March 30, 2023


Cat’s Very Good Day. By Kristen Tracy. Pictures by David Small. Putnam. $18.99.

     When you think about it, what does constitute a very good day for a cat? Kristen Tracy delves into the feline mind with sensitivity, acceptance and humor in Cat’s Very Good Day, in search of what it might be like to be the feline member of a reasonably typical household on a reasonably typical day. The results, abetted by David Small’s wonderfully evocative illustrations, are delightful – whether or not all humans-who-share-space-with-a-cat will see things from this “very good” perspective.

     The words here, as befits a picture book for young readers and pre-readers, are simple, but Tracy uses them well in creating neatly descriptive rhymes and half-rhymes to show what sort of critter the unnamed cat is at various times during the day. It starts with “Sunrise lounger / Piano-key pounder,” Small’s first illustration showing the grand full-body stretch with which all cat fanciers are familiar, his second showing the cat marching atop piano keys with a thoroughly anthropomorphic smirk on his face as a little girl watches from the staircase in the background. And onward to “Dollhouse fiddler / Toilet-bowl dribbler,” with a gentle lifting of a seated doll on one page and a lick-your-lips mess-up-the-bathroom-floor scene on the next. Paired occurrences like these are interrupted from time to time for an evaluation of how things are going: “What a lovely day,” “What a happy day,” and so forth.

     What makes Cat’s Very Good Day so much fun is that the words and pictures mesh but are not exactly in sync: for example, the “happy day” page shows the cat being unceremoniously carried out the door by the scruff of his neck by a very annoyed-looking human, which makes sense in light of the previous scene being “Sofa destroyer.” And not everything goes exactly according to the cat’s plans outdoors: it is clearly fun to be a “Baby-squirrel chaser,” but there is nothing to do but slink away looking shamefaced on the next page, upon becoming a “Mama-squirrel facer.”

     Yet the cat takes all the day’s events very much in stride, and anyone with whom a cat deigns to share living space will recognize some of the amusingly exaggerated expressions created by Small to illustrate scenes such as “Fishbowl tapper” (with a very nervous-looking fish swimming about) and “Hairball gagger” (with all three house humans seated at a table and looking on disapprovingly, trying unsuccessfully to enjoy a peaceful meal). The words describing the day keep changing: “wild” and “busy” eventually lead to “stressful” by way of “Dark-storm worrier” (showing a full claws-out leap toward safety in response to a lightning flash and, presumably, the following thunder) and “Back-closet scurrier” to become a “Curled-up loner” trying unsuccessfully to wait out the storm without fear.

     So, how to make it through the night despite the scarily unpredictable weather? The cat’s solution is perfectly sensible – and, like so much in this book, will be very recognizable to anyone who knows cats or is known by them. Silently gliding up the stairs to the little girl’s room, the cat becomes a “Warm-pillow seeker” peering up from the side of the bed toward the sleeping girl, and later a “Moonlight cuddler” when the girl awakens and smiles down at him, and at last an “All-night snuggler” as cat and girl settle in for warmth, rest and, readers can rest assured, sweet dreams. And it is inevitable that this will lead to the proclamation, on the book’s very last page – on which the parents look in toward the sleeping child cuddled with the cat – that this has indeed been “a very good day.” And clearly not only for the cat but also, despite some ups and downs, for the humans as well.


Heroes Are Human: Lessons in Resilience, Courage, and Wisdom from the COVID Front Lines. By Bob Delaney with Dave Scheiber. City Point Press. $26.99.

     A better title for this exploration of the lives and turmoil of healthcare workers during the COVID pandemic would have been “Heroes Are Human, Too,” because that would emphasize the idea that in addition to being widely described as heroic in stories and on signage, the people slogging through the pandemic were and are also human beings with human fears, frailties and susceptibility to burnout and post-traumatic stress (or, more accurately, during-trauma stress).

     This is a book best read by not starting at the beginning: skip the self-serving Preface and most of the first chapter, in which Bob Delaney talks mainly about himself, his background, his career, his previous books, the various well-known people with whom he is acquainted, and so forth. The self-aggrandizement is quite unnecessary, because the value of this book lies not in who Delaney is but in who the people are whose stories the book tells – and, even more than who they are, what they are in the face of COVID-19 and what they were able to do, indeed needed to do, to help everyone around them get through one of the toughest times in anyone’s memory.

