Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

In our last, very exciting episode, I began the saga of Run-DMSteve’s Big Fat 2014 Reading Theme. I told you about the four biographies I read that had their moments but never reached escape velocity. Today we’re going to leave Earth orbit with the five best biographies of the year.

I should note that I like to read about the lives of people I could imagine myself being; for example, famous writers and editors or the occasional magician or Arctic explorer. I’ve never imagined myself to be the queen of Egypt, but I was mesmerized by Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (2010).

Cleopatra may have been one of the most influential leaders in the formation of the Western world, but her story has never been her own to tell. We’ve been suckered by 2,000 years of anti-Cleopatra propaganda. We’re not even sure what she looks like.

Schiff sweeps aside centuries of lies and does a brilliant job of revealing the smart, daring woman who led her kingdom in an era as dangerous as Europe before World War I. Sadly, she backed the wrong man in the war that created the Roman Empire. Mark Antony wasn’t good boyfriend material after all. Octavian took “Emperor” as his new job title, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt became a Roman province.

Cleopatra: A Life (which won Schiff her second Pulitzer) reminds me of another superlative book, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984). Connell pulls off the same trick, wading through the myths to find the truth about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Cleopatra Fun Fact: Cleopatra had about as much Egyptian DNA as Elizabeth Taylor.

Bonus Cleopatra Fun Fact: Egypt is so old that when the action in this book begins, the Sphinx had just had a face-lift…1,000 years before.

Extra Innings Cleopatra Fun Fact: When Cleopatra needed some muscle, she hired Jewish mercenaries from Judea.

Back to the dead white guys. (My people!) Next up is A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978). Max Perkins was the first to publish F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. By the standards of his time, Perkins took a risk with all three. All three were fascinating characters, though I found Wolfe’s behavior intolerable. I couldn’t wait for him to die and get the hell out of the book, but I have to admit, he stole the show.

This seems appropriate for a man who never stopped writing. If you asked him to cut 10,000 words, he’d come back a week later with an extra 20,000. Actually, he wouldn’t come back, you’d have to go get him. The day that Perkins went to Wolfe’s apartment and informed him that Of Time and the River was done, just put the pages in order and surrender it, is one of the classic moments in U.S. literature.

Berg demonstrates the gifts Perkins brought to his work and shows why everyone loved him, where his sense of duty came from, and why he was always so damn unhappy (see sense of duty). I enjoyed reading about all the writers who were Perkins’ boys and girls (to the Big Three you can add James Jones and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings). Afterwards I felt as if I had lived all the decades I’d just read about.

Max Perkins Fun Fact: Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe were father and son, teacher and student, guardian and rebel, and finally adversaries (Wolfe’s choice). Wolfe died in 1938. The last thing he wrote was a letter to Perkins. Perkins died in 1947. The last thing he edited was an introduction to a collection of Wolfe’s papers at Harvard.

Now let’s ride the elephant in the room: the 6’6” Thomas Wolfe. (He was the same height as Michael Jordan and one inch taller than Chuck Connors.) David Herbert Donald, who won a Pulitzer for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1989), favors the idea that Wolfe was a genius. He believes that Wolfe’s editors put a strait-jacket on his prose to make it fit into conventional books.

But he also makes it clear that Wolfe had all the stability of the San Andreas Fault. John Dos Passos called Wolfe a “gigantic baby.” A psychologist who met Wolfe on a train and had dinner with him said that he “ate somewhat the way he talked [continuously], except that things were going the other way.” Inviting this guy over to your house was asking for trouble.

Wolfe never held a job, never learned to type or drive, never had a successful relationship. He couldn’t manage any device more complicated than a zipper – which was handy, because after he became famous, he was thrilled to find that he no longer had to pay for sex.

