What We're Reading, April 5-11
The life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf; Tina Fey's hilarious book of zingers; the untold story of Julia and Paul Child in the OSS; and a quiet meditation on the desert wilderness from 10,000 feet above sea level.
The Life of Edith Piaf
by Carolyn Burke
Edith Piaf's story is bulletproof. Tell the facts and the myths and voila — a book you can't put down. Her father was an itinerant contortionist, her mother a drug addict who abandoned her. Raised for a time in her grandmother's brothel, she grew up in a world of pimps, prostitutes, petty thieves and sailors. Discovered singing on the streets of Paris at 18 and christened la mome piaf (kid sparrow), she rose to become France's greatest star. "The hardest working 97 pounds in show business" Ed Sullivan said as he introduced the diminutive star on his show. Her "coiled vibrato," as Burke so beautifully captures it, sold more records than any other artist in her time and filled concert halls around the world. All the stars of her day crowded to see this tiny woman with "the voice of life itself" — Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Jean Cocteau, Yves Montand (her protégé and one of her legion of lovers). In this vivid work, Carolyn Burke paints a picture of a woman passionate, driven, funny, haunted. Piaf rose every day at dusk, wrote, rehearsed, commanded, took pills and drank and sang until dawn. When she died in 1963, at age 47, some 40,000 people came to her funeral at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where to this day she outdraws Jim Morrison, who is also buried there.
Carolyn Burke is the author of two other women's biographies, Lee Miller: A Life and Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. Titled in homage to Piaf's iconic song, "Non, je ne regrette rien," No Regrets is a biography and a kind of history of 20th century France. As Edith buries her young daughter in 1935, Hitler's Brown Shirts are on the horizon. As she struggles for her health and life in the early 60's, Algeria struggles for its independence. The stories travel in parallel. Burke's research is meticulous; she interviews neighbours, dredges up documents and photographs, finds Edith's birth certificate with proof that she was born in a hospital rather than on the street as legend has it. She sets forth differing accounts – was it "La Marseillaise" Edith sang the first time she performed for a street crowd or was it "L'Internationale"? Often interesting, these details sometimes stop the action and distance the reader. In the end, however, the facts and the myths reinforce one another, coming together to create an intricate portrait of this tiny yet larger-than-life chanteuse. — The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva)
Hardcover, 304 pages; Knopf; list price, $27.95; publication date, March 22
By Tina Fey
Tina Fey's first book — which after only one day on sale, is already a bestseller — is part of a long tradition of comedians grabbing their own little corner of the publishing world. The great era of this trend was the mid-90s, when Paul Reiser's books (Couplehood, Babyhood) were blockbuster hits, and everyone's nightstand supported the weight of a copy of Sein Language. Do you remember when Ellen DeGeneres was more of an author than a talk show host, with her book My Point ... And I Do Have One? She was! In 1996! The covers of these types of books often included an earnest close-up shot of the comedian, flashing a goofy smile at Barnes & Noble shoppers. The fact that Fey's book features a similar shot — but with hairy man arms — shows that she is aware of the fray she is jumping into; and that she intends to parody it at every turn. Bossypants is not as subversive as you might hope that a book from the creator of 30 Rock might be, but it does touch on several controversial subjects: gay marriage, Photoshop and women's magazines, gender bias in the workplace, "having it all," weight issues, struggles with childhood trauma, being the boss, hating the boss, human grimness inside a YMCA and body odor. Fey's great talent as a writer (the same talents that landed her the head gig at SNL and later, her own NBC show) is that she is fearless but not fearsome, and her charming, no-holds-barred attitude is on full display here.
