Books: American Lives

For the first time since 1977, the Pulitzer Prize committee today awarded no prize for fiction. I love reading fiction but I’m not finding a lot, lately, to cheer about. It feels fitting, then, to post on a memoir and two biographies. Each concerns the life of an American woman.

For a work assignment, I had to read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” I wouldn’t have read it on my own: It’s about t.v.! It’s a bestseller!

I’m glad I did. It’s a fun, funny, smart read.

Fey is the comic brain behind the NBC hit show, “30 Rock.” The same twisted humor in that show can be found in the pages of this memoir, which covers Fey’s life and career from kindergarten onward, through her days learning improv at Chicago’s Second City, to writing for and performing on Saturday Night Live, to the genesis of  her t.v. show, and finally, to the creation of her most famous impersonation, Sarah Palin. Marriage and motherhood intertwine.

Fey’s writing is clear and economical. Don’t understand improv? You will, in a single page, after Fey describes its rules. Wonder how a television show is born, staffed, and written? You will, after a few chapters. Fey and her colleagues work long hours to make laugh-out-loud television; this book shows how they do it. Fascinating!

Another American life I gobbled up: Pauline Kael (1919-2001) best known for her dense, thoughtful, provocative New Yorker movie reviews, which changed film criticism forever. Brian Kellow’s vast but intimate biography, “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark,” came out late last year.

A bohemian of the mid-20th century, Kael spurned her parents’ Judaism, took up with poets and painters, had a child out of wedlock, never married, quit college and broadcast her disdain for academia. She smothered daughter Gina, spoiled grandson Will, and picked nasty fights with colleagues and acolytes. Always broke, she seemed to live large: in Manhattan, in the Berkshires, in Hollywood. When she needed to flee, she went to Paris.

Kellow’s story goes beyond Kael’s life: it tells the story of American cinema.

I picked up Gioia Diliberto’s “Paris without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife” after hearing Diliberto speak at the Arts Club. First published in 1992, Diliberto explained that her book didn’t take off when it first came out.

Fast forward to 2011 and the runaway success of Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife,” a work of fiction that covers the same years Diliberto researched and wrote about in her biography of Hadley Richardson (1891-1979). It’s also the same period Hemingway wrote about in his last and most beloved book, “A Moveable Feast.” Read that and you’ll know why Diliberto tackled the story of their marriage.

I didn’t especially like or admire Hadley, but I enjoyed this read — like a richly told novel.

Also in the blog

Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply” (2009) is a beautifully told and highly compelling tale about identity: losing one, stealing others, gaining another (and another, and another). It’s rare that I finish a book and want to start reading it again, to figure out how the author pulled off such a clever feat of storytelling. This


When I describe our place in Quebec, few people can fathom our unplugged life. No television, telephone, cell calls or texts, no computers, newspapers or mail service, no stores nearby, no need to get in a car. Yes, we have a roof, beds, bathrooms, running water, comfy couches, electricity. We’re not camping. Indeed, certain services


I read all the time but there’s one place on earth I read most: Club Lac Pythonga in Quebec. My husband’s family has had a summer home there since the 1960’s. It’s a magical place deep in the woods, cut off from the Internet, cell phones, newspapers, cars. A central kitchen serves family dinners, freeing


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