Saturday, January 30, 2016

Classic #3

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

The Three Clerks – Anthony Trollope

This is lesser-known Trollope, compared to stand-alone novels such as The Way We Live Now and the Barchester and Palliser novels. The Three Clerks may even be considered “obscure” since some profs have dismissed it as “apprentice work” and recreational readers like us don’t review it often for reading challenges.

I don’t know why The Three Clerks hasn’t survived like The Warden or Barchester Towers. It has many strong points. It’s extremely easy to read. The plot starts off briskly (unlike Dr. Thorne). With only two exceptions, the characters and relationships are lifelike. The lawyer Chaffanbrass  is particularly fun, but so are Sir Gregory Hardlines, Norah the barmaid and her mentor Mrs. Davis. Wonderful dialogues make strong scenes memorable. The plot maintained my interest.

The background setting of the Civil Service seems authentic to those of us who, like Trollope did for the Post Office, work in large bureaucracies. Trollope, in fact, takes Dickens to task for his criticism of all government clerks being layabouts and time-servers in Little Dorrit. Like most conservatives, Trollope pretends that real abuses don’t exist; if they did, they are few and far between and of course committed by a few bad apples. Heaven forfend that the whole barrel is rotten! But like I implied, his defense of honest toilers in government is a good word for us that gotta make the lists and move the paper. Unlike Dickens, who sweated in the workaday world only a short time, Trollope takes the nuanced view that nobody dislikes red tape as much as us bureaucrats.

Trollope is a realist -- he’s smarter than Dickens about all issues pertaining to money, too. But he’s a moralist too. He examines common ways professional men find doors to hell. Young and green Charlie Tudor moves to London from the country. This big change causes him to lose what little equilibrium he has. He falls in with the bad actors at work and disrespects his supervisor. He drinks and smokes, and gets into debt. He falls in with barmaid below his station. Trollope takes pains to show us Charlie is basically a decent young man. But he can’t say no.

The character Alaric Tudor has an inflated sense of his own self. He sees himself as bound for great things. His ambition and narcissism makes him vulnerable to a Machiavellian manipulator, Undy Scott. A cynical persuader, Scott believes that the ends justify any lying, cheating, stealing, conniving means. Fantastic are the scenes in which Alaric and Undy are hotly discussing their money problems. Trollope is uncharacteristically hyperbolic when he condemns Undy” 'The figure of Undy swinging from a gibbet at the broad end of Lombard Street would have an effect. Ah, my fingers itch to be at the rope.'

Trollope detests Undy, but Undy will stay in my memory for one jaunty scene. After a confrontation with Alaric, Undy decides to go eat at his club.

It was part of his philosophy that nothing should disturb the even tenor of his way, or interfere with his animal comforts. He was at the present moment over head and ears in debt; he was playing a game which, in all human probability, would end in his ruin; the ground was sinking beneath his feet on every side; and yet he thoroughly enjoyed his dinner. Alaric could not make such use of his philosophy. Undy Scott might be the worse man of the two, but he was the better philosopher.

Trollope may be thinking of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose famous quotation is “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived - and dying I will tend to later.” Hey, there are worse ways to live than taking one day at a time.

This review is getting a little long. Suffice to say, that veteran readers will feel dismayed or comfortable with Trollope’s quirks. He will tease the reader and Dickens with a consciously prolonged treatment of a young girl dying of one of those vague mysterious Victorian wasting illnesses. Tony will use epic language facetiously: “Oh! Alaric, Alaric, that thou, thou who knewest all this, that thou shouldest have done this thing!” And of course there are the funny names, such as the lawyer named Mr. Getimthruit.

My suggestion is to read it, especially if you liked the Barchester novels, like I did this past summer. I still can’t believe I read all six in one season, but it is effortless for me to read Trollope. I’m happy reading them and having read them. I look forward to reading many more.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Classic #2

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Trouble is My Business – Raymond Chandler

There are various editions of this book. I read the Vintage Crime trade paperback ISBN 0394757645, published in July of 1988. The attraction of this edition is that it contains Chandler’s introduction in which he mulls over writing for the pulps and the place of crime fiction in popular literature.

