One-Minute Book Reviews

July 26, 2009

Why Is New Jersey So Crooked? Two Views — From a Book and the WSJ

Wonder why some residents of New Jersey weren’t surprised when law-enforcement authorities arrested dozens of people Thursday in a political corruption and money-laundering probe that involved rabbis, mayors and a defendant said to have stuffed $97,000 in cash in a box of Apple Jacks? Read Jon Blackwell’s Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels (Rutgers University Press, 2007). This lively book looks back on sordid events  in Garden State history from the 1804 Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel in Weekhawken to the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander. Blackwell argues that crime thrives in New Jersey because, with 566 municipalities, the state has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes, but former Star-Ledger reporter Brad Parks offers a fuller explanation in his  “Poison Ivy in the Garden State” in the July 25–26 Wall Street Journal. A review of Notorious New Jersey appeared on October 20, 2008.

October 20, 2008

100 Reasons Not to Move to New Jersey, Including the Real-Life Tony Soprano

From the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel to anthrax-laced letters

Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels. By Jon Blackwell. Rutgers/Rivergate, 406 pp., $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Three hours before the start of a murder trial in New Jersey last week, someone gunned down the mother of a witness’s girlfriend. Defense lawyers dismissed the killing as a coincidence.

We have a lot of coincidences here in New Jersey, and Jon Blackwell serves them up in fine style in Notorious New Jersey. In this lively collection of 100 true-crime tales, Blackwell deals mostly with events so scandalous they made national news, or should have.

Take his profile of the Newark mob boss Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, whom Sopranos creator David Chase has called an inspiration for Tony Soprano (a fact oddly unmentioned in the book). Blackwell notes that the gangster lived in a stone mansion that Life magazine described as “Transylvanian traditional”:

“The road past his home in Livingston, New Jersey, was flanked by a pedestal on which stood a dozen painted busts of his family, staring blank-eyed like porcelain dolls. A statue of Boiardo himself, astride a white horse, towered above them. Vegetables and flowers grew in a grassy expanse marked by a sign, ‘Godfather’s Garden.’”

Ruggiero turned to his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and lieutenants like Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo when he needed help collecting kickbacks or disposing of bodies. At the age of 89, he became “the oldest mobster ever to be put on trial, anywhere” when the state tried to send him to jail for running a Mafia syndicate:

“Pleading ill health, he had the charges dismissed. He died four years later, having outlived his son and every other vestige of New Jersey’s swaggering gangland glory years.”

For all of its mobsters, Notorious New Jersey is more than a dishonor roll of leg-breakers of yesteryear. Blackwell’s masterstroke was to define “scandal” broadly. His book covers the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the anthrax-laced letters slipped into a Princeton mailbox in September 2001, the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel and the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander.

Then there are the corporate scandals, such as the cover-up at the Johns-Manville asbestos plant that Blackwell rightly calls “one of the worst corporate horror stories in U.S. history.” For decades the company withheld from its workers the news — gained from employee medical exams and X-rays — that many were gravely ill with lung-scarring asbestosis or other illnesses. The resulting litigation forced Johns-Manville into bankruptcy and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Why does scandal thrive in New Jersey? In the weakest section of the book, Blackwell tries to explain it by saying that the state attracts gangsters because, with 566 municipalities, it has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes.

But most of Blackwell’s scandals don’t involve bribery, and some have more complex causes than he implies. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and density creates opportunity. The state also has entrenched political machines, powerful unelected officials whom voters can’t remove, and a legislature that refuses to close legal loopholes that foster corruption. The advent of casino gambling didn’t help, either.

The scandals — whatever their cause — are here to stay. Blackwell provides a useful recap of the events that led to the resignation of governor James McGreevey in August 2004, some of them overshadowed by his declaration that he was gay:

“In the summer 2004, McGreevey’s knack for choosing bad friends came back to haunt him. That July, one of his top fund-raisers, David D’Amiano, was indicted on bribery charges. It emerged that a Piscataway, New Jersey, farmer was upset at being offered too little money for his land as part of an eminent domain proceeding. He turned to D’Amiano for help, and the money man promised to sweeten the deal in exchange for $10,000. The farmer would supposedly know the deal was on if a certain state official used the code word ‘Machiavelli’ – and McGreevey was afterward heard using that very word in conversation with the farmer, who wore a wire. The governor insisted his use of the word was a coincidence.”

Best line: On Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.: “H. L. Mencken was only half-joking when he called it ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection.’ Crowds of ten thousand people mobbed the Hunterdon County courthouse on especially dramatic days of testimony. Vendors sold them miniature kidnap ladders and phony locks of the Lindbergh baby’s hair.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Of the fifty states, maybe New York, California, Texas, and Illinois can match New Jersey for sheer sensational crime, but no place surpasses its blatant rascality.” Blackwell appears to be discounting all the “rascality” against blacks before the Civil Rights era. If you count lynchings — and you should — any state in the Deep South might surpass New Jersey. No. 2: In a section on Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palmero, Blackwell leaves the impression that the DeCavalcante crime family may have inspired The Sopranos when the Boiardos seem more likely models www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/revealed-the-real-tony-soprano-444869.html.

Published: December 2007 rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/notorious_nj.html

Furthermore: Blackwell is a copy editor at the New York Post. Notorious New Jersey should not be confused with the popular Weird New Jersey books, which deal with offbeat or lighter-weight topics such as legends, unsolved mysteries and a family that keeps a bowling-ball collection on its front lawn.

One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 11, 2008

‘There’s No Such Thing As a Private Conversation’ in New Jersey Politics — Quote of the Day From James McGreevey’s ‘The Confession’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:02 pm
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From one governor to another …

“One of the cardinal rules of New Jersey politics is, there’s no such thing as a private conversation. Governor [Brendan] Byrne once told me this, as though imparting a philosophical truth from the ages. ‘Somewhere along the line,’ he said, ‘you are going to be taped by someone wearing a wire.’ This is who so many political meetings start with a big bear hug – a New Jersey pat down among friends.”

