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I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!


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