Monday, January 27, 2020

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. The Air You Breathe is definitely one of those books I had no idea existed, and likely would never have decided to read. We had a great discussion about this book, I must say, and it was universally enjoyed by our club.

The Air You Breathe is historical(ish) fiction. I give it the qualifying “ish,” because it doesn’t particularly closely follow history, in the usual sense. Since Sir Walter Scott essentially created the genre (although you could argue that Shakespeare - or Herodotus - should get credit for that), there have been certain rules about how to do it. If an historical person is the subject (or comes into the book), that person must at least not contradict the know facts about him or her. The historical events should be reasonably accurate, at least as to the major events. It is okay to focus on fictional characters rather than the historical figures; Scott often did this. As I said, these are the usual rules, whether you agree with them or not, so when they are bent, it stands out. 

So, this book is very loosely based on two historical figures, Carmen Miranda and Chavela Vargas. And when I say “loosely,” I do mean “loosely.” The book is essentially “about” a Brazilian singer (Graca, aka “Sofia Salvador”) with more than a passing resemblance to Carmen Miranda. It is told from the perspective of her former servant and then best friend Dores, who is sort of based on Chavela Vargas. Obviously, there is a huge bit of license taken here. The two of them were, in real life, not connected at all, coming from different countries (Brazil and Mexico, respectively), and different styles of music. Oh, and they were 10 years apart in age too. There are plenty of other differences. The real Carmen Miranda didn’t die of suicide at age 26 - although she did die in her 40s of a heart attack with alcohol and drugs (the Hollywood studios were thoroughly complicit in this death as with others) as factors. And the real Miranda wasn’t an heiress, exactly, either. 

So, what I would instead say is that the part of the book that details Sofia Salvador’s professional trajectory hews pretty closely to the real story of Carmen Miranda. And the character of Dores is definitely patterned after that of Chavela Vargas, although the story has rather little in common with Vargas’ biography. 

Having explained all that, the point of the book isn’t really to tell history, but to tell an engrossing tale of friendship, music, love, desire, and grief. And at that, the book does a good job. I found it quite the enjoyable read - in the vein of a light summer book rather than literary fiction. For the most part, the writing is good, although not exactly profound, and the story keeps one turning the pages. There is also a cast of interesting characters, although I did kind of wish a few of them had been fleshed out a little better. But, this is the consequence of the narrator - Dores - being obsessed with Graca and focusing on her throughout. 

It isn’t quite accurate to describe what Graca and Dores have as a friendship, I think. Graca is not really capable of true reciprocity or love - for anyone. She has her obsession with being a star, and she turns out to be really good at it. This does in fact reflect the real story of Carmen Miranda. She too went from obscurity to being a well-respected singer in Brazil. Then, she went to Hollywood during World War II, when the US suddenly needed South American allies, and started casting Latinos as exotic and desirable characters, rather than villains with mustaches and accents. The typecasting, discrimination, and exhausting hours that the book describes are accurate as well. 

As a musician, though, the scenes involving music were the ones that I enjoyed the most. The “roda” - the circular samba jam sessions - was rather like some of the jazz, blues, bluegrass, or rock oriented jams I have had the pleasure of participating in (although not on the regular scale described in the book.) The guitarist, Vinicius, who holds the band together musically and artistically, is well written, and very much of a recognizable type to any working musician. He is the guy that everyone knows is the key to the whole thing - if he (or she in many cases) leaves, the center cannot hold. And he (or she) is so devoted to the music that money or commercial considerations always take a back seat to the groove. 

Likewise, any working musician can recognize Graca. She is a diva. A really talented and mesmerizing diva. But a diva nonetheless. She doesn’t want to make time to practice, but can just jump in at the last moment and nail it anyway. (Something only possible on a solo part - don’t try that if you are a rhythm section player.) Everyone in the band knows that she (or he - there are plenty of male divas too) sells the records, lands the good gigs, and draws the crowds. But they (we - I’m experienced here) also know that it is all that hard work behind the scenes that makes the diva’s act possible. Without the practice and the dedicated background artistry, a band sounds like crap, no matter how good the lead singer. As long as a band has only one diva, this works, and everyone succeeds. More than one diva, and, well, the history of music is littered with the wreckage which results. 

