One-Minute Book Reviews

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:37 pm
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 20, 2009

Cole Porter in the Summer, When It Sizzles — If They Say That These Lyrics Heinous, Kick Them Right in the Coriolanus

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. I am on a brief semi-vacation.]

A master of light verse in the winter, when it drizzles, in the summer, when it sizzles

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Kimball. Library of America, 178 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Several friends and I took part as teenagers in a summer drama program in which we learned the lines from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus.’” This we regarded as the summit of wit and sang so often that any adult who wanted us to read more poetry could have just given us a book of Cole Porter lyrics on the spot.

I don’t know if that tactic would work today, but the Library of America has made it easier to find out. Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics contains the words to 93 songs that aren’t just some of the best-loved of the 20th century – they are models of light verse. Porter’s lyrics have become such mainstays of our culture that even people who never read poetry are likely to recognize some: “I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles, / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles.” “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum./ You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum.”  “ … birds do it, bees do it. / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it, / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (though it turns out that “birds” and “bees” is an alteration of Porter’s original words, included in Selected Lyrics).

Why do Porter’s words have such staying power? Porter (1891–1964) was born in Peru, Indiana, but traveled widely and seems to have been a true citizen of the world. His lyrics have a cosmopolitan refinement that may be even more alluring in the age of Howard Stern and Janet Jackson than during the Jazz Age and the Depression, when he did his best work. Porter is a kind of Cary Grant of song-writing – gifted, urbane, and ageless. He blends high and low cultural references with an ease that is more British than American and enables anybody to identify with him. He writes in “You’re the Top”: “You’re the top! / You’re a hot tamale.” Two lines later, he adds “You’re Botticelli, / You’re Keats, / You’re Shelley.” How many writers would dare mix that campy “hot tamale” with the highbrow “Keats” and “Shelley” today? Yet for all the exuberance of such songs, Porter also writes poignantly about his great theme: the evanescence of human attachments and the dreams they embody. In his lyrics the sex of the beloved is often unspecified, so he speaks to gay and straight readers alike.

Porter moved gracefully among poetic meters – iambic, trochaic, anapestic – and at his best is as funny as such titans of light verse as Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. But he is racier than most light-versifiers. His lyrics teem with double-entrendres. And one of the gems of Selected Lyrics is a parody of “You’re the Top” by Irving Berlin that nods to Porter’s fondness for sexual wordplay. If you think that line about Coriolanus from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing, wait till you see what Berlin rhymes with “You’re the breasts of Venus.” “White Christmas” was never like this.

Best line: Many lyrics include both internal and end-rhymes, such as: “Let’s question the synonymy of freedom and autonomy, / Let’s delve into astronomy, political economy, / Or if you’re feeling biblical, the book of Deuteronomy.” These lines suggest the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan more directly than do others in Selected Lyrics.

Worst line: Porter occasionally uses clichéd rhymes, such as “love” and “above,” as in “Ours”: “The high gods above / Look down and laugh at our love.” Given the volume of material in Selected Lyrics, it is remarkable how rarely he does this.

Recommendation? This compact volume is small enough for a fragile end-table and an example of what an acquaintance of mine calls “a great guest-room book.” Visitors can dip in at random and fall asleep happy.

Editor: Robert Kimball

Published: April 2006

Furthermore: The elegant, minimalist cover of this book was designed by Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd, perhaps the most esteemed book-jacket designer of our day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 25, 2009

‘Death Takes a Holiday’ – A Play Asks, ‘What If for Three Days Nobody Died?

Filed under: Classics,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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Broadway came before Brad.

In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).

But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.

“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.

Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.

Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:

“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”

Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.

Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”

Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.

Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).

Furthermore: Death Takes a Holiday is available from the Samuel French online store. The Broadway play inspired a 1934 movie with the same title and the remake Meet Joe Black, which I haven’t seen.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 7, 2008

You Don’t Need to Be a Cockeyed Optimist to Enjoy James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’

Filed under: Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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Bali-ha’i is calling to a new generation of readers and theatergoers

Tales of the South Pacific. By James Michener. Fawcett, 384 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

By the end of his career James Michener was writing books so gassy and bloated, critics joked that you didn’t review them – you weighed them on a freight scale. But it wasn’t always so.

Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific, his first work of fiction, which shows a flair for storytelling that ebbed later in his life. Inspired by Michener’s work as a naval officer in World War II, the book is perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

But Tales of the South Pacific stands on its own and has a surprising lightness next to behemoths like Texas, Alaska and Centennial. It gathers 19 related tales about U. S. servicemen and –women and others trying to fend off alternating terror and tedium on beautiful coral islands as Japanese bombers fly overhead.

One plotline describes efforts by Ensign Nellie Forbush to resist her attraction to the French planter Emile de Beque (who in South Pacific courts her with “Some Enchanted Evening,” which she soon counters with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”). A second and darker narrative thread follows a Tonkinese woman known as Bloody Mary who, when not selling shrunken human heads to sailors, offers her nubile daughter to a Marine for trysts on Bali-ha’i.

