June 21, 2018

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford

With Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, English author Francis Spufford tries his hand at a first novel after having successfully written five non-fiction works.

We are immediately drawn into the world of New York city in the 1700s with language that could have been written during that time period. This is not an easy read with dense paragraphs and archaic vocabulary, but those who persist will be rewarded with writing of the first quality. Spufford has pulled off the challenge of writing as if in that time period but adding issues of homosexuality, the inequality of woman, slavery and race prejudice against those of darker skin.

Richard Smith arrives from England, with paperwork that says he is to be advanced a large sum of money in the New World. He becomes embroiled with two of the local money lender’s daughters, is robbed by a thief, befriends two well-connected young men and partakes in a theatrical work with his new acquaintances, all the while being questioned about his plans for the windfall that will shortly be his.

Smith’s journey takes the reader from high society, to church, to duels and debauchery in a panoramic view of life in the colonies under King George. Gird your loins and dive into this stunning book. Methinks you might just feel a sense of deep literary satisfaction with Golden Hill by Francis Spufford.

The Woman in the Window by author A. J. Finn

There always seem to be one or two fiction potboilers currently titillating the public and seem fast-tracked for Hollywood. One such book is The Woman In the Window by A. J. Finn. The narrator is an agoraphobic child psychologist named Anna Fox who is mad for old suspense movies. Film buffs will recognize the book title as a 1944 Fritz Lang movie with the same name.

Dr. Fox has a lot in common with the Jimmy Stewart character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, both thinking they may have observed a murder from their voyeuristic window vantage points. Fox ups the ante by recording what she sees with an expensive camera. Anna Fox also suffers from drug and alcohol addiction along with her inability to leave her home so you begin to doubt her perceptions of reality and her very sanity. The book’s depiction of her agoraphobic symptoms when she does venture outside are harrowing and all too accurate.

Players and suspects in the mix are her husband and daughter who do not live with her, a handyman tenant in her basement apartment, a psychologist and a physical therapist who make regular house calls and all of her neighbors who are characters in her personal cinematic production. What is true? Who can be trusted? Is our narrator truthful and trustworthy or able to discern those qualities in others?

And yes, the author (in real life, Dan Mallory, an editor at William Morrow) already sold the film rights for The Woman In the Window to a production company that is developing the property even as you read this.

Manhattan Beach: tour de force fiction from Jennifer Egan

Lovers of fiction may remember the unusual and beautifully crafted writing in 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Egan has hit another literary home run with Manhattan Beach, a more conventional work that still features her luminous writing. Take a peak at her research in the back of the book and you discover some of the subjects covered in her intriguing story.

The female lead character, Anna Kerrigan, works in the Brooklyn Naval Yard during WWII, measuring components for battleships. She manages to push her way into a diving program that features laughably bulky and primitive equipment and a boss who is decidedly against women in his employ.

Hovering around her central arc are depictions of New York’s organized crime operation which employs her father after his stints in vaudeville and his time as a stockbroker before the 1929 Crash. Anna meets his boss, Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner with shady ties as a little girl and again becomes involved in his life as an adult.

Two sections in particular struck me speechless with their beauty and immediacy. Styles helps Anna take her developmentally disabled sister, Lydia to Manhattan Beach where she is able to commune with the sea and sky.

Without tipping a plot point, I will also note a series of scenes concerning a merchant marine ship that is being hunted by German U-boats off the coast of Africa. I was on the edge of my proverbial chair with this riveting account of life aboard a ship, especially one encountering mortal dangers.

This is not pop fiction although the prose reads like a thriller. Egan has managed to use her stunning skills to create a blend of historical fiction with a masterful depiction of unforgettable characters.

Manhattan Beach just may be a book to put on your summer reading list.

The German Cabaret Legacy in American Popular Music by William Farina

Evanston resident, author William Farina has written an excellent book about how Germany’s Weimar cabaret culture has impacted much of Western music and culture in the past several decades.

The Weimar Republic is loosely defined from 1919 to 1933 which is the time after World War I in Germany until the run-up to World War II. The 1930s saw the rise of Nationalism and the Nazi Party leading up to the global maelstrom between the Allies and the Axis. As one has watched the rise of nationalism in our own country, one could draw some unsettling parallels between our present day and that of this storied era of German history.

