Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (December 5, 2017), 582 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $9.98
purchased on sale for $2.99
I have loved improvisational theater since I was a freshman at Pitzer College. At the Claremont Colleges there was a four-college improv troupe called Karma Pie. I loved attending their weekend performances. Living in Claremont after graduation in 1975, Saturday Night was appointment television from its first episode that fall, long before appointment TV was a thing. So it’s no surprise that this book got my attention.
When Sam Wasson documents show business he does not do so in a small way. Perhaps best known for his 2013 biography Fosse, coming in at 757 pages, his chronicle Improv Nation hits page 452 before the backmatter begins. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about the history of improvisational theater in America.
Wasson begins his story in the 1920s when Viola Spolin, working with multiethnic young people, gave them a safe place to interact. In 1940 Spolin introduced the idea of audience suggestions in a local theater, which Wasson marks as the beginning of improv in America. From there he covers the development of improv through the decades, all the way to 2001 and the reaction of the improv community to 9/11.
The author writes about the development of improv in New York City. He describes how Mike Nichols and Elaine May hit it off and became that legendary comedy team (until May lost interest). But before they were headliners in their own right they opened for Mort Sahl, who sometimes bumped their act when he was ready to go on early.
The book covers the development of Second City, beginning as a struggling comedy troupe in Chicago and developing into a popular entertainment venue. Wasson recounts the decision to add a theater in Toronto. He discusses how many well-known names in the field got their start in Toronto, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. As everyone knows, when Lorne Michaels created Saturday Night he recruited heavily from Second City, including those three. It was Saturday Night’s popularity that prompted Second City to create the television show SCTV.
Wasson discusses the movies as well. While one would expect movies like Caddyshack and Groundhog Day to have an improv influence, it also showed up in other genres. The author describes how Mike Nichols used improv techniques in rehearsals with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft for The Graduate.
Nichols and May both went into movie directing, each independent of the other. While Nichols was tight and disciplined, and could deliver a movie efficiently, May would not let go of the editing process and deliver her final product, getting her into trouble with the studio more than once. Wasson delves into this in detail.
There are a few odd omissions in the book. Steve Allen isn’t mentioned at all, and he was a master of his own brand of improv, using audience questions to great effect in his own act. But for the Chicago/Toronto/New York cluster of the improv world and the associated movie-making endeavors, Improv Nation offers a definitive history.
One would think that it would be a simple thing to order and receive a copy of the new fifth edition of Bryan Garner’s Modern English Usage, wouldn’t one? Guess not.
I was looking forward to the release of the book, which I had preordered. It was published on November 17, and as an Amazon Prime member I expected it within a day or two of publication. I had wanted the Kindle edition, but Amazon did not show it available in that format. November 14 arrived and Amazon told me I could expect the book on November 29. Say what? At that point it also showed a Kindle edition. I tried to cancel my hardcover order, but Amazon responded by telling me, “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cancel the items you requested and these items will soon be shipped.”
Their claim of “will soon be shipped” notwithstanding, Amazon took its time getting the book into the pipeline. Eventually it made its way from Chambersburg, PA and Baltimore, MD on the East Coast to San Bernardino and then San Diego, CA here on the West Coast, where Amazon handed it over to the United States Postal Service, and thence to my local Hemet post office.
From here the post office took its time. Tracking showed that it was “Out for Delivery” on Saturday, November 26, but the postman never delivered it; it ended up back at the post office that same day with a status of “Ready for Pickup.” Again, say what? I completed the provided online redelivery request and the book showed up in my mailbox on Monday, after our regular mail delivery.
I have it now, though, and I’m happy to have the latest edition of Garner there on my shelf. I look forward to making good use of it, both for reference and for browsing.
The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Brian C. Wilson
read by L.J. Ganser
Tantor Audio, 8 hours and 35 minutes
print edition published by University of Massachusetts Press (May 27, 2022)
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, documenting a railroad trip that the Sage of Concord took to California late in his life, shows us that Emerson was not as New England-centric as we might believe.
Emerson had been slated to give a series of talks at Harvard, but aging as he was, he struggled with preparing those lectures. Emerson’s friend, railroad magnate and philanthropist John Murray Forbes suggested a railroad trip to California for which Forbes would make the arrangements. Those making the trip included Emerson’s daughter Edith and her husband, Forbes’s son. Fortunately, Emerson’s friend, James Bradley Thayer was in that group as well because it is to him we owe much of our knowledge of the expedition. Few of Emerson’s letters home to his wife Lidian survive, but we have Thayer’s (puzzlingly unsuccessful) book A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson along with letters to his wife Sophie to document the events.
