West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, less glorious years in Hollywood, fictionalized with nuance and grace.

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“A poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at boarding school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner out West,” F. Scott Fitzgerald “knew better than anyone how to live in an imaginary world.” In West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan (The Odds) fictionalizes Fitzgerald’s final four years in the late ’30s, spent in Hollywood scraping by, writing and editing screenplays while Zelda rides out her own ups and downs at Highland Hospital. Their years of wealth, fame and adventure are behind them, and though he lives modestly by Hollywood standards, Scott’s finances are increasingly desperate, with Zelda’s hospital bills to pay, their daughter Scottie’s tuition and his own living expenses.

Between pills to sleep and pills to wake up, Scott struggles to hide his heavy drinking from his employers and eventually falls in love. He continues to visit Zelda as her mental illness persists and sees Scottie on holidays, while his girlfriend, Sheilah Graham, barely tolerates his drinking (not to mention his marriage). In these years, Fitzgerald begins but does not finish The Last Tycoon, his last manuscript.

O’Nan brilliantly, sensitively portrays Fitzgerald’s internal drama with a tone of wry wit and doom. The nuances of Zelda’s character are apt and appropriate, and appearances by Dorothy Parker, Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart add color and humor. O’Nan’s characterization and dialogue are spot-on, and his choice of the less-glamorous years of his subject’s life yields a beautiful, elegiac novel worthy of its model.


This review originally ran in the January 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 Cokes.

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman

Begin with Maus I and Maus II. And then move on to MetaMaus, filled with images from the book and discussions with Art, and his wife and two children, about what it all means, his process, his motivations, and the impact these powerful little books have had on all of them.
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At the outset, let me say, holy magnificent book. MetaMaus asks the questions (according to its back cover), why the Holocaust? why mice? why comics? And of course, the Holocaust is the easiest to answer, to me: the Holocaust because it was what he knew (“write what you know”), except that he didn’t know the Holocaust. He emphasizes that. (And I confess it surprised me, that a survivors’ son could have grown up with such a limited knowledge of what happened so recently, and so centrally to his own personal and family history. I had a fairly decent, basic grasp of the Holocaust in grade school. But then, I grew up a full generation after the author did. Clearly a lot had changed.) Still, it was what arced over him, what oppressed him or at least leaned against him; what else was there? In fact, my surprise was that it wasn’t that obvious – that he wasn’t driven to write (draw) about the Holocaust, at least not that he knew: “What consciously motivated me was the impulse of wanting to do a long comic that needed a bookmark.” He needed to make a full-length comic, as it turned out. Who knew. I am baffled by the visual arts, at least as much as I am stimulated and inspired by the written/verbal ones; most of the visual artistry of Maus escaped me before reading this book, which is part of why I found it so wonderful. Unlike many monographs meant to elucidate the visual arts for us plebeians, this really brought it home to me, exposed so much more, increased my understanding & appreciation.

But the real question I was here for: why mice? Honestly, this was my chief concern (followed by: why cats, why pigs, why dogs…) and all those questions are answered, happily. And of course there are only more questions behind them, much discussion of the imagery and symbolism that belongs to animals in different cultures, for example, and some of that taking-back of the derogatory where Jews were called rats by the Nazis, for example. MetaMaus follows these paths, and lets us get to know the author. I found it very satisfying, after getting to know a version of him and feel him so strongly. We should always be so lucky.

And then the CD! This book is accompanied by a CD with complete images of both of the books; over 7,000 early sketches & studies & the like; video and audio files including recordings of interviews with Vladek; and some of the pamphlets off his mother’s bookshelf that Art used in his research. I think there were about 4 hours of Vladek interviews – the man’s actual voice! – and an hour-long home movie made by Art and Francoise on a visit to Auschwitz. Holy smokes, the CD is chock-full of goodies. I did not exhaustively study it, I confess. There was just so much; and I felt so well-served by the reading of the book itself. I did enjoy listening to Vladek’s voice, though: it brought everything to life, and was an interesting counterpoint to the relative unreality of comics.

