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Hepburn This!

Reviews of Charlotte Chandler's biography I Know Where I'm Going, plus Kenji Yoshino's A Thousand Times More Fair and Jeffrey Langford's Evenings at the Opera. logo
Charlotte Chandler offers the life story of stage and screen legend, Katherine Hepburn in I Know Where I'm Going
(Applause). But this is no ordinary biography: Chandler's style, which involves printing long quotes taken from her subjects during exhaustive interviews, proves to be a perfect match for Hepburn, who had such a distinctive manner of speaking.

Indeed, by stepping back and letting Hepburn tell her own story, Chandler allows us into her world with an intimacy that few other biographers can capture. One of Hepburn's interviews was given in the presence of famed director and close friend George Cukor -- and the verbal interplay between the pair gives the reader a real sense of their relationship.

Chandler organizes the book chronologically, starting with Hepburn's idiosyncratic progressive Connecticut WASP upbringing. The book starts with her describing the discovery of her brother Tom's suicide, a defining moment in her life. She assumed his November 8th birthday after that in an attempt to live a full life for the both of them.

Later, Chandler chronicles Hepburn's complete filmography, from her breakthrough role in A Bill of Divorcement to her final cameo in Love Affair. She quips that director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were the only people not to fall ill on the set of The African Queen because, "They never drank the water, only alcohol."

Chandler gives equal time to Hepburn's later years, holding dinner parties and going to the theater with Barbara Walters and Liz Smith. The book also examines Hepburn's love life, which included romances with billionaire Howard Hughes, who purchased the film rights for The Philadelphia Story as a gift when their romance was still front-page news, and actor and frequent co-star Spencer Tracy.

An easy read with real warmth behind it, I Know Where I'm Going lives up to its subtitle, "A personal biography."

Next Page: A Thousand Times More Fair


In A Thousand Times More Fair
(Ecco), NYU Constitutional law professor Kenji Yoshino explores themes of justice in the works of William Shakespeare. What follows is a thrilling and insightfully fresh look at some of the most classic tales in English literature.

Yoshino deftly examines the legal implications of some of the bard's most notable works, including Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest. He is particularly skilled in seeing the themes of these plays in notable contemporary legal cases: Titus Andronicus illuminates today's "War on Terror" and its occasional descent into a "blood feud," while Measure for Measure can teach us a lot about today's debate over "strict constructionism" versus "judicial activism."

Since his subjects are dramas rather than case law, Yoshino more often than not writes about the antithesis of ideal justice and can be quite merciless in his criticism of the (albeit fictional) protagonists of these stories. For example, he bemoans Othello's overriding faith in the ocular evidence of the handkerchief in proving Desdemona's infidelity. Concerning Hamlet, he opines, "Like many intellectuals in the grip of an idea, he is largely oblivious to its consequences."

He is particularly harsh with The Merchant of Venice's Portia, who he sees as exhibiting the very worst characteristics of a stereotypically duplicitous lawyer, despite (or perhaps because of) her extraordinary rhetorical skill, "If she could not be disbarred, it was only because she was not a lawyer to start with," he writes.

One need not be an aficionado of Shakespearean verse to appreciate Yoshino's prose: he offers a guided tour through the plots of all of his subject plays. Of course, a foreknowledge and love of Shakespeare will make the experience even richer.

Next Page: Evenings at the Opera and more


For all true believers in the power of opera to transform an evening, Jeffrey Langford's Evenings at the Opera
(Amadeus Press), will come as a revelation. Others may just find the book quite informative.

For Langford, the music means everything. For example, he explains how Parisian audiences were scandalized in 1875 by Carmen's "Habanera," not just because it was sung by a gypsy prostitute, but because the melody was borrowed directly from Afro-Cuban cabaret music, a far cry from the comic opera tunes to which they were accustomed. Yet the same exoticism -- The gypsies! The dancing! The Toreadors! -- that so thoroughly turned-off bourgeois French audiences in the 19th century is one of the things that makes Carmen so popular today.

As a music historian, Langford expertly unfolds the shifting importance of orchestral music, vocal music, lyrics, and drama as audience tastes shifted over the roughly 150 year period (from Mozart to Britten) he covers. Most interesting is his examination of the cultural implications of Opera: Italians (Rossini, Verdi, and Bellini) tended to lead the way in vocal innovations while Germans (Beethoven and Wagner) were most skilled in orchestral wizardry.

Langford is also particularly adept at relating his subject operas to the larger intellectual climates in which they were written. For instance, he explains that the lack of classical unities in Shakespeare's plays made them ideally suited for Romantic composers seeking to break away from the rigid structure of French classicism.

If one can get through the occasionally dense spots of music theory -- Langford mercifully abstains from too much technical jargon -- one can find a wealth of knowledge in this book that is sure to enrich any evening at the opera.

BOOKS IN BRIEF: Up-and-coming composer Andrew Gerle offers his tips to aspiring musical theater stars in The Enraged Accompanist's Guide to a Perfect Audition
(Applause). Playwright David Mamet challenges the status quo in the paperback release of his simply-titled, Theatre
(Faber & Faber). Biography lovers will want to pick up Wilborn Hampton's Horton Foote: America's Storyteller
(Applause) and Robert Strom's exhaustive career biography of Gypsy Rose Lee in Lady of Burlesque: The Career of Gypsy Rose Lee
. Stewart F. Lane gives his overview of a massive historical subject (in less than 200 pages!) in Jews on Broadway
(both from McFarland). Finally, Karen Malpede, Michael Messina, and Bob Shuman have compiled an anthology of seven plays about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Acts of War
including works by David Hare, Naomi Wallace, and Simon Stephens (Northwestern University Press).

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