Aviator and author Beryl Markham, who is great
One of my favorite books is West with the Night by Beryl Markham. It’s a kind of memoir, insofar as it is about her life as a bush pilot in and around Kenya after World War I. But while the author is lambently present in each chapter, it isn’t about her. It’s about flying airplanes, crashing airplanes, horses, the people of Africa, the other people of Africa who had exploited the first people just long enough to get weird about it, uppity customs agents in Italian Ethiopia—all the relentlessly particular details that make a life when someone is too busy living it to think about herself. Markham is present in the work the way a carpenter is present at the table. Even though it is definitely a memoir, I think of West With the Night as a collection of linked short stories, made a little more beautiful by the knowledge that they actually happened to the same woman.
Besides writing what I consider one of the ten best narrative works of the 20th century, she also flew solo from Europe to North America in 1936. She was the first woman ever to do it, although not the first to try. The vents on her fuel tank iced over in the 21st hour, and she crash-landed on Cape Breton Island to walk away with the record. Before that, she was the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya. She was also publicly known to have fucked the queen’s uncle.
Anyway, you should buy West with the Night or check out a copy from your local library. Even though it’s great, it went out of print shortly after it was published. We’re lucky to have it today. To read Markham is to reenact her life in a way reminiscent of its signal moments. I imagine her over Canada as she realized her engines had stopped working, thinking “nope” and bringing that hunk of dead metal whistling to the ground. I picture her smirking as she leaves the wreck, miracle tacked onto miracle. She lived her life so willfully. It is our privilege to read her and will her back to life ourselves.
Lore Segal in the world’s most likable author photo
Since my dear mother gave it to me for Christmas yesterday, I have read 92% of Half the Kingdom, Lore Segal’s new novel about an emergency room that gives senior citizens Alzheimer’s. Half the Kingdom is a literary comedy, in that it is about small but deeply felt moments between quirky, real-ish people rather than the other two things books can be about: multiple generations of an immigrant family or child wizards. Obviously, I like Half the Kingdom, because I read so much of it in a relatively short time. But there is also a problem with it, which I feel the following sentence encapsulates:
If you find, reader, that you are tired of Lucy looking for her glasses, think how tiresome it is for her.
Thus does one of our best contemporary authors fall into a rookie mistake.
Last week, in my continuing survey of funny novels, I read Flashman by Geroge MacDonald Fraser. Formally, it is a comic novel, but really it is a historical adventure story. It is the first-person account of the adventures of one Harry Flashman, originally a bully in Tom Hughes’s novel School Days, and now in Fraser’s imagination a hero of the first Anglo-Afghan War. Flashman has three skills: foreign languages, horseback riding, and a powerful reflex for running away. He is a poltroon, but his cowardice always winds up furthering his reputation as a hero. It all ends well for Flashy even though he conducts himself despicably on pretty much every page, so Flashman is a comedy. It is also a brutal rendering of early 19th-century Britannia, replete with rape, the n-word, and generally bad values. So how should I feel about liking it?
You probably know Jack Handey from the “Deep Thoughts” series of sketches on Saturday Night Live, which, along with PJ O’Rourke and Carolyn Jacobson, were probably the most significant influences on my writing before age 21. If you don’t think Deep Thoughts is funny, you can safely disregard the rest of this post. You and I will meet at Grown-Ups 3 someday, each of us wiping away a type of tear. Everyone else can read this excellent profile of Handey in the New York Times, in which we learn that A) he is in fact a real person who used to live next door to Steve Martin, and B) he has recently published The Stench of Honolulu, a comic adventure novel. I bought that novel and read it last week, and it is very funny. Excerpt after the jump.
Michael Steele and, ironically, the only entity in his life he hasn't called "dog."
Now must be a hard time to be an idiot in the American press. You go to all the trouble of writing a book that says the party whose national committee you chair isn’t ready to lead, get yourself on Hannity and make a bunch of invidious comparisons, then wrap up your remarks with an old-timey ethnic slur, only to be bumped from the national snarklight by Sarah Palin. You just can’t compete with that bitch. It seems like every time a prominent political figure does something stupid, Sarah Palin jumps in and yells that FDR faked polio so he could sit down all the time or whatever. Sometimes it feels like the incompetence of major political figures exceeds demand, and guys like Michael Steele—who would be saying crazy shit at Wisconsin Right To Life rallies in any other incompetence economy—are forced to practice their art in obscurity. Poor Michael Steele. When it comes to being a complete jerkoff, he’s Salieri to Palin’s Mozart.