The written page is a thinking person's best friend and most crucial aide. It is a secret passage which can take you inside the thoughts and feelings of people all over the world, whether they're still living or whether they died a thousand years before Christ.
Few days, if any, pass during which I don't read. I read to learn what I need to know or want to know. I read for entertainment. I read for inspiration. I read for company.
The fact that you're wading into this page, instead of turning up your nose and insisting that nobody reads anymore, indicates that I'm preaching to the choir with these words. You know what reading is and what it can do for you.
It goes without saying that if a person has benefited from education, he understands how vital it is that the tools of education be always available to the people of a nation where each must shoulder the responsibility to vote in a world where political activity is capable of advancing our little planet or removing it from the universe.
The sad thing is that those who haven't benefited from learning don't understand its value, and those people are capable of killing the free access to books, newspapers and the rest of the world of knowledge. Our ancestors instituted public schools and public libraries in the hope that so many would benefit that the naysayers would never win that battle. Let's hope their efforts continue to thrive.
If you haven't guessed, today's column is dedicated to reviews of the written word. I hope you enjoy it.
Her Reason for Being
Since last summer, I've been reading the book which I will be reviewing second. During that time, other important publications have been piling up. Like Walt Disney's cartoon character, Scrooge McDuck, who keeps his billions in numbered money bins, yet stops in the middle of heavy traffic to pick up a penny, I'm greedy for books and am always looking for more of them with gusto.
During my autumn reading, there arrived "Her Reason for Being," a novel by Cassadaga resident Susan Crossett Dilks. The minute I finished the massive Shakespeare book, I reached immediately for it, because I've read it before while it was still in the planning stages, and I knew it was living history of our nation and area of the nation.
The plot begins about 20 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War and carries us through the years when the rest of the world was embroiled in World War I - although the United States had not yet decided to enter.
The novel is set mostly in Buffalo, although the main characters often travel, including trips to Dunkirk, Chautauqua Institution and Lily Dale. The central focus is shared by two women whose lives are quite different, although they interact in both major and minor ways throughout the plot.
Lizzie Knapp is the wife of a successful business executive in the days when Buffalo was one of the most prosperous and fastest-growing cities in our country. Giving birth to child after child, she finds herself chafing in a world in which she is given little to do other than pick out expensive and fashionable clothes and decide where to display the good china in the newest Delaware Avenue mansion her husband's ambition has caused to be their temporary home. There are trained servants to deal with the children. What is she to do?
Maggie Trusler begins as an orphan, 14 years old, trying to manage her younger brother and sister as they leave their home in Central New York and set off to Buffalo to live with their only living relative. By hard work and extreme individual talent, she will become a well-known musical artist and published author. But, does this hard-driving woman know the boundary between art and real life?
The author whose work came most frequently to mind as I was reading Dilks' book was E.L. Doctorow, who spoke last summer at Chautauqua. Doctorow has mastered the art of taking fictional characters and surrounding them with real historical people, both the famous and significant but little known.
"Her Reason for Being" takes these two women and strews their paths with people who were part of that period of history. Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger and a wealth of similar figures put their marks on the lives of one or both women.
Throughout the book, the author provides a firm and enjoyable narrative. Her word choice is varied, and never sounds artificial, except when it should do so, such as when the Knapps are showing off their superiority to the lesser folks of their community.
Neither woman is an artificial creation. Throughout most of the book, the reader likes both women, although both can be tactless, weak and self-centered - just as any living person can be at times.
At 602 pages, the novel is very long. Indeed, it could probably be easily divided into two separate books. The author has certainly researched the period of the book extensively and accurately. Although it never bored me and I couldn't put my finger on any event which should have been left out of it, I did get the feeling, after a while, that it was unlikely that every historical event of the period would affect these two individuals so directly.
Just as two examples, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral of Buffalo, most certainly did burn down in the 19th century, and it wouldn't be surprising if Maggie, the church's organist, might be injured in the fire. The Germans certainly did sink the ocean liner Lusitania in 1915, and it's possible that the boyfriend of Lizzie's youngest daughter might have been aboard. None of it is unbelievable, but the coincidences do pile up.
Still, it's a great read and a pleasurable study of life in the past century. I found myself caring about what happened to these people and greatly enjoying the discovery of those events.
"Her Reason for Being" was published by Author House in July 2008. As of this writing, it is not available through the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System.
Shakespeare After All
If the title "Shakespeare After All" sounds familiar, it's because I included it among arts-related holiday gift suggestions in an early December column. At that time, I said I would review it in later days, and by cracky, that date has come.
The book is really a reference book, lasting nearly a thousand pages. The author - Harvard faculty member Marjorie Garber - approaches each and every play in the canon of 38 plays normally attributed to the authorship of Shakespeare.
I sat down and read the book from cover to cover. It's serious reading, which often sent me rushing to other books and Web sites to examine an issue further, and it took me months. I did it because I wanted to write about it for you. You would probably be better-advised to do a play or two at a time, especially if you have tickets to see one of them produced, or if you have recently seen such a production.
Shakespeare lived a long time ago in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and if any of his plays were written down during his lifetime, we have no record of it. His plays were written to be performed, not to be read on the page, and it's perfectly possible that he wrote many more plays, or that one or more were actually someone else's work.
I'm sure readers are aware of the various beliefs that Shakespeare didn't really write the plays, and candidates from Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth herself have been suggested. Garber's stand is to use the name Shakespeare to mean the author of the plays, whatever the author's name may have been in 1590.
