“The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup” conveys the stories of over a dozen individuals, some living the most bizarre lives. (Photo by Maria Pou)

By Maria Pou | Staff Writer

Olympic ice skater Tanya Harding, 10-year-old Colin Duffy, and king of the Ashanti people Kwabena Oppong have at least one thing in common: Each one has a story worth telling. In “The bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People,” author Susan Orlean introduces readers to these characters and many others. The book is a compilation of 20 engaging biographical essays. Before its release in 2001, many of the essays were originally published in The New Yorker, Outside, Esquire, and Rolling Stone from 1986 to 2001

Throughout the book, Orlean profiles subjects from the formerly known to the well-known, but her writing makes it clear that she prefers to write about those who are unknown. “An ordinary life examined,” Orlean wrote, “closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.”

Orlean’s writing captivates readers from all walks of life, but it is particularly valuable for aspiring writers. Through the clever use of dialogue, she creates a poetic voice and intriguing characterization that fill the pages of this biographical essay.

Most of the characters in “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup” are ordinary people. Take Colin Duffy, for example. Colin is a typical 10-year-old. He loves pizza, candy, and Nintendo video games. However, he is also unique and surprisingly thoughtful in so many ways. The reader learns that Colin is an avid recycler and that he thinks Morgan Freeman is the greatest actor. When asked who the most beautiful woman he knew was, he replied, “I think the most beautiful woman in the world probably is my mom.”

Some of Orlean’s profiles are of less conventional characters. “Kwabena Oppong, who is the king and supreme ruler of the African Ashanti tribespeople living in the United States of America, has a throne in his living room,” Orlean wrote.

He lives in a small New York apartment, and his 4-year-old likes to climb all over his throne. King Oppong also happens to be a taxicab driver. Despite his stressful line of work, he still finds time to carry out his kingly duties with grace. Among other tasks, he mediates between spouses in domestic arguments, attends funerals, and leads various council meetings.

Through her quick wit, excitement for life, and masterful use of the English language, Orlean shares the stories of individuals from a wide array of backgrounds. Though not as popular as her New York Times bestseller, “The Orchid Thief,” “Bullfighter” is the best of Orlean’s work. The well-paced book brings to light the truths that each person is unique in his own way, and everyone has a story to tell. Orlean writes in such a way that the chapter on King Oppong is not necessarily more interesting than Colin Duffy’s. Some of the profiles are better than others, and while I found a few to be slow-moving, the majority of the pieces are literary gems.


What’s on your summer reading list? Email Maria Pou at mariacj@hawaii.edu to share your favorite reads.