July 28, 2022


Lettuce Get in Trouble. By Linda Kuo with Cynthia Benjamin and Paula Rees. Illustrated by Mariana Rio. Center for Design Books. $19.95.

Jobs of the Future: Imaginative Careers for Forward-Thinking Kids. By Sofia E. Rossi and Carlo Canepa. Illustrated by Luca Poli. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     A wonderful tribute and introduction to elements of design – but a book whose underlying premise ends up potentially confusing its intended young audience – Lettuce Get in Trouble is the first volume in what the publisher calls the “Sara Little Trouble Maker Series.” There is a fortunate confluence of name and reality there, since the series is based on the life and work of Sara Little (1917-2015), but kids and parents will likely read the series’ title as “Little Trouble Maker,” which is a rather endearing concept that fits the approach of Linda Kuo and coauthors Cynthia Benjamin and Paula Rees well. It is also rather neat to know that Sara Little really was little, weighing just 90 pounds and being only four feet, 11 inches tall (her real name was Sara Finkelstein: she was nicknamed “Little Sara” and called herself Sara Little professionally). As intriguing as all this information is, though, the point of any book for young children is to engage them in a topic in an age-appropriate way and help them see how that subject operates in the real world – their real world. Lettuce Get in Trouble, preoccupied as it is with being a Sara Little tribute book and an introduction to her way of thinking – and to being a series opener – falls short when it comes to what actually happens in the narrative. For instance, the narrative clearly states, and Mariana Rio’s illustrations clearly show, that Sara Little inevitably wore “one tiny upside-down clock on her black turtleneck.” That is an intriguing fact that will surely lead curious young readers to ask why she wore the upside-down clock. And the answer is – never provided. And this is just one of the small (and sometimes larger) frustrations of this trying-a-bit-too-hard book. It is initially difficult to tell just how realistic (vs. fairy-tale-like) the book is supposed to be. It says that Sara Little runs “the Little Laboratory,” which is located “in the Big Apple” (never stating that that means New York City); and that seems plausible and realistic enough. But then it turns out that Sara gets an important letter delivered by “a snowy white pigeon,” and now we are in the fairy-tale realm. And the letter leads to the primary plot of the book, which involves using creativity in design to solve this problem: “Children seem to have stopped eating vegetables.” Well, the tie-in to the real Sara Little’s life makes sense – her mother really did arrange fruits and vegetables in bowls to teach child Sara about design, and that information does appear early in Lettuce Get in Trouble. But as a major plot device, this kids-and-vegetables concept falls flat. The idea is that Sara gets kids involved in design using vegetables, and gives them enthusiasm by explaining about the colors of produce: “green for peace, red for love, yellow for joy.” And this then gets the kids intrigued by the notion of designing food-related things, such as “a meal where everyone eats using their fingers.” And soon kids from everywhere “arrive in hot air balloons” (the book is now firmly in the fantasy realm) for participatory activities: one “makes sushi with white onions and tiny purple grapes,” one “sprinkles mint leaves on tacos filled with bright orange carrots and red peppers,” and so on. All the designs are interesting and attractive, and everyone is happy to be involved in making new ones – even the curmudgeons of the Ministry of Food (again, a fairy-tale element). But Kuo, Benjamin and Rees never solve, or even get back to, the underlying issue of children no longer eating vegetables. It is implied that all this wonderful creativity leads to great happiness and understanding and peace and love and all that, but the thread of the story never gets fully woven into any sort of garment. Why exactly did kids stop eating vegetables? If they stopped, they must have eaten them before something happened – so what happened? Why the title Lettuce Get in Trouble? What exactly is the “trouble” into which kids should get? How does cleverness of design overcome whatever the vegetable-eating difficulty might be? Is the idea that if vegetables are entertainingly presented, kids will suddenly enjoy how they taste? (That would be a perfectly good, if arguable, premise, but it is never plainly presented.) In other words, how can sensitive, even clever design – the province of the real Sara Little – be brought to bear on this specific issue in a satisfactory way? That is a perfectly reasonable question that is never answered. Thoughtful design can solve many problems, but not all of them. Kids’ distaste for vegetables (after presumably enjoying them at some time before the start of the book) is not one of them – unless the authors want to suggest that attractive presentation, in and of itself, is enough to make children become (or return to being) vegetable lovers. They would be entitled to make just such an assertion, even if young readers (and parents) might not agree; but they do not do so. This is a book about how wonderful Sara Little was at solving problems through well-thought-out designs, but the specific problem invented for the story just does not connect very well with Sara Little’s specific talents.

