Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott Biography is a Hot Mess

When a friend told me she was reading Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury about Emerson and his circle in Concord, I was intrigued, because I’d read Cheever’s memoir about her father years ago and had lost track of her career after that.

I went to Amazon, but was drawn to Cheever’s biography of Louisa May Alcott instead. I didn’t know much about Alcott and I’m a huge fan of biographies (I have hundreds in my study). The book grabbed me based on the sample: Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women–her editor pushed her to.

What a great hook.

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When the book arrived, though, I gradually discovered it was awful. I hadn’t bothered reading the thoughtful critiques on Amazon–I learned its varied faults myself (reviews of American Bloomsbury are even more scathing, btw, and more numerous).

Cheever’s assessment of Alcott is marred by trivialities. You learn things like this: Alcott dropped a pie box in Boston. Not only that, it tipped “end over end.” Wow. Alcott was teased by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. about her height, and in Boston she had hyacinths in a window box. None of these details (and more just as inane) add to an understanding of Alcott’s life or writing.

Cheever’s prose can be gag-worthy: “Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity.” Sounds like a Hallmark Card. Then there are dubious assertions like “good writing is almost always subversive.” How? Why? Makes a good quote for Pinterest or Tumblr, I suppose.

Cheever claims that the Transcendentalists in Concord “essentially created American literature as we know it.” Seriously? The first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson et al. and had a huge influence on major authors like Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Perhaps to hedge her bets, Cheever loves mentioning Hawthorne as often as possible, but he was peripheral to the Concord crew and mocked them in his novel The Blithedale Romance.

hawthorneJust as egregiously, Cheever totally misrepresents Alcott’s relationship with Henry James and basically gives Alcott credit for more books of his than you can imagine. Without her, we apparently wouldn’t have The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, The Bostonians or any of his books with a young woman character. They were also fast friends, Cheever says, despite every James biography I’ve read which barely mentions Alcott–and Cheever doesn’t offer any proof of this supposed relationship.

james 1890Sadly, Publishers Weekly gave the book an attention-getting starred review and called it “authoritative.” Somebody at PW was lazy (or dim) and didn’t do their homework.

Why did I keep reading? Morbid curiosity. That’s right: I couldn’t believe how badly written, badly researched, and badly edited a book by a well-known author could be. In the end, it had a kind of freakish charm.  This tripe got published.

Lev Raphael books is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction.

Did George Bush Really Write That Book About His Father?

All over the country, newspaper reviewers are wasting space reviewing George Bush’s biography about his father. Whether they pan it or praise it, they’ll say over and over, as Michiko Kakutani recently did in The New York Times, things like “he writes–” or “he says–”

Does he?

I reviewed for the The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Report and other print outlets for well over a decade, but I avoided celebrity-authored bios or memoirs for a simple reason. They were almost never written by the “authors,” but compiled from tape recorded interviews, ramblings, or notes and written by a professional ghost writer. I learned this early on in my own publishing career when one writer friend told me she had been asked to do a best selling author’s memoir, and another told me what he was ghosting.

In my view, when reviewers pretend that’s not happening, they makes themselves complicit in the fiction that these celebrities have actually written the book that flaunts their name, a book they’ve gotten huge advances for.

Bush wrote a book about his father? Have people forgotten what a juvenile attitude this man has about books?

Back when he was President, he and his senior advisor Karl Rove acted liked they were in elementary school, competing with each other to see who could read more books per year. Bush won, of course, supposedly reading ninety-five books yearly for three years straight, which is close to what I used to read as a professional reviewer. And of course his consigliere swore that Bush “loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.”

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Truly engaged readers can’t stop talking about books they enjoy, and sometimes even books they dislike. But given his love of books, it’s strange that nobody ever reported Bush discussing a book with them, anywhere. At meetings of world leaders, the President was widely known to chat only about his colleagues’ flights and if they were able to sleep on the plane. He never brought up books that he supposedly had read (like Team of Rivals) when that would have been a perfect opportunity, especially if his favorite topics were supposedly history and biography.

The only proof we had that he was reading steadily was testimony from his personal friend Karl Rove, just as the only proof we have that he wrote this new book is his name on the cover.

But the saddest part of the book race Bush ran with his crony was that reading sounded like a real burden, otherwise why compete in the first place, and in such a bizarre way? Rove reported that “We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book’s pages–its ‘Total Lateral Area.’ ” So the number and size of pages apparently meant as much to Rove and Bush as what was on them. Maybe more?

41: A Portrait of My Father is only 304 pages with the Acknowledgments and Index starting on p. 277, and physically it’s on the smaller side for a political hardcover: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches. By their own strange standard, this new book doesn’t score very high, does it?

BTW, Michiko Kakutani is one of my least favorite reviewers, and this bit of praise in her review has to be one of the smarmiest things she’s written in a long time:

“As for Mr. Bush’s descriptions of the West Texas world that greeted him and his parents in the 1950s, they are evocative in a way that attests to his painterly eye. “We lived briefly at a hotel and then moved into a new 847-square-foot house on the outskirts of town,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was called Easter Egg Row, because the developers had chosen vibrant paint colors to help residents tell the houses apart. Our Easter egg at 405 East Maple was bright blue.”

Really? That’s what one of the country’s most influential book reviewers considers evocative writing? You have to have a painterly eye to notice the colors of the houses around you? How is Bush being “evocative” if the image was handed to him by the neighborhood’s actual name? He’s just reporting what was there.

A passage like that makes you wonder. Is the reviewer angling for an invitation to a Bush party? Desperate to say something positive? Or just running out of steam? Maybe a bit of all three….

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence and the militarization of our police forces.