It contains these short stories which were originally published in the late 1930s in pulp magazines like “Black Mask” or “Dime Detective.”

Killer in the Rain
The Man Who Liked Dogs
The Curtain
Try the Girl
Mandarin's Jade
Bay City Blues
The Lady in the Lake
No Crime in the Mountains
Trouble Is My Business
Finger Man
Red Wind

The last four in the list are stories featuring, Phillip Marlowe who was Chandler’s series hero. The first couple of stories, Chandler recycled into sections of late Marlowe novels such as the immortal The Big Sleep.

Suffice to say, this is genuine classic fiction. Great mystery writers from Ross Macdonald to Loren D. Estleman were influenced and inspired by these stories to write hardboiled detective fiction.

My approach to short stories is to read one at a time and then go do something else to think about it. I think if a reader gulped down these stories one after in one setting, Chandler’s metaphors and dialogue (not to mention artifacts like smoking stands and Marmons) might seem corny.

I didn’t read Chandler for a long time because I thought his prose overwrought and prolix. Older and wiser now, I read these stories with much pleasure.

See also my reviews of the late novel Playback and the classic The Long Goodbye.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mount TBR #3

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo - J.E. de Becker

Originally published in 1899, this is a compendium of detailed information on the history and activities of the Yoshiwara red-light district of Edo (later Tokyo), illustrated with charts, tables and drawings.

This early work of serious ethnography gives a little information about everything to do with The Life: attracting johns, paying and tipping, fashion, hairstyles, futon bedding, rooms, brothel employees, and ancillary trades such as peddlars, hawkers, and beggars. It also covers health care, relevant laws, and policing. The information is presented in short sections that can be skimmed and scanned at ease.

The famous Yoshiwara district of Edo (later Tokyo) originated in the early seventeenth century as a result of a deal between the shogun’s government and leading brothel keepers. All governments must deal with the world’s oldest social problem for the sake of public order. In order to regulate prostitution and social ills that go with it, Japanese officials made deals with brothel keepers who sought to suppress competition. Restricting the brothels to a regulated quarter would facilitate the control over customers' access, the prevention of human trafficking and scamming into prostitution, and (most importantly perhaps) the surveillance of wandering samurai and other malcontents. Although its location moved, de Becker points out that the Yoshiwara remained open through shifts in government policy between strict morals regulation, general tolerance of vice, and being totally asleep at the regulatory switches (the shogunate government was really poor at governance near its end).

As we would expect of a Victorian,de Becker feels appalled at the fact that thousands of girls or women were sold into sexual slavery. He even quotes Japanese sources as to the misfortune of this bondage. This, from Record of Ancient Tombs in the Eastern Capital:

In these burial places are to be found many graves courtesans who committed suicide with their paramours. On the tomb-stones are to be found engraved the descriptions of the swords with which they killed themselves, as well their names and ages. There is something so weird and uncanny about these horribly pitiless records on the grey lichen-covered monuments that the blood of a sightseer runs cold and he becomes so nervous that he leaves the gloomy spot with the intention of never visiting it again

I know the topic is unspeakably sad, but to my mind the book is worth reading for readers seriously into Japan. For instance, de Becker was a magpie of a scholar. That is, he collected and presented information that he thought was quite interesting for those readers – like us lovers of lore and superstition – as further proof that human beings will believe anything:

How to fix a toothache with a charm
Stand, with the feet together, upon a piece of white paper placed on the floor and draw a line (which will resemble the outline of a human face) around the outside of them. Within this line draw eyes, a nose, and a mouth containing a full set of teeth, making the offending tooth quite black, and the two teeth at its sides slightly black. Then fold the paper in eight folds, drive a nail through it, and finally throw it into a running stream.

Indeed, when there is nothing but indifferent medical care, what recourse but old wives tales?

Anyway, I highly recommend this strange, melancholy book to readers who are interested in research of the Tokugawa and Meiji periods. I read it straight through, which is probably not the way most readers would read such an odd assemblage of out-of-the-way knowledge. But I’m a book glutton that can relish down material that would choke most readers.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mount TBR #2

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini – Ruth Brandon

“Harry” implies approachable, down to earth. But “Houdini” sounds other-worldly and - to use that overused and abused word - awesome.   So even his name vibrates and contradicts and attracts readers – like me - who are not necessarily interested in magic or escape artists, but rather the history of popular entertainment in general and vaudeville’s heyday of 1880 to 1930 in particular.

