Tag Archives: Bobby Kennedy

Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Spinning Wheel

Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer by Peter Elkind (Portfolio)

“(Elliot was) a muscular populist who wasn’t afraid to confront business institutions by punching them in the nose.   The MO was to keep things under wraps, announce them in a big way, then work with the press.   You lay out all the appalling facts, and they’re dead, because they’re in the market.  …When he really had the facts on somebody, it was like something out of Wild Kingdom.”

This is the story of the brisk rise and brutal fall of the Sheriff of Wall Street; the man who might have been the first Jewish President of the United States.   It is also a true morality play and what Spitzer himself called a Greek Tragedy.   In the end, it is a story about human strengths and weaknesses.

Elkind’s account (he was the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts off promisingly, but he attempts to set up an odd comparison between Spitzer and John Kennedy.   It seems that Spitzer grew up under a demanding wealthy father who made his sons discuss major issues around the dinner table.   The elder Spitzer is made to sound like the second coming of Joe Kennedy.   But there are no signs that Spitzer was an intellectual like JFK (Spitzer made the law review at Harvard through a writing competition rather than on his grades).   If Elkind had called it correctly – and he never does in this account – he would have seen that Spitzer was the 2.0 version of Robert Kennedy.

RFK was the original liberal populist sheriff out to smash organized crime and tough in a manner that remains unusual for Democrat politicians.   Bobby Kennedy was always convinced of the moral rightness of his causes, something that appeared to be true also for Spitzer:  “We did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money.   We took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors.”

But one cannot write a quasi-biography of a subject’s life without giving the reader a sense of the subject’s flesh and blood.   Except for his sexual proclivities, Elkind fails to deliver here in presenting a portrait of Spitzer the man – for better or worse.   Instead, we have a newspaper reporter’s-style telling of Spitzer’s youth, education, unlikely political rise and early exit from the world of politics.   It is a shame and a major missed opportunity, as Elkind was perhaps the first person to get Spitzer to sit down for an interview after his short period of enforced exile.   But Spitzer made it clear that he is not a contemplative person, and saw little use in attempting to explain his actions to the author.

At the conclusion of Rough Justice, the reader is left with the same question posed by Lloyd Constantine, an aide and friend who had been with Spitzer from the start of his professional life, “I kept on feeling: what is wrong with this guy?   Who is he?”   Asked but not answered.

Take Away:   Elliot Spitzer comes off as a cardboard figure in this flawed account of a flawed man.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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