The Lives and Loves
of M.F.K. Fisher
North Point Press:
528 pp., $27.50
Biographies can be a dodgy business; at best, they add; at worst, they subtract. Devotees of M.F.K. Fisher are a whole-hog bunch: We devour everything written by or about this singular author. I am happy to report here that Joan Reardon adds a great deal to the picture of the woman who wrote in such a restrained manner about her personal life.
Fisher was not prone to self-pity, although her life was full of suffering: a painful divorce from Al Fisher; the disease and suicide of her great love, Dillwyn Parrish; a third, disastrous marriage to Donald Friede; two daughters and single motherhood; the suicide of her brother, David; estrangement from her sister, Anne; and finally the instability and depression of her daughter, Anna. “Poet of the Appetites” presents a more emotionally frail and self-delusional (and in some respects less likable) woman than do other biographies -- but also a more human one.
Reardon’s is the first biography to focus on Fisher’s life as a mother and caregiver, a role that took up most of her time -- involving not just sweet little jaunts to France with her daughters but efforts to balance the needs of her aging parents with the needs of her siblings and her children. She was, at times, a pillar of pure strength in the most fundamental sense of moving in and taking over a household when people needed to be fed and cared for. She was, Reardon reveals, also capable of great neglect, particularly of her youngest daughter. She was extravagant -- we knew that. She was flirtatious and manipulative -- we knew that as well.
Wars raged while she composed meals, seemingly disconnected from her era. But Reardon’s biography shows how consumed she was by the practical: her survival and the survival of those she loved. It is also the first simply put account I have read of her affair with Marietta Voorhees, drama teacher in St. Helena, Calif., Fisher’s final home. “Poet of the Appetites” leaves a taste of Virginia Woolf in the mind of the reader -- a certain vulnerability, a buffeting by the world even as the writer struggled to focus on her work, her voice, her contribution.
Inside JetBlue, the Upstart
That Rocked an Industry
Barbara S. Peterson
Portfolio: 288 pp., $24.95
One is torn, of course, between reluctance (the desire to read as little as possible about all things aeronautical) and curiosity about this phoenix that rose five years ago from the ashes of airline deregulation and about the man who created it, David Neeleman. Neeleman, born in 1959, a seventh-generation Mormon, did not share the romantic ideas about flight that inspired a great many of his colleagues in the industry. In Barbara Peterson’s account, he seems to have been driven more by an almost civic sense of entitlement to reasonable airfares and decent service.
Stung by a business failure (cheap vacations in Hawaii) while he was still in college, Neeleman reluctantly reentered the world of risk when he founded Morris Air with some colleagues in the early 1990s. In 1993, Morris was bought by Southwest Airlines and Neeleman went to work for his hero, Herbert Kelleher. Peterson’s book is full of larger-than-life airline magnates like Kelleher, Donald Burr of People Express and Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic.
It’s fun to read about simple ideas that change the way we do things -- like paperless tickets and paperless operating manuals (pilots using laptops for the first time). It’s fun to watch Neeleman and his fledgling staff learn from their mistakes, like placing an advertisement for flight attendants in the Village Voice. And it’s always fun to watch the whoosh of good ideas hit the brick walls of habit and bureaucracy -- even more so when those ideas eventually triumph over the old, the inhuman, the unfriendly. In the airline business, the chess pieces are so huge (airport authorities, the Federal Aviation Administration, millions of customers per day) that it’s like watching a game of wizard’s chess at Hogwarts. The smart, fast, little guy wins!