Forbes was not one to do things in a small way. For the trip he arranged for the party to travel in a private Pullman car which would meet them in Chicago. The car had a sitting space which was converted into a dining room for meals, a separate sleeping space, and a full kitchen. The car was fully staffed with employees of the Pullman company.
Author Brian C. Wilson goes into detail about the trip and describes the travelers’ daily routines and the operation of their private car. In Utah, the group made a detour to Salt Lake City so Emerson could meet Mormon leader Brigham Young. Wilson makes a long diversion into the history of the Mormon religion and Young’s establishment of Salt Lake City as the center for the religion. Odd, as all this is somewhat tangential to Emerson’s thought and interests and to the trip as a whole.
Wilson’s detail about the group’s journey across the continent and through the Sierra Nevada is such that that their arrival in San Francisco seems almost anti-climactic. Once there, the men in the group make an odd choice for entertainment. They visit some rather sleazy venues in Chinatown. But it wasn’t all about slumming. Although Emerson gave up his role as a Unitarian minister early in his career, the Unitarians still claimed him, and when San Francisco Unitarians learned of his arrival they insisted he offer lectures. Anticipating this, daughter Edith had made sure several lectures made their way into Emerson’s trunk.
The travelers split up their San Francisco time with a visit to Yosemite, a journey that the time took four days. Wilson writes the trip would be difficult, “requiring travel by ferry, railroad, stagecoach, wagon, and finally horseback.” (Terry and I would drive to Yosemite from the South Bay in five hours or so.) Not only did they enjoy the beauty of the region, but a young John Muir wanted to meet Emerson and took the group on a trip through the region.
The author tells us that there is little record of the journey home and concludes the book with an account of Emerson’s final years. He also recounts the lives of his traveling companions after the trip.
When a book is produced in its audio format by Tantor you know it will be a quality production. This is no exception. L.J. Ganser’s narration is superb. I could quibble about his pronunciation of the term “placer mining” and of Kearney Street in San Francisco, but his work is so listenable and so professional that these lapses are insignificant.
If Emerson and the Transcendentalist world fall within your realm of interest, do not miss this book.
Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea
Bill François, translated by Antony Shugaar
St. Martin’s Press (August 17, 2021), 186 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.49
In this short but thoroughly enjoyable book Bill François shares his love of the sea and the creatures that live in it. He writes about the science, legend, and mythology of sea life.
The author opens the book by describing an encounter at the seashore as a child. He discovers a sardine in a tidepool, far away from where it should be. The sardine somehow communicates to him that it wants to be back in the ocean, and François obliges. This transforms him from a youngster with a fear of the ocean to an avid snorkeler. He describes doing line drawings of sea life in school when he should have been paying attention to a boring lecture on geometry, and how his teacher doled out detention for such subversive behavior. François has no love for the French school system.
Each chapter takes on a different aspect of ocean life and he prefaces every chapter with a series of “in which…” statements, just as you might find in a nineteenth-century British novel. (“In which distant galaxies glitter in the black eyes of prawns.”)
François describes how fish communicate with each other and work together. He discusses how they protect themselves from predators and how they find their food. He delves into how sea creatures perhaps communicate with humans.
The author devotes some space to the sexuality of fish. Several species of fish can change gender as appropriate. Others are truly hermaphrodite. He tells us the rockfish carries its young for more than two years, the longest gestation of any animal on the planet. (And he mentions that a rockfish can live more than a hundred years.)
One enjoyable section discusses how there are legends and accounts from around the world regarding how remora (that parasitical fish that attaches itself to larger sea life) communicate with humans and help them catch the sea life they were hunting. These stories seem to be similar while coming from disparate cultures. A modern researcher was not able to replicate this behavior, however.
François tells us that the sea serpent is more than a legend. It’s a fish called the giant oarfish, and he notes that it is shaped like a serpent and can grow up to thirty-five feet. The giant oarfish seems to be sensitive to earthquakes. Humans rarely see them, but they show up on occasion.
Eloquence of the Sardine is a translation of the French, so I have no way of telling how much of François’s voice is preserved, but translator Antony Shugaar’s light, conversational English is delightful to read.
