Anecdotes both touching and hilarious about living and working in the White House, “the country’s most potent and enduring symbol of the presidency.”
While journalist Brower moves by theme in presenting the memories of select long-running staff at the White House—“Controlled Chaos,” “Discretion,” “Extraordinary Demands,” “Dark Days,” etc.—there is an irresistible, charmingly pell-mell quality to the arrangement of these dishy stories. The author has managed to track down numerous former staffers—ushers, electricians, maids, butlers, chefs, and florists—to share their mostly loyal thoughts on the illustrious families they served. They (and the families themselves) often compare living in the White House to a prison, albeit a fancy one. The White House has six floors, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 28 fireplaces, with “shops” in the basement housing departments such as housekeeping and floral. Here, the staffers do not have the freedom to leave, and the work demands mean that they often sacrifice their own social and personal lives. First and foremost, they are fiercely devoted, sworn to be apolitical, serving each family that arrives after Inauguration Day as evenly as the next, despite emotional attachments—for example, chef Walter Scheib spent a stint teaching 17-year-old Chelsea Clinton to cook. The most delicious stories involve President Lyndon Johnson and his extreme shower demands—it needed to have multiple nozzles shooting water at fire-hydrant intensity—while the most heartbreaking delineate Jackie Kennedy’s arrangements in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. There is also an affecting glimpse of Hillary Clinton attempting to enjoy a shred of privacy at the pool amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Brower is keen to sympathize with the plight of the hardworking help. For example, in her chapter “Race and the Residence,” the author reveals the first “revolt” by the largely African-American staff to push for salary equality in the late 1960s.
A work of great historical interest that is also quite entertaining.
Harry Potter’s creator faces a crowd of uber-Muggles—the graduating class of Harvard University—whom she enjoins to stretch their minds and be awesome.
Today, Rowling (The Casual Vacancy, 2012, etc.) is massively wealthy, but that wasn’t the case a quarter-century ago, when she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.” That condition might have been an I-told-you-so moment for the parents who worried that by pursuing a degree in classics she was setting herself up for penury. “Of all the subjects on this planet,” she writes, “I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.” Instead, she tells her eager audience, it was a wake-up call: she had failed dramatically, and about the only place to go was up, which is, after all, the lesson one hopes to learn from failure. The classics prove steadfast companions in this brief volume. Though she’s best known for a few Latin taglines by way of magical spells, Rowling makes neat connections between the challenges of modern life and the tutelary examples of Seneca, Plutarch, and the other ancients. While she discounts the ennobling aspects of poverty and misery, it’s also clear that her education provided her with some steel to face those hardships. The author’s quiet praise of liberal education forms one theme. A second, the importance of the imagination, is perhaps the more expected one, but Rowling takes a nicely unsettling detour by recounting her time spent working for Amnesty International and witnessing how monstrous people can be. The unimaginative, she ventures, are more afraid of the world than the imaginative and in turn, “enable real monsters.”
That second matter is a point that could stand elaboration. On the strength of this sharp, inspirational piece, we hope that Rowling will add a book of essays to her CV.
Commissario Guido Brunetti returns to La Fenice for another dramatic encounter with the diva Flavia Petrelli.
In his first appearance (Death at La Fenice, 1992), Brunetti looked into the murder of an eminent conductor, proving that Flavia wasn't the killer. A few years later, in Aqua Alta (1996), he saved her female lover's life. Now Flavia's back in Venice, and trouble follows as surely as the pigeons flock to Piazza San Marco. Someone has been showering her with too many yellow roses at performances around Europe, and things get creepier when she finds flowers by the door of the apartment she's borrowing in her friend—and former lover—Freddy's palazzo, especially when Freddy tells her he hasn't let anyone into the building. Then a voice student Flavia had complimented at La Fenice is pushed down the steps of a bridge, and Freddy is attacked. Brunetti needs to find Flavia's stalker (a strange word the computer-phobic detective finds mostly on English-language websites when he deigns to give Google a whirl) before someone gets killed. There isn't much of a mystery here, but there are the usual pleasures of following Brunetti as he walks around the city he knows like the back of his hand; goes home for lunch with his bookish wife, Paola, and their two teenagers; has dinner with his wealthy and surprisingly sensible in-laws; outmaneuvers his dim boss, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta; and looks the other way while Patta's supercompetent secretary, Signorina Elettra, finds the information he needs in a possibly extra-legal manner. Leon begins each of her mysteries with an epigraph from an opera, and she obviously loves placing Brunetti backstage at La Fenice during a performance.
