Sunday, January 16, 2011

For Pleasure: Early Winter 2010-11
There wasn't much time for undemanded reading these past few months, but I managed some. I've continued a few nightly pages of Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and am close to finishing it. Emerson's admiration for Bronson Alcott, the educator, reformer and daddy to Louisa May, suggested I might enjoy Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia by Richard Francis, new this past fall from Yale. But Francis' unsympathetic portrait of Alcott, whether that was intentional or not, soured me on reading very far into it. Alcott comes across as a thoroughly, aggressively, self-righteously and cluelessly self-deluded character, who made me so impatient that I couldn't bear reading about him, especially in this undistinguished prose. I sure didn't see any reason reflected in this book for Emerson to admire him.

I also followed up Thomas Peacock's comic early 19th century novel Headlong Hall with his Nightmare Abbey. It too was great fun to read, and as satire of both certain forms of romantic fiction and of various pretentious representatives of various pretentious ideologies and systems of thought, it is often remarkably contemporary. And still funny after all these years.

Reading Mark Rotella's Amore: The Story of Italian American Song (Farrar, Straus) reminded me of a book I bagged at a used bookstore some time ago that has been shelf decoration ever since: Schnozzola: Gene Fowler's Story of Jimmy Durante. So I finally read it, and what a book! It covers Durante's life and career in great detail for his early years (it was published in 1951, just as he was becoming the TV star I recall from my childhood.) Durante started out as a ragtime and New Orleans jazz piano player, became a nightclub star in the 20s, Broadway, radio and the movies in the 30s and 40s, and after his decade or so as a TV star, he became a recording star with several albums of standards and ballads in the 60s and 70s. Some of these renditions were revived in the movie soundtracks of Sleepless in Seattle and City Slickers, and his version of "September Song" is definitive, and heartbreaking.

The Gene Fowler book reads like a Damon Runyon story, with the real Damon Runyon as an occasional walk-on. Fowler suggests this is so because it is about the same people Runyon wrote about and fictionalized--especially the people who talked the way Runyon later wrote. So full circle in a way. Show biz characters like Eddie Cantor, George M. Cohan and Ethel Merman play bit parts, with starring roles going to Durante and Lou Clayton, his biggest booster and manager as well as the third member with Eddie Jackson of the act that ruled the Broadway club scene in the 1920s. Durante's complex relationship with his first wife Jeanne is also a central thread (Fowler speculates that she was the "Mrs. Calabash" Durante famously and forlornly said goodnight to at the end of his shows, something which Durante reportedly confirmed many years later.) But the featured players are the gangsters who ran and supported the clubs and the club scene, especially during Prohibition--guys with actual names like Zimp, Johnny Blue Eyes, Long-Shot Abraham and Benevolent Charlie. They don't make 'em--or write 'em--like that anymore.

Recently I've started reading Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice (just as I ran across an Emerson quote in the Richardson book: "...the impracticability and tough unalterableness of sentences which must not stand as they are, demonstrates past a doubt the inherent vice of my writing.") So far this seems a slighter book than Against the Day in more ways that the number of pages. I've also begun Margaret Atwood's novel The Year of the Flood. I've always admired Margaret Atwood, in her nonfiction and interviews and so on as well as her fiction. I especially cherish her book on writing and writers, Negotiations with the Dead. She's still making waves with her 2008 book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. I believe Margaret Atwood will be the next writer in the English language to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I support the idea.

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