From The Confession (Regan, 2006) by James E. McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who resigned his post after outing himself as a “gay American,” in a memoir written with David France www.harpercollins.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 7, 2008

This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:31 pm
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And This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

A “startlingly tender memoir.”
– The March issue of O, the Oprah Magazine on Love and Consequences by Margaret Seltzer writing as Margaret B. Jones

And, as we learned this week, startlingly fake. This quote might have qualified even if Seltzer hadn’t admitted that she made up the book. Why should it “startling” that a book about gang life has tender scenes? Didn’t we see lots of those on The Sopranos?

www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/arts/2008/03/05/2008-03-05_oprahs_mag_gushed_over_memoir_of_fake_ga-1.html

Thanks to Larry McShane of the New York Daily News for an article on this one that has a quote from Amy Gross, editor-in-chief of O, acknowledging that the book “should have been classified as fiction.”

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. A new Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appears every Friday along with any other posts that appear that day.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 6, 2008

Newly Exposed Fake Holocaust Memoir Shows ‘Narcissistic Disregard for the Suffering of Actual Jews’ — Another Reason to Read Defensively

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Love and Consequences isn’t the only memoir just exposed as a fake. Last week Misha Defonseca admitted she made up Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years (Mt. Ivy, 1997). Blake Eskin has a good story about it in Slate www.slate.com/id/2185493/, which says the book got a blurb from Elie Wiesel. The AP reported that Defonseca said through her lawyers: “This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” Defonseca claimed to have been a Jewish child who, aided by wolves, wandered through Europe looking for her deported parents. In fact, her parents were Belgian Catholic resistance fighters killed by the Nazis and she just “felt Jewish.” Eskin rightly argues in Slate that her pain doesn’t justify a book that shows “narcissistic disregard for the suffering of actual Jews.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 5, 2008

What Responsibility Do Editors Have for Keeping Fake Memoirs Off the Market?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:58 pm
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Does the publishing industry need New Yorker-style fact checking or just more common sense?

What responsibility do editors have for keeping potentially fake memoirs off the market? An article in today’s New York Times has a telling comment on this from Nan Talese, who edited James Frey‘s memoir A Milllion Little Pieces, a lot of which the author admits he exaggerated or made up www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/books/05fake.html. Talese makes the observation in the Times‘s second-day report on the furor over Love and Consequences, a fabricated memoir by Margaret Seltzer writing under the name of Margaret B. Jones:

“I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, ‘If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it before we publish it.’”

To which Ron Hogan at Galley Cat responds: “Like how about not publishing it? Or at least not calling it a memoir?” www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/authors/but_margaret_jones_promised_it_was_true_79038.asp. Hogan knows it’s a facile response (though it’s no less sensible for it). But he doesn’t agree with Talese that it would be insulting to authors to introduce New Yorker-style fact checking to book publishing.

“If you’re insulted that somebody’s holding your nonfiction writing up to a simple standard of truth,” he writes, “you’re probably not ready to share that writing with anybody, let alone an editor.”

Hogan is right. But there’s a middle ground between the laissez-faire attitude that currently prevails in book publishing and the exhaustive New Yorker–style fact-checking that some would like to see the industry use. That middle ground lies in the system used at responsible newspapers: Most newspapers don’t have fact-checkers on staff, but their editors question writers much more aggressively than many book editors do. You could say: They just use more common sense.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 4, 2008

Praise for the Recall of ‘Love and Consequences’ by Penguin Group USA

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:27 pm
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A publisher shows respect for readers in the wake of another scandal

Somebody at Riverhead Books clearly made a disastrous blunder on the way to the publication of Love and Consequences, a memoir of gang life that has been exposed as a fake. But Riverhead’s parent company, Penguin Group USA, deserves praise for announcing that it would recall all copies of the book promptly. Penguin acted responsibly, professionally and in a way that shows respect for readers by moving swiftly to remove the book from shelves and to cancel author Margaret Seltzer’s book tour. Nobody wants more publishing scandals to erupt, but when they do, this is the way to handle them www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/books/04fake.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

Why Critics, Journalists and You, the Reader, Need to Read Defensively

Filed under: Current Events,Life,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:47 pm
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Fabricated tale of gang life reaffirms the need to question “memoirs” that don’t make sense

For more than a year, this site has been raising questions about Ishmael Beah’s purported memoir of two years as a child solider, A Long Way Gone, that have received unsatisfactory responses from the author and his publisher. Why do critics, journalists and you, the reader, need to keep challenging aspects of personal accounts that don’t make sense?

One answer is implicit in a story in today’s New York Times about a young writer’s confession that she made up Love and Consequences, a widely praised book billed as a “memoir” of her life as a drug-runner for the Bloods: Publishers are doing too little to verify the authenticity of their books www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/books/04fake.html. Book publishers have never done – nor can they be expected to do – the exhaustive fact-checking that occurs at The New Yorker. But the Times‘s story shows that they sometimes don’t take the much more basic steps that would be reasonable.

Love and Consequences was reportedly exposed as a fraud by a call to the publisher, Riverhead Books, from a sister of the author, Margaret Seltzer, who used the pen name of Margaret B. Jones. Riverhead is a unit of the Penguin Group USA, one of the world’s largest publishers. It seems that all an editor would have to do to uncover problems with this book would have been to require the writer to provide the telephone numbers of a few immediate-family members, then call those people.

[The Penguin Group has recalled all copies of Love and Consequences, and One-Minute Book Reviews will comment on the recall in a post later today.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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