Somehow, Wolfe attracted many devoted friends, male and female. Fitzgerald said that of all the writers of their generation, Wolfe had the “deepest culture.” Maxwell Perkins tried to teach him how to write novels, his agent Elizabeth Nowell tried to teach him how to write short stories, and his women friends tried to teach him how to be a man. None of them got very far. And yet as gross as Wolfe was, this book is engrossing.

Thomas Wolfe Fun Fact: It was Wolfe who figured out why most protagonists in fiction are young: no one lives long enough to know how to write old characters.

Julie Phillips did a noteworthy job in James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006). Tiptree was an acclaimed science-fiction writer of the 1970s and ’80s. I knew nothing about him, except that he was actually a woman and that she and her husband committed suicide when they were old and her husband was sick.

Now I am stunned by her life. Alice Sheldon, who was born in 1915, started out as a spoiled rich kid. She was headed for a debutante’s ball and an early marriage into wealth. Instead, she became a bohemian painter, a WWII photo interpreter for the Air Force, a CIA bureaucrat, a psychologist, and finally a trail-blazing, feminist writer. This doesn’t count her youthful sideline as a sexual hellcat.

She was probably bisexual, but she had no knowledge or even a vocabulary for what she wanted from women. She came to believe she was an “alien artifact” in a woman’s body; she was a woman who could only write about women by becoming a man. She was so isolated socially that she once claimed she had never held a baby.

Even if Tiptree’s fiction is not the sort of fiction you like to read, this is the kind of life you should read about. Of all the biographies I read last year, her life was the most strange, and yet her soul was the most…human.

James Tiptree Fun Fact: I’ve met some of the writers who corresponded with Tiptree. This gave me the chance to be nosy and read their correspondence.

Finally, my favorite book of the year: Updike, by Adam Begley (2014). John Updike was my writer hero, and after his death in 2009 I was eager to read the first biography. I was not disappointed. This is not just a book, this is an event.

I used to think that the gap between me and John Updike was about the size of the Grand Canyon. I was wrong. It’s from here to the Moon.

I can’t write objectively about Updike or this awesome biography. Instead I’ll just quote from Orhan Pamuk’s review in The New York Times: “This book’s overall effect on me is a desire to sit down at my desk and work harder and write more.”

John Updike Fun Fact: Lots of children have imaginary friends, but how many adults write 179-page books about their imaginary friend? That’s what Nicholson Baker did in U and I: A True Story. Almost nothing in this true story is true, and yet everything is true, and it was all inspired by Baker’s love for Updike, “a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!” Possibly the weirdest book on my lifetime reading list, not counting Baker’s other books.

Thanks for reading along, even those of you who clicked away in the first sentence and the rest of you who never scroll down. I am caught up with 2014. Back to the music!


When I launched this blog in 2010, I knew that sex and motherhood were the showstoppers of the blogging world. I knew that if you combined the two, you’d end up with a book deal. So naturally, I decided to write about music. This helps explain why, though money and I sometimes fall into bed, money always leaves early the next morning.

(Notice how I worked in sex there. You can sometimes catch a glimpse of sex in this blog, but we’ll never come near motherhood unless my mother happens to be having a birthday – which she did last week. Good work, Mom.)

Today’s post is another guaranteed money-maker: Part I of what books I read in 2014. But stay with me and I’ll offer you the first-ever Run-DMSteve sex tip!

A few Decembers ago, when I made my resolutions for the new year, I decided to give myself a reading theme. That first theme was 19th-century U.S. novels. I got through all the Little Women books and a couple of others, and then I cheated on my theme. I confess that I cheated several times. Then I gave up my theme because I thought I’ve cheated so what was the point? This was sort of like quitting your diet because you accidentally ate all the chocolate chip cookies.

Now I want to accidentally eat all the chocolate chip cookies.

In December of 2013 I realized that this sort of neg-head downer thinking will never get me anywhere. So I cheat on my theme – so big deal. We’re all adults here. I can always go back to my theme. I resolved to try again in 2014, this time with biographies. I chose this theme because I had collected lots of them but I’d read very few. So here’s the first half of my report, now with 50% more sex!

