Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Publications ranging from the New York Times to the Plumbers' Pipeline are offering us their candidates for the best books of 2008, so I decided to ante up a list as well. I don't tag these the Best Books of
2008; merely as the best books of my 2008. No particular ranking.

Claire Tomalin's SAMUEL PEPYS: THE UNEQUALlED SELF. Now, if you've read any part of the famous Diary by this 17th century eccentric, you're probably saying, "What's left to write about?" Pepys recorded the smallest details of his life, including much more than most readers care to know about such matters as his bowels, bladder, and boudoir behavior. Why a biography by someone else? Well, for one thing, because a cool, ojective but intently interested eye can tell us so much more of the fascinating story. (We all see our own lives, as Twain said, through a glass eye darkly.) And because if you read only the Diary, you are apt to think of Pepys as nothing more than a minor clerk of old Londontown who, sexually speaking, had eyes much bigger than his. . . well, never mind that. Actually, Pepys was a rather major figure of his day, and is still studied by, of all things, Naval historians (the battleship buffs, not the belly-button brigade). In sum: a rich view of a full-throttle life through a wide-angle lens.

Claire Tomalin's JANE AUSTEN; A LIFE. Here we have just the opposite problem from the Pepys' life story: although Austen wrote reams of letters, few have survived
the burnings of dim-bulb kinfolk who kindled when they should have scrapbooked. But scholar Tomalin, with the fervor of an unmedicated obsessive-compulsive, has woven the remaining threads into a thorough and thoroughly readable tapestry. A lot of nonsense and sentimental twaddle has circulated about Jane Austen as her popularity has grown with the decades and her novels been revamped as vehicles for various actorettes of the moment. This writer sees the great novelist with a clear and unsentimental but admiring eye. Having now read three or four of Tomlinson's biographies, I can only conclude that the historian has an intellect as keen as Jane Austen's and a style worthy of her subject.

While we're on British soil, so to speak, one of my great favorites this year is THE UNCOMMON READER, by Alan Bennett. Bennett is England's leading contemporary writer--that's not an opinion; it's a ranking, by sales and popularity and awards and height and whatever else can be measured. He's written The History Boys (six Tony awards), The Madness of King George, Prick Up Your Ears, A Private Function, Beyond the Fringe. . . . Anyway, THE UNCOMMON READER would make the dandiest Christmas present imaginable for the truly devoted readers among your circle. It's quite short--readable in an hour--and it is fiction. And it is about Queen Elizabeth II. To tell you any more would be to ruin the fun. And it is fun--and full of insight. I hope against hope that the BBC or "Masterpiece" or whoever will make us all a wonderful plum pudding for next Christmas by filming this gem--featuring Maggie Smith, or Helen Mirren (the third time would be charming), or Bennett's longtime friend and star of many of his short plays, Patricia Routledge. (Yes, yes, Hyacinth Bucket and let's forget that.)

All right; let's leave the Brits to entertain themselves and come to a very American book: CHARLES SCHULZ AND PEANUTS, by David Michaelis. Everything about Charles Schulz seems movingly American, from his birth in Minnesota to immigrant parents, to his love of baseball, his engrained work ethic, and his huge worldwide success coupled with his lifelong sense of personal failure. Now, let me be frank here: I prefer biographies and memoirs above almost all other genres at this point in my life; but some may find that this book tells them more about Charles Schulz than they want to know; (it's almost 600 pages.) Michaelis gives us great detail about the cartoonist's early life, and puts a Freudian slant on much of his later angst, which he also paints with a full brush. Moreover, Michaelis gives us a rich selection of carefully chosen Peanuts cartoons; I was astonished at how three or four panels could illuminate a whole thread of Shultz' life. At the very end of his life, having written his own name on a piece of paper, and speaking of himself, he said, "That poor kid--he never even got a chance to kick the football. What a dirty trick. . . ."

You were a good man, Charlie Shultz, but you never got to know it.

All right; that's a start. Stay tuned--and let me know what you are reading.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I came upon this poem just this morning. Have never read it before. Written in 1932.
I liked it enough to want to share with you gentle readers.

(On another annoying point--Nash being annoyed by the non-voters: several of you have emailed to let me know you are unable to post comments on the blogsite. I'm really sorry about that--I would love to read your responses--and I have the same problem; I sometimes am unable to post on my mentor Emily's wonderful blogsite, "Hamartia and Cheese Sandwiches." Who understands the whimseys of the goddess Cyberia?)

Election Day Is a Holiday

People on whom I do not bother to dote
Are people who do not bother to vote
Heaven forbid that they should ever be exempt
From contumely, obloquy, and various kinds of contempt.

