‘Cool, calm & contentious,’ ‘Opium Nation,’ ‘Hedy’s Folly’
Capsule reviews of comic essays, a look at Afghanistan, and new biography of Hedy Lamarr and a patent that was ahead of its time
COOL, CALM & CONTENTIOUS
By Merrill Markoe
Villard, 288 pages, $24
This has been a great year for funny women, as a new generation has crushed stereotypes about feminine unfunniness both onscreen and in print. Let’s call Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling exhibits A and B. Both owe a debt to those who came before, including Merrill Markoe, who as head writer for “Late Show with David Letterman’’ honed a wry, absurdist tone she would later bring to novels and essays. One piece in her latest collection chronicles her romantic relationship with Letterman (lightly disguised here); wary of combining work and love, she left her job and became a kind of unwed housewife, only to discover he’d begun dating another coworker. Terrible taste in men is one of the themes running through Markoe’s essays; some of her sharpest jibes aim at her own complicity, as when she believed during a college affair that “once I gave in and played along, we would be magically transformed into one of those great artist couples, like whoever that lady was and Picasso.’’
Markoe’s earliest, most awful relationship was with her mother, whom she calls a “relentless and scrupulous cataloguer of my many shortcomings.’’ It was good preparation for her future profession - as she points out, “an awful lot of people who make a living in comedy owe their livelihoods to a similar kind of mom.’’ The book is uneven - essays in which Markoe’s dogs are able to voice their thoughts will appeal to a select audience - but at its best her work marries humor with a tough, well-earned honesty. Contemplating a new outfit, Markoe notes that, “I still don’t look much like that six-foot-tall thirteen-year-old model from the Urban Outfitters catalogue, even though we both have bangs.’’ But she’s much better company.
OPIUM NATION: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman”s Journey Through Afghanistan
By Fariba Nawa
Harper Perennial, 368 pp., paperback, $14.99
When Fariba Nawa’s family left Afghanistan in 1982 she was 9 years old; her American childhood didn’t erase the Afghan identity her parents imparted, her pride in her native land, or memories of her grandfather’s farm, with its “mulberry, cherry, pomegranate, walnut, apple, peach, and orange trees.’’ When she returned to Afghanistan in 2000, the beginning of a seven-year quest to report on, understand, and live in her former homeland, she found her beautiful memories overshadowed by grim realities. The ruling Taliban had crushed people’s social, intellectual, and artistic aspirations, and decades of conflict left the country scarred and impoverished. The following year brought the attacks of Sept. 11, and Nawa next went home to cover the war.
A journalist whose work has appeared widely, Nawa deftly sketches the geopolitical nightmare that is today’s Afghanistan, but the book’s real strength is her detailed, sensitive reporting of individual people’s stories. Focusing on those whose lives have been affected by the country’s opium trade - which is to say, nearly everyone - Nawa interviews drug smugglers, addicts, widows, and prepubescent “brides’’ whose families have pledged them to husbands a generation their senior. About one such child, Nawa writes, “I was immediately attracted to the young girl because she was a mystery and a victim who needed to be saved from barbaric traditions. I thought it was my job as an outsider from the West to rescue her.’’ She’s not alone in the impulse; what makes this book so rewarding is Nawa’s clear-eyed reckoning with a country and a people who are beyond her help.
HEDY’S FOLLY: The Life and Breakthrough Invention of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
By Richard Rhodes
Doubleday, 272 pp., illustrated, $26.95
“Invention is a strange business,’’ writes Richard Rhodes at the start of this captivating account of one of the strangest. This particular innovation, patented in 1942, laid out a method whereby torpedoes could be controlled remotely by means of radio signals that hopped from one frequency to another. Although rejected by the US Navy at the time and overlooked for decades, the idea resurfaced in modern applications including wireless communication and GPS devices. What makes the story unusual is who held the patent: glamorous Vienna-born movie star Hedy Lamarr and her coinventor, American avant-garde musician George Antheil. Dubbed by Hollywood “the most beautiful woman in the world,’’ Lamarr already had one youthful marriage, to millionaire munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, under her belt when she emigrated to the United States in 1937. Realizing that she “must escape or be strangled to death by luxury,’’ she fled Mandl and returned to her first career, acting. Later, she would hint that much of her understanding of torpedoes and other weaponry came from overheard conversations during dinner parties she hosted with her first husband.
Antheil gets short shrift in the book’s title and cover, but he’s arguably the more interesting figure. Before coming to Hollywood, Antheil and his Hungarian wife had lived above Sylvia Beach’s famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, where his notorious Ballet mécanique debuted in 1926. The symphony, which he had conceived for a band of 16 player pianos playing a synchronized score, was performed that day with “eight grand pianos played by eight pianists’’ instead, to an audience that soon erupted in “cat-calls and booing, shrieking and whistling, shouts of ‘thief’ mixed with ‘bravo.’ ’’ Player piano technology would later power Lamarr and Antheil’s invention, and Rhodes does his best to render the engineering sections of his book as lively as their Paris and Hollywood counterparts. He mostly succeeds.