Wednesday, March 22, 2017

MY LIFE IN FRANCE, culinary goddess Julia Child tells enough to keep the pages turning...but not all



MY LIFE IN FRNACE
JULIA CHILD (with Alex Prud'homme)

Anchor Books
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Julia Child single handedly awakened America to the pleasures of good cooking with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, but as she reveals in this bestselling memoir, she didn't know the first thing about cooking when she landed in France. Indeed, when she first arrived in 1948 with her husband, Paul, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever. Julia's unforgettable story unfolds with the spirit so key to her success as a cook and teacher and writer, brilliantly capturing one of the most endearing American personalities of the last fifty years.

My Review: Truth in advertising had no greater champion than Julia Child. Her book is called exactly and precisely what it is: The narrative of her life in France. She begins her book on November 3, 1948, with the Child family landing at Le Havre, getting into their gigantic Buick station wagon, and motoring off across northern France towards Paris. They stop at thirty-six-year-old native Californian Mrs. Child's first French restaurant, La Couronne, where her husband Paul (already fluent in French from his first stint living there more than 20 years before) consults with M. Dorin, the maitre d', and decides the young marrieds (relatively speaking, as he's 46 by then) will have a sole meuniere with a glass of wine! I mean! A nice Republican-raised gal from Pasadena, California, drinking wine with lunch! Who heard of this?! Mais certainement not Mme. Child, nee McWilliams!

It was the beginning of a life-long love affair between Julia Child and la belle France, and Julia Child and la cuisine Francaise. It led to several books, several TV series, and a long, happy life spent teaching, teaching, teaching. Mme. Child had found her metier, at close to forty, in a day and time where living past sixty-five was ** considered to be ancient. In the process, the person she became changed the American, and possibly the world as a result, culture surrounding food. Yet Julia Child wrote this book with her husband's great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, who tells us in his brief Foreword that getting his garrulous old relative to open up about the feelings and secrets that make up the majority of any human life. His degree of success was formidable, given the generational and gender-induced reticence he fought against to extract the juicy bits from her.

Bravo, M. Prud'homme, et merci bien par tout le faire.

Julia Child was a fixture around our house when I was young. I got the TV-watching habits I carry with me to this good day at a tender age, and part of the formative process was The French Chef. My mother didn't like Mrs. Child much. She was a fan of M.F.K. Fisher's food work, which wasn't in sympathy with Mrs. Child's careful and precise measuring and nice and accurate timing. Mama was a feast-maker, not a dinner-preparer, and that's why she watched Julia Child programs.

I learned about enthusiastic appreciation of food from my mother and Mrs. Child. I was never a picky eater, and only rejected a few foods. (I still hate corn on the cob.) It always seemed like the ladies were having so much fun making these weird dishes! It made sense to me that it would be fun to eat them, and so it proved to be.

In reading this memoir, I immersed myself in the flow of Child's later-life awakening to the joy of food and the sheer exhilaration of preparing special and delicious and carefully thought-out meals for one's loved ones. While I understand the co-author's challenge in balancing the need to afford the famous personality privacy against the buying public's desire to know the dirt, I can only lament that Prud'homme either didn't or couldn't press Child on the topic of her childlessness. I suspect burying herself in research and in obsessive experimentation was a means of assuaging her sadness at not being a mother. She was, or at least she is painted in this book as being, a very nurturing person, and given the prevailing attitudes of the era, it is unlikely that this absence did not cause her pangs of regret. I would have liked to see some exploration of that, mostly because I think glittering surfaces (which this book limns in loving detail) are even more beautiful when seen with shadows. It's like sterling silver flatware: When dipped into a cleaning bath as opposed to hand-polished, it's true that all the tarnish comes off, but all the character does too, and the pattern is flat and blah for lack of a bit of dark contrast that is left by the more labor-intensive hand polishing method.

