One-Minute Book Reviews

March 22, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ by Alexander Masters

10 Discussion Questions
Stuart: A Life Backwards

This reading group guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to this site or the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

“Charming” isn’t a word often applied to books about “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” as Alexander Masters describes his subject in Stuart: A Life Backwards. But it fits this biography of an intelligent and self-aware but physically and mentally impaired man – half Jekyll, half Hyde — whom the author met when both were living in or near Cambridge, England.

Masters has enriched his tragicomic story with quirky, New Yorker-ish line drawings of Stuart Clive Shorter and others in which people’s heads seem too big for their bodies. And whether or not the distortion was intentional, it’s a visual metaphor for the man described on its pages: Stuart was a someone whose brain always seemed to be about to burst out of his body and, apparently, in the end, did.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. One of the challenges faced by any biographer of a violent criminal is: How can you depict someone’s terrible crimes accurately while also maintaining enough sympathy for the person that people will keep reading? How does Masters do this?

2. Masters found that Stuart changed constantly and acted in “amazingly inconsistent” ways. “At first I thought he was lying or stupid,” Masters said in an interview. [“The Madman on Level D,” by Anne Garvey, the Times of London, June 10, 2005.] Did you ever think Stuart was “lying or stupid,” too? What changed your mind? How would you interpret Stuart’s behavior?

3. Stuart has an unusual narrative structure for a biography – it moves backwards. Masters begins when Stuart is an adult – “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” – and doesn’t give his date of birth until Chapter 25. [Pages 1 and 291] But the story doesn’t always move in a straight chronological line. Masters describes some of Stuart’s ancestors in Chapter 24 before he tells you when his subject was born in Chapter 25. How well does this structure works?

4. Masters often criticizes mental-health professionals or popular views of mental illness, such as when he writes: “ … It is wrong to assume that a failed [suicide] bid is, as the nauseating cliché will have it, only ‘a cry for help.’ It could be – is usually in Stuart’s case – just the opposite. Its failure is the result of too great desperation to get the job done.” [Page 160] How did Stuart affect your ideas about mental illness or any aspect of it, such as suicidal tendencies?

5. One of the characteristics of great biographies is that they are usually “about” more than one person’s life. They may deal with subject’s profession or social circle or the era in which he or she lived. What is Stuart “about” besides Stuart?

6. Stuart disliked a version of the book that Masters showed him. He called it “boring” and wanted something “like what Tom Clancy writes.” [Page 1] How do you think Stuart would have liked the final book?

7. Biographies typically include only photographs of their subject and others. What do Masters’s drawings add to the book?

8. Masters is an advocate for the homeless who has worked in hostels for them and run a street newspaper. Biographers who support a cause are sometimes faulted by critics ax-grinding, special pleading, or slanting their facts. Has Masters done any of those things? How does he keep Stuart’s story fro becoming strident or sentimental?

9. Critics have disagreed on whether Stuart is biography, memoir, or something else, such as a true-crime story. Blurbs on the cover of the hardcover edition call the book a “biography.” The directors of the National Book Critics Circle said that Stuart “defies categorization” and named it a finalist for the 2007 NBCC award in the autobiography/memoirs category. You can find one board member’s comments on this issue by searching for the words “Stuart: A Life Backwards” on Critical Mass www.bookcriticle.blogspot.com. How would you categorize the book? How do such classifications affect your perceptions of Stuart and other books?

If you have time …
10. Stuart resembles James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the first great modern biography, in that it may tell you as much about its author as it does about its subject. So you might enjoy comparing the two books. Is fair to say that Masters was Stuart’s Boswell? Why or why not? What does Masters have in common with Boswell?

Vital statistics
Hardcover edition: Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. Delacorte, 300 pp., $20. Published: June 2006. Paperback edition: Delta, 320 pp., $12, paperback. To be released in May 2007.

A review of Stuart: A Life Backwards appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 22, 2007, and is archived with the March 2007 posts and in the “Biographies” category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

Other reviews: “Shaking Down a Violent Jekyll to Find the Gentle Hyde,” Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times, June 9, 2006, p. E.2:36.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or sites that accept advertising from them. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or promotional materials or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss forthcoming guides. I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to others who might like the site.

Links: Alexander Masters site: http://www.alexandermasters.net/new/
[Note: SNAP Preview is enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews. This means that you can see an example of the art in Stuart just by putting your cursor on the preceding link to Masters’s site. You don’t have to click on the link and go to his site.] Publisher’s site: www.bantamdell.com Critical Mass, the blog of the board of directors of National Book Critics Circle http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/. Click on the Critical Mass link, then search the site for “Stuart: A Life Backwards” for posts on why the book was a finalist for its 2007 NBCC awards.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 25, 2007

Tom Brady, Interrupted: Books I Didn’t Finish, #3

Filed under: Biography,Books I Didn't Finish — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm

Third in an occasional series of posts that explains why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything. By Charles R. Pierce. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $23.

