Tuesday, January 11, 2011

American Rose

I went to the book store the other day specifically looking for "American Rose" (356 pages) by Karen Abbott. I became aware of the author last October when I picked up her first book "Sin in the Second City" while in Chicago. From the inside covers:

With the critically acclaimed Sin in the Second City, bestselling author Karen Abbott 'pioneered sizzle history'” (USA Today). Now she returns with the gripping and expansive story of America’s coming-of-age—told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee and the world she survived and conquered.

America in the Roaring Twenties. Vaudeville was king. Talking pictures were only a distant flicker. Speakeasies beckoned beyond dimly lit doorways; money flowed fast and free. But then, almost overnight, the Great Depression leveled everything. When the dust settled, Americans were primed for a star who could distract them from grim reality and excite them in new, unexpected ways. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a preternatural gift for delivering exactly what America needed.

With her superb narrative skills and eye for compelling detail, Karen Abbott brings to vivid life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intensely dramatic triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who seduced men and women alike and literally killed to get her daughters on the stage.

American Rose chronicles their story, as well as the story of the four scrappy and savvy showbiz brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque. Modeling their shows after the glitzy, daring reviews staged in the theaters of Paris, the Minsky brothers relied on grit, determination, and a few tricks that fell just outside the law—and they would shape, and ultimately transform, the landscape of American entertainment.

With a supporting cast of such Jazz- and Depression-era heavyweights as Lucky Luciano, Harry Houdini, FDR, and Fanny Brice, Karen Abbott weaves a rich narrative of a woman who defied all odds to become a legend — and whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.

Amazingly I knew next to nothing about Gypsy Rose Lee when I picked up this book. I've never even seen the musical or movie "Gypsy." I picked up Abbott's second book specifically because of her first book, "Sin in the Second City," which I read late last year, one of my favorite reads of the year. I won't go into too much detail about the book since the synopsis above pretty much covers it all. I do find the time in which the story takes place, the culture, and what was considered vice then to be very interesting. Of particular interest to me is the way in which morals seems to swing back in forth like a pendulum, much like today, driven by various conditions throughout the country.

This work of non-fiction is a great read for many reasons. Abbott's style is easy and engaging laced with many interesting tidbits about the era she is speaking on that compliments the overall story. Anyone interested in vaudeville or burlesque in the 20th century would probably also enjoy this book. The book does jump between different points in time in each chapter. One chapter may be about a period of time in the 1940's while the next may feature a period of time in the 1920's. While this wasn't an issue for me while reading, I have heard many complaints about the structure of the book from readers online.

Highly recommended.

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