Listening for America

Listening for America coverListening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim
Rob Kapilow
Liveright (November 5, 2019), 472 pages
Kindle edition $19.24, Amazon Hardcover $22.49

Rob Kapilow is a renowned music educator and in this book he has done a first rate job of educating his readers about the history of the Broadway musical. He delivers what he promises in the title, starting before Gershwin, in fact, with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and taking us right through to Stephen Sondheim. He points out in the epilogue that the most popular post-Sondheim shows have either been from overseas (for example, the many shows of the British master of spectacle Andrew Lloyd Weber or French productions such as Miss Saigon and Les Misérables) or Disney movie reincarnations (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the like).

Each chapter focuses on one song from one show, for example George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” or Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Before getting to the song, however, Kapilow discusses the life of the composer, tells us about his collaborators, and explains where the show from which the song came stood in the history of Broadway and the country. When he gets to the song he describes, in fairly technical terms, what makes it special. He has an associated YouTube channel in which he offers clips from the songs, and demonstrates how the composer was innovative in contrast to how the song might normally have been written. The marvelous thing about the Kindle edition is that the book links directly to the clips.

The notes are done in a rather odd way. The references are numbered footnotes and are in the back of the book. There are also notes that use symbols: asterisk, double dagger, the section sign (§), and the pilcrow (¶, the paragraph marker – I’ve been waiting for the chance to use “pilcrow” in a sentence). These add additional details and are at the end of each chapter. Fortunately in the Kindle edition both types of notes pop up seamlessly at the bottom of the screen. This convention, however, must be very annoying in the print edition where the reader must constantly flip back and forth.

There is a lot of interesting detail in the book. For example Kapilow tells us that Richard Rodgers “collaborated exclusively with [Lorenz] Hart from 1919 until Hart’s collapse and death at the age of forty-eight in 1943, and then with Oscar Hammerstein II from 1943 until Hammerstein’s death in 1960,” while other composers frequently changed collaborators. You might be interested in knowing that Fred Astaire would adhere scrupulously to what the composer wrote, while “Judy Garland, for example, scarcely sings a single rhythm of “Over the Rainbow” as [Harold] Arlen wrote it.”

While the book discusses in detail only sixteen songs out of the entire Broadway canon, it provides, in a highly readable manner, a fairly comprehensive history Broadway and how the musical has evolved.

Still Here

Still Here coverStill Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Alexandra Jacobs
Narrated by Andréa Burns
Macmillan Audio, October 22, 2019
$24.98 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Still Here is a comprehensive, deeply researched, exquisitely written book about the life of Elaine Stritch. The author takes us from Elaine’s birth (before it actually, describing in too much detail her parents’ wedding night) to Stritch’s final breath.

Stritch had a big ego that started in childhood and lasted throughout her life. She called attention to herself, constantly annoyed and frustrated the other actors with whom she worked, had trouble remembering her lines, frequently ad-libbed in scripted shows, and audiences loved her.

She was somewhat (somewhat?) neurotic, drank in order to be able to go on stage, had a series of not so healthy relationships, and made unreasonable demands upon her producers, many of which were agreed to. She didn’t marry until age forty-eight when she wed John Bay. Bay was an actor whose family ran the Bay English Muffin empire (used in the Egg McMuffin), but who had no access to the family wealth. Bay was gay, but Stritch stayed with him until his death. In fact, she was buried next to him.

Still Here is one of those titles that works superbly as an audiobook. Voice actor Andréa Burns does an exceptional job of reading Still Here. Her ability to perfectly channel the whiskey voice of the mature Elaine Stritch is absolutely delightful and makes the audio book a real pleasure to listen to.

Lovers of show biz will love Still Here.

Writers & Lovers

Writers & Lovers coverWriters & Lovers: A Novel
Lily King
Grove Press (March 3, 2020), 320 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.20

Lily King’s new novel Writers & Lovers is written in the first person. The protagonist and narrator Casey at age 31 is trying to finish her novel after six years of fits and starts, attempting to make a living as a waitress, and trying to pay off her past-due student loans.

Casey seems quite competent as a waitress at an upscale restaurant to which she commutes by bicycle from her living space, a garden shed turned cottage next to her landlord’s house, but her manager puts her on probation twice for reasons that don’t seem to be entirely fair. She becomes involved with a writer her own age and also with an established author, widowed with two young sons, sixteen years her senior. She has a past: her high school coach father retired in shame after some sleazy activity in the locker room and her mother ran off to Mexico with another man and later died there mysteriously.

The story takes place in the early 1990’s, with occasional passing references to the likes of Whitewater special counsel Ken Starr. Casey has an answering machine rather than voicemail and no one seems to have a cell phone. Nonetheless this is not a period piece by any means; it could just as easily be set in 2020.

