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Catching up on the book stack

June 7, 2008
Robert W. Plyler
From time to time, books are sent to me with the request they be reviewed. It’s time we examined a few of them.

Next weekend the James Prendergast Library will be holding its annual book sale, during which the community will be enriched with tens of thousands of books, both practical assistance in the things we need to know for whatever reason, and mental and emotional stimulation to keep us literate and human.

I hope this week’s column will inspire you to drop by on Friday or Saturday of the coming week. Others of the more than 30 small community libraries will be holding book sales in coming weeks, and I hope you’ll give them a look as well.

Stories of Paul Bowles

Often it can be said that if someone had lived in a different time period, their place in the world might be completely different. That is certainly true of American author and composer Paul Bowles.

Bowles was born in 1910 and died in 1999. He and his wife, Jane, left the United States very early in their marriage and moved, first to France and then to Morocco, where they lived out the rest of their lives.

The couple were close friends with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem and many more of the literary and musical icons of the time. Christopher Isherwood honored him by giving his last name to Sally Bowles, the divinely decadent heroine of ‘‘I Am a Camera,’’ which later became the musical show ‘‘Cabaret.’’

The first of his five novels was ‘‘The Sheltering Sky,’’ which won many awards and was made into a feature film in 1990, starring John Malkovich.

His music is still recorded and performed from time to time, and a number of musicologists have ranked him much higher than better-known composers of the 20th century.

His short stories have been combined into a 657-page, paper-bound volume. One can only hope that lovers of good writing will find copies available.

Most of the stories are set in exotic locations, especially in Morocco. Others take place in Central America, Sri Lanka and other places where the typical western values come up against very different ones.

The narration in the books is quite plain and straightforward. He never tells you what to think about his characters, he just tells you what they do, and you form your own evaluation.

Bowles is interested in missionaries who try to apply their own values to actions by people who don’t share those values. He tells us of big city-educated young women who believe they are too sophisticated to take advice from those who have lived all their lives in foreign cultures. He writes of jungles, deserts, tropical storms, poisonous snakes and poisonous people.

The words are easy to understand, except when he seeks to hypnotize you with exotic sounds, spellings and ideas, and then the idea is that you don’t understand them.

You might want to read one of these stories at a time, like dessert, as too many of them at once can derail your faith in your fellow humans.

‘‘The Stories of Paul Bowles’’ was printed by Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins. The paper-bound edition contains 62 of his stories and sells new for $19.95. If you need to agree with everything in a book, you should give it a miss, but if you love a challenge, this book will certainly offer you that.

Liszt’s Kiss

‘‘Liszt’s Kiss,’’ by Susanne Dunlap, is what has classically been called ‘‘a woman’s book.’’ It’s protagonist is a beautiful young woman in early 19th century Paris who entwines her own, real adventures with dreams of winning the heart of that era’s version of the great lover: Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.

Anne is the only daughter of a beautiful young mother and a surly, much older father. Her mother teaches her to dress with style, to play the piano with professional grace, and to move comfortably among stylish and sophisticated crowds. But, when a plague of cholera strikes the city and something as innocent as a walk down the wrong street can lead to contagion and death, Anne must re-think her values.

And, surely there is some explanation of her parents’ marriage. Is something more important than love?

The author has clearly done a great deal of research, and she gives very exciting descriptions of a Paris in which Napoleon is a recent memory, even for children, and the blood beneath the guillotine has only recently dried. Scenes such as those in horrific cholera hospitals and in the elegant salons of the sophisticated wealthy each have their own appeal.

When it comes to plot and character development, however, it’s a bit gooey for my personal tastes.

Speaking for myself, it was worth the outbursts of ‘‘Oh, will he kiss me?’’ to get the color and the history. You can weigh for yourself if you will agree.

‘‘Liszt’s Kiss’’ has 333 pages in paperbound edition. It was printed by Touchstone and sells for $14.

Puccini’s Ghosts

Let’s stick with books about music, but switch from Paris in the Romantic Era to the isolated western coast of Scotland during the relatively grim and prim year of 1960.

‘‘Puccini’s Ghosts’’ is a much better-written novel than the previous one. It is the work of contemporary Scottish author Morag Joss.

For me, the great strength of the book is the character of its narrator. We first meet opera singer Lila Duncan as she returns to her tiny Scottish hometown to arrange the funeral of her father.

We quickly learn that Lila feels she has been mistreated by both her solid, sincere, but dull father and her eccentric, painfully artistic mother. Lila is determined to do her daughterly duty as quickly as possible and get back out of the stifling, small town in which she spent her growing years.

