Warning: Susan Cheever’s Alcott Biography Is a Book To Avoid

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 John Cheever years ago and had lost track of her career after that.

I went to Amazon, but was drawn to Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott biography instead. I didn’t know much about Alcott and I’m a huge fan of biographies (I have several hundred in my library). The book grabbed me based on the sample because it revealed that Alcott didn’t want to write her famous novel Little Women — her editor pushed her to.

What a great hook.

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 Cheever’s American Bloomsbury are even more scathing and more numerous).

Cheever’s assessment of Alcott is marred by trivialities. You learn that Alcott once dropped a pie box in Boston and it tipped “end over end.” Alcott was teased by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. about her height.  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 also be gag-worthy: “Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity.”  Then there are dubious assertions like “good writing is almost always subversive.”

She also claims that the Transcendentalists in Concord “essentially created American literature as we know it.” But the first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson and company, and they had an enormous 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.

Cheever 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 good friends, Cheever says, despite every major James biography I’ve read which barely mentions Alcott — and Cheever doesn’t offer any proof of this supposed relationship.

Sadly, Publishers Weekly gave the book an attention-getting starred review and called it “authoritative.” Somebody at PW didn’t do 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.

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

12 Ways Not to Comfort Someone in Mourning

Worried about how to react when a friend has lost a spouse or partner? Try avoiding the following, all of which have been reported to me by friends as extremely unhelpful.

1—Hey, nobody lives forever.

2—Don’t you think it’s time for you to move on?

3—God was running out of angels.

4—Life is for the living.

5—Sell your house–it’s too full of memories.

6—She had a great life.

7—It could have been so much worse—it could have been you!

8—You look so much nicer when you smile.

9—It was really his time.

10—Come on now, you’re not the only one who’s ever suffered a loss.

11—You have so much to live for!

12—Have you tried hot yoga?

Lev Raphael is the author of eight comic mysteries and seventeen other books in a wide range of genres, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Facebook Language Blogs Often Get It Wrong

On any given day, Facebook is filled with useful things like news stories you might miss because you don’t follow certain bloggers or check out various web sites. And even “18 Ways To Make A Really Great Rum and Coke.”

But it’s also been burdened by quizzes like “Answer these questions and we’ll tell you what kind of snake you are.” And worst of all, the language advice blogs. I’m not sure why those are so popular, but they crop up all the time, get endlessly re-posted, and they’re often filled with dubious assertions.

Not so long ago, I read one written by a best-selling inspirational author whose apparent audience is people in the business world. His aim in that column is to keep “smart” people from sounding “silly,” but his advice is mediocre and error-prone. Seriously, why should you trust someone who thinks that correct word choice is “English grammar”? It’s not. It’s a question of diction.

That writer further diminishes his credibility because he seems to think that words like “affect” and “nauseated” are sophisticated.

He also doesn’t understand that the strict distinction between “nauseous” and nauseated” broke down years ago. It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you feel nauseous when you mean “sick to my stomach.” Pedants might not approve, but that’s too bad.

He trots out the tired dictum that “ironic” can’t mean weirdly or cruelly unexpected. Of course it can, and yes, breaking your leg right before a ski trip is deeply ironic, not just coincidental. It’s a reversal of expectations—one of the prime meanings of ironic—because you expected to be skiing and now you won’t be able to. Despite all the planning, the lessons, the money you’ve spent on equipment, etc.

Now, some language bullies might despise that usage or misunderstand it—look how people have dissed Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” over the years—but there’s nothing wrong with it.

His ultimate advice is to learn “rules.” Seriously? That’s okay when it comes to distinguishing between “lay” and “lie,” but it’s not nearly enough. As an author and teacher of writing, I think rules are a good foundation. But being familiar with the language as it’s written—and in different registers—is more important.

It’s disappointing that an author who wants people to sound more literate wouldn’t recommend that his fans become more literate: that is, actually read more so they have a better understanding of how English works.

But even people you’d expect to be language mavens, like lexicographer Kory Stamper, can write nonsense. In a blog supposedly dredging up “delightful” neglected words that need to be polished and enjoyed because they’re supposedly out of sight, with a word like “Schadenfreude” presented as a prime example.