While the biographies of Houdini by Christopher and Gresham are well worth reading, Brandon too provides information about topics -- mother fixation, death obsession, unwilling skepticism, ruthless competitor, loyalty demanding - that make this biography a substantial, insightful read. Even the digressions give interest. For example, she delivers background information about medicine shows, which Houdini had to work early in his career.  Starting in the Elizabethan era in Europe, such shows were traveling horse and wagon teams which peddled patent medicines and other products between various entertainment acts. The quack medications gradually took a backseat to the entertainment acts.

She also makes fascinating points related to cultural history. She asserts that Houdini became popular  because the Indomitable Little Guy was a popular character in the early 20th century. Think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s Stone Face. The little guy was always having to wrestle with and escape from bonds, from oppression. This resonated with immigrants and working people in North America, but people in police states like Germany and Russia really went nuts over Houdini escaping from handcuffs, cells, and black marias.

Brandon also turns to personality psychology to explain Houdini. The Freudian interpretations of Houdini’s dreams may or may not appeal to readers. More plausible are her interpretations of the marriage between Harry and Bess. For instance, for all his protestations of love and devotion, the narcissist Houdini was very controlling. It speaks volumes that by the time he died, she was drinking a lot. So few families of geniuses and artists are happy families, so much time and emotion are sacrificed to the creation of art and entertainment.

Brandon, a British biographer, novelist and historian, writes clear prose that’s a pleasure to read. Readers into the history of popular entertainment would probably like this biography.

Friday, January 22, 2016

10 Rights of the Reader

In its preface, the book by Daniel Pennac called Comme un roman (Paris: Editions Gallimard/Folio, 1992), lists 10 Rights of the Reader:
  • The right to not read,
  • The right to skip pages,
  • The right to not finish a book,
  • The right to reread,
  • The right to read anything,
  • The right to mistake a book for real lilfe (or, the right to escapism),
  • The right to read anywhere,
  • The right to dip
  • The right to read out-loud, and,
  • The right to be silent.  
My take: I've seen #5 translated as "The right not to have to defend your taste," which I like better. I think we readers spend too much time being sheepish about what or how much we read.

With neat illos by Quentin Blake, a poster of the rights can be found on the web

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cloak & Dagger #2

Way and Means – Henry Cecil

The English judge Henry Cecil (1902 - 1976) wrote comic legal fiction. Think of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, though more gentle and less acerbic, just as clever, funny, and enjoyable (see The Painswick Line). Sometimes he is intense– see According to the Evidence, which is about capital punishment.

This novel from 1952 describes four scams pulled off by the con artists Basil and Nicholas. The shameless fraudsters unethically exploit soft spots in the British legal system in order to spin money, avoid real work, and keep their attractive wives in "oysters and Chablis." Cecil explains their ingenious scams and the vulnerable legal system in clear language. The dialogue-driven stories should be read slowly and savored.

Cecil’s bag of tricks will call to mind P.G. Wodehouse in that he uses stock characters like the dumb colonel and on the make widow. But, to my mind, Cecil writes breezy, sometimes profound stories set in a recognizable world whereas Wodehouse writes silly and inconsequential tales set in Neverneverland.

Reading Henry Cecil’s books (and William Haggard’s, for that matter, here, here, and here) makes me feel nostalgic for a vanished world I never knew first-hand but confirms my belief that the basic vices (snobbery, greed, malice, lust, inquisitiveness) and virtues (self-control, fairness, temperance) of human beings haven’t changed and probably won’t change down through the ages.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Classic #1

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Tent Life in Siberia – George Kennan

This delightful book stands as a classic travel narrative. A young man only in his twenties, Kennan writes in a way that we would expect a educated guy of the time to write. That is, he is witty, allusive, facetious, energetic, and confident. He tells many funny stories about his mishaps. This on Siberian dog-drawn sleds:

