April 28, 2022


I’d Like to Be the Window for a Wise Old Dog. By Philip Stead. Doubleday. $18.99.

     This book may be written for children, but oh my, do families, all members included, need it now. It is a very simple, old-fashioned, oversize picture book, officially aimed at kids ages 3-7, featuring repetitive, easy-to-read text and beautiful colored-print illustrations that exist on the line between realism and interpretation: characters and objects have just slightly more personality in Philip Stead’s pictures than they do in real life, or Stead has perhaps simply noticed personality elements that most humans miss.

     Wise old dogs, however, miss nothing, or very little, as they gaze out windows at the possible and impossible alike. Windows became a barrier to closeness when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, separating those on each side of them in often-heartbreaking ways – all those photos and videos of older people who could only interact with young ones through the glass! And windows’ protective function quickly became onerous because of shutdowns, shut-ins and the other depredations of the pandemic. Windows let in light, but for weeks, months, even years, they came to be barriers as strong and often as unwanted as the bars of prison cells.

     Stead restores the wonder of windows, and does so with a kind of gentle humor and sense of absurdity that will attract young readers and pre-readers to this book repeatedly, and really ought to attract adults as well. The first, wordless page shows the dog gazing out a large window on a rainy day, seeing a bright red bird in the leafy tree outside. Nothing unusual there, and nothing too out-of-the-ordinary in the book’s first words, in which the narrator imagines being “the raindrop falling on a turtle shell” and “the puddle for a big bullfrog.” Those images follow naturally from the rainy day seen at the book’s start, and the turtle and frog seem alert and delighted by their environment and altogether at home in it.

     The narrator’s meandering thoughts soon turn less realistic, though, with a wish to be “the welcoming umbrella of an elephant” – and there is a very real-looking elephant holding a very real-looking umbrella in its very real-looking trunk, the totality being something very much outside any sort of normal real world. Then Stead returns to the window, which now shows a rainbow, and to the wise old dog napping in front of the glass; and the narration gently wanders into amusement and oddity. For example, Stead shows a penguin, a bird known to waddle, but asks, “Will I ever be the waddle of a snail?” And sure enough, there is a snail being watched by the penguin. And then there is a bee alighting on a flower, and the question is, “Will I ever be the bumble – of a whale?” (The whale is on the next page, sized to fit neatly among the flowers that the bee is visiting.)

     The wandering, wondering text goes on like this, connected with the illustrations in captivating ways. Sometimes Stead seems simply to like the sounds of words: “I’d like to be the hollow of an owl’s oak tree.” Sometimes he shows animals together and writes of a wondering between them: “Will I never be the feather of a walrus?” (The walrus is wearing a rainbow-colored stocking cap, and a wren perched on its tail sports a matching scarf.) And eventually, a mouse that has appeared several times is shown in thoroughly imaginary guise, sporting white wings and carrying an acorn aloft as a nearby cat goes by. By the book’s end, the wise old dog, gazing through the window at the reality of a leafy tree, is said to “wonder happily about everything she’s never been and ever been,” and all the other creatures adorn the final pages; and thus Stead has waved his magic wand and restored those much-maligned windows to portals that reveal beauty, hope, warmth and above all, possibility. This is certainly a book written and illustrated at the level of young children, but it is adults, who for too long in recent times have seen through a glass, darkly, for whom it will likely have the greatest meaning – if they open their eyes and hearts to hear the final words, “joyful and free.”