Google it and you’ll find three and a half million hits.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

My Life With Edith Wharton: A Birthday Blog

It’s not surprising that I fell in love with Edith Wharton, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway in Manhattan that I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken.  Like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam, it had gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing,

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. This was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world.  Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown that took us along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone, and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history.  I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness.  In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that helped launch the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing twenty-five books in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been noticed or discussed before.  A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery,The Edith Wharton Murders.  It was my first book to be reviewed by the New York Times.

More recently, I’ve re-entered her world in a far more intimate way: I’ve radically re-visioned The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s Jewish suitor Simon Rosedale.  I’ve given Rosedale a home, a family, a history, dreams, and a tormented heart.  In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice after two years of immersing myself in fiction and nonfiction from the early 1900s. I don’t know how Wharton would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating collaborations of my career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Is Ghent a Better Travel Destination than Bruges?

Bruges and Ghent were never on my radar until my first trip to Paris when I came across a travel magazine with a big section on Bruges and the amazing canals had me spellbound. I didn’t get there as soon as I hoped (author book tours in Germany sidetracked me), but when I did, it outshone my fantasies. My timing made it possible to see the famous Holy Blood Procession that had been going on there since medieval times.

In Bruges, my wonderful B&B host and I discussed other cities in Flanders and she dismissed Ghent as not up to the standard of Bruges. She thought that it was worth—at the very most—a day trip. That was also apparently what her other guests told her after visiting Ghent.

Having  spent a week there myself, I don’t agree. Bruges is magnificent, thanks to its death in the 14th century as a port city and to being relatively untouched by war through the centuries. The core of the city is beautifully preserved, and the further you get from the crowds, the more tranquil you find it. But it’s definitely “preserved” and in many ways feels like a giant museum.

Ghent on the other hand is a very dynamic city. It has its fair share of canals and gorgeous buildings, as well as ancient churches and beautiful art. Bruges has the Michelangelo Madonna and Child, Ghent has the Van Eyck altarpiece. I think it’s a draw there, and the same goes for the food. I ate just as well in each city, savoring Flemish/Belgian specialties like waterzooi, carbonnade, vol-au-vent, moules-frites, stoemp, and of course made only a tiny dent in the amazing variety of amazing beers (there are apparently over 1,000).

Where Ghent outweighs Bruges for me is the fact that it’s a university town that’s friendly, entertaining, and alive. Ghentians call their home “The City of Trust and Love” and I found that attitude in people of all ages.

There’s a reason Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (Dead Bruges). Bruges might be more picturesque, but Ghent is livelier and, perhaps best of all, attracts fewer tourists. Not surprisingly, it’s widely called one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, and is currently working on a novel set in Ghent.

Stunning Diary Reveals How Much Ordinary Germans Knew About the Holocaust

On my last German book tour for my memoir My Germany I was reminded of what a rich book culture that country has when I browsed in crowded book stores at the train stations, and studied billboards–yes, billboards–for all kinds of books, not just thrillers.

And speaking at Justus Leibig University in Giessen north of Frankfurt, I heard about a remarkable diary that had just been published in German and is finally available in English from Cambridge University Press.

The devastating book by Friedrich Kellner is the diary of a court clerk in a small German town in the western state of Hesse. The German title translated as All Minds Are Clouded and Darkened; the author’s own title was My Opposition (Mein Widerstand), which is how it’s appearing in English.

This diary makes it very clear that despite any claims to the contrary, ordinary Germans during the War knew a great deal about what was being perpetrated in their name upon the Jews and every other victim of the Nazis. It’s simply not true that people did not talk about what was happening, or were so terrorized by the Nazis that they were completely blind to events around them, or silenced. Conversations on these subjects may not have been public, but they were widespread.

Kellner asked questions, read newspapers carefully, kept clippings, listened to what others were saying, and composed a stunning portrait of what was really going on in Germany before and during the war. Without difficulty, he learned about killings of those deemed mentally unfit. He learned about the real fate of Jews being shipped “to the East.”

He was remarkably prescient in foreseeing post-war denial: “Those who wish to be acquainted with contemporary society, with the souls of the ‘good Germans,’ should read what I have written. But I fear that very few decent people will remain after events have taken their course, and that the guilty will have no interest in seeing their disgrace documented in writing.” The diaries go from the beginning of the war in 1939 to just past its end and offer an unparalleled entrance into the years of Nazi destruction.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Vampires and Zombies and Murder–Oh, My!

