Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt, by Annette Kobak, Vintage, $10.95. Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt was born illegitimately in 1877. Her mother was a Russian aristocratic rebel who fled her elderly husband, a general and adviser to the czar. Her father was a 51-year-old Armenian anarchist ex-priest who posed for years as the family's tutor. No wonder she was confused!
Inspired by Pierre Loti's exotic books about the Middle East, Isabelle wore boy's clothes, studied the Koran in Arabic and reinvented herself as a nomadic Muslim mystic martyr. She fled to North Africa, where she was promiscuous, took drugs and wrote controversial novels and essays published in Europe. She wound up married to a Muslim soldier named Slimene. Her scandalous adventures incited the wrath of the French and Muslim authorities, who thought she was a spy. She was soon stabbed by an Arab who said he was inspired to kill her by an angel of God, then she was expelled from Algeria. In 1904 she died of malaria, and perhaps syphilis. She was 27.
Kobak, a magazine writer from England, offers lyrical prose and perceptive analysis. She links the paradoxes of Isabelle's unorthodox parentage to her desert disguises and illusive quest for an identity. It's a sad, intriguing story about a lost little girl who became the legendary "Amazon of the Sahara."
The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto, by Wallace Stegner, Gibbs-Smith, $12.95.
Bernard DeVoto was a feisty Utah writer, rebel, historian, teacher, polemicist, public defender and acclaimed chronicler of the American West. Stegner, the award-winning writer of more than 20 books, tells the story of DeVoto's life with all its histrionic pain and glory.
Born in Ogden, Utah, in 1897 to a pioneer Mormon farmer mother and a vagrant Catholic intellectual teacher, DeVoto was "precocious, alert, intelligent, brash, challenging, irreverent, literary, self-conscious, insecure, often ostentatiously crude, sometimes insufferable." He published numerous books and essays and taught at Harvard and the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont. There he had a long friendship and falling out with Robert Frost. DeVoto died of a heart attack in 1955, requesting that his ashes be scattered over a Utah forest.
The author, also a Western writer and friend of DeVoto's, is uncritical. He gives a little too much credence to every word of DeVoto's long and didactic theories of love, literature and the Western world at large. Still, it's an engaging portrait of a Rocky Mountain rebel, the country's first intellectual cowboy.
Ginsberg, by Barry Miles, Harper Perennial, $12.95.
Here Barry Miles, an old friend of Allen Ginsberg's, provides a minute-by-minute account of the prolific poet's romp around the world with the Beats. It's a frenetic 600 pages, but it's never boring. How could it be when the subject's bedfellows included Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William Burroughs, and his colleagues were Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Ezra Pound, Abbie Hoffman, several gurus and W.
H. Auden? Ginsberg was born in 1926.
His father Louis was a New Jersey socialist and teacher. His mother was a communist paranoid schizophrenic. To the author's credit, we see the nice Jewish boy scarred forever by his mother's madness, confused about his sexuality, describing his desperation in epic poems such as Kaddish, and Howl. We also meet the generous student, loyal friend and idealist who feeds beggars and carries sick children to the hospital in India. The man that emerges is an almost sane, ludicrously honest poet who said, "I write best when I weep."
Joe Hill, by Gibbs M. Smith, Gibbs-Smith, $11.95.
The legendary labor radical Joe Hill was born in Sweden in 1879. He arrived in New York in 1902 and worked in factories, farms and mines. He soon joined the Industrial Workers of the World and wrote songs that made him the spokesperson for the migrant workers and hobos of America. ("Workers of the world, awaken!/Rise in all your splendid might.") Unfortunately, he was accused of murdering a Salt Lake City grocer and in 1915 was shot through the heart by a five man firing squad.
The structure here is confusing; a chronological order would have made the story more cohesive and easier to follow. The extensive footnotes, which contain important information, should have been incorporated into the text. Still, the book elucidates the errors in Hill's trial and explores the common theory that he was framed by the business, political and religious establishment of Utah.
Complete with a song appendix and political introduction by Joyce Kornblum, this biography tells the history of the American labor movement through the life of one of its heroes, "the man who never died."
Louise Brooks, by Barry Paris, Anchor, $14.95.
The movie star Mary Louise Brooks was born in 1906 in Cherryvale, Kan. At the age of 15, she left home and in rapid succession became a New York City dancer, a chorus girl for Flo Ziegfeld, a Hollywood film flapper and most precocious member of the Jazz Age's Cafe Society.
In this great big gossipy biography, Paris recounts her childhood, numerous romances, two unhappy marriages and bisexual yearnings. We are privy to her relationships with W.
C. Fields, William Powell, Charlie Chaplin, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo and John Wayne (with whom she made the flop Overland Stage Raiders). We learn of her feud with Paramount Pictures and her sexy shenanigans during her 24 movies, which included The American Venus, A Social Celebrity, Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, It Pays to Advertise and Pandora's Box.
There are psychological clues, such as an early sexual molestation in Kansas and her mother's vicarious obsession with Louise's looks and success, as well as a late writing career, alcoholism, poverty and self-exile.
Paris offers a full, insightful and provocative picture of the stubborn actress behind the silver screen.
Susan Shapiro's paperback column appears bimonthly.