Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Paris Was Yesterday
by Janet Flanner. Harvest / HBJ. 232 pages.

It's tempting to want to write about Janet Flanner the way she wrote about Paris, but I hope I'm wise enough to know that I'd die from the effort. Ms. Flanner's exquisite prose was a staple of the New Yorker for almost fifty years, writing dispatches from Paris that provided a glimpse into France's artistic, social and political scene. Paris Was Yesterday is a collection of these letters spanning most of the interwar years, from 1925 - 1939, and it's a work almost without peer. As a stylist, Janet Flanner is a marvel while her perceptive and wry take on all subjects, be it Ulysses or Hitler, makes for an engaging read.

Monday, September 26, 2011

State of Fear
by Michael Crichton, Harper Collins. 602 pages.

Is it possible that Michael Crichton, of all people, is this generation's George Bernard Shaw? It's not the most common comparison, but hear me out. Shaw was a social critic whose plays were written to discuss a particular social ill: prostitution (Mrs. Warren's Profession) or the exploitation of the underprivileged (Widower's House). At the same time, he wrote entertainments (he called them "Pleasent Plays"), some of which proved to be his most enduring work (see Pygmalion, the basis for My Fair Lady). Cut to Mr. Crichton who, like Shaw, isn't afraid to put his opinion in a preface or afterword. His canon is also a mixture of popular entertainments (Jurassic Park, The Great Train Robbery) mixed with books which have a more political purpose - abortion (A Case of Need), genetic engineering (Next) and, as is the case with State of Fear, global warming. To Mr. Crichton, global warming is a social ill that needs to be addressed: he is, at best, skeptical of the science behind climate change, a fact which made this book controversial after it's release in 2004 and continues to be touted by those who believe climate change to be a hoax.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

George Gershwin: His Life and Work
by Howard Pollack. University of California Press, 884 Pages (!!!)

Howard Pollack's enormous biography of American composer George Gershwin and his work might be better termed an encyclopedia: it not only dives into the composer's life, but also lists the history of his numerous songs, compositions and shows, complete with synopses, cast lists and four whole chapters (nearly 100 pages) devoted to the monumental Porgy and Bess. Having read almost every Gershwin biography to date, I can attest that Mr. Pollack's is both the most exhaustive and the least readable. It's a work of great significance and yet I would hardly recommend it to anyone but the most devoted Gershwin fan. Someone with a smattering of musicology would also be a plus, since Mr. Pollack isn't afraid to dive into the technical aspects of Gershwin's music, comparing individual pieces to other works in the Gershwin canon and Gershwin's contemporaries.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Am Mary Dunne 
by Brian Moore. Penguin, 187 pages.

All literary affairs - like all love in general, I suppose - happen at different speeds. Sarah Vowell hit me like a ton of bricks, but Brian Moore came up quietly beside me, gently poking me in the ribs each time I walked into a book store. "Remember Brian Moore?" he says. "Remember how much you liked the last book?" And so I buy another of his books and then another. I Am Mary Dunne, written in 1968, is the sixth novel by Mr. Moore that I've read and I'm sorry to say that it's taken this long for me to realize that he and I are definitely having a literary affair. That Mary Dunne has cemented this realization is probably a testament to the book itself, which seems as quiet and unassuming as its title character. The book, like its heroine, is something easily passed by on your way to flashier things. But this would be a mistake, for both are filled with tragedy as heartbreaking as it is quiet.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gentleman Boss: the Life of Chester A. Arthur
by Thomas Reeves. Knopf, 500 pages.

More an exhaustive overview of Gilded-Age U.S. politics then an actual biography, Gentleman Boss remains one of the few books to focus on America's forgotten 21rst president (he's so forgotten that he didn't even make it into the Simpson's classic "Mediocre Presidents" song). Chester "Chet" Arthur should have been an even more forgettable Vice-President, but Charles Guiteau changed that in 1881, killing President Garfield and altering Arthur's fate forever. Thomas Reeves makes a valiant effort to rehabilitate Arthur and for the most part he succeeds, although even he admits that Arthur might have achieved immortality if he had only been the bad President everyone expected him to me. Instead, he truly fulfilled the title of "caretaker President".