The delight of the book was in Child's almost orgasmic recollections of the foods and wines she and her dearly beloved husband Paul Child ate and drank across the years. In the course of learning to cook the haute bourgeoise cuisine that she made famous in her native land, Child came alive to the joys and thrills of sight, smell, and taste in a way that only truly delicious food can cause a person to become. It was the positive counterpoint to her manifold frustrations in collaborative cook-bookery. The travails of preparing the Magnum Opus that is Mastering the Art of French Cooking simply don't do enough to make the author come off the page and join me in my reading chair. I rate books based on this type of measure, this degree of ability to enfold and immerse me in the narrative and the emotional reality of the tale being told. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I wasn't swept into it and away to France circa 1950, and that was what I came to the read expecting to happen. In fact, when I saw the film partially based on this book, Julie & Julia, I was completely swept away and eager to read the source material.

In the end, I got more out of watching Meryl Streep enact Julia Child than I did reading Julia Child reporting herself. I was disappointed.

And hungry.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

SUPERZELDA, an early canary in the Zelda resurgence mines



SUPERZELDA: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald
Tiziana LoPorto and Daniele Marotta

One Peace Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dancer, painter, writer, muse, passionate lover, and freethinker, Zelda Fitzgerald is one of the most iconic figures of the Jazz Age. Born in Alabama in 1900, she was only 18 when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald, an ambitious young writer who would turn into one the greatest American authors of all time. Beautiful, talented, irreverent, extravagant, and alcohol-driven, the newly married couple took New York's high society and the whole literary world by storm. They traveled to France, Italy, and Africa; hung out with Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Gertrude Stein; managed to both charm and enrage most of the people they were acquainted with; and ended up destroying their love and themselves-Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent more than a decade in psychiatric clinics, tragically dying at 48 in a fire. Superzelda is a thoroughly researched work based on period photographs and documents, as well as on Zelda and Scott's writing. It is a biography, a love story, and a travelogue all wrapped into one. The beautiful two-color illustrations bring to life one of the most fascinating women, as well as eras, of the early 20th century.

My Review: Twitter made me do it.

No, for real. I saw a tweet of a reviewlet for Superzelda and, well, I was too curious not to look into the book itself. Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the publication of Z, and now this! An embarrassment of riches in Fitzgeraldry. What can a comic book add to the merriment, I wondered, that something more meaty and textual couldn't do better?

Well now, given my overall lack of appreciation for comic books, the answer you're expecting now is either a grumbling "not a lot" or a shrieking "NOTHING!" Nanny nanny boo-boo! I liked this comic book condensed history of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald a good deal.

The illos are, well, they're what I'd expect. I think they're okay. The fact that they're printed on comic-book paper, uncoated and not very thick and pretty rough, added to the charm of the thing. It even smells the way I expect a comic book to smell! I like the two-color printing, black and various screens of a lovely slate-meets-turquoise blue. I like the choices of subjects to illustrate and the sense I get that Marotta, the illustrator, had about six zillion photos tacked up and piled on tables and propped against books in his studio and he alchemically schlurgled them around in his visual cortex and blew them out his hands in a fury of creation.

LoPorto's writing I can't comment on, because of necessity it's been translated and that means I have no idea how this compares to her original since I haven't read all of it. The story is already familiar to me, so I'm not reading to be informed, only entertained. I was, at least enough to finish the book.

Which leads me to the heart of the matter for me: What is the point of these things? They're not violent or prurient, previously the two reasons that comic books existed; they're not in-depth, they're not glitteringly witty or lushly lovely; they're sort of limbic creations, in a twilight zone of fact meeting imagination that just makes no sense to me. This is a book that resembles Zelda, Nancy Milford's excellent biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, the way Wikipedia resembles the Encyclopedia Britannica. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, in a browsing-the-porn-sites way; nothing much not to like, but nothing to get my teeth (!) into.

Plus it's too hard to read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

THE GLASS CASTLE, a neglected daughter's journey to forgiveness



THE GLASS CASTLE: A Memoir
JEANNETTE WALLS

Scribner
$30 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette's brilliant and charismatic father captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing--a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

There will be a 2017 film whose release date isn't set just yet, so it seemed like a good time to revisit this influential, searingly honest, and personally relevant memoir.