     In some ways, a book, any book, is not the best way to communicate what Delaney and Dave Scheiber seek to put across in Heroes Are Human. It is a matter of timing: one of the many frustrations of dealing with COVID-19 has been the rapid changing of the infectious landscape and the sociopolitical currents swirling around it. Delaney’s Preface to the book is dated February 2022, which seems like a date in ancient history from the vantage point of more than a year later. The “COVID Front Lines” of this book’s subtitle are former front lines, with the disease itself and society’s response to it having metamorphosed in numerous ways since the book was written.

     What readers can take from the book, then, has to be information and emotion that are applicable beyond the specific pandemic times during which the work was created and that have something worthwhile to communicate no matter what stage of the pandemic we may be in – even if it has been reclassified as no longer a pandemic (whether for justifiable or unjustifiable reasons). The overarching theme here – that healthcare workers wound up with symptoms of post-traumatic stress because of the enormous difficulties of coping with patients in a poorly understood environment of never-ending crisis – is not especially valuable, having been explored and discussed many times and in many places. What elements are useful in this book are the personal stories that thoroughly humanize the bland statistics so often used to describe the widespread depredations of COVID-19 – along with some of the prescriptive material that Delaney, who himself has suffered from post-traumatic stress, offers to pandemic survivors (whether healthcare workers or not: in a sense, every reader of this book is a pandemic survivor).

     The many first-person stories in the book are moving, and some are eye-opening. One COVID survivor writes of his “near-death experience” and the “vivid, lingering recollection of a certain sound that played inside my head” after his recovery – eventually learning that it was “the alarm for a ventilator, a signal to nurses that there was some kind of problem with the equipment,” and that the sound had somehow seeped into his unconscious mind while he was comatose. Then he mentions another remembered sound, “of a soothing, gentle voice directed at me following the haunting tone” – the voice of nurses caring for him and keeping him alive. That sort of first-hand experience is itself haunting in its description and is sure to make readers lucky enough to have escaped severe COVID all the more grateful for their own health and for the people who would have been there for them if needed.

     The book abounds in stories like this, and not only from patients. For example, one intensive-care-unit nurse manager, after noting that “the situation was new and frightening for all of us,” produces some details that are truly harrowing: “I’ll never forget walking into my COVID ICU and seeing every single patient intubated – something I had never seen before in my career. I spoke to some of the other nurses, who had been in the profession for decades, and they had never seen anything like it either.” In fact – and many professionals involved in COVID care would say this – “I felt as if I never stopped working throughout the entire pandemic.”

     More than working, the healthcare professionals never stopped caring, nor did they stop worrying about their own health, the health of their colleagues, and the health of their families – indeed, many lost family members during the pandemic, if not to COVID, then to the isolation and overwhelming loneliness that struck so deeply into so many lives and that will have repercussions for years, if not decades. The experiences are seared into memories: “We had to bag bodies right in front of patients, awake, aware, and scared…How devastating for the patients who saw this, as it was for us. It was unbearable, but we had to bear it.”

     So what made all this, any of this, bearable? What did healthcare workers on the front lines do? What could they do? This is where the prescriptive part of Heroes Are Human comes in. Drawing on his own experiences and a number of self-care programs for people confronting trauma, Delaney gives various recommendations for coping strategies, ranging from mindfulness to engagement with nature – and focusing in particular on reflection. At the end of each chapter, a page called “Reflection Direction” makes specific recommendations either as a general approach or based on that chapter’s content. These ideas are many and varied: Create a “reflection blog…to document your emotional, physical, and cognitive state.” Practice gratitude to obtain “higher levels of resiliency.” Understand “compassion fatigue” and find ways to have compassion for yourself, not only for others. “Reflect on the role love has in healing.” Think of and learn to practice “the Six C’s of Leadership,” which are “character, competence, courage, communication, commitment, and caring.” There are many more suggestions, not all of them applicable to every situation or every person, but all of them food for thought and all having the potential to help readers better cope with trauma in their own lives while becoming more appreciative of the enormous sacrifices that healthcare workers have been making to keep COVID patients alive and restore as many as possible to health and well-being. The reality is that heroes – real ones, not the chiseled absurdities of comics and cartoons – really are human as well as heroic. No real person can be a hero all the time, even though that is more or less what the COVID pandemic has demanded of many healthcare workers – some of whom have paid a tremendous price for trying to live up to the ultimately unattainable heroic ideal. Yes, Heroes Are Human suffers from some flaws in presentation, emphasis and (inevitably) timeliness, as the fallout from the COVID pandemic continues to accumulate. But the book enviably shows just how much healthcare workers have gone through, how much they still go through, what the effects of the pandemic are on them and on those they care for, and what every reader can do to develop a greater level of resiliency to become better able to cope with the next overwhelming systemic shock that is sure to come from somewhere, somehow, at some time.


