Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Read and Unread and... Again

Found this clipping in a book.  Don't remember now what book that was, and I don't know that it much matters.  What interests me most isn't the list itself. "20 Great Books -- Read and Unread," might be the headline on any such in the last one hundred years.  This is simply something we do, make such lists and then unmake them so as to make new ones.  There is some small interest in seeing which books survive from list to list and across the generations.  Some books, like Tolstoy's War and Peace and Milton's Paradise Lost would seem to be so firmly established as to be unshakable.  With Shakespeare, the usual cheat is to treat the plays collectively as a single book.  Here though, the reader will note that the five unnamed English professors from the unnamed Boston school, went with just Hamlet.  I would bet on King Lear if the same list was made today.  I do wonder if Hemingway, Marx and Yeats would still make the professors' cut nowadays, and I certainly don't remember the last time I encountered Saul Bellow's Herzog in this line-up, or Camus, though he would seem to be having something of a surge of renewed interest of late.

The real curiosity in this clipping, for me at least, comes from what the clever unnamed chappy from the (then) Boston Herald American did with the list he'd got from the five wise men, namely, asking Senator Ted Kennedy, then Governor of Massachusetts and future Democratic Presidential Nominee, Michael Dukakis, the president of Filene's Department Store, etc., how many books on the list each gentleman had read.  As you can see, "Kennedy claimed to have read all 20," -- The Herald American even then, it seems was a Republican newspaper -- while Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, rather impressively, even for "a graduate of the University of Souther California" said he'd read 13 of the 20.  Imagine.

More, and here we get to my real interest in the piece, imagine a similar sampling today of similarly situated citizens.  Even with five new Boston professors and a revised list, I'd be pretty confident in the numbers of the serving Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick and of United States Senator Elizabeth Warren.  I know even less about the current Red Sox pitching roster than I now do of ol' Bill (13 out of 20) Lee, but a little research tells me that one Craig Breslow of the Red Sox graduated from no less an institution than Yale University, which, (ahem) while it may not say much to his skill as a ball player, suggests at least as impressive a reading-list as any at UCLA, back in the day.  There is of course no more Filene's, and I can't be bothered just now to figure out who happens to be the serving Mayor of the City of Boston.

Even without further research, Massachusetts or Boston at least I feel may still be counted on.

But what of the rest of us?  How many of the books on this list would you guess have been read by the current Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that proud son of Cincinnati's Xavier University?  Nearer to home, how about our own Senator, the honorable Patty Murray?  If that seems rather a cheap shot, how many of these "20 Great Books" do we imagine read and unread by Princeton University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos?  How about the Microsoft Medici, Bill Gates?  Paul Allen?  How about our own Governor Jay Inslee, late of the UW and the Willamette University College of Law?  Seriously, I'm just asking.

When was this list made anyway, you may well ask?  Turning the clipping over, this becomes surprisingly easy to figure out.  Besides the painful regret of never having seen Vincent Price play Oscar Wilde, I note that the Marty Feldman comedy, The Last Remake of Beau Geste was then in it's third week at the Regency in what I immediately recognized from the various addresses shown to have been San Francisco, CA.  I learn from IMDb that by the purest and most pleasant coincidence the Feldman comedy opened in the US on my birthday, July 15th, in the year 1977.  (I was then 14, and I remember going to see this movie which, despite the Vincent Canby rave quoted, I can assure you was not "the funniest.")  That puts this bit of Associated Press column-filler out about the second week of August, 1977.

I ask myself then, how many of these "20 Great Books" had I read by my 14th birthday?  I count three, which is not terrible, I should think, for being just 14.  The next logical and most obvious question would be how many have I read by this, my 51st.  Some of my friend's may be shocked to learn that I enter the rankings right with the Red Sox pitcher at 13 out 20.  I might qualify that statement a little by adding that I have read at least some part of all the remaining seven, but nonetheless I have never been able to finish for instance more than a page or two of James Joyce's Ulysses, and have at this late date no intention of ever trying again.  Of the other six unread by this standard, I likewise feel safe in saying that at fifty-one, I will probably never read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, The Communist ManifestoMoby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov (that's the one that still seems to shock people most, I understand,) or Thoreau's Walden (and that's the other one.)  Milton, I suspect I will keep periodically trying to master, and presumably keep failing.

Of the ones I have read straight through, the only one I should think might surprise would be The Bible, but yes, I did do that, straight through, back in the day.  Revised Standard and yes, also King James. Big up to Bible Camp and the weird obsessions of youth.