My Review: Oh. My. God.

Walls has a non-fiction novel coming out this month, so I decided to re-read the book that started all the ruckus before I got to Half-Broke Horses. (NB I read that book, was disappointed, didn't review it.)

This memoir appealed to me as the youngest child (by a large margin) of two complete nutters. They were not like Walls' parents in that they never let us go hungry and we never lacked a roof over our heads. They were emotionally disturbed, though, and this passage sums up the sensation of being raised by a completely bizarre mother:
I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn't have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.
The fires were, in my house, verbal. As a result of the noisy unsafe minefield I grew up in, I hate to raise my voice. If I have to shout it means (to me) that I've lost, there's no chance of being heard. I'm a sucker, as a consequence, for a man whose emotions are tightly reined in, especially if he's losing his battle against letting them loose. I empathize strongly.

A little backstory: I was romantically involved with a man for some time while I lived in Austin, whom I met on a bus. I got on the bus, sat a few seats behind the cute, sandy-haired, rumpled guy with the prominent ears devouring a book that I spotted from the pay-stile, and sighed the happy sigh of one whose world contains all the things he needs: A job, a home, and all the men he can mentally undress and ravish.

I was mid-mental ravishment when Mr. Man (as I came to call him) upset the applecart by bursting into tears. As quietly as he could, of course, but tears. A stop later, still crying. Stop after that, still crying. I got up, moved into the seat next to him but across the aisle, and said, "What the hell're you reading? I wanna be sure I never set an eyeball on it." That got a laugh, and he held up The Glass Castle and said it was sort of the story of his life.

We talked for four hours that day. I gave him my email and number, and things progressed pretty smoothly until one day they didn't, but that's another story.

He'd just read Walls's tale of her father taking her pubescent self to a pool-hall and getting her within an inch of getting raped, just so he'd have beer money:
Mom asked me if I was okay. I shrugged and nodded. “Well, there you go,” she said. She said that sexual assault was a crime of perception. “If you don’t think you’re hurt, then you aren’t,” she said. “So many women make such a big deal out of these things. But you’re stronger then that,” she went back to her crossword puzzle.
It struck a chord, and the story of his own stepfather's abuses of Mr. Man, and his mother's indifference to them, came spewing out of him. I've read the book before just now, specifically so I could discuss it with Mr. Man, but I did so with an already numbed horror bone and a severed humor tendon.

Only now that I am several years beyond that initial encounter with the book can I see how very funny the tragic events in it are, and were to the author. I can see that it's gallows humor of a sort...but also that it's all perfect proof that life's a Zen joke:
Mom always said people worried too much about their children. Suffering when you're young is good for you, she said. It immunized your body and your soul, and that was why she ignored us kids when we cried. Fussing over children who cry only encouraged them, she told us. That's positive reinforcement for negative behavior.

If you can chuckle at Dolly Parton's aper├žu, "You have no idea how much it costs to look this cheap," then Walls is the next step up the Sisyphean slope of learning how to laugh like the Dalai Lama. It's a hard life that etches grooves in the looking-glass, but it's a path worth taking if you can get to the place where "textured" is valued more than smooth. Read the book, you'll know what I mean.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

REMARKABLE CREATURES, two women of science in 19th century Dorset



REMARKABLE CREATURES
TRACY CHEVALIER

Penguin Books
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A voyage of discoveries, a meeting of two remarkable women, and extraordinary time and place enrich bestselling author Tracy Chevalier's enthralling new novel

From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has "the eye"—and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.

Luckily, Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a recent exile from London, who also loves scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy. Ultimately, in the struggle to be recognized in the wider world, Mary and Elizabeth discover that friendship is their greatest ally. 

Remarkable Creatures is a stunning novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and social prejudice to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, is it a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.