If you enjoy reading about sea life and the oceans you won’t be disappointed with this title.
On Browsing (Field Notes Book 5)
Biblioasis (October 4, 2022), 106 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $12.99
I enjoyed the previous book I read from the small Canadian publisher Biblioasis, A Factotum of the Book Trade, so I was looking forward to reading On Browsing. I was disappointed.
I’m very much a high-tech guy. I read all my books on my Kindle app (iPhone and iPad) these days. I listen to audiobooks using the Audible app on my iPhone. But I remember an earlier era, and I remember it fondly.
I spent seven years of my life in the book business. Physical books. Hardcover and paperback. I worked for B. Dalton Bookseller, opening one new store and managing two others. I even returned for a penitential stint a few years later. I was a regular customer at various used bookstores in the different places I lived. I even learned the routine of the mail order used book business: you gave them the title of the book you wanted and if they were able to find it for you, you sent them a check.
So I expected On Browsing to be a pleasant return to that world. And indeed author Jason Guriel writes about browsing now defunct bookstores in his native Canada. He describes wandering the aisles at Blockbuster Video (yes, Canada had the chain too), first for VHS and then DVD. He writes about stores that sold and bought music CDs. All of that was marvelous.
But there is a big chunk in the middle of the book in which the author digresses into a science fiction view of cyberspace, decades before the advent of the internet. That segued into a discussion of the internet as we know it.
Guriel ends the book with a reflection of browsing Netflix. Not the same as browsing your local Blockbuster, or better, your neighborhood independently owned video store.
I was looking for a throwback, for some memories. I got some of that, but I got too much of today’s technology. That’s not what I came to this book for.
I am always happy to turn to a travelogue for a pleasant diversion, and North Country was no exception. Author Howard Mosher felt the need to make a sojourn westward along the US-Canada border from his home in Vermont. This book documents his trip.
Although he describes the geography he encounters, what is central to North Country is the conversations he has. Mosher talks with hunting guides, merchants, customs agents, truckers, and others on both sides of the border. He spoke with a young woman about to enter college who was an amateur stock car racer and the best in her part of Canada. Some locals are more and some less reluctant to speak with Mosher, but they all have something interesting to say about life along the rural border. He is not afraid to ask questions or to get referrals. If the waitress says, “You should go talk to Joe up the road. He knows all about our local history,” Mosher does so. And Joe will usually talk to him.
Mosher is also happy to relate stories about incidents along the way. He describes coming back into the United States from Canada and checking in at the first motel he encounters. He was in room five. In room six was a newlywed couple, based on the signs on their car. They had a boom box blasting, and it was hard to tell from all the shouting whether they were fighting celebrating. In room four was a trucker who was trying to sleep because he needed to get an early start in the morning. Our author was not happy about being caught in the middle.
Throughout the book Mosher interweaves stories from his past. He describes working summers for a door-to-door brush salesman. (He doesn’t name the company, but it must have been Fuller Brush. I did that one summer in college.) He talks about his time as a teacher and social worker, and he describes trying to work with one unruly epileptic young man whose life came to a tragic end. He describes working for a local logger when he had no other prospects. He was doing fine in the job until he was summarily fired one day when the logger told him that if he wanted to write he should go write.
The author is not one to hesitate or mull over decisions. He had enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. He had just arrived in town and met his classmates when a phone company employee saw the Vermont plates on his car, pulled up beside him, and shouted, “I saw your green license plate. I’m from Vermont, too. Go back home where you belong while you still can.” Mosher did just that.
Mosher begins each chapter with an epigraph, and it turns out that he read some of the same authors who have been favorites of mine in the past: William Least Heat-Moon and Kathleen Norris, for example. He is also a big Hemingway fan, and loves the Nick Adams story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” something he references multiple times in the early part of the book. I hate Hemingway and I hated having to read that story in high school. But I’ll forgive him for that.
The bottom line: If you like a good travelogue you’ll find one here.
Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York
Princeton Architectural Press (October 4, 2022), 220 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $27.50
This is not the book I was expecting. Nevertheless, I found it entertaining and it provided some insight into a slice of life with which I was not familiar.