Come for the Venetian atmosphere and backstage tour of the opera house, and don't worry too much about the crime.
Esteemed music scholar Szwed (Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, 2010, etc.) offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim.
More than any other vocal artist of her era, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to capture the attention of historians and critics. The grim details of her life are, by now, well-known: how she emerged from a background of poverty and prostitution and, for the remainder of her years, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, abusive relationships, and racism. Szwed does not gloss over these facts, but neither does he dwell on them, instead centering his account on Holiday’s enigmatic persona and its relationship to her art. He calls the book a “meditation” on Holiday rather than a strict biography and assumes that readers will have some familiarity with her life story. The first part of the book, “The Myth,” is a fragmentary but detailed exploration of how Holiday’s persona developed outside of her recordings, focusing on her controversial autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (especially what was edited out of the manuscript) along with her film and TV appearances. The second part, “The Musician,” which takes up more than half the book, is an erudite blend of cultural history and musical insight that examines the historical context of Holiday’s career, placing her in a lineage of female singers that reaches back to the 19th century. Szwed also takes a close look at Holiday’s innovative vocal approach, reminding us that although she had no formal training, she possessed a remarkable gift for improvisation and interpretation, often reshaping melodies to the extent that she essentially rewrote them according to her own idiosyncratic visions.
As with the best of Holiday’s music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.
Seven odd little vignettes that add up to a book of beauty.
French author Echenoz has visited American readers several times previously with wry novels such as the recent revision of I’m Gone (2014). This collection of stories is something entirely different. The translator, Coverdale, describes the tales as récits, but Echenoz’s own description is preferable—“little literary objects.” In some of the stories, nothing happens other than a literary description of the landscape for 360 degrees around the writer’s chair (“The Queen’s Caprice”) or a series of walks around a decaying French town that will not see better days again (“Three Sandwiches at Le Bourget”). The collection proceeds with Echenoz’s distinctive voice, and Coverdale appends various endnotes to explain some of the arcane facts he freely inserts into his tales. One of the gems, “Nelson,” is a fair representation of what's at work here. Adm. Nelson sits down to dinner, certainly the center of attention and affection. The admiral’s afflictions and injuries are obliquely unveiled over the course of the evening. When given a newspaper covering the Treaty of Amiens, he “places the page to his left, at an angle, and seems able to read it only in this manner, sideways,” having been blinded in his right eye during the bombardment of Calvi. When Nelson rises from the table between courses, leaving the other guests behind, with quirky elegance Echenoz reveals him taking acorns from his pocket, “retimbering” at the edge of the woods outside. “He has set his heart on planting trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” There is an echo of García Márquez in these simple yet enigmatic pages.
Echenoz gives us a slim series of elegant, tightly written tales, achieving a simple kind of magic.
Finally, Tiny Cooper gets his own story: the musical.
Semifresh (four years later) off the heels of his uber-gay and hilarious collaboration with John Green, Will Grayson Will Grayson (2010), Levithan bites the bullet and pens the actual musical script that his 16-year-old large-and-in-charge gay hero created as a centerpiece for the original novel. Tiny’s coming-of-age musical includes his loving parents, his BFF Phil Wrayson (a cautiously disguised straight Will Grayson), a lesbian babysitter named Lynda, the ghost of Oscar Wilde and 18 ex-boyfriends—including the second Will Grayson. There are Barbra Streisand and Idina Menzel references. There are potentially naughty locker-room tableaux. There are debunked stereotypes in the form of song (“OH! What a Big Gay Baby”). There are multiple moments in the spotlight, including solos and addresses to the audience, where Tiny will have readers falling out of their chairs laughing. It’s probably wrong to call this a novel since it’s written as a script complete with acts, dialogue, musical verse and staging instructions, but whatever it is, it’s just as downright ridiculous as its precursor. Shy readers should be warned: Don’t read this in a public place unless you’re very comfortable chortling out loud.
