September 29, 2011


Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea: A Fairly Fabricated Story of a Pair of Pants. By Tony Johnston. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Harcourt. $16.99.

Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Sandpiper. $12.99.

Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Sandpiper. $12.99.

     Real stories – or, well, stories about real people – are entertainingly presented in all these books. But it helps to take one of them, Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea, with several grains of salt. This is nominally the tale of the man who invented blue jeans during the California gold rush of 1848-55. Uh…well…no – jeans did not emerge in the form in which we know them until 1873. But still, just as the West spawned tall tales about characters ranging from Paul Bunyan (who wasn’t real) to Calamity Jane (who was, but was not at all like the person described in the stories), Tony Johnston and Stacy Innerst create a jeans story that reads like a tall tale rather than a recitation of facts. In truth, it is a tall tale, deliberately laced with enough humor and ridiculousness to make the factual elements more enjoyable (for readers who can sort them out). So the gold rush was real enough; but Johnston explains that miners’ pants couldn’t handle the stresses of the search for gold, and rapidly disintegrated: “That predicament started another, lesser-known stampede – the Great Barrel Rush, in which the miners swarmed a barrel man and bought up his wares.” Uh…well…no, but this could have happened, maybe in some alternative universe where “hunks of trousers clogged the streams and rills and rivulets.” Then along came Levi Strauss, who frequently said “Dang!” when he realized, for example, that he was too late to get any of the gold. He set out “to build a better trouser” from, for example, tree bark or blankets. Uh…well…no, but he did make pants out of tent canvas, although he was not the first to do so (the inventor is unknown; but Levi Strauss was the first to mass-produce the pants and market them successfully). Anyway, soon Levi’s tent-canvas pants were so popular that the barrel-clad miners chased after him in “the Great Pants Rush.” Uh…well…no, but you get the point: there are bits of truth here, mixed with larger bits of fantasy and silliness. Innerst’s amusing illustrations have just enough of a folk-tale quality about them to complement Johnston’s writing neatly. And Levi’s eventual disposition of the no-longer-needed barrels – he uses them to build San Francisco – is pure folkloric ridiculousness. Johnston explains, in an afterword, some (but not all) of the liberties he takes with the truth in the book – and none of his comments diminishes the delights of the story in the slightest.

     Lives of the Writers does not misstate or even exaggerate things. But Kathleen Krull’s book – originally published in 1994 – focuses on trivia and offbeat elements in the lives of 20 writers (12 men and eight women). This is a motley crew indeed: Krull never explains how or why she chose this particular group. Shakespeare is here, along with Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Jack London. But putting them into a mix with Zora Neale Hurston, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Murasaki Shikibu (about whom one of the few known facts is that Murasaki Shikibu was not her name) is rather hard to explain. This literary compilation is a decidedly personal, even quirky one. It is also great fun to read. The trivia-laced biographies are only a couple of pages long apiece, but each contains noteworthy tidbits: Cervantes “had a lifelong stutter, bad teeth, and arthritis.” Hans Christian Andersen, “when he was feeling especially melancholy…would get bad toothaches (even – after he lost all his teeth – in his false teeth).” Emily Dickinson, who may be “the most mysterious and eccentric of all writers,” became ill but “allowed the doctor to examine her only from the next room; he would watch her walk past the doorway.” Whenever Mark Twain “went bankrupt, he would do another lecture tour to make his money back.” These are the sorts of “factoids” that humanize writers who tend to be put on pedestals by teachers, librarians and literary critics. Krull does not demean the writers in any way – each short chapter ends with a brief “Bookmarks” section that gives straight information on the author’s legacy. But she is well aware that she is giving a skewed view of these literary lights. Kathryn Hewitt’s illustrations do much the same thing: each shows a writer in a more-or-less-appropriate costume, with an enormous head (nearly as big as the rest of his or her body) and engaged in an appropriate activity or appearing in appropriate surroundings. The illustrations are sometimes a touch at odds with the words: Krull notes that “few people ever saw [Edgar Allan] Poe smile,” for example, but Hewitt shows him with a distinct twinkle. Furthermore, some of Krull’s narrative is questionable: to choose another Poe example, she comments that he sometimes wrote, for magazines, jokes that “weren’t very funny,” but she does not mention that he wrote more funny (or intended-to-be-funny) stories than horror tales. Still, Lives of the Writers does not pretend to be more than a once-over-lightly look at some less-known elements of the lives of writers of varying degrees of fame. Taken at face value, it is fun to read and fun to look at, and some of the revelations in it are just plain funny.

     The same is true of Lives of the Musicians, originally published in 1993. The cover gives a fair idea of just how eclectic this book is: it depicts Mozart, Beethoven, Clara Schumann, Scott Joplin and Woody Guthrie. Actually, of the 20 musicians here, 17 are from the realm of classical music, the three exceptions being Joplin, Guthrie and Stephen Foster. But anyone who thinks classical composers led lives of little interest will be surprised by the facts that Krull offers. “Bach loved food and coffee (once he wrote a whole cantata about coffee). Among his most prized possessions were two silver coffeepots.” “When [Beethoven’s] clothes became too dirty and disgusting, his friends took them away during the night and brought new ones. Beethoven never noticed the difference.” “The roar of approval [for the opera Nabucco] was so loud that Verdi was frightened – he thought the audience was booing.” Brahms “smoked cigars constantly and usually wore a shabby brown coat with cigar-ash smudges all over it. …He kept his pockets filled with candy and little pictures, which he handed to neighborhood children on his walks.” As with the writers’ book, this one represents Krull’s personal selection of people to profile, and not everyone will agree with her choices. Also as in the writers’ book, Hewitt’s illustrations, although highly attractive, are not always in accord with the text. One chapter, for example, opens “Was there ever anyone so unhappy as Peter Tchaikovsky?” But the picture on the facing page shows Tchaikovsky looking very distinguished, quite well-dressed and, although not smiling, certainly not with any expression bespeaking unhappiness. On the other hand, Hewitt’s picture of Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan is a gem, communicating both the puckish humor that pervades their operettas and the uneasy personal relationship between the famous collaborators. As for Krull’s text, it sometimes ventures into areas with which even musicologists or well-read listeners may not be familiar – for example, with a comment that Charles Ives’ cat, Christofina, ate asparagus. Both this book and the one about writers manage at the same time to skim their subject matter and to make it intriguing enough so that readers will want to learn more about these famed creative people – and, hopefully, familiarize themselves with the works that brought them renown.

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