Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by James L.W. West III (2011)

Cover of A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken across the street from a restaurant named after him in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are not as famous as his novels and short stories, but they contain some superb pieces that shed light on the life of this fascinating author. One reason that might explain why Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are less well-known is that they have been scattered all over the place. It would be wonderful to have one volume that collected all of his major non-fiction pieces in one place. 

A Short Autobiography, edited by Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III, was issued in 2011 with the aim of collecting Fitzgerald’s non-fiction works that reveal more of his personal life. Unfortunately, A Short Autobiography doesn’t include any of the “Crack-Up” essays, but it does have many other excellent pieces.

Another issue with Fitzgerald’s non-fiction is that some of the pieces are hard to categorize. Is “An Author’s Mother” fiction or non-fiction? It’s been published in collections of Fitzgerald’s fiction, but it also appears in A Short Autobiography. There’s obviously some fiction in it, as the name of the author in the piece is not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and unlike the author in the piece, Fitzgerald didn’t have a brother. However, the piece does seem to be a pretty accurate portrait of Fitzgerald’s mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was constantly borrowing from his own life to inform his fiction, and the line between the two is often blurred. 

In the very first line of the first piece in A Short Autobiography, “Who’s Who-and Why,” from 1920, Fitzgerald writes: “The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.” (p.1) Little did he know how true this would be throughout the rest of his short life. There were always parties, and alcohol, and many other distractions for Scott that would keep him from his work. However, that being said, he was still very prolific despite all the distractions, turning out roughly 180 short stories, four completed novels and one unfinished novel in his forty-four years. 

In “Princeton,” an affectionate look at the university Fitzgerald attended, (and didn’t graduate from) he mentions that 5% of his class at Princeton were killed in World War I. That’s a staggering fact that makes clear what a large impact the war had on Fitzgerald’s generation. 

One of the pieces that showcases Fitzgerald’s sense of humor is “Salesmanship in the Champs-Elysees,” which is written in the voice of a French car salesman. For me, one of the highlights of A Short Autobiography was hearing Fitzgerald’s authorial voice in a more personal way.

In “One Hundred False Starts,” an essay from 1933 in which Fitzgerald detailed the many ideas for stories he had that never panned out, he wrote: “There is the question of dog stories. I like dogs and would like to write at least one dog story in the style of Mr. Terhune.” (p.126) Two years later, Fitzgerald finally did write his dog story, “Shaggy’s Morning,” an odd account of a day in the life of a dog, written from the dog’s perspective. It was an interesting experiment, although perhaps not entirely successful. “Shaggy’s Morning” is one of the few Fitzgerald stories to be published during his lifetime that has never been collected in a book. 

In “Author’s House,” another essay written for Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald wrote: “A writer’s temperament is continually making him do things he can never repair.” (p.139) This was certainly true in Fitzgerald’s case, as he wore out his welcome with friends again and again through his drunken behavior. 

One of the most beautiful pieces in the book is “The Death of My Father,” which Fitzgerald wrote after his father’s passing in 1931. He never finished it, and it was first published in 1951 in The Princeton University Literary Chronicle. It’s a short piece, only three pages long, but it paints a vivid picture of Scott’s relationship with his father Edward. In it, Fitzgerald wrote: “I loved my fatheralways deep in my subconscious I have referred judgements back to him, to what he would have thought or done. He loved meand felt a deep responsibility for meI was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters and he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only moral guide. He became that to the best of his ability. He came from tired old stock with very little left of vitality and mental energy but he managed to raise a little for me.” (p.118) 

This passage was repeated almost word for word in Tender is the Night, when Dick Diver learns of his father’s death: “Dick loved his fatheragain and again he referred judgements to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick’s mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.” (Tender is the Night, p.203) 

A Short Autobiography reveals parts of Fitzgerald that we don’t often get to see in his fiction. For this reason, it’s an essential read for fans of Fitzgerald’s writing.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Originally published 1924, Hesperus Press edition 2011)

