Summer is a wonderful time of year, so full of life and with so many wonderful possibilities of things to do.
Today, we turn the page of the calendar over to October, but that offers a new menu of activities. When it's cold, or rainy, or the number of allergens blowing in the wind force some of us to stay indoors, there are still ways to keep mind and body alert and full of drive and energy.
This is the season when the lightweight fun reading of the summer gives way to some things which require our full attention. These are things which go beyond entertainment, to enlarge and complete areas of understanding of our big, wide world.
This week, let's turn the Critical Eye toward some really great reading. And, if you're serious about improving the state of our nation's education, this is a great time to let your children or grandchildren notice that you read and that it gives you pleasure. Shouting at the little nippers that they ought to be expanding their minds, then turning back to the next reality show, just doesn't carry a lot of weight.
Books are the most personal of art forms. You can read a biography while your companion reads a novel and someone else reads a nonfiction examination of the economy or the latest discoveries in science, or some other topic.
Let's look at the top five on the pile of books to be reviewed:
DANCE WITH DEMONS
There are several books currently on the shelves with the title ''Dance with Demons.''
The one I've recently read is a biography of famed choreographer Jerome Robbins, and reading it has taught me a great deal about how shows come to be performed on Broadway and who in a theatrical company has the authority to do what.
Jerome Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918, exactly one month before the Armistice which ended World War I. In a flood of patriotism, his parents gave him as his middle name the name of the president who led our country during the war.
Chane (called Harry) and Lena Rabinowitz, his parents, were legal immigrants, who left Russia to avoid the violent pogroms and to escape the coming Bolshevik Revolution. The family's kitchen, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on the edge of Spanish Harlem, contained a quotation on the wall: ''If God lived in this neighborhood, His windows would be broken.''
Lena's parents had settled in New Jersey, an easy ferry ride from Manhattan, and the young family soon moved to the lower rents and prices of the Garden State. From there it was an easy commute into New York City, and that is where he set his goal from a very early age.
Robbins would eventually rise to share the artistic directorship of New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, would direct and choreograph Broadway shows and major motion pictures and would be appointed to national committees on the arts which met at the White House, where he was often invited to bring his dancers to perform and to mingle with world leaders, and yet his entire life would be an internal struggle between Robbins, the artistic genius, and Rabinowitz, the second-generation Russian Jewish immigrant who might eat with the wrong fork or possibly have a gravy stain on his tie. He was physically short in stature, he was bald, he was considered to be homely, and he was a male dancer in a world which openly made cruel jokes about male dancers.
The result of that conflict was a life of inner conflict. To survive in the dog-eat-dog world of show business, it's necessary that others respect someone, and that nobody takes ''no'' for an answer, yet the lack of self-confidence often gnawed away and spoiled any sense of accomplishment.
The need to assert himself resulted in the impression among others that he had a driven and often cruel personality. The most famous story about Robbins is the one in which, early in his career, he was choreographing a big dance number in a Broadway theater, and while backing up to better see the full width of the stage, he fell backward into the orchestra pit - a fall which might have killed him - while more than 50 dancers and actors stood silently and never whispered a word of warning.
The author of the biography is Greg Lawrence, who has co-authored with his former wife, ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, two autobiographies. Clearly his ''in'' with the world of professional dance has made him knowledgeable both of what goes on and of who-knows-what goes on, despite what the official version says.
The book is an endless parade of artistic triumphs, with the occasional plunge into failure. On Broadway, he directed Mary Martin in ''Peter Pan'' and Barbra Streisand in ''Funny Girl.'' He did the principal choreography for ''West Side Story,'' working with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. By late in his career, the successful show ''Jerome Robbins' Broadway'' would demonstrate the diversity and fame of his career.
At New York City Ballet, his creations included ''Other Dances'' for Mikhail Baryshnikov; ''The Dybbuk,'' created with Leonard Bernstein; and ''The Four Seasons,'' whose principals were Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins, Patricia McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
This is just a small smattering of his accomplishments.
On the other hand, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, and gave them lists of names which contributed to the destruction of lives and careers of his fellow artists. The author suggests that newspaper columnist and television host Ed Sullivan threatened to expose the fact that Robbins - despite romantic liaisons and engagements with a long list of beautiful women - had relationships with a number of men, as well, if he didn't give the testimony.
The book is easy to read, pleasant and interesting to understand, and the documentation is extensive, tending to make it believable.
''Dance With Demons'' has 531 pages in paperbound edition. It was published by Berkeley Press, and has a suggested sales price of $17.
