A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.

 

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Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like.  Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and  Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest.  Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?

Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered.  Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.

Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits”  of the famous.  No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.”  His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.

Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. unknown-3 In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman.  At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.

I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.

Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet

The Memory Artist

images Despite the promise its name offers, The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon is not an easy read.  Winner of the 2016 Australian Vogel Literary Award for debut novel, the book was not on my radar but was recommended by an Australian friend who graciously lent it to me.  More like a tome of Russian history, Brabon packs her book with references, a byproduct of her writing a dissertation on Russia’s twentieth century dissidents and censorship.

Brabon writes the story as the memoir of Pasha, whose family members are dissidents when he was a young boy.  Driven by a yearning to understand and remember, Pasha tries to capture three periods in his life as well as the complementary periods in Russian history.  Familiar names float through the narrative – Stalin, Dostoevsky, Gorbachov, Khrushchev, and others, as Pasha examines the past, trying to remember and record.  The story takes the reader from the Brezhnev years of Pasha’s childhood, the Glasnost years of his young adulthood, and finally, his solitary adulthood in St. Petersburg, at the beginning of Putin’s new Russia.

In its strong message warning that fact and memory are both closely related , with truth often changing depending on who is in power, Brabon offers a lesson for understanding history.  Brabon wields her research, weaving an understandable story, but it is no less easy to read.

Pasha’s story is not linear and Brabon inserts rambling references to Russian literature and politics, sometimes frustrating the reader.  References to the political oppression with horrors of the gulag  are not easy to read: heinous crimes committed in asylums and hospitals, where his father was incarcerated; political dissidents given drugs so they clenched their teeth unable to eat or speak;  “the parameters of madness and sanity… could be dictated by the government.”

Brabon clearly had a mission in writing her novel, and she accomplished it well, but the books is not for everyone – even those particularly interested in Russian literature or politics.  Perhaps time will give the book more weight as the future unfolds, but, like Pasha’s journey, perhaps the search for a lost country could never be satisfying.

 

The Arrangement – A Glimpse Into the Life of Writer M.F.K. Fisher

9780525429661_p0_v3_s192x300  Knowing something of the life of M.F.K. Fisher helped me to understand Ashley Warlick’s portrayal of the author in The Arrangement.  Based on Fisher’s love affair with a married man, while she too was married, Warlick imagines the conceits and innuendoes as the two couples continue their friendship and their marriages – at times all living together.

While the premise would seem salacious, the story is, like the real life it imitates, sad and desperate. When her husband Al, an aspiring poet with a doctorate from Dijon, France, belittles her writing about food, MFK turns to Tim, children’s book illustrator as well as a friend and neighbor, for solace and editorial advice in getting her first book of essays published. When Al loses interest in having sex, she turns to Tim again,  slipping into his bed at night while his movie star wife is at a party.  Eventually, after much angst and soul searching, as well as trips to Europe, M.F.K. marries Tim, her soul mate.

In her recently published 1939 novel, The Theoretical Foot, Fisher describes Tim’s degenerating Buerger’s disease and the amputation of his foot before he completely deteriorates  and dies. Warlick includes this piece and ends the book with Fisher giving birth to her first child two years later. I had thought Warlick might creatively solve the paternity of Fisher’s child since the real M.F.K. Fisher never revealed the identity of the father and it remains a secret. As a result, I read on longer than I should have.

Warlick’s narrative does not follow a steady timeline, and is told like a memoir, jumping in and out of Fisher’s life. Suddenly, Fisher is burning piles of notes, her first attempts at writing and later regretting it – as Fisher herself notes in one of her books. Next, Warlick reverts to Fisher’s conversations with Tim’s young wife, Gigi. But, wait, the ship is leaving for Europe months later with Tim, his mother, and M.F.K – with her husband’s blessing. In a recent article for the New York Times, Jessica Bennett noted “Research has found that when parties are getting along,they tend to mimic each others’ subtle speech patterns: ‘language synchrony’ as it is known.”  I wondered if Warlick had fallen into this mode – modeling Fisher’s brand of memoir mixed with descriptions. While Fisher is noted for nostalgic reminiscences coupled with her eclectic lifestyle, Warlick floats in and out of this sliver of time, trying to fill in the crevices of Fisher’s life before and after her affair.

