Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Titles in Nonfiction on JFK, Bach, Fosse, Bernstein, and Israel.

The hot title this week turns out to be My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel and Grau), by Ari Shavit. Perhaps it's because it's coming in between two events focused on a Jewish audience (Nina Edelman last Sunday and Alisa Solomon on Thursday), but it could also be a daily New York Times review from Dwight Garner, as well as the front page of The New York Times Book Review this Sunday. Oh, and the book was also in Thomas Friedman's op-ed column. Almost immediately, all our copies were pre-sold or on hold. Shavit is an Israeli journalist who writes a column for Haaretz. The book is a personal narrative history of Israel, starting with Shavit's great grandfather, a British Zionist who first came to the area in 1897.

The 50th anniversary (though that sounds a bit two upbeat for this somber memory) of JFK's assassination is November 22, and there are enough books on the subject for us to have put together a table of key titles. One of the higher profile releases is End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Morrow), by James Swanson, author of Manhunt. I'm not sure I'd agree that this minute-by-minute account of the day is told for the first time in decades, but we know Swanson is an excellent storyteller. Here's an excerpt from the New York Post on how Jackie Kennedy shaped her husband's legacy.

Moving from politics to the arts, I spotted The Leonard Bernstein Letters (Yale), edited by Nigel Simone. I'm waiting for a major figure to have their collected emails in book form. Bernstein's correspondence stops in 1984 so that's not an issue. As the publisher notes, the galaxy of correspondents (I'm going to use that phrase one day) includes Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, Bette Davis,Thornton Wilder, and yes, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (see, there was a link here). Can you imagine a time when you might write to someone once a week? Now of course we send folks emails or texts or tweets every few minutes it seems. Joseph Horowitz in The Wall Street Journal calls the collection "an invaluable resource" though the critic also finds reading the book a discomfiting experience.

If we're going to talk theater, we can't ignore Sam Wasson's Fosse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a 700-page behemoth from the author of Fifth Avenue, 5.A.M: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at TIffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. Hey, I read that! I should note that the size includes over 100 pages of notes and index. Bob Fosse's Broadway legacy includes The Pajama Game, Cabaret, Pippin, All That Jazz, and Chicago, is the only person ever to win Oscar, Emmy, and Tony awards in the same year. Ethan Mordden called Fosse "fascinating and exhaustive in The Wall Street Journal. I recall watching All That Jazz with my sister Merrill, who coincidentally, is currently reading this book.

Bernstein straddled the musical worlds of classical and Broadway, while Bach was never really known for his show tunes. In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf), John Eliot Gardiner tells the story of one of our great composers. His premise--how did such sublime work come fromsuch an ordinary person, as opposed to Fosse, for example, who was the definition of "tortured." Gardner, one of the world's leading composers, uses contemporary Bach scholarship to explain, as the publisher notes, how he worked, how his music is constructed, how it achieves its effects, and what it can tell us about Bach the man. Nick Romeo in The Christian Science Monitor notes that Gardiner offers "a nuanced account of the constellation of personal, musical, religious, and cultural forces that shaped Bach's astonishing body of compositions."

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