Our legs were immovably fixed in boxes, and our bodies so wedged in with pillows and heavy furs that we could neither get out nor turn over. In this helpless condition we were completely at our drivers' mercy; if they chose to let us slide over the edge of a precipice in the mountains, all we could do was to shut our eyes and trust in Providence. Seven times in less than three hours my Kamenoi driver, with the assistance of fourteen crazy dogs and a spiked stick, turned my pavoska exactly bottom side up, dragged it in that position until the hood was full of snow, and then left me standing on my head, with my legs in a box and my face in a snow-drift, while he took a smoke and calmly meditated upon the difficulties of mountain travel and the versatility of dog-sledges! It was enough to make Job curse his grandmother!

Anyway, some background. In the 1860s, a private American company entered into a joint venture with the Czar of Russia’s government. The deal was to erect a telegraph line from the Russian Far Northeast to Europe and China, thus beating out an Atlantic cable for customers and profits. The project required joint Russian-American parties to explore Siberia for prospective routes for the telegraph lines.

Their mission, then, was to explore of the north and west coasts of the Okhotsk Sea,  the Russian city of Yakutsk, south of the Anadyr and along the lower Myan river, and the land between Gizhiga and Anadyrsk, as well as rivers connecting the Okhotsk Sea with the Pacific Ocean near Bering Strait.

The parties also scout out possibilities to hire thousands of Yakut laborers for cutting poles and buying Siberian horses for hauling them. Kennan plays the amateur ethnographer.

I highly recommend this narrative. Fans of nature writing would have to go far to find more wonderful descriptions of the aurora borealis. Readers into travel writing will also enjoy reading about a region little visited by explorers or travelers.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Mount TBR #1

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Case of the Silent Partner – Erle Stanley Gardner

The 17th Perry Mason mystery, published in 1940, is a must-read for all Mason fans. The reason is that Lt. Tragg makes his debut as Mason’s astute adversary.  Gardner explicitly puts Tragg at the same age as Mason, something that may disconcert fans who have always pictured Tragg as Ray Collins who was almost 30 years older than Raymond Burr.

Another curious point is that Tragg interviews a person of interest without Mason in the scene even after Mason has been introduced into the story. Usually Gardner places Mason in every act, every scene. Gardner has Tragg get the person of interest to reveal unwittingly what is on her mind while ostensibly giving her a word association test. Gardner does not want even the dullest reader to miss that the wily Tragg knows psychology whereas his hard-charging predecessor Sgt. Holcomb spells “psychology” starting with an “s.”

Our expectation that a Mason novel always climaxes with a rousing preliminary hearing leads to the third uncommon point. The climax is instead a civil trial. Mason does make the opposing lawyer look silly, however.

Because Tragg gets a lot of space, there is less Paul Drake. He is not introduced until about half-way through the story. His role is small. Fans of Della Street will be happy to know that she plays a very active role in the story. This, by the way, is why the novels are much better than the TV series. In the TV shows Della rarely does little beyond answering the phone and taking notes.

As usual, too, Gardner expresses his support for womankind, being as much a feminist as we can expect of a man of his generation. He sympathizes with the female owner of a small chain of flower shops, emphasizes that she has to be as tough and canny as men in business but still be available to be caregivers to invalid relatives. I’m not quite so cynical to think that Gardner’s sympathy and respect for women was just a ploy to attract female readership.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Video Based on Classics

I think these are good screen-interpretations of classic literature

1. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain. With Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Steamy interpretation of the noir novel.

2. Double Indemnity by James Cain. With Babs and Fred MacStoneFace. Noir at its best.

3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. With Daniel Day-Lewis and Michele Pfeiffer. Directed by Scorcese. Beautiful period settings, clothes, manners.

4. The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. With Steve McQueen. Prestige epic: violence plus ideas, what a rare combo for Hollywood.

5. The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. With Naomi Watts. Superb production values, excellent acting.

Re "movie takes you to the book is cheating." No way for two reasons. Movie versions are often so loosely based on the source novels that inevitably the book is better than the movie on almost every score, plot, incident, believablity of characters and motivation, etc.

