Tag Archives: plays

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Bacchae Robin Robertson

Bacchae by Euripides: A New Translation by Robin Robertson (Ecco, $19.99, 128 pages)

The final work by one of the three greatest Athenian playwrights and poets might have been on the list of required reading assignments for a serious 19th century student. Not so for this mid-20th century university student whose classics exposure was confined to the statues, temples and artifacts of the era in which Euripides lived.

Bacchae: A New Translation arrived in the mail unbidden, a slender advance review copy that proclaimed its relevance in today’s world. Feeling a need to round out my classical education with a sampling of literature, I worked my way through the book, devoting ample time to the play as well as the most helpful ancillary material.

The book’s elements included a well-developed preface written by Daniel Mendelsohn that provided ample contextual and historical information for the novice reader of Greek tragedies. The introduction by Scottish writer and translator Robin Robertson further set the reader on a path toward comprehending the play. A family tree of the main characters set forth the relationships in a graphic. And lastly, a glossary complete with pronunciation guide appeared after the body of the text. It is assumed that these key elements remained as parts of the final, published version.

As to the take away, alas, most of the insightful and relevant themes touted on the cover flew over this reviewer’s head. Perhaps the extreme drama and graphic nature of the violence contained in the play was just too much. Alternatively, the silent statues, temples and painted vases of the same era held immense appeal nearly five decades after the captivating lectures presented by Dr. Crawford H. Greenewalt, Jr. have nearly faded from memory.

Recommended for students of the classics.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00, 279 pages)

Ever wonder if those fabulous songs, novels and paintings that make life so much more enjoyable can only be created by a few brilliant and troubled people?   Maybe you aspire to be more creative, or you wish it for your children.   Jonah Lehrer, the thirty-something scientific writer, has done an in-depth study of the creative process.   He begins his latest work, Imagine, by focusing the first half on the individual and the way the parts of his brain interact.   The second half of the book explores what happens when groups of people work together in the attempt to be creative.

Because Lehrer is an engaging story-teller, the reader gladly accompanies him as he learns about what led to some of the most memorable individual creativity of recent time.   For example, Bob Dylan is the subject of the first chapter.   Later in the second part the reader hears the back story about some of the most amazing corporate breakthroughs that produced winning products like the Swiffer Sweeper.

This is no magazine quick-read or glossy book with simple highlights to quote at the next family gathering.   Rather, Lehrer blends his discussion on neurology with diagrams and clearly written text that is fascinating, rather than academic or – heaven forbid – boring.   He concentrates on what makes us who we are and our unique humanness.   As progress is being made in the exploration of the human brain, new findings and concepts have come to light.   Our brains can be seen in action through the use of equipment such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.   The results of these studies and experiments that were conducted while scientists were peering into active brains are fascinating.   Lehrer uses the “You Are There” technique to draw the reader into appreciating the scientists and researchers he showcases along with their contributions to understanding creativity.

There are some requirements for achieving notable creativity.   It’s not a matter of being zapped by a great idea.   As Lehrer states, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of working memory.   For one thing, there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence, with variations in the size of working memory accounting for approximately 60 percent of the variation in IQ scores.”   Moreover, the poems, plays and novels we have enjoyed from writers like W. H. Auden or William Shakespeare, were not produced in brilliant flashes of insight.   The authors dedicated time and energy to writing and rewriting their works until the result was perfection.

Lastly, Lehrer makes a great case for nurturing the youth among us by fostering in them what he calls “the outsider view.”   It’s not memorization or rote school work that will foster creativity; rather, it’s taking a step back, detaching from the obvious and fostering an alternative view.

“According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious – kids are most focused when they are having fun.”

Imagine is a well-paced learning experience that keeps the reader’s attention and is never overwhelming.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Jonah Lehrer earlier wrote How We Decide, which is reviewed here along with The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/the-art-of-choosing/ .

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(A) Kiss from a Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 368 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and smartest one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s a beauty but not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story in flawless fashion – I kept looking in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone which is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in The Weird Sisters, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, naturally, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters in a play.