     Intended much more as a real-world book looking into the time to come for the young people who will read it, Jobs of the Future makes various assumptions about how the world will change and how careers based on those changes – incorporating ideas or tools that may not even exist yet – will become available. There is, for instance, “the architect of impossible places,” who initially handles rising sea levels by building an underwater city, then collaborates with another architect to build a perfect city in the Sahara Desert: “No more roads or pollution; transportation will function exclusively through a system of elevated pipes filled with compressed air…and everything – absolutely everything – will be recycled.” It is hard to say which element of this is most Utopian: the notion that 100% recycling is or will be possible, or the idea that people from vastly different parts of the world will collaborate for the equal benefit of all, resulting in a perfect city packed with people from entirely different but perfectly complementary cultures. But Sofia E. Rossi and Carlo Canepa want readers of their book to consider this as a serious career possibility. They also assume that basic tropes of science fiction will merge with reality soon: one suggested career is explorer of faraway planets, complete with precision interstellar travel and perfectly functioning cryogenic equipment; another is that of DNA tailor, someone who can “reverse genetic diseases, prevent the replication of viruses, and determine the roles of newly discovered genes” – with not a smidgen of political difficulty or sociological pushback. There happen to be some really neat ideas here: nanotechnological reconstruction of ancient artifacts, development of a soccer-playing robot that uses human dreams to improve its skills, creation and maintenance of cars and ships powered by solar sails, and more. Not everything in the book is outside the realm of possibility, and it is inevitable that some forms of creativity will move further than anything dreamed of by Rossi and Canepa, and in different directions. The book’s main purpose, though, really lies in the pages after the ones suggesting possible future careers. These pages give the authors’ analyses and opinions on various challenges currently facing humanity, and a chance to put forward their viewpoints on those concerns. Thus, they warn against the possible extinction of more than 38,500 plant and animal species; explain the importance of “investing in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power”; tell readers to “limit water use in the home” and buy products such as “composting toilets”; and so forth. More interesting than these recommendations, and less unlikely than some of the suggested future careers, are some of the explanations of the scientific fields that today’s young readers may be able to explore in the future, such as biomimetics and scientific cuisine. Luca Poli’s illustrations for those explanatory portions of the book are also more engaging than the rather straightforward pictures elsewhere. Jobs of the Future is only in part about jobs of the future – and that is not its best part. More interesting is the way the book can help young readers explore the basics of fields about which they may never have heard before, and perhaps become intrigued enough to come up with their own career concepts in those areas after investigating the possibilities more thoroughly.


Respighi: Songs. Timothy Fallon, tenor; Ammiel Bushakevitz, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Music for Piano Trio by Shawn E. Okpebholo, Augusta Read Thomas, Shulamit Ran, Mischa Zupko, and Stacy Garrop. Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.

     Although Respighi was determined to show ways in which Italian music could be purely instrumental without being beholden to the Germanic tradition – breaking listeners’ identification of Italian composers almost solely with opera – he nevertheless created a considerable number of vocal works (including nine operas of his own). Among his music for voice, his songs are highly personal and most are not at all well-known. Timothy Fallon has assembled an interesting and wide-ranging collection of Respighi songs for a new BIS recording in which he is very ably accompanied by his longtime recital partner, pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. The songs chosen by Fallon were composed over a period of nearly 30 years: the earliest, L'ultima ebbrezza, dates to 1896 (when Respighi was 17); the latest, Quattro arie scozzesi (“Four Scottish Songs”), were written in 1924 and use English-language texts. These temporal bookends show that Respighi early developed great sensitivity for the cadence of words and never lost his concern with using the piano to underline and highlight the text: the earliest song here practically oozes Romantic-era lyricism, while the Scottish songs are all declamatory in folk-like manner – and the last of them, “The Piper of Dundee,” has a particularly effective and contributory piano part. There is much to discover and enjoy elsewhere on the disc as well. Deità silvane (“Woodland Deities”) is a five-song cycle with especially effective tone-painting in the fourth, “Acqua,” and the fifth, “Crepusculo” (which has a wistful twilight sound throughout). There is one other cycle on the disc, and it showcases Respighi’s long-lasting interest in music of olden times: Cinque canti all'antica is not at the level of his Ancient Airs and Dances in its approach to music of the past, but is sensitive throughout to the texts by Renaissance poets. Indeed, sensitivity is the hallmark of all the songs on this disc, which includes a couple of comparatively well-known works (Stornellatrice and Nebbie) along with many rarities – more than two dozen songs in all. Fallon has an admirably well-controlled voice and considerable sensitivity to the varying emotions underlying these works, and he sings everything with commitment and a fine sense of style. That does not, however, quite make this a general-interest release: a few of Respighi’s creations are exceptionally popular (notably the Roman Trilogy), but much of his oeuvre remains comparatively obscure, attractive for its Impressionism, its explorations and reinterpretations of pieces created centuries earlier, and its overall stylistic clarity and directness – but not widely popular. Art songs as a genre tend to be limited in their reach, with the exception of a few of the acknowledged masterpieces of the form; so while this Respighi recording is welcome for its finely attentive approach to generally obscure music, it is not likely to attract a significant audience to this element of the composer’s work.

