On the Bookshelf
New York, New York
There is something inherently ridiculous, and lovely, about The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale, November), a second, expanded edition of which has now been produced under the editorial direction of Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson. Ridiculous, because the city is itself already an infinite, Borgesian encyclopedia of all the world’s culture—and lovely because the place is also home to so many bookish idealists who continue to dream, along with Jackson, that a book can reflect all of that life. Similar in dimensions to a phonebook, but hard-covered with hundreds of illustrations, the book can hardly be blamed for giving short shrift to Bukharan Jews (who merit just a single sentence in the Forest Hills entry) or Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant (which does not seem to be mentioned at all) when it is obviously trying so hard to edify with some 5,000 brief but useful entries on key subjects ranging from ABRAMS V. UNITED STATES to ZABAR’S.
Harry Houdini moved to New York City in 1882, at the age of 8. What better place to develop as an escape artist than in the city where most everyone is “sealed and hog-tied,” as Michael Chabon has pointed out, to their boroughs—not to mention their overbearing families? As Rachel Shteir discussed here earlier this month, the current show at the Jewish Museum, “Houdini: Art and Magic,” emphasizes the performer’s roots—he was born Erich Weiss in Budapest, and his father was a Reform rabbi—and his influence on visual artists. The accompanying catalog, Houdini: Art and Magic (Yale, November), pulls off a neat magic trick of its own: A sumptuous coffee-table book, it delights and informs on every page, with photographs of the escapist’s diaries and handcuffs, as well as interviews with Houdiniphiles including E.L. Doctorow.
To carp that a printed encyclopedia is incomplete is to miss the point (especially in the age of Wikipedia, as Jackson rightly notes): Thus, in selecting hundreds of performers to discuss in his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon, November), Will Friedwald follows his personal tastes through 800 pages of anecdotes and musical insights, in which he discusses the works of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, of course, but also saves room for Sophie Tucker, Harold Arlen, and Ethel Merman.
Still, some reference works strive ambitiously for comprehensiveness: Kenneth Jaffe’s Solo Vocal Works on Jewish Themes: A Bibliography of Jewish Composers (Scarecrow, October), for example. A Reform cantor in California, Jaffe has compiled a list of 3,000 oratorios, operas, liturgical pieces, symphonies, and stage works composed throughout history by Jews, about Jews, and presents this massive list annotated with bibliographic information and indexed by theme. Useful for musicians, cultural historians, and anyone who likes singing classics of the Yiddish theater in the shower.
Jackson’s encyclopedia gives George Gershwin a column; Larry Starr, a music historian at the University of Washington, treats the composer—“the Brooklyn-born son of an immigrant Jewish couple from Russia” and “an aggressive assimilationist”—at greater length in his still admirably concise George Gershwin (Yale, November). Starr focuses particularly on Gershwin’s Broadway shows—Lady, Be Good (1924), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and Porgy and Bess (1935)—arguing that the musical sensibilities Gershwin developed in those projects continued to inform him throughout the rest of his career. Among other things, Starr notes that “late in 1929 Gershwin was involved in serious discussions with the Metropolitan Opera regarding a work to be based on the S. Ansky play The Dybbuk, which fell through when the rights weren’t available.”
In Paul Auster’s 2005 novel The Brooklyn Follies, a cabaret performer takes the stage “not as a singer, but as a faux-singer, mouthing the words of show tunes and jazz standards by legendary female vocalists” (like Lena Horne as others covered in Friedwald’s Biographical Guide). Given Auster’s postmodern experiments, one has to wonder to what degree he, too, aspires to be a faux-novelist, self-consciously performing generic conventions pioneered and perfected by others, whether he’s writing postmodern detective novels or multi-perspectival narratives of contemporary Brooklyn life, like Sunset Park (Holt, November). The new novel tracks a strained father-son relationship as the son joins an illegal squat in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood to the north of Bay Ridge, and it has so far received mixed reviews, which Auster is sensible enough not to read: “You tend to feel very hurt when people attack you and feel indifferent when you get praise. … And that doesn’t do you any good as a human being at all.”
Born in 1931, Judith Viorst grew up with much of the great popular American music. Indeed, she takes the epigraph for her new book of poems, Unexpectedly Eighty and Other Adaptations (Free Press, October), from a 1963 Gordon Jenkins tune, “This Is All I Ask,” that has been performed by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Tony Bennett. The author of classic children’s books including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (1972), Viorst still enjoys herself on the verge of her ninth decade, Metamucil and CAT scans be damned. “Jews are survivors to some extent because they use humor to get them through,” she recently told an interviewer, and she does, dispensing joyful, semi-sarcastic wisdom like the bubbe that she is: “Life,” she says, “is not about seeing the glass half empty or half full. The point is that you have a glass.”
Ash Levine, the protagonist of Miles Corwin’s debut novel, Kind of Blue (Oceanview, November), is another music lover: As the title indicates, he’s serious about Miles Davis. An LAPD detective who comes out of retirement to investigate the murder of another ex-officer, Levine, like an increasing number of thriller heroes, has ties to the Israeli military—he’s a veteran of the IDF. Corwin, who reported for years on the Los Angeles Times crime beat and now teaches in the English department at U.C. Irvine, got to know the grittier parts of his hometown as a young kid, when he lived in the Rosslyn Hotel, a landmark in downtown L.A., “at the edge of Skid Row,” which his grandfather owned.
Andrew Furman, a scholar of American Jewish literature at Florida Atlantic University, turns to his own Los Angeles adolescence—specifically, his tenure on his high-school’s basketball team—in My Los Angeles in Black and (Almost) White (Syracuse, November) as a window onto the complex question of school busing programs intended to desegregate American cities. Furman’s team reflected the controversial program: Half of his teammates were from the Valley, and the other half were urban African-Americans bused to the school. To investigate the legacy of forced busing—which was opposed by a Jewish congresswoman, Bobbi Fiedler—Furman travels back home and interviews his former teammates, as well as advocates and opponents of the program, decades after the fact. Furman’s memoir is another reminder that Jewish and African-American communities have managed to harmonize better in pop music than in some other social venues, including high-school basketball.
In her third novel, Great House, Nicole Krauss tells interlocking stories united by a desk—and the weight of the 20th century
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