January 20, 2022

(++++) SILLY SERIES

Puzzlooies: Disaster Master. By Jonathan Maier and Cara Stevens. Illustrated by Kristen Terrana-Hollis. Random House. $7.99.

Puzzlooies: Don’t Feed Fluffy! By Russell Ginns. Illustrated by Jay Cooper. Random House. $7.99.

Puzzlooies: Oliver and the Infinite Unknown. By Russell Ginns and Jonathan Maier. Illustrated by Michael Arnold. Random House. $7.99.

Puzzlooies: Welcome to Escape City. By Jonathan Maier and Russell Ginns. Illustrated by Nate Bear. Random House. $7.99.

Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy 4: As the Deer Flies. By Doug Savage. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Ridiculousness rules in some books, where it is really their sole reason for being – no matter how carefully the books are positioned as “brain games” or “think pieces.” To be sure, there are things to solve and things to do in the Puzzlooies series – heck, “puzzl” is right in the series’ name – but the purpose of figuring things out is merely to take preteen readers deeper into madcap adventures and eventually out of them. The Puzzlooies creations (singular Puzzlooey because why not?) are designed like note pads, opening from the bottom as the venerable Mad Libs creations (which Puzzlooies distantly resemble) have for decades. Tying the multiple-author, multiple-illustrator series together are four gender-balanced, race-balanced “zany, brainy kids” who show that ridiculousness knows no male/female or ethnic boundaries. The stories introduced by these kids (Eunice, Maralee, Ray and Clinton, if it matters, which it does not) combine Mad Libs elements with choose-your-own-path book structure with a bunch of bad puns, various follow-the-path and find-the-words and solve-the-crossword activities, an occasional destroy-the-book element (portions of pages that must be cut out and arranged), a factoid here and there, and plenty of non-factoids everywhere (Vampire Lava Bats, for example). In each book, the story starts with a setup written just like, well, a story, but soon evolves (or devolves) into a series of “oops” moments that readers explore by solving some sort of puzzle. Disaster Master, for example – the Puzzlooey with the Vampire Lava Bats – starts with a girl named Sammy Chipper in a town where City Hall drops into a sinkhole, a traffic accident results in a bolognado (a tornado made of bologna), a volcano is about to erupt, there’s a squid attack, and…well, you get the idea. If you don’t get the idea, you will get it by solving the various puzzles – drawing lines to connect lunchmeats, solving a code based on nautical items, following arrows that lead in different directions through letters of the alphabet, moving along a circuitous path that covers both sides of a page so you have to keep flipping the page back and forth to follow it, and so on. There are answers at the back of each Puzzlooey, but the puzzles are designed to be simple enough to keep readers going through the story. This is true in each book. For example, there is Don’t Feed Fluffy! This is about an utterly adorable little critter that belongs to two scientists named Grunderblunken and that, when fed, becomes as big as a Great Dane covered in feathers and prickly needles and is described by pet sitter Leo as a “goldablabamoomoo,” which is about as coherent as the story gets. Then there is Oliver and the Infinite Unknown, in which Oliver’s sister, Monica the “ultra-genius,” creates a portal to nowhere or anywhere or everywhere or something like that, and soon Oliver – who habitually fixes things messed up by Monica’s over-enthusiastic brilliance and creativity – is watching dinosaurs ride scooters and meeting future people who tell him, “Have a zemzumulous day.” There is also Welcome to Escape City, in which a school team of checkers champs (the Tinsley Termites) mysteriously winds up in a mysterious city with mysterious signs and pathways and other mysteries that must be solved before such things as a galloping swing set and crab-walking set of monkey bars capture them or confuse them or, well, something. One giant checkerboard and one visit from aliens later, everything works out fine. In fact, absurdities of all sorts turn out to be the climaxes of all the Puzzlooies books, and that is the whole point of the series: it is ultimately pointless. For harmless fun with mild doses of puzzle-solving included, the books are fine – although if adults think young readers might want to go through them more than once, it is necessary to make copies of the cut-up-these-pages elements before the cutting-up starts.