The action quickly begins to switch back and forth, from the present to the year 1960, when Lila was in her teens. Gradually, we learn that while Lila may blame her parents and the other people in her life for the fact that she is so unhappy and so unsuited to success in life, she herself has virtually every characteristic for which she blames them, and she has contributed to the misery of others, at least as much as they have done to her.

The action begins with what should be good news. The family has received a small, unexpected check. Fleur, Lila’s mother, thinks the check should be used to buy a used car, but her husband insists that it will only pay for the purchase and will not pay for fuel, insurance, tires and other expenses.

Infuriated by what she considers her husband’s miserliness, Fleur has a nervous breakdown. She runs out to the empty garage, sets it on fire, then grabs a can of paint and a brush, and paints ‘‘B-A-S-T’’ on the garage door. Not much doubt what else she was planning to paint.

Embarrassed by her mother’s mental lapse, Lila tells everyone that the letters stand for ‘‘Burnhead Association for the Singing of ‘Turandot.’ ’’ The last is a long and exquisite opera by Giacomo Puccini, from which her mother is constantly playing phonograph recordings.

Her father invites her mother’s brother to help care for Fleur. Uncle George is a professional musician and he decides that the discipline and amount of communal involvement required to put on a difficult opera might be just the cure for Fleur’s departure from the safe and sane.

Immediately, he casts himself as the orchestra conductor, and Fleur as Princess Turandot. When he holds auditions for the other role, he is surprised to learn that young Lila has quite a large and beautiful singing voice, and gives her the role of Liu, the slave girl who sacrifices her life for the love of her master.

When no tenor with the chops to perform the male lead can be found, Uncle George invites a student of his from London to sing the role, in return for publicity and experience in his growing career. Handsome, professionally charming Joe Foscari arrives by train and immediately stirs the passions of every female in town, setting off nearly endless rivalries.

The book becomes a racing, twisting interplay of many stories. Will the competition for Joe’s affections result in a blow-up which will destroy the production? Will the hostility of the small town to unfamiliar culture harm one of more of the participants? Will modern Lila’s sanity be unhinged by her return to the place which she so closely associated with her suffering as a youth?

The whole story is very sensitively written. Interestingly, only the very ending doesn’t fit into this rushing progression of events. I greatly enjoyed everything in the book except the last few pages. If you’ve ever put everything you had into putting on a play or a concert, it’s a book which will touch your heart, last pages or not.

‘‘Puccini’s Ghosts’’ has 367 pages in paperbound edition. It was printed by Delta, an imprint of Random House.

Leading Lady

In the days before, during and just after World War II, when our country was just emerging from a perceived role as a haven for unsophisticated, under-educated bumpkins and into a new role of leadership and invention in the world, one of the most respected and admired of American names was Katharine Cornell.

Born to a wealthy physician from Buffalo and his eccentric wife, Cornell became an actress who electrified Broadway. Her name was recognized by virtually anyone who was alive back then, even if they might never have been to a city big enough to have seen her perform.

Even Looney Tunes cartoons which introduced virtually every film shown, in those days, immortalized her as ‘‘Kansas City Kitty.’’

Sadly, she lived at a period in which appearing in films or on television proved to be no temptation to her, so there is almost no record of her performances, beyond rave reviews from the 11 New York City newspapers, and literally sacks of fan mail from individuals who claim that she changed their lives with her artistry.

The book ‘‘Leading Lady: The World and Theatre of Katharine Cornell’’ is an attempt to capture the qualities which inspired so many people. It was written by theatrical biographer Tad Mosel, with the cooperation of Gertrude Macy, who was a stage manager and personal assistant for Cornell through most of her career.

In a period in which theater owners insisted that Americans were too unsophisticated to enjoy anything but silly comedy and pretty chorus girls, the girl from Buffalo had smash successes with the plays of George Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare and Jean Anouilh.

During World War II, she volunteered to perform for American troops on the European front at her own expense, and was denied cooperation by most of the military officers. She went anyway, performing ‘‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street,’’ which told of the British Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett, whose domineering father tried to prevent her marriage to poet Robert Browning.

Some of the most moving quotations from fan letters came from words written by hardbitten soldiers, who wrote that she had inspired them to respect themselves and feel positive once again, toward a world on which they had nearly given up hope.

Fans of history will be interested to read stories of her tours, rescued from trains sunk in quicksand and hauled in the back of a truck to open her play on time. Stories of having her hand accidentally slammed in a car door, and performing a difficult and demanding role with a chiffon scarf lightly tied around her injured hand to remind other actors not to grab it, remind us that a life in the theater has always involved suffering and heroics, in addition to wealth and success.

‘‘Leading Lady’’ has 519 pages in hardbound edition. It was published by Atlantic-Little, Brown, and costs $15.95.



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