‘Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Coast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times’ Book Review
By Susan Quinn (Walker and Company, $25.99)
During the early years of the Great Depression, thousands of actors, writers and directors found themselves unemployed. Harry Hopkins, a former social worker and aide to Franklin Roosevelt, came to their rescue. In 1935, Hopkins met with Hallie Flanagan, a theater professor at Vassar, and offered her the job of a lifetime. She was appointed director of the Federal Theater Project (FTP), a division of the Works Project Administration (WPA), established by the Roosevelt Administration to get America working again.
Of all the New Deal programs, the Federal Theater Project was one of the most controversial. It was established to create cutting-edge theater for people with little money, find work for actors, writers and directors, and use the stage as a mouthpiece for progressive politics. It promised theater that was “free, adult, and uncensored.” It was the lack of censorship that gave many members of Congress stomach acid.
The program began in August of 1935, and flourished as the nation’s first and only theater subsidized by the government. Flanagan and the FTA provided more than just a way for theatrical professionals to find work. In fact, some of the more innovative productions ever staged in the United States were created under this agency’s sponsorship. The FTA attracted talent that was without equal, including such icons as Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman and Elia Kazan.
Quinn, a Massachusetts-based author, has written a lively chronicle of the FTP that is rich in anecdotes and wit. It is meticulously researched, crisply written and documents the rise and fall of a program that drew its energy from imagination and an unlikely partnership with the government. This isn’t just the story of the theater project, however. It is a smart, eloquently written history of a desperate time that was so dire, it required a solution that was outside the box.
‘Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid’
By J. Maarten Troost (Broadway Books, $22.95)
Troost has become my favorite travel writer. Readers of the world
should rejoice, because his third book is every bit as entertaining as
his previous two, “The Sex Lives of Cannibals,” and “Getting Stoned
with Savages,” both national bestsellers.
Shortly after bouncing around the remote islands of the South
Pacific, Troost returned to the United States and joined his wife
Sylvia in yet another garden spot, Sacramento, Calif. One evening,
while visiting one of his neighborhood watering holes, a friend
commented that China was today’s Wild West where everything was
happening. Troost immediately packed his bags and left California to
find out for himself. The result is the laugh-out-loud account of his
travels through China, from the throbbing urban megalopolises of
Beijing and Shanghai to the Gobi Desert and the remote mountain regions
of Tibet. With his biting self-deprecating wit, Troost becomes, once
again, the perfect traveling companion.
Even though Troost stresses he fully supports linguistic diversity,
he quickly discovered that the Chinese language is the Great Wall of
languages, a clever linguistic barrier erected to keep outsiders out.
He admits that despite the fact he can order a pint in eight languages,
he was unprepared for Chinese, which has more than 20,000 characters.
He arrived in Beijing armed with a copy of “Chinese for Dummies” and a
few Mandarin phrases he thought would be especially helpful including
“Qingwen. Wo buhui dun zhege cesuo. Youmeiyou biede cesuo keyi yong?”
and “Zhege zhende shi jirou ma?” Roughly translated, they mean “Excuse
me. I am not proficient at squatting. Is there another toilet option?”
and “Are you sure that’s chicken?”
This is a highly entertaining book filled with exotic locales,
frightening typhoons, camels, mobsters, bizarre foods (think processed
ox stomach) and a dishy translator who may or may not be a “take-out
girl.” Troost’s sharp eye for detail and even sharper wit make his
latest book an example of travel writing at its best. Your passport has
been stamped. Settle back and enjoy one of the most rollicking literary
vacations of the year.
BOOKS WITH A FOCUS ON CHINA
‘Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China’
By Philip P. Pan (Simon & Schuster, $28)
Pan, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and the
newspaper’s former Beijing bureau chief, has written a frank new
perspective on China that challenges the conventional wisdom that free
markets automatically lead to free societies. This is a meticulously
researched book that documents the dramatic battle for the very soul of
the Chinese people as they come to terms with both their past and
future. Pan, who speaks fluent Chinese, was able to elude government
officials to ferret out the truth about the remarkable transformation
that is currently under way.
‘The Great Wall: The Extraordinary Story of China’s Wonder of the World’
By John Man (Da Capo, $26)
Hundreds of thousands of tourists take the five-mile journey from
Beijing each year to see one of the most impressive landmarks in the
world: The Great Wall of China. Historian John Man has written a
fascinating history of the Great Wall, debunking many of the common
beliefs about it. For example, it can’t be seen from space and it is
not a single entity but rather many walls, most of which are built not
from stone but from earth.
‘The Lotus Still Blooms: Sacred Buddhist Teachings for the Western Mind’
By Joan Gattuso (Tarcher/Penguin, $14.95 softbound)
This highly readable book attempts to answer the age old question of
what it takes to be happy and balanced. Gattuso, who has studied
extensively with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, presents modern
applications to many of the profound concepts that form the underlying
tenets of Buddhism. With these, it is possible to free your life from
clutter, discover and use the keys to happiness you already possess and
accept that even though life can be hard, you can do something about it.
‘The Terra Cotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation’
By John Man (Da Capo, $26)
In 1974, well diggers working in China broke through the wall of a
burial mound, making one of the most intriguing archeological
discoveries in modern history. The pit revealed more than 8,000
life-size figures of warriors and horses, all originally buried in the
mausoleum of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (250 B.C.-210
B.C.). The clay figures were meticulously carved and thought to
represent real members of the emperor’s army, crafted to protect the
leader in his afterlife. Blending history and first-hand experience
from his travels in China, Man has written a highly readable account of
Qin Shi Huang, how and why these incredible figures were created and
why they serve as a continuing legacy of Chinese skill and greatness.
‘What Does China Think?’
By Mark Leonard (PublicAffairs, $22.95)
London-based writer Leonard, a regular commentator in the world’s
leading newspapers, claims the face of China is changing so quickly,
the maps in Shanghai need to be redrawn every two weeks. Within just a
few short years, China will have the largest economy in the world. The
author builds a convincing case that the Chinese model of globalization
could reshape the face of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
His excellent new book is essential reading for anyone interested in
the changing global landscape of the next century and what it might
mean for our corner of the world.
‘The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology’
By Jack Kornfield (Bantam, $28)
This illuminating new book should be read slowly and savored like a
cup of hot tea. Jack Kornfield, trained as a monk in Thailand, Burma
and India, is an internationally renowned meditation teacher and
responsible for introducing Buddhist practice and psychology to many in
the West. Filled with stories from his Buddhist psychotherapy practice
and vivid portraits of his remarkable teachers, this is an
extraordinary literary journey of consciousness to the highest
expression of human possibility.