What it is: A portrait of the quarterback who led the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories, written by a member of the staff of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

Where I stopped reading: I read the first chapter and skimmed about half of the rest of the book.

Why I stopped: The Patriots lost the American Football Conference title, so no Super Bowl this year, and I was looking for a game tie-in. And while this book is better than many by or about football players, such as Brett Favre’s dismal autobiography, this is like saying that a restaurant has better food than Hooters. Moving the Chains has much less going for it than the best sports books of recent years, which include Seabiscuit, The Perfect Mile, and Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Many quotes are filler. (“Quarterbacks,” the Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick informs us, “are going to get hit.”) Tom Brady comes across as a really nice, smart guy who’s a little dull off the field, a hazard of premature appreciations like this one.

Most bizarre line: Pierce reports that “the greatest college fight song of all” is the University of Michigan’s. Would somebody send this man a CD of “On Wisconsin” or the “Notre Dame Victory March” fast?

Furthermore: Despite my reservations, Moving the Chains may appeal to die-hards who can never read too many passages like this one about a drive in Pittsburgh in 2005: “It began with a deep out to David Givens on the left side for 14 yards. Then, Brady waited just long enough for Deion Branch to clear and hit him for eight more. A deep crossing route to Troy Brown got the Patriots into Pittsburgh territory at the 45-yard line, and then Brady hit Brown again for five more. The Patriots ran Corey Dillon up the middle, and then, with Brady in the shotgun, Dillon flattened a blitzing Steeler linebacker and gave Brady enough time to find Givens deep down the left side for 30 yards at the Pittsburgh 7. Dillon cracked over from there to give New England a 17–13 lead.”

Caveat reader: These comments are based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ slightly.

Published: October 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 11, 2007

Antonia Felix’s Valentine to Condoleeza Rice

Filed under: African American,Biography — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 pm

A biography written for adults may have more appeal for teenagers thinking of careers in politics or foreign service

Condi: The Condoleeza Rice Story. By Antonia Felix. Pocket Books, 302 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Next time you hear a mental-health expert warn that American children are overscheduled, consider this: Being overscheduled didn’t seem to hurt Condoleeza Rice. On the way to becoming secretary of state, Rice skipped two grades, enrolled in a conservatory at 10, played the piano with a symphony orchestra at 15, and graduated from college at 19, all without giving up clubs, ballet lessons, or going to church.

Antonia Felix focuses Rice’s childhood, education, and professional successes in Condi, a biography that’s easy to read and well documented but top-heavy with praise – it’s a book-length Valentine. Felix’s narrow scope and lack of balance limit the value of her book for adults. But Condi may have more appeal for teenagers who are thinking about careers in politics or foreign service and are looking for inspiration, not a searching analysis of what went wrong in Iraq. Felix did not interview Rice but spoke to her stepmother, friends, and former academic colleagues. And Rice contributed some of the 29 black-and-white photos. In one picture she wears a figure-skating outfit while enjoying another of her many extra-curricular activities.

Best line: Felix says that Angelena Rice, a teacher, used to iron the tiny lace edges of the anklets worn by her daughter, Condi. This may be the best political ironing story since a White House insider reported that Jacqueline Kennedy had her staff iron her pantyhose.

Worst line: “Condi has aimed for the top in every endeavor she has undertaken, and in most cases, she has succeeded.” Reality check: Rice was national security adviser on Sept. 11, 2001 and, as such, was responsible for some of the intelligence failures that preceded that tragedy. More than 3,000 members of the military have died in Iraq since she became secretary of state.

Recommended if … you have a teenage daughter or granddaughter who wants to be president someday.

Editor: Keith Hollaman

Caveat reader: This review was based on the Pocket Books paperback edition. Some material in other editions may differ. For information about the newer second edition, available in hardcover, visit www.antoniafelix.com.

Published: 2002 and 2005 (Newmarkt Press first and second hardcover editions), 2003 (Pocket Books paperback).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 1, 2007

George Eliot: A Biography by Gordon Haight, the Best Book I Read in 2006, With an Excerpt Below This Post

Filed under: Biography,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:33 pm

A landmark of biography retains its appeal more than a century after it’s subject’s death

George Eliot: A Biography. By Gordon Haight. Penguin, 616 pp., varied prices, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

“What Middlemarch is to the English novel this biography is to George Eliot,” a critic for the New York Times wrote when this book appeared in 1968. Just as Middlemarch showed more of English life than any novel that had preceded it, this biography showed more of George Eliot than book that had come before it. Scholars have never stopped building on the work Gordon Haight did for this book, which you can still find easily in libraries and elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, the critic Simon Baker wrote in the British Spectator www.spectator.co.uk that the hallmarks of great biographies include “elegance, quality of analysis, attention to detail, balance, and worthiness of subject.” Haight’s book has those virtues and another: It has a subject whose character and moral courage remain inspiring more than a century after her death. Many flawed – even loathsome – men and women are worthy of biography because their villainy changed the world or has a unique fascination. And you may come away repelled from some of the biographies praised today as “masterpieces,” because the lives they describe are so sordid. George Eliot led a far more public and eventful life than Jane Austen did, but like Austen, she was a novelist whose books derive their greatness from a true greatness of spirit.