Wallace the Brave 4: Are We Lost Yet? By Will Henry. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Sorceline. By Sylvia Douyé. Illustrated by Paola Antista. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     When it comes to creations for middle-grade readers, the best graphic books, whether collections of comics or through-written graphic novels – the line often blurs nowadays – can be every bit as engaging as traditional novels, and often more so. The best authors and illustrators manage to integrate pictures and words so effectively that the whole becomes, as clichéd as the statement is, greater than the sum of its parts. And in a few cases, there is genuine character development in the stories on top of their overt amusement or adventurousness. The fourth wonderful Wallace the Brave collection by Will Henry, for example, shines some unexpected light on Wallace’s family and friends. For one thing, we find out that Wallace’s last name is McClellan. For another, it turns out that the quaint seaside town of Snug Harbor is in Rhode Island – a fact that turns up in the “More to Explore” section of the book, when Wallace’s mom talks about making johnnycakes. Is this information accessible online? Well, of course, but the way Henry works it into the strips is well-managed and more informative, in some ways, than any simple recitation of facts on Wikipedia. And Henry does some things in Are We Lost Yet? that do not admit of being simply looked up online. Notable among those is the way he deepens and fills out the character of Wallace’s mother. This is done both cleverly and subtly. In one strip, Wallace bemoans the fact that people always ask what you want to be when you grow up, but not where you want to be. And as he continues, both he and his mom say, at exactly the same time, “Aboard a star-class spaceship traveling the galaxy at light speeds.” This leaves Wallace completely shocked, and all his mom says is, “I’m your mother.” So that is where Wallace gets much of his personality! Nor is this the only such situation. There is also the time that Wallace gets covered with mud and his best friend, Spud, says “Your mother is going to be furious” – but when the two get to Wallace’s home, Wallace’s mom is even muddier than he is, having just been working in (way in) the garden; and all she says is “I’ll get the hose,” while Wallace tells her, “Oop. Got a worm in your hair.” And then there is Mrs. McClellan’s reaction to meeting a new friend of Wallace named Rose, who is intelligent and down-to-earth in ways that Wallace and his other friends are not. Rose brings over photos of recent UFO sightings, saying, “I don’t believe them, but I find it fascinating that Wallace does.” As Rose leaves, Mrs. McClellan comments to herself about Rose (not about Wallace), “What an odd little duck.” And just then, Wallace’s near-feral little brother, Sterling, appears and announces, “I put barbecue sauce under my armpits!” Apparently Wallace and Sterling get their personality quirks from their mother. Certainly not from their comparatively straitlaced fisherman father. At one point, Wallace’s mom catches Wallace walking upstairs with a hose, and Wallace admits he plans to “spray dad from my window,” because he would “never see it coming.” Instead of confiscating the hose or lecturing Wallace, his mom is next seen at the open window upstairs, calling out to Wallace’s dad to “come here for a sec,” and the unwitting about-to-be-sprayed father is happily saying, “Of course, my lovvve.” And then there is the time that Mr. McClellan remembers an occasion when an eel swam into his swim trunks and he started, as Wallace says, “dancing like a crazy person” while yelling “Whocha!” Just to be sure dad remembers what happened, the next panel shows Mrs. McClellan – along with Wallace, Sterling, and the seagull who hangs around with the family most of the time and occasionally has something to say, all perfectly synchronized in weird poses and with weird expressions, all yelling “Whocha!” Add these elements to Wallace’s interactions with Spud (who in one sequence is mistaken for a raccoon and captured by Animal Control, eventually escaping thanks to a bowling ball that Wallace has thoughtfully packed in Spud’s backpack) and Amelia (who at one point stops bully Big Gunther by whispering something to him that leaves him saying “mama,” and in another series comes up with and follows through on a really bad idea involving school and a pumpkin), and you have a Wallace the Brave collection that builds neatly on the three previous ones while opening up some delightful new territory. Are We Lost Yet? Not at all – in fact, Henry has found a whole additional set of wonders in a seaside town that only seems to be ordinary.