Of course another theme of the book is the power and faultiness of memory. I love memoir, and I love that memoir almost inevitably has to confront this obstacle: the ‘mem’ in memoir is unavoidably problematic, at least enough to raise questions. In Maus‘s case, the clearest example comes when Vladek describes leaving Auschwitz and denies that there was an orchestra playing at the gates. As Art has documented, there is substantial support for the existence of this orchestra: there are photographs, and there are eyewitnesses among the Nazis, the Jews, and the musicians. But Vladek is sure there was no orchestra. What to do? I love Art’s discussion of the problem: how he could have represented Vladek’s version, or the official one, or left the whole question out of his story; but he instead elected to show the actual question. There is a panel in which there is an orchestra – followed by Vladek’s denial of the orchestra – followed by a panel in which the orchestra is no longer present, except that if you look closely, you can see the tips and shadows of their presence behind the marching prisoners. This is really something. Of course, when I read the comic, I didn’t catch that visual shadow, just the discussion of the question.

I learned a lot of intriguing details. Who knew the size of these (quite small) comics was so important to Spiegelman? Or more surprising, that he drew the originals in that same small size? And the details about the different reactions to the books in different countries (it’s been translated into some thirty languages) were fascinating to me. I had innumerable little details of the comics pointed out to me and elucidated – things I would never, in 100 readings, have figured out for myself, but value greatly once they were explained to me. But I most enjoyed the feeling of greater intimacy with a very talented, and unique artist. And I remain boggled by the dual artistry of the composition of this book as narrative, next to the visual artistry of the comic aspect. Art Spiegelman is a special man. The two Maus books were special, and should be required reading (for, I don’t know, everyone). And then if you like those – do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this behind-the-scenes look. If you appreciate art (in any format) and are interested in process, also check this one out. And for those of you who prefer other formats than plain old reading, the CD has a great deal to offer in formats all over the map. Major win!

Additionally, I had to mark many passages for further consideration, so many philosophies I found valuable…

On communication vs. High Arts:

I do like to communicate clearly. It’s a pleasure. And as soon as one is involved with communication, one’s already suspect in the High Arts. A lot of what happens in the more rarefied precincts of art is that the word “communication” gets replaced by “communion,” and one is involved in a kind of religious experience with the artist as shaman. And that’s really different than, “Hey, I’ll tell you a yarn.” Or even “I’ll tell you a parable,” if you want to be didactic. And it’s always been either a skill or a deficiency that I try to make contact with with people.

I appreciate this, because I think High Arts (his phrase, but I like it) can sometimes let us down a great deal when it gets religious, or mysterious, or snooty. I’m not saying everything has to be forever perfectly literal and transparent, and I do enjoy moments of inexplicable beauty. But I think it’s exclusive and elitist to shun honest communication.

On the authenticity of his way of story-telling:

Everything drawn in the so-called past in the story that Vladek is telling is very clearly an attempt by the son to show what the father is telling. And that offered a margin within which to operate authentically. The fact that you’re told that I’m trying to show you what I understand of what Vladek is telling me is built into the fabric of the narrative itself, and allows that narrative to get told.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, 2 Seconds. There is an extended sequence where Lorenzo is telling Laurie the story of his professional bike racing career and how it ended. He speaks, and we see the action he is describing – but we see it as imagined by Laurie as she listens – but apparently Lorenzo can see it too, because he corrects it here and there. For example, he’s describing walking down a country road, and we see a young man doing just that, and kind of waddling on his clipless cycling shoes, with the cleats on them. And then we skip back to Lorenzo and Laurie sitting and talking, and he corrects her: “no no, we didn’t waddle, our shoes were soft leather” (I paraphrase). Skip back to the young man walking down the country road, smoothly on his smooth soles. I love love love this effect. In the same way, for example, in the question of the orchestra at Auschwitz, Spiegelman makes it clear that his father is correctly his visualization as they go. And this makes it honest and clear that he is only telling a story as told to him and as he understands it, which I appreciate deeply for its honesty.

On nihilism and ethics:

One night, we’re going down to feed the cats after one of our snooze-and-probe sessions, and he’s carrying those scraps downstairs and he says, apropos of I don’t remember what, that basically he’s a nihilist. And I ask him how this involves getting up in the middle of the night to talk to dying AIDS patients, and being so available to patients way past the point of it being good for his health, and he says something that one might take as just an off-the-cuff remark, but I found profound: “Well, I decided that behaving ethically was the most nihilistic thing I could do.” It delighted me as an idea, as a way of living one’s life.

This quotation launched a lengthy discussion for my father and I of the different meanings of ‘values,’ ‘morals’ and ‘ethics.’

