Sunday, April 25, 2021

In Sunlight and in Shadow proves once again that Mark Helprin is one of the most outstanding novelists of the late 20th/early 21st century. This expansive and lyrical novel, is, at its heart, a tribute to New York at one of its most glorious points, the post World War II era, but it is also a love story, a war story, a family saga and a full-throated attack on the evils of organized crime.

Harry Copeland was a captain in the US Army, and belonged to a paratrooper unit that parachuted into German territory and fought amidst all the blood, danger and mayhem that entailed. When he returns to New York, it is to take control of the family business, which manufactures ultra high-end leather goods in a loft workshop in downtown Manhattan. He was an only child, his mother dying young and his father while he was away in the war. He has no remaining family other than an aunt by marriage on Staten Island.

A large part of his identity comes from his Jewish background, a family of immigrant strivers who succeeded in commerce, in their case the leather business, and eventually made the move to a comfortable existence on Central Park West. Harry is well-educated, a Harvard graduate and with an advanced degree from Oxford. A former student athlete, he also remains in excellent physical condition – as battle-ready as any soldier.

Catherine Thomas Hale is the beautiful only daughter of a wealthier-than-wealthy WASP banker on Wall Street and his wife, who, in addition to their townhouse on Sutton Place, enjoy a lavish home in the Hamptons, a cottage in Maine and a flat in London. She's a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr, and an aspiring actress and singer, about to debut in her initial Broadway show, which will try out first in Boston. She's also about to become engaged to a man with whom she has had a long relationship. When their two families merge, it will join wealth and position at the highest level.

By the most unlikely chance (or perhaps because it is their destiny, bashert, in Yiddish), Harry notices Catherine on the Staten Island Ferry when he goes out to visit his aunt. He has business and family matters to discuss with her, and when gets on the boat to return to the city, he sees Catherine again. Their connection is made...

If by this point you are not intrigued, then this is not the book for you. But if you are, you will not be disappointed, because Helprin is the master of making the most unexpected, most unlikely events seem not just feasible, but absolutely as they should be. And, he does it with such elegance of description and exquisite imagery, that the reader becomes completely immersed in the events and settings he creates, and the characters become so vivid and alive that you join them.

Along with Harry and Catherine, the New York City of 1946-47 is a leading character in this novel. The descriptions of the buildings, the streets, the sounds and of the light as it falls across the city in yes, sunlight and shadow, bring the New York of that now-distant time to life in a most amazing way.

This is Helprin's great gift at work, and In Sunlight and in Shadow is a book you'll read, savor, admire and remember.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Michael, George and Ira: The Gershwins and Me by Michael Feinstein

The very-accomplished Michael Feinstein wears many hats: performer, archivist, businessman and author. He first appeared in the public eye as a twenty-year-old playing in Los Angeles piano bars in the mid-1970s. Through a connection to the deceased pianist and actor Oscar Levant, he became a temporary assistant to Ira Gershwin. The temporary position stretched into six years during which he organized and cataloged Gershwin's record albums, professional and personal memorabilia from his long career and more. Feinstein worked in Gershwin's Beverly Hills home and became steeped in the life history of Ira Gershwin and his brother, the much more famous George Gershwin. Organizing the immense output of the Gershwin brothers made him an expert on their extraordinary musical accomplishments.

Ira Gershwin was a renowned lyricist and collaborator to his brother George Gershwin, the composer of Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, Porgy and Bess, and hundreds of songs, mainly introduced on the Broadway stage in the 1920s and 1930s. George Gershwin died tragically of a brain tumor in 1937, two months before his 39th birthday. Ira Gershwin survived him by many decades, dying aged 86 in 1983.

Feinstein has gone on to a long career of his own, championing and performing the works of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and his collaborators Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer and many others who constitute the pantheon of great American songwriters of theater and movies from the 1920s and into the 1950s, often thought of as the Golden Age of popular music in the English-speaking world.