It is extremely difficult to be objective about Bossypants as a female with a brain, age 15-65. It's like trying to judge a Twix bar. So many of us have grown up worshiping Fey as the shining beacon of thinking-woman-makes-good, while simultaneously questioning her influence on culture and her place in the boy's club; so it's a challenge, at least initially, to know what to make of her wit laid bare in writing, or even where to begin. So I decided to just begin by laughing. I set all of my previous opinions about Fey aside (I love 30 Rock to death; I didn't love some of her choices on SNL; I think she is basically a genius, etc.) and let the writing affect me, and it did. Mostly it affected the people I was on the Acela with at the time, because I must have snorted Sprite out of my nose on about five occasions while reading on the ride. Fey has this uncanny way of setting up a zinger, even in text form, so that it is physically difficult not to laugh when the punchline hits. If we could hold an Olympics for zinging, she would be our Michael Phelps. The book itself is not a true memoir, so don't go looking for an easy path through Fey's life; or for the secrets to her success. She does dive into a few self-help moments when explaining how to be a good boss, or how to beat the boys at their own game in the workplace, but mostly she shows by example: if you want to be a funny woman, you need to start out by being funny. And I don't know about you, but I think someone who can write lines like "Always wear a bra. Even if you don't think you need it, just...you know what? You're not going to regret it" is pretty damn funny. Sure, there are moments when you want to know more, and wish that Fey had dipped beneath her punchy exterior to unearth more self-revelations — to break the veneer that got her so far — but maybe that's for the next book. Though I'd really be satisfied if she wrote another volume of unibrow jokes or decided to put out a collection of impossibly cute quotes from her toddler daughter (the originator of the great 30 Rock phrase, 'I want to go to there'). Everything Fey does continues to make me laugh. I can't really judge a Twix. — Rachel Syme, books editor
Hardcover, 288 pages; Reagan Arthur; list price, $26.99; publication date, April 5
A Covert Affair
Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS
By Jennet Conant
First of all, don't be suckered in by the title. There's at least three books worth of story packed in between these covers, and only a teeny fraction of it has to do with Paul Child; still less with his famous wife. Is this a story about the unsung work of the OSS — forerunner to today's CIA — in the Far East? Is it a story about how McCarthyism crippled American foreign policy by driving the experienced Southeast Asia hands out of the State Department? Is it the story of Jane Foster, the glamorous blonde painter and Indonesia expert who carried a pet chipmunk in her pocket and may (or may not) have been passing secrets to the Soviets? One thing's for sure — very little of this story is about the Childs. They appear in the first chapter, and in fact they appear so lively and personable that you're left a little disappointed when they vanish for the next hundred or so pages.
That's not to say A Covert Affair isn't worth reading. I knew very little about the Second World War as it was fought away from the spotlight, in places like Kunming, Calcutta and Kandy, high in the Sri Lankan hills, where Julia Child spent much of the war filing classified communications for the OSS. Sri Lanka was where Julia met both Paul Child and Jane Foster, and author Jennet Conant paints a vivid picture of life there, complete with bottles of "operational scotch" and random tarantula encounters. Paul Child seems to have been a particular friend to the fascinating Jane, a woman who thought nothing of storming into a Japanese POW camp after V-J Day and haranguing the commanding officer into releasing her ex-husband. But that's where the problem lies: Jane Foster is such a compelling character, her bitter postwar experience so fascinating, that Julia and Paul Child fade into the background. She needed her own book. — Petra Mayer, associate producer, Weekend All Things Considered
Hardcover, 416 pages; Simon & Schuster; list price, $28; publication date, April 5
Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout
By Philip Connors
For the last ten years, former Wall Street Journal reporter Philip Connors has stood atop a fire-watching tower in the Gila Wilderness in the remote New Mexico desert. He stands there for half the year, 10,000 feet above sea level, watching for fire and contemplating nature, and the nature of the universe itself. His book of reflections about his time spent on the tower, Fire Season, began as an essay in the Paris Review — and evolved into one of the most elegant ruminations about the wilderness and the rugged West to emerge in quite some time.
I hail from Albuquerque, New Mexico, so Connor's Fire Season hit close to home; when you live in the desert, fire is everything. The grass is so dry that a single lightning strike can spark a blaze over acres at a time. Fire lookouts stand constant vigil during high season and rarely leave their posts — it is a job out of time; something that a Native American leader may have done from a mountaintop before settlers ever discovered the West. Connors, who left bustling New York City for such a job, is a beautiful writer, and this book is a great accomplishment. I found myself sucked in by the story (which shouldn't really be so compelling; but he makes standing on a tower for months intriguing) and also by the writing, which is at turns funny, elegiac and soft. This is a quiet book; reading it can feel like meditation, like understanding something under the surface. I didn't want it to end — and Connors himself captured this feeling of wanting to hold onto an experience far better than I ever could: "The unease, the sadness, the almost instantaneous nostalgia for events as they happen — each day on the mountain now elicits a wave of feeling centered around the knowledge that my stay here cannot last." — Rachel Syme, books editor
Hardcover, 256 pages; Ecco; list price, $24.99; publication date, April 5
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