     Contemporary chamber music is even more rarefied, and a disc whose unifying principle is a combination of modernity with geography – focusing on five composers from Chicago – is by definition reaching out only to listeners with a specific set of interests and concerns. The Lincoln Trio’s performances on a new Cedille CD are admirable throughout, though. The disc opens with one of its three world première recordings, city beautiful (one of those lower-case titles – this is an affectation for some of today’s composers) by Shawn E. Okpebholo (born 1981). This is a three-movement work whose opening “aqua” (all the movements have lower-case titles) is a more strongly rhythmic piece than Respighi’s song “Acqua” but does not convey the sense of water as effectively (it is actually intended to portray a city skyscraper). The other movements, “prairie” and “burnham,” deploy the instruments effectively but will have full meaning only for listeners fully aware of the portions of Chicago to which the music refers. Augusta Read Thomas’ …a circle around the sun… (a double affectation: lower-case title with surrounding ellipses) is in two contrasting, equally atonal movements – Thomas (born 1964) seems mainly interested in highlighting each individual instrument against the other two. Soliloquy by Shulamit Ran (born 1949) is the most-lyrical work on the disc, comparatively old-fashioned in its expressiveness and connecting to listeners to better effect and with greater warmth than other, more-extended pieces. Fanfare 80 by Mischa Zupko (born 1971) is the second world première recording here, and is scarcely fanfare-like, although it is certainly dramatic and fraught with rhythmic intensity. The final world première recording ends the CD. It is Sanctuary by Stacy Garrop (born 1969), a two-movement piece that lasts almost half the length of the entire disc (23½ minutes out of 52). Perhaps because the work has a highly personal underlying story – it is a tribute to Garrop’s father – it comes across with considerable emotive power and takes listeners through a wide variety of moods and feelings. Its foundational reason for being is not required to appreciate and become involved in it. The movements are called “Without” and “Within,” the first intended to portray a child searching for a lost parent and the second being the parent’s response from within the child’s heart. But unlike much contemporary music, Sanctuary does not require advance study and analysis to have its effect: an audience that has no familiarity with Garrop’s intent or “plot line” will nevertheless be engaged in and moved by the varying moods and throughgoing expressiveness of the music. This work and Ran’s Soliloquy are the highlights of the CD; the other works have elements of interest, and everything on the disc is played with fervor and a high level of involvement, but only Garrop and Ran seem genuinely to reach out and seek hoped-for connections between themselves and listeners.

July 21, 2022


Bingeworthy Zits. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The really great thing about Zits is – well, there isn’t one. Or, to put the emphasis where it belongs, there isn’t one. There are, in fact, too many to count. Well, it is at least possible to count the years: 25. Yes, there have been 25 years of Zits, meaning central character Jeremy Duncan was about -8 to -10 when Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman started the whole thing. Mom Connie and dad Walt have a lot to teach biologists.

     The whole family actually has a lot to teach – well, maybe not teach, exactly, but show to other families, especially ones containing teenagers, and ones containing kids who will eventually become teenagers, and ones containing kids or parents who at one time were teenagers. This is not a narrowly focused strip.

     Zits does, however, drill down to the meaning, which is to say meaninglessness, of so much teenage life. Everything just fits so neatly. For instance, someone from “TP Now” tosses a roll of toilet paper up the steps to Jeremy, whose hand sticks through the open (obviously bathroom) door to catch it – a pointed commentary on the gig economy. Or: Jeremy has a problem with mixed messages when his mom says to have fun and not do anything stupid. And: Jeremy actually makes coffee in the morning – mixing it with Lucky Charms cereal. Also: Walt considers a second career and asks Jeremy what it should be, and Jeremy suggests “donut company mascot.” Plus: Connie waxes ecstatic and poetic over the sandwich she can make for a hungry Jeremy, going on and on about “a sprig of fresh dill,” “a hefty slice of sourdough,” and other such niceties, as Jeremy walks past, lifts the refrigerator, tilts the whole thing toward his mouth, and consumes whatever falls off the shelves in his direction.