Find it with ISBN number 0-425-18347-5. The online catalog of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System says there are three copies available for borrowing. They are located in Jamestown, Olean and Chautauqua.
NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
There was a time when Joan Crawford was one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, star in Hollywood.
Crawford was famed in her day for gossip columnists' reports that she put on makeup and slipped into a couture dress and heels to take out the garbage, in case someone saw her, because she said people bought their movie tickets to see a movie star, not the girl next door.
The fact that in 1978, the oldest of her four adopted children published a book called ''Mommie Dearest,'' which portrayed Crawford as virtually a virago of mythological proportions, which was then made into a Hollywood film in which Faye Dunaway, as Crawford, beat her children with a wire coathanger, with cold cream slathered all over her face, has perhaps distorted forever Crawford's place in the history of moving pictures.
Biographer Charlotte Chandler hasn't offered us a scientifically researched study of the actress's life, but her book, ''Not the Girl Next Door,'' goes far to restore the balance between truth and fantasy in Crawford's life.
Born Lucille LeSueur in Texas, when her father abandoned her and her mother, and there followed a number of stepfathers, her name changed frequently. The one longest in use was Billie Cassin. When her career began in Hollywood, the pervasive studio system chose the name Joan Crawford for her, and for a number of years, she liked friends to call her Billie, she eventually decided she would rather be Joan.
In her career, she would marry a number of husbands, including Franchot Tone, a native of Buffalo, who was her second. For the rest of her life, she would jest that during their marriage, she was legally Joan Tone.
Chandler makes no effort to suggest objectivity. She dedicates the book itself to Joan Crawford, and she bases much of it around direct interviews with the actress herself, although when she gets to the section about daughter Cheryl's attack book, she does become more conscientious about offering documentation and speaking with people who would have been in a position to know the truth, such as Crawford's younger two children, her former servants, and the children of other movie stars who attended parties and were schoolmates of the Crawford children.
The story is basically a story of a hardworking, talented young dancer, who had a gift for studying what it took to succeed in the movie business, and who was willing and able to change her tastes, her voice, her appearance, her accent and whatever else it took to be the chosen one.
Chandler's specialty has become movie star biographies which bring back the glamour and the magic of the silver screen. Her books sidestep the flaws of the individuals, although they do not whitewash them away entirely.
Chances are, you won't need to know the realities of Joan Crawford, and that you'd enjoy learning about her romantic trips, her magnificent wardrobe, her feuds with Bette Davis and with the heads of several studios, and the elements on which this book focuses.
''Not the Girl Next Door'' was published by Simon and Schuster. It has 294 pages in hardcover edition, and is recommended for sale at $26. Find it with ISBN number 978-1-4165-4751-8. The library system's catalog says there are no copies available, but then suggests a six-day wait. It seems they have at least one copy, but it's popular.
It's not unusual that when an author has a successful book, his or her subsequent creations are essentially re-tellings of the original success.
That seems to be the case for contemporary novelist Bret Easton Ellis.
His early works such as ''American Psycho,'' ''Rules of Attraction'' and ''Less Than Zero'' sold a great many copies, and were quickly made into high-grossing films starring major film stars.
His books deal with people who live in a world outside that of folks who get up and go to work. His characters are the children of senators and business moguls and billionaires, and they all are physically perfect, find work as models and film stars without filling out an application or attending an audition, and then throw them away because fame and wealth and power mean nothing to them.
Sometimes he finds a fascinating twist, such as one of his major novels which turns out not to be an account of true stories, but rather the invention of a mind distorted by wealth and drugs. But, the more he writes, the more his books sound like new twists on the same old stories.
One of his most recent publications - from 2010 - is titled ''Imperial Bedrooms.'' Here the central character is Clay, who was played by Andrew McCarthy in ''Less Than Zero.'' Now, 25 years have passed since the events in that book, but Clay is still very handsome, very rich and just as amoral and ruthless as he ever was.
Although he doesn't take chainsaws to his business associates, like the central character in ''American Psycho,'' Clay is a mean dude. If a woman he wants won't agree to sleep with him, he studies her boyfriend, finds out what he wants more than anything in the world, and offers it to the boyfriend if he will sleep with Clay. That will show her.
Ellis' books are great escapes. It's fun to spend a few hours imagining deciding on a whim to fly to Paris or walking into a party full of glittering people and deciding which of them would be a good companion for the night, as long as you're able to return to normal when you put down the book.
''Imperial Bedrooms'' has 176 pages - with widely-spaced type - in paperbound edition. It was published by Vintage Books, and recommended for sale at $14.95. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-307-27869-2. The library system has four of Ellis' books, but not this particular one.