Some of them like Toscanini and some like Rudy Vallée
But all of them take about as much interest in their right to ballot as in their right to ballet.
They haven’t voted since the heyday of Miss Russell (Lillian)
And excuse themselves by saying What’s the difference of one vote in fifty million?

They have such refined and delicate palates
That they can discover no one worthy of their ballots,
And then when someone terrible gets elected
They say There, that’s just what I expected!

And they go around for four years spouting discontented criticisms
And contented witticisms,
And then when somebody to oppose the man they oppose gets nominated
They say Oh golly, golly, he’s the kind of man I’ve always abominated,
And they have discovered that if you don’t take time out to go to the polls
You can manage very nicely to get through thirty-six holes.

Oh let us cover these clever people very conspicuously with loathing,
For they are un-citizens in citizens’ clothing.
They attempt to justify their negligence
On the ground that no candidate appeals to people of their integligence,
But I am quite sure that if Abraham Lincoln (Rep.) ran against Thomas Jefferson (Dem.),
Neither man would be appealing enough to squeeze a vote out of them.

--Ogden Nash (1932)

Monday, November 3, 2008


The English playwright William Congreve taught us that,"Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast." In turn, the English music-hall singer Anna Russell taught me that silly music hath charms to loosen the uptight breast.

In my most recent blog, I mention the university Faculty Follies, to which students flocked to see their instructors make fools of themselves through song, dance, and general desecration of the performing arts. My first appearance in the Follies was a duet, "The Indian Love Call." But the next time I succumbed to peer pressure and prepared a little number, it was a solo; and as things turned out, that song has followed me throughout my life like a trail of toilet paper eternally glued to my shoe. For which, as it happens, I'm quite grateful.

Backstory:< Anna Russell (1911-2006)was a British-born musician with excellent training and talent but a sense of humor too large to be confined to the regular concert or operatic stage. She turned instead to composing and singing hilarious spoofs of serious music, and made a long, successful career for herself in America, Canada, England, South Africa and anywhere else her wit and play on words would be appreciated. Around 1960, she published The Anna Russell Songbook, which my pal Beverly gave me as a Christmas present.

The Songbook was sub-titled, "Music For People Who Want to Sing But Can't." The non-musical voices were neatly categorized: thin wispy voices; high, clear English bell-like voices; low monotones after the French style; the loud, cracked music-hall voice "with two or three good notes at either end of the scale, and nothing much in between." That last herd included moi.

The song Anna indicated as best (ahem)for my voice was titled "I'm Only A Faded Rose." The narrator mourns that she was once "a rosebud, so fair and pure," feted with diamonds and beautiful clothes but now been cast aside: "He plucked me and wore me, then threw me away; now I'm only a faded rose." The final word spans a full octave and, when properly screeched, produces more decibels than a Boeing 747 on take-off.

I have sung the song many times to a variety of audiences. Each time, the results have been startling. Or startled. Something like that. On one occasion, I had been asked to accept an administrative appointment at the University. The small group I was to join had scheduled a meeting in a handsome, dark-paneled conference room. In attendance were two other deans, an administrative assistant, a couple of secretarys, and an assistant vice president in charge of token appearances. The head honcho, one of the finest men who ever convened a meeting, graciously introduced me and announced that after the meeting itself, we would have refreshments and, in fact, a musical number. (The administrative assistant was a gifted singer.) He then jokingly added, "Perhaps would should require Elouise to sing as well, as a sort of initiation." Indulgent smiles all around. Ho-ho-ho.

"I'll sing for you," I said. (The best defense being a good offense, and all. My singing was undeniably an offense.)

And when the short meeting was over, I launched into "Faded Rose," a capella. Given the occasion, I may have been operating with an additional shot of adrenalin. In any case, I was loud and dramatic, as Anna Russell intended. The two other deans roared; the secretaries giggled;the veep seemed unable to summon up any response. But for me the payoff was the reaction of Paula, the adminstrative assistant, she of the gorgeous voice, a regular soloist at oratorios around the valley, and a woman of calm, self-assured dignity. She was the sort of person any executive would pray to have in the outer office; even the most persistent time-wasters could not get past her guard. By the time I finished singing, her face was deep red, her careful make-up was puddled pudding, her eyes were swollen shut, and her screams of laughter had caused her to cough so hard we had to take a recess before she could sing her own number.

I calculate that my rendition of that song had speeded up the pace of my friendship with Paula by many months.

