December 01, 2016
Epic Big Nate. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $50.
An exceptional extravaganza of a slipcased, hardcover celebration, Epic Big Nate marks 25 years of Lincoln Peirce’s strip with a mixture of compilation, commentary, discussion, analysis and insight. This is more than a treat for Big Nate fans – it is a feast of epic proportions. There are nearly 500 oversize pages of strips, interviews with Peirce (pronounced “purse”), commentary by Peirce on specific stories, and a truly wonderful year-by-year look at selected strips that shows with abundant clarity how Peirce’s style has evolved through a quarter of a century.
Pretty much everything a Big Nate fan might want to know about the strip and its creator is here: its slow start, the way it eventually became super-popular, its hits and misses in other (non-newspaper) media, Peirce’s contact with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz (including a spectacular four-panel tribute in which Nate’s baseball team plays Charlie Brown’s), Peirce’s mentor relationship with Jay Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and tons of tidbits from Peirce about how and why he has changed the strip, added characters, and tried to deal with mistakes (for example, hyphenating the last name of Nate’s nemesis, Gina, after realizing that he had given her two different last names at two different times). Readers find out why Nate’s mom never appears: Peirce basically forgot to put her in and now thinks it is much too late to introduce her – in retrospect, he would have made Nate’s dad a widower. They learn why the cast of characters keeps getting larger: Peirce originally thought it would be confusing to have too many characters (he started with six), but when he realized that the centerpiece of the strip would be Nate’s school, he also realized that lots and lots of people pass through a preteen’s school life. They learn why Peirce has, to the disappointment of many fans, stopped showing Nate’s own comics, which were integral to developing his personality in earlier years: after a number of readers commented that they did not understand the strip on days when it featured Nate’s comics, Peirce decided that Nate’s creations “might not be serving the strip’s best interests,” so he phased them out “even though I miss them.” Readers learn a bit more about the never-seen Chester, whose influence and invisibility are taken right from the Peanuts world, where adults are unseen but occasionally potent presences: “Based on Nate’s interactions with him, Chester sounds like a cross between Bigfoot and King Kong. That’s why I’ll never draw him. I couldn’t do him justice.”
There is so much here that it is hard to know where to start. Well, at the beginning is as good a place as any, of course, but the comments by Peirce are scattered throughout the book, and it is not necessary to read them in any particular order. In fact, doing some serendipitous browsing in Epic Big Nate is a great deal of fun. You might happen upon the page on which Peirce explains something about Spitsy, the neighbor’s dog that is never sufficiently doglike for Nate and always wears an Elizabethan collar: “Nate and Spitsy are like opposite sides of the same coin. Nate’s exasperated with Spitsy because he’s not the dog Nate wants him to be, but he loves Spitsy just the same. Turn the coin over and you see the same thing. Nate drives his friends and family crazy, but they can’t help loving him. At the end of the day, Nate and Spitsy are a lot alike.” Or you might turn to the page on which Peirce discusses how he came up with some subsidiary characters: “Take School Picture Guy. He’s this übernerd who originally appeared in the strip as a once-a-year adversary: Nate didn’t like him because his pictures always made Nate look bad. But the guy was so [much] fun to write for, I couldn’t confine him to only one appearance per year. So I started writing him into other story lines.” Another example: “Nate went to soccer camp one summer, and I thought it would be funny for one of the coaches to be a psycho drill-sergeant type. But I didn’t have a character like that in my arsenal. So I invented Coach John. And he’s fun to draw, so he stuck around.” It is clear from these and many other comments that Peirce has a genuine relationship with his characters – yes, he creates and draws them, but they “want to” be used more or less, in various new ways, and even “want to” look somewhat different: Peirce actually says that he did not realize his style was evolving over time, but was just doing what the characters seemed to want done.
Peirce is a jovial and genial host in Epic Big Nate, with enough self-deprecation to come across as charming. He notes, for example, that calling Nate’s school “P.S. 38” was a spontaneous decision that wrongly made it seem to be in New York City (he actually envisions Nate as living in Maine, where Peirce and his family live). On the plus side, he comments, “I’m not sure exactly what was going on in 2008, but the creative juices must have been flowing. I came up with some story lines that year that I’m very proud of.” Peirce is also proud of the fact that he hand-draws and hand-letters Big Nate, and writes all the material himself. It is that constant personal touch that makes the strip so special – that, and Peirce’s continued ability to stay in touch with his inner preteen: “Just because Nate’s young doesn’t mean his feelings are frivolous. You can be in love when you’re eleven. You feel things pretty intensely at that age.” As for the fact that Nate has stayed 11 (sometimes 12) for a quarter of a century, Peirce says he has no intention of changing that: he still has plenty of material to develop based on Nate’s age and school life: “Nate never ages, which I suppose for some people would be paradise. But it also means that he’s trapped in sixth grade with Mrs. Godfrey for all eternity.” That may be hell for Nate, or at least purgatory, but for the many, many fans of Big Nate – likely even more if they encounter the strip through Epic Big Nate – the situation is a little bit of comic-strip heaven.
Yael Azoulay #3: The Reykjavik Assignment. By Adam LeBor. Harper. $15.99.
Lock and Key #1: The Initiation. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $17.99.
The trilogy-plus centered on a United Nations covert negotiator (a strange concept) named Yael Azoulay comes to a conclusion in The Rejkjavik Assignment, which is better read after The Geneva Option and The Washington Stratagem than as a standalone (the “plus” part of the series, a short story called The Istanbul Exchange, is optional). The basic idea here is a typical one for sort-of-political sort-of-thrillers: the world is dirty and requires dirty dealings in the name of goodness, and someone has to put together deals that the rest of us would rather not know about, interacting with all sorts of unsavory characters while keeping his or her personal life compartmentalized, all for the betterment of humanity. It is a trifle naïve to see the United Nations as the fount of goodness, but even when settings are realistic – and Adam LeBor is good at making them believable – there has to be some sense of fantasyland to justify the inevitable derring-do in a sequence such as this. The U.N. is as good an imaginary landscape as any. The sequence’s conclusion brings much of Azoulay’s personal life and past into the foreground as she comes to New York City from Istanbul and has to deal with various shady dealings possibly perpetrated by Iranian agents, the bad-guys-du-jour. Among the disturbing events are shootings of top U.N. officials and the re-emergence of the usual sneaky-type operatives from the usual sneaky-type security firm, an outfit run by Clarence Clairborne, who gave Yael considerable trouble earlier in the series. In addition to her recent past coming back to haunt her, or at least track her, the thirtysomething Yael is encountering trouble from her more-distant past in the form of rumors about the death of her brother in Rwanda many years earlier. Between the family-connection concerns and her own worries about her unsatisfactory love life, Yael has a lot to juggle in The Reykjavik Assignment. That would be all right, but the problem here is that the reader has to do the juggling, too, and there are so many plot threads that it can be hard to know what to follow at what time – the sense of major elements vs. minor ones is not always clear. Furthermore, LeBor creates a kind of perils-of-Pauline style here, to a greater extent than in the previous novels: there are so many cliffhangers that readers will start to expect them, which is scarcely the point of setting them up. The strengths of LeBor’s writing remain evident here, notably in the verisimilitude he creates by tying his fictional protagonist to real-world events: “If she really was a prisoner, eventually they would have to get her out of the building and into a vehicle. It was just a question of waiting. Entering and exiting buildings and vehicles always made for the most vulnerable moments. Former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic had one of the heaviest security details in the world, but it had not prevented a sniper from killing him as he stepped out of his car one afternoon in Belgrade.” Readers who want a fictional sense of going behind real-world headlines, and who believe in the U.N. as essentially a force for good – and an adept one at fielding agents as competent as Yael – will enjoy this novel and find it a more-than-satisfactory series conclusion. Its formulaic elements, though, are ever-present, and those not enamored of LeBor’s writing will find the book alternately thin and overdone.