     Pointlessness is also pretty much the only point of the Laser Moose series, featuring Laser Moose, a moose whose eyes shoot lasers, and Rabbit Boy, a faithful-companion type who is a rabbit. Also in the fourth series entry, As the Deer Flies, are Gus the wolf, who wants to invent a machine that will help him communicate with birds because, after all, why not? But he makes the mistake of enlisting the help of Cyborgupine, the brilliant but nefarious porcupine-cyborg villain, and things get exceedingly silly, if not particularly surprising or dramatic, from then on: Cyborgupine secretly changes the mind-interpreting machine into a mind-exchanging machine, one result of which is a deer trying to fly, which explains the book’s title. Okay, none of this makes even an iota of sense, and Doug Savage’s serviceable cartoons, which are basically fine, never have the kind of “wow” factor that would make the art a big reason to engage with the book. Nor is the soft-pedaled “moral of the story” of any special interest: it turns out that Rabbit Boy, even though he is small, can do heroic things because, again, why not? It is worth pointing out that Savage does not include in this book any flashbacks to the foundational story of how Laser Moose came to be, you know, Laser Moose, so anyone not already familiar with and interested in the character – or his buddies and nemesis, whose backgrounds are also not “flashbacked” – may be a tad confused by all the goings-on. The result of all this is a (+++) book that never pretends to be more than a romp. Well, actually it does pretend to have some significance, but not in the story itself: after “The End,” there are seven pages about tree rings, because the climactic battle in the story is fought at the Old Oak, the oldest, biggest and strongest tree in the forest. And the last of those seven pages is a guided activity: readers can create “tree rings” representing their own lives. That is actually a pretty neat idea, but is scarcely the reason anyone will become engrossed in As the Deer Flies. In fact, the book is never engrossing, nor is it meant to be: it is simple, simply silly fun, and as such may be just the thing to give young readers some respite from the cares and concerns of everyday, non-laser-powered life.

(++++) BEETHOVEN-ISH

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4—transcriptions for piano and string quintet. Hanna Shybayeva, piano; Utrecht String Quartet (Eeva Koskinen and Katherine Routley, violins; Mikhail Zemtsov, viola; Sebastian Koloski, cello); Luis Cabrera, double bass. Naxos. $11.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 2—transcriptions for piano and string quintet (Concerto) and for string trio (Symphony). Hanna Shybayeva, piano; Animato String Quartet (Floor Le Coultre and Tim Brackman, violins; Elisa Karen Tavenier, viola; Pieter de Koe, cello); Bas Vliegenthart, double bass. Naxos. $11.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5—transcriptions for piano and string quintet. Hanna Shybayeva, piano; Animato String Quartet (Inga Våga Gaustad and Tim Brackman, violins; Elisa Karen Tavenier, viola; Pieter de Koe, cello); Bas Vliegenthart, double bass. Naxos. $13.99.

     This is a fascinating foray into Beethoven’s piano concertos and also, truth be told, a rather weird one. The musical moving force here, and one of the few consistencies in the three Naxos CDs, is pianist Hanna Shybayeva, who is interested in exploring some lesser-known nooks and crannies of the musical past. These transcriptions certainly qualify. They result primarily from a collaboration between Sigmund Lebert (1821-1884), a well-thought-of pianist and pedagogue, and composer Vinzenz Lachner (1811-1893) – whose brother Ignaz (1807-1895) is remembered for chamber arrangements of a number of Mozart’s piano concertos. Those arrangements, and the ones of Beethoven heard on these discs, are very much of their mid-to-late-19th-century time: music lovers wanted to hear great works, recordings did not exist, and full-scale performances were infrequent and often inconveniently located – but the piano was developing rapidly, becoming increasingly popular in many homes, and private performances by string players (families and friends) were well-established (much of Schubert’s music was written for just such get-togethers). These circumstances paved the way for accurate, if simplified, versions of works such as Beethoven’s piano concertos – versions that could also be used as study scores by aspiring pianists.

