I’m assuming these books aren’t usually associated with each other – though both quasi-memoirs, one is relatively esoteric, the other a blockbuster hit; one is filled with anecdotes from a place most Americans have never been, the other so familiar as to allow the reader to be with the author in Chicago and New York City; and one features a protagonist that was “moderately eaten by [a] large lion,” the other… well, doesn’t.
But – perhaps because I read both while traveling through Malawi and Tanzania — I found a number of commonalities in their stories. Both were pioneers (of sorts) in their respective fields, especially but not totally because they were/are women; both are origin tales, explaining how a past sets the mold for the person that comes out later; both made me feel totally, completely inadequate as a writer.
Mostly, both are excellent, excellent books that I very highly recommend. Go buy them now, folks.
West with the Night, by Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham is one of those people in history that will be remembered by a select few, but very fondly. A one-sentence biography would call her the first woman pilot to fly from London to North America east to west (evidently, more difficult than west-east due to the prevailing Atlantic winds). But, as most one-sentence biographies do, that grossly minimizes her accomplishments and her life; that feat only receives on chapter in the book, towards the end.
Markham grew up in modern-day Kenya (then called British East Africa) at a time when Nairobi was growing from a “gateway to a still new country, a big country, and almost unknown country…a collection of corrugated iron shacks…” to “a counting house in the wilderness – a place of shillings and pounds and land sales and trade, extraordinary successes and extraordinary failures,” and the confidence that engenders seems to stay with her the rest of her life.
Her childhood is all horses, near-unbridled freedom, and exploration. She hunts wild boars with the Nandi, brings up horses for her father, and gets “moderately eaten by [a] large lion.” It’s the definition of the idyllic upbringing, if you’re one for adventure.
Later, after Markham has become a very capable horse trainer, she meets a man with a broke-down car, and offers to help. He changes the direction of her life by discussing “aeroplanes;” Markham puts it wonderfully: “A word grows into a thought – a thought to an idea – an idea to an act. The change is slow, and the Present is a sluggish traveler loafing in the path Tomorrow wants to take.” This man – Tom Black, founder of Wilson Airways, the first commercial flight operator in East Africa – teaches her to fly.
And fly she does – first, carrying mail; then, individuals; and finally, hunters searching for elephants (the first to do so by airplane). One of her companions, the “White Hunter” Baron von Blixen, is with her for most of the last third of the book, through porter mutinies, daring rescues, and a long trip from Nairobi to London. This was my favorite section of the book.
About that trans-Atlantic flight: it receives scant attention, and rightly so – her other stories stick out as more vivid encapsulations of her life. It’s clearly a remarkable feat for anyone – man or woman – to accomplish, but just doesn’t hold the reader like the rest of the book.
And the writing; my God, the writing. Markham is, without question, one of the better writers I’ve come across, ever; in one of his letters, found years after Markham’s book was published (1942) and subsequently lapsed into obscurity, Ernest Hemingway agreed, saying that Markham
“…has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen…it really is a wonderful book”
Take, for instance, the inexorable move from day to night. For me, it’s pretty simple: the sun goes down. For Markham, though, “the sun reigned and there were no aspirants to his place…There is no twilight in East Africa. Night tramps on the heels of Day with little gallantry and takes the place she lately held, in severe and humourless silence…”
That’s only one of thirty or forty paragraphs I highlighted in the book to taunt myself with my writing inadequacy, in the hopes of having a modicum rub off.
Just do yourself a favor and buy/download the book.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
I was late to this book. Surely, most of you have already read it; to anyone who hasn’t: what are you waiting for?
The whole book is Tina Fey; what I mean is that her voice comes through so magnificently that it seems she’s sitting next to you, telling her life story over a glass of wine, and quite loudly. Irreverent, honest, and side-splitting, her account of her life as a child and young woman is enlightening – especially the part about blue liquid, periods, and the dangers of hyper-literal trust in marketing.
Fey’s view from the inside of the comedy scene is brutally honest. Her, on whether women are “funny” and those that think they aren’t: “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it’s empirically not good.” And one of the most-quoted sentences: “I have a suspicion that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Of her time at Saturday Night Live much is written, but best summed up by this: “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”
I laughed hardest during the chapter where Fey answers hate mail found on the internet; allow me to quote it just once: “To say I’m an overrated troll, when you have never even seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair.”
The bits of advice she doles out about being a woman in the workplace seem dead-on, and she manages to provide them without sounding preachy, pedantic, or overly-simplistic, which is a feat in and of itself. My favorite of these: “Some people say “Never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”
She’s incredibly honest, even when the truth is quite unflattering; this is, in quasi-memoirs, pretty unusual. When anthrax was found at 30 Rockefeller, she got up and left everyone behind; it was only later, when Lorne Michaels offered her a way to come back and save face that she returned. She didn’t have to include that anecdote, but did, both to highlight Michaels’s excellent management style and ostensibly for the sake of fidelity to the truth of her, good and bad.
But you don’t need my recommendation. Like one of my favorite gags from the Simpsons said: fifty million people can’t be wrong!
 Bossypants on a bus ride from southern Malawi to Lake Malawi. As my traveling companions will tell you, I looked a fine fool on that bus, giggling to myself incessantly. You can decide if you’re comfortable reading it in public
 “In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love they neighbour’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop – another time he may stop for you.”
 He also included a bit of misogyny, which isn’t always included in the shortened quote: “…this girl, who is to my knowledge a very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch…”