Second, one right as a reader is the right NOT to have to defend our taste. We avid readers read to develop our own unique authentic tastes and it is not for anybody else to be passing judgments on what we read or how we came to read it (or how much we read).

Naysayers would sneer at including McKenna, Cain, and Maugham on a list of writers of classic lit, but frankly my dear I don't give a - hey, how could I forget

6. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bio of the Stars

Tracy and Hepburn was written by their friend Garson Kanin, a writer, actor, and director. He captures how great they were together, how they inspired each other.

Notes on Cowardly Lion is a biography of Bert Lahr by his son John Lahr. Not a tell-all like Christina Crawford's book, but he does not pull any punches about his distant and brooding (how like a comedian) but loving father.

Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams' biography of Bogart Bogie is worth reading, since Hyams knew Bogie and Bacall personally.

Robert Lewis Taylor's bio W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes is a old-timey bio: lots of funny stories, no dirt or scandal or judgments, alcoholism of subject handled as the ordeal that it was for Fields. But worth reading for the funny stories, anyway.

Probably the best bio of a star I've ever read is Patricia Bosworth's Montgomery Clift: A Biography. She writes very objectively. Clift's relationship with his mother was...well, really something. Her biography of Marlon Brando is very good too, though very short.

Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art by Simon Louvish is well worth reading. A review is here.

Mailer's biography of Marilyn Monroe is worth a look to get the take of a great writer on a great celebrity. A review is here.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Fave Dickens Characters

Pickwick Papers: Classic are Mr. Jingle's description of the cricket match in the Indies and Lawyer Buzfuz's parody of legalese.

Oliver Twist: Mr. Bumble makes Oliver's life miserable but it is hard not to see him as a comic figure.

Nicholas Nickleby. Comic too is the old lech Mr. Mantalini for harassing Kate Nickleby in the sweat shop. He would've been scared if Kate suddenly went insane and took his advances seriously.

I know now Steerforth is a cad, but when I read David Copperfield at 12 or 13, I thought he was cool. Obviously I didn't quite get how he ruined Lil Em'ly. The rotter!

Xmas Carol: I dunno, there's a certain gusto in Scrooge's mean opinions that makes us laugh. That's why people like impersonating him. Bah, humbug. I always threaten My Dear One that one year for Christmas I'm gonna set up the ultimate decoration, a little crutch and a stool. She slugs me.

Great Expectations: Magwitch because of his rough exterior and noble interior. Any hard-pressed husband who gets slugged for making sincere suggestions about Xmas decorations will root for Joe Gargery.

A Tale of Two Cities: The Seamstress whose hand was held by Syd at the end. Get misty every time I think of her.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cloak & Dagger #1

Gas City – Loren D. Estleman

This crime novel opens with the funeral of the wife of a corrupt police chief. His corruption has played a role in enabling a Rust Belt city of three-quarters of a million, allowing it to get all the vice it wants in the bad neighborhood but enjoy safe streets where nice people live. Other enablers of dope, illegal gambling and prostitution include organized crime figures and their minions and politicians and their hangers-on. In this hard-boiled novel, it’s hard to tell difference between hustlers with guns and hustlers with fountain pens.

But the death of the chief’s wife has consequences. First, it puts the chief though a crisis of conscience. A good Irish Catholic, suicide is out of the question. So he decides to get unbought and clean up city’s rackets, thus inviting getting knocked off by an enraged Mob. Second, the anti-vice campaign motivates a drunken PI to clean up his act by doing his job better and quitting smoking and drinking. His GF, a prostitute, considers leaving The Life. Third, with so much virtue going around, a serial killer starts to get sloppy with clues, as if he were feeling that the only way he was going to stop killing was if he got caught.

This is a crime novel, not a mystery. The main focus is not on catching the serial killer, but on the changes the various characters are going though. Incidents lead to a climax that ties everything up in a nice bow. Estleman’s goal for this novel, I think, was to examine the effects of crime and its attendant corruption on politics in a small city. He never forgets the human element, though, in creating plausible characters and motivations.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Adventure Books

John Buchan (1875 - 1940) is most famous for The 39 Steps, which is one of the Richard Hannay quartet. Of the other three, Mr. Standfast is just okay, while The 3 Hostages is a skip. The remaining one is Greenmantle, which I read for the third time or so a couple years ago.

