The number and diversity of arts and culture programs which seek our attention is one of the great joys of writing this column.
There are, however, times in which I feel like the famous "Job Switching" episode of "I Love Lucy," in which Lucy goes to work in a chocolate-making business. Her job is to wrap individual candies in cellophane as they roll down a belt.
She tastes the candy and likes it, but the speed at which the belt is operated gets faster and faster, and soon the amount of these things which she likes so much turns them from a treat to a catastrophe.
So it often is here, especially in the summer, when the number of subjects seeking our attention sometimes grows beyond our ability to deal with them all.
One result of this is the near disappearance of columns about books. As I often have said, a concert or a play must be written about before a certain date and time in order to be of any use to the readers, but a book may be bought or borrowed pretty much anytime after it has been published. So, if we postpone a column about books, roughly the same number of people can still get a copy and read it if it catches their interest.
Well, the rush of incoming news has slowed considerably, and we're able to take at least a glance at the literary arts.
I find that I am usually reading three different books at the same time. I keep one on my bedside table, one in the kitchen to be company during the meals that I eat alone while my wife is at work, and one next to my computer to read while waiting for the device to boot up or to process some lengthy task. The latter book is also an effective study break, when I have been focusing on a task for so long that my mind needs refreshment.
A book is a sacred thing. A blessed thing. This week, let's hit the books.
WINNIE OF THE WENSLEY
A few weeks ago, I put a mention in "Winks" that Wendy Lewellen had finally published her long-promised collection of memories of Winnie Lewellen's, her late mother's, more than 30 years as the hostess at Chautauqua Institution's official guest house, which was called the Wensley House after the woman who donated her home on the grounds to be used as a guest house for the many speakers, performers, critics, and others who come to Chautauqua to be part of the official program.
I did that, because I only received my copy of the book a very short while before I had to write my next column, and I knew that there were a great many readers who would want to know the book was available long before I could get the whole thing read.
So, now I've read it, and I'm ready to share the experience with you.
The book is 8.5 x 11 inches, with paper cover. There is relatively little narrative in it. Instead, it documents in photographs the vast number of people, from the famous, to the brilliant, to the anonymous but gifted with talents in keeping a house repaired, clean, and comfortable. All were made welcome and comfortable by the famous Winnie.
The book's 150 pages are mostly filled with photos of the guests who stayed in the house's nine guest rooms over Winnie's long career. Sometimes their autographs are shown, from the house's guest book, and often the drawings, poems, and other demonstrations of their deep appreciation, which they either put right into the guest book, or on thank you letters which they left behind or sent later, or on the flyleaf of their most recent book, which they donated to be part of the house's library, which bore the notation "All of these authors have slept here."
She welcomed the President of the United States, and the waiter who was assigned to serve the Wensley Table, in the Hotel Athenaeum's dining room, and they are all included in the book in roughly alphabetical order. Occasionally the parade of guests is interrupted by a page of either recent or historic photographs of Winnie with members of her family, with a brief explanation of an incident which is needed to make sense of what has been written by a guest or other such information.
Like a good conversation, the book sometimes crosses over from one topic to another. The tone is very easy and comfortable. It's a treat to read and can be put down for a while, if necessary, then picked up again, so the reader can once again imagine himself sharing sunny summer days in better company than he could have imagined possible.
Let me give you just a taste of the people who march through these pages: The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, civil rights leader; Mitch Albom, author and journalist; Isaac Asimov, scientist and author; Joan Baez, folk singer; Dr. Christian Barnard, first surgeon to accomplish a human heart transplant; Tony Bennett, singer; Wolf Blitzer, television journalist; Victor Borge, comedian and pianist; Barbara Bush, First Lady; Shirley Chisholm, civil rights leader and candidate for president; Bill and Hillary Clinton, President and Secretary of State; Bill Cosby, actor and comic; and Phyllis Diller, comic. That's just a small sampling of those with last names which begin between letter A and letter D.
The list continues through Kurt Vonnegut, author; Porter Wagoner, country music singer; William Westmoreland, commanding general of the War in Vietnam; Roger Williams, pianist; Teresa Wright, Oscar-winning actress; and there are many, many more, in between.
The book is now on sale at the Chautauqua Bookstore, both in person and on line, at a price of $21.99. You can find it with ISBN number 978-1-300-07332-1. If you want to buy from the Chautauqua Bookstore by computer, go to the Institution's website at www.ciweb.org, and click on "bookstore."
BACKING INTO FORWARD
Back last winter, when Chautauqua Institution announced that Jules Feiffer would be one of their morning lecturers, I immediately tried to arrange to interview him.
I wrangled the assignment from the editors, then bought his book, and did extensive studies of his life and career, including critics' examinations of his books, artwork, plays, films, and so much more. I made an appointment to speak with him, got up before dawn and drove out to Chautauqua to do the interview before his morning lecture and arrived to be greeted by a poster proclaiming that he would not be present and naming the substitute.
