Guest Diary

LIZ SMITH: Tales of Romance and Adventure

Aviator, adventurer, racehorse trainer, and author Beryl Markham (and that's not the half of it).
Monday, July 6, 2015
by Liz Smith

Ben and Jen, Theron and Penn — A Tale of Two Splits ... "Circling The Sun" — My Latest Literature Passion.


“IF YOU do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading,” said Lao Tzu.
Statue of Lao Tzu in Quanzhou.
SO Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are no more, after 10 years and three children. This has been one of those unions — in terms of industry speculation, anyway — that was haunted by the famous “My Fair Lady” lyrics: “Doomed before they even take the vows!”

And as you probably know, there have been rumblings for over a year.
Ben and Jen — no more.
Affleck was a famous womanizer before he settled down for domesticity and parenthood with Garner. He had a career of hound-dogging that reached its nadir (or peak, depending on your view of it) with Jennifer Lopez.

He all but left her at the altar. Cable news, then still in near-infancy, and the paparazzi, went wild, salivating over footage and photos of a devastated Jennifer, getting the news from Ben at L.A.’s The Ivy. (Lopez recovered, went on to marry singer Marc Anthony, had children, divorced him. Along the way, she further established herself as an actress, singer and savvy businesswoman. She remains one of the world’s most beautiful and sexy women.)
Still, those of us who liked Ben — a real charmer when he’s “on” — and admired Miss Garner, well, we hoped for the best. But, for all his determination, Ben never looked really happy. I don’t want to read too much into this, however. Maybe, like Kayne West, it could just be his natural expression? He’s not one for the constant show-biz big grin. Ten years is a significant amount of time. In Hollywood years, it’s a miracle.
Wishing both these talented people and their children, an amicable time of it. It is said they are still living together.
INTERESTINGLY, regarding the above, there has been even more gossip and speculation over the split between Charlize Theron and Sean Penn, than the pending divorce of Ben n’ Jen. Theron and Penn dated for two years and were practically engaged. Perhaps chatter about this couple is more intense because they made such an odd pair — the towering blonde goddess and the shorter, weathered, irascible actor and humanitarian.
Sean and Theron.
But they seemed besotted and he certainly didn’t seem to mind her stardom, or even her height. (He’s come a long way from his combative marriage with Madonna. And one assumed he learned some lessons from all those years with the wonderful Robin Wright.)
With Madonna.
And Robin Wright.
But split Charlize and Sean did, several weeks ago, and so suddenly it caused a firestorm of rumor. Including that Miss Theron, once she made up her mind, simply stopped taking his calls and texts. Chilly! Soon, Sean got the message. On the other hand, Penn was rumored to be out on the town shortly after he and Charlize parted and he looked anything but heartbroken. Well, we all grieve differently.

It was a hot two year fling that certainly interested us while it lasted. Nobody married, no children were involved.

Unless you are of the opinion that all actors are children!
Looking anything but heartbroken.
I HAVE raved in this space about Donna Tart's "The Gold Finch" and was even rewarded by meeting the author, by chance, in a midtown Manhattan restaurant. After that, she and I vowed to be friends although she "escaped" soon after to promote her smashing novel in Europe.

I followed this adventure by reading a variety of books, which continues to be the great pleasure of my life.

So next came the tale of a young blind girl and her uncle in Nazi-occupied Vichy, France. And indeed, "All the Light We Cannot See", written by Anton Doerr, was a best seller. I just adored it.

Then I tried but failed to get my picky but brilliant friends to read "The Martian" by Andy Weir. It's not an alien-creature, sci-fi thriller as many think, but an account of an astronaut mistakenly left on the surface of Mars and how he resourcefully survives with the few supplies left behind, also assuaging himself with the music of his youthful past.

Nobody seemed to want my advice on this. But then I saw "The Martian" named on one of those "Best Books of the Year" lists. These are the lists that convince us that we reading all the wrong things. (“The Martian” will be a big movie this summer, starring Matt Damon. I hope it lives up to the book, and I hope audiences are not too tired of space films, such as “Gravity” and “Interstellar.”)

Now I will try my readers patience again with a recommendation that is about real "literature" even when compared to some of the books I've really loved like "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train." (I confess I had to start that last one three times before I got into it. All the characters were so unlikable!)
SO, my latest enthusiasm is for author Paula McLain's new novel. She already hit a home run with "The Paris Wife" — the story of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage, set in the fermenting atmosphere of pre and post World War II in a conquered France.

Now comes Paula’s tour de force based on the barely fictionalized lives of Beryl Markham, Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, the latter better known as Isaac Dinesen of "Out of Africa" fame. (You already know something of these people; they were immortalized onscreen by Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.)
Robert Redford and Meryl Streep as Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen.
But in this new book, titled "Circling the Sun" it is Beryl Markham you'll never forget. She became, in real life, famous too "... as the baffled woman who graduated from girlhood like an ignorant wilderness child, raised mostly by Kenyan natives, a horse-trader and trainer like her father, and a grown up female who turned into a record-breaking aviator."
Record-breaking aviator, horse-trader andtrainer, and all around unforgettable Beryl Markham.
Markham was a British-born child, raised in the life of the exotic colonels who settled 1920's Kenya. Her mother gave her up early on as mama escaped back to England and civilization and Beryl was left in the care of a disciplined pioneer.  Her father loved horses in a world where one slept with a rifle by the bed and lived in the wilds with only the vestiges of comfort contained in British manners, drinking, hunting and sexual carousing which was carefully regulated.
Beryl Markham and her Vega Gull airplane, The Messenger, in Berkshire, England, prior to take off for her solo flight across the Atlantic in 1936.
The girl grew tall,played only with natives, was almost killed by a lion she loved and under-estimated,studied horses at her strict father's knee. She was untamed and uneducated until adolescence forced her into a stifling stiff-upper-lip life of secondary womanhood in the world England took over after the Boer war.

Click to order "Circling the Sun."
This was a life where the "superior" Etonian savagery of local exclusive clubs and necessary drinking paled as the Brits sent their natives without training to die in droves in World War I. All this, and much more, is brilliantly written. I loved it, and ”lived” it.

Paula McCann's delighted Random House publishers, realizing what they have, in “Circling the Sun,” arranged a 20 city author's tour.

I wonder after having imagined such strange glamour and cruelty that the author will be contented to go home to Cleveland which she calls home. There she has a loving family to counter-act all the delightful suspense and dramatic happenings she offers on every page.

Paula McLain is yet another 21stcentury woman who can write rings around the hyper-masculine men who dominate so much of American fiction.

Contact Liz Smith here.