As the story unfolds, the three sisters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external (public) or internal (private) version of achievement.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no one wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was released in trade paperback form on February 7, 2012.   “Hilarious, thought-provoking and poignant.”   J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novels Maine and Commencement.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Three Rivers Press; $16.00; 432 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might well – and should have – been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – lurid accounts of Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and engaging in three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, truthfully, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with the late actor’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under the tons of details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick and specific example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner in the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant and lurid titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400+ pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography, and – it might be said – a bio about tricks.)

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud also misses a great opportunity here.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 373 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this  bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sal Mineo: A Biography was released in a trade paperback version on October 10, 2011.

Note:   We mentioned in this review that the writer did not contact former prosecutor and author Michael Genelin (Requiem for a Gypsy).   We asked him to give us his impressions of the accuracy of the content presented in the book’s Afterward.   Here is his response:

“The facts, as presented by Michaud seemed, in the main, to be correct.   There were a number of things about the case that he was incorrect on, most of them minor; however, he also got much of it right…  with two exceptions.   Michaud said we played tapes of (Lionel) Williams wherein he made numerous boasts of the killing.   Nope!   We had no recorded statements of Williams boasting of the killing.   We also did not, as alleged, bring in the defendant’s past criminal record – commencing with a juvenile conviction when he was 14 – to establish a ‘pattern of criminal behavior.’   That would not have been allowed, and would have been reversible error.”

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Crown Archetype; $25.99; 421 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might have been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and actresses and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, actually, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with Mineo’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under all of the details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On Friday, February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner at the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400 pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography.)   Sal Mineo, the actor and artist, the person one hopes to learn about by reading this hard R to X-rated tome gets lost in the sad process.

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.  

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud misses an opportunity.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 372 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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Hello Goodbye

Antonia Fraser is known in England as Lady Antonia Fraser, her father having been an Earl.   Her forthcoming book Must You Go? – My Life with Harold Pinter will be released in the U.S. on November 2, 2010 by Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday.   Fraser’s memoir centers on her 33-year love affair with, and marriage to, the celebrated playwright and poet Harold Pinter.  

We’ll have a review up by the release date of Must You Go? but, in the interim, it’s worth noting that this memoir is getting fantastic write-ups on the other side of the pond.   Here’s a small sampling.

“Writing with exemplary clarity and courage…  Fraser keeps her gaze steady and her heart open.”   – The Independent

“The book is intimate without being confessional, and on certain subjects (Fraser) prefers to say nothing.   But she’s not so discreet as to be dull, and there’s a lot of humour.”   – Blake Morrison, The Guardian

“It may lack sensational revelations but Antonia Fraser’s memoir of married life with Pinter is eccentric and hilarious.”   – Rachel Cooke, The Observer

“It is neither autobiography nor biography but a love story, romantic, poignant and very funny, illuminating her husband’s character and creativity.”   The Times

“This book works, just as it appears their lives (together) worked, as the most touching and enduring of love stories…  The ending is… almost unbearably moving.   The whole of this lovely book fills you with a gratitude that happenstance can, once in a while, not screw up and find the right girl for the right boy.”   – Dominic Dromgoole, Financial Times

“It’s enormously enjoyable to read…  because this is a book that’s intimate without being confessional, and that’s a very unusual thing today.   At the end of it you feel you’ve had an insight into a great romance…  She’s really pulled off something of enormous subtlety.”   Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

“This book – full of funny and tender things – satisfies on more than one level.   It is an intimate account of the life and habits of a major artist; it is a pencil sketch of British high society in the second half of the 20th century; and it is, more than either of these things, and much more unusually, a wonderfully full description of the deep pleasures and comforts of married love.”   – The Spectator

“The final third of Must You Go? is dominated by Pinter’s ill-health, his award of the Nobel prize, and his courageous struggle still to speak out on the issues that concerned him.   In many ways they are the best part of the book.”   – Robert Harris, The Sunday Times

Interested?   Lady Antonia Fraser will appear at the Los Angeles Public Library (630 W. 5th Street) at 7:00 p.m. on November 8, 2010; and at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness Avenue) on November 9, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

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