You may not be familiar with Feiffer, but you probably will recognize some of his creations. He did the illustrations for the classic children's book "The Phantom Toll Booth." He wrote the screenplay for a number of Hollywood films, including "Carnal Knowledge." He wrote the scripts of well-known plays, including "Little Murders," "Grown Ups," "Knock Knock" and "Hold Me," among many others.
Probably his greatest contribution was three decades of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons, which were published weekly in the Village Voice, among other publications. If you couldn't see yourself in at least some of his cartoons, it's hard to imagine you were living.
In 2010, he wrote his autobiography, and if you enjoy examinations of real life, especially those with shocking honesty, I think you'd like reading it. The title is "Backing into Forward," which refers to the writer's observation that almost every important event in his life was either a last minute substitute for what he really wanted to do, or something which happened to him, despite his enormous effort to avoid it.
The language of the memoir is rich, yet not pretentious or overly complex. I often found myself deciding I would read just one or two more pages, then reading on for 20 or more.
He readily admits to his unpopularity as a child, at his difficulty in coping with a domineering mother, at his reluctance to be drafted, and a host of personal challenges which many people would have preferred to have covered up or at least played down.
He describes his interaction with such iconic figures as Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lauren Bacall, Philip Roth, and Dustin Hoffman, to name just a few. Sometimes they outwit him. Sometimes strangers recognize them and don't recognize him. He just lays out what happened and how he felt about it.
I greatly enjoyed the book. It includes a great many of Feiffer's cartoons, including several pages in which he draws the epilogue of his book, rather than writing it, in order to demonstrate the difference between his author's voice and his cartoonist's voice.
If you enjoy history as real life, rather than as mythology and brainwashing, you'll like the book. You might not want to share meals with Feiffer on a regular basis, but you'll come away feeling you know more about the world and about yourself and your life.
"Backing into Forward" has 445 pages, in paper bound edition. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, and the recommended selling price is $19. Find it with ISBN number 0-226-24035-5.
THE MASTER OF VERONA
If you like historical novels which are accurate representations of the period of history in which they are set, you will probably enjoy "The Master of Verona," by David Blixt.
Blixt has taken a number of Shakespeare's plays which are set in specific Italian locations, and knitted them loosely together with a mixture of genuine historical people and believable but fictional people to form an exciting mystery story.
The central Shakespearean plot is that of his play "Romeo and Juliet," although neither of those star-crossed lovers comes into the book. Instead, we get stories of their families, their parents and ancestors, and the Prince of Verona who plays a central role in their story. Only Tybalt, Juliet's hot-headed cousin whose murder by Romeo is an important plot point of the play, is actually present in the novel and that as a newborn.
One of the author's tricks is the introduction of characters who have similar names or histories to the Shakespearean characters, which tempts the reader to think he knows what will happen to this character, only to be surprised with yet another twist.
Indeed, the plot is filled with believable but unpredictable surprises. Italy in the 14th century is known for the plotting and deceiving and wearing of masks and disguises with which its people indulged themselves.
Blixt's greatest strength is in the creation of complex, yet understandable battle scenes, which keep the reader eagerly turning pages until the very end. They tend to be on the gory side, if you're squeamish.
His greatest weakness is in physical descriptions, especially of his characters. I finished the book with only the vaguest image in my mind of the physical appearance of even the most central characters. His descriptions of very young children, and especially of their typical behavior is also a weakness.
The central character is Pietro Alaghieri, the oldest surviving son of famed poet Dante Alaghieri. Dante's name is well known for the creation of the epic poem "The Divine Comedy," in which he describes himself being toured through both Hell and Purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, then through Heaven, with the guidance of his ideal woman, named Beatrice.
It is known that because many people - then or now - could not envision that someone could make up the vivid descriptions of those remarkable places, they came to believe that he had indulged in magic, in order to actually go there. People used to sniff at his clothes, on the street, to see if they could detect the odor of the sulfur from the fires of Hell.
As a result, Dante was exiled from his home city of Florence, which entertained the possibility of burning him at the stake for his efforts. Among the places he wandered, in his exile, was to the Northern Italian city of Verona. His circumstances left him and his family, always outsiders, sometimes admired and desired as a companion, sometimes hated and feared.
Italy was not a single country in the 14th century, and the cities were divided against one another. The rulers of some cities believed that the Pope should be the political ruler of all Italy, as well as the chief of their religion, while the rulers of other cities believed that the Holy Roman Emperor, based in Vienna, should be their political ruler, while the Pope should govern only their religious faith.
These rulers made almost perpetual war against one another, while dealing with the fact that some of their own subjects were prepared to revolt or to assassinate them in support of the alternative candidate for supremacy. Since nearly everyone involved was Italian and spoke the same language, it was difficult to know who was on which side, which led to a great deal of pretending and deceiving.
The ruler of Verona at this time was a man who was known by many names. He was baptized Francesco della Scala. Because he was the head of the della Scala family, he was frequently called the Scalinger.
Because he was a tall and powerful man, he had acquired a nickname among his people. They called him Cane Grande, or "Big Dog," and as often happens with nicknames, the words had been squished together, leaving him being called Cangrande.