Aimed at younger readers but packed with the kinds of ins and outs to be expected from an experienced writer of crime novels for adults, Ridley Pearson’s Lock and Key series sets itself a highly ambitious goal: nothing less than the reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes canon from the point of view of Holmes’ greatest antagonist, James Moriarty. The notion of having the “bad guy” become central to a rethinking of a well-known plot is nothing new – think of Wicked, for instance – but doing so in the Holmes context is a rather bold move. It is also something of a stretch. To make it work, Pearson invents a younger sister for Moriarty, giving her the unlikely name of Moria (yes, “Moria Moriarty,” and perhaps the echo of Tolkien’s Moria is intentional). Pearson then moves the Holmes story to modern times and to the United States, although Holmes remains British and the location where the action occurs – a boarding school called Baskerville (what else?) Academy – has been brought brick by brick across the pond to the U.S. The awkward namings and relocation will not matter to readers encountering Holmes and Moriarty for the first time, and are presumably designed to make the story more appealing to 21st-century Americans. The Initiation is an “origin” story, designed to probe and explain the enmity between Holmes and Moriarty that eventually ended both their lives, or at least seemed to, at the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes and Moriarty are roommates at school, and both are forceful and stubborn – apparently those characteristics are intended as stand-ins for the “genius” label, since the two are supposed to evolve into polar opposites of equal intelligence and cunning. Pearson is inclined to tell people how smart the two are instead of actually showing them doing smart things; this is especially the case for Moriarty, who comes across as a whiner. Holmes, for his part, keeps trying to be friendly to Moriarty, for no apparent reason. Moria makes a good enough narrator, her own cleverness more evident than that of her older brother, her sneakiness about on par with his but her moral compass more acceptable. The book’s plot is almost incidental to the layout (it is not quite “development”) of the characters. The story revolves around a red envelope with a clue that is left for Moriarty; he intends to pursue matters on his own, but Holmes and Moria are determined to help, whether he wants them to or not. There are other clues as well, and of course a secret society, and the notion is that Holmes and Moriarty have to work together to assemble all the bits and pieces and solve the mystery. But plotting is actually not the book’s strong point: Pearson throws in so many details and such long explanations of event that matters sometimes become difficult to follow and, worse, tedious. The early part of the book is stronger than its second half, and perhaps readers pulled into the novel will stay with it through the rather rougher, highly explanatory time in its later pages. Those who already know Holmes will find little intriguing in this reimagining, but those encountering him for the first time may welcome this entry into a New World version of the Holmes-Moriarty conflict.
Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal. By Dan TDM (Dan The Diamond Minecart, real name Dan Middleton). Illustrated by Doreen Mulryan and Mike Love. Harper. $19.99.
404 Not Found. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $9.99.
Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes. By Kimberly & James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.
The cross-pollination between the Internet and printed books is now proceeding at a furious pace, apparently on the assumption that people who like things they see bouncing around online will like them just as much when they appear in static form between covers. The notion works better in some cases than others. In the case of Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal, it does not work particularly well. “Dan TDM” has a popular YouTube channel, but the superficiality and motion that characterize such an online presence do not hold up very well when translated to a graphic novel. Certainly fans of “Dan TDM” and his characters, which are very obviously Minecraft-inspired and Minecraft-derived, will enjoy seeing them here, and certainly Doreen Mulryan and Mike Love do an adequate job of bringing them to the printed page. But readers ages 8-12, at whom this book is aimed, have many, many better graphic novels from which to choose: the attraction here is purely a matter of wanting to see these characters in a new form. There is essentially no plot: bad guy wants to rule world and good guys want to stop him. There is no explanation: enchanted crystals suddenly show up, and just how and by whom or what they were or are enchanted is never known. Action is suitable for four-year-olds but far too tame for preteens. Dialogue is super-bland: “Whoa! It exploded!” “Run!” “Watch out!” “Let’s begin!” “Are you ready to go?” “What are you talking about?” And of course there are the usual “ha-ha-ha-ha” exclamations. The animal characters are far more interesting than the human (or more-or-less-human-shaped) ones: Grim, a dog who “is now a living skeleton version of himself” (never explained), and some pigs that have encountered a crystal shard, with the result that one can talk. The whole production is puerile – not that there is anything wrong with that for typical Web use. But books invite closer looks at characters and plot than YouTube channels do, and Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal just does not have enough originality, much less enchantment, to attract readers unless they are already strongly committed to the online versions of its characters and settings.
The Oatmeal is somewhat more successful at making the transition from Web to print. Matthew Inman has a sufficiently bizarre sense of humor so the move from Internet to book form is often successful. His latest foray into this changeover is a coloring book, of all things, and that is something that is not to be found in electronic form (“color this” apps are a whole different experience). Whether anyone will actually want to color 404 Not Found is another matter: the fun here comes from the extremely weird sort-of-story that runs through the black-and-white pages, and from the drawings themselves. The title of course refers to the common error message that computer users get when attempting to follow a broken link – except that here Inman makes a joke of the phrase by having “404” refer to a robot (all the robots have numbers) that has mysteriously disappeared from its usual cubicle. The book sets forth a series of weird and sometimes very funny scenarios as the other robots try to figure out what could have happened to 404 – as Inman produces illustrative drawings that, colored or not, are highly amusing to see. The rhyming here is imperfect, but readers probably will not care – they will be too busy looking at the pictures. Thus, “Perhaps he left this worldly place [404 seen strapped to the outside of a rising rocket]/ and found an evil race of cats from space [strangely shaped cats carrying chainsaws]./ Maybe those cats from space [all now cutely round, one wearing underwear, but still carrying chainsaws]/ returned to this world with murderous haste [Earth completely surrounded by the cats].” And so on. Some of the scenarios here are much shorter than the space-cats one, taking only two pages: “He could have gone to the chatter holes [holes in the ground with empty speech balloons rising from them]/ and made the mistake of feeding the trolls [sharp-toothed, large-mouthed creatures emerge and attack].” The other robots think maybe 404 “went golfin’/ with a pregnant dolphin,” or “met a pair of baby owls,/ and they became the best of pals” (although that possibility does not end well for 404). Eventually 404 turns up nearby, all is fine, and everybody gets cake. Robot cake, that is. 404 Not Found is enjoyable (if overdone) silliness entirely on its own – no Internet connection necessary, even though it is the Internet connection of The Oatmeal that led to the book’s creation in the first place.
