate contributes a marvelous illustration of June dancing for joy, her feet going “tip tappity tip tip tap” while she exclaims, “June adventure, June adventure, time for a June Solo Adventure!” In other words, the whole zombie apocalypse thing has now faded into the background of the series, and the characters are in no danger of being seriously harmed (no matter how many times they say they are worried about that): these are out-and-out romps that just happen to occur within a vast wasteland of ruined towns and with the encroachment of extra-dimensional monsters and assorted zombies (which, by the way, do not try to destroy the protagonists anymore and are not even evil).

     June’s Wild Flight increases the cuteness quotient of The Last Kids on Earth – another thing that has been rising significantly as matters progress. Accompanying June on her adventure is tiny monster Globlet, who is absolutely adorable; an owl-like, overdressed monster who calls himself Johnny Steve to affirm his affinity with humans, about whom he knows everything, which turns out to mean “nothing, but his mistakes are funny”; and a wingless baby Wretch that June rescues and of whom she becomes enormously fond even though winged adult Wretches are horrible, evil, rotten, destructive, vicious, etc. These characters appear/reappear in the main sequence, so June’s Wild Flight is sort of a standalone book, but sort of not one. Brallier is trying to have things both ways – pretty successfully, too.

     Back in the main, numbered books, the protagonists continue their quest for information about the ultimate trans-dimensional baddie who isn’t quite powerful enough to get through a portal to Earth but has on-Earth allies, monstrous and human, trying to nudge things just enough to bring him aboard so he can, you know, destroy everything. In The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road, this leads to Quint’s wholly appropriate encapsulation of the story to date: “More middle-school kids should take epic road trips across monster-filled apocalyptic landscapes of doom.” Also here are the usual weird-looking sources of important information: “The dude behind the counter always has the answers,” Jack says, accurately. And then there is the discovery of another adorable tiny monster: Drooler, who produces slime that will be a crucial weapon in battles to come, and whom Dirk promises to care for and cuddle and protect forever – except that in The Last Kids on Earth and the Doomsday Race, he cannot do any of those things, because the reappearance of one of the major evil characters and his (its?) human accomplice gets in the way and forces Jack to run for mayor of a monster-sized, monster-filled megamall carried on the back of a monster-sized sort-of-mollusk dubbed (what else?) the Mega Mallusk. Yes, a mayoral election in which most voters are monsters is the central theme of the seventh book, and that is utterly ridiculous – but no more so than the increasingly outré events of the books and Holgate’s increasingly outré visual portrayals of them.

     The importance of Holgate to The Last Kids on Earth cannot be overstated. Although not actually graphic novels – they are extremely heavily illustrated regular novels aimed at a preteen audience – the books have always had a strong graphic-novel flavor, with the illustrations being integral to the storylines rather than simply illustrative of characters and events. Just how significant Holgate is in this sequence is shown in Thrilling Tales from the Tree House, a 2021 standalone book quite different from the 2020 standalone featuring June. Thrilling Tales from the Tree House really is a graphic novel, and its framing tale is indicative of where this series now finds itself: series characters tell six amusing stories among themselves for the privilege of fighting a huge monster that has shown up at the tree house. Yes, the protagonists (and their friends) tell funny stories to decide who will have the privilege of a solo battle against a terrifying monster that has trapped everyone – thereby confirming, if confirmation were needed, that none of the monster-battling in these books is really to be taken seriously anymore. To accentuate the different storytelling styles of the characters, the graphic-novel sequences here are drawn by people other than Holgate – and while most of the art is good enough (and some is better than that), the illustrations serve mainly to show how much more thoroughly immersed in these books Holgate is when compared to anyone else. Indeed, there really is no comparison: without Holgate, Brallier’s increasingly diffuse storytelling would not hold together nearly as well as it does.

     The proof of this lies in a graphic novel in Thrilling Tales from the Tree House that is illustrated by Holgate, and that features Evie Snark (human evildoer) and Ghazt the General (monstrous extra-dimensional evildoer) explaining “pertinent events between books four and seven.” Absurd, unnecessary and genuinely interesting, this 56-page “stories behind the stories” bit is by far the best thing in Thrilling Tales from the Tree House and, really, the only reason to have the book – other than to be able to brag about having all the books in this series, including the ones that are not exactly in this series. Brallier and Holgate will have to end The Last Kids on Earth sometime – it can only be expanded and drawn out so far – but as of now, both the main sequence and the ancillary books continue to show the inventiveness, video-game-like pacing and underlying silliness whose uneasy mixture is what keeps all the characters and events in the books as engaging and enjoyable as they are ridiculous and unbelievable. Formulaic? Well, yes, but as of now, the formula is a mighty successful one.