As a substitute you read “Finding Me” to find how she got her courage. She doesn’t have to tell us on the outset that the book originated in her public speaking engagements — each chapter moves toward self-discovery, and even the worst revelations (including sexual assaults, domestic abuse, violence, hunger and a wide range of poverty-related humiliations) include an arrow stating of them. Look, each chapter says, I survived and thrived. Davis’s from-the-shoulder prose doesn’t pretty it up: Her father, MaDaddy, was a source of terror. But he modified, and she or he allowed him to shift his place in her heart. She brings this fierce, cleareyed refusal-to-forget and willingness-to-forgive to her time within the industry, too. She cites the statistics and her own experiences of racism, including some self-abnegating decisions to play roles she knew were beneath her. One of the best parts of the book have this offended clarity; they sound like a call to arms. For fans of her artistry, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere to know the mechanisms of her craft.
Likewise, you won’t discover a key to Harvey Fierstein’s creative mysteries in his kicky memoir, I WAS BETTER LAST NIGHT (Knopf, 384 pp., $30), though you will see that boatloads of charm and gossip and a few sudden ice-water drops into fury. His playwright’s mind is at all times keeping notes, and, as Fierstein says, “The jockey never recalls using a whip. The horse never forgets.” He actually hasn’t forgotten his childhood or time within the Seventies and ’80s downtown theater scene, each of which he describes in lush detail. These unmissable chapters are slick with makeup and sweat: acting in Brooklyn, anonymous sex on the Trucks, a scarifying coming-out experience (don’t leave certain sorts of photos around your own home), late-night snacks on the Warhol Factory’s tab, his first drag costume, AIDS, love, crushes, grief and the primary stirrings of a triumphant talent.
Once we reach the greased-rails a part of his profession — after he broke through, he succeeded fast and young and infrequently — Fierstein assumes a specific amount of familiarity from his reader. So any neo-Harvey-phytes might want to rent “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage aux Folles”; it is advisable to discover a bootleg of his Broadway performances in “Hairspray” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” too, just to completely understand what he’s talking about. He cheerfully addresses regularly asked questions (Why does Arnold have a lot bunny paraphernalia in “Torch Song”?), but reader, beware: These may not be universally asked questions.