January 26, 2023


Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections. By Shaun Tan. Levine Querido. $35.                                            

     Here is a coffee-table book for which it is worth buying a coffee table if you do not already own one. Shaun Tan, an Australian artist and illustrator who nominally works mostly on books for preteens but in reality creates for anyone, of any age, whose imagination is stretchable, here offers an extensive sampling of his creature-focused art and some introspective and highly enlightening comments on it and on his own creative process.

     Creatures need not be monsters, although the terms are often conflated and, looked at objectively, most of Tan’s creatures are monsters, or at least monstrous. But there is something far more subtle going on in Tan’s work, as readers and viewers will quickly discover here. Tan’s prose is on point when he discusses what he has wrought: “semi-mechanical creatures” producing a feeling “of equal delight and disquiet.” Or to put it more poetically – still in Tan’s words – he produces “mutant children of some antique future.”

     There is as much subtlety to Tan’s art as to his writing and the thinking underlying it. He produces a delicate poise of prose hovering just on the edge of full intelligibility – and that is also what he visualizes in the monstrous non-monsters made of organic and mechanical parts in an impossible admixture of perception and activity. Consider, for example, “Never Give Your Keys to a Stranger,” a black-and-white pencil drawing from the book Rules of Summer, showing a boy standing outdoors, looking in through a window at a room in which another boy sits on a sofa watching television; beside this boy sits a huge cat or cat-like being, dressed in adult-human clothing. SO: who is the stranger here? The two boys look alike – are they the same? But, given the title, is the one watching TV the stranger? True, the cat-like creature is the obvious choice as “stranger,” but the room reflects that being as if he (it?) belongs there: there is a cat knickknack on the TV set, a cat-family picture on the wall, and a pair of slippers whose multiple toes seem perfectly suited for the unshod feet visible on the cat creature. Who gave keys to what stranger? And what is the picture labeled “T.S. Eliot” doing on the wall?

     Tan’s art almost always invites quizzical speculation and interpretation along these lines. His pastel-on-paper “Future Eater,” for example, is a colorful work at whose center an organic-looking four-limbed creature with smokestacks for ears and a shield-shaped metal object for its one visible eye (it is seen in a side view) is biting into a green plant stalk and apparently moving toward other organic food, while mechanical debris that appears to be the creature’s waste products can be seen behind the creature. Is this creature going to become an eater of some sort in times to come and is therefore called “future eater?” Or is it somehow consuming the actual future and being a “future eater” in that sense? In his discussion of this work at the back of the book, Tan says the title comes from a book that is an ecological history of Australia – but although that is the truth, it is not all the truth of what Tan has created. There are truths within truths throughout these art pieces. And half-truths within half-truths, as befits a creative process in which Tan explains that he is “trying to be honest while making things up.” And he communicates that honesty in these strange ways because, he writes, “little clockwork animals are so full of the heart they are clearly missing.”

     Well, that explains a lot and at the same time explains nothing – paradoxes of that sort abound in Tan’s worlds, both the visual one and the one created through words. Tan says he has always been interested in “an empathetic reading of otherness,” and perhaps it is just that – empathy – that prevents the monstrous creatures in this book from being the sort of monsters that would visit depredations upon other denizens of Earth. If there are lessons to be had from Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections, from its marvelous picturing of impossibilities interacting with humans and its sensitively rendered prose descriptions of those interactions, perhaps the foundational bit of learning here is, as Tan notes at one point, that “we are all mutually strange.” That all encompasses humans, near-humans, nothing-like-human creatures that nevertheless are capable of interacting with and even empathizing with humans, and all the other marvelous members of Tan’s uniquely indecipherable mythos, which in this book explains itself so well while remaining, at its core, inexplicable.


Grumpy Monkey: Valentine Gross-Out. By Suzanne Lang. Illustrated by Max Lang. Random House Studio. $10.99.