When I teach creative writing classes, I assign fiction in different genres that I hope will inspire the students. They’re almost always books I’ve learned from myself as a writer and that I think have a lot to offer.

Recently my fiction writing students at Michigan State University ended the semester reading Charlie Houston’s Already Dead. I’ve now read it half a dozen times and I never get bored.

It’s a sizzling mix of mystery, thriller, zombie, vampire, and private detective novel in which Manhattan is secretly divided up by different vampire clans. They keep a low profile so that humans don’t hunt them down, and some of them are very powerful. In Houston’s take on vampire lore, it’s the “Vyrus” of ancient origin that makes these creatures what they are—and that disease is almost a character all its own.

As the book opens, zombies are mysteriously cropping up in Manhattan. They’re too witless and hungry for brains to stay out of the public eye, and any kind of attention to them could expose the vampire underworld.

Who ya gonna call? Joe Pitt. He’s a freelancer, not strongly connected to any of the clans, but for hire. He’s tough, foul-mouthed, and funny. His case in the first book of Houston’s series involves a young runaway and finding out where all those zombies are coming from. Who’s infecting them, who is Zombie Zero, and how is the missing girl mixed up in this hot zombie mess?

Like every good PI sleuth, his hunt brings him into conflict with unseen forces, and cynical, hardboiled Joe gets rubbed the wrong way by condescending rich people—another staple of the genre. He’s hassled by thugs, too, of course, one of whom still says with admiration, “Joe don’t take nothing from nobody, good or bad.”

Pitt is armed with amazing abilities to analyze all the scents in a room and to see in the dark, which make him dangerous and also fascinating. His infected blood also helps him recover from all the beatings you expect a PI to get and makes him incredibly strong, but one of his best weapons is his mouth: he’s got a smartass line for almost every occasion. Like when someone asks if he has a moment:

“Perhaps I have a whole shitload of moments. Perhaps I have moments squirreled away all over the place, and perhaps I plan to keep them for myself. What of it?”

The book is told in his voice and Houston’s made him one of the best story-tellers you’ll ever meet, in the dark or anywhere else….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

“Flashmob” is a Hot Winter Read

The opening line of Christopher Farnsworth’s clever new international thriller Flashmob sounds like something Huck or Charlie might say on Scandal: “It’s not easy to find a nice, quiet spot to torture someone in L.A.”

The narrator John Smith is actually facing torture when we meet him working “executive protection” for a Russian billionaire’s son. But he’d make a great addition to Olivia Pope’s Scandal team because of his unique talent. Ex-CIA and Special Forces, this former “psychic soldier” can read minds. Messy minds, simple minds, and everything in between.

That means he’s able to anticipate an opponent’s moves; silently interrogate anyone interrogating him; and disarm people just by hitting them with vicious memories or activating parts of their brain to use against them. That’s not all. As Smith puts it: “I’ve got my wired-in proximity alarms, the radar in my head that tells me whenever someone even thinks about doing me harm.” So it’s almost impossible to surprise him or sneak up on him.

Almost. Otherwise there’d be no thrills, right?

But all that knowledge comes with a price. It leaves him with a physical and psychic burden he can only ease by heavy doses of Scotch and Vicodin—and even Valium and OxyContin on top of the mix on a really bad day. Reading and manipulating minds is a curse as much as a gift. Other people’s thoughts, memories, and feelings stick to him like he’s some kind of emotional fly paper and he powerfully describes it at one point as something far more disgusting. Still, while he may be a freak of nature, there’s no way you won’t empathize with him because he’s not a psychopath, he’s one of the good guys.

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction since the 90s in print, on air, and on line and it’s almost a cliché for authors to make their protagonists wounded in some way. Contemporary readers want their sleuths to be touched by darkness. In this case, it’s Smith’s amazing strength that profoundly weakens him at times. That offers a very original twist in a creepy tale about stalking, social media madness, celebrity, the Dark Net, privacy in the digital age, Internet cruelty, cyber crime, and mob psychosis.

The author’s also a screenwriter and journalist, which is a bit surprising, because the book could have used less exposition and tighter flashbacks. In effect, Smith is an omniscient narrator and while it’s intriguing to see him navigate “the competing agendas” inside people’s minds, sometimes his excursions into other characters are a drag on the plot’s momentum. Conversely, his descriptions of places and people lack color.