The connection is not online but with an already-popular character in kids’ books in a different coloring-and-drawing book, James Dean’s Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw. The star here is big-eyed, sleepy-eyed Pete, of course, and this is an interestingly conceived book. Yes, it has things to color, but the idea is that before kids color anything, they should draw it on their own. There is already a lot of color in the book, to serve as a guide and provide visual interest as Dean gives step-by-step demonstrations of ways to use simple shapes to create the characters in Pete’s world: his brother, Bob; Robo-Pete; Cavecat Pete; dog pal Emma; Farmer Pete; a donkey on which Pete can ride; Cowabunga Pete, with surfboard; Pete in a baseball uniform and construction outfit; Toad using a bulldozer; Pete painting a picture of Goldie; Pete’s pirate pumpkin; and many more. The basic instructional material appears on crosshatched sections of the pages that look like graph paper, allowing kids to try each shape and character in the same size and orientation used by Dean. Then there is considerable white space for freehand drawing, including Dean’s own renditions of scenery that goes with the characters. For instance, Dean shows a train and station on a page where kids learn to draw Pete’s grandma (who is waiting for him to arrive), and includes a “Bus Stop” sign and sidewalk to use when drawing Pete, Callie and their lunch boxes at the stop. Dean offers a nice mixture of characters, plus some props – a sand castle, drum set, wrecking-ball crane, skateboard and more. Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw is clearly intended only for Pete’s fans – it will not attract kids unless they know the character and his settings already – but for those who do like Pete and his world, this book will provide an enjoyable and colorful additional level of involvement that will be most welcome.
A regular, story-focused Pete the Cat book would be just the thing to get kids interested in Pete the Cat: My First I Can Draw, and a new one that could fill the bill is Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes. It is not, unfortunately, one of the best entries in Kimberly and James Dean’s ongoing series, but it does have some pleasant elements and does include a number of Pete’s friends. It is sort of a counting book and sort of a mystery: Pete and Gus the platypus make 10 cupcakes for a party, but the cupcakes disappear two by two until eventually all are gone. There is no counting up to 10, but there is counting down from 10, by twos. There is also the question of where the cupcakes have gone. Unfortunately, the text here is choppy – it is not a matter of poor rhymes, as in 404 Not Found, but one in which lines are very different lengths: “They counted the cupcakes lined up straight./ Now there were only eight!” “Now there were only six!/ Someone must be playing tricks!/ But who?/ Pete and Gus did not know what to do!” Eventually this very small mystery is solved when it turns out that one of the friends could not resist the yummy cupcakes and ate them all – so of course he is disinvited to the party. But then Pete decides that he deserves a second chance because he only “made a mistake,” and sure enough, he brings even more cupcakes to the party than Pete and Gus originally made – 16, in fact. So everything ends as happily as usual, and the drawing style is as exaggerated and big-eyed as usual. The front and back inside covers offer added treats in the form of many types, sizes and colors of cupcakes, including one that looks like a baseball, one sporting an electric-guitar decoration, one that says “meow,” and one that has teeth. Those inside covers are actually more fun than the book itself, but longtime Pete fans will enjoy the story in any case – no Internet access required.
The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution. By John Oller. Da Capo. $26.99.
The American Revolution was not won by any individual, but the search for “big man” heroes is an ongoing one that started with George Washington, still a prime candidate, and has continued through the years with focuses on this or that indispensable person without whom the colonies would have failed to establish the United States. The whole premise is nonsense, especially when the American Revolution is seen in the geopolitical terms in which Great Britain largely viewed it (the New World was in large part a new location for ongoing Old World balance-of-powers conflicts between the British on the one hand and the French and Spanish on the other). Still, there are always new candidates for the mantle of “indispensable man,” the latest of whom has duly emerged in a well-researched biography by John Oller – a book that shows its academic seriousness by having 250 pages of narrative and more than 100 of notes, bibliography and index. Oller’s subject is Francis Marion (c. 1732-1795), a South Carolinian of French Huguenot descent who joined the fight against the British in 1780, at the age of 48. Marion weighed 110 pounds, stood five-feet-two-inches tall, and was knock-kneed – not the physical portrait of a fighter of any repute. He was a plantation owner and, scarcely surprisingly in his time and place, a slaveholder. More to the point for the American Revolution, he proved to be a master of what we now deem guerrilla tactics, disrupting the regular British army in more than two dozen engagements – which is a better word than “battles,” because Marion was a master of harassment, of worrying the enemy from its fringes, of avoiding direct confrontation in favor of attacks that would keep the larger, far-better-equipped British army of General Charles Cornwallis off balance and prevent it from marching north from South Carolina to join General Henry Clinton’s troops in New York and trap Washington’s army between the two forces.
Oller writes something just short of hagiography where Marion is concerned, although he is uncomfortable acknowledging the quite ordinary fact of Marion owning slaves – Oller eventually declares that Marion does not appear to have been a cruel master, which sounds like damning with faint praise. But this foray into political correctness and imposition of the values of the 21st century on the 18th is only a small part of The Swamp Fox. Most of it is about the facts and fiction surrounding Marion and the difficulty of separating them. Certainly Marion’s use of guerrilla tactics was notable, but it was scarcely new: Marion himself said he learned it from the Cherokee during the French and Indian War, in which Marion served as a lieutenant. Certainly Marion had more-moderate views of the rapine of warfare than other combatants did: a strict disciplinarian, he specifically forbade his men to plunder and commit other punitive acts after victories. In fact, defeated Tories who swore allegiance to the new nation were given full pardons and allowed to keep their property. And certainly Marion did have many victories: almost all his engagements against the British were successful, including one notable direct battle – an exception to Marion’s usual method of fighting – in which Marion’s forces ambushed a British column on a bridge near Charleston, killing 25 soldiers and wounding more than 80 while suffering only one dead and three wounded themselves.
Few except dedicated students of American history will realize how serious the war in South Carolina was in Marion’s time: Oller, whose research is nothing if not meticulous, notes that of the thousand colonists killed in battles in 1780, 66% died in South Carolina – and of the 2,000 wounded, 90% were injured there. So Marion’s contribution surely came at a crucial time for the Revolution. But there were so many crucial times, so many crucial places – as is only to be expected in a war that dragged on for six years – that highlighting Marion’s role as the one that “saved” the Revolution is at the least an overstatement. Still, Oller’s book is packed with fascinating tidbits for those who cannot get enough of military histories and/or accounts of the American Revolution. For example, Marion’s sobriquet, “Swamp Fox,” was given to him by an admirer, but in fact he kept out of swamps if at all possible, avoiding insects and diseases by maintaining encampments on high, dry land whenever he could. In truth, it is arguable whether Oller’s book is rich in detail or overloaded with it – the descriptive decision will depend on the extent to which a reader is gripped by Oller’s narrative. And that in turn will depend on the reader’s response to the rather effusive praise that Oller heaps on Marion and the substantial credit he gives Marion for derailing a potential death blow to the American Revolution. Marion has not gone wholly unnoticed in recent times: a Mel Gibson film from 2000, The Patriot, was loosely based on Marion’s activities, and there was even a Disney TV series based (again loosely) on Marion (1959-1961). The Swamp Fox is, however, the first full-scale biography of Marion in more than 40 years, and is intriguing for the way it sheds considerable light on a man whose name now adorns 29 American cities and towns, 17 counties, a university, a national forest, and a park on Capitol Hill – more locations, Oller notes, than have been named for any Revolutionary War figure except George Washington.