     Well, all right, that last event is an exaggeration. But it is a small one, as parents of teens know. And what it does is deepen the contrasting characterizations of Jeremy and his parents – something both Scott (writer) and Borgman (artist) do exceptionally well. The revelatory elements of Zits tend to sneak up on readers, as in an unusually straightforwardly drawn Sunday strip in which Connie and Jeremy walk side by side while she asks him typical “mom” questions, such as whether he did his laundry or brought his dirty dishes to the kitchen, and Jeremy simply says “no” each time. In the middle of the questions is one about whether he acted “as the designated driver for your friends who were drinking at the party last night,” and to that one, and only that one, Jeremy answers “yes” – leading Walt, who appears at the very end of this entry, to think to himself (and to readers), “Time-release adulting is better than no adulting at all.” Yup. Think about it.

     There is actually quite a lot to think about in Zits. Scott and Borgman have become so adept at limning the interactivity among the characters that one of the highlights of Bingeworthy Zits is a series in which one participant in the strip at a time disappears. First “the writer” is “on furlough” for a strip that needs no words; then “the artist” is away, leaving behind some writing that calls for lots and lots and lots of detail in the drawing; then Mom is away, and then Jeremy (resulting in a strip with the box score “peaceful: 1, funny: 0”); and then Dad is away, and then the editor (resulting in a strip with a supremely silly sort-of-pun that some editors probably would censor). In this sequence, Scott and Borgman manage to have fun with the idea of a strip such as Zits while still creating the strip in ways that make sense – one of those “meta” experiences that are much harder to pull off than they seem to be.

     Less difficult to manage are the inevitable strips tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is just not much to do with that topic, although Scott and Borgman do give the inevitable concepts a Zits twist: a new sink in the classroom labeled “please wash hand before raising,” eating lunch together while talking on the phone from two sides of a jail-like partition, and so forth. The topical Zits strips tend not to hold up as well as more-generalized ones, some of which lurch perilously (or delightfully) close to slapstick – like one in which balding Walt tells Jeremy he is having trouble covering his top-of-head bald spot, Jeremy says he just got something delivered that could help, and the next thing you know, Jeremy has opened the box, emptied it, and turned it over into Walt’s head. The best strips of all, though, are the ones that explore the characters’ foibles and the interactions that result. Those are not only within Jeremy’s family: a laugh-out-loud series in Bingeworthy Zits – at least for those who have followed the strip long enough to be thoroughly familiar with much-pierced, hyper-tattooed Pierce – has Pierce dressing conventionally, using proper grammar (“seen whom?”), talking prep (“spiffy sport coat”), and wearing loafers, all to try to convince his girlfriend’s parents that he is not “a total antisocial nonconformist spazzball.” She, however, brings the whole experiment to a screeching halt by screeching, “I miss my spazzball!”

     Clearly a quarter of a century has scarcely been enough time for Zits to explore all the ins and outs of teenagers and their world – even though that world itself has changed dramatically since the strip started. Actually, change of all sorts is a recurring theme of Zits, as when Jeremy wanders into his home’s attic and discovers two accordions, leading his parents to backtrack from their youthful foibles in words usually applied to, ahem, non-musical sorts of activities: “We were young and just experimenting.” Jeremy then tells them that “you both know that the accordion is a gateway instrument,” and Connie exclaims, “There was no polka! We swear!” Ah, yes – these occasional bouts of absurdity are among the best features of Zits. And speaking of absurdity, there is one multi-strip series in which Jeremy, while trying to wrap a package, wishes he had three more hands – which, of course, instantly appear, leading his dad to suggest a “high twenty-five” and his girlfriend, Sara, to comment that “our New Year’s Eve hug should be interesting.” (Yes, the whole thing turns out just to have been a dream, but so what?) Bingeworthy Zits really is bingeworthy: it is hard to imagine not reading the entire collection in one sitting. But that’s not all! The book’s back cover shows a big stack of other collections of Zits, making it possible to binge on this one and then binge some more and more and more and moremoremoremoremoremore until…well, until the next collection comes out. If you can wait that long. (And if you can’t, feel free to start over and binge again!)


Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Tapiola; Three Late Fragments. Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Klaus Mäkelä. Decca. $29.95 (4 CDs).