Both romances involve people of different backgrounds, and some critics have called Tales of the South Pacific a plea for tolerance. It’s a fair assessment but one that may owe less to Michener than to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which says that people learn how to hate. And you don’t read Michener, even at his best, for theme: You read him for a sense of a time and place and, above all, for story.

Michener delivers all those in Tales of the South Pacific, a book especially memorable for its glimpses of rank-and-file members of the armed forces. You know exactly what he means when he says that “It was sort of nice to think that your outfit had a guy stupid enough to pay fifty dollars for a human head … It gave you something to talk about.” His servicemen embrace distractions, however ironic, from thoughts of the death and what faithless girlfriends might be doing back home.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also set on a Pacific island during World War II, stands taller with critics than Michener’s more enjoyable book. But South Pacific has helped to keep Tales of the South Pacific in print. All the more reason, then, to welcome the wonderful first-ever Broadway revival of the musical now playing the Vivian Beaumont. You don’t have to be – as Nellie Forbush sings – a cockeyed optimist to expect to find pleasure in Michener at his best.

Best line: “In Albuquerque Harbison married the daughter of a wealthy family. She was a Vassar graduate and found Bill a fine combination of dashing Western manhood and modest cultural attainment. He at least knew what the Atlantic Monthly was.”

Worst line: In the last few pages Michener sounds as though he’s channeling Mammy in Gone With the Wind when he brings on a black caretaker at a cemetery, who speaks this way: “Me ’n’ Denis, we is bof’ cullud. He f’um Geo’gia. I f’um Mississippi.”

Quote: On why islands like Bali-ha’i seemed magical: “It is a miracle of the South Pacific that islands which are relatively only a few miles away are rarely seen. Hot air, rising constantly from steaming jungles, makes omnipresent clouds hover above each island. So dense are they that usually they obscure and often they completely hide the islands they attend. So it is that an island like Vanicoro, only 16 miles away, might rarely be seen, and then only after torrential rains had swept the sky clear of all but high rain clouds, equalizing temperatures over the entire vast sea. Then, for a few hours, islands far distant might be seen.”

Published: 1947 (first edition), 1984 (Fawcett reprint).

Furthermore: Michener www.cnn.com/US/9710/16/michener.obit/won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted for South Pacific. The first-ever Broadway revival of the musical opened in April theater2.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/theater/reviews/04paci.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who wrote the novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 31, 2008

What! It’s My Birthday, AGAIN?

Filed under: Life — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 am
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Yes, there’s a mathematical explanation for why this one seems to have come around so fast: As you get older, each year becomes a small fraction of the whole. But that math takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?

One of my gifts was a trip with friends to the wonderful new Broadway production of South Pacific, and I’d hoped today to read and write about the book that inspired it, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. But that will have to wait wait until my toes stop tapping out all those great tunes — “Bali Ha’i,” “Honey Bun,” “Happy Talk,” “Bloody Mary,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and others. Even as the fractions get smaller, we can feel “Younger Than Springtime,” can’t we?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 3, 2008

Was George M. Cohan Really ‘Born on the Fourth of July’? Read a Biographer’s Answer and Listen to ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Here

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

A Yankee Doodle do or die;

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s,

Born on the Fourth of July.

– From George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (also known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”)

George M. Cohan claimed that he, like the Yankee Doodle Boy of his famous song, was born on the Fourth of July in 1878. But it true? In a poorly sourced article on Cohan, Wikipedia says that the composer was born on July 3, 1878. Other sources disagree with the online encyclopedia.

Biographer John McCabe says this in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“George Michael Cohan was almost certainly born on July 4, 1878, at 536 Wickenden Street, on Corkie Hill, in Providence, Rhode Island. Until Ward Morehouse discovered the Cohan baptismal certificate which carries a July 3 birthdate, there had never been any doubt that the real live nephew of his Uncle Sam was born on any day other than the Fourth. The baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter. As was not unusual at the time, the birth was not recorded in the civic registry in Providence. There is, however, circumstantial evidence writ large that the July 3 on the baptismal certificate is a clerical error. Cohan’s birthday was always celebrated on the Fourth of July by his parents, Jeremiah (‘Jere’ or ‘Jerry’) and Helen (‘Nellie’) Cohan, and this many years before that date began to have profitable connotations for the Yankee Doodle Dandy. The utter probity of these two remarkable people who early taught their son that a man’s word was his impregnable bond is the strongest proof that Cohan was indeed born on the Fourth.”

Among the other evidence cited by McCabe is that Cohan’s father wrote in his diary on July 3, 1882: “Got a little present for Georgie’s birthday tomorrow.” McCabe adds: “The very casualness of the entry in a book intended for his eyes alone bespeaks its integrity.”

To hear a 1905 audio recording of “Yankee Doodle Boy” sung by tenor Billy Murray, including verses rarely heard today, click on the following link (where you will hear the lines at the top of this post about 40 seconds into the song): www.firstworldwar.com/audio/Billy%20Murray%20-%20Yankee%20Doodle%20Boy.mp3. Cohan wrote “Yankee Doodle Boy” for the 1904 Broadway musical, Little Johnny Jones.

You can also hear Cohan’s “Over There” for free in three recordings on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm site, including a English-French version by Enrico Caruso. To listen to the Caruso or another “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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