The book’s subtitle is misleading. Growing Up Underground focuses strictly on author Steven Heller’s childhood and his early career with underground newspapers in New York City. He is refreshingly honest with his approach, however. Heller writes, “My manuscript is as redacted as an FBI file.” Coming from a perspective unlike the unreliable narrator in Still No Word from You, he goes on to say:
I promise everything that follows is like Ivory soap, at least 97 percent pure, 2 percent minor embellishment, and 1 percent memory lapse.
Heller writes about his childhood and the fact that his mother (apparently) had labor induced so his birth would fit into her schedule. His parents would go off on long vacations, leaving him with relatives in Sweden, something that strongly influenced his view of the world. Based on a psychologist’s interpretation of a battery of tests his parents paid for, they put him in a military-like all-boys high school. That was something of a disaster, and his father ended up pulling strings to get him into a more liberal private school.
Always something of a rebel, Heller began drawing and got some of his work published in New York underground publications. That evolved into the role of art director, and he took on that position during two separate stints at Screw, the underground sex publication. He also held similar positions at the East Village Other and at the New York Review of Sex & Politics, which he co-founded. He even did some design work for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, work of which he was not proud. Heller was arrested twice on pornography charges, once before he was eighteen, but in neither case did the charges stick.
Heller is just three years older than me, and given that I worked for one suburban weekly newspaper and two alternative news weeklies during the eighties when I was in my thirties, his descriptions of layout and paste-up were familiar to me, even though the world of underground New York City newspapers was not. Newspaper layout and production has obviously changed significantly in recent years.
Heller left behind his somewhat tawdry early years for a far more respectable career at the New York Times, where he spent many years as art director at the Book Review. But he only touches on those days in passing, as he keeps the focus of the present volume quite narrow.
Growing Up Underground is not for everyone, but the book is a valuable contribution in its documentation of one aspect of the New York underground newspaper business of the sixties.
Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin
Catapult (October 11, 2022), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.53
I’m always delighted to come across a book in which the writing shines. Peter Orner offers that in Still No Word from You. The title is taken from a letter of his grandfather’s written to his wife while he was overseas in World War II. She was apparently not very good at responding to his correspondence.
There are two kinds of essays in this book. In one Orner reflects on the writing of others and calls out passages he admires. The remaining essays, the majority of the book, are autobiographical.
There is no chronology here, but we learn Orner lived a complicated and multifaceted life in the period these essays cover. He had one brother. His mother left his father when he and his brother were still youngsters and she eventually remarried. Orner seems to have not gotten on well with his birth father, but his wife’s second husband welcomed him. He was married at least once in what seemed like a rocky relationship. (At one point he appears to be in the process of moving out of their home when his partner (wife?) announces, “Well, here’s something. I’m pregnant. What? Let me put it another way. Pregnant I’m. Something here’s— You don’t look— It takes a while. It’s not like making a sandwich.”) And his wife’s family did not like their future son-in-law much, or so Orner felt. He’s Jewish, which is central to many of the essays. We learn the author has lived in Illinois, Vermont, and Bolinas, and we know he taught college.
We get all of this in no particular order, even though the book is divided into six sections: Morning, Mid-morning, Noon, 3 P.M., Dusk, and Night. There is no forward momentum or flow in the book. What Orner offers is a series of vignettes. The essays are short, the longest being five or six pages.
One needs to appreciate Orner’s writing without assuming every word he writes is literally true. After all, he reports a conversation that happened when he was not in the room. And he recounts a person’s thoughts when he had no way of knowing those thoughts. But it is the writing for which we came. For example, of the author Gina Berriault he writes, “There’s a patience in Berriault’s sentences that could only be the result of a refusal to rush any one of them into existence.” So it is with Orner’s writing. He tells us, “The monkey would watch us, too, like a hawk.”
Orner’s skill with words is apparent when he writes about his future wife’s family:
Naomi and I would eat tomatoes like apples, juice sweating down our faces. The fact that we still weren’t married wasn’t merely an offense against the honor of the family, it mocked God’s infinite mercy in broad daylight.
Naomi slept in her mother’s old room. I slept on a bunk in the storage closet. It wasn’t a storage closet, it was a fairly large room just off the kitchen that they used for storage, but everybody called it the storage closet. Put the fiancé in the storage closet.
Reading Still No Word from You delivers a delightful immersion in the craft of writing.
Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East
Amanda H. Podany
Oxford University Press (August 19, 2022), 672 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $33.38
I was having some difficulty finding my next book to read. I went through multiple Kindle samples on my iPad and nothing caught my interest. Books that I thought I would enjoy turned out to be unappealing. Then I was going through one of the daily emails from the Literary Hub and clicked on a link for Oxford University Press. There I found a listing for this book. I almost always download a sample of a book before buying it, but in this case a sample was not available. A couple of considerations prompted me to buy the book anyway. First, the subject interested me. Second, the author is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona, just a short drive west on Interstate 10 from where I attended college, Pitzer College in Claremont.
When I was at Pitzer in the 1970s studying classics (the Latin and Greek languages along with Greek and Roman history, literature, and culture), the study of the ancient Near East came into play because of the proximity in geography and chronology. At the time ancient Near Eastern studies seemed complete and circumscribed. Forty-plus years later we know that assumption was incorrect, as Amanda Podany proves in Weavers, Scribes, and Kings. She writes about documents that have been discovered in the intervening years, including the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
Podany takes a very specific approach. She focuses strictly on documents written on cuneiform clay tablets found in the Near East and on related archaeological discoveries. The only exception is that at the outset of her investigation she discusses some pre-cuneiform documents that predated actual written language. Although her focus is narrow, the time span she covers is immense. Her discussion begins in 3500 BCE and takes us all the way through to 323 BCE. Her story ends when writing in cuneiform on clay tablets gave way to other scripts written on other materials. Podany covers the era thoroughly. Although Amazon lists the print length of the book as 672 pages, my Kindle edition took me well past page 700 before the back matter began.
One of Podany’s goals is to go beyond just the kings. She does a good job of this. Obviously there is a lot about kings because a lot of the material we have is by kings or about kings. But Podany also writes about merchants, mid-level government functionaries, and brewers. Beer was the beverage of choice in the ancient Near East and keeping track of the inventories of the ingredients that went into beer was important.
The author gives plenty of attention to women, righting an old wrong. She writes about queens, princesses, mothers of kings, and priestesses. Sometimes it was the princess who became the priestess. Given the culture we have few records of common women, but Podany is diligent in writing about the women for whom we do have records.
The publisher is not wrong in using the words “new history” in the subtitle. There is a lot of new material here. It is interesting stuff, and it is all very readable. Despite the book’s length I never felt bogged down; I was always ready to continue on to the next chapter.
If you enjoy ancient history you will find Weavers, Scribes, and Kings well worth your time.
Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
read by David Rintoul
Penguin Audio (May 25, 2021), 4 hours and 31 minutes
$18.38 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I must be some kind of a glutton for punishment. I keep reading Kindle books and listening to audiobooks about quantum theory. Sometimes I think I have something of a grasp of quantum mechanics and other times I think that I haven’t a clue. And still I read (and listen) on.
The Helgoland of the title is an island that Werner Heisenberg visited as a way of coping with his allergies. While he was there he recognized that the orbit of an electron around its nucleus required a table rather than a simple equation to describe it. Author Carlo Rovelli explains how this occurred and then discusses theories of other early quantum theorists and the conversations among them, people such as Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger.
Rovelli proceeds to discuss superposition, the idea that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once. He reviews the three primary theories of quantum mechanics: many worlds, hidden variables, and wave collapse. I won’t describe these here: you can find ample online resources if you want to understand them. Suffice it to say that Rovelli finds all three theories lacking.
The author goes on to state that objects only can be measured, and that they only have meaning, when they interact with one another. Rovelli writes, “Quantum theory describes the manifestation of objects to one another.” He states, “The properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others.” This seems to be the primary thesis of this book. Rovelli insists that this is true no matter what the scale, unlike most quantum theorists who believe that quantum phenomena happen only at the subatomic level.
In the second half of the book Rovelli delves into philosophy. He discusses Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian Bolshevik and philosopher, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. He devotes a chapter to Nāgārjuna, the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the second century. It seems that Nāgārjuna believed that reality was experienced through interaction. (I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”)
Rovelli wrote Helgoland in Italian (though apparently while living in Canada), and it appears the book required two translators to render it into English. I question how much of Rovelli’s voice comes through in this audiobook version. David Rintoul delivers a beautiful rendition in highly listenable British-accented English, but how much of that is Rovelli? Rintoul’s voice tells us that American physicist David Bohm was “sacked” from his job at Princeton, clearly a British colloquialism. I wonder if the Italian word Rovelli used was equally informal.
For a lucid discussion of quantum mechanics one might be better off reading the likes of Sean Carroll.