     The island of Vorn does not seem to be ordinary, not even a little, in the graphic novel Sorceline by Sylvia Douyé and Paola Antista. This book’s physical appearance is very European, and many elements of the plot are as well: Sorceline was originally published in three parts by Éditions Glénat of Grenoble, France, in 2018, 2019 and 2020. That does not mean Sorceline in this single-book edition is thick – the whole book runs only 144 pages – but it is very concentrated, as is often the case with European novels and graphic novels. The jumping about from scene to scene without connective tissue takes some getting used to, but is quite worthwhile in light of the depth of characterization and genuinely compelling art that make text and illustrations very involving indeed. Sorceline is a 12-year-old would-be cryptozoologist – that is, a student of cryptids, magical creatures that most people think are imaginary but that have needs that specialist humans can supply, specifically including medical care. The book’s combination of outré creatures with matter-of-fact matters involving health and wellness is an attractive one, helping make the fairly standard concept more interesting. That setup involves not only the mysterious and difficult-to-reach island but also the man who is teaching the students, Professor Archibald Balzar – the standard gruff-but-goodhearted professorial type whose expertise is compromised and limited by personal circumstances of which the students only gradually become aware. The assortment of students is pretty much standard as well: Sorceline has friends, supporters and someone (actually two someones) with a crush on her, but also has opponents and enemies who will gladly stab her in the back to advance ahead of her in Professor Balzar’s classes. What is so good about Sorceline, though, is that the formulaic elements quickly fade into the background as Douyé creates a genuinely intriguing storyline that involves Sorceline negotiating the ups and downs of her studies while also beginning to think that she herself is a mystery to be solved. Antista’s art also moves beyond the manga-inspired elements (huge eyes, spindly limbs) to develop a character and charm all its own, with the scenes of students and cryptids in motion and interacting possessing both a sense of realism and an appealing aura of strangeness. Sorceline does not involve wave-your-wand magic – in fact, it contains nothing of the sort – but does require the application to cryptids of knowledge from our own decidedly unmagical real world. For example, Sorceline figures out what is wrong with a group of pixies by remembering the life cycle of the liver fluke and realizing that similar parasitism is occurring on Vorn. Matters become more fraught, and at times more confusing, as Sorceline becomes convinced that scary events involving fellow students are in fact her fault and that she must herself be a cryptid with dark powers. But Douyé moves things neatly along to the discovery that Sorceline may be a cryptid, but she is not the one responsible for the problems – at least not directly – and she is also not the only cryptid among the students. All this occurs against the background of Sorceline trying to learn about her own past – she knows she is adopted but knows virtually nothing else. That “finding one’s identity” theme is another trope of fantasy (and plenty of other genres), but again it is handled skillfully here. Unfortunately, and this is the biggest flaw in Sorceline, the book (or rather the third part of the story) builds to a major revelation that then falls completely flat with a “to be continued” conclusion. Finding out at the end of Sorceline that the story is not self-contained will likely be highly frustrating to many readers – and since it took three years for the three parts of the original French edition to be published, it is certainly likely that it will take three additional years before a followup to Sorceline appears as an English-language graphic novel, if indeed it appears in that form at all. Readers who become genuinely engaged with this book be warned: the “to be continued” ending is a major disappointment after so much interesting and involving material. That does not mean Sorceline is unenjoyable by any means, but it does mean that the buildup to a letdown undercuts the overall impact of what is otherwise a very effective, and affecting, graphic-novel presentation.


Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin, Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, and Joseph Lamb: Piano Music. Marilyn Nonken, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Margaret Brouwer: Rhapsodic Sonata; Declaration; I Cry—Summer 2020; The Lake; All Lines Are Still Busy. Sarah Beaty, mezzo-soprano; Brian Skoog, tenor; Mari Sato, narrator and violin; Eliesha Nelson, viola; Shuai Wang, piano. Naxos. $13.99.

Jeffrey Jacob: Symphony No. 6, “Sequoias”; Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe; Two Pieces for Piano; String Quartet No. 2. Navona. $14.99.

James Dashow: Soundings in Pure Duration, Vol. 2. Manuel Zurria, bass flute; Nicholas Isherwood, bass-baritone; Enzo Filipetti, alto saxophone. Ravello. $19.99 (DVD).