Big Nate: Prank You Very Much. Based on Nickelodeon episodes written by Sarah Allen, Mitch Watson, Emily Brundige, and Eric Shaw. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The curmudgeon with a heart of gold is a longstanding trope of stories of all kinds, and can be especially appealing when readers get to see the complainer’s expressions in addition to reading about them. That makes grump-focused children’s books a natural fit for characters of this sort, and grumps just don’t come more entertaining than Suzanne Lang’s Grumpy Monkey – with Max Lang’s picture-prefect illustrations showcasing the simian shenanigans to excellent effect. The latest incarnation of Grumpy Monkey is love-themed, which seems a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t, really: Valentine Gross-Out allows Jim Panzee, aka Grumpy Monkey, plenty of pages to complain about all the lovey-dovey stuff that animals are doing, and the best pictures in the book appear on those pages – the ones of lovingly entwined snakes and of turtles slow-dancing are laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly appropriate. Of course, this being a book for children, the complaints can be taken only so far – which means about halfway through the narrative. At that point, the thoroughly grossed-out Jim hears from buddy Norman the gorilla that “Valentine’s Day isn’t just about couples” because “there are lots of kinds of love” – parents’ and children’s love for each other, for example, and love for one’s friends. This starts the inevitable transition from grumpiness to pleasure, as the increasingly wide-eyed Grumpy Monkey sets about “showing the people you love that you love them.” And so Jim Panzee makes valentines for all his friends and family, gives them out to everybody, and basks in the smiles and enjoyment of all those around him – except…well, even Norman has said that “all the kissing is pretty gross,” and this wouldn’t be a Grumpy Monkey book unless a touch of grumpiness had a chance to re-emerge at the end. So it does – with an illustration of two birds pecking bills with each other as Jim shouts, “GROSS!” Kids who share Jim’s disdain for kissing will especially enjoy one of the more than three dozen stickers included with the book – the one showing two smooching frogs with a cross-out line through the scene and the words “NO kissing.” The close-up of Jim saying “GROSS!” makes a pretty neat sticker, too. Other stickers are simple hearts, scenes of individual animals and animal pairs, a touch of word play (the words “Heads Over Peels” with Jim leaping over a banana), and even one sticker that adults will have to explain to kids and may need look up themselves: a bear with heart and honeycomb and the words “You Are the Bee’s Knees.” Good luck with that. But little luck is needed to enjoy Grumpy Monkey: Valentine Gross-Out, because the whole lighthearted book is created with so much un-gross skill.

     The pleasures are of a different order in a new Big Nate book based loosely on Lincoln Peirce’s long-running comic strip but illustrated in the style of the Nickelodeon animated series about Nate and his friends. Followers of Peirce’s original will have a strong sense of anticipation when reading the title Prank You Very Much, since Nate, in the strip, is the grand master of Prank Day at P.S. 38, and the creative weirdnesses that Peirce creates to showcase Nate’s mischief-making ability are always delightful. Alas, the (+++) Prank You Very Much has far too little to do with pranks: of the book’s four chapters, only the two short sequences are prank-focused, with the two much longer stories trying much, much too hard to be clever and illustrative of…well, of something-or-other, although just what that might be is never quite clear. The first prank-oriented short piece has Nate discussing how to create successful pranks, but the examples do not rise to the level of the ones in Peirce’s strips. In fact, they are actually out of character at times – for instance, when shy and neurotic neighbor dog Spitsy is here portrayed as a menacing pooch attaching himself to the rear end of Nate’s feckless father. The second prank story is somewhat better: Nate pranks yearbook editor Gina, his student nemesis, by getting into the yearbook’s photo file, “improving” the pictures of his friends and himself, and making a mess of other visuals. Again, consistency with Peirce’s strip is not a hallmark of this story: Principal Nichols, usually a benign (if often overwrought) figure in Nate’s life, here becomes explosively angry – his head is actually rendered as an erupting volcano at one point. This might be funny on TV, but in a book, it draws too much attention to the ways in which the adaptation of Peirce’s strip falls somewhat short. As for the longer stories in Prank You Very Much, they are focused less on Nate himself and more on the groups, or groupies, with which he interacts – in fact, the de-emphasis on Nate and the attempt to create multi-person “character comedy” is a significant difference between the TV series and the comic strip, and does not work to the television show’s benefit. One long story is about the huge pimple that Nate finds on his forehead one day, and the ways in which it becomes a source of power and miracles throughout the school – a premise so ridiculous that it never quite gets off the ground, and is made worse by an attempt to mingle it with a story about a stuck-up and incompetent drama teacher and his relationship with Nate’s drama-queen friend Dee Dee. The kids’ shouts of “Blessed be the pimple!” and Nate’s own, later on, of “Pimple, pimple, why have you forsaken me?” are a touch too far on the sacrilegious side to be genuinely funny, and the ways in which characters learn that the pimple has no real power are also overdone: for example, Principal Nichols is here again misused, saying, “my big score didn’t pay off and now I gotta skip town before some very angry monkeys tear my face off!” The other extended story has Nate’s friend Francis tutoring a girl from P.S. 38’s arch-rival school, Jefferson – although just why Principal Nichols would arrange this is never explained. The tutoring occurs as the two schools’ very different costume balls are being planned, with the theme of the P.S. 38 one involving a sort-of-scary “Corn Girl” school legend that makes no sense at all. In addition to all this, Nate plans to have his whole friend group (including Francis) costumed as “Time Disruptors,” a ridiculous superhero squad – but Francis becomes involved with Sabina, the girl he is tutoring, which complicates matters. One extended section of this story has Francis singing to and about Sabina – another of those elements that might work on TV but that just come across as rather pathetic in print. And speaking of pathos, again there is Principal Nichols being thoroughly demeaned as a character: “Please don’t judge me. I’m an underpaid middle school academic with a 401k matching at two percent.” Oh well – individual elements in Prank You Very Much are enjoyable, even if the overall story arcs are disappointing. The couple of pages of actual Peirce drawings in the book, however, show just how far the TV show has drifted from the Big Nate comic strip – and not to the show’s advantage.

