Sunday, November 26, 1995

Jack Johnson Is a Dandy

by Jack Johnson

The autobiography of boxing great Jack Johnson. The man had a fascinating life – marrying four women, two white; opening a cabaret that allowed both blacks and whites; escaping prison through a clever ruse; traveling the globe engaging in various business and athletic exploits; spying for the U.S. government; going back to prison willingly – and so on, all in the early 1900s. His book (and I don't see why he couldn't have written the bulk himself) is very repetitive, patchy, insufficiently explanatory in places, and jumps around chronologically so as to be very confusing. However, it's still readable, and I did enjoy it. There's one section that deals with moderation in diet, the role of "the new woman" and how she should stay home, and the decline of the world due to cabarets and jazz music; this section I cannot believe Johnson wrote as he lead a very strenuous life himself, was hardly temperate, took his wives everywhere with him, and was in fact a jazz musician and cabaret owner. Other than that passage, the book was interesting throughout, and had a touching epilogue by his last wife attesting to his gentleness with women. Now, of course, I have to read a biography of him, to find out what of what Johnson wrote were lies...

three stars

Saturday, November 25, 1995

Asimov's Guide To Shakespare, Vol. 1

by Isaac Asimov

Volume I, at 670 pages, deals with the Greek, Roman, and Italian plays.  In the book, Asimov explains practically all of the historical, mythological and scientific references in Shakespeare's oeuvre, including two long poems.  In addition, Asimov makes some interesting scholarly inferences, such as suggesting that in "Troilus And Cressida," Cressida's depiction as a worthless woman has basis in the actions of Elizabeth I at the time, when Shakespeare's patron Essex had fallen out of her favor; or claiming that in "Romeo And Juliet," the text indicates strongly that the feud was not as important to either side as Juliet made it out to be, and that only her youthful love of furtive romance made things more complicated than they should have been.  This book is incredibly informative and well-written. 

four stars

Friday, November 24, 1995

Three Plays: Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Private Lives

by Noel Coward
1941, 1925, 1930
This volume included a humorous intro by Edward Albee.

"Blithe Spirit." I hadn't read any Coward before, and had a notion his work would be laugh-out-loud funny, like Wodehouse's, but I found this play, although extremely literate and witty, wasn't as risible as that. It concerns a man whose first wife, after a seance, reappears to plague him and his second wife. Then the latter dies, too, remanifests, and his life becomes somewhat exasperating. A jolly good plot and all, but I can't help feeling that it could have been more exuberant, if, say, it had detailed the catfighting of the two dead women, or spent more time on them deciding after death that they were pals and that Charles, the hero, was the cad. And the ending was too sudden and –
a glaring omission
totally unexplained. An enjoyable, witty play, and one with clever innuendo, but I don't see its "classic" reputation, as it seems so flawed.

"Hay Fever." This one was, I thought, funnier than the first, but perhaps less witty. It concerned a very bohemian, theatrical and artsy family that bordered on the dysfunctional without actually ever going beyond mere theatrics, instantly forgetting all strife moments after it begins. The family's guests for the weekend are all horrified. It was funny, but it all lead up to a reaction
such as the guests plotting a kind of revenge on the family that used them as theatrical foilsthat never came. I suppose in 1925 the personas of the family were novel enough to carry the play. Also flawed, but also comic and fun.

"Private Lives." About a divorced couple who both remarry and happen to meet again on their simultaneous honeymoons, and then run off together. They fight horribly, and seem to cause their respective second spouses to quarrel just as horribly, and seem to find it amusing. Rather an unpleasant little work, but mildly amusing in parts.

three stars