Writing a biography and making a life come alive is tough work. You need an interesting subject, or a subject you can make interesting. Things get a lot tougher if you’re a bad writer. That’s what happened with our first contestant, Gordon F. Sander’s Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (1992).

Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone, thought up the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes, and was one of the best storytellers of television’s first golden age. Gordon F. Sander can tell a story, but not well. To be sure, he finds it almost impossible to begin a sentence without “To be sure.” Indeed, he can’t resist “Indeed,” either. Plus he’s the author of this immortal sentence, about the reaction of Serling’s future wife on meeting him when they were students at Antioch University:

At first, she admitted, she was as overwhelmed by the leather-jacketed kamikaze as the rest of the distaff Antiochans Serling had brought to ground.

If you loved The Twilight Zone and if you can absorb subpar prose without developing a rash, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rod Serling Fun Fact: Sander missed the boat on Alice Marble, Serling’s mistress in the early 1960s, whom he identifies as a former American tennis champion. What he doesn’t go into is that Marble was also a spy in WWII for the OSS (the agency that became the CIA). Also, Marble was 50 and Serling was 39 when they began their affair.

Bonus Fun Fact: CBS President Frank Stanton said that Serling “was the only writer I had ever met who looked like his work.”

What happens when you combine a bad writer with a bad person? You get Kenneth Silverman’s Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1997). Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874) was intelligent, ingenious, fearless, the hardest working man in show biz, and one of the greatest athletes of his time. He was also paranoid, a liar, hobbled by sentimentality and a fear of death, a guy who always had to be right, and a relentless self-promoter. When he was invited to write the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “conjuring” he turned in an essay on himself.

Having read this book, I know everything about Houdini, except why I should care. I’m not sure Silverman even likes Houdini. The author’s one-fact-at-a-time account makes for slow reading, but the book jumps to attention when Houdini survives 90 minutes in a coffin underwater. To be sure, that episode was hair-raising! Indeed, I’m not sorry I read Houdini!!!, but it could’ve been a lot better.

Houdini Fun Fact: Houdini contributed many articles to the newspapers of his day. One of his ghostwriters was H.P. Lovecraft.

Even when the writing is passable you can’t do much with a boring subject, as Herbert R. Lottman discovers in Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography (1996).

How did Jules Verne transform himself from a writer of light romantic comedies for the Paris stage and a part-time stockbroker into “the first writer to welcome change and to proclaim that scientific discovery could be the most wonderful of adventures” (Arthur C. Clarke)? We’re not going to find out from this book. Verne was dull, a man who read widely but didn’t like to leave home. But he could grind out the words! I could learn a lesson from that.

Jules Verne is interesting for a while, but Lottman is eventually reduced to recounting plots of melodramatic books and that became a chore for this reader. The book did induce me to reread From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. They’re OK for kids. In the words of critic Kingsley Amis, “In its literary aspect [Verne’s] work is, of course, of poor quality, a feature certainly reproduced with great fidelity by most of his successors.”

Jules Verne Fun Fact: There are no Jules Verne fun facts.

One last example of how not to do it: Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham  (1989).

W. Somerset Maugham wrote The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, and The Moon and Sixpence. I don’t think he’s much read today, and this book did not turn back the clock. Calder methodically lays out his facts, but he doesn’t understand Maugham’s bisexuality. Does he enjoy Maugham’s books? I can’t tell. Calder will never be noted for his lyrical style…though Maugham wasn’t, either. I kept reading because Maugham’s life was fascinating (he was a British spy in WWI and probably came back for an encore in WWII) and that life glimmered through the pedestrian prose.

Maugham lived to be 91. He knew everyone. Calder notes every dinner guest, house guest, bridge partner, and traveling companion, but only occasionally gives you some context. There are five googleable names on every page; those I looked up reminded me of how fleeting is fame. Authors of 20, 40, even 60 books regularly enter these pages – names that have left barely a ripple in the fabric of space-time.