January 19, 2023


Little Pups in Big Trucks. By Bob Shea. Illustrations by Brian Won. Dial. $7.99.

This Pup Is Stuck! By Bob Shea. Illustrations by Brian Won. Dial. $7.99.

The Great Truck Switcheroo. By Bob Shea. Illustrations by Brian Won. Dial. $8.99.

     Some things just seem to go together naturally: peanut butter and jelly, Santa Claus and Christmas, shoes and socks, Batman and Robin…but adorable puppies and construction equipment? Well, apparently somebody has to come up with all-new pairings, and that somebody is Bob Shea – who, abetted by illustrator Brian Won, is spinning out a board-book series called “Adurable.” That’s as in “adorable” (the puppies) and “durable” (the construction equipment).

     All right, the whole thing seems a little forced and a lot silly – but for pre-readers and the youngest readers, it is a lot of fun. The idea is that “puppy school” consists entirely of classes in driving and operating construction equipment: Dig Doug gets a “big green digger,” Cheddar gets a “big orange bulldozer,” and Puddles receives a “big blue dump truck.” Teacher Miss Polly, in her turn, “drives a big red jeep” and more-or-less supervises the activities of the “adurable” puppies with admonitions such as, “Be careful not to crash or tip over.” The real fun in Little Pups in Big Trucks comes when the puppies show they may know how to drive big trucks, but are not entirely sure how to use big trucks. Rocks fall out of Puddles’ dump truck and block Miss Polly’s jeep, and the dogs are determined to get her out – and so, “‘Bark! Bark!’ barks Cheddar. ‘Leave Miss Polly alone, you big mean rocks.’” Well, that is puppy-ish enough, but of course it accomplishes nothing. So Dig Doug has the pups close their eyes – and since they cannot see the rocks, the rocks must be gone. Um, no. “The big rocks do not go away just because you cannot see them,” explains Miss Polly. So the pups find a huge rock and bring it near the jeep because, by comparison, “YOUR rocks are not as big.” Well, um, no again. Readers will easily see the flaws in all this well-meaning non-logic, and that is exactly the point: young kids will figure out what the pups should do long before the pups themselves get the right idea. Eventually, of course, the pups realize their big trucks can move all the rocks away from the jeep, freeing Miss Polly and earning “puppy snacks and naps” as a reward. They may be construction-equipment drivers, but these pups are still just little kids, or little puppies, at heart.

