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.

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.

October 29, 2006

Noel Coward’s Short Stories

Who knew that one of the 20th century’s most entertaining playwrights also wrote wonderful short stories?

Noël Coward: Collected Short Stories. By Noël Coward. Preface by Martin Tickner. Methuen, 629 pp., $17.95, paperback.

You’re in for a treat if you know Noël Coward only the English playwright who wrote sparkling comedies of sexual jealousy like Blithe Spirit and Private Lives. Coward also wrote wonderful short stories that, at their best, have the droll wit and brisk pacing of his finest plays. All 20 appear in this welcome collection, published to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1899.

Part of what makes these stories so appealing is that they have a clear beginning, middle and end, whether they take place in London or New York or the South Seas. This alone would set them apart from many recent stories that are so oblique that reading them tends to resemble code-breaking.

But there’s more to Coward’s tales than their solid yet graceful architecture. Poet and scholar Robert Phillips has noted correctly that Coward was a “master of the shifting point of view, and managed the difficult balance between comedy and tragedy.” Coward also wrote about a kind of glamour that has almost disappeared from literary fiction. And although his stories vary in length and effectiveness, together they reflect a uniquely theatrical sensibility, with many involving actors or others in show business.

Most of Coward’s stories were written in the mid-20th century, but an eerie freshness surfaces in some of their themes, such as the cost of living in age drunk on celebrities. In one the best stories, “What Mad Pursuit?”, an English novelist is besieged by his hosts on an American tour. In “A Richer Dust,” an actor moves to Hollywood, hoping to retain some privacy: “But during the last few years this has become increasingly difficult owing to the misguided encouragement of a new form of social parasite, the gossip columnist.” This “assault upon the credulity of an entire nation” confuses people: “It would not be so were the information given checked and counter-checked and based on solid truth, but unfortunately it seldom is; consequently anybody who has the faintest claim to celebrity is likely to have his character, motives and private and public actions cheerfully misrepresented to an entire continent.” You might never know he was talking about people with names like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons instead of the editors of the National Enquirer or producers of Access Hollywood.

Best line: Many. One from “A Richer Dust”: “Adele was a conscientious young actress with good legs and little talent. In the farce she played the heroine’s best friend, who made a lot of pseudosophisticated wisecracks and was incapable of sitting down without crossing her legs ostentatiously and loosening her furs.”

Worst line: What’s the point of trying to pick the worst diamond at Tiffany’s?

Recommended if … you like stories by the masters Coward admired, such as O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant.

Published: 2000 (Methuen paperback).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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