George Eliot (1819–1880) was the daughter of a well-off estate agent and had an easier childhood than contemporaries such as Charles Dickens. And she won worldwide fame in early middle age for her fiction, which includes Silas Marner and Adam Bede in addition to Middlemarch. But she faced profound hardships. She was so homely that Henry James called her “horse-faced.” She could never marry the man she loved, the writer George Henry Lewes, because a quirk of English law made it impossible for him to get a divorce, though his adulterous wife had two children with another man. When Eliot lived with Lewes, anyway, she was shunned by friends and family. She suffered from depression and other illnesses, including kidney stones that caused lasting pain. When she remarried soon after Lewes’s death, her second husband jumped off a balcony into the Grand Canal in Venice on their honeymoon, an apparent suicide attempt. Throughout all of it she showed exemplary patience, kindness, and literary integrity.

Haight describes all of this with rich insight and a restrained eloquence. His book avoids all the sins of modern biography, including special pleading, unmerited speculation, and drawing false parallels his subject’s art and life. It has more than 600 pages but never becomes tedious or overstuffed with extraneous detail. And Haight knows just when to turn the floor over to Eliot and let her speak through her own writings. An except from a letter to her closest friend is typical and seems especially fitting for New Year’s Day:

“When we are young, we think our troubles a mighty business – that the world is spread out expressly as a stage for the particular drama of our lives and we have a right to rant and foam at the mouth if we are crossed. I have done enough of that in my time. But we begin at last to understand that these things are important only to our own consciousness, which is but as a globule of dew on a rose-leaf that at midday there will be no trace of. This is no high-flown sentimentality, but a simple reflection which I find useful to me every day.”

I have read many wonderful books in 2006 but none more worthy of being written than this one.

Best line: Haight quotes this line from Eliot’s novel Felix Holt: “It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.”

Worst line: None, but some aspects of Eliot’s life remain a mystery. One is why she so quickly married her much younger and perhaps mentally disturbed second husband. Haight attributes the marriage to Eliot’s “essential conservatism” and belief in traditional institutions. This is plausible. But other writers have speculated that Lewes had affairs that Eliot learned of after his death and that contributed to her decision to marry. This seems a possibility, too.

Published: 1968 (Oxford University Press hardcover edition), 1985 (Penguin reprint)

FYI: Gordon Haight taught English at Yale University from 1950–1968. He was invited to speak at the dedication of George Eliot’s memorial at Westminster Abbey, a rare honor for an American. An excerpt from Eliot’s journal for New Year’s Eve 1857, taken from Haight’s book, appears in a post below this one.

Consider reading also: Marghanita Laski’s pictorial biography, George Eliot and Her World (Thames & Hudson, 1973), offers a good, shorter introduction to the life of the novelist that draws on Haight’s research and is available in libraries.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for more information about her comic novels.

Watch this site for the short list Delete Key Awards, which will recognize the worst writing in books in 2006. The list will appear in early 2007.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2006

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Reconsidered for the Age of Blogs

Filed under: Biography,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:27 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A great biography by a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his subject’s George Burns

The Life of Samuel Johnson. By James Boswell. Abridged and with an introduction by Bergen Evans. McGraw-Hill, 559 pp., $13.13, paperback.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson tends to scare people who haven’t read it and enchant those who have. Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is one of those books that is rarely mentioned independently of the name of its author, as though it required an intellectual struggle with both the subject and writer. And although this impression is misleading in all three cases, it is particularly so for this great biography of the 18th century’s leading man of letters.

The Life of Johnson is a book that might today result if the smartest blogger you know followed around the smartest person and recorded his or her thoughts and actions. After a brief look at Johnson’s early years, it takes the form of a diary of Boswell’s friendship with the adult Johnson. This means that you can dip into it almost anywhere with profit. Many of Johnson’s best-known observations are here, including that second marriage is “the triumph of hope over experience.” But so are many others that are similarly trenchant and apt. Among them:

On poverty: “… a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization.”

On marriage: Marriage is “much more necessary to a man than a woman; for he is much less able to supply himself with domestick comforts.”

On being over 50: “I have now spent 55 years in resolving; having from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short.”

As the last comment suggests, Johnson was far from a soulless literary monument. For all his greatness and what some might see as pomposity, he had an appealing humility rooted partly in his Christian faith. And Boswell was his ideal biographer, a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his George Burns, aware of his subject’s faults but loving him no less for them. After reading his great book, you might give a lot to have, in your entire life, one conversation as memorable as that which Boswell and Johnson when they dined on veal pie and rice pudding.

Best line: Spoken in 1775: “It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult.”

Worst line: Why quibble with genius?

Recommended if … you want to read one of the greatest biographies ever written, or enjoy authors with an epigrammatic style, such as Jane Austen or Henry James.

Published: 1791 (first edition), 1988 (McGraw-Hill edition).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.

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