New York Times
Bette Midler Is Still in the Thrall of 19th-Century Novelists
NYT Book Review Staff
December 2, 2021
“I love Dickens and Twain above all,” says the actor and singer Bette Midler, whose latest children’s book is “The Tale of the Mandarin Duck.”
The Greatest Book Ever: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”
What books are on your nightstand now?
A better question is “What’s NOT on your nightstand?” There are things I’ve been hoarding, things I don’t have the courage to tackle just yet, gifts, books I buy on impulse, and P. G. Wodehouse, a perennial. One year, my family gave me the entire Penguin Classics library and some of it is rough sledding, like “Gargantua and Pantagruel.” Politics, race, acting, history, religion, arts, the environment, detective stories, whatever the new fiction is, plus poor old Auden and Walt Whitman, who have been patiently standing by for years.
What’s the last great book you read?
I recently reread “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Hands down, one of the greatest I’ve ever read. Yesterday I finished “The Parade’s Gone By,” by Kevin Brownlow, and it finally fell apart; it’s about the silent movie era. I bought it in the ’70s and finally got around to reading it. Unforgettable.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Hanging over the side of the bed with the book on the floor and a box of Ritz crackers (Mister D: Yes. this is what I eat when I read) nearby.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Southern California: An Island on the Land,” by Carey McWilliams. A history of how Los Angeles was marketed to the unsuspecting in the Midwest, and the various scandals and horrors the local scalawags visited upon them when they arrived, as well as crimes against minorities and the land. Published in 1946.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk,” “Personal Finance for Dummies” and Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
Who Are Your Contemporary Favorites? Novelists, Playwrights, Critics, Journalists, Poets
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I’m embarrassed to say that I am still in the thrall of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I love Dickens and Twain above all, but there are a lot of writers working today that I admire; Michael Lewis, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hilary Spurling, Matt Taibbi,(Mister D: he hasn’t changed, only those where party is more important than logic and facts), bell hooks, Michael Lewis, Naomi Wolf (Mister D: excellent choice, read more) Elean or Catton, Bryan Stevenson, Michiko Kakutani. Did I mention Michael Lewis? And she’s not working today, but the extraordinary Nora Ephron meant the world to me.
Who are your favorite actor-writers? Your favorite Hollywood memoir?
I devour oral histories on movies and music: Peter Bogdanovich’s “Who the Devil Made It”; “People Will Talk,” by John Kobal; “She Always Knew How,” Charlotte Chandler’s oral history of Mae West. Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Ben Hecht, Gloria Swanson. Marlene Dietrich, by her daughter, Maria Riva. Joan Crawford’s book on entertaining is hilarious. Tina Fey’s book is killer. Tiffany Haddish’s book, a must-read, and I loved Amy Poehler’s. Candy Bergen, Sally Fields, Eve Babitz, and, of course, Joan Didion have all written brilliantly about their Hollywood lives. I loved Jean Stein’s last book, “West of Eden.” R. J. Wagner’s memoir on Hollywood, surprisingly very moving. I cried. Anita Loos’s “A Girl Like I” is just wonderful. I wish I had known her.
Of all the characters you’ve played across different media, which role felt to you the richest — the most novelistic?
I have played several characters who began their lives as characters in actual novels, but I guess I’d have to go with C. C. Bloom, in “Beaches.” I know it’s sentimental, and yet the span of years, the highs and lows, this relationship, the brilliant performances of Mayim Bialik and Barbara Hershey — you can’t deny it certainly struck a chord.
What character from literature would you most like to play?
Any woman of a certain age in anything by Shakespeare, Dickens, Congreve, Dryden, or Sheridan.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The scene in the church, where a woman gets the spirit and rushes the pastor, is one of the funniest things I have ever read.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
What subject do you wish more authors would write about?
Race and Reconstruction. The villainy of the impeached Andrew Johnson should be common knowledge, but it is not. Our children should be made aware that we are still living with the consequences of Reconstruction. I’m 75, and it was news to me.
Which Genres Do You Especially Enjoy Reading
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I speed-read memoirs, diaries, and biographies. James Beard’s memoir, “Delights and Prejudices,” Alex Haley’s “Malcolm X” made a huge impression on me, Andre Agassi’s memoir was fantastic. “Chronicles,” by the greatest actor of them all, Bob Dylan, is stunning, Keith Richards’s “Life”? I went out the next day and bought a guitar. “M Train,” by Patti Smith, Levon Helm’s “This Wheel’s on Fire” is great, both Aretha books by David Ritz, Roseanne Cash’s book “Bodies of Water,” Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber’s autobiography, “Hound Dog.” The Duc de Saint Simon, three volumes at the court of Louis XIV, is superb. I recently received a copy of the unedited diaries of Chips Channon, YIKES. Still, my favorite is Quincy Troupe’s book with Miles Davis, “Miles: The Autobiography.” And I’m going on record to say I LOVED Mariah Carey’s autobiography, “The Meaning of Mariah.” She sent it to me with a box of Kleenex. I never, ever read horror.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide.” And the Bible.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
My mother taught me to read when I was 4, and I became a compulsive reader. My parents left us kids in the Honolulu public library every Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., while they did their shopping. I wandered all over. I read Grimm’s, Hans Christian Andersen, the Betsy-Tacy and Tib books, “Freddy the Pig,” “The Borrowers,” “The Boxcar Children,” “The Secret Garden” (very important), a lot of boys’ adventure and magazines. Especially Life! It showed me the world. When I was 12, I read “The Last of the Just” and I never got over it.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Charles Dickens, Fran Lebowitz and Vladimir Nabokov.