The rather boring book cover of The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Originally published in 1924, this edition published in 2011. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in their Marmon, otherwise known as "the Rolling Junk," or "the Expenso."
Going on a cross-country road trip in 1920 would have been a rather harrowing proposition. Cars were unreliable, roads were often unpaved, and travel at night was not very safe. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, in July of 1920 F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald struck out on a road trip from their home in Connecticut to Zelda’s parents’ house in Alabama. Ostensibly the reason for the trip was so Zelda could taste peaches and biscuits again. Thus began an eight day journey, complete with flat tires, and encounter with a bandit on the road, and an ending borrowed straight from O. Henry. 

The piece of writing that emerged out of this trip was a long article titled “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” Fitzgerald wrote it in 1922, but wasn’t able to find a publisher for it until 1924, when it appeared in Motoring magazine. It’s not Fitzgerald’s best piece of writing, but it’s interesting to read a non-fiction piece of his where the main characters are him and Zelda. 

The Cruise of the Rolling Junk was issued as a book in 2011 by Hesperus Press, a British publisher. It features an excellent foreword by Paul Theroux, acclaimed novelist and travel writer. It also features an introduction by Julian Evans that is good, but simply too long, as Evans quotes from many of the best parts of the piece. It’s perhaps a bit much to have The Cruise of the Rolling Junk as a standalone book, as the piece itself is only about 60 pages long. However, it has never been included in any other collection of Fitzgerald’s non-fiction, so it’s good that it’s finally available. 

The “rolling junk” that Scott and Zelda were driving was a Marmon, a very luxurious automobile brand, referred to throughout the text by Fitzgerald as an “Expenso.” This is just one example of Fitzgerald’s humor, which comes across quite strongly in “Rolling Junk” and other pieces of his non-fiction. Fitzgerald smartly casts himself as someone who is befuddled by anything mechanical, which was probably very close to the truth, and a lot of his humor is self-deprecating. 

There are, of course, some beautiful passages sprinkled throughout “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” This was one of my favorite sentences: “South we wentover little rivers and long gray bridges to placid Havre de Grace, a proud old lady with folded hands who whispered in faded dignity that she had once been under consideration for capital of the nation.” (p.43) 

On the following page there’s this gorgeous passage: “We rested only five minutesthere was sunshine all around us nowwe must make haste to go on, go down, into the warmth, into the dusky mellow softness, into the green heart of the South to the Alabama town where Zelda was born.” (p.44) 

Unfortunately, “Rolling Junk” shows off Fitzgerald’s casual racism at its worst. In most of his writing, African Americans just don’t exist, or are merely servants with a line or two here or there. In “Rolling Junk” he writes of entering a store in Virginia: “But this I knowthat the room was simply jammed with negroes and that the moral and physical aura which they cast off was to me oppressive and obscene.” (p.59-60) It doesn’t seem like such a sentence could have come from the pen of the same author who would cleverly satirize Tom Buchanan’s racism in The Great Gatsby just two years after writing “Rolling Junk.” 

Fitzgerald seems pretty out of touch with the racism of the South throughout “Rolling Junk.” Fitzgerald’s father was from Maryland, a border state that retained slavery while remaining in the Union during the Civil War. Fitzgerald’s father told him stories of troops marching through towns, and romantic stories of Southern spies. Scott absorbed the romanticism of the Southern “lost cause” without fully acknowledging that the “lost cause” was really about slavery. 

Fitzgerald must have kept this lovely sentence in his files: “After noon the humidity became oppressive sultriness, and the scattered curlicues of clouds began to solve a great jigsaw puzzle in the sky.” (p.62) He later used a very similar phrase in the short story “I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure)” written in 1935-36 and used as the title story for 2017’s collection of Fitzgerald short stories. That sentence reads: “She sat with Delannux on the side of a beached raft while the sunset broke into pink picture puzzle pieces that solved themselves in the dark west.” (I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, p.93) 

“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” is an interesting piece of work for fans of Scott and Zelda, but it’s best taken with a large grain of salt, as I doubt everything that Fitzgerald wrote down actually happened. But no matter, it’s still a nice piece of writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Glen Campbell, 1936-2017

The handsome Glen Campbell at the peak of his fame.

