Summer Reading

It has been many weeks since I’ve used the literary arts as a subject matter. I continue to receive a number of books, most of which are extremely interesting, and I continue to read them as rapidly as I can, without skimming over what an author has worked long and hard to create. This week, I’d like to share with you just a few of those books, with my recommendations of which of them would make good summer reading.

THEN AGAIN

Among the most interesting books I’ve been sent for review, recently, has been ”Then Again,” which is something of a memoir, something of an autobiography, and a bit more, by actress Diane Keaton.

Keaton has been an actor, most of my adult life, although she seems to glide through her career, making films which interest her, or going several years without making one, if she chooses to do so.

She has won an Academy Award for “Best Actress,” and had several additional nominations, in addition to any number of other major awards, including Emmys, Grammys and more. I will confess, when I’ve learned that she has won them, I have thought to myself that she doesn’t seem to act, she always just seems to be presenting her own personality and manner of speaking. Now that I’ve read her book, I still feel that way.

Keaton was born in California in 1946, the oldest of four children. Her original name was Diane Hall, and her father always called her ”Diannie Hall.” So, it was no coincidence that her best-known and most respected film role was the title role in “Annie Hall.” The role was written for her by her then-boyfriend, Woody Allen.

Readers probably know that in order to act in a professionally made film, one must join the Screen Actors Guild. Guild policies state that they will not allow two actors with exactly the same name to join their ranks, as one of them might get credit for the other actor’s work. So, when she went to join SAG, the actress learned that there was already a Diane Hall on the books. So, she adopted her mother’s maiden name and became Diane Keaton.

Readers who like their books to proceed in linear fashion, from beginning to ending, will probably not like her autobiography. The book opens with the actress examining the items which her late mother had put up on a bulletin board, next to her desk. These include a large printing of the word “Think,” which her mother also had written or printed an any number of personal items.

The book tends to stop with an incident which she is narrating, and suddenly shift to a scene from her childhood, or a lengthy quotation from one of her mother’s many personal journals. I found myself several times turning back a page or two to see if it was still Diane speaking, or if I was reading her mother’s words, or her own personal thoughts, written or remembered from 1972, or a passage from a novel she was reading.

Keaton made what are probably her best-known films, each with the man with whom she was sharing her life, at the moment: ”Annie Hall,” with Allen, ”Reds,” with Warren Beatty, and all three parts of ”The Godfather,” with Al Pacino. Her views of her life are clear-eyed and factual, yet often seem outrageously naive, as when she states, ”I was receiving an Oscar for Best Actress, and my boyfriend was Warren Beatty. Most people would consider that a successful career.” Yes, most people would, especially because she never offers the slightest suggestion why anyone wouldn’t think so.

When it became clear that this week’s column was going to be about books, and I thought the Keaton book was likely to be the topper of the column, I decided I ought to revisit her allegedly autobiographical film, to see if my memories from more than 30 years ago were still accurate. I went to the James Prendergast Library and found that the DVD of the film was signed out, but I got the VHS version, and thoroughly enjoyed watching it again, after so many years.

“Annie Hall” is a film about a standup comic from New York City named Alvy Singer, played by screenwriter and director Woody Allen, who was a standup comic from New York City at the time, and his on-again, off-again relationship with a beautiful young singer named Annie Hall. Like Allen, Alvy is a nervous wreck whose comedy is often centered on how awkward and socially inept he is. In the film, Alvy is invited to play doubles in tennis with his best friend Max, played by Tony Roberts, and Max’s girlfriend. To make up the foursome, the girlfriend has invited Annie Hall, a would-be singer, newly moved to New York City from Wisconsin.

Like Keaton, Annie is taller than most people, including Alvy. Like Alvy, her conversation is in fits and starts. She starts saying something, then says that this was a foolish thing to say, with an explanation of why it was silly, but she then launches into an explanation of why she said it in the first place, and so on. Interestingly, her character is said to drive in exactly the way she talks, zooming forward, then slamming to a near-stop, then shifting quickly into another lane.

Annie’s clothing, in the film, and Keaton’s typical clothing, during the 1970s, were curiously unusual. Both are prone to wearing men’s hats, over a man-cut shirt, with necktie and a man-cut sport coat, with a long skirt, falling to mid-shin, over boots. In general, both actor and role strike me as the sort of person one would love to know as a friend, as long as there was no possible chance one would have to depend upon her.

Later, Allen would give several interviews in which he insisted that the film was in no way autobiographical, although Keaton comes right out and says that it is, both in interviews and in her book.

Keaton has never married, and she has always seemed to be intensely drawn to men who were personally opposed to any kind of commitment. With Allen, she moved into his apartment, but he insisted that she continue paying rent on her own place, and he was constantly engaging in arguments with himself over whether they were being too conventional. Her relationship with Beatty sounds from her descriptions of it as though she never expected fidelity from him and she certainly never got it.

Pacino seems to have been the love of her life, their relationship going on in fits and starts, like Annie’s driving, with her giving him ultimatums and his repeated refusals.