Troubled times frequently result in artistic ferment and the Weimar Republic is a particularly good example. Kurt Weill and Frederick Hollander were writing music, Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) was setting new standards in performance and a young Marlene Dietrich was creating a persona that would find world-wide popularity.

Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel), G. W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis) were but a few of the filmmakers working in Germany at the time. Leni Riefenstahl was also writing and directing films throughout the 20s and 30s before signing on as the official visual recorder of the Nazi regime.

German performers, writers, directors, composers and authors, many of them Jewish fled and created new lives for themselves in Hollywood, in New York and in countless cities in the U. S. and other European locales. Little wonder that all of the arts would be impacted by this diaspora.

Lotte Lenya & Louis Armstrong

Interesting connections are made throughout Farina’s book. Jim Morrison of the Doors was a film student of Josef von Sternberg which may explain why he recorded Weill’s Alabama Song. The Beatles got their true start playing cabaret venues in Hamburg, Germany, even recording German versions of some of their songs. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote that he became semi-obsessed with the song Mack the Knife. Lotte Lenya also recorded a version of Mack with the legnedary Louis Armstrong.

Marlene Dietrich, who performed live cabaret shows from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, was instrumental in creating the “big name” tradition on the Las Vegas Strip. No less than Burt Bacharach was her music director/pianist before his run of song hits. In her final film appearance, Dietrich shared a scene with David Bowie singing the song Just a Gigolo.

Marlene Dietrich

Broadway writers Kander and Ebb renewed interest in the Weimar Republic with their groundbreaking musical Cabaret which cast Lotte Lenya in a supporting role on Broadway. Many of the songs from their other musicals, most notably Chicago, have a Berlin cabaret feel.

Weill songs can be found on recordings by the likes of Bette Midler, Marianne Faithful, Teresa Stratas and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Mack the Knife alone has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Buble, Bobby Darin, Sting and Lyle Lovett, to name a few.

Ute Lemper

Current German cabaret artists like Ute Lemper and Max Raabe continue to play to sold-out houses across the globe.

My show at Dank Haus on Friday, April 6 will include a short presentation by William Farina and my interpretation of songs by Kurt Weill, Kander & Ebb, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, selected song hits of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf along with some of my own creations.

Show details below. Tickets must be ordered in advance.

Flats and Sharps Music Stores

Remember the days when you could go to the downtown loop and find sheet music stores where you could actually peruse the current hits and Broadway shows?

Thank heavens for the few music stores that still carry a selection of piano, vocal and instrumental sheet music. Flats and Sharps in Rogers Park with a second store in Norwood Park carries a good selection of sheet music, instruments and musical accessories.

They also have music lessons and host open mikes and other concerts. If only every neighborhood had a musical nexus like Flats and Sharps.

A while back, I was looking for the sheet music purveyor, Coulson’s, which used to be near the 410 S. Michigan Avenue Building and was told it had moved. A Google search informed me that they now have a store on the 6th level of the 900 N. Michigan Avenue Building. The next time I pop in Bloomingdale’s, I plan to check out Coulson’s selection of sheet music.

I know that almost all sheet music is available on-line, but there’s nothing like going into a music store and seeing the classical, pop, Broadway and rock tunes on display. The real treat is when the clerk actually can recommend their favorite new show, the best beginning adult piano book or the new Leonard Cohen songbook that just came out. Brick, mortar, personal attention and music! I’m there.



The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

If you have any young readers in your social circle, you may want to check out YA author Rick Riordan who has been appealing to the Harry Potter market. Riordan has cleverly used Greek mythology as the basis for many of his books, most notably Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a five book series with Percy/Perseus as the half human son of Poseidon as the main character.

Riordan first created the characters as bedtime stories for his son, Haley who had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, handicaps that Riordan gave to his fictional hero, Percy. He also created a 5-book sequel series, The Heroes of Olympus.

Based on my reading of the first book, The Lightning Thief, I can see why the books are popular. Riordan has cleverly incorporated the ancient names, relationships and story lines of Greek gods and mortals into a current day scenario with tweens and teens as the major players.

As much as I liked Edith Hamilton’s book, Mythology, these Rick Riordan creations would have made Greek mythological study much more palatable. While these works of fiction might not become as popular as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, they certainly would be great reads for adults and youngsters to share.