The world lost a great guitar player and singer today with the passing of Glen Campbell at the age of 81. I was fortunate enough to have seen Glen Campbell in concert several times. The concert of his I’ll remember the most was when he played the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand in 2000. It was a very hot day, but Glen put on an amazing show, highlighted by his superb guitar playing, great versions of his own hits, and a fun medley of Beach Boys songs. Campbell was a magnetic and charismatic performer, with a great deal of charm, which was enhanced by his All-American handsomeness. 

I saw Glen Campbell on his farewell tour in 2012, and I reviewed that show here. It was a moving evening of great music, and his guitar playing was still breathtaking. I think that Campbell’s guitar playing was underrated, as he could play well in just about any genre. 

My Dad had a very cool advertising job in the early 1970’s, and he met Glen Campbell backstage at “The Tonight Show” in March of 1971. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to meet Johnny Carson, but he still had a pretty fun time. He said that Glen was very nice, even though he had laryngitis and couldn’t sing. 

Glen Campbell made a lot of great music, and his legacy as a recording artist will continue to live on. My favorite recording of Glen Campbell's will always be his version of John Hartford's beautiful song "Gentle on My Mind." 

Don Baylor, 1949-2017

Don Baylor, batting for the Minnesota Twins in the 1987 ALCS.

I was saddened to hear that Don Baylor died yesterday at the age of 68. Baylor was one of the great power hitters of the 1970’s and 1980’s. For Twins fans like me, Baylor will always be well known for his game-tying home run in Game 6 of the 1987 World Series. Baylor played in just 20 regular season games for the Twins in 1987, and ironically enough, didn’t hit a home run in any of those games. But he came through when the chips were down in the postseason. 

Baylor had a 19-year playing career, from 1970 to 1988. His best season came in 1979, when he was the AL MVP, leading the league in both runs scored and RBIs, and slugging a career-high 36 home runs for the California Angels. Baylor wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he was an excellent player for many years, and he put up some pretty awesome career numbers. His 338 home runs are still good enough for 100th on the all-time list. To give you an idea of how the game has changed over the last 23 years, in 1994 he was 50th on the all-time home run list. Baylor also had good speed, as he stole 285 bases over his career, with a high of 52 for the Oakland A’s in 1976. Of course, no summary of Baylor’s career would be complete without mentioning his knack for getting hit with a pitch. Baylor was hit 267 times in his career, setting a modern-day record that Craig Biggio eventually broke. 

I met Don Baylor at a baseball card show when I was a kid, it must have been shortly after he retired, probably 1989 or 1990. I can’t remember a lot about him, but I remember him being nice, and all of the pieces I’ve read about him today reinforced that he was truly a nice guy. The signed picture I have of him is with his second stop with the Oakland A’s, in 1988, when he achieved the unique distinction of playing in the World Series in 3 consecutive years with 3 different teams-1986 Boston Red Sox, 1987 Minnesota Twins, and the 1988 Oakland A’s. 

I read Don Baylor’s autobiography when I was a kid, but I can’t say I remember a lot about it. Autobiographies of baseball players made up a lot of my reading back in those days of my childhood. I’ve always been struck by how Don Baylor’s career is kind of a reverse image of Reggie Jackson’s. Granted, Baylor never climbed the ladder of super-duper stardom the way that Reggie did, but Baylor played for all of the same teams that Reggie did. Jackson and Baylor were part of the blockbuster trade that sent Reggie to the Orioles in April of 1976. Jackson played only one year for the Orioles, while Baylor only played one year for the A’s. While Reggie went to the Yankees and then to the Angels, Baylor went to the Angels and then to the Yankees. Jackson and Baylor were teammates for one year, on the 1982 Angels. Jackson led the AL in home runs that year with 39, while Baylor added 24 home runs of his own. Adding to the symmetry of their careers, both played their last season for the Oakland A’s, Jackson in 1987, Baylor in 1988. 