Bach: Christmas Oratorio. Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones; Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt. Linn Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).
James Whitbourn: Carolae—Music for Christmas. Eric Rieger, tenor; Daryl Robinson, organ; Westminster Williamson Voices conducted by James Jordan. Naxos. $12.99.
John Rutter: Visions (2016); Requiem (1985). Temple Church Boys’ Choir, Cambridge Singers and Aurora Orchestra conducted by John Rutter. Collegium. $16.99.
A Great Distance: A Collection of Chinese and American Art Song. Juliet Petrus, soprano; Lydia Qiu, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Thomas Osborne: Like Still Water; Dreams of Sky and Sea; And the Waves Sing Because They Are Moving; Songs of a Thousand Autumns. Tracy Satterfield, soprano; members of Aperio. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Genuine masterpieces that are associated with specific holidays are few and far between. Two that are preeminent are Handel’s Messiah for Easter and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The result is that these works tend to be over-represented by recordings, and it is easy to wonder whether yet another version of either of them could possibly be worthwhile. On a new Linn Records release, it takes about 30 seconds for John Butt and the Dunedin Consort to answer that query with a resounding “yes” where Bach’s work is concerned. The opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket, is sit-up-and-take-notice bright and brilliant, so involving and appealing that it practically pulls listeners to the edge of their seats in anticipation of what is to come. It is hard to imagine a better start of the Christmas Oratorio than this one. And the passion and intensity never flag through the six cantatas that make up this work. Butt does an especially wonderful job of highlighting the distinctions among the six, which Bach orchestrates very carefully to evoke specific aspects of the Christmas story. The brilliance of sound dominates Part 1. Part 2 maintains a rural focus, befitting the story of the shepherds abiding in their fields, with extensive use of oboes and flutes. Part 3 has an inward sound, emphasized by the solo violin in the second aria, and is concerned with contemplation and humility. The dance-like opening and closing music of Part 4 transports listeners to a more elegant venue, with a wonderful second aria in which Bach uses tenor, two violins and continuo to proclaim the strength drawn from meditating on Jesus’ name. Part 5 is all about the star that leads the wise men, and the lifting of spirits that the celestial display portends. And Part 6, which again offers brilliance along the line of Part 1, does so in connection with the sure victory of Jesus and his followers over the forces of darkness. Soloists and chorus alike are ideally suited for their roles in this splendid reading of the score, and the instrumental playing is exceptional. Butt has studied Bach’s performance practices extensively, and puts that knowledge to superb use both in the solo passages and in the choruses. This is an unusual recording because it has, on the one hand, excellent intellectual underpinnings, and on the other, so much visceral attraction through the quality of the performance that the work seems to unfold naturally and in the only way it possibly can. The many other recordings of the Christmas Oratorio show this not to be the case, of course, and indeed, numerous excellent versions of this music are available. But this one is transcendent, in the sense that it encapsulates the meaning of Christmas as Bach saw it and at the same time goes well beyond the season to speak to listeners at any time of year. Butt makes it clear in his booklet notes that he does not see the performance as “definitive” and doubts that any single reading can be, saying that this recording “is definitely not meant to provide the model for all possible performances of this work.” That is a suitably modest comment, but one that belies the many excellences here: this may not be a definitive reading, but it is one to which there are ample reasons to turn again and again for enjoyment inextricably woven with enlightenment.
The intentions and music are far more modest on a new Naxos CD of Christmas music, mostly by James Whitbourn (born 1963). This is a strictly seasonal item, and one that features a smattering of world première recordings: Veni et illumina (2015), The Magi’s Dream (2011), and A great and mighty wonder (2002). And it concludes, rather interestingly, with a work that is not by Whitbourn but by Garth Edmundson (1892-1971): Toccata on Von Himmel Hoch from 1937, which caps the material quite effectively. As for the mostly short individual items here, they all communicate their messages in the straightforward manner for which Whitbourn is known, although it is a trifle odd that the Missa Carolae of 2004 is here split into three parts, with other works inserted among them. And it is a trifle jarring to hear the mass’s concluding Agnus Dei followed by a 2003 Steve Pilkington arrangement of the Coventry Carol. Also here is Pilkington’s 1994 arrangement of I Wonder as I Wander. The performances are uniformly fine of the music by Whitbourn and others: the Westminster Williamson Voices are clear, enunciate well, and sing with suitable understanding and reverence. This is a (+++) CD in part because of its strictly limited appeal and in part because the arrangement of the material is on the odd side – one interruption of Missa Carolae, for example, comes from Winter’s Wait, Whitbourn’s 2010 setting of Robert Tear’s poem, which sounds strange coming after the Gloria and before the Sanctus.
Another major contemporary British composer of accessible and well-crafted vocal music, John Rutter (born 1945), comes across more effectively on a new (++++) Collegium CD that represents the Cambridge Singers’ second recording of Rutter’s Requiem as well as the first recording of a major new work, Visions. These are pieces of significant religious expression, but they are not limited to the Christmas season and are not, for that matter, entirely created using standard Christian texts. Rutter did something rather bold with his Requiem, mixing parts of the traditional Latin words with several English-language psalms. Thus, the Kyrie is succeeded by a movement based on Psalm 130, and Agnus Dei does not conclude the work – it is followed by Psalm 23 and then by Lux aeterna. Rutter does some things here in accordance with tradition, for example by orchestrating the Sanctus brightly and using bells and timpani to good effect. He does other things in a less-expected way, such as writing a cello solo for the movement based on Psalm 130. Rutter’s work is sometimes deemed a bit too accessible, and it certainly shows influences of pop music in its rather saccharine emotional expression and its easy-to-sing-and-hear harmonies. But his Requiem is quite effective in its mixing of traditional and added elements, and it gets a very fine, well-blended and well-balanced reading here. As for Visions, this is a four-movement work for solo violin, harp, string orchestra and treble voices. Its focus is Jerusalem – not the divided and highly controversial city of today, except by implication, but the Jerusalem that the biblical prophets referred to again and again as the Holy City. Kerson Leong, the solo violinist here, is the performer for whom this part was written, and he does a fine job with it. And the movements are expressive of what is essentially a utopian ideal of heavenly peace on Earth – a suitable Christmastime message, to be sure, but not a specifically seasonal one, being the sort of unrealistic but hoped-for wish that is suitable at any time, in any season.
The vocal material on a (+++) MSR Classics CD has some intriguing elements even though it is of lesser consequence. A Great Distance is a “concept” release, designed to explore the mutual influence of Western and Chinese cultures on each other’s art songs. This is a bit of an abstruse concept, and while Juliet Petrus sings the works here sensitively and with subtlety of intonation and expression – and is well backed up by pianist Lydia Qiu – the musical material itself is less than compelling. Three Chinese folk songs, heard at the end of the CD, are especially pleasant in their forthright simplicity. And the Four Chinese Love Lyrics by John Duke that precede the folk songs are the best example of cross-pollination to be heard here. The remaining material is intermittently interesting without ever be musically compelling enough to encourage listeners to hear this recording as more than an attempt to make what is foundationally an academic argument regarding mutual musical influences. In addition to Duke, the composers heard here are Huang Zi, Xiao Youmei, Qing Zhu, John Alden Carpenter, Ding Shande, and Luo Maishuo. The China-originating material retains thematic elements common in Chinese poetry, and sometimes (but not always) is presented musically using Chinese musical sounds, or at least ones that are exotic by Western standards. The American material makes an effort to sound “Chinese-y” through text choice and certain musical elements. All this shows that Chinese and American composers alike are interested in exploring some new forms of expression and are willing to reach beyond the typical confines of Western and Oriental art songs, respectively, to do so. This is good to know, but it is something less than revelatory; the CD is pleasantly off the beaten track for listeners looking for something a bit new and different in the art-song realm.