Garber approaches the plays in what she believes is the order in which they were written. We have a number of historical records which help us to pinpoint when the plays first appeared. A dated notation in the household accounts of Queen Elizabeth I, for example, might note a sum of money which she ordered paid to Shakespeare's company of actors in appreciation for a particular play which she had enjoyed.
Since the first known written texts vary from one another, there are several versions of most of the plays. The best-known early editions are commonly called the Quarto and the Folio editions, and each was written down from the memory of actors who had played the role. Anyone who has ever appeared on stage will attest that few actors remember every line and stage direction, perfectly and without variation, years after they no longer play the role.
Her analysis ranges from comparing the several existing versions of the script, to analysis of plot and characters, and to considerations of what the author's intentions might have been in making the choices he made. At no time did I get the feeling that she thought that if you didn't accept her analysis or didn't agree with her claims, that you had to be wrong, were clearly stupid or out of touch.
She discourses on the meaning of the language in the plays. Probably the best-known example, of course, is in "Romeo and Juliet," where Juliet walks onto her balcony and says "Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo."
We've all heard variations on the old joke, "Down here in the bushes. The ladder broke." But, of course, the word "wherefore" means "why." She's asking why the man with whom she has fallen in love, at first sight, is the son of her father's enemy, instead of some eligible suitor. Actually, the author doesn't bother explaining that one, but I thought it would be more widely familiar than the ones she explains.
She finds common threads among the plays, such as how many start in a "civilized" location, most often the court of a king or duke, then go to a "green world" location, such as the Forest of Arden or the open seas. Then they return to the court, seeing with new eyes.
She seems especially drawn by the idea that Juliet, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and all the Bard's magnificent women were all played by young men, as the morals of that early period thought it unbearable that a woman get up on a public stage. What does it say about the men and women of that period and of all periods?
The book can help you know more about history and some of the greatest artistry ever created. It isn't a panacea for all doubts. It will give you more to think about in seeing Shakespeare's plays and in living from day to day. What more could you ask?
"Shakespeare After All" has 944 pages of text and several indices in the paperbound edition. It was published by Anchor Books in 2004. There is one copy available in the library system at Fredonia's Barker Library.
On the television series "Mad TV" recently, the cast imagined a large number of recording artists coming together to record an off-color, violent, anti-social rap number. In addition to a variety of violent-looking, tattooed, gold-toothed people who were named with handles such as "Kwik Flush" and "E-Z Kill," they introduced an actress dressed in an elegant white pantsuit with well-coifed hair. She was portraying Julie Andrews.
Andrews has become an icon in our culture, representing what is clean, pure and good. The irony of someone portraying her as trilling along while the others rapped out words about taking drugs and punching out women was funny, because it was so utterly unlikely.
Recently, Andrews published a volume of memoirs or her own life, from birth through her beginning to film "Mary Poppins," which transformed her from a successful performer to a household name. The name of the book is "Home."
Andrews seems to have an extraordinary memory. Her memoirs have a richness of details which sometimes takes the reader aback.
She was born Julia Elizabeth Ward in Walton-Upon-Thames, a small village upstream from London. That was 1935. Her mother was a professional pianist, which means she was exposed to music - both the joy and discipline - from the cradle on.
The narrative voice recounts with clarity and a certain detachment how her earliest memories are of hiding in cellars from Hitler's constant bombardment of her homeland, which began when she was 5.
It was learned very early in her youth that she had an extraordinary singing voice. She had a very clean, crisp tone quality and a range which developed eventually into four octaves. She recounts easily and without rancor how her voice was better suited to music hall singing and popular singing than the classics. She could sing a single aria beautifully, but her voice never had the depth to do an entire operatic role.
No sooner did the man she calls Dad, right through the final pages of the book, return from wartime service than her mother left him to live with and eventually marry Ted Andrews, a Canadian who was enjoying a fairly successful career as a tenor, traveling around England with the vaudeville shows which were still popular in those days.
She claims not to know the origins of the decision that her brother should stay with their father, but she would live with her mother and stepfather, but in her parents' divorce decree came the legal changing of her name to Julie Andrews.
She calls Andrews "Pop," and her discussion of him is chilly and seems tolerant at best. Eventually, she would learn that the man she continues to think of as her father wasn't biologically in that role, but she rebuffed her biological father's attempts to establish a relationship, insisting that she had a father and didn't need another.
The early years of touring with her mother and stepfather are more interesting to music lovers than general fans, especially as her own remarkable singing voice is discovered and several false attempts to find the right teacher to bring out its best are undertaken. There are several pages on the best exercises to strengthen the upper register and avoid a nasal quality.
Things get more interesting as she is hired at 18 to perform the lead in the Broadway revival of the 1920s show "The Boyfriend," then was discovered and moved into the role of Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady."
The last few chapters deal with making best-selling records, auditioning for Rogers and Hammerstein, performing opposite Rex Harrison and later Richard Burton in the musical "Camelot," and beginning her series of performances opposite comedienne Carol Burnett in the "Julie and Carol" series beginning in Carnegie Hall.
While she makes it clear that she is no prude, there is an icy, analytic quality to her life which seems to justify her chilly image.
If you enjoy her performing, and I certainly do, you'll delight to learning the back story behind it all. She ends with the birth of her first daughter, Emma Walton, to her first husband, designer Tony Walton. I suspect I'll be sure to acquire volume II, assuming one is forthcoming.
"Home" has 325 pages in hard bound edition. It was published by Hyperion, dated 2008. There are 16 copies scattered around the more that 30 libraries in the local system and available to be borrowed.