The Arrangement includes a number of Fisher’s quotes from her books, as well as mouthwatering details of food cooked, served, tasted, admired. Fisher’s renowned hunger – of food and love – is noted and quoted.  But without at least the Scrapbook of Fisher’s life, the novel can be confusing and vague.  The best part of reading The Arrsngement was the interest it awakened in me to read the books of M.F.K. Fisher herself.

Related ReviewA Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook

Circling the Sun – Will the Real Beryl Markham Please Stand Up

9780345534187_p0_v2_s192x300When I started reading Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun, the story got lost in the characters and my dim memory of the movie “Out of Africa.”  Before continuing, I sought more information on the famous aviatrix Beryl Markham in the biography Straight on Till Morning by Mary S. Lovell and in Markham’s memoir West With The Night.  The information did not always match, confirming my long held suspicion of memoirs. Biographers with their long list of references can usually be trusted to be more objective than doctored memories and withheld secrets in memoirs, and novelists with poetic license can create a mythical heroine who may not have actually existed.

In an article for Town and Country – An Insanely Glamorous Love Triangle  – Paula Mc Clain confirmed Lovell’s biographical facts and provided a succinct summary of Beryl Markham’s early life and background – a good grounding for reading the fictionalized version she created in Circling the Sun.  In her biography of Markham, Lovell’s accounting of the facts has the flavor of documentation, as she peppers her text with quotes from her well-researched resources. She includes excerpts from letters and her impressions from interviewing the elderly Markham – perhaps not the most reliable source.  Together, the biography and the article gave me what I needed.  Understanding Beryl Markham’s real life made the fiction more enjoyable and understandable.

Although Lovell’s biography clearly outlined the key dramatic events shaping the life of Beryl Markham, McClain offers a sympathetic and sometimes softened view, suggesting motivations and conflicts inside the minds of the characters.  When I read McClain’s narrative describing Beryl’s first marriage at the age of sixteen to a rich thirty year old landowner in Africa, I remembered Lovell’s clear references to the trade her father had made in bartering her for money needed for his farm.  When Beryl proclaims she is still a virgin into the third week of her marriage in Circling the Sun, I remembered Lovell’s references to Beryl’s desire for sex in and out of her marriages – a fact McClain capitalizes on later in the novel when she imagines Beryl’s sexual awakening.

Like no other life event, four year old Beryl being abandoned by her mother shaped her outlook on life, molding her interaction with others – especially her father – and ultimately forming her fierce spirit.  McClain projects how this trauma continued to haunt Beryl and influence her decisions. Throughout the novel McClain expanded on life events with imaginative and sometimes scintillating details – Beryl’s relationship with the brother of the Prince of Wales (whose baby was it really?), the commonplace extramarital affairs (Are you married or do you live in Kenya?), and, of course, the steamy story behind the beautiful Danish baroness – Karen Blixen – and her sexy womanizing husband Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the movie). Although McClain has Beryl Markham narrating her tale from the cockpit of her Vega Gull airplane, the record-breaking 1936 trip across the ocean is only a blip in her story.

Hemingway, whose appraisal of Markham’s writing skills inadvertently triggered  the success of Beryl Markham’s memoir in its second edition, had met her in Africa and commented in a letter to his publisher: “…this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch…” McClain’s fictionalized Beryl Markham is not as unpleasant as she may have been in life, but wouldn’t we all prefer to be immortalized as a sexy adventurer and a feminine icon?  The facts of her life as noted by Lovell are amazing in themselves: Beryl Markham was “a famous aviatrix who was brought up on an African ranch, {became} a professional horse trainer, learned to fly, and for years operated a sort of air taxi service for African hunters…” And she probably didn’t care if people liked her or not.