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Check It Out

Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Three Very Different Women Look Back At Their Lives

I seem to choose books the way I shop—browsing until something catches my eye. Making titles fit a theme when they're chosen on the spur of the moment is a challenge. This month, the common denominator seems to be stories about living, so we'll say these titles are memoirs and use the term loosely.

Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy by Phyllis Diller, with Richard Buskin (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005).

Since I'm sure you're wondering, the title refers to Miss Diller's trademark style of dress—fright wig, short gaudy dress, and sequined ankle boots. "Never judge a book by its cover," though. We're all familiar with the act, which she performed for the better part of five decades. Marriage to chronically-unemployed Sherwood Diller (who was not Fang, but wanted to be) and bringing up five children in near poverty gave rise to her crazed housewife routines. Determination, talent, and a deliberately positive outlook took her to the top, making her the first woman comic to stand shoulder to shoulder with the male greats—Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and many others. Comedy aside, she is also a trained concert pianist who's performed with over 100 symphony orchestras, and an artist whose paintings sell for thousands. Even more surprising given her well-known screeching laugh, she was a gifted singer with a decent soprano. Now 87, she and co-author Buskin paint a picture of a long career full of personal tragedy, professional triumphs, and plenty of humor.

Fat girl; a True Story by Judith Moore.

Weighing 112 pounds in second grade, the author grew up agonizingly lonely, miserably uncomfortable with her weight, and filled with self-loathing. Her father, also overweight, left the family when she was four. Her mother was a raging, cruel woman who beat her and subjected her to vicious verbal abuse. One of the most painful scenes in this long catalog of unhappiness is the account of a visit to a department store to buy school clothes, where Moore's mother told the clerk she was helping the daughter of a friend. There are occasional bright spots, like a lengthy visit with Uncle Carl. He loved her, cooked for her, and let her eat whatever she wanted, until she actually began to think of herself as human—for a time. There are two things that keep this book from being too painful to read. One is the lush, lyrical descriptions of food. The other is the author's absolute lack of self-pity; still overweight, she has come to accept her weight as the thing that makes her herself. Moore is an award-winning author who has given us an unflinching look at what it's like to be a "fat girl."

Ghosting by Jennie Erdal.

In the 1980's, Erdal became a foreign-language editor for a smart London publishing house run by a wealthy, kind, excitable man she calls Tiger. He is, in fact, Naim Attallah of Quartet Books. She was soon enlisted to help him add authorship to his list of accomplishments, and began a 15-year stint as his gifted and loyal ghostwriter. Working from her home in Scotland, with periodic visits to London and occasional jaunts to luxurious retreats in France, Erdal cranked out everything from personal letters to full-length novels for her eccentric boss. Her insights into the schizophrenic deception of ghostwriting are fascinating. She manages to be proud of her own work and pleased with Tiger's success at the same time. Glimpses of her own life are a counterpoint to the excesses of her job; she raises children, divorces, falls in love and remarries, all while working in an environment that was by turns kooky, exhilarating, exasperating, and just plain weird. As the second novel progressed, Erdal seemed to feel that her deception had simply become too Byzantine. She left her job soon after its publication, and says simply, "Things would never be different again." This book caused a scandal when it was published in London, where its subject—and his writing—are well known.

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.