I would also say that the relationship between Graca and Dores is fascinating. There is the initial dynamic, between servant and (young) master, that reflects the uneasy tension between children who want to be friends and the knowledge (which dates nearly from birth) of an uncrossable social gulf. Graca will always be loved by her parents and have a place to live as long as they do. But Dores, an orphan, could be abandoned to fend for herself or starve with impunity. True equality in a relationship is pretty doomed under those circumstances. Then when the two of them run away from the convent school to fend for themselves in Rio, things have to shift. After all, Dores is now the competent one in most ways, and tires of being expected to continually feed Graca’s ego. 

Complicating this is Dores’ sexuality. The real life Chavela Vargas was a lesbian, while Dores is written as a lesbian-leaning bisexual, so it isn’t a perfect match. But it is clear that Dores is madly in love with Graca - obsessed with her more than with anyone else. No other relationship she has with men or women really comes close to the level of passion that she has for Graca. 

Graca, on the other hand, is pretty strongly heterosexual, although her inability to form real bonds means that her sexual relationships with men are about her rather than deep bonding with another human. So this is the great unrequited love of Dores’ life, the one she obsesses over until she dies in her nineties, the one she nearly drinks herself to death over, and the one that haunts the story she tells. The author makes the relationship thoroughly believable, despite the outsized personality of Graca. 

The other characters are fascinating as well. There is Nena, the servant woman who adopts Dores after her mother dies. Nena can seem harsh to Dores, but at the core of this is the reality that Dores has to learn to survive in a world in which she is disposable. (If you read the slave narratives, this was rather common - and still persists today in the cultures of vulnerable minorities around the world. Survival often depends on a superhuman ability to submerge one’s dignity and natural human responses to abuse - and so parents and others feel they have to essentially abuse their children to train them to hide their hurt and anger.) Nena, though, ends up risking her own future to see Dores get a chance to thrive. 

Senhora Pimentel, Graca’s mother, is complicated. Married off at a young age to a dissipated and selfish man who wanted her money and an heir, she does her best to protect her daughter and show kindness to Dores. Her early death in childbirth is partly responsible for Graca’s self destructive behavior. 

I also enjoyed “Madame Lucifer,” the mobster who becomes Graca and Dores’ protector and promoter. He is the first to recognize two key things: Graca is a world-class vocalist and entertainer, and Dores has the ambition and ruthlessness to survive in a hostile world. He sees himself in Dores, so to speak. 

There are no truly simple characters in the book. Everyone is flawed in some way, and selfish in many. Even Senhor Pimentel, who is pretty dang loathsome - I mean, he rapes the servant girls as soon as they hit puberty, drinks constantly, and shows up late in the game to sponge off of Sofia Salvador - but he also acts very much in line with societal expectations. He marries for money, and tries to enable Graca to do the same. The fact that she would rather become a singer (a disreputable profession for an aristocrat!) isn’t his fault. And in his own mind, he is rescuing Graca from the clutches of the unscrupulous Dores by horning his way in as manager. He isn’t entirely wrong in his assessment of Dores, honestly. She doesn’t play by the rules - that’s a luxury for those for who wrote the rules to be in their favor. But she arguably does love Graca more than Senhor Pimentel does - loves her as a person, not as female chattel to be properly settled in life. Ultimately, Senhor Pimentel makes a fatal mistake in thinking that he can use his position as the man who legally controls Graca until she marries (and another man takes over ownership) and simply outlast Dores. But Dores refuses to be outlasted - and sees no reason to play fair either. 

But I am probably revealing too much of the book at this point. The story is engrossing, the characters are memorable and compelling, and the book makes a great vacation read. I wasn’t sure I would like it when our club chose it, but it grew on me pretty quickly. 


Our book club hosts played a loop of Carmen Miranda scenes (and played her music) during the time before our discussion. While I was familiar with Carmen Miranda, I hadn’t really seen much of anything she was in. (My wife is a different story - her knowledge of old movies and music is astonishing.) I was struck by just how electric she was. There is no doubt that she was the most interesting thing in every scene, and it was hard to look away from her face, despite the ludicrously over-the-top staging. She was one of those divas who was truly a superstar. 

Just for fun, here is what is probably her most famous - or infamous - scene, “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.” The book contains essentially a description of the filming, and the other diva in the film: director Busby Berkeley. I am inclined to agree with the New York Times review of the film, in which the reviewer said, “Mr. Berkeley has some sly notions under his busby. One or two of his dance spectacles seem to stem straight from Freud.” Yeah, there is some...ahem...disturbing imagery in this scene. And also a potential source of George Lucas’ idea of the Sarlaac. You won’t be able to unsee it once you see it. 

And, in contrast, here is some more authentic Samba:


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

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