Because of Willie I finally read “Miss Sadie Thompson,” better known as “Rain.” Wow.

Maugham Fun Fact: Maugham was the highest-paid writer in the world in the 1930s. His competition was Hugh Walpole, another writer who has disappeared. If Walpole is known for anything today, it’s his mention in Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch.

In our next exciting episode I’ll present the winners in the biography sweepstakes. Now you get the first-ever Run-DMSteve sex tip: Read A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is one of the many books I cheated with in 2014. The book’s premise is simple: Reverse-engineer human sexuality based on what humanity searches for online. The results are eye-popping. Approach this book with an open mind or be ready to skim lots of pages. Do you ever think about sex? There are lots of people just like you! Give this book a try.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts Fun Fact: Straight men and gay men like all the same things in porn. It’s all about the dick. The only difference between the two genres is the presence or absence of a woman.

Bonus Fun Fact: There are no gay women in this book. Well then who is the audience for Adventures of a Lesbian Cowboy?


[Note: You’ll find the extended party remix of this post at The Nervous Breakdown. -Yours truly, RDMS]

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but I’d like to have a few words with you today about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”

I could stop right there and send you all home early, but 1971 was also the year that I learned how to drive. This knowledge was of considerable help to me in dealing with females of my species. But the point I am at last coming around to is this: In 1971, in my summer school English class, my favorite teacher suggested a way to read more books: Keep a list.

Roland had been keeping his own list of the books he’d read since the 1940s, and I’d like to think that the teacher who started Roland down this path had a list that stretched back to the 1920s, and that there was a teacher before him and one before him and so on and thenceforth until we’re back watching Gutenberg knock out his first bible.

Just when you thought no one could have this much fun
This year my list of all the books I’ve read celebrates its 40th anniversary, which will be duly recognized here at the Bureau with cake and ice cream. This milestone seems like the appropriate time to review some highlights from my reading history and see if we can learn what makes fiction worth staying up for till 2am. Fortunately, in the perpetual battle to decide who are the all-time greats in the heady world of novel-writing we have two useful yardsticks to work with:
1)      Music
2)      Sex

Applying these measures to my list uncovers questions that have long stumped the experts, so don’t expect any answers here. For example, why was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the Jazz Age, never chronicled jazz? How did John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara) sneak all that illicit sex past the censors of his era? Why do Franz Kafka’s characters invariably play the accordion?

How many writers are on my list, you ask?
I’m not about to answer this question. I don’t know the answer to this question. I was planning on another 40 years of reading before I added it all up. (And if you think I’ve gone over the top with this particular hobby, I refer you to the gentleman behind What I Have Read Since 1974.)

Rest assured I am not about to embark on a survey of the entire list, primarily because I’d have to explain my early infatuation with Andre Norton. For the purpose of this review I am restricting myself to the writers I loved so much that I’ve read more books by them than anyone else.

The results of my studies surprised me, as music and sex in literature appear to be mutually exclusive, unlike in real life, where it’s been my observation that music often makes sex appear. In literature the one seems to drive out the other, except in those sorry cases where they both evaporate. An incisive examination of the five writers at the head of the class will show you what I mean.

My most read writer of all time: C.S. Forester
C. S. Forester was the creator of Captain Horatio Hornblower, The African Queen, and various other historical novels where something explodes, usually after being struck by a cannon ball. Capt. Hornblower could navigate a sloop through a monsoon with nothing more than a circus tent nailed to a broomstick and everyone on half rations and a spoonful of rum, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of music. He was tone deaf. Tone deafness is a terrible affliction that makes every song sound like Boney M’s “Rasputin.” This condition was not shared by Hornblower’s crew, who enjoyed a rousing hornpipe on their way into battle, just as I do on my way into a meeting.

