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.

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Memoirs are not my favorite genre and the last time I read Anna Quindlen, she scared me away with the desolation of her novel,  Every Last One, but a good friend suggested that I read Quindlen’s memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Not willing to wait out the long library reserve list, I escaped to a Barnes and Noble to nurse a double espresso while reading the red covered book with a flap that boasted “You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation” – sounded promising.
So, Anna became my morning coffee companion.

As she chatted about friends, school, religion, and children, I realized we have a lot in common. I squirted coffee out my nose laughing at her wanting to lick the brownie bowl without sharing with her small children. (One of my first published pieces was about licking the cake batter bowl.) Although I admired her handstands and one-arm pushups, she did not inspire me to do the same, but her admonition to “drive out fear” is advice worth keeping. When was the last time you did not try something because you were afraid of the outcome?

After a while, I took Anna home with me and discovered her mother had made her pepper-onion-egg sandwiches just as mine had for me. I listened intently as her life changed when her mother became ill when Anna was 19, and suddenly realized the significance of her theme of loss in most of her novels.

Quindlen’s memories have a universality that will resonate with anyone who appreciates “the examined life,” but I made an unexpected connection – just as my friend suggested I would. As for that kitchen renovation, she took the words right out of my mouth…

A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage.

Book Review: Every Last One

All My Patients Have Tales

The clever title and funny cover of Jeff Wells’ All My Patients Have Tales caught my eye and brought back fond memories of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.  In his Doc Hollywood treats the animals memoir, Wells starts with his boyhood dreams, working through a degree in animal science and finally veterinary school.

With a chapter for each animal he treated as he progressed in his career, Wells includes stories about turkeys, cows, porcupines, donkeys, pigs – and cats and dogs.  He messes up, learn from his mistakes, saves the animal.  Some of the chapter titles can direct you: “Biker Dog,” “A Hog in the House” – but “Fish Out of Water” tells about meeting and courting his wife.

Wells’ stories are simply told, highly detailed, sprinkled with some high school humor – might be a good prerequisite before applying for vetinary school.  You’ll need lots of patience to get through the entire book.  The title may be the best part.

“For years I used to bore my wife over lunch with stories of funny incidents…”   James Herriot

Come to the Edge – A Memoir

The young love life of John F. Kennedy, Jr. – what a topic for a book. When I saw Christina Haag interviewed on a morning talk show, I was hooked, and wanted to read her memoir – “Come to the Edge.” The promise of an insider’s view of the young prince was enticing, since anyone else who knew Kennedy is either dead or not talking.

In a clever prologue, Haag remembers her first real kiss with JFK,Jr. After that, it’s bait and switch. This is Christina Haag’s memoir – her life, her parents, her friends.

Amazingly, she recalls where John John got his hair cut as a child, and because she traveled in the same elite private school circle as a teenager in New York City, she had invitations to parties and gatherings where she witnessed and sometimes participated in JFK, Jr.’s young adult transgressions. When they met again at Brown, they became housemates.

Later, a play about Irish lovers sparks the romance – the rehearsed kisses for their roles become real. Haag recalls their passion, moonlit walks, exciting adventures, and John’s terrifying recklessness (“…don’t tell Mommy, he repeated like a mantra.”). She could be writing a romance novel with sleepovers at Jackie O’s 5th Avenue apartment, the Kennedy Compound, Jackie’s house in New Jersey – magnificent backdrops as Haag vividly describes the settings (not the romps) in detail.

Jackie approved; Ethel didn’t; Rose would like to see him settled. Haag never reveals why they separated. She hints at her acting career, movie star Daryl Hannah, his inability to commit to marriage -to her, but in the end, just calls it bad timing.

Although the prose is flowery and the action self-serving, nothing shocking or new is revealed. Some of Haag’s insider experiences actually bring back the Camelot mystique, and she says nothing to dispel the aura of the former First Lady’s graciousness.

Great way to jump start a career? Haag reveals her reason for writing her story now; life is short for everyone, after all. And now her name will be forever linked with his.