     The Lebert/V. Lachner concerto transcriptions were created in this environment, but have had virtually no existence outside it: these recordings are their first ones. As musical tastes changed, full-scale performances became more widely accessible, and audiences came to know works in their original orchestrations, transcriptions such as these fell by the wayside. And that is a bit of a shame, as these well-played and well-paced performances show, because while the transcriptions are certainly pale versions of the original concertos, they possess a level of clarity and lightness that makes them worthwhile to hear on their own and that also shows elements of the concertos’ structure quite clearly and to very good effect. A guidepost for all this is the transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 included on the disc containing Piano Concerto No. 1. The symphony transcription was made by Beethoven himself, and for the highly limited instrumental complement of piano trio. The challenges of doing this are obvious, yet Beethoven clearly found the piano-trio instrumentation adequate (if not ideal) for this symphony, despite the work’s seriousness and comparatively large scale (well beyond that of No. 1 although not close to that of No. 3, the “Eroica”). Hearing Shybayeva and members of the Animato Quartet play the symphony as a trio is a genuinely refreshing experience: certainly Beethoven knew precisely how he wanted the symphony to communicate, exactly which musical lines he wanted emphasized, and how he could assign the non-string portions of the score to a piano trio. Obviously this version does not hold the proverbial candle to the orchestral one in terms of scope, fullness of sound, or use of orchestral sections. But it is fascinating to hear the symphony in this guise, and to know, thanks to this skeletal-but-elegant version of the work, just how Beethoven himself saw the crucial and less-crucial elements of the score.

     The pleasures are analogous but different in the Lebert/V. Lachner arrangements, created decades after Beethoven’s death. Although designed for student or family performance, the concertos as heard here are not minimized in complexity or compromised in style: the transcribers retain the piano part (which is expanded in some places to incorporate some of the material originally written for orchestra), and the orchestral material is sensitively apportioned among the five string instruments, with the inclusion of double bass giving the music more heft than it would otherwise have.

     Because the transcriptions were designed for in-home or student use, the specific performers are less important than might otherwise be the case. But the performer element is a part of the oddity of this generally admirable set of discs. The musicians are all based or trained in the Netherlands and are all more than equal to their parts. But the actual sound of the CDs lacks consistency, not because of recording technology but because of inherent differences in the way chamber groups play together and the way their particular instruments interact. And the release sequence of the three CDs is itself hard to fathom. The first disc includes the third and fourth concertos, with Shybayeva accompanied by the Utrecht String Quartet. The second CD has the first concerto plus Beethoven’s trio arrangement of Symphony No. 2, and here Shybayeva plays with the Animato String Quartet. The third CD includes Piano Concertos No. 2 (actually the first to be written) and No. 5 (the last one created); here the quartet has the same name as on the second disc but a different complement of players. There is thus a certain feeling of hodgepodge about this whole project, which is a shame.

     Turning to the discs’ booklets for explanation does not help, and in fact confuses matters further. The three 16-page booklets are arranged differently, give different amounts of attention to the music vs. the performers, are differently laid out, and are inconsistent (and even inaccurate) in some particulars: for example, the first two refer to “the famous Cotta edition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos,” while the third uses the same language but says “piano sonatas.” And this is not a matter of mistranslation, although the translation from German is inelegant at best, since the same translator is responsible for all the English versions of the notes.

     It is unfortunate that these three discs, taken together, produce an overall feeling of sloppiness or simply lack of caring in the production of the music, because the music itself is definitely worthy of being heard, even at a time when performances of the original versions of the concertos and Symphony No. 2 are ubiquitous and readily available (and a time when at-home amateur chamber-music gatherings are extremely rare). The Lebert/V. Lachner concerto transcriptions are a part of music history, perhaps little more than a footnote in it, but they are interesting in their own right as well as in the way they make it possible to hear Beethoven’s piano concertos with, as it were, a different set of ears.

