Reading in Pythonga

Two weeks in Pythonga’s quiet — and the kitchen’s cooking — left me with ample time to not only read but also read at length, for two and three hours at a time. Such a gift: to inhabit the magnificent cabin Harry built, to stretch out on the chaise Georgia designed and made, to curl up on the oversized chair and its ottoman in the upstairs reading nook. 

Here’s what I read, enjoyed, recommend.

Something Wonderful, by Todd S. Purdum. This is a must-read biography of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, who created the modern musical — among them Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. I’d seen a revival of Carousel when I was in New York earlier this summer, and was so taken by its story, music and staging that I bought the soundtrack and this book during intermission. What a treat to be in the hands of veteran journalist Purdum. He gives us their astonishing work, of course, but also their lives — often deeply troubled — in post-war New York. When people asked what I was reading, I’d say, “Something Wonderful.” 

High Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, by Ben Austen. Another must read, if you care about Chicago, institutional racism, the future of black America. Austen, also a reporter, focuses on a 70-acre site on Chicago’s North Side, formerly an Italian slum, made over into 23 towers and some townhomes in the 1940s. The idea was a noble experiment: get the working poor out of miserable private housing and into bright, clean, functional public housing. Wisely, Austen tells the story of its demise through the lives of those who lived — and died, violently — there. 

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I always bring a classic with me to Pythonga, since the unbroken time and quiet allows me to get into sometimes challenging texts. Shelley’s use of letters to get into the story is clunky, and her characterization of Victor Frankenstein’s loved ones is lacking: I didn’t know them well enough to care that his monster would kill them. That said, I gobbled this read, and found her man-made monster remarkably current. That he is cast out by all made me think of American black men, who were brought to the U.S. to work as slaves, then discarded and despised. As an English major, I’m not sure how I missed this seminal work.

In the Dark Room, by Susan Faludi. Wowza. In 2004, feminist writer Faludi receives an email from her estranged father, with the subject line: Changes. Her father has become a woman. Will she write his/her life story? She does, and it’s a doozy. As a young Jewish man, Steven Faludi (née Istvan Friedman) survives the Holocaust in Budapest and saves his parents by impersonating a guard sent to take them away. (Thereafter, he shuns them.) Steve is an accomplished filmmaker and photographer and first emigrates to Brazil, then New York, where he becomes a master remaker of photographs. Steve remakes himself over and over: as a Christian, as a repatriated Hungarian, and finally, as Stephanie. Most troubling was his and other transsexuals’ world view on women: weak and helpless.

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. The last two days in the life of a dying Mexican-American patriarch. Oh, how I loved this read. Over two days we learn the oversized and messy life of Big Angel, his half-white half-brother Little Angel, the women and children in their midst. Big Angel keeps a running list of life’s pleasures: hot showers, driving, Perla pulling up her stockings, eggs frying in hot lard, tortillas — corn not flour!, Steve McQueen. I wept more than once reading his lists and the story of their immigrant lives. And just when I thought nothing dramatic would happen, a son lost to cross-dressing returns and saves them all. 

And finally, Grant, by Ron Chernow. I’m probably the only reader who was not delighted by Chernow’s bio of Hamilton, which, of course, became Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical. I thought it a slog. Not so Chernow’s telling of U. S. Grant’s life. I’m only 100 or so pages in, but I’m hooked by Grant’s fortitude, folly, love of family and country, disdain for slavery. 

Leave a Reply