In 1974, when he was 32, acclaimed film director, writer, and producer Herzog (Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, 2010, etc.) set out on foot from Munich to Paris with the goal of saving a dying friend, the film critic and poet Lotte Eisner. For Herzog, walking was an exercise in magical thinking. “When I’m in Paris she will be alive,” he told himself. “She must not die. Later, perhaps, when we allow it.” At that point in his career, he had completed only one movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Dozens of works, including Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), lay in the future. Originally published in 1978, this raw, emotional account of his three-week journey, from late November to December, reveals an astute observer, a painterly writer, and a man desperate to achieve his goal. Like a Romantic hero, Herzog finds that nature echoes his state of mind: “Dusky desolation in the forest solitude, deathly still, only the wind is stirring.” He walked through blizzards and suffered bone-chilling cold, and when he could not find an inn for the night, he buried himself under hay in barns. Sometimes, he broke into vacant homes, taking brief refuge. He sustained himself mostly on milk and tangerines; often, he was parched with thirst. His feet, in new boots, blistered and ached. He endured pain in his knee and an Achilles tendon that swelled to twice its size. He was plagued by horseflies, and his duffel bag rubbed a hole in his sweater. Suffering, though, only spurred him on. Two weeks into the journey, he was overcome by “severe despair. Long dialogues with myself and imaginary persons.” Finally, he arrives at Eisner’s bedside: she was alive, and she lived for nine more years.
A brief but poetic rendering of a fraught and wild pilgrimage.
Veteran talk show host Smiley (Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year, 2014, etc.) chronicles his relationship with Maya Angelou (1928-2014), his intellectual and spiritual guide.
The author recounts how, as an eager and insecure young man, he was in awe of the multitalented woman who "dispens[ed] love with such natural and joyful ease…[it] drew people to her.” Dr. Angelou gently scolded Smiley for his "idolatrous attitude,” yet he writes about her with such fascination and awe it approaches hagiography. The woman he came to call "Mother Maya" (she affectionately called him "young Tavis Smiley") was his Buddha: a teacher, a wise elder, and a gentle corrector of his behavior, thoughts, and perspective. He remained a student at her feet, though some readers might regard him as overly fawning. Smiley wisely shapes what he learned from Angelou in the form of conversations they had over decades. The resulting narrative, comprised of Angelou’s words as speeches, stories, and lectures, appropriately keeps the focus on the woman and her teachings rather than Smiley’s own (impressive) credentials. To his credit, he shares Angelou's criticism of his BET interview show—that he's very prepared and informed but also too eager to speak and not a good listener. Here, Smiley proves to be a faithful recorder of Angelou’s poise, compassion, and dignity. Throughout, he illustrates how Angelou regularly combined practicality and spirituality. “Her practical advice—be assertive, not aggressive,” writes the author. “Her spiritual advice—be yourself.”
Readers might feel regret for not having the privilege of meeting Angelou personally, but Smiley has faithfully re-created both her voice's "haunting beauty and lilting musicality" and the experience of receiving her transformative wisdom, humor, and compassion.
Etta, self-described “rich black was-ballerina,” is blessed with a strong will and personality to match and an enviable gift for achieving her goals—if only she knew what they were.
Ever since she dated a boy, bisexual Etta’s been on the outs with the few uncloseted lesbians at her Nebraska private school. Refusing to stay on their side of the cultural line has netted her nonstop bullying and the cold shoulder from her best friend, Rachel. What hurt most, though, was being told she’s not ballerina material (i.e., not bird-thin and white). Still, through sheer grit Etta’s battled back from an eating disorder, unlike Bianca, the dangerously thin girl with a gorgeous singing voice in their therapy group. When both girls audition for Brentwood, a New York arts school, Etta’s drawn into Bianca’s orbit, which also includes her closeted gay brother, James, and his straight friend, Mason. Etta may be conflicted about Brentwood (could/should she attend dance school instead?) but not about what matters most: finding a niche where she can thrive. Smart, assertive teens with take-charge personalities turn up more often in fantasy than realistic teen fiction, making Etta stand out. As she figures out what she needs and where to find it, Etta’s stubborn persistence engages readers’ sympathies and sends the bracing message that sisters can (still) do it for themselves.
A smart, insightful love letter to line-crossing individualists.