My Review: A middling book about interesting times and people. Not extraordinarily well, or poorly, written. Not unusual or original in plotting or in, frankly, any way I can think of. Like all of Chevalier's work, a solid, well-made entertainment, about a subject most of us have never given one instant's thought to.

Therein its charm. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot weren't the women of Jane Austen's novels, and they weren't subjected to the same constraints as those women were. They lived in poverty whether genteel or grinding, and they followed their own interests instead of doing what was thought to be necessary to get a husband. Chevalier points up the ways in which this freedom made the women best able to pursue the passions each might never have known had she been a mother and a wife.

We owe our knowledge of plesiosaurs and other aquatic beasts of the era to these remarkable women, who hunted for and preserved fossils along England's Dorset coast. That Mary Anning was the more productive of the two and that it was she who found the major finds does not minimize the better-off Miss Philpot's many contributions, both emotional and financial, to the process.

In the end, it is the usual suspect, jealousy, that ends the friendship across a generation and a class divide. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot fall in love with the same man. It leads to the eruption of their other jealousies, of course, and the many things we think but never say come out of each woman's mouth.

Years pass, and many events occur, but unlike theirs, endings are only rarely as good as beginnings. Anning and Philpot lived in a time when the role of a woman was to be of service. Neither had a man to serve, so they served Mankind with their old rock-boned beasts. Much of what we think today would have been harder and later in coming without them, their small but vital role in making modern science what it is.

Remarkable creatures indeed.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS, an oral memoir/lecture by a major Southern literary light



ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS
EUDORA WELTY

Harvard University Press
$19.50 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a "continuous thread of revelation" she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father's coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother's sturdy independence, Eudora's earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction.

Even if Eudora Welty were not a major writer, her description of growing up in the South--of the interplay between black and white, between town and countryside, between dedicated schoolteachers and the public they taught--would he notable. That she is a splendid writer of fiction gives her own experience a family likeness to others in the generation of young Southerners that produced a literary renaissance. Until publication of this book, she had discouraged biographical investigations. It undoubtedly was not easy for this shy and reticent lady to undertake her own literary biography, to relive her own memories (painful as well as pleasant), to go through letters and photographs of her parents and grandparents. But we are in her debt, for the distillation of experience she offers us is a rare pleasure for her admirers, a treat to everyone who loves good writing and anyone who is interested in the seeds of creativity.

My Review: The unassuming, delight-filled, unsparingly un-self-indulgent prose of Miss Eudora's fiction is surpassed in this expansion and revision of her Massey Lecture in the History of American Civilization, delivered at Harvard in 1983. For anyone unacquainted with Miss Eudora's literary output, I recommend starting with short fiction ("The Bride of the Innisfallen" is a good starter, followed by "Why I Live at the P.O."), moving on to her chef d'ouevre, the novel The Ponder Heart; this memoir, all 104pp of it, should come after one knows whether one is able to appreciate the particularities and glories of Miss Eudora's work. While I think she would appeal to any able-minded reader, I know from experience that her beautiful sentences sound like preciosity to some readers: eg, "Over a stronghold of a face, the blue hat of the lady in the raincoat was settled on like an Indian bonnet, or, rather, like an old hat, which it was." (from "The Bride of the Innisfallen")

This, to me, is equaled in English by Nabokov's terse clarity, and by little else; but it has been cited to me several times as unendurably cutesy or simply overwritten. I so completely disagree that it's hard to credit the opinion-havers with a shred of taste; however, there are tastes, and there are tastes, so I move on from my digression.

One Writer's Beginnings is told in a narrative voice much like her fiction; it is constructed like the linear tale that a life is when it is reflected on at leisure; and there are so many things in her history, from 1909 and her birth until her last entry in the lecture, a trip by train to New York during the Great Depression as a WPA junior publicity agent, that clearly formed a consciousness of time and place and rightness of things that she uses to such telling effect in her stories. An anecdote early in the book of her parents' morning routine of whistling and humming back and forth up and down the stairs phrases from "The Merry Widow Waltz" illuminates for me the means by which this shy, never-married lady "got" the signals of relationship that are so necessary to the parties in happiness. Another moment, the discovery of two nickels preserved in a hidden box, teaches me that Miss Eudora never felt any unmixed emotion (I won't tell that story, it must be read to be understood) and that is why The Ponder Heart is such a landmark in Southern ficiton.