January 13, 2022

(+++) PUSHING BOUNDARIES

Cat Kid Comic Club No. 2: Perspectives. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession. By Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     Graphic novels have matured as a medium to such an extent that they can now tackle more-mature topics – aimed at children and adults alike. This is a positive development, taken as a whole, but does mean parents considering graphic novels for younger readers – say, through preteens – have to pay more attention to the books before buying them, since embedded lessons and viewpoints may show up in unexpected places. Certainly the graphic novels by Dav Pilkey – including the Dog Man and Captain Underpants series – seem an unlikely place for societal commentary and expression of views on real-world issues. But in the second Cat Kid Comic Club spinoff from the Dog Man series, Pilkey lays on, rather heavy-handedly, some life lessons that replace his usual jocularity and fondness for bad puns. The title of the book, Perspectives, is a clever hint of what is to come, since artists (including the tadpoles/froglets in Cat Kid’s comics class) need to know how to create perspective in their drawings – but as Flippy the fish (“Daddy” to the class members) points out, “Perspective isn’t just about drawing!!! It’s also about understanding! It’s about seeing the world from someone else’s point of view!!!” Oh yes, there will certainly be a message here – and in fact, there has already been one (a different one) by the time Flippy makes his pronouncement. It comes in the form of one comic created by class members, “Supa Fail 2: Old Lady’s Revenge.” This has the evil old lady create a “polluter computer” that stomps around creating a nefarious “carbon footprint” until Supa Fail stops it with “carbon tacks” (even though this book’s intended audience may not get the pun on “tax”). Well, the comic is certainly prejudiced against old ladies, but Pilkey does not mind that. Elsewhere, Flippy automatically blames and punishes Melvin when he and Naomi get into one of their frequent arguments – but, again, Pilkey does not mind that. What he does mind is someone being unfair to Naomi, which happens at a flea market that also features games. The operator of a knock-the-cans-over game encourages Melvin and gives him balloons even though he can barely throw the ball – and then nearly ignores Naomi when she performs brilliantly, calling her “little girly” and reluctantly giving her a single balloon after giving three to Melvin. This lets Pilkey have Naomi say, “Girls have to work harder than boys and we still get less!!! Less respect, less money, less freedom, less opportunities, and dopes like you never even notice!!!” So Melvin, suitably chastened, creates a comic about how wonderful Naomi is, and an important lesson is learned. The lesson is that it’s all right to portray all old ladies as nasty and it’s all right if “Daddy” punishes a boy for something he did not do, but it is not all right to shortchange a girl. Of course, this is not exactly the lesson that Pilkey thinks he is teaching, but it is the one that careful readers of Cat Kid Comic Club No. 2 will get. Pilkey probably hopes he can guide young readers carefully through the minefield he has himself created – and maybe he can. But there are pitfalls to using a graphic novel for young readers to try to tackle societal issues – doubly so when this book is so different from the first Cat Kid Comic Club book, which readers of the second really need to know (since Cat Kid is nearly absent from the second book, and Pilkey gives no background on the club and no information on how the whole set of circumstances came to be). Some of Pilkey’s trademark silliness does make its way into Perspectives, through class-created comics such as one about time travel to Chicago in 1871 and the accidental igniting of the city’s notorious fire, and one about Chubbs McSpiderbutt, whose rear end becomes a spider body after he is spider-bitten there. Also in the book is the second comic-club creation mixing poetry and photography – a highlight of the first book that is again genuinely intriguing (and surprisingly serious, in this context) in its combination of haiku with actual photos of nature. But the real seriousness here, in sections about a “carbon footprint” and flea-market (and by implication societal) unfairness to girls, is ham-handed and disappointing in its earnest political correctness.

