News & Politics

Washington Read: February 2010

Princess Noire By Nadine Cohodas

True callings often stir in the dust of jilted dreams. William Faulkner wanted to be a poet, George Bernard Shaw a painter, Martin Scorsese a priest. Eunice Waymon was dead set on becoming a classical pianist when Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music rejected her application in 1951. That washout, as Washington writer Nadine Cohodas writes in Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, turned into a watershed for Waymon.

In response, she started tickling the ivories at an Atlantic City nightclub. It turned out the pianist had both pipes and panache. She added ballads and show tunes to her repertoire of Bach and Debussy, learned to dress down boisterous onlookers, and, to avoid her Methodist mother’s rebuff at playing the devil’s melody, took the stage name Nina Simone.

The career in jazz and soul music that followed was turbulent and seminal. Simone camped on the fringe of the pop-music charts yet gained iconic status by sticking to her songbook and crafting evocative, sometimes confrontational, live performances. Like Frank Sinatra’s, Simone’s voice—which in songs like “Sinnerman” and “Feeling Good” could both seduce and scald—became richer with age yet remained “the third layer,” as she called it, “complementing the other two layers, my right and left hands.”

Remarkable Creatures By Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is a literary archaeologist, skilled at unearthing treasure from the footnotes of history (The Lady and the Unicorn) or the foreground of classic art (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and flooding the cracks with imagination. To display her findings, Chevalier—who went to Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School and now lives in London—often employs the first-person narrative, a device suited to her chief creative concern: giving voices to characters without one.

In Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier channels the obscure early-19th-century fossil collector Mary Anning, who in this novel must find a way after her father’s death to support her family on the English coast. Enter Elizabeth Philpot, a hard-jawed spinster who goads Anning to capitalize on her hobby even as romantic fissures threaten to cripple their accord. Together, the two uncover a bevy of prehistoric sea creatures that sets off a frenzy of explorers hungry to steal credit.

“Everything is so big and old and far away,” Anning says, finally feeling the weight of what her fossils have unleashed. “God help me, for it does scare me.”

When Things Get Dark By Matthew Davis

Matthew Davis’s stint as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Mongolia was anything but peaceful. The 23-year-old had a dalliance with a married local, got quarantined during a bubonic-plague outbreak, bruised both kidneys in a city-square rumble, and tossed back bathtubs of vodka.

Even calm days in the classroom were spent combating cheating, domestic abuse, laziness, and the unnerving cold weather. “I learned that the Wall Street Journal burns better than the New York Times,” Davis admits.

Although unlikely to become a marketing tool for the Peace Corps—whose doctors routinely discounted Davis’s drinking problem—the memoir is a sincere account of good intentions gone awry and an entertaining splash of cultural anthropology.

On his way back from a road trip to visit Chinggis Khan’s birthplace, Davis learns of the “serious rumor” that the warlord and national hero was reborn in 2000: “Though none of the passengers can give me specifics about where, who, or how they know . . . they don’t doubt its veracity. The people say they’ve seen signs in the sky.”

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