     Composers have many reasons for choosing specific instruments or ensembles for their works, a primary one being the belief that particular instruments or groups are best-suited to communicate whatever a composer wants to express to an audience. In addition, composers who are also performers frequently create works that show their own abilities in the best possible light. Both of those factors were at play in the early 20th century among creators of the proto-jazz form of ragtime, which is fascinatingly explored on a Divine Art CD by pianist Marilyn Nonken. Interestingly, the best-known ragtime composer, Scott Joplin (1868-1917), played the violin and cornet – and was a singer. He was a capable enough pianist, but the piano was not his primary instrument. Yet it clearly fit what he was trying to do in his many rags, waltzes and other short character pieces. Other composers working on similar music sometimes collaborated with Joplin or sometimes had their works arranged by him, and Nonken’s disc provides an unusual opportunity to hear some of those collaborations and arrangements. Of the 17 works on the CD, nine are by Joplin himself: Eugenia, Stoptime Rag, Magnetic Rag, Binks’ Waltz, Bethena—A Concert Waltz, Pleasant Moments—Ragtime Waltz, Antoinette—March and Two-Step, Solace—A Mexican Serenade, and Reflection Rag—Syncopated Musings. The eight other pieces combine Joplin’s creativity what that of four other composers: Louis Chauvin (1882-1908), Scott Hayden (1882-1915), Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), and Arthur Marshall (1881-1968). All the pieces here date to the early 20th century, having been written between 1901 and 1917 (the ragtime era was essentially over by 1920); and all share similar sensibilities and a similar approach to melody and rhythm. What Nonken does so well in her performances is to differentiate the individual pieces, giving each its own character and distinctiveness. With most of the works cut from essentially the same mold, this is by no means easy to do; and there is little sense of genuinely different compositional styles among the composers here – everything that is not by Joplin sounds distinctly, well, Joplinesque. But this is by no means a bad thing. It underlines the collaborative nature of this type of music in this time period, and it shows quite well that rags, two-steps, waltzes and marches communicate their sentiments, from joie de vivre to melancholy, very effectively on the piano, which had never been used quite this way before – and which was soon to become the anchor of jazz when that form developed, in part, from works like those heard here.

     The piano is also a communicative instrument of choice for Margaret Brouwer (born 1940) in most of the works on a new Naxos CD – but not the piano alone. These pieces, all of them written in the 21st century (and all of them world première recordings), employ the piano in an instrumental (rather than compositional) collaboration, mixing it with strings and voices in various combinations. The three-movement Rhapsodic Sonata (2011/2016) is for piano and viola – an apt combination in light of the work’s title, with the viola’s mellow tone and warm capabilities clearly able to be complemented by the piano’s versatility. The discursive first movement is as long as the other two together, but the slow central movement reflects the “rhapsodic” content best. The finale is more puckish than rhapsodic, with some piano touches reminiscent of ragtime and jazz, and a viola part that mostly ignores the instrument’s smooth middle register in favor of high notes, glissandi and thematic angularity. This is well-balanced, well-crafted music that stands up well on repeated hearings, and is the strongest work on this (+++) CD. Unfortunately, the disc is dominated by a trio of more-dogmatic, less-engaging pieces that encapsulate the usual “isn’t society terrible?” attitudes of far too many otherwise creative artists. Declaration (2005), for mezzo-soprano, violin and piano, uses the all-too-commonplace technique of incorporating Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence into a work that also includes texts by others – here, by Ann Woodward (born 1939), David Adams (born 1955), and Brouwer herself. Unsurprisingly, those more-recent words bemoan the imperfections of society (specifically, American society) and cast a pall of gloom over the naïveté of any attempt to form “a more perfect union.” I Cry—Summer 2020 (2020), for violin and piano, is a short, dour, heartfelt, emotionally overdone lament for the confluence of events that many people felt at the time of the work’s composition, ranging from pandemic restrictions to enforced isolation to racial injustice. Its wordless lament makes matters seem even worse than they were. The Lake (2019), for tenor and piano, with text by Brouwer, is – like Declaration – a piece about how awful it is that utopia remains unachieved and that ambitious wishes for things to be better have fallen short. This piece starts as a song about the beauty of a lake and of nature, then turns into a diatribe about pollution and the evils of human endeavor. Self-flagellants will gravitate to this as well as to Declaration and I Cry—Summer 2020. Brouwer does have a sense of humor and wit, though, and it appears in the final piece on this disc – the only one not using piano. All Lines Are Still Busy (2019) encapsulates a typical attempt to reach “customer service” by telephone, including “on hold” music that happens to be Pachelbel’s most-famous Canon. The dehumanizing effect of this sort of attempt to reach out to a business comes through clearly, but without the sort of underlying despair that permeates most of the other pieces on this CD – resulting in a refreshing change of pace after several dour works of unrelenting bitterness.