Vocal elements are only part of another (+++) MSR Classics release, this one featuring world première recordings of four works by Thomas Osborne (born 1978). This music too has an Oriental connection: the longest work here, Songs of a Thousand Autumns for soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano, written in 2006, uses 13 texts by Korean poets Ono no Komachi and Sei Shonagon; and Dreams of Sky and Sea for soprano, percussion and piano, written in 2012, uses Japanese texts by Kim Sowol. Water metaphors are common in both works: “I know nothing about villages where fisherfolk dwell” and “Since my heart placed me on board your drifting ship” in the former, for example, and “The Sea” and “Red Tide” in the latter. Osborne’s style is one of fairly straightforward modernity – it is not so much undistinguished as it is un-distinctive. He handles the rhythms of the poetry successfully in an essentially atonal but not strongly dissonant mode, but the accompaniment adds little to the words, which are evocative enough in themselves. The CD also includes two water-themed non-vocal works: Like Still Water (2004) for percussion and piano, and And the Waves Sing Because They Are Moving (also 2004) for piano solo. As the titles show, these pieces too have poetic inspiration, even though they do not contain sung poetry. Here too, however, the titles lead listeners to expect a level of impressionism that is not forthcoming. The music seems to reflect Osborne’s highly personal feelings about water and what lies over a distant horizon that can barely be glimpsed far beyond a liquid expanse. The communicative nature of the material, though, is not sufficiently precise to indicate what Osborne sees, or thinks he sees; nor is it involving enough to encourage listeners to come up with their own aquatic impressions. The performers, from a contemporary-music ensemble called Aperio, approach the material with skill and understanding, and soprano Tracy Satterfield emotes well in the two vocal works. But the CD seems an undertaking most likely to appeal to those who already know Osborne’s music rather than to anyone outside his inner circle.
Schubert: Valses Nobles, D. 969; Brahms: Waltzes, Op. 39; Dvořák: Waltzes, Op. 54; Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales. Peter Schaaf, piano. SchaafRecords.com. $12.
Bruce Adolphe: Chopin Dreams; Seven Thoughts Considered as Music; Piano Puzzlers. Carlo Grante, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op. 17; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Haydn: Sonata in E-flat. Jasmin Arakawa, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Philip Glass: Glassworlds, Volume 5—Enlightenment: Mad Rush; Metamorphosis Two; 600 Lines; The Sound of Silence. Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
A CD cleverly titled 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys gives pianist Peter Schaaf the unusual opportunity to present waltzes in easy-to-compare-and-contrast groups: a brief “Schubert group” and somewhat longer groupings by Brahms, Dvořák and Ravel. The result is a fascinating overview of the waltz from the early 19th century to the early 20th, albeit without material from the Viennese waltz masters (it is worth remembering Brahms’ famous autograph of the first few bars of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube: “Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms”). The 12-waltz Schubert set, written in 1828, near the end of the composer’s life, sparkles: most of these little gems run less than a minute and only one is longer than two minutes, yet within their brief compass they tantalizingly inveigle themselves into the ear, evanescing almost as soon as they start. They are trifles, true, but highly charming ones, and Schaaf’s delicate touch fits them wonderfully. The 16 Brahms waltzes date to 1865 and were a direct tribute the Viennese waltz, with one of them, in A-flat, becoming highly popular on its own, if not quite at Blue Danube level. These are also short works – once again, only a single one lasts more than two minutes – but they have plenty of lilt and rhythmic panache. Schaaf plays the more difficult of the two solo-piano versions that Brahms made, but no strain is evident in his performance: everything flows smoothly, and the contrasts among the works – seven of which are in minor keys, scarcely the norm for waltzes – come through especially well. The real find on this disc is the eight-waltz group by Dvořák, which dates to 1879 and is rarely heard. Anyone listening to Schaaf’s performance will wonder why. These are significantly more substantial works than those of Schubert or Brahms, filled with mood and tempo contrasts and containing distinct Slavonic elements. Three of the eight are in minor keys, and it is tempting to see this set as somehow tied to Brahms’ Op. 39, just as Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are tied to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. But the comparison in this case is inconsequential: the Dvořák waltzes set their own standards and their own moods, and their harmonies are quite different from those of Brahms. Perhaps it is their musical complexity that has kept them from popularity – they have more depth than the pleasant but rather superficial Schubert and Brahms sets – but Schaaf’s warmly knowing performance argues strongly that these pieces deserve more-frequent hearing. After all these delights, Ravel’s set of eight Valses nobles et sentimentales is a bit of a letdown. Dating to 1911, these works clearly come from a different age, a time when the waltz was already a trifle faded, if not yet the symbol of a bygone era that Ravel made it after World War I in his La Valse. Mostly concise in expression except for the final, slow, extended work in G, the Valses nobles et sentimentales seem, somewhat paradoxically, to be frozen in their time in a way that the sets by Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák do not. Schaaf plays the Ravel with as much skill and understanding as he brings to the other waltz sequences – it is just that this final waltz series comes from a very different set of sensibilities, making it a bit out of keeping with the rest of the music here. Given Schaaf’s exemplary pianism, though, it is possible just to sit back and enjoy the entire disc, ignoring any philosophical musings.
A new Naxos CD of piano music by Bruce Adolphe (born 1955) is highly enjoyable as well. Two of the works here are world première recordings: Chopin Dreams and Seven Thoughts Considered as Music. Ravel’s updating and eventual dismissal of the waltz has nothing on Adolphe: Chopin Dreams pulls Chopin forcibly, if not too roughly, into contemporary times, stirring some actual Chopin works into a jazz-infused modern sensibility and, elsewhere, using Chopin as a jumping-off point for music that sounds nothing like any work Chopin ever composed. Carlo Grante, to whom Chopin Dreams is dedicated, plays this multifaceted piece for all it is worth, which is quite a lot. The six-movement work starts with New York Nocturne, a kind of jazz-infused nocturne-like something-or-other. Jazzurka is based directly on Chopin’s mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4; it is followed by Piano Popping, which is based on hip-hop rhythms and makes for as weird a juxtaposition as that origin implies. It is back to Chopin’s direct influence for Brooklyn Ballad, which uses Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, and for the following Quaalude (ha, ha), taken loosely from Chopin’s Prelude No. 3. The final movement, Hora, represents “what Chopin would play at a bar mitzvah,” according to Adolphe, and is as strange – and oddly ingratiating – as might be expected. Chopin Dreams, which dates to 2014, may seem on the surface to be a rather nightmarish use of Chopin’s delicate, even precious music, but the whole thing works surprisingly well as long as listeners maintain a sense of humor. Seven Thoughts Considered as Music (2016) is a somewhat more serious work, and again very well suited to the pianism of Grante, who is its co-dedicatee. Here Adolphe chooses quotations from Heraclitus, Rilke, Kafka, Emerson, Novalis, Chief Seattle, and Shankara, and attempts to interpret and comment on their remarks through music. This is a bit pretentious and is less effective than Chopin Dreams, which is composed with seriousness but does not take itself too seriously. Seven Thoughts Considered as Music seeks to be meaningful, but Adolphe’s harmonic language and his impressionistic attempts to convey and expand upon the specific quotations he has chosen are not especially pointed – although the shortest of the seven vignettes, a response to Kafka’s “Beyond a certain point there is no return,” is effective. Adolphe is back on firmer ground with Piano Puzzlers, a set of nine little pieces taken from the 500 or so that Adolphe has composed for a public radio show since 2002. These pieces have “encore” written all over them: they play with popular tunes in the style of various classical composers – Chopin, in the case of all nine heard here. There is nothing that is profound and much that is pleasurable in hearing, among others, London Bridge Is Falling Down and When the Saints Go Marching In served up more or less in Chopin’s style. Grante, who clearly has great affinity for Adolphe’s music, has plenty of fun with these little pieces. Listeners will, too.