Rachmaninoff: Prélude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2; Chopin: Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth., No. 20; Funeral March—third movement from Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, No. 2; Fredrick Kaufman: Partita for a Virus; The Whole in Parts; Marta Brankovich: Tempest; Jan Jirásek: Soulmate; Clint Mansel: Requiem for a Dream; Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera. Marta Brankovich, piano; Denver Cooper, acoustic guitar. Navona. $14.99.

Music from the Association for the Promotion of New Music, Volume 3. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

New Music for Trombone and Wind Ensemble by Felipe Salles, Salvatore Macchia, Jeffrey Holmes, and David Mallamud. Greg Spiridopoulos, trombone and alto trombone; UMass Wind Ensemble and Symphony Band conducted by Matthew Westgate. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Juxtapositions both of specific pieces of music and of instruments can provide new ways to hear sound and new ways to experience insights, emotions and other forms of connection between creators and perceivers. A new Navona CD featuring pianist Marta Brankovich is concerned mainly with comparing and contrasting older and newer forms of musical expressiveness – but there is a combination-of-instruments element to it in some places as well. The CD begins effectively enough with two four-minute works in C-sharp minor, Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells of Moscow” and Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne No. 20. The similarities and differences between the pieces are quite pronounced here, and brought into even sharper focus with Brankovich’s offering of Chopin’s famous Funeral March from his Piano Sonata, Op. 35, No. 2. But the minor-key gloom of these three well-known classics is only the start of a journey that quickly veers into much-more-contemporary fare, starting with the very distinctly Bach-like Partita for a Virus by Fredrick Kaufman (born 1936), which is reflective of the recent COVID-19 pandemic through the uplifting and stabilizing lens of the music of centuries ago. Then comes Brankovich’s own Tempest – whose disconnected elements and frequent alternations of loud and soft are intended as tie-ins to her years growing up in the turbulence of Serbia in the 1990s, but could just as easily be additional references to the destabilization caused by the recent pandemic. Next is Soulmate by Jan Jirásek (born 1955), which seems determined to include as many disparate musical elements as possible in a 12-minute piano piece, asking listeners to find unity – or at least connection – among the very different parts of the work. Then Brankovich offers another Kaufman work, also a 12-minute exploration: The Whole in Parts, which has structural elements of sonata form but the sound of tone clusters and striking atonality. The last two works on this disc feature Brankovich and guitarist Denver Cooper and return to the short form with which the CD began. Requiem for a Dream by Clint Mansel (born 1963) is here arranged by the performers for piano, guitar and electronic orchestra. The overtly unpleasant-sounding electronic elements may be intended to increase the emotional impact of the music, but they may also come across as more annoying than illuminating. Something analogous occurs in the performers’ similar arrangement of The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber (born 1948): the power-metal noises may be intended to reach out to audiences that would be less responsive to the piece’s original, far more emotive sound, but it is just as likely that whatever emotional impact the piece initially had will be vitiated by its performance in this guise. The CD as a whole meanders from here to there temporally and in terms of the types of works presented, leaving it to listeners to interconnect the material in ways that Brankovich herself never quite does.