Thinking about this whole business of "20 Great Books," now and then, and my own reading life to date, I'm reminded of how much easier it was in a way to accept such a list -- as homework, as it were -- at 14 than it is after 50.  I actually subscribe to the idea that such lists are both useful and necessary.  If  the reader in 2014 may question some choices made by those anonymous Boston brahmins circa 1977 -- why Bellow, the one (then) living writer on such a short list?  -- Hemingway rather than Fitzgerald -- Walden Pond somehow the obvious, American answer to Plato's Republic?  -- I would probably be at least as skeptical of any new list of 20 books from any five professors of English today, assuming five English professors today could be made to agree on such a list, or even agree what constitutes a book, let alone a great one.

Also assuming an actual newspaper.  More likely, this would be a "flavorwise" quiz on facebook.

Finally, as I finish with this triflin' and think about getting back to the books I'm actually reading on my birthday, I do wonder just how many of the books I love, on the list and off, how many of the books that have proven to be really important in my life, how many of those will I have the chance to read again?  How many will I have read for the third or the fourth time, should I be so lucky as to live so long?  That I think is more to the point at 51 than it it was, certainly at 14, but no less so at 24, or even 34, or maybe even at forty-four.  Really, it's only been in the last decade or so that I have allowed for the possibility that I may never read all the Great Books.  There is something about seeing my father's face now in the mirror each morning that reminds me how quickly we all come to the same place, as well as the same face.  Who has time to worry about the authors to whom one never cottoned after more than fifty birthdays?  Why not read Great Expectations again, instead?  Why not Persuasion?  Portrait of a Lady?  The Last Essays of Elia?  Boswell's Life of Johnson? Macaulay's history? Orley Farm?  Barbara Pym, Vanity Fair, Ivy Compton Burnett, Chekhov's long stories...?

Although, I really should give Paradise Lost another try.  Really, I should.

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, edited by James Shapiro


"Other men say wise things as well as he; only they say a good many foolish things, and do not know when they have spoken wisely."

From Shakespeare; or, the Poet, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, edited by James Shapiro


"Now, I do not say that Nathaniel of Salem is greater than William of Avon, or as great.  but the difference between the two men is by no means immeasurable."

From Hawthorne and his Mosses, by William Melville

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Surprisingly Forthcoming Mr. Cumming

"It's really hard to talk about being famous."

So says Alan Cumming, in his forthcoming Not My Father's Son: A Memoir (Dey Street Books, an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, October, 2014.)  "We live in a society that is obsessed with it, that ranks it as the best thing you could possibly achieve in your life." Indeed.  Alan Cumming, OBE, Tony, and Olivier Award winning actor,  knows whereof he speaks.

He does go on to say, "Being famous is mostly great.  I have a really amazing life."  And so it would seem, but this book isn't really about that, or rather it is, but only incidentally.  As memoirs go, and an actor's memoir at that, this is an exceptional one, and that may be why.

I like theatrical memoirs, actors' biographies and autobiographies, theater stories and backstage books.  Generally speaking, these are some of my favorite light reading.  When I'm knee-deep, as I am now in some 19th Century history of an 18th Century event -- the second volume of three of Francis Parkman's   Montcalm and Wolfe -- there's no better break, for me at least, than a good Edith Evans story, say, or a spare evening spent reading all about something Maggie Smith got up to when Desdemona caught her sleeve on Othello's broach.  Just lately, there's been a spate of new theater books and biographies.  I must have read half a dozen or so in the past month.  I'd assumed Alan Cumming's book would be just another.  It's not.

If the reader is looking for the low-down on filming Spy Kids,memories of Natasha Richardson, or stories about being either Macbeth or a mutant in X2, this isn't that book.  In point of fact, this really isn't a theatrical memoir at all.

Instead, Alan Cumming has written a very personal history of the family he knew and didn't know, and the story of a man making peace with the past.  It is an intimate, and at times harrowing story of fathers and sons; his own father who abused and denied him, and, almost by chance, the story of his grandfather, his mother's father, Tommy Darling, a man Alan Cumming never knew.  These two narratives happened to cross at a particular moment in Cumming's life, and that unlikely intersection is the point of departure for not one, but two fascinating journeys; one that will take the author to the other side of the world, and the other, much the more terrifying, that will send him back into the darkness of his own childhood.