Matters are altogether more serious on a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Jasmin Arakawa. Arakawa has a strong feeling for the intensities and frequent mood changes of Romantic music, producing a heartfelt, deeply affecting reading of Schumann’s Op. 17 Fantasie. This is a work in which Schumann strains to develop a new form: it is not as freewheeling as a typical fantasy, having many elements of sonata form, but within its three movements it sweeps along with strong emotions that no formal structure seems quite able to contain. Encompassing all the work’s emotional and technical demands is difficult, but Arakawa does so to very fine effect, handling the rhapsodic first movement – and the recollections of its emotions in the final one – particularly well. Arakawa also seems quite comfortable with Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 3, which has some intriguing parallels with the Schumann: it too offers deep emotion within a structure that seems always to be on the verge of becoming something altogether new. Despite its apparently conventional four-movement layout, the sonata shows Scriabin straining beyond Romanticism even as the work’s program seems Romantic to the core: the composer called the sonata “States of the Soul.” Arakawa follows the music from its dramatic, often turbulent opening all the way to a finale that strains beyond the Romantic in sound and ends with a level of unexpected bleakness that is at odds with the earlier musical material (although not with the program that Scriabin wrote, which refers to “the abyss of non-being”). Both the Schumann and Scriabin performances are knowing, intense and fully cognizant of the complexities both of the musical material and of the thinking underlying the works. The one weakness here lies in Arakawa’s handling of Haydn’s E-flat sonata (Hob. XVI: 52). This is late Haydn, to be sure, dating to 1794, but it is not really a work that pushes the boundaries of sonata form to any significant degree – certainly not to a greater degree than is evident in other Haydn piano sonatas. Haydn was a remarkable innovator throughout his oeuvre, but he was a subtle one, always fully cognizant of his audience (whether aristocratic or more popular). This is his final sonata, so the fact that it shows considerable maturity is scarcely a surprise; and the fact that the sonata includes greater harmonic exploration than earlier Haydn sonatas is also no shock. But this is no grand, heaven-storming sonata, and it requires careful balance and a much lighter touch than the works of Schumann and Scriabin. Arakawa handles it with rather broad tempos and an intensity befitting Beethoven – with the result that the work sounds rather portentous. It sounds as if Arakawa is a little bit too determined to make the Haydn “fit” with the other works on the CD – but it really does not, and the result is a bit of a stretch. Still, Arakawa’s approach is arguably justified in a sonata composed three years after Mozart’s death. And even if this reading is less convincing than that of the Schumann and Scriabin, it is a well-thought-out and well-played one that listeners will find well worth hearing.
The value of hearing Philip Glass’s music remains very much a matter of personal opinion. The continuing Grand Piano releases called Glassworlds do nothing to make Glass’s approach more congenial – or less – but they certainly confirm Nicolas Horvath as a first-rate interpreter of this material. The music itself, though, remains distinctly unidimensional, its unending repetitiveness either haunting or soporific, depending on each listener’s viewpoint. All the works on the latest Glassworks release are world première recordings, except for Mad Rush, but there is nothing particularly revelatory here. Glass sounds like Glass – and nowadays like a whole host of other composers who believe that hypnotic repetition bordering on obsessiveness is a strong foundation for audience communication. Mad Rush, for example, tries to contrast peacefulness with drama, but it is the work’s lulling aspects that come across most strongly. It is in the nature of Glass’s music that Metamorphosis Two draws from the same wellspring of quiet repetitiveness, and although there is indeed something metamorphosing here, what changes does so with extreme gradualness. As for 600 Lines, much of it sounds like the noise made by old-fashioned piano tuners (in the days before electronic tuning) as they tried to ensure that an instrument was ready for a performance. The shortest and in some ways most interesting piece here is by far the least typical of Glass: it is his only transcription, of Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence. It is a nicely managed re-creation that, however, does not really add anything to Simon’s original. There is nothing especially enlightening about Glassworlds, Volume 5—Enlightenment, which gets a (+++) rating but will, of course, be highly appealing to those who cannot get enough of Glass’s musical approach.
November 23, 2016
Holiday Cards 2016: Charley Harper’s Cardinals; The Group of Seven—Lawren S. Harris and Tom Thomson; Adolf Dehn—Starry Night. Pomegranate. $15 each (Cardinals, Seven); $12 (Dehn).
At a time of year traditionally associated with good wishes, good times and a good life – and importantly, for many, the prospect of a good afterlife – there seems precious little about which to rejoice this year. Gratitude for what is seems largely to have given way to dismay for what is not; pleasure for what one has appears to have diminished, while unhappiness over what one lacks seems to have increased. To some extent, as winter takes hold in the Northern Hemisphere, feelings of gloom are exacerbated by limited daylight, day after day of darkness beneath overcast skies, and biting cold – it is worth remembering that Dante’s Inferno has its ninth and lowest circle not in eternal heat but in a vast, perpetually frozen landscape. A traditional time of year for joy and thanks – whether to each other, among family members, or to higher powers – seems to have gone awry: yes, people may acknowledge, if it is pointed out to them, that they are better off than others (materially and even spiritually), but for many, it does not feel that way. This is not so much a matter of Yeats’ oft-quoted lines from The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Rather, it is later lines in the same poem that seem to be operative this year: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
One saving grace at a time of deep dissatisfaction – and make no mistake, it is a kind of grace – is art. And although most of us will never be artists, that is no barrier to sharing uplifting art along with the simple words, “Season’s Greetings.” A great way to do that is with holiday cards from Pomegranate, a publisher that promotes the inspirational nature of art through many media, from books to calendars to puzzles, stickers and games. So diverse and wide-ranging are Pomegranate’s offerings within its holiday-card line that it is hard to imagine anyone not being able to find something to provide a touch of uplift that can then be passed along to light a figurative candle in a darkness that seems all too real.