The last third of her book is probably the most interesting. It deals with the protracted and tortuous deaths of her parents. Her father died of cancer, and her mother struggled with Alzheimer’s disease for years, before her death. The effects of these grim deaths on her own life and those of her sisters and her brother are very movingly described.

Not long after her father’s death, Keating suddenly decided that she would definitely never marry, but that she wanted children, so she adopted a daughter at age 50 and a son at age 54. Her close observation of her children and her obvious adoration of them are a delight to read.

Like many of her film roles, Keaton’s autobiography is a mixture of more and better information than one might ever expect to learn, in some areas, alternating with the complete absence of even a mention, in other important areas. I enjoyed it very much. Whether you’ll be willing to wrestle with the lane changing is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.

”Then Again” was published by Random House in 2011. It has 256 pages, in hard cover edition, and is marked for sale at $26, although it’s probably old enough to be found in the ”marked down” bins. Find it with ISBN number 978-1-4000-6878-4.

ROYAL PAINS

Among my personal peculiarities is a great interest in the idea of royalty. Throughout history, going far back to before the writing of the Bible, people have chosen leaders for themselves who they believed to be better than anyone else. These people have been called some version of the word king, and their siblings, parents and children have almost universally been considered to have some smaller element of that “better than anyone” quality, making them royalty.

Ironically, history is literally packed with incidents which demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that people with royal status are more likely to behave with shameful neglect of responsibility to neither their families nor their countries. And yet, still we continue to purchase magazines and clothing lines and colognes which are somehow related to royalty by the billions of dollars, and many of us sleep for multiple nights in sleeping bags, on curbsides, in order to get a 30-second glimpse of a royal carriage passing by.

Historian Leslie Carroll has recently published a series of short biographies of members of royal families from various different countries and various different periods of history, who have behaved in a way which drew upon them the displeasure of their families, and for most of them, the condemnation of history, as well. She calls her ill-mannered subjects, “Royal Pains.”

There are 12 biographies in the book. Some of them were truly monsters, such as “Ivan the Terrible,” the czar of Russia who beat his own son to death with a stick and ordered the deaths of thousands of people who hadn’t done him any harm, while others seem almost more pitiable than shameful, such as Princess Margaret, the late sister of England’s present queen, who drank and smoked and fell in love with three men, considered unsatisfactory for a member of the royal family.

The subjects of the remaining 10 biographies are King John, of England; Vlad III of Wallachia, known to have been the model for the blood-drinking fictional character of Count Dracula; and George, the Duke of Clarence, younger brother of England’s Edward IV, whose many betrayals and treasons virtually forced the king to order his execution.

Also, there is Richard III, the king accused of murdering his brother’s children so he could be king and whose skeleton has recently been discovered in an English parking lot. Carroll dismisses the fairly contemporary trend which makes Richard something of a hero, and she demonstrates his villainy with some pretty convincing evidence.

Next is Lettice Knollys, who was a cousin of Elizabeth I of England, who looked so much like the queen that when she dressed grandly, she was often mistaken for Elizabeth. Lettice decided that since she looked like the queen, she could interfere in government and foreign policy, and the results weren’t pretty.

Erzsebet Bathory was a member of the Romanian royal family who sent her agents among the peasants of her family’s kingdom to offer a medieval version of internships to young women, whose families she promised generous support for their daughters if they were allowed to join her service. Then, she personally tortured and murdered the young women for her own pleasure, often pulling large pieces of flesh from their faces with her teeth.

Henry, Duke of Cumberland, was the younger brother of England’s George III, whose life was largely spent in the company of prostitutes, or in his country’s courtrooms, over incidents of either his own divorces or those of noblemen whose wives he had encouraged to stray.

Pauline Bonaparte was the younger sister of the Emperor Napoleon, who had the bad fortune to have been considered a very beautiful woman, with the result that she believed for the rest of her life that she could do whatever she wished, regardless of how her actions helped or harmed other people. Just as one example, she had her left breast cast in plaster, and used as the mold for a drinking goblet which was sold to the general public.

Archduke Rudolf was the crown prince of the Austrian empire, who had many Austrian politicians losing sleep over what would happen when his father died and he became the autocratic emperor of much of Central Europe, considering his profound lack of understanding of law, geography, or nearly anything else. Books and films have abounded focusing on his death in the Vienna Woods in the company of his teenaged mistress. Was it suicide? Murder? Political assassination?

The penultimate subject, before the biography of Princess Margaret, is Prince Albert Victor, the grandson of Queen Victoria of England, and her husband, Prince Albert. Since Victoria reigned longer than any other ruler of England, thus far, something had to be found for the young prince to do, while waiting for grandmama and daddy to move on to their rewards. Sadly, everything he turned his hand to doing ended up a failure. So unpopular was he that during his lifetime, people suspected that he might be the famed serial killer Jack the Ripper.

It astounds me that such less-than-gifted people can be covered with so much admiration and rewarded so royally with medals and offices and paychecks, by millions of people who ought to know better.

“Royal Pains” bears the publication date 2011, and it was published by New American Library. It is marked for sale, in paper bound edition, for $15. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-451-23221-2. It’s the sort of book you can read and put down as you need to do, without losing important meaning. I enjoyed it, you might do so as well.