     Consistently excellent orchestral performance by an ensemble not usually associated with Sibelius almost makes the new set of the composer’s symphonies on Decca a triumph. But not quite: no matter how fine the orchestra, it is still in service to its conductor, and this is a cycle whose conductor seems not quite sure where to take the music, how to present it, or just how to use the first-rate sound and balance that the Oslo Philharmonic offers throughout.

     It is not so much that Klaus Mäkelä lacks a vision for the symphonies as that he has entirely different visions for most of them. To some extent, this is fine – it is only retrospectively that a symphonic cycle can be seen to have clear connective tissue. But in this case, Mäkelä as interpreter seems unsure what he himself wants to say in leading each symphony – he treats each work not just as a separate piece but almost as a separate kind of piece, resulting in a feeling of episodic symphonic production by a composer whose symphonies in fact have clear developmental traits throughout their sequence.

     The contrast between the First and Second symphonies can and indeed does stand for the overall unevenness of this cycle. Symphony No. 2 is excellent, the strings (which are first-rate throughout all the music) beautifully balanced and contrasted with the clarity of the woodwinds, the oboe in the third movement’s Trio simply beautiful, the blazing finale lit with fervor without ever seeming pretentious. Here Mäkelä perfectly balances the hesitancy and halting nature of elements of the symphony, especially in the first movement, with its structural arc and its eventual triumphal proclamation. But Symphony No. 1, in contrast, seems to go almost nowhere. Here the music is episodic and frequently disconnected, with individual sections nicely handled but little sense of overall structure or forward momentum. It can certainly be argued that the First is both derivative and diffuse, but the best conductors accept these elements and meld them in such a way as to show where Sibelius is going, or would go in the future. Mäkelä simply presents, making no real attempt to connect the dots musically or emotionally; so the symphony comes across more like a symphonic poem, and a rather scattered one at that.

     The next symphonic pair here also turns out to be a study in contrast. In the Third as in the First, there is little cohesiveness, with the first movement fast-paced, the articulation light throughout the work, the general sense of motion ever-present but the emotional connection largely missing. The best thing here is the sheer clarity of the playing – again, the orchestra itself almost, through its quality, rescuing a rather mundane and overly straightforward interpretation. On the other hand, the Fourth, which opens with sharp intensity that never quite lets up throughout, has a level of personal tragedy and sorrow that absolutely compels attention and is little short of riveting to hear. It is true that some of the lightness of playing from the Third persists in the Fourth, but this seems, if anything, to counterbalance the weightiness of the angst-laden communicativeness of the score. This is not an interpretation that will necessarily please everyone, but it is highly worthy on its own terms and makes a strong case for the extent of Sibelius’ maturation by this stage of his symphonic development.

     The Fifth is a mixed bag. The playing is just wonderful – what an impressive orchestra this turns out to be in this music! – but details of the interpretation misfire. The accelerando in the first movement is perfunctory, and the horns in the finale seem too far away for full effectiveness – although the very end of the symphony is beautifully handled. The Sixth comes across as emotionally lightweight, the clarity of the playing here actually working against emotional communicativeness. For some reason, Mäkelä downplays the contrasts that pervade the score, producing a sense of emotional withholding rather than full commitment – and while the third movement is highly energetic, the second and fourth seem restrained to the point of being blasé. The Seventh, though, is another high point in the cycle: although the transitions between sections in this one-movement work do not always flow smoothly, the sense of austere momentum is palpable, with the trombones especially impressive in setting a tone that may remind listeners that these instruments were once used primarily for emphasis in church music. Mäkelä follows the Seventh with Sibelius’ final tone poem, Tapiola, where the attentiveness to detail that made Symphony No. 1 seem episodic serves the music very well, allowing for constant shifts of color and mood that produce a highly expressive totality. And at the very end of this four-CD set are three fragments, lasting in total less than four minutes, that may (or may not) have been elements considered by Sibelius for a Symphony No. 8. The uncertainty of the provenance of those three fragments somehow seems totally appropriate for the conclusion of this beautifully recorded, excellently played Sibelius cycle: Mäkelä never fully establishes his own vision of the Sibelius symphonies and never fully embraces any particular overview that he thinks the composer himself might have possessed; instead, Mäkelä treats different symphonies so differently that a certain sense of incoherence pervades the cycle as a whole. Certainly it moves chronologically from the First through those final fragments, but structurally and emotionally, it often seems to lurch here and there, the interpretations filled with ups and downs that do not – within individual works or in the cycle as a whole – end up producing a cohesive totality.