This book, The Gershwins and Me, is a valentine to the Gershwin brothers, and a real treasure trove of information, photos and anecdotes of their careers. Feinstein arranged it in chapters topically and thematically around twelve of their most famous songs, each having been featured in a Broadway show or a movie:
"Strike Up the Band", 1927
"The Man I Love", 1924
"S'Wonderful", 1927
"I've Got a Crush on You", 1928
"They All Laughed", 1937
"Someone to Watch Over Me", 1926
"Embraceable You", 1930
"Who Cares", 1931
"I Got Plenty of Nuttin'", 1935
"They Can't Take That Away from Me", 1937
"I Got Rhythm", 1930
"Love Is Here to Stay", 1938

While the material is fascinating, some of Feinstein's opinions can be a little strong and may offend fans of certain performers, particularly Frank Sinatra, whom he deems as a great singer, but criticizes for changing some of Ira Gershwin's lyrics. Though he has a point, it seems minor when one considers Sinatra's entire career as a singer and actor through many decades. He also relates a distasteful anecdote about Judy Garland. On the other hand, he lionizes Fred Astaire (who certainly deserves it), Rosemary Clooney (who was Feinstein's long-time friend and Ira Gershwin's neighbor), and others. The tendency to gossip takes the book down a star for me, but Feinstein is not an unbiased professional historian.

On the whole, it is a great book for anyone who appreciates and is interested in the works of the Gershwins and their milieu in the 1920s and 1930s. It is beautifully produced and printed. Feinstein also includes a CD of his recordings of the songs that he used for his chapter topics.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Lost Forever: All Gone by Alex Witchel

I hope that writing this memoir made author Alex Witchel feel better...her sadness and suffering over her mother's decline into dementia was painful for me to experience, just as a reader. In fact, I don't think I would suggest this book for anyone with elderly parents, a spouse or other loved one who is in such a situation – it's so heartrending. For me, having already lost my parents rather early in life, I know this is something I'm not going to experience. However, I have friends who are living through this right now and I feel some of what they are going through. My heart breaks for Alex Witchel and for those I know who are in the midst of this.

I applaud the author for her bravery. Confronting her circumstances was beyond difficult, and to write about it for anyone else to read, requires a willingness that many don't or can't share. It does a service, however, because as our population ages and lifespans lengthen, more and more people will face this problem, and it is clear that more attention and resources are required. Alex Witchel is more fortunate than many – she is financially comfortable, she is well educated, she has a supportive husband, and she lives in New York City, where many of the best doctors and care can be obtained. And while she took on the primary role in arranging her mother's care, she also has three siblings who could shoulder some of the weight, though she didn't turn to them that often. Most people don't have these advantages and many have to go it alone.

Witchel explained the role of food, the homemade food produced by our mothers and other family members, as the touchstones of both normality and memory. How many of us envision and can almost taste and smell the dishes of our childhood that brought about feelings of safety, comfort and love? When I manage to (almost) reproduce one of those, I am transported back to happier, more innocent times.

The recipes Witchel included are the ones her mother made for the family. Don't expect gourmet, sophisticated or nuanced dishes. I won't be preparing any of them, as I already have my own cache of the ones made by my mother or grandmother, but I understand how much they mean to Witchel, and how each time she prepares one, she feels a little of the mother she knew in her presence, and for her, as it would be for many, that's the ultimate comfort. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

A Tale of Two Eileens: The Switch by Beth O'Leary

Such an easy to enjoy novel, set in London and a small village in the Yorkshire Dales, about two women, twenty-nine-ish Leena and her seventy-nine year old grandmother Eileen.

Leena is a high-octane rising-star executive at a consulting company in London, known for her outstanding presentations. She's in a relationship with Ethan, something of a male counterpart. Eileen is supercharged too, but as the get-it-done, list-making center of village activities, serving on every committee and a friend to all. Her former husband, Wade, left her for a dance instructor, but she's doing just fine without him.

The two form a sandwich of a relationship with Marian, Leena's mother/Eileen's daughter. What they all share is their deep grief over the recent loss of Carla, Marian's younger daughter, to an agonizing death from cancer. Leena and Marian are currently estranged.

Leena has a panic attack and meltdown at a presentation, and her kind (fortunately) boss, Rebecca, forces her to take a two-month leave of absence so she can heal and regroup. Leena confides in Eileen, who urges her to visit in the village. They decide, on a whim, to switch places for the two months: Leena will stay in Eileen's village cottage and Eileen will go to London to Leena's apartment, which will be a chance for her to grab a taste of her youthful dream to be an independent woman in the city.