     Like Brouwer’s dismal, politically correct laments about nature and humanity, the pieces by Jeffrey Jacob on a new Navona disc are inspired by the natural world. But Jacob (born 1948) manages to see and communicate some of the uplift that humans can derive from nature despite the depredations that people have visited upon it and are now trying, more successfully at some times than others, to mitigate. Brouwer uses a variety of instruments to make his points – and, as a pianist himself, unsurprisingly gives the piano a central role in three of the four works on the CD. Indeed, Two Pieces for Piano is for piano solo and is performed by Jacob himself. Here, the crepuscular Forest Murmurs is followed by The Breath of the Earth – the first piece contrasting short thematic elements with longer ones, the second representing multiple characteristics of the wind through well-contrasted chordal and flowing passages. The forest is also the topic of Jacob’s Symphony No. 6, “Sequoias,” another piece that includes Jacob on piano, in this case with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek. Here Jacob shows his awareness of threats to the natural world – from climate change, among other factors – but even though one movement is called Under Siege and is intense and agitated, the other three speak to the beauties of a forest of sequoias and the transcendence available there if people will only pay attention and see beyond themselves to the beauties of the Moist Stars (the last movement’s title). The symphony’s tone painting is on the obvious side, and its message is somewhat overdone, but the music is at least intermittently effective and does not fall into constantly condemnatory mode. The third piece in which Jacob performs as pianist is the Bartók-inspired Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe, in which David Spalding conducts the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. This is a two-movement work in which the shorter first movement, labeled Taut, Anxious, reflects its title almost too well: its percussive effects are comparatively predictable, although the lyricism of the strings is quite effective and somewhat out of keeping with Jacob’s expressiveness in other works. The second movement, Tranquil, Graceful, is intended to reflect the stillness of Yosemite, and while it does not quite do that – it moves ahead a bit too forcefully – it does offer a purity of line and gentleness of impression that bring listeners a welcome sense of peace and uplift. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe is the most-successful of the works on this (+++) CD, the most consistent in communication and the best at utilizing its instrumental complement. The fourth and last work on the disc is the only one that dispenses with piano. String Quartet No. 2, played by the New England Quartet, is in two movements – whose titles are very much like those in Music for Strings, Percussion, and Oboe. The first quartet movement is labeled Tense, Expectant; the second, Pensive, Nostalgic. Both movements follow their titles rather closely, beginning respectively in anxiety and inward-looking uncertainty, then moving toward something more affirmative by the end. The quartet is well-constructed but a bit too heart-on-its-sleeve emotional to be fully engaging. Nevertheless, it – like the other music on this disc – shows how well Jacob is able to delve into emotions communicated by the specific instrumental complements that he chooses to use to convey them.

     James Dashow (born 1944) is interested primarily in expression through electro-acoustical means, and a Ravello DVD called Soundings in Pure Duration, Vol. 2 shows what that entails. Why a DVD? The medium is used to offer five pieces twice each, once in surround-sound mixdowns (“5.0 surround”) and once in a stereo format that has been enhanced (“widened”). Listeners not interested in the technical elements of this release are not the audience for this (+++) recording, which is strictly for those “in the know” about such matters and enamored of composers who create their own creative approaches (Dashow’s is called the Dyad System). The specific Soundings in Pure Duration presented here are offered in the order of No. 9 (2016-2017), No. 8 (2015-2016), No. 7 (2014), and No. 10 (2020); they are followed by a work from 1999 whose lower-case title, which begins with an ellipsis, is …at other times, the distances. This earlier piece was written for quadraphonic electronic sounds; the four Soundings were created for octophonic electronics plus, in three of the four, other components: bass flute (No. 9), bass-baritone voice (No. 8), and alto saxophone (No. 7). As in many avant-garde compositions, the technical complexity of the works’ creation is fundamental to their effect, and interest in compositional and recording techniques is necessary for listeners to appreciate and accept whatever communicative material the composer is offering. Thus, the “attack pattern canon” between flute and electronics is an important element of No. 9, the textural back-and-forth alternations are crucial to accepting and making sense of the words by Stephen Dobyns in No. 8, and so on. Listeners not firmly committed to the avant-garde in music and not deeply interested in the conceptualization of electro-acoustic compositional techniques will find nothing here to convince them to become engaged in the material: for all its very clever construction and personalized approach to creativity, the music sounds a great deal like many, many other electro-acoustical creations – including parodies of electro-acoustic music. This sort of material is about as highly rarefied an auditory experience as a listener can have in the contemporary-music world: either one gravitates toward works of this sort for their unusual sonorities and sometimes surprising combinations of acoustic and electronic elements, or one realizes within a few minutes, if not a few seconds, that the sound world of Dashow is simply not one whose form of expression carries any particular meaning, importance, or enjoyment.

