Louis Kronenberger (ed.), The Portable Johnson and Boswell. This one’s for OGIC, who’s teetering on the edge of reading James Boswell’s magisterial but long-winded Life of Samuel Johnson. In 1955 Louis Kronenberger abridged Boswell’s Life for the Viking Portable series, filling out the volume with a judicious selection of other writings by Johnson and Boswell. This now-forgotten book, which has been out of print for years and years, is an excellent way to experience the Life without braving its occasional longueurs. Used copies are blessedly easy to find (TT).
Archives for June 4, 2009
Fats Waller, Handful of Keys. Every self-respecting record collection needs a generous slice of the collected works of Fats Waller, the stride pianist and comic singer whose 78s can put a smile on the sourest of faces. Proper Records’ imported four-CD box set, originally released in 2004 and readily available in this country, contains ninety-five tracks that come about as close as is possible to covering all the Waller-related bases. A few classics are absent, but if you don’t know what they are, you won’t miss them. Meanwhile, put on “Serenade for a Wealthy Widow” or “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” and see if you don’t become happier within seconds. No jazz musician–not even Satchmo himself–has ever succeeded in squeezing more joy into a three-minute package (TT).
The author of the biliously self-important little e-mail that I posted on Tuesday has now outed himself at enormous length. I see no reason to respond–res ipsa loquitur, as Jeeves would say–but you might possibly want to know who he is.
I do, however, suggest that those who think that the NEA under Dana Gioia did nothing of significance for the arts in America should make an effort to inform themselves about what it actually did, and continues to do. They’ll be surprised.
I don’t read many biographies outside of those written by co-bloggers. Most times I’ve tried, I’ve not gotten past the person’s adolescence. It seems to me the genre’s fatal flaw that, for the most part, biographers are stuck beginning at the beginning. People’s early lives are seldom the part of their story that makes you want to read about them. As for literary biography, give me another journey through Middlemarch over a life of George Eliot any day. It’s vanishingly rare to find a writer’s biography that’s half as interesting and revealing as the works of the writer himself–which brings us directly to the subject of the biography that I am, uncharacteristically, now reading.
I’m not reading Boswell, though. Instead I’m ankle-deep in Walter Jackson Bate’s 1975 biography Samuel Johnson. Despite having majored in English lit and spent several years studying it as a graduate student, I never got much exposure to Johnson beyond the anthologized standards. He was a gentle giant looming just beyond my ken, still unexplored…deliberately? I may have taken some comfort in knowing that there was a vast, uncharted, by all accounts fantastic territory for me still to discover.
But last week a wave of curiosity washed over me and I pulled down the Bate volume that’s been gathering dust on a bookshelf for years. I might do better to cut to the chase and read Boswell first; I don’t know. But this was the book in the room with me when the urge struck; I know and like Bate’s work on Keats; and Samuel Johnson did make a clean sweep of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer.
So far, so good. Even the story of Johnson’s childhood, which is only sparsely documented, has a draw. The distinctive personality asserted itself early on. At this early stage, the aspect of that personality I’m most interested in is what Bate calls the inclination to indolence and this account of what sounds like the story of every paper I ever wrote in school, and most of my blog posts (hold your fire, I’m likening process, not results!):
One [quality] is the extraordinary, almost pathological “indolence” (to use his own word) into which he could increasingly fall–a subject of fundamental importance for understanding him psychologically…If it is not yet present in the degree we see later, it is on its way. In trying to overcome these rebellious lapses into indolence, he could work with extraordinary bursts of speed, which–in their result–would more than compensate for the delay. (Compensate, that is, in the eyes of others, not in his own; for he himself; judging these bursts of effort by motive rather than result, realized that they were primarily the product of impatience to get a thing over with and out of the way.) This was always to be true of him. One of the finest short discussions in English of idleness and procrastination (Rambler 134) was rapidly written in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s parlor while the printer’s boy, who had come to pick up copy of a new essay for the periodical, waited at the door.
It has not taken long for me to start adoring this man.
One of the best pieces of writing I’ve read all year starts like this.
Let us pay respect to fallen royalty.
His early life unfolded like something coauthored by Dickens and Darwin. As an infant he was taken from his mother – he almost certainly saw her die trying to protect him – then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint.
He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers. He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses. Although he was afforded the sexual privileges conferred by rank, he never chose a mate. He had no interest in females of his own kind. He preferred blonds in tank tops.
Tom French’s 2006 St. Petersburg Times story about the deaths of two animals at a Tampa zoo is riveting, heart-lifting, and heartbreaking. It’s pretty long, too–probably one to print out and take home to read. But arm yourself with a hanky and read it.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
• August: Osage County (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• God of Carnage * (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes July 19, then reopens Sept. 8 and runs through Nov. 15, reviewed here)
• The Little Mermaid * (musical, G, entirely suitable for children, reviewed here)
• Mary Stuart (drama, G, far too long and complicated for children, closes Aug. 16, reviewed here)
• The Norman Conquests * (three related comedies, PG-13, comprehensively unsuitable for children, playing in repertory through July 25, reviewed here)
• South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
• Waiting for Godot * (drama, PG-13, accessible to intelligent and open-minded adolescents, closes July 12, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)
• Ruined (drama, PG-13/R, sexual content and suggestions of extreme violence, extended through Aug. 2, reviewed here)
CLOSING NEXT WEEK ON BROADWAY:
• Exit the King * (disturbingly black comedy, PG-13, closes June 14, reviewed here)
• Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (drama, PG-13, some adult subject matter, accessible to adolescents with mature attention spans, closes June 14, reviewed here)
“It is good to be a flop sometimes but not at the time.”
Lydia Lopokova (quoted in Judith Mackrell, Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs. John Maynard Keynes)