An excellent way to connect with things beyond ourselves is through nature, and a number of Pomegranate cards this year offer ways to do that – using art that is as different as the elements of nature itself. For example, Charley Harper’s Cardinals celebrates a bird that is strongly associated with winter because it does not fly away from the cold and snow but stands out against ice and bare tree limbs in the males’ brilliant red color. Harper (1922-2007) was a poet of the natural world, with a drawing style emphasizing an unrealistic flatness that somehow accentuates the features of animals and makes them seem realer than real. The approach is unusual and instantly recognizable once seen – Harper’s drawings are quite unlike those of other nature artists. There are four of them in the 20-card box, five cards with each drawing. “Cardinal Courtship,” showing a male and female beak to beak with the male about to pop a treat into the female’s mouth, is clear enough, and food is also the focus of “Cardinal Cuisine,” which shows a male pecking seeds from the snow-covered ground. These two designs are attractive and basically serious, but in Harper’s art, there is always a hint of humor, and that comes further to the fore in the other two designs. One is called “Cool Cardinal” and features a side view of a male upon which big white dots of snow are falling – and there is a small pile of show on his head, which he does not seem to mind at all. The rectangular scene of the cardinal is framed on both left and right by red dots on a white background, creating a very pleasing color scheme with a whimsical twist. The final design is called “B-r-r-r-r-rdbath” and shows a scene of a male cardinal, his bright red feathers complemented by a red frame that is shaped so the bird is seen in a circle, flapping his wings rapidly while sitting in a birdbath on a snowy day. This cardinal is the only one in this box looking right out of the card at the viewer – all the other birds are seen in side views – and the effect is one of peering through a porthole or circular window as the bird looks back. Harper’s cardinals can bring much-needed smiles both to the cards’ senders and to their recipients, providing a connection with nature that offers brief respite from complex human affairs.
Nature is seen on a grander scale in 20 cards from the Canadian artists’ community called the Group of Seven. Again there are five cards in each of four designs. The original central person in the group’s formation was Tom Thomson (1877-1917), and two of his works appear here, both from 1916. Both are woodland scenes showing a distinctive and meticulous approach to portrayal of trees in the snow; one is called “Snow in the Woods” and the other is titled “Wood Interior, Winter.” Both offer almost-realistic but subtly emphasized scenes of woodland tranquility beneath a blanket of undisturbed white. Thomson had died before the group he inspired was organized under the aegis of Lawren S. Harris (1885-1970), whose art is quite different from Thomson’s and complements it intriguingly in this holiday-card collection. Harris offers a more impressionistic view of nature, favoring, in these cards, triangular central features that taper toward the top and appear to reach ever upward. “Mt. Lefroy” (1930) is just what it says: a portrait of a snow-capped mountain whose top pierces the clouds. But this is not a realistically portrayed mountain: it is one capped by snow that looks almost like combed human hair, with neat parallel valleys flowing from the mountaintop downward as the mountain’s peak juts up into concentric circles of clouds. There is something almost hypnotic about the scene, which is calming as well as majestic. “Winter Comes from the Arctic to the Temperate Zone” (c. 1935) is similarly built around a central upward-striving peak, but here the perspective is managed in such a way that distance is uncertain: the mounds of snow in the foreground are shaped like the mountain in the background but may simply be covering a tapering tree that is nearby, with the mountain much more distant. The framing of this central scene uses concentric not-circles – they are jagged shapes done in hues of the same colors used for the mountain – and the whole picture pulls the eye in and causes it to swoop gently upward in a wholly suitable seasonal response to the art.
What is missing in both the Charley Harper and Group of Seven cards is any sense of human beings in or interacting with the natural scenes. But Pomegranate has other seasonal cards in which humans do appear, whether in an idealized setting or in a realistic one. Adolf Dehn (1895-1968) was a Minnesota artist who often portrayed regional scenes, and one such appears this year on a set of 12 holiday cards. Called “Starry Night” and inevitably calling up thoughts of the famous Van Gogh painting, this is a scene in which the vast dark sky and its sparkling stars fill more than half the card – but the immensity is not in the least uncomfortable. The reason is that the card’s foreground shows bare, snow-covered trees whose branches are highlighted against the night sky, and amid the trees – providing the only bright colors in the watercolor – are three people on skis just starting to head down a hill, plus, in a particularly nice touch, a deer whose curiosity has apparently brought it closer than usual to people (although it is still keeping its distance). There is a distinctly homey quality to this card, which does not glamorize or romanticize a winter night – it certainly looks cold enough, as the bundled-up skiers show – but which draws the eye up from the foreground snow into the heavens above, using a technique very different from that of Lawren Harris but one that is equally effective and in some ways more subtle. Those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday find it a time of spiritual comfort, and even those who do not share that faith can look to the season as one of warmth, human connection and striving to be better than we are. That is the counterweight to all the dismal feelings that seem to permeate life this year – and if these Pomegranate cards cannot, on their own, relieve the widespread sense of disaffection and anomie, they can at least provide a small measure of beauty and comfort to offset distress with quiet hope.
Gross! “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 33. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Many Faces of Snoopy. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Virtuosos make things seem so simple. There are only four strings on a violin, after all, and what could be so hard about moving a bow back and forth on them? Good luck with that if you actually try it. Well, okay, but that is “high” art. Comics are “low” art, and what’s the big deal? Draw a circle and you have Charlie Brown’s head. Use a couple of ovals and squares and a blimplike shape here and there, and you have the MacPhersons; and as for what happens in Baby Blues, just use what happens in all families. No big deal, right? Oh yes, right – just try it. You’d be better off with the violin. The great thing about comics such as Baby Blues and Peanuts is that they encapsulate so much with such apparent simplicity. But the difficulty of doing what they do is quite obvious from the vast number of unsuccessful and less-successful strips out there, of interest to students and historians of popular culture but not to the mass audience that the best strips reach so effectively day after day, year after year.