In 2010, Alan Cumming was invited to participate in the UK edition of the celebrity genealogy program, "Who Do You Think You Are?"  He eagerly agreed, hoping to solve the mystery of his maternal grandfather's death in Singapore.  Why had this charming man, the happily married father of four, after an heroic service in WWII, joined the Malayan police force and never come home again?

As it happened, when he was ready to set off on this genealogical journey, for reasons that will become obvious from the very first page of this book, Alan Cumming hadn't spoken to his own father for years.  This estrangement just happens, in the way of bad things generally, to come to a crisis at a most inopportune time, in this case, during the filming of the television documentary that will send the actor about as far from Scotland and his family as he could go.  The book then travels with him back and forth, between Scotland and the world, between his present happy life, and his unhappy childhood, between his father's last betrayal, and his maternal grandfather's suspicious death long before Alan Cumming was born.  The great tension in the book comes from the tug of all these stories, as each narrative in turn pulls him first in one direction and then the other, often without time enough to so much as catch his breath between -- and all this, mind, while he is still a working actor with commitments that take him in entirely other directions as well.  Makes for an exciting story, all that tangle of conflicting needs, responsibilities, curiosity and pain.

What might then have been yet another theatrical memoir, or just an exercise in celebrity, proves instead to be a rare example of the exercise of celebrity to some better end; here reclaiming the truth of one's history, and one's family history as well.  Celebrity provides Cumming with access to world travel and experts, via the documentary, as well as the access provided by professional success to things like private DNA testing, publishing and editors. It's a mark of the author's intelligence and iconoclasm that he's decided to use these privileges to tell an important, and compellingly personal story of psychological abuse, and family tragedy rather than the more usual exercise in needy egoism.  Cumming is at least as unflattering of himself here as of any of the men in this book.  Life has provided him with no easy answers to it's mysteries, and he isn't about the business of peddling any such here.  Instead, he is ruthlessly honest throughout, which is not to suggest that the book is without humor, as here, when the family has their tea while his volatile father is passed out at the table:

"After a while, I began to enjoy this Alice-in-Wonderland-like experience.  We all did.  In his drunkenness our father was no threat to us, and more than that, he was no impediment to the continuation of our daily routine.  Sitting at that table night after night was terrifying.  It would be again tomorrow, no doubt, but tonight, with my father snoring, and us passing the biscuit plate over his head, we could breathe easy."

It is worth noting just here that, much as this is the story of an artist of necessity exploring his past, this book might as easily be described as an exercise in Scots character, as all the characters in it, including Alan Cumming himself, are very much representative in their way of that harsh and beautiful place.  The resulting memoir has less then to do with the man so familiar to film, stage and television audiences, the handsome actor pictured on the cover, than with understanding the haunting face of the little boy in the photograph that faces the first chapter.  The photographs included here, are again more important than they might otherwise be, in the more usual sort of celebrity autobiography, exactly because the faces are for the most part not familiar; the meaning of the pictures, the history they represent and conceal, and the stories that might otherwise have been lost or undiscovered, are at the very heart of this book. The photograph of his war-hero- grandfather that hangs now in Alan Cumming's home, tells a very different story than the one he thought he knew, likewise the family snaps that take on darker and more complicated meanings as both the memoirist and his reader come to know the real history of those clouded outings on stony beaches and half remembered fun fairs.

One of the uses to which Alan Cumming has already put his celebrity has been to raise money for and awareness of various charitable and political causes.  He might be forgiven had this memoir been written just to do something like for the subject of abused children and mental illness.  Had he done so, he would hardly have been the first famous person to use an unfortunate childhood to gather greater sympathy and attention from established fans and the general public.  I don't think that that is what he's about with this book.  He's still sorting himself.  There is no one redemptive moment that makes for the more usual happy ending here.  This, in many ways, is rather the story of a middle-aged man, admittedly of uncommon talent and tenacity, who by pure happenstance found himself pursuing truths the implications and repercussions of which he may never fully understand, even now.  If there is an inspiring story here, it is in his acceptance of what he can't know as much as his satisfaction in such mysteries as he's been able to solve.  It's that that makes Not My Father's Son not simply an unusual memoir for an actor, but a surprisingly moving and wise book.

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, edited by James Shapiro


"The virtues of one generation are not sufficient for the next, any more than the accumulations of knowledge possessed by one age are adequate to the needs of another."

From A Modern Lear, by Jane Addams