On stories:

[The word ‘story’] comes from medieval Latin historia. It refers to those very early comic strips made before the invention of newsprint: the stained-glass windows that told a superhero story about that guy who could walk on water and turn it into wine. This is how in English, the word ‘story’ has come to mean both story as in stories of a building and story as a narrative. And at that point one is steered toward an architectural model for what a comic is, something very basic about comics narrative. Comics pages are structures made up of panels, sort of the way the windows in a church articulate a story. Thinking of these pages as units that have to be joined together, as if each page was some kind of building with windows init, was something that often happens overtly in Maus, and sometimes is just implicit in the DNA of the medium.

Story as architecture was a little mind-blowing to me, too. Allow these few examples to show how deeply thought-provoking I found this book. It’s a really dense, exciting experience.

So, to sum up: I found each Maus book thrilling and touching it itself. MetaMaus was equally thrilling and touching, increased the experience of both Mauses, and additionally set loose all kind of thought threads for me, that I have listed here as briefly as I could stand so as to not ramble on all day. Clearly I’m a fan. Pick up this book, and keep your notebook handy as you go.


Rating: what the hell, 10 sketches.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

A heartfelt history of Armed Services Edition paperback books that helped save the sanity of many GIs in World War II.

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Molly Guptill Manning (The Myth of Ephraim Tutt) opens When Books Went to War by documenting the horrified response in the United States to Nazi Germany’s book burnings, beginning in 1933. Bibliophiles fought back in what was characterized as a “total war” of both military might and ideas.

To supply bored, lonely troops with reading materials, librarians in the U.S. organized the Victory Book Campaign, which collected more than 10 million books. To educate the public, the Council on Books in Wartime recommended relevant, topical titles for readers at home, but it found its stride with Armed Services Editions (ASEs). These pocket-sized, lightweight paperbacks, designed for use in the field, not only provided entertainment, escape and enlightenment to American servicemen, but also revolutionized the paperback book in a market that had previously shunned it, employed struggling publishers and helped to jumpstart the publishing industry after the war. Between 1943 and 1947, more than 120 million copies of more than 1,200 fiction and nonfiction titles were printed and efficiently distributed to American soldiers in every theater.

In her moving history, Manning fervently describes the many GIs who returned from war with a love of reading they hadn’t had when they left home, wrote impassioned letters to authors and council members and attributed their college educations to books they discovered as ASEs. For military and general history buffs and lovers of books and libraries, it is difficult to imagine a more inspirational story than this celebration of reading in a time of war.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 letters.

A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year by Tom Nissley

reader's book of daysOn this day in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was born, and in 1972, John Berryman died. Also, in 1877…

Completed on this day when its author was not yet fifteen, Fast and Loose: A Novelette certainly promises illicit fun. As one reviewer noted, “The very title suggests something desperate. Who is fast? What is loose? … We prophesy 128 pages of racy trash & are glad to think we shall be wasting our time agreeably.” The reviewer, though, was none other than the author, Edith Jones, who not only wrote the book (for the enjoyment of a friend) but attached three wittily scathing reviews – “the whole thing a fiasco,” said another – mocking her own efforts. Eight years later, Miss Jones married and became Edith Wharton, but despite this precocious beginning it wasn’t until she was thirty-eight that she published her first novel, The Touchstone.

But don’t let’s start there. I implore you, begin reading Tom Nissley’s year in the life of books with his Introduction, which explains his love of dates and how he went about creating this book. (Among other things, it seems he became a little blind to everything else in the good books he was reading, in his hunt for dates.) It improved the book for me. I also liked that he prefaced his work with two quotations, from Dr. Johnson and Thomas Bernhard respectively, which praise & denigrate the practice of including chronology at all in one’s work (“most tasteless and… unintellectual procedure,” crabs Bernhard). I had also forgotten that my copy, a gift from my mother, was signed. Thanks, Mom.

The rest of the book is one-page-to-a-day of literary births, deaths, and anecdotes, covering both the real lives of literary figures as well as the chronologies of their fictional creations. Each month is preceded by recommended reading for that month, too.

As a quick reference it is fun and pleasant though not of course comprehensive (one page to a day! so not everything that ever happened on that day). I liked the month’s recommended reading and Nissley’s introduction best, because I liked his voice. I hope he’ll write more. And I hope you’ve enjoyed the days in book history series. Happy New Year!


Rating: 6 notes.

The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

This collection of Raymond Chandler’s reflections and witticisms, edited into themed chapters, will equally satisfy his fans and readers unfamiliar with the noir master.

