Friday, December 3, 2010

Books Read: Nov '10

A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry (Claremont Library, 25¢)

Before reading Raisin, all I'd really known of this 1959 play was A) its zinging at the hands of Strangers With Candy, and B) the hammy dialogue ("damn my eggs! Damn all the eggs that ever was!") that I'd unconsciously mimicked, in prolonged private monologues to my cats, for years and years. I was shocked at how little of the plot I'd picked up by osmosis. Are American kids supposed to have read this in school?

There're two ways to interpret this play in 2010. The Full Circle reading (several barely-employed generations smooshed together under one roof = life after Sept. 2008) is nicely checked by a Jetsons-style smugness (Chicago has birthed a Sidney-Poitier-style black president! We have iPhones!). Although both readings are deeply undercut by Hansberry's pleading earnestness. And is it already so far into the future that Phylicia Rashad - megafox of the Cosby Age - has to play the frumpy Mama role? What?


Reading this undemanding, sincere account of Jimmy Durante's life left more questions than answers. How did a man this homely get to be so famous for so long? What kind of talent could propel a face like that into motion pictures? Was he a mascot? A dupe? The token Ugly Guy? Someone the masses could laugh at / with?

Irene Adler's book doesn't solve these riddles. What it does do is provide 187 pages of wonderful photos of the Schnozzola in action, starting with his early days in late-stage vaudeville right through to his TV appearances in the early 60's. In nearly every photo, Jimmy mugs for the camera - a ghastly sight - usually surrounded by the cream of Old Hollywood royalty and/or vixens. The faces at the edges of each photo are often more interesting than the subject.

I enjoyed this. My only complaint is with Arlington House (also publishers of The Forties Gals and The Funsters), who couldn't be bothered with such trivial concerns as quality bookmaking. Reading this in bed, the binding disintegrated, sprinkling loose chunks of flaky, yellow book dander all over my pillow. It looked carcinogenic.

FEAR OF FLYING by Erica Jong (Claremont Library, 25¢)

Here's a phenomenon from a 70's childhood I can't imagine was unique. 1) I'd go to a friend's house to stay the night, 2) inevitably I'd have to cross through the bedroom of the friend's parents to use their bathroom, and 3) inevitably Fear Of Flying (occasionally accompanied by The Joy Of Sex and/or Kama Sutra) would be waiting for perusal on a nearby dresser or bedside table. It was impossible to avoid peeking, and equally impossible to hide my mortification afterwards. In the pantheon of childhood Forbidden Horrors of Adulthood, Fear Of Flying wasn't quite the Sex Pistols or Dawn of the Dead. But it was up there.

Reading FOF as an adult, I feel vindicated. Grown ups of the 1970's seemed creepy and sex-obsessed because, apparently, they were. Jong's Isadore Wing romps through Europe with a sweaty brute of a man, delving again and again into all the sticky crags of the human psyche (and body). In the service of escaping an unfulfilling marriage, Wing brutalizes her cuckolded husband, then rationalizes this brutality in the framework of second generation feminism. The writing is zippy, occasionally inspired (especially the bits about Wing's ex, and his mental insanity), but also mean spirited, sordid, and grubby. According to Amazon, there are only 17 "cunts" in the whole novel, which seems impossibly low. It felt like Wing's boyfriend called her this at least three dozen times.

For a paperback with such a racy cover - its tantalizing peek of naked hip and boob soffit hinting at something even more lowbrow - I've never read a less sexy book. Many of the grim depictions of adult relationship complications were deeply depressing. Endless arguments, mixed signals, the tangible horror of romantic indecision; why would anyone want to re-live any of this through fiction? Then there was the day I brought this to read at the laundromat. That was not so classy on my part. Seemingly overnight, I've become one of the creepy adults my own self. No thanks.