I rarely do as much recreational reading as I’d like, and last year I decided to fix that. My inspired idea was to listen to audio books as I commute to work. If I’m disciplined and walk in both directions, that’s roughly an hour a day. One way is 30 minutes – still, better than nothing.
I’ve finished three books so far this summer – and, though I hadn’t planned it this way, it’s turned out to be a mini-survey of major American writers of the 1920s. Read on for capsule reviews and impressions of both writers and readers.
The Great Gatsby
I last read Gatsby in high school, and it mystified me. Not that I doubted the quality of the writing – that was clear to me even then. But I found it long on mood and short on action, and basically didn’t understand it. Revisiting it now, it seems more concrete – but I have different reservations.
It’s hard to argue with the pictorial quality of Fitzgerald’s descriptive writing – some really beautiful, evocative passages. But I can’t abide almost any of the characters. Not even Nick Carraway, for whom it takes an unconscionably long time to figure out what to me is clear from the start – all of these people have the glamour that comes from good looks and money, and virtually nothing else to recommend them. Even a book as short as this one seems way too long a time to spend with Daisy, Jordan, and Gatsby himself.
It didn’t help that the audio version of Gatsby I heard was read by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose purely vocal presence is blandly anonymous. He’s an actor who to me has an engaging screen presence, but I couldn’t have identified his voice.
Nor is he a skilled reader. I generally prefer an audio book narrator who has a light touch with characterization, but Gyllenhaal doesn’t even have that, really. He’s earnest, but that’s about all – any sense of Nick’s growing disillusionment is found in Fitzgerald’s words only.
The Dorothy Parker Audio Collection
Works here include stories, reviews and a couple of essays; they are read by a fascinating quartet of actresses, recorded over several decades.
Parker, legendary source of bons mots and a great anecdotalist, for me is a mixed bag in longer forms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fictional works are almost entirely focused on women and their emotional lives. They (the stories – but the women, also) come in two varieties – sardonic and maudlin. The latter are more appealing than the former.
Sometimes, Parker mixes the tone, as in her best-known story, Big Blonde, which starts amusingly but leaves a sour aftertaste. Cynthia Nixon reads it here, skillfully but sounding too contemporary. Alfre Woodard does a couple of the sexier stories, and she’s good in them – also contemporary, but her slyness is effective.
Still, I preferred a couple of short non-fiction pieces Parker wrote for Vanity Fair. One is a review of Redemption, a play adapted from Tolstoy, and starring John Barrymore; the other is a critique of Emily Post. Both are snarky and funny, and read by Christine Baranski, whose satiric bite is exactly right.
But the real treasures in this audio collection are the last four selections – Lady with the Lamp, The Waltz, Cousin Larry, and A Telephone Call. These are stories that take the form of dramatic monologues, which makes them perfect for this format. More important, they’re performed by so brilliantly by the great Shirley Booth that with each, we’re transported to a world that’s utterly specific and alive. I know many theatre people who think Booth one of the greatest of all American actors. She certainly sounds like that here.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder)
If Gatsby was the disappointment in the group, Bridge was the happy surprise – engrossing from start to finish. I’d read and loved it as a teenager, but there’s so much more I see in it now. I found myself finding every reason I could to take a long walk, just so I could keep at it.
Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel won the Pulitzer, and not so long ago it was part of many high school curricula. I suspect it has lost its currency, which is too bad. Bridge is generically unique – a hybrid of moral and religious philosophy, historical fantasy, and old fashioned potboiler, all of which can be seen in the once-famous first sentence: “On Friday noon, June the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru, broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.”
Fans of Wilder (and I certainly count myself) will see connections to Our Town (life is viewed as both fragile and precious) and The Skin of Our Teeth (there’s a pervading sense of apocalyptic doom). But Wilder’s circuitous riffs on everything from Catholicism to mothers and daughters to the pain and glory of the theatre could not be more touching and entertaining. The language may be florid, but there’s something bracingly modern underneath. As often with Wilder, it’s sentimental but never just sentimental – simply gorgeous.
And Bridge is brilliantly read by Sam Waterston. I’ve sometimes found his acting fussy and mannered, but here, with a real economy of means, Waterston masterfully suggests characters across a wide spectrum, and finds a tone that is at once empathetic, wise, and ever so slightly mischievous.
Since finishing these, I’ve moved beyond the 1920s, but I’m still sticking with American writers. Now on my iPhone and ready for reading/listening is John Lahr’s encyclopedic biography of Tennessee Williams, narrated by (who else?) Elizabeth Ashley. More on that later…