     The intended audience for Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell’s Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession is quite different from Pilkey’s: Campbell’s is a graphic novel that is emphatically for adults only (given some of the drawings and some of the language). And it turns out that the key word in the title is not “murder,” which is what will likely draw readers to the book, but “memoir.” The book is first, foremost and to the greatest extent about Campbell: her interests, her background, her family, her concerns and worries and habits and hobbies – watching or reading about true crime being a major preoccupation and a thread that runs through the entire book. But it is only a thread: the book’s first pages suggest there is more murder analysis here (that is, analysis of why Campbell and many other people are so interested in murder) than in fact there is. This is a book for “murderinos,” that word being introduced toward the end in connection with material about murder-focused podcasts. And it is a book that goes into very considerable detail tracing the events in some significant serial-killer cases – notably those of Ted Bundy and Tom Capano – while swerving constantly into more-or-less-interesting side channels, such as a biography of author Ann Rule (who, among other things, actually knew Bundy). There are some surprising (and surprisingly light) moments in the book, such as one involving a whodunit that shows an owl asking “who?” and an illustration of two skeletons with remotes “binging docuseries” (which should be “bingeing,” for what it’s worth). There is also a full page showing 20 different expressions, each going with different words, and labeled “How to React to Forensic Files or really, any true crime show.” But far too much of the book – for those more interested in its ostensible topic than in Campbell herself – shows the author interacting with people and/or reminiscing. Typical word-balloon sequence: “Back to me!!! And my obsessions! What came after Zodiac? I lived in L.A. Worked at a film festival. Became very into documentary. And non-fiction! I guess I just fell in love with true, hilarious, dark stories. Probably why I became a cartoonist. But what does any of this have to do with murder?” Good question, that last balloon – and the answer is “not much,” but also “a great deal in terms of Campbell’s interest in murder.” Murder Book is really not focused on murder, or murder obsessiveness, but instead is as scattered as Campbell’s thoughts seem to be: she draws herself doing stretching exercises with her mom, repeatedly shows herself going to the bathroom (complete with urine stream in one panel), and continually lurches about in the narrative while returning again and again to her primary focus on herself – “I am my mother’s daughter!! I am chill, but I am so not chill. I am relaxed, but I also cannot handle if there isn’t, like, a plan for the day?!?” A little self-awareness goes a long way; a lot of it, which is what Campbell offers, does not go nearly so far. She does include an occasional pop-psychology comment related to people’s interest in murder (from a psychologist or otherwise presumably knowledgeable source). And she does establish her adult bone fides through some drawings (full frontal nudity of one male suspect, although it makes sense only if you know what “A.S.M.R.” means, since she never explains the acronym) and through some writing (“Tom, we did anal last week”). But Campbell is so self-engaged that she makes odd narrative errors. She misquotes John 3:16 by leaving out “so,” and it comes out, “For God loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…” On one page (237) she writes “which lead to” instead of “which led to”; on another (241) she writes “that’s now how it works” instead of “not how”; on still another (253) she uses the nonexistent word “empathasized.” She also crowds many panels so much that the drawings almost disappear – and in numerous cases she omits drawings altogether, turning Murder Book at times into an almost graphic novel rather than one using art to propel the story. This is a decidedly adult-focused work that ultimately offers little insight into the reasons many people delve so deeply, even obsessively, into murder books and TV shows and podcasts and more; but it offers considerable information on Campbell herself, her true-crime preoccupation clearly being an important element of her life and interests. Readers who find Campbell and her discursive style intriguing will get much more from Murder Book than those actually looking for a book about non-criminal preoccupation with murder.