April 21, 2022


The Recipe-a-Day Kids Cookbook: 365 Fun, Easy Treats. By Maile Carpenter and the Editors of Food Network Magazine. Hearst Home Kids. $22.

     One of the best of the many kid-oriented cookbooks currently available, this Food Network Magazine compendium of mostly super-easy, briefly described, family-friendly recipes offers a truly delicious march through the year by literally matching one recipe to every single calendar day. That is every day, incidentally, which means the book’s subtitle is incorrect: there are 366 things to make here, with “Leap Frog Cookies” for February 29. The three-sentence explanation of what those are and how to make them is typical of the items in the book: the idea is to make lily-pad-shaped sugar cookies (make round ones and cut a notch into them), top them with green icing, then put gummy frogs with candy eyeballs on top. The illustration shows the result clearly – in fact, all the illustrations are super-clear, with every single recipe being put on visual display. That is one of the big attractions of the book.

     The photos of the foods will also help families decide which recipes to try and which to avoid. In February alone, on facing pages, there are “Hot-Cold Sorbet” (mango sorbet sprinkled with chili powder) and “Mac and Cheese with Eggs” (macaroni and cheese spread in an oven-safe skillet, with scooped-out wells into which eggs are cracked for baking). Certainly some families will find both of these ideas appealing, but certainly some will not – and either way is fine, since there are so many other recipes from which to choose without being wedded to the book’s day-by-day approach.

     There are, however, some advantages to making foods on the specific days associated with them. “Ice Cream Hearts” certainly fit Valentine’s Day, for example; “American Flag Ice Cream Sandwiches” make sense for July 4; and “Coal Treats” (the “coal” being cocoa powder) are an amusing idea for Christmas Day. On the other hand, the majority of foods have no specific correlation with the days on which they are presented: “Watermelon Fries with Lime Sour Cream” appear on August 27 and “Peaches and Cream Popcorn” on September 12, for no discernible reason. On the third hand – the recipes do not really require three hands, although younger kids will need adult supervision here and there – brief “factoids” with some recipes provide interesting connections to specific foods. “Sesame-Cayenne Pretzels” appear on June 6, for example, with a note that “The first drive-in theater opened on this day in 1933. This is a great movie snack!” And “Flavored Burger Buns” show up on July 28 with the note, “The hamburger was first assembled on this day in 1900 at Louis’ Lunch in Connecticut.”

     There are recipes of all sorts here, from snacks to main meal items to desserts to condiments (for instance, “Flavored Ketchups” on July 30). There are some clever and unexpected items on offer (“Butterbeer” on June 26, with a note that “the first Harry Potter book was released on this day in 1997”). And while most foods are simple to make and really do come out looking like the photos in the book, there are a few more-challenging recipes for kids who, likely with adult assistance, want to try out something more difficult and unusual (such as “Homemade Marshmallows” on February 16 and “Poppy Cupcakes” on May 16). The book is also fun because of the unexpected juxtapositions that repeatedly show up on facing pages, such as the all-ingredients-probably-in-the-kitchen-already “PB&J Ice Cream Sandwiches” (August 13) opposite the we-need-to-go-to-the-cheese-shop “Burrata-Stuffed Tomato” (August 15). The Recipe-a-Day Kids Cookbook is easy to read, enjoyable to look at thanks to the excellence of the photos, and a fine…err, recipe…for family fun in the kitchen throughout the year.