With Forester’s musical credentials looking a bit thin you might hope instead for plenty of sex, but if you are I am withholding your rum. Hornblower and his girlfriend Lady Barbara are not my idea of a liaison dangereuse. The only sex scene I remember in the Forester books I’ve read appears in The African Queen, when Rosie and Mr. Allnut make love in a malarial swamp on a suicidal mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Only the most skilled writer can concoct an erotic scenario of such proportions.

While having sex, Rosie’s breasts grow bigger. I’d like to have a word with Forester about this.

2nd: Robert A. Heinlein
There’s no hiding it. Robert A. Heinlein’s books are a musical wasteland. I can confirm that there is a bad poet in “The Green Hills of Earth” who writes a syrupy little ballad called “The Green Hills of Earth” and then sings it. He is immediately killed by a blast of radiation from the Academy of American Poets.

However, when Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land he released his inner pornographer from the puritanical confinement of pulp fiction. From then on Heinlein’s books are fairly well swollen with sexual activity, and though most of it is only hinted at or happens off-stage or on the other side of the airlock I’m convinced that Bob blazed the trail for three other writers on my list: Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), Nicholson Baker (The Fermata), and Judy Blume (Forever).

3rd: Marge Piercy
Now we’re talking adult themes and situations. Marge Piercy wrote several novels set in the 1960s counterculture; the first three, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Going Down Fast, and Small Changes, were written while the counterculture was happening. These books are packed with hungrily copulating hippies, but her characters are not motivated, captivated, or levitated by music. There is, however, a bad poet who writes a clichéd little ballad about New Jersey and then sings it. It lacks the punch of “The Green Hills of Earth.”

Piercy deserves applause and a government grant for her sex scenes, and Small Changes is so good on every page that it zaps me right back to Boston in 1973. But I must reluctantly mark her down for missing or ignoring the Summer of Love, the flowering of soul, Woodstock, Let It Be, Sticky Fingers, and the birth of funk and metal. (The absence of country rock works for me.)

4th: John Updike
I find it difficult to assess John Updike with the objectivity for which Run-DMSteve is famous, as Uppy is the only writer who ever died and left a hole in my heart. However, we can safely conclude that Mr. Updike is not shy about sex. The first Rabbit book (1960) prominently featured a sex act that’s so common today they have rooms set aside for it at airports but back then could’ve gotten him lynched in your more conservative precincts. If you’re looking for angst-ridden WASPs tangling in the wrong bedrooms, Updike’s the writer for you.

But while his style is musical, his characters are not. They rarely even turn on the radio, though I remember one story where the grownups at a suburban house party put The Beatles on the turntable and danced in their socks. This is charming but this is not a rave.

Rounding out the fabulous 5: Isaac Asimov
I started this list when I was a teenager so you can stop laughing right now. Hands up – how many of you couple the word “sex” with the word “Asimov”? Well that’s just disgusting. Yes I know who you are.

Asimov’s book of dirty limericks doesn’t count because I never read it. Let’s take a gander instead at the original Foundation trilogy. I loved those books just as much as the next teenage boy, but upon reflection I have to ask: Where did those trillions of babies come from? Zappos? And what did they listen to, besides the narrator?

We don’t read Asimov for music and sex, we read him for rockets and robots.

Mission: Impossible?
The harmonious blending of music and sex within the pages of one novel is an elusive goal but I’m here to tell you it can be done.  Exhibits A and B: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). My more astute readers are probably wondering why I’m only mentioning them here at the end. There is a reason for this and it’s a simple one: I haven’t read them. I have however seen the movies and I even took Special D to a dance where the band from The Commitments played (“Do ye drink then? If ye don’t yer no good!”). Once I’ve finally bagged these two I’ll be able to determine if they are two of the best books ever written, not counting anything by Andre Norton.

Loyal Run-DMSteve readers are welcome to chime in with their own lists of music-and-sex books. Here at the Bureau we could always use some reading suggestions for the next 40 years!