(+++) PIANO, FAMILIAR AND LESS SO

Bach: Goldberg Variations. Peter Tomasz, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2; Frank Bridge: Piano Sonata. Sally Pinkas, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     There are innumerable fine recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano, none of which can adequately resolve the issue of playing the work on an instrument for which it was not written – and all of which, therefore, constitute very personalized interpretations of the music. To this group may now be added the MSR Classics release featuring Peter Tomasz, who handles the music with elegance and delicacy – and little attempt to have the piano imitate or try to reproduce the sound of the two-manual harpsichord for which Bach wrote this work. From the start, Tomasz uses his modern instrument’s “piano” and “forte” capabilities to emote in a way that is not possible on a harpsichord; and he uses pedaling techniques in ways that make the music sound quite different from the way it does when taking advantage of harpsichord registration capabilities. By the time of the third variation (Canone all’Unisono), Tomasz has clearly established a sound world whose harmonic blending is foreign to Bach’s contrapuntal creativity but that is internally consistent: this is far from authentic Bach, but it is authentic Tomasz, reflective of his viewpoint on the music and his interpretative skill in putting that view across. How well this works depends on the extent to which a listener shares Tomasz’ thinking. Certainly there is plenty of fleetness in the short Variation 5, for example, but the following Variation 6 (Canone alla Seconda) seems a bit too chordally emphatic, and entries in the Fughetta (Variation 10) lack a certain degree of precision. The extended Variation 13 has a pleasantly pastoral sound (albeit with a touch of unneeded rubato); and Variation 15 (Canone alla Quinta in moto contrario), one of the three in G minor rather than G major, is affecting both in simplicity of approach and in emotional evocation – which, however, very much depends on the capabilities of the piano vs. the harpsichord. The second minor-key variation (No. 21, Canone alla Settima) is also used by Tomasz for the considerable level of emotion that the piano makes possible (although here as elsewhere, touches of rubato are uncalled for); the following Variation 22 (Alla breve), however, lacks charm. Not surprisingly in a piano-focused interpretation, Tomasz treats the final minor-key variation, No. 25 – the longest section of the work – as the climax of the whole piece, taking it very slowly indeed and with considerable pedal use. The result is that this variation sounds a bit like Schumann and not very much like Bach – and the six pieces that follow become something of an anticlimax, despite being played with enthusiasm and (in the case of Variation 28) with more attention to counterpoint than Tomasz offers elsewhere. On balance, this is a consistent and consistently personal view of the Goldberg Variations, played with technical pianistic skill and an unashamed willingness to use the modern instrument’s capabilities to bring out the feelings (if not always the structure) that Tomasz finds in the music.

     Well-conveyed emotion is the central point of another MSR Classics CD, this one featuring much-later keyboard works that are clearly intended to explore the full capabilities of the piano. Sally Pinkas is an ardent and strongly involved performer of these sonatas, the Shostakovich dating to 1943 and the Bridge to 1924. The works are quite different, and their pairing may be either jarring or revelatory, depending on a listener’s response to the music. Neither of the sonatas is as frequently heard as Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but neither is really obscure, and Pinkas gives both pieces a fresh look (and fresh sound) that will engage even listeners who already know them well. Her care with the clarity of left and right hand in the first movement of the Shostakovich, for example, is managed with exceptional precision – making the music sound almost Bach-like in balance if scarcely in other ways. Interestingly, and not to stretch Bach comparisons too far, Pinkas seems aware of the value of using less pedal than usual in this work (the opposite of what Tomasz tends to do with the Goldberg Variations). So Shostakovich comes across here as a more-subtle composer than is often the case – an impression accentuated because Pinkas pays as much attention to the quiet parts of the Piano Sonata No. 2 as to the more-emphatic ones. She also has a fine sense of pacing, which is as evident in Bridge’s sonata as in Shostakovich’s. The Bridge is a somewhat thornier work, and one whose balance inverts that of Shostakovich: the third movement of the Russian sonata is nearly as long as the first two put together, while the opening movement of the English sonata is the longest and densest of the three. The lugubriousness of much of the Bridge sonata is if anything over-emphasized by Pinkas, with the opening Lento ma non troppo section of the first movement so slow as to be essentially static. Pinkas reserves considerable power in the Bridge for the work’s finale – to very fine effect. Bridge’s tonal language is not all that different from Shostakovich’s, but the way it is used is quite distinctive – and in some ways less accessible. Bridge’s sonorities tend to be on the thick side, and Pinkas turns this reality into an emotional connection with the less-clotted Shostakovich, giving these two sonatas parallel effects that in general are scarcely evident. The pairing of these pieces turns out, thanks to Pinkas’ interpretations, to be complementary and even clever, although the sensibilities of the composers remain more different than similar. This CD is noteworthy for the excellence of Pinkas’ playing and the nuances of her interpretations – although the frequently dour nature of the music means the disc may better be heard in two separate listening sessions than in a single start-to-finish one.