While the overall plot is somewhat predictable, many unlikely and surprising events ensue, and the result is a contemporary, colorful, entertaining, and heartfelt story that most readers are likely to enjoy (and maybe envy a bit). I definitely recommend Beth O'Leary's The Switch.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Just What the Title Says: Weight Watchers 50th Anniversary Cookbook

A nicely photographed cookbook with interesting anecdotes about the early days of Weight Watchers. Having been a member of Weight Watchers in the past (more than once), I am familiar with their programs and approach. They did work for me for a while at one time, but I got bored and a bit frustrated.

However, I thought it would be a good idea to check out this fairly new (2013) cookbook as I was looking for low carbohydrate recipes with restrained calorie counts. While I found a few, I was pretty surprised at the high values I found in many of their suggestions. Since its publication, there are newer books that feature food values and choices that are more relevant to my current needs.

You will probably find this book in your local library, as I did, and it certainly can't hurt to leaf through and make note of what may work for you. I appreciate the availability of books like this in my public library, and support its programs wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Branching Out: All of a Kind Family Uptown

In this fourth book of the All of a Kind Family series, Mama, Papa, the five sisters and brother Charlie move away from New York's Lower East Side to the leafier, less-crowded Bronx, where the housing is newer and people of different backgrounds mix together a little more freely. Our observant Jewish family now lives in the second floor of a two-family house owned by the Irish Catholic Healys and there is an exchange of customs (the girls and Charlie see their first Christmas tree). Everyone is thrilled when Uncle Hyman and Lena have a baby.

World War I is imminent, Ella is in her final year of high school, and Sarah will be graduating from eighth grade. Ella becomes close friends with Grace Healy and the two families grow closer.

There are mishaps and challenges to be overcome: Mama becomes ill and must be hospitalized for an operation, Charlie has a dangerous episode while playing with matches, Sarah has a disappointment, and Jules, Ella's boyfriend, enlists in the Army. Jules befriends Bill, a fellow soldier, and just before the two ship out, he introduces Bill to Grace. They quickly fall for one another. The war news of Jules and Bill brings tears but in the end, of course, all is resolved.

As usual, author Sydney Taylor includes Jewish religious celebrations, such as preparation for the Sabbath, which the girls undertake while Mama is in the hospital, and the blessing for Hyman and Lena's son, but this time there is a little bit of Christmas included, when the family visits the Healys for the festivities. It's good to see these interactions with the wider world as the family's life moves forward. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Tales of Immigrant Life: All of a Kind Family Downtown

To date, I have read All of a Kind Family, All of a Kind Family Downtown, More All of a Kind Family and All of a Kind Family Uptown, from the series of five books for older children written by Sydney Taylor in the 1950s. This is my favorite of the four, speaking strictly as an adult reader. Compared to the other titles, it feels more down-to-earth and less romanticized in its depictions of the difficulties of immigrant life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan around 1910. While all of the books are charming, this one does not gloss over the hard life people experienced. Poverty, illness and death were commonplace in all immigrant neighborhoods (and to some extent, still are) and we are not spared here from those sad realities.

The family, consisting of five sisters, a baby brother, father and mother, live in slightly better circumstances than some of their neighbors. They are observant Jews, and the holidays are beautifully explained and depicted. In this book, we hear more of Irish and Italian neighbors than we did in the first book, and in fact, a young boy named Guido plays an important role in the story. Guido is extremely poor. His father is dead, and his mother, who does piecework at home for a garment factory, has become very ill and can't work anymore. 

Ella, the oldest sister of our family, and her Mama pay a visit to Guido and his mother, bringing food and a small sum of money in case it is needed. Guido and the mother live in a back tenement, a building built behind the one facing the street. These were often the poorest and ill-cared for dwellings that can be found in a neighborhood that is already impoverished throughout because they tended to have even less light and air than the street front buildings. An illustration in the book depicts a slovenly rear yard with refuse, ashcans and alley cats.

Ella is sent to bring Miss Carey from the Settlement House and a doctor. Guido's mother is so ill she is hospitalized. The eventual outcome is as you might expect and it is heartbreaking. For a children's book, this is a story that will require special attention from parents and teachers to its young readers as they may find it upsetting.

There is more. Middle sister Henny's exploits and difficult personality are forthrightly addressed and we also learn about Miss Carey's sad back story.

Despite the difficult story line there are also celebrations of the Jewish holidays that all can enjoy. There are many lessons in this book, told with realism, but also with gentleness. As an adult reader, I found it very moving and in many ways, very contemporary. I would be careful though, in reading it with children who may find some of the events upsetting.