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3 great books for November

November 4, 2010

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

“Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise,” by Sam Irvin, Simon & Schuster, 432 pp., $26.99

Kay Thompson, creator of the Plaza Hotel’s beloved rascal Eloise, must be rolling over in her grave now that all of her secrets are out. Though best known for “Eloise,” the wildly fascinating Thompson was much more than a classic children’s book author.

She was a singer, so talented that she starred in two prime time radio shows simultaneously and on competing networks. She was a vocal coach – the best in the world, they say – who directed the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Lucille Ball. As an actress, she outdid costars Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire and she had the highest paid cabaret show of the 1950s. She was Judy Garland’s best friend and Liza Minnelli’s godmother. She was also an exasperating eccentric who would stomp on anyone to fulfill her limitless ambitions.

And then there was Eloise, Thompson’s squeaky voiced 6-year-old alter ego and eventual literary sensation. In “Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise,” Sam Irvin unearths the legacy behind the woman who gave little girls and grownups everywhere the permission to rebel. After painstaking research and some 200 interviews with many of the show business personalities that knew her best, Irvin puts together an authentic account of a real-life character readers will be hard pressed to forget.

“The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth,” by Richard Conniff, W.W. Norton, 363 pp., $26.95

Before the words “scientist” or “biologist” even existed, there were naturalists. These European and North American amateur animal enthusiasts hunted the world for new life, bravely (some say recklessly) pursuing one of history’s greatest intellectual quests. When Carolus Linnaeus invented a species classification system in 1735, he sparked a society-wide thirst for discovering exotic creatures that infected everyone from Charles Darwin to Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain.

In 1768, for instance, Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander boarded the Endeavor for a three-year circumnavigation of the globe. Among the specimens he brought back were “skin and bones of a creature with a head like a deer, said to rise up on two legs … to go bounding across the grasslands of Australia like a hare.” A fellow explorer christened the creature “kanguru.” Locals, of course, had known the marsupial forever.

Author Richard Conniff has made a career out of writing about animals, and even dabbled in a bit of naturalist behavior himself. In “The Species Seekers” he chronicles two centuries of adventure, and at the same time illustrates important developments in human thought. For as explorers prowled far off beaches and forests, they began to ask questions about the earth, its species, and human origins.

The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, by Adrienne Sharp, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pp., $25

Though her novel is a work of fiction, Adrienne Sharp’s protagonist Mathilde Kschessinska was a real person. She really was a prima ballerina assoluta, and Nikolai Romanov, ill-fated last czar of Imperial Russia, was indeed her lover. Certainly the bones of Kschessinska’s life, set against the backdrop of a devastatingly romantic era, are ripe for a riveting historical tale. Despite a misleadingly unremarkable title, Sharp brings her protagonist to life in “The True Memoirs of Little K.”

Our narrator, a 99-year-old Kschessinska, relates her life in retrospect, as if transcribing her memoir. She tells readers about her rise to highest-ranking female ballet dancer, her never wavering devotion to the tsarevich in an affair that could not go on, and her role within a crumbling family and empire. If the character’s point of view is one-sided, it’s supposed to be.

With beautifully detailed, often conversational, language, Sharp, describes a lost world, pre-revolution Saint Petersburg: “Hundreds of troikas and carriages would clot the palace square, pulling close to the braziers, flames rising like red fountain spray to the black sky.” Her words on ballet, a wholly visual art form, are equally apt.

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