     The combinatorial elements are much clearer on a New Focus Recordings release featuring composers from the Association for the Promotion of New Music. By definition, this is a CD with limited reach – the material here is not going to produce converts to the APNM cause or suddenly make listeners uninterested in avant-garde material gravitate to it. There are, however, some interesting mixtures here, especially in the three works (out of eight total) that combine electronics with non-electronic instruments. Chromatograph – Hommage to Švankmajer by Hiroya Miura combines electronics played by the composer with the sounds of the marimba (played by Mayumi Sekizawa), and is intended as an exploration of and tribute to stop-motion animation by Czech animator Jan Švankmajer. This is about a rarefied a reference as possible and will be almost certainly unknown to almost anyone encountering the music. Listeners will hear considerable use of tremolos both on marimba and electronically modified, with the marimba often becoming part of the electronic fabric. De la détente by Louis Goldford also features its composer on electronics, here mixed with violin (Pala Garcia) and cello (John Popham). Again, this is a highly personal piece whose referents will be unknown to almost everyone hearing it: it is dedicated to one of Goldford’s friends who has died and incorporates excerpts of the friend’s voice (from saved voicemails) into a sonic canvas that never quite settles down and that contains occasional flashes of lighter-sounding material. Avots by Krists Auznieks is the third piece with composer on electronics plus some non-electronic material – in this case a glockenspiel (played by Russell Fisher). This work is practically synonymous with “New Age” music (which is now old-fashioned) in its slow and quiet electronic flotation of the delicate sounds of the glockenspiel. The remaining pieces on this CD are all for electronics only, with the composers performing their own works in all cases. Miss Anderson by Erik Lundborg starts with a recording of an improvisation and turns it in a series of layovers of sound on sound. Huit Danses Surprise by Ionel Petroi has more activity than many of the works on this disc, especially in its frequent and rapid pitch changes. Three Trees 1 by Michael Gogins is mostly electronic arpeggios that sound more-or-less like growth or a sort of opening-up. When the Sky Clears by Peter Child uses essentially random, essentially meaningless text by Lina Viste Grønli to build toward a conclusion opposing former President Trump – a rather uninspiring climax despite the intended-to-be-hopeful ending of the work. And The koma is not for spinning by Aine Nakamura uses the composer’s own voice – sometimes singing, sometimes speaking English and Japanese – to create a collage that seems to strive toward meaning without ever quite attaining it. These highly personal works will connect only with listeners who know the composers personally and understand their inspirations, or who are determined to experience the musical avant-garde for its own sake.

     The forms of connection are clearer and more traditional on an MSR Classics CD featuring world première recordings of four very recently composed pieces for trombone and wind ensemble. The first of these has a title reminiscent of those used by APNM: Asynchronous, Synchronously. But Felipe Salles (born 1973) created this piece in 2020 with an eye very firmly on trombonist Greg Spiridopoulos, whose name is the title of the second movement (the two words of the piece’s overall title are the titles of the first and third movements, respectively). The work does actually have an electronic “feel” about it, and the sounds of the accompanying instruments tend, surprisingly, to be more interesting than those of the solo trombone. This is one of those modern pieces that seem to strain to be communicative or to show off a composer’s cleverness in sound juxtapositions. It has attractive audio elements, but not enough of them to justify its 20-minute length. Lacrima (2020) by Salvatore Macchia (born 1947) is even longer, at 23 minutes, and much more effective in its use of the trombone, whose sound here even recalls the instrument’s long-ago focused use in the church. The piece does not really sustain throughout, but it is well-constructed and often involving in its interplay of solo instrument and accompaniment. The longest piece on this disc, running half an hour, is Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble: A Nautical Trilogy (2022) by Jeffrey Holmes (born 1955). Less determinedly “modern” than the works by Salles and Macchia, Holmes’ is much more effective as a series of tone paintings: the three movements are “Zephyr,” “Fin Tale,” and “Catamaran,” and the music’s pacing and structure reflect the titles well enough to draw listeners in without requiring them to engage in mental or emotional gymnastics. Holmes also has a sure hand on the tiller, so to speak, in the orchestration of this work, with the solo trombone and wind ensemble developing their own personalities and also managing to merge their differing sounds to very good effect. This is a lengthy CD – 80 minutes – and as a result, the final piece on it is only partly offered on the disc, with its remainder available online. This work is the entertainingly titled Sir Dancealot’s Retro Workout Mix (2022) by David Mallamud (born 1974). The piece is in six movements, and the three offered on the CD provide a fair glimpse, through their titles, of the offbeat (so to speak) and amusingly quirky nature of the piece as a whole. These are the second, third and fourth movements, titled “The Coney Island Two-Step Strut,” “The Lusty Latin Lounge Land Lunge,” and “Cover Your Eyes, Harold!” The first of these combines an oompah feeling with a touch of vaudeville; the second gives Spiridopoulos plenty of chances to jazz things up with a gently sarcastic sense of swing; and the third takes “stripper music” as seriously as possible – which is to say, not seriously at all. It is really a shame that the entire Mallamud work did not fit on the disc, since it provides an excellent encore (or set of encores) and a delightful lighten-up feeling after the seriousness of the other pieces. Of course, it could show up in its entirety on another Spiridopoulos recording at some point – and that would not be a bad thing at all.