Baby Blues has gotten to an almost embarrassing level of consistency and reliability. There just aren’t any “bad” strips in the world of Rick Kirkman (artist) and Jerry Scott (writer). The 33rd and latest collection continues a long history (perhaps longer than Kirkman and Scott would care to acknowledge, given what it implies about their own ages) of chronicling events that are realer than reality. They seem as if they could happen in any family – and indeed, some of them have happened in Kirkman’s family or Scott’s – but within the strictures of comic-strip panels, they happen with pointedness and sometimes poignancy beyond what Baby Blues readers encounter in their duller everyday lives. And that is one of the great strengths of the strip: readers recognize what is going on as akin to reality, laugh at things that would not necessarily be funny if or when they happened in their own families, and finish the few panels refreshed and hopefully ready for the next thing that raising kids will throw at them – secure in the knowledge that whatever it is will probably show up in Baby Blues eventually. Which brings us to Gross! There is nothing specifically gross here, or nothing any grosser than usual for the MacPherson clan, but there is plenty to laugh at, if not to gag at (although there are lots of, umm, gags). As in previous oversize-page collections, Kirkman and Scott provide snippets of commentary throughout the book – so readers learn, for example, that the great Sunday strip at the book’s start, in which Wanda rehearses lectures to her three kids, is based on Scott’s wife’s real-life behavior. On the other hand, a strip in which Zoe and Hammie send Darryl a card saying they love him, then imploring him to stop whatever fight they were in when they drew the card, may never have happened in real life, but it reads as if it should have. Or could have, anyway. In one comment, Scott reveals that he is a middle child, which may explain some of what Hammie does in his between-Zoe-and-Wren existence. In this book, the dynamic among the three kids gets even more interesting than it has previously been, since this is where baby Wren learns to talk – for example, Zoe teaches her to say, “Mom! Make Hammie stop!” Of course, some things in Baby Blues never change: Darryl goes shopping for Wanda and, when he tells the salesperson that he is looking for a gift for a woman with three kids, the woman suggests six weeks in Tahiti. Darryl is not very good at buying the right thing, but he has a knack for occasionally saying the right thing, as when he calls from work to tell Wanda, “Hi, beautiful,” and catches her kneeling atop a plugged toilet with the three kids playing in or trying to avoid the bathroom flood. An exhausted Wanda’s response, “Good timing,” is perfect. Then there are strips in which Zoe refines her ability to tell on Hammie: in one, she is “pinch-scolding” while Wanda is in the tub with Wren, and in another, she is “text-tattling” while Darryl and Wanda are trying to have a quiet restaurant meal. In addition to the humor, there are insights into the strip’s creation sprinkled throughout the book. For instance, Baby Blues is known for multi-day strips that are variations on the same topic, such as “5 Ways Parenthood Is Like College.” Each of the five strips is introduced by the same title panel, and Kirkman says those panels take longer to do than the strips’ content – and explains why. Kirkman also explains a couple of strips in which he cleverly muted the background colors to put the characters in the foreground into stronger focus. Also here is an amazing sequence in which a Kirkman family emergency led Scott to do some remarkable things to get newly written strips put together – with reused art. And the hybrid strips really work – talk about teamwork! On the much lighter side, Kirkman at one point notes that he sometimes uses his own kids’ art and lettering “for reference,” as in a series in which Hammie creates a “grafik novel” about “Robot Sister,” which goes pretty much as readers of Baby Blues would expect. And it is nice that the commentary is occasionally reserved for a touch of self-praise, as when Kirkman says, “One of the best opening lines, ever” in reference to Scott’s writing, for Hammie to say, “Mom, do we have any hand grenades?” After all, even virtuoso performers need to appreciate themselves and each other once in a while.
The appreciation of Charles Schulz has not diminished in the years since his death in 2000, and his Peanuts strips continue to appear in multiple forms: new collections, desk and day-to-day calendars, even gift books that would make great stocking stuffers – such as Many Faces of Snoopy. This little five-inch-square hardcover includes a small smattering of the iconic beagle’s appearances in eight roles – none of which is as spokesbeagle for MetLife, by the way. Several of these Snoopy alter egos were integral to Peanuts and responsible for a great deal of its weirdness – the strip was odder and more surrealistic than many people realized when Schulz was still drawing it. The World War I flying ace, eternally at war with the Red Baron, is perhaps the most famous “alt-Snoopy” of all, but the Beagle Scout leader (of bird scouts Woodstock, Conrad, Olivier and Bill) also appeared frequently; and collegiate big-man-on-campus Joe Cool showed up from time to time – much more often than his opposite number, Joe Preppy. In addition to those four roles, Snoopy is seen here as a secret agent in search of Linus’s missing blanket, the Masked Marvel arm wrestler, “Flashbeagle” (trading in his famed “happy dance” for a flashdance), and a fierce pirate sporting an eye patch originally given to Sally to help with her amblyopia. Many Faces of Snoopy will bring smiles of enjoyment to Peanuts fans and likely send them – and anyone out there who is not yet a Peanuts fan – in search of more-extensive stories about Snoopy’s multiple-yet-singular roles. And for anyone who might still think this sort of thing is easy – just check out the ways in which Schulz keeps Snoopy’s underlying personality the same even as he changes his outward appearance just enough to match whatever persona he may be donning. What’s the big deal? Many Faces of Snoopy is. And so is Gross!.
The Most Perfect Snowman. By Chris Britt. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Libby and Pearl: The Best of Friends. By Lindsey Bonnice. Harper. $14.99.
Winter warmth pervades both these books, in which friendship is a wonderful counterbalance for feeling left out and unappreciated. Chris Britt’s The Most Perfect Snowman is about a very plain-looking snowman named Drift who is mocked by other, better-dressed snowpeople. Drift has only two skinny arms made from sticks and a quickly thrown-together coal face – no hat, scarf or mittens, and worst of all from his perspective, no carrot nose. Because of his plain appearance, Drift is left out of the “snowy fashion parades,” snowball fights and “snowman dances that lasted all night.” But then, one morning, three children happen to discover Drift, and they decide to dress him up: one gives him a hat, one a scarf, and one some mittens. And then, best of all, a little girl looks in her pocket and finds “the most pointy orange carrot nose that Drift had ever seen!” This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship: the kids declare Drift to be perfect, and he plays all afternoon with his newfound friends and “had never been so happy.” But – well, after the children go home, leaving Drift nicely dressed-up, a blizzard blows Drift’s new hat and mittens off, and he cannot find them anywhere. And then, as the snow falls hard and the wind howls, Drift hears a small voice calling for help. It is a tiny bunny, “frightened and shivery cold.” And Drift knows the right thing to do: there is no shelter anywhere, so Drift takes off his scarf and wraps the bunny in it for protection. And then he hears the tiny bunny’s tummy rumbling, and with regret, but knowing what is he needs to do, he pulls off the last of the children’s gifts – his wonderful carrot nose. And he gives it to the hungry bunny – and now, with this selfless gesture, as Britt says on the book’s very last page, Drift becomes “the most perfect snowman of all.” This is a season for giving and receiving gifts, and there are many books that try to show children that it is better to give than receive – but few are as heartwarming as this one.
Lindsey Bonnice’s photographic story of a little girl named Libby and a little pig named Pearl is simpler, more amusing, and provides less opportunity for introspection. But it is easy to read and a delight to look at. Libby is Bonnice’s daughter, and they live on a farm, which helps explain the presence of the piglet. The story is an indoor one, though, and not many kids will likely have a chance to play in their rooms with an adorable little pig. Libby is cast as the narrator of the book, explaining that although she and Pearl may seem to be unlikely friends – after all, they look nothing alike – they really have a lot in common, such as the fact that “both look amazing in pink” (Libby’s outfit and Pearl’s skin). There are scenes here that are both funny and charming. A misadventure in the kitchen, with Pearl first watching from the floor as Libby stirs something in a bowl, then being seen up on the counter eating from the same bowl, is especially amusing, and the following scene – when food is spilled everywhere and both friends end up eating cereal that is strewn all over – is as cute as it is inevitable. Libby and Pearl are seen bathing together, playing together, snuggling together, and having all sorts of everyday adventures that are made more than ordinary by Pearl’s presence (on the bed while Libby reads, on top of a toy piano while Libby plays it, in a wagon that Libby is filling with toys, and so on). Libby and Pearl: The Best of Friends is a visual book above all, and a joyful one: Libby’s varied expressions as Pearl turns up here, there and everywhere are a delight. Clearly friends and friendships come in all sizes, styles and types, with love and acceptance at the heart of all of them – a wonderful thought not only for this season but also for the entirety of the year.