Don Baylor was a great baseball player, and his memory will continue to live on.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Concert Review: Bryan Ferry at the Palace Theatre in Saint Paul

Bryan Ferry on stage at the Palace Theatre, Saint Paul, August 5, 2017. (Photo by Pondie.)

Marquee of the Palace Theatre in Saint Paul. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
Last night I saw one of my favorite musicians live at the Palace Theatre in Saint Paul: Bryan Ferry. I’ve been a fan of Ferry’s music, both solo and with Roxy Music, for several years, and he’s been at the top of my list of artists that I hadn’t seen in concert yet. Ferry didn’t disappoint, bringing a set list full of gems from his formidable back catalogue. At age 71, Ferry still looks dapper, stylish and handsome as ever. He didn’t say much during the concert, and the closest he got to telling any stories was saying, “These songs are from here, there, and everywhere.” Ferry’s nine member band did a terrific job of re-creating tricky Roxy Music songs like “Ladytron” and “If There is Something.” Kudos to all of the band members, especially Jorja Chalmers, who handled saxophone duties, a job essential to capturing the sound of Roxy Music songs. 

Opening for Ferry was the British singer/songwriter Judith Owen, who played a half hour of songs that reminded me of Carole King’s work from the 1970’s. Owen was playing with bassist Leland Sklar, who has played on over 2,000 recordings, according to Wikipedia. Sklar has played on many of James Taylor’s albums, as well as albums by Leonard Cohen, Phil Collins, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Rod Stewart, and Barbra Streisand. Owen also featured a percussionist, cello, and violin, which lent her songs an engaging sound. Fun fact: Judith Owen is married to Harry Shearer, well known for playing bassist Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap and for voicing numerous characters on The Simpsons.

Ferry played keyboards on quite a few songs, and also blew some nice harmonica solos on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” and the old chestnut “Let’s Stick Together.” As a vocalist, Ferry still smolders effectively, even if he’s lost some of his top range-the high notes on “More than This” just aren’t quite there anymore. But Ferry’s voice still has great emotion in it, and his voice now adds a melancholy vulnerability to his songs. 

My only disappointment from the set list is that Ferry didn’t sing any of the songs from his most recent solo album, 2014’s excellent “Avonmore.” (Which I reviewed back in 2014 here.) Well, and if I’m being honest, there are some Roxy Music songs like “Over You,” “Dance Away,” and “Same Old Scene” that I would have loved to hear as well. But that’s a small quibble when you’re seeing a rock legend up close. I was a little surprised that Ferry sang “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” which has to be the weirdest Roxy Music song. It’s a good song, but it is weird-it’s a critique of capitalism as Ferry gets a little too attached to a blow-up doll. The lyrics aren’t sung, but spoken like a prose poem. 

The Palace Theatre was a superb venue for Bryan Ferry, as its style of decaying glamor fits his own aesthetics quite well. The open seating on the floor meant that my wife and I were very close to Ferry, and it was fun to watch his facial expressions throughout the show. It’s very evident, for all of his British reserve, that he really enjoys what he does. Ferry seemed quite touched by the huge audience reaction at the end of the show, which he fully deserved. 

Set list:
The Main Thing
Slave to Love
Out of the Blue
Simple Twist of Fate
A Waste Land
BĂȘte Noire
Stronger Through the Years
Can’t Let Go
In Every Dream Home a Heartache
If There is Something
More than This
Love is the Drug
Virginia Plain
Let’s Stick Together
What Goes On
Jealous Guy
Editions of You