March 23, 2023


The Knowing. By Ani Di Franco. Painted by Julia Mathew. Penguin Workshop. $18.99.

     It is wonderful to have a book for young children that, in addition to looking beautiful, teaches them to go beyond surface appearances and look inward to find out the truth about themselves and (by implication) others. This is especially welcome at a time when so many sociopolitical pressures are designed to provide benefits to specific groups because of superficial, appearance-dominated perceptions: because of skin color, for instance, or because of a form of dress or a particular activity. The underlying motivations of those pushing the “use appearance for benefits” approach may be fine, at least some of the time, but they are inherently divisive and frequently self-contradictory – for instance, by stating that people with certain skin colors deserve special treatment while people with certain body types (such as a very high body mass index) should be discussed without reference to physical appearance.

     So The Knowing is a bit of fresh air, thanks to Ani Di Franco writing, for example, “I have a color/ to my hair/ my skin/ my eyes/ but this is not all of who I am.” Julia Mathew’s painted illustrations conjure up a world at once real and existing on the edge of reality, a world in which a glance into a mirror seems to reveal more than a reflection of a young girl’s physical self, while a gaze through a window shows not only the actual outdoors but also scenes from very far away and in many guises.

     However, there is a foundational difficulty with The Knowing that makes the book less inward-eye-opening than it could be. The title refers to some sort of mystical concept that is never explained, never defined, never even discussed in an author’s note for parents, as might be expected at the back of the book. Adults and children alike are left to figure out the title – whose two words are repeated throughout the narrative – for themselves. And this can be frustrating. For example, Di Franco writes, “I have beliefs/and someday those beliefs might change,” but also writes repeatedly that “I can take heart in what’s showing/ knowing it’s all a part of The Knowing.” So somehow The Knowing is an ineffable belief that does not change, even though the girl narrating the book has beliefs that might change, but even if they do, they do not, since “we’re all a part of The Knowing.” The final page’s illustration is inevitable in this context, showing the girl looking toward the horizon where a bright, beautiful sun is just rising or setting – that is, clearly looking toward whatever The Knowing is.

     Of course, it is not necessary to define The Knowing, and some of the poetry inherent in Di Franco’s writing would be diminished if it were more explanatory. But this is not a book for adults – it is a picture book for young children, who are sure to ask what The Knowing means and why the little girl narrator keeps talking about it. That will force adults who read with children to come up with their own explanation of The Knowing – and again, there is nothing wrong with that, assuming Di Franco would be satisfied with having some adults say The Knowing means “God,” others say the phrase means “Nature,” others say it refers to “The Universe,” and others say it has to do with a kind of collective unconscious in which all people are interconnected. And those are just some of the possibilities.

     Mysticism-oriented books for adults tend to make things evanescent and leave exact interpretations to readers, who bring their own gloss to whatever pronouncements are made and interpret the writing in ways that relate to their own lives. Bringing the same approach to a picture book for young children, however, works less well. Di Franco and Mathew are clearly trying to teach something, to show something, to encourage their very young readers to accept that they are more than the sum of their appearance plus their activities and are part of something larger. But by providing so little guidance for kids on this inward, spiritual journey, they are creating a situation in which young readers need to rise well above themselves to feel and analyze what The Knowing means, if they can – or need to turn to grown-ups, who may have their own notions of what The Knowing could be but have no way to be sure if their thoughts parallel those of Di Franco and Mathew. Perhaps this does not matter; perhaps The Knowing is intended only to communicate that one’s skin color, interests, thoughts and accomplishments are not all that is but are merely parts of something greater. If that is the case, so be it. But The Knowing feels like a book that wants to guide young children on a specific path that it never quite delineates.