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March 19, 2013 3:28 PM

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The Passionate Reader: March 19, 2013

Patricia Volk's new book, "Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me" (Alfred A. Knopf), is a memoir about what she considers two of her biggest influences, her mother, Audrey Morgen Volk, and designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose fragrance, Shocking de Schiaparelli, her...

Patricia Volk's new book, "Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me" (Alfred A. Knopf), is a memoir about what she considers two of her biggest influences, her mother, Audrey Morgen Volk, and designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose fragrance, Shocking de Schiaparelli, her mother wore.


shocked.jpgAt 10, Volk read the designer's autobiography, "Shocking Life," and considered it what she calls a "transformative" experience. Volk weaves together stories about her mother (a great beauty who worked as a hostess at her husband's Garment District restaurant Morgen's West) and Schiaparelli. The designer was thought of as a belle laide, which translates literally as "pretty ugly" but means a woman who is striking, rather than beautiful. Elsa's older sister, Beatrice, was the beauty of the family, as was Volk's sister, Jo Ann. Volk's mother Audrey took her beauty very seriously and considered her face her fortune. The Surrealist-influenced Schiaparelli compensated for her less-than-classically-lovely appearance by becoming a designer whose extreme personal chic and original designs made her a style leader. There are many photographs in the book that depict Volk's family and Schiaparelli's friends and pivotal designs. Other belles laides mentioned in the book: Diana Vreeland and Wallis Warfield Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor. This is Volk's second memoir; she has also written "Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family," along with two short-story collections and a novel. The new book, of course, is encased in a jacket of shocking pink (Schiap's signature color).

the-entertainer.jpgMargaret Talbot's touching, affectionate book "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century" (Riverhead Books) brings her father, actor Lyle Talbot, to life. She also gives us a history of entertainment in the 20th century, since his career spanned many of its forms: vaudeville, theater, movies and TV. He began as a magician's assistant and always felt that when things looked dicey, something would turn up. It did. When he got a telegram to go to Hollywood to test for the movies, for instance, the owner of his latest theater company had absconded, and he had only $5 in his pocket, so he had to ask the agent who had contacted him for funds to travel. Lyle made the transition from potential star to reliable character actor, and even in his personal life, which was characterized by short-lived marriages, something turned up. His much-younger, later-in-life bride, Margaret's mother Paula, whom she calls his "personal jar of sunlight," brought him happiness and a family he had wanted but thought that he would never have. Among his children was Margaret, a writer at The New Yorker and now his biographer.

Beginning+with+the+End.jpgMary R. Morgan's book, "Beginning With the End: A Memoir of Twin Loss and Healing" (Vantage Point Books), tells a story that's familiar to many but not previously told from her point of view. The R. in Morgan's name stands for Rockefeller, and she's a therapist and the twin sister of Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in November 1961 while on an ethnographic and art-collecting trip to visit the Asmat tribe in what was then Netherlands New Guinea. The boat in which he and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing were travelling at the time overturned; their local guides swam the river and went for help. Rockefeller got tired of waiting for aid to arrive and decided to swim for it, at a place about 12 miles from shore. Wassing stayed with the overturned boat in the river and was eventually rescued, but Rockefeller was never seen again and his body never found. This was worldwide news at the time.

Michael was declared dead three years later. By then their father, Nelson Rockefeller, then the four-term (!) governor of New York, who had left the twins' mother -- also named Mary -- two months before Michael vanished, had married his second wife, Happy. But the book is really about Mary's extended recovery from the loss of her twin, and she makes a good case for the idea that it's more difficult to cope with such a loss than that of any other type of sibling. After 9/11, Morgan did grief counseling, specializing in twin loss; 46 twins died in the disaster.

the-fun-parts.jpgShort stories have become more popular of late, possibly because they're bite-size and somewhat easier to read on handheld devices than longer forms of fiction and nonfiction. That said, Sam Lipsyte's short stories are in a class by themselves, with their mordant wit and unexpected twists, as those in his second and latest short-story collection, "The Fun Parts" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), illustrate. Lipsyte himself is a former performer in a noise band who has held onto his sense of black humor through the adult rites of passage that often seem to force attitude adjustments for others -- i.e., marrying and having children. He manages to retain his wicked, wasted point of view about everything, committing it to transactions that take place in relationships, friendships and marriages and even -- sacré bleu! -- parenthood.

Indiscretion+hc+c.JPGBut there's still room for a good novel, such as Charles Dubow's "Indiscretion" (William Morrow/HarperCollins), which concerns a glamorous couple in their forties, noted writer Harry Winslow and his wife, Madeline, who are introduced to the charming young twentysomething Claire. They take her up, and she becomes the third person in their relationship when she falls in love with Harry. Of course, any golden couple in a modern novel must come to dust, and the plot here is no exception to that brass-bound rule. It's to Dubow's credit that the story plays out in a believable manner.

inventor-tycoon.jpgThe jacket copy of Edward Ball's latest book, "The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures" (Doubleday), describes its theme as the "true story of the partnership between the murderer who invented the movies and the robber baron who built the railroads." Ball also wrote "Slaves in the Family" (1998), which won the National Book Award. Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneering photographer, originally from England, who changed his name several times throughout his life, teamed up with railway magnate Leland Stanford, later the founder of Stanford University. The reason: The latter wanted to know the answer to the question of what happened to a horse's hooves when the equine galloped. Was there ever a period of time when all four hooves were off the ground? And if so, in which direction were the hooves facing at the time?

Stanford also helped pay for his defense when Muybridge unexpectedly learned that his wife Flora had been unfaithful to him with a San Francisco con artist, Harry Larkyns. The photographer tracked Larkyns down and shot him to death in front of witnesses, but when the case went to court, the verdict that came back was "justifiable homicide." Even in those freewheeling days, the letter of the law didn't really jibe with this verdict, but no jury would convict Muybridge after learning that his spouse had been in the habit of seeing another man while he was away on his standard long photography trips. Flora often went to the theater with Larkyns -- which Muybridge had told her not to do -- and was with him at the birth of her son, a child that was probably not his.

After his acquittal, Muybridge created many of the thousands of photographs for which he is known, among them the celebrated trotting horse sequence. At one point he got the University of Pennsylvania to back his photography for several years. He had complete freedom to choose his subjects, and many of his shots depicted models -- men, women and even himself -- in the nude. Not surprisingly, the university found this all a bit worrying. Their solution was to fire painter Thomas Eakins, who had been one of his principal backers.
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