Tag Archives: biography

Seven cool books

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My top 7 for 2013. What were your favorite books that you read this year?

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (2012) American immigrant stories from the Dominican experience.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  (2012) To hell with Henry. Give us more Cromwell!

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman  (2013) Memory and artifice among North African immigrants in 1970s Cambridge. I’ll never think of Walden Pond the same way again.

Overweight Sensation by Mark Cohen (2013) The rise and bellyflop of the greater-than-we-realized musical parodist Allan Sherman.

War Over Lemuria by Richard Shaver (2013) I’ve written about this chronicle of the pulp science fiction craze and what happened when a writer insisted that his stories were really true.

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934) Leftist New York intellectuals, struggle and seduce each other into the modern age. I learned about this book on an NPR review by Maureen Corrigan of a different book.

Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930) I’ve known about it since I prepared my bar mitzvah speech. But this is the first time I read it through. One hundred years later, poverty is still poverty.

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Again with Allan Sherman

Allan ShermanI recently interviewed Mark Cohen, whose terrific new biography of Allan Sherman is Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. Sherman was the song parodist who sold millions of records briefly in the 1960s, Cohen’s contention is that Sherman’s work — My Son, The Folk Singer, etc. — helped invent the modern Jewish personality.

The article I wrote, based on the book and the interview, is Nothing to be Ashamed of. The transcript of the full interview with Mark is here.  You can read the profile I wrote of Allan Sherman a while back, Hail to Thee Fat Person.

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Born to Russian immigrant parents

Eve Arnold and Marilyn Monroe

Eve Arnold with Marilyn Monroe during the filming of 'The Misfits', 1960 Photograph: Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Twice in today’s obituaries the phrase “born to Russian immigrants” appeared. One was for screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas, who was 111 years old (the third-oldest person in California) and who was “born in New York to Russian immigrants.”

The other was photographer Eve Arnold (only 99), who was “born Eve Cohen to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia.”

Every time I read that someone was “born to Russian immigrants” the voice of correction in my head shoots back, “Jewish. She was Jewish. Say it with me: Jewish.”

When did Russian become a euphemism for Jewish? It’s like when you read about someone being flamboyant, you know the writer means gay. My guess is that Eve Cohen’s parents didn’t leave Russia because they were Russian, but because they were Jews who were sick of anti-Semitism and were trying to get away from the Russians.

And I say that as the son of a Polish immigrant and grandson of Russian immigrants.

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Top 9 books of 2011

Top 9 Books of 2011Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.

So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.

Non Fiction

City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world.  The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:

“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.

Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader.  After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)

“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.

“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ ”

The First Tycoon,  by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks.  His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.

Secret Historian,  by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of  the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.

Fiction

History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996)  On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.

House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year.  An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of  ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.

That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…

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Imagine all the people / Reading all the words.

2251394363_eee6855058I’ve heard the story before. I know how it ends. Yet something — curiosity, desire to learn, duty — drew me to the recent biography of John Lennon, John Lennon, by Philip Norman.

I’d already ingested Bob Spitz’s manic, intense, addictive The Beatles. Norman, who’s written on the Beatles and the Stones, Elton John and Buddy Holly, here focuses on just one of the Fabs — and takes 800 pages to do it.

The dream is over. Friends, the glaciers retreated faster from the Great Lakes into the Arctic than I’m getting through this book. John and Paul don’t have their famous first meeting until page 100.  John’s mum, Julia, died on page 145. I’m now on page 171, and I’m getting desperate.

I’ve read many books that have taken time to warm up to. But I need a strategy here, an approach, a philosophy of reading. My attention is flagging. Help! Good reader, tell me what to do! For some reason — the subject, the fact that I bought it on sale — I’m loathe to abandon the book. (If Mr. Norman could keep at it, why can’t I?)

Have you read the book? What did you think of it?  Can you give me any advice how to approach it?

If you haven’t read it, what’s your completely uninformed opinion?

Thanks in advance.

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