March 17, 2011


Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James R. Ransome. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $18.99.

An Improvised Life: A Memoir. By Alan Arkin. Da Capo. $17.

     Life stories, well presented, can be every bit as enthralling – for readers of all ages – as action and adventure novels. And that applies whether the stories’ subjects are well known or not. Joseph Boulogne is a minor figure in 18th-century music, but his story is definitely worthy of being told, and has additional resonance because of his provenance: he was the son of a white plantation owner and a female slave. Before There Was Mozart is not the best of titles for this book for ages 5-9 – it is true that Joseph Boulogne was born earlier than Mozart, but the connection between the two, who never met, is a tenuous one. But aside from that, the book is almost everything that a biography for young readers could hope to be. Lesa Cline-Ransome tells of Joseph’s birth, his early musical education, his special status on his father’s sugar plantation (as the owner’s child, “he did not have to labor in the fields”), and the eventual relocation of Joseph and his parents back to his father’s country, France, from Joseph’s birthplace in the West Indies. Then the story takes a series of fascinating turns, as Joseph’s father tries to bring his son into Parisian society: “Guillaume-Pierre hoped that his noble heritage would make others overlook his son’s skin color.” But if the skin was not overlooked, neither did it prevent Joseph from becoming an increasing musical success, to such an extent that he became the leader of a 40-man orchestra even though all the other players were white. Eventually – and this is the book’s climax – he meets and performs for the king and queen of France: the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. As is appropriate in a book for this age group, the work ends at this point, although an author’s note after the narrative gives a few more details about Joseph’s later life, including his narrow escape from the guillotine. Oddly, Cline-Ransome does not mention the nickname that would have justified the book’s title: Joseph was known as the “black Mozart.” And the historical accuracy of some of the book is low: Joseph’s birth date is given as 1739 (it was actually 1745), and his father’s decision to flee the West Indies after being falsely accused of murder – a decision he made to prevent Joseph and his mother from being sold – is omitted. Still, there is enough fascinating material here to make the book a wonderful read for its intended age group. And the illustrations by Cline-Ransome’s husband, James R. Ransome, are very well done and complement the text nicely.

     Amelia Lost, intended for readers ages 8-12, is about a figure as well-known as Joseph Boulogne is little-known. Amelia Earhart’s disappearance during her attempt to circumnavigate the world at the equator – the longest way around – is the stuff of legend and continued fascination, with evidence still turning up supposedly showing where she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed…and still being disproved. Candace Fleming’s book operates on two tracks, with alternating chapters about the search for Amelia’s missing plane and the story of her girlhood, womanhood and life as a pilot. Amply illustrated with photos that even adults may not have seen – such as one of Amelia in nurse’s-aide uniform, from the days in World War I when she worked at a Toronto hospital – the book is more than just a narrative. It includes some comments by Amelia herself, from advice to would-be fliers (“precision flying is like tightrope walking – it only looks easy”) to her final letter (“women must try to do things as men have tried”). There are passages on the history of flight and on Amelia’s deliberate cultivation of herself as a celebrity (“this was essential, since flying was very expensive”). And there is much in the latter half of the book about George Putnam, Amelia’s husband, whom she married reluctantly (she insisted they agree to separate after a year “if we find no happiness together”) but who became a crucial stabilizing force in her career – and ended up penniless after her disappearance, because of the cost of Amelia’s final flight and the search for her. Although he was falsely accused of profiting from Amelia’s celebrity, George said words about money that were reflective of Amelia’s thoughts about flying: “I have no regrets. If we had to do it again, I’d spend everything I had again.” Insightful, very well told, and excitingly presented, Amelia Lost provides today’s young readers with a fascinating look at a time, not so long ago, when flying was glamorous and the world’s most famous female pilot was among the greatest celebrities in the United States.

     Entertainers and sports figures are more likely to be celebrities today, and for many people, their life stories are endlessly fascinating. Alan Arkin is a more thoughtful actor than most, and a more experienced one, with some 80 films and a number of stage works to his credit. His autobiographical memoir, An Improvised Life, is written for adults – specifically, for fans interested in all the ins and outs of his thinking – and gets a (+++) rating. It will be highly interesting to people who hang on words like these: “For many years my acting came from a place of surmounting some enormous obstacle, confronting some stern and faceless judge who would condemn me to a pit of hell if I didn’t achieve the ‘zone,’ if even for a moment. Not a particularly happy place to work from.” Or these: “Over and over again, throughout the years, I’ve seen examples within my craft and, for that matter, in all of life that showed me the necessity of looking through the new eyes of a beginner. The more craft I developed, the more that need grew. In my film work I reached a point where, on occasion, just before beginning a scene, I would force myself to think about other things.” There is nothing wrong with any of this, but nothing especially informative, either. There are some elements of the book with real potential, such as Arkin’s discussion of attending a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony while wearing dark glasses, “as if I were blind.” His reasons for doing this are personal, but the notion of hearing music without visual interference is intriguing, and he approaches a revelation of sorts as he realizes that, after a while, “the only purpose or meaning in the hall was Beethoven’s.” But when he comes to the conclusion that “we had become the music,” this is no conclusion at all – just a cliché. It is ultimately no deeper than a comment such as, “I love working with people with whom I’ve had some previous experience.” Arkin is a good actor, and his fans will surely enjoy learning more about his thoughts, ideas and at least some of his experiences with directors (such as Jean Renoir and Norman Jewison) and other performers. The book is a non-starter, though, for non-fans and for people who are more interested in what actors do on stage or screen than in what they think about before, after or during their performances.

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