Also in the Haggard tradition is Lionel Davidson (born 1922). The Rose of Tibet is okay, but The Night of Wencelas is a rocker and so is The Menorah Men.

Monday, January 4, 2016

M.R. James

M.R. James (1862 - 1936) was a medieval scholar at Cambridge. He wrote many ghost stories that were to be read on Christmas Eve, a fine Victorian tradition. His stories often take place in the country, in old houses, ancient churches, or dusty libraries. The heroes are usually quiet professor-types, rational and utterly unable to take in the supernatural happenings. The stories are never gory but slowly build a menace that is really unsettling, especially in contrast to the quiet country setting and harmless scholarly activity. The vocabulary is somewhat challenging, a plus for word fans.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Ruth Rendall

Start with the Inspector Wexford novels. I think From Doon with Death is the first one. It was published in the early 1960s so if you want cell phones, data bases, and the latest forensic techniques, you will be disappointed. Reg Wexford is one of my favorite series detectives. He's got common sense and is never cynical or callous. His sidekick Burden, however, is the one that does the most changing from novel to novel. The books she publishes under the Barbara Vine pen-name are more gothic with lots of psychological torment and edgy thrills. There's next to no violence in her stories but they are very scary.

The first five Wexford ones are: From Doon with Death (1964), Wolf to the Slaugher (1967), A New Lease of Death (1969), The Best Man to Die (1969), and A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970).

Friday, January 1, 2016

Show and Tell

Show and Tell – John Lahr

This is a compilation of profiles that first appeared in the New Yorker in the 1990s. If nothing else, these pieces remind us that being creative doesn’t immunize an artist or a performer from being a creep. Or, even if creative genius could affect such inoculation, being rich and famous will often as not transform a fairly normal nice guy into an overbearing creep. The pieces that especially remind us that the behavior of an artist had better be discounted when assessing his art feature Frank Sinatra, Eddie Izzard, and David Mamet.

All the articles provide fascinating object lessons as how, with the assistance of talent, daring, determination, and luck, unhappy childhoods – and the resulting rage - drove the subject to the performing arts. Performing by acting or telling jokes or directing plays and movies helped artists to overcome fear and sadness by creating a reality around them the way they wanted it (to paraphrase Ingmar Bergman). Examples here include anxiety-ridden personalities Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, actor Liev Schreiber and the force of nature Roseanne. I was out of the country for most of her celebrity (1988-97) so the article that paints her as ferocious and frightening and driven filled in many gaps for me.

The article on Bob Hope was especially interesting. Talk about the right set of skills at the right time when the country wanted a safe joke-making device, the apparatus has to be Bob Hope. On Hope’s appetite for adulation, Lahr opines “At ninety-five, Hope is nearly as old as the century, and he personifies its brash deliriums. His obsession with output, aggrandizement, and fame belongs to the modern era, particularly in this country.”

Lahr the journalist also finds the provocative quotation. Related to the self-centered remoteness often seen in comedians, Hope’s ex-son in law says, “You never get into the inner space. Too threatening. Too vulnerable. I don’t think anybody has ever gotten there. It’s undiscovered. … And once you get there, there may be nothing there. We’ll never know.”

I don’t know much Irving Berlin and so found the articles on his tireless career informative. I know nothing about the theater so I did not get much out of the pieces about Arthur Miller, Wallace Shawn, and Neil Labute. What I took away from these three articles was that it seems a miracle in that anything in drama ends up good given the fact that so many things can go wrong and not work.

The collection ends with pieces about the writer’s parents, Bert and Mildred Lahr. His father’s most famous part was the Cowardly Lion in the The Wizard of Oz. Lahr’s excellent biography of his father Notes on a Cowardly Lion also paints his father as craving intimacy but physically and emotionally absent.

So, it is 2016 and only a couple of subjects are still around. Still, I think for people who need quick studies of towering figures of their time  - e.g. Miller, Bergman, Nichols – this book is worth reading. Also for middle-aged people the attraction is good old nostalgia and that wistful feeling, ‘they don’t make ‘em like than anymore.’