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Though born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Chandler was raised in England, so when he returned to the United States at age 24 he felt rather foreign. He had to study and learn what he called the “American” language, but conquered it in writing The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye and many short stories in the noir style–a style he helped perfect. He created the famous Philip Marlowe (an archetypal hard-boiled private investigator who has trouble with the ladies) and wrote screenplays for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train. When he died in 1959, he left a variety of written works behind, and many are respected as classics today. In The World of Raymond Chandler, editor Barry Day (The Noël Coward Reader) compiles Chandler’s published and epistolary writing to form a picture of the man behind Marlowe.

The voice of this book is as much Day’s as his subject’s. Rather than a memoir by Chandler or, as the subtitle might suggest, a narrative told in his words, this is a collection of quotations. Beginning with an excellent brief introduction, Day sketches the major events and publications in Chandler’s life, largely avoiding a standard biography. Selecting from letters and articles, but more often from Chandler’s fiction, Day patches these fragments together with commentary into chapters on themes or common topics of Chandler’s work: cops, dames, Los Angeles, Hollywood. We see Chandler invent the strong sense of place that helps define such writers as Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke today. Day makes the argument fairly successfully that Marlowe’s voice represents Chandler’s, particularly in their later years, as both softened (but not, Chandler insists, mellowed) until Marlowe in The Long Goodbye was “as hollow as the spaces between the stars.”

Chandler fans will be tickled by a great many pithy aphorisms that both describe and exemplify his distinctive style. “To justify… certain experiments in dramatic dialogue… I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either.” About his preference for small casts, he wrote, “If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.” And what Day calls the master’s “ground rules” (Chandler labeled them “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel”) are treasures, including “The mystery must elude a reasonably intelligent reader” and (sadly) “The perfect mystery cannot be written.” At the end of this admiring collection, Day’s reader is left wondering if Chandler came closest.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 disconnected quotations.

Christmas Day in book history

This post is part of a series.

To celebrate Christmas, let’s take a look at today’s date in authorly history.

reader's book of daysAs usual, I consulted A Reader’s Book of Days for today’s happenings, and found births and deaths of some literary figures unfamiliar to me.

Born in 1924: Rod Serling (Stories from the Twilight Zone), Syracuase, N.Y.

Born in 1925: Carlos Castaneda (The Teachings of Don Juan), Cajamarca, Peru

Died in 1938: Karel Čapek (R.U.R. [Rossum’s Universal Robots]), 48, Prague

Died in 1956: Robert Walser (Jakob von Gunten), 78, Herisau, Switzerland

But of real interest I found one anecdote. In 1956,

Kept from going home to Alabama for Christmas by her job as an airline ticket agent, Harper Lee spent the holiday in New York with Broadway songwriter Michael Brown and his wife, Joy, close friends she had met through Truman Capote. Because Lee didn’t have much money they had agreed to exchange inexpensive gifts, but when they woke on Christmas morning the Browns presented her with an envelope containing this note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Given the humbling gift of “paper, pen, and privacy,” Lee quit her job and set to work, and by the end of February she had written a couple of hundred pages of a manuscript that was first called Go Set a Watchman, then Atticus, and finally To Kill a Mockingbird.

That’s the stuff right there. I had heard (or rather read) this story before, of how Lee got the chance to write her novel, the only one she’d publish and one which has made such a difference in this country and the world over a number of years now. But the detail I hadn’t heard or at least hadn’t retained was that she had the bulk of her manuscript completed by February of a “year off” that started at Christmas. Now that’s impressive! For all those who were frustrated by NaNoWriMo last month, chew on this: Harper Lee’s masterpiece was written in two months. Whew.

And on that inspiring note… happy holidays, friends. Stay tuned for my annual “best of” and “year in review” posts in the next few days.

Teaser Tuesdays: West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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A new novel is coming out about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, spent in Hollywood eking a living while Zelda wobbled along at Highland Hospital. You know I’m all over this one. Just behold the characterization in these lines.

…as he cleaned out the closets and dresser drawers, he discovered empties he couldn’t remember hiding. He would have said he’d been good about drinking, but he’d only been here six months and just upstairs there were a dozen bottles. He gathered them in a burlap sack, waited till the night watchman had passed and stuffed them deep in Bing Crosby’s trash.

And I love the oddball addition of Bing, that this suffering drunk, sordidly hiding his empties in somebody else’s trash, hid them in Bing‘s trash. Because that was his world.

I think it’s going to be a good one. Any Stewart O’Nan fans here?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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