The death of Miss Eudora's beloved father in 1931 is simply too painful for her to go into; she elides the details and leaves us to infer her pain. It fits with her lifelong lack of interest in talking about herself, but it leaves the reader without an anchor in what had to be a turbulent passage in her life. I can't fault the lady for her reticence, but in this as in several other areas, it would have behooved Miss Eudora to have let others guide her in preparing these talks so as to answer more questions:
It is our inward journey that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.

Well, and therein the rub: It was the last thing she ever wanted to do, answer questions, and it's also why she wrote such marvelous stories, to answer them all unasked:
Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.

Miss Eudora Welty, thank you for all of it, and a safe journey into the future for your gifts to us who follow along behind you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

NOTORIOUS, a major Hollywood star's life of being her own damn self in the unforgiving spotlight



NOTORIOUS: The Life of Ingrid Bergman
DONALD SPOTO

Da Capo Press
$22 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The life of Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) is as compelling as that of any of the women she portrayed in dozens of unforgettable movies and plays—a list that includes Casablanca, Intermezzo, Gaslight, The Bells of St. Mary's, Notorious, Anastasia, and Hedda Gabler. Hers is a story that begins with a tragic childhood in Sweden, then moves on to the nightmare of Germany under the Nazis and later to Hollywood in its golden age. From her position as America's most beautiful, admired, and loved actress, she was plunged into national disgrace and branded "an apostle of degradation" for her adulterous love affair with Roberto Rosellini in the late 1940s. But her independent spirit triumphed in the end, winning her honors and accolades even as she fought an eight-year battle with cancer. Donald Spoto, who knew Ingrid Bergman and had unprecedented access to her husbands, friends, lovers, directors, and costars, as well as to her papers, letters, and diaries, has written a biography that the San Francisco Chronicle called "mesmerizing" and "deeply moving"—the definitive account of a consummate actress who dared to live the truth.

My Review: The subtitle says it all. For those who might be unfamiliar with Planet Earth, Ingrid Bergman was a stunningly beautiful film and stage actress of the 1930s to the 1980s. Donald Spoto, the author, will celebrate his 76th birthday this year (2017); he was a monk, a teacher, and then a pop-culture apologist/celebrist/analyst with some 20-plus celebrity biographies to his credit, plus several books on Christian/mystical themes.

Preston Sturges. Alfred Hitchcock. Grace Kelly. Miss Bergman. Diana, Princess of Wales. All subjects of Spoto's apparently unstoppable urge to biographize, expressed over the past 35-plus years. So look at that list: Is this author gay? Oh my goodness, yes. Gladly and openly so.

I start out each book, then, with a very strong connection to the author. He's One Of Mine. Small moments that might slip past a non-gay reader are here, smirking at me. I *love* that sense of being in on the joke. And that right there? That's the reason people read celebrity bios. They're in the know, they're totally equipped with gossip material, they are Inquiring Minds that are now sated. It's fun. It's harmless. It's hugely profitable.

Well....

IS it fun? For readers of the better quality books about figures of their personal interest, yes...for the fussbudgetty writers, probably...for the cooperative subjects, maybe. At any point in that chain, whether it be a writer whose passion for organizing and categorizing gives out before the job is done, finishing this type of fact-checking nightmare of a book can be awful, and not to mention the bliss and heaven of a source recanting important testimony! Or a cooperative subject who turns uncooperative!