     And then it is time for an actual construction project, which is the point of This Pup Is Stuck! Miss Polly announces that the class assignment is to “make a swimming spot,” and that idea suits the pups just fine, since Cheddar’s bulldozer can flatten the area, Puddles’ dump truck can take away piles of dirt and rock, and Dig Doug’s green digger can dig a big hole “but not too big a hole,” as Miss Polly explains. The “adurable” pups jump into their big trucks and get right to work, with Dig Doug especially enthusiastic about digging “a BIG hole” but not remembering just what else Miss Polly said. He soon has a hole that “is very wide and deep,” and he just keeps going even though Miss Polly warns that he “will not be able to drive back out.” He digs down below a rabbit warren and some buried dinosaur fossils and even a treasure chest – these illustrations are especially amusing. And then Dig Doug realizes the hole is too big and he cannot get out. What to do? Cheddar helpfully suggests running in circles and barking: “Give us back our friend, you big mean hole.” Hmm…that doesn’t work. Puddles says to imagine that Dig Doug’s digger is a helicopter so it can fly out of the hole, but…well, nope. But after a while, the pups figure things out: Puddles brings dirt and rocks in his dump truck to dump by the hole, Cheddar pushes the rocks and dirt into the hole with her bulldozer, and “now the big hole has a big hill” that Dig Doug can use to get his digger out. Dig Doug tells Miss Polly he is a bad puppy for making such a deep hole, but she assures him that he is good – at digging. But other things matter, too, she explains, such as listening. Lesson learned, it is time for a swim, and the “adurable” pups “bark, splash, and play all afternoon.”

     Where can this delightful board-book series go next? The answer lies in The Great Truck Switcheroo. Having firmly established which pup goes with which truck, Shea here mixes things up just to add some puppy-style confusion and to emphasize the importance of teamwork and cooperation. This time the class is going to have snickerdoodles, which Miss Polly cannot even start baking because the pups practically fall over each other asking questions and making comments and generally getting in the way. So Miss Polly announces that she has “important work for you puppies” – specifically, “busy work” (a concept that parents may need to explain to young “adurable” fans). The pups’ assignment is to move a pile of dirt from one side of the road to the other side. But to make things more interesting, Miss Polly says “all little pups must switch big trucks. It will help you help one another.” Oh no! This is an unimaginable intrusion into “adurable” territory: the puppies refuse to switch and try to think of ways around Miss Polly’s instructions. But she says firmly, “No switcheroo. No snickerdoodles.” So the “adurable” but reluctant pups do their best – that is, they do their best to make their switched trucks behave like the ones they know (trying to turn a dump truck into a digging machine, for instance). This goes about as well as can be expected, which is to say not well at all. “‘Let’s cry and be sad,’ barks Puddles,” and that seems to be as good an idea as any – until the pups realize they can teach each other how to use each other’s trucks. And so they do just that, and they get the dirt pile moved, and they decide that “doing something different was scary, but also a little bit fun!” And after all the “adurable” pups get snickerdoodles, everyone takes a ride in Miss Polly’s jeep, and everyone reading these books (or hearing them read out loud) will be delightedly looking forward to the next “adurable” adventure.


Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: Three Pieces for Piano; Mélanie Bonis: Six Valses-Caprices; Cécile Chaminade: Six Pièces Romantiques; Marie Jaëll: Twelve Waltzes and Finale—excerpts; Amy Beach: Summer Dreams; Clara Schumann: March in E-flat. EStrella Piano Duo (Svetlana Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya). Sheridan Music Studio. $20.

Haydn: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Nicola Porpora: Cello Concerto in G—Largo; “Giusto Amor, Tu Che M’Accendi”; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Cello—fragment; Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Adrien La Marca, viola; Julien Chauvin, violin and conducting Le Concert de la Loge. Naïve. $16.99.