The writing is lively and King keeps the story moving at a rapid clip. There is one incident towards the end of the book involving Casey’s brother and her landlord that seems to serve no purpose, and we never learn the circumstances of her mother’s death, but otherwise the story holds together well. The final scene is a bit quirky, but it does its job in offering a solid conclusion. The ending is not open-ended, leaving us adrift, as is the case with many novels.

I don’t know if Writers & Lovers qualifies as literary fiction, but it is certainly a highly readable novel.

Until the End of Time

Until the End of Time coverUntil the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
Brian Greene
Knopf (February 18, 2020), 416 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $19.89

Brian Greene is a working physicist who is also well-known for writing popular books on science. Until the End of Time is his latest. I read a couple of very positive reviews of this book when it first came out and was intrigued enough to purchase it.

Green covers a variety of topics, including entropy, evolution (both biological and non-biological), quantum physics, the big bang and the earliest days of the universe, and the ultimate fate of the universe, which scientists now generally see as continued expansion until there is nothing there.

Greene is an excellent writer when it comes to popularizing science; he is clear, concise, and witty. He certainly knows his stuff, and the work is well-annotated. There is a lot of interesting material here and I learned a few things that I didn’t know before. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed: I came away without any new insights about the search for meaning.

The Seine

The Seine coverThe Seine: The River That Made Paris
Elaine Sciolino
Narrated by the author
Audible Studios, October 29, 2019
$17.47 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The Seine: The River that Made Paris opens with the author describing how she arrived in Paris, recently divorced, as a correspondent for Newsweek, new to the city with a shaky grasp of the French language. Listening to this book one learns that she matured into a seasoned journalist, mastered French, and built a long-lasting marriage with two daughters.

These things, however, are incidental. The book is about the Seine, and the author describes the river and its history beautifully. She takes one from the river’s source in Burgundy to its mouth at La Havre in the English Channel. She goes back in time to the native inhabitants of Gaul before the arrival of the Romans and takes us up to the present day. Sciolino describes the Seine in books, movies, and song, even including a chapter on sex on the Seine. She shows us the lives of the barge owners, an occupation that no longer exists in the form it once did, and describes the booksellers in their stalls on the banks of the river, while offering a glimpse of what it takes to be in law enforcement on the Seine. She does not hide her love for Sequana, the goddess of the Seine.

There is much in this book that is timely. She writes about cruise companions who are fans of the current occupant of the White House. Sciolino also includes an Afterword describing the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral, after all, sits on an island in the Seine, and Seine water was instrumental in dousing the flames.

The book is ably read by the author. The slightly affected way in which she marks off quotes by others is a bit annoying, but overall The Seine is a delight to listen to.

Islands, the Universe, Home

Islands, the Universe, Home coverIslands, the Universe, Home: Essays
Gretel Ehrlich
Open Road Media, 210 pages
originally published in 1991
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $11.64
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

On the evening that I was ready to start a new book my daily email from Early Bird Books included this title. The summary said that the writing was excellent, so that, of course, caught my attention. Given the price I decided to buy it.

In the time frame that this book covers the author lives on a ranch in Wyoming, and much of the commentary in the essays takes place in that milieu. However, Ehrlich treks distant trails in Japan, explores the Channel Islands of the California coast, looks for cacti on military land in Nevada, and visits the NASA telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Ehrlich does know how to turn a phrase:

quoteSap rises in trees and in me, and the hard knot of perseverance I cultivated to meet winter dissipates; I walk away from the obsidian of bitter nights. Now snow comes wet and heavy, but the air it traverses feels light.

The essays in the first part of the book reminded me somewhat of Loren Eiseley, though not so much later in the book. Nonetheless, Ehrlich’s reflections are engaging throughout.




The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Bookshop of Yesterdays coverThe Bookshop of Yesterdays
Amy Meyerson
Park Row (June 12, 2018), 368 pages
Kindle edition $9.49, Amazon paperback $10.29

The Amazon page for this novel notes that it was included in the summer reading list of a couple of different publications, and that’s really what it is: something of a summer reading title, even though I read the book in late winter.

Miranda, the protagonist whose story is told in the first person, returns home to Los Angeles from her teaching job and boyfriend in Philadelphia when her uncle Billy dies and leaves her the bookstore he owned. Billy loved games and scavenger hunts even when Miranda was a child, and he had set up a scavenger hunt for her before his death to explain to her why he left her the bookshop, and to reveal to her something that she didn’t know about her own personal history. The clues he leaves are quotes from a wide range of literature.

There is a plot twist, which makes perfect sense once you get there, but the book rather falls apart after that revelation. It does recover enough, however, for a fairly satisfying ending.

Nothing heavy or profound here, but an enjoyable diversion.