But in the end, none of that detracts from the deft story-telling and the explosive finale which made me think of master thriller writer Joseph Finder. Flashmob is truly disturbing. It’s one thing to worry about computer programs that can perform highly intrusive surveillance on you, it’s another to think of people who can insidiously do the exact same thing mentally while drinking a cappuccino just a few tables away from you at Starbucks.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries explore the terrors of academia. He’s reviewed books for the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, Huffington Post and three public radio stations.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Life as a Writer

My Holocaust survivor parents arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and followed the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s with hope and horror. When they saw TV footage of demonstrators being dragged, beaten, attacked by dogs, it triggered terrible memories of Nazis and other oppressors for them. But they sincerely believed that this country would fulfill its promises of freedom and equal rights.

As a kid I read a lot about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, especially biographies, but none of those figures moved me the way Martin Luther King, Jr. did. His eloquence and passion weren’t something from the past: they were immediate–like his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

LIFE Magazine was always in our house along with a handful of newspapers, and somewhere, somehow in fourth or fifth grade I read at least part of King’s powerful and eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I was an early reader and read beyond my grade level, but this manifesto was completely different from the books of various country’s folk tales, books about dolphins, and science fiction that I brought home from the local public library every week.

King offered poetry, passion, and inspiration–things I hadn’t truly encountered in any book before.  My favorite books at the time were Alice in Wonderland, Cheaper by the Dozen, and The Three Musketeers, each of them entertaining in different ways.  But King’s words soared:

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

I can see myself curled up in a big, wide-armed living room chair, some green material shot through with bold threads, transfixed.  And in my own head, I made connections between how Jews had been considered less than human in Nazi Germany with how America’s blacks were being treated as they fought for equality.

I did a school report on King and it must have been noteworthy because it was sent to a display at the local school district’s offices.  I have no memory of what was in it, but can picture the illustration pasted to the construction paper cover: a black hand reaching up, something I’d probably cut out from LIFE.

It was the first time my writing had been recognized, but more importantly, it was the first time I’d felt propelled to write, to pay tribute.  And the first time my writing had affected anyone but me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the real start of my career as a writer because I discovered the power of words to change the world.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

 

The Secret World of Author Blurbs

Before I got my first book published, a novelist I knew quipped, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.” I had no idea what he meant, but I soon figured it out.

Take blurbs. Begging for blurbs for your forthcoming book is a definite downside of being published. It’s humiliating to have grovel to for them rather than have your publisher take care of it (when they remember!). You can feel like Dorothy in Oz.

Far too many authors think blurbs will magically rocket a book to success. That the right, brilliant blurb by some famous author will impress the publisher, readers, reviewers–and of course our friends, family, and fans.

But do blurbs really make a difference in terms of sales? It’s hard to say. How can you quantify a blurb’s impact? As a reader, there are actually some authors whose names make me not want to read a book because they’re what’s known in publishing as “blurb whores” and love having their names on as many book jackets as possible.

What you can be sure of is that not getting a blurb you hope and pray for is a major buzz kill, and getting it is often like July 4th on steroids. The entire world is ablaze with joy. Someone famous, or at least someone you admire, has given you their blessing. They like your book, they really like it–won’t their fame be contagious?

Is it any wonder blurbs can make us writers frazzled? A writer friend told me a hilarious, sad story about a new author asking a national best-selling author for a blurb. I can’t name the celebrity writer, but she’s huge. The newbie waited and waited. No response. So the anxious author tried again. This time she got a swift and stinging reply:

“My Dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.”

I sympathized with the celebrity author feeling put upon, but I felt sorry for the writer who was embarrassed, and wished The Famous One had simply said “no” the first time.

Stories like that have made me determined never to ignore a request from an author or publisher asking for a blurb. If I can’t do it for whatever reason, I always let them know ASAP.

Still, you never know how competent a publisher is. Once a publisher of mine in New York never got advance copies of my book out in time for blurbs and had to rely on reviews for my previous book. That wasn’t a disaster, but it was very frustrating. And I recently did a blurb that the author loved, but despite her insistence, it didn’t show up on the book. The publisher wasted my time and the author’s, which is just more proof–if anyone needed it–that publishing is a crazy business.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Guide is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir which have been translated into more than a dozen languages.