     The rediscovery of worthwhile music by female composers has become something of a “thing” for people looking to redress the (correct) perception that women were long marginalized in music, as in so many other fields. But the emphasis is better placed on worthwhile than on women, since musical rediscovery in and of itself is less than enthralling if the re-found material is not worth an audience’s time. It is fashionable to create CDs with titles such as “In Her Own Voice,” which is the overall designation of a new recording featuring the EStrella Piano Duo (whose name is just silly: it always looks like a typesetting error rather than a combination of the initials of the performers’ first names). But the value of CDs such as this one lies far less in its “cause” elements than in the level of interest of the music itself. Thankfully, the recording by Svetlana Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya has a lot more going for it than a politically correct notion of listening to it because of the gender of the six composers. Every one of the 26 tracks is a small jewel – some truly convincing, others more semi-precious than really valuable – and the playing by Belsky and Doubovitskaya raises the disc to a very high level indeed. Although nothing here can be called a major work, Three Pieces for Piano by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn (1805-1847) is very much worth repeated hearings. Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister was known to have musical talent nearly at the level of her brother’s, but was entirely shaped by her family (including, to some extent, by Felix himself) into the expected 19th-century-female role of housewife. She performed only once in public and had no chance to publish any of her works until the year before her death – an event that precipitated Felix’s own death just a few months later. This set of three three-minute pieces from 1844 is in Fanny’s later style, in which she shows greater passion, clearer structure and more carefully modulated emotion than in her earlier works. Romantic the pieces may be, but they are not overly emotive, and Belsky and Doubovitskaya finely balance their charms. Six Valses-Caprices by Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937) are shorter and more surface-level pieces, nicely formed and with pleasant touches of wistfulness here and there. Six Pièces Romantiques by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) are late-Romantic works (1890) whose descriptive titles point listeners in general directions without directly illustrating specific scenes – although Idylle arabe and Danse hindoue partake of suitable exoticism. Four excerpts from Twelve Waltzes and Finale by Marie Jaëll (1846-1925) are pleasant enough, if rather evanescent. Of greater interest are the six movements of Summer Dreams by Amy Beach (1867-1944) – the suite dates to 1901 and more directly illustrates the scenes of its titles than does Chaminade’s work, with Beach’s Elfin tarantelle a particular charmer. The CD ends with the 1879 March in E-flat by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the more remarkable figures of either gender in the Romantic era. This is a resolute and rather grand piece, at times almost Wagnerian in its strength and solidity, which at six-and-a-half minutes is by far the longest track on this disc. Indeed, listeners interested in discovering or rediscovering this music (and these composers) will be disappointed that the CD is quite short: just 46 minutes, which means the 25 items not by Clara Schumann average barely a minute and a half apiece. The result is a release consisting of excellent playing lavished on music that is in large measure insubstantial, if not quite inconsequential.

     Belsky and Doubovitskaya contextualize the music they perform by the era of its composition and the gender of the composers. Christian-Pierre La Marca and colleagues do something rather more interesting on a new Naïve CD whose two major offerings, Haydn’s Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, are very well-known indeed. The Haydn works begin and end the disc, while cello-focused pieces by other composers of Haydn’s era appear between them in an attempt to show both what influenced Haydn and what he in turn influenced. The approach is not wholly successful – the middle of the CD combines better and lesser material, original works and transcriptions, and the order is rather arbitrary – but the notion of fitting Haydn within a time frame and compositional approach including other composers is an attractive one. In particular, including two pieces by Nicola Porpora (1686-1758), who was Haydn’s mentor, is intriguing. A full concerto by Porpora would have been more revelatory than the single movement offered here, but the aria Giusto Amor, Tu Che M’Accendi from the opera Gli orti esperidi, “The Gardens of the Hesperides”), which includes obbligato cello as well as voice, is undeniably fascinating. The Porpora works are not given back-to-back, though: one follows the first Haydn concerto and the other precedes the second. In between the two Porpora pieces are a fragment (reconstructed by Robert Levin) of a Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and cello – Mozart’s only concertante work that includes a cello part; and the well-known Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (in La Marca’s own transcription). The nine-and-a-half-minute Mozart fragment is very much worth hearing in any context – as with all unfinished Mozart music, it produces a feeling of deep regret that the composer did not complete it – but the light it sheds on Haydn, whose style strongly influenced Mozart, is at best a dim one. Similarly, the relationship between Gluck and Haydn, which scholars can certainly explore (and do), is not immediately apparent from the works here. La Marca’s performances of all the pieces are first-rate, and the other soloists working with him (Philippe Jaroussky and Adrien La Marca) approach the whole project with equal engagement and enthusiasm. Le Concert da la Loge under Julien Chauvin provides absolutely top-notch accompaniment throughout, and the CD as a whole is exemplary on multiple levels, even if not quite successful for non-scholars when it comes to showing the interrelationship among the cello approaches of these four composers. Listeners will enjoy it most by deeming it a very fine recording of the two Haydn cello concertos – with a variety of bonus material provided between the more-substantial works as a kind of musical palate cleanser.