Harmless? Hardly. Harmful in the extreme. We The People do *not* have the right to know what, for example, Ingrid Bergman felt in her last days on this earth as she slowly and painfully died of metastatic breast cancer. That her friends and family cooperated with Spoto, as Bergman herself had in a different context (a series of interviews about Alfred Hitchcock gave birth to this bio of Bergman, because she was very forthcoming with the author), does not absolve the reader of such a book as this of a defensible charge of prurience, and passive or active participation in a cultural trend that leaves those who are not resolutely anonymous with no zone of privacy anywhere ever. Contemplate that for a few seconds. What a horrifying thought. So spend that $30 and feel entitled to ALL THE DIRT!! The dirtier, the better. Then imagine that it's *your* life under this scrutiny.

Profits are made in stacks, for sure and certain, because the books keep a-comin'. Spoto alone has published 29 books to date. The publishers aren't in the charity game, so they're minting the spondulix or there wouldn't be any more.

Okay, all that said...this book was a blast! It gossiped my ears off for two whole days and the pictures were so cool! I loved the evocation of some of my favorite actors and movies and learned interesting new stuff about them all.

I admit it: I am part of the problem. But I have a smile on my face!

Monday, March 13, 2017

IRREPRESSIBLE, Jessica Mitford's life as role model for today's privileged millennial girl



IRREPRESSIBLE: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford
LESLIE BRODY

Counterpoint Press
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, mischief-maker, muckraker. J.K. Rowling calls her her “most influential writer.” Those who knew her best simply called her Decca. Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, she eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew as a teenager. Their marriage severed ties with her privilege, a rupture exacerbated by the life she lead for seventy-eight years.

After arriving in the United States in 1939, Decca became one of the New Deal’s most notorious bureaucrats. For her the personal was political, especially as a civil rights activist and journalist. She coined the term frenemies, and as a member of the American Communist Party, she made several, though not among the Cold War witch hunters. When she left the Communist Party in 1958 after fifteen years, she promised to be subversive whenever the opportunity arose. True to her word, late in life she hit her stride as a writer, publishing nine books before her death in 1996.

Yoked to every important event for nearly all of the twentieth century, Decca not only was defined by the history she witnessed, but by bearing witness, helped to define that history.

My Review: A chronological retelling of the strange life and exciting times of America's finest 20th-century muckraker, from her aristocratic Fascist upbringing to her time in the Communist Party USA, then her years of fame and glory after writing The American Way of Death, her most lasting contribution to literature. Her heartbreaking family life is presented with as many warts as can be expected; her relationships with her equally famous sisters Nancy Mitford, Lady Diana Mosley, Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire, and Unity Mitford the Nazi are discussed in some detail; her husbands and her children are woven through the story, perhaps less so than her birth family.

And yet...and still...Flat. Lacking fizz. Champagne the next day.

It felt to me like the book was the proposal for the book and not the whole enchilada. Taking on a larger-than-life personality like Mitford is always challenging. She's not a person whose dimensions are easy to grasp! This daughter of privilege was unquestionably sincere in her rejection of the world she was born into, and she was completely consistent in making her anger and disdain at the family she left behind clear. (I relate.)

But a biographer who dedicates a mere 344pp to this Force of Nature risks reporting the facts but leaving the feelings behind. I felt that it was too short, so the book was frustrating...I want to know more about *her* and yet I can't imagine a book more thorough than this one is factually.

So what happened? Jessica took the place of Decca (her family nickname)? Mmmaybeee...but no, not entirely. What I think happened is, the balance between Decca and Jessica shifts dramatically after Mitford's first husband Esmond Romilly dies in 1942. We get more Jessica and less Decca. And it ends up not being a satisfying trade-off.

So should you read this fact-stuffed tale of one of life's hellions, a scamp and an imp from the get-go? Yes. She's interesting enough to make familiarity with her life an overall good thing. But don't come in expecting your notions (if you had any) about her to change, they won't. She'll still appeal to you or not based on the well-known and hand-crafted image of a rebel and a scalawag already known.

Still and all, in today's political climate, I want lives like Mitford's to be exhumed and exhibited in front of the entire reading public. Once there were giants, once there were privileged little girls who grew into fierce, antagonistic, brave, *necessary* women who knew fuck-all about fear. Let's grow more of them!