I’ve been moving around so much in recent weeks that I only just got around to updating the “Top Five” and “Out of the Past” modules of the right-hand column with fresh picks. Scroll down, take a peek, and see what’s new.
Archives for February 1, 2013
Richard Huggett, The Truth About Pygmalion. Originally published in 1969, this deftly written, admirably concise study of how George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play made it to the stage is forgotten today save by Shaw specialists. It shouldn’t be. Few such books pack more information into a smaller package, and fewer still do so with such engaging wit (TT).
Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (New York Review Books, $14.95 paper). Back in print for the first time since 1963, this taut exercise in noir fiction tells the terrifying tale of an intern who picks up a hitchhiker in the desert and finds himself plunged into a they-won’t-believe-me nightmare. Best known today for writing the novel on which Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place was based, Hughes turns out to be a first-class thriller writer who deserves to be far better known. A word to the wise: do not peek at Walter Mosley’s afterword until you’ve finished reading The Expendable Man! You really don’t want to spoil the surprise (TT).
Local Hero. If, like me, you have a weakness for whimsical portraits of small-town life, you’ll love Bill Forsyth’s 1983 comedy about a slightly cracked oil-comedy boss (Burt Lancaster) who dispatches a no-nonsense junior executive (Peter Riegert) to a tiny Scottish seaside village in order to buy it out and send the locals packing. No, the outcome isn’t in any way surprising, but Local Hero is delicately fey and completely charming (TT).
Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945 (Mosaic, seven CDs). The first large-scale box set of its kind, this digitally remastered collection, drawn from Sony’s archives, contains 171 tracks that cover Hines’ twin careers as a radically innovative solo jazz pianist and immensely potent swing-era bandleader. Included are recordings originally released by OKeh, Victor, Brunswick, Vocalion, Bluebird, and Signature, including a considerable number of his finest 78-era sides. Brian Priestley’s detailed liner notes are as good as anything that’s ever been written about Hines, and the sound, as usual with Mosaic, is pristine (TT).
Douglas Smith, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30). This harrowing chronicle is, incredibly, the first full-length history of of the mass murder of Russia’s aristocrats and noble families in the wake of the Russian Revolution. It’s a superb piece of work, utterly direct and unforgettably honest, which tells the truth without falling victim to dewy-eyed nostalgia for the “good old days” of fantastic wealth and working-class immiseration. Recommended without reservation (TT).
Picnic (Roundabout/AA, 227 W. 42, closes Feb. 24). A very strong revival of one of the least sufficiently appreciated American dramas of the 20th century, back on Broadway for the first time since 1994 in a production that fully conveys its beauty and power. If, like most people, you know William Inge’s once-famous plays only from their buffed-up screen versions, you’ll find Sam Gold’s sensitive staging to be a revelation. No, Picnic isn’t a big-budget Hollywood soap opera: It’s a plain-spoken portrait of small-town life that manages at the same time to be both critical and sympathetic (TT).
“Critics as a group have been slow to admit Britten to the pantheon of top-tier composers. His unfailingly accessible, straightforwardly beautiful music, like that of Aaron Copland, his opposite number in America, is widely–if by no means universally–thought to be too ‘easy’ to be great. But there’s more to it than that. Throughout his life and to this day, Britten’s reputation has risen and fallen for reasons that have at least as much to do with his complex personality…”