On another occasion, I attended a week-long summer workshop for feminists in higher education. This must have been in the mid-Seventies, when academic women were getting very serious about equality in the workplace, reasserting the place of neglected women writers, insisting on proper job titles, five-year plans for one's career advancement, and much more. It was all very sober, very crucial, part of the Movement, part of History, and most of the participants were so uptight they could hardly bend at the waist. Tailored power suits and heels were the order of the day. Not one woman mentioned husband or child during the first three days of the workshop. (Liberation did not preclude being servile to one's pets, however, and photos of Fluffy, Flush, Mitzi and Muffin circulated without a blush.) Our seminars and discussions were all highly educational, rigorously researched, and so boring they brought tears to the eye. In the evenings, there was little to do except collapse in one's room or share the solace of revivifying booze in the sterile lounge. The non-drinkers thumbed listlessly through old Alison Bechdel cartoons and scratched our mosquito bites.

One evening, Ms. A asked Ms. B half-heartedly if she wanted to catch the 8 p.m. movie at the university cinema. ("Bonzo goes to College.")

"No," said Ms. B . "I want to stay here and have Elouise entertain me."

I have no idea what led Ms. B. to say such a thing. Possibly my responses in the workshop discussions had suggested I was less serious about my five-year plan than the others; perhaps I just struck her as the class smart-ass. Who knows?

But a couple of the women pushed an old piano into the lobby; someone else volunteered to accompany me; (I had brought the sheet music along to submit as evidence of the traditional role of Woman As the Subject of Abuse and Ultimate Rejection); and I sang "Faded Rose."

Laughter started slowly but accelerated. The cork popped out of more than the Scotch bottle; ice melted from the brave faces; better singers snuggled up to the piano bench and let 'er rip. By evening's end, pictures of Tommy Junior and Simone were going the rounds. During the rest of the workshop, some of us dared to wear slacks and even jeans; our responses to questions were not from the canon but from our own experience; and regular dashes of salsa seasoned the scholarly fare.

So in this month of Thanksgiving, I drink a cider toast to the irrepressible Anna Russell (her bio is titled I'm Not Making This Up, You Know!)and say, "Many thanks! Your rose never did fade in my eyes."

Sunday, November 2, 2008


One of my favorite "onstage" experiences is the one no one heard.

Backstory: One day, early in my teaching career, I walked down a hallway and heard the colleague in a nearby office singing, "When I'm calling you-ooo-oooooo. . . ." Known as "The Indian Love Call," this was the famous song that movie star Nelson Eddy sang to Jeannette MacDonald in "Rosemarie." In my brashness, I immediately responded by singing, "Will you answer true-ooo-ooo?" A surprised Professor M. popped his head out of the doorway and said, "Miss Bell! How bold!"

Professor M. soon became "Jack"; "How bold!" became his frequent judgment of me, and
"The Indian Love Call" our signature salutation to each other. (Colleagues giggled at the uninformed who thought the song implied a romance between us: Jack was as committed and unscathed a bachelor as ever sang a solo.)

One year, as the annual Faculty Follies loomed, someone suggested Jack and I do our love call for the students. (The Follies was an recurring debacle in which ill-advised faculty members made fools of themselves by singing, dancing, and performing
vaudevillean skits for the entertainment of students. Those were pre-photographic-cell phone days; indeed pre-video camera days, and blackmail was thus less of a temptation.)

Now, performance before an audience, however silly the material, was a different matter than yodeling ad lib down the corridors. Jack was, after all, a pretty decent musician, skillful at the piano and a regular in his metropolitan choral society. As for me, I had range, volume, and gusto. Period. Couldn't read a note of music. So for two weeks prior to the Follies, Jack and I practiced in a music classroom. Ordinarily, he was a man given to irony, sarcasm, and askance eyebrows. But during those practices he was endlessly kind and patient with me. In a couple of weeks, though I sounded more like Selma Diamond than Jeannette MacDonald, the melody was recognizable.

The performance venue was a large concert hall with seats rising from the front, so that everyone had a good view. Entrance was by two side doors at the top. The stage was not raised, but even with the floor, and served by heavy curtains. As our number began, introductory chords from an offstage piano warned the audience what was coming. At the top of the hall, one exit door opened and Jack appeared, in all the rented glory that the Salt Lake Costume Company could provide. He had calf-high black boots, flared Canadian Mountie breeches, a scarlet, much be-buttoned tunic, and the well-known Stetson Mountie hat.

As he marched down the stairs, singing with manful fervor, the students started to scream with delight.

Then the curtains parted a yard or so, and I entered. Salt Lake Costume had had nothing suitable for the Indian Maiden, so we had simply taken two large beach towels in vaguely autumnal colors, stitched them together at the shoulders and sides, and girdled them with a braided rope. My head boasted braids as well, thickly twined of yellow yarn. Of course I was barefoot.

Now the audience was really shrieking, and they never stopped. As the piano accompaniment continued, we danced through our subtle choreography--me lunging with out-stretched arms for Jack, he prancing nimbly by, evading every hopeful advance--and I sang exactly as Jack had taught me, never missing a note.

Not one of which was ever heard over the pandemonium.