The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons (audio)

Directly after Mrs. Hemingway, I began this one, only subconsciously recalling that its subject matter was similar: a novel about Hemingway’s life. Such is the level of my Hemingway obsession that I keep these things lying around and forget I have them at all…

The Crook Factory gave me rather more trouble than the last one, though. This is a spy thriller about Hemingway’s life during the early years of American involvement in WWII, when he lived in Cuba and took his boat, the Pilar, out hunting for German submarines in the Gulf. He was basically playing at spy, and my impression from various biographies is that his activities were a little silly. In his afterword, though, Dan Simmons informs his reader that much of the story he tells here is based in historical fact. He says that the documentation of Hemingway’s activities in the early 40s are still classified to this day, which I confess is suspicious: to my mind, why classified, if there were nothing serious going on? So that’s interesting. Maybe we are all guilty of not taking Hemingway seriously enough.

FBI Agent Joe Lucas narrates this novel, looking back after decades – after Hemingway’s 1961 suicide – to recall his brief acquaintance with “the writer” (often referred to as such) in 1942-43. This flashback is told in present tense. Lucas has been sent down to Havana by Director J. Edgar Hoover to keep an eye on Hemingway as he plays spy on his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, hunting German subs and trying to intercept radio transmissions. Hem has put together a ragtag group he calls the “Crook Factory,” of amateurs including little boys, local bartenders and Spanish exiles – and Lucas, who figures he’s been put out to pasture on this ridiculous mission. Lucas is derisive in his dismissal of Hemingway’s silly games; but serious things keep happening, and he keeps wondering why these seem like important events when of course they could not be… and this incredulity lasts long enough to strain my own faith in Lucas’s character, as he’s supposed to be this great agent and simultaneously awfully slow to figure out that the Gulf action is real deal, man.

This book has a few things going for it: an incredibly unlikely, wild, action-filled story; Hemingway’s undeniable charisma; name-dropping Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Ian Fleming, John F. Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and more. Putting Hemingway in one’s own fiction is tricky, though. The man was so nearly a caricature of himself that it’s too easy to write him as one; but the man in real life forced people to take him seriously, too, so he walked a fine line between ridiculous and deadly serious, that many writers find difficult to properly evoke. I’ve read maybe a dozen fictionalizations of him, and I’d say half or so get it right. Simmons’s Hemingway does not ring true for me. The reader drives me a little crazy; he strikes the right note for the hard-boiled spy-thriller, I suppose, but I don’t think he does Hemingway well. The man comes out sounding kind of high and nasal-y, which doesn’t feel right at all. (There aren’t many recordings of Hem’s voice, but they do exist.) Part of this is the reader, but part of it too is Simmons’s writing of the man. It feels like he couldn’t decide whether he was satirizing Hem or taking him seriously. And Gellhorn here is a nagging shrew – this, more the author’s fault, although again I’m not crazy about the way she’s performed – which I don’t think is remotely fair. She was a strong woman – the most independent of his wives – and they certainly fought, but this screeching nag felt wrong.

I was frequently frustrated as well by the silliness of the plot, but again, with Simmons’s afterword I feel a little chastened – I don’t feel qualified to quibble with the line between fact and fiction here. I’ve read several Hemingway biographies, but it’s been years, and none of them focused especially on these years. Simmons certainly offers a wilder version of this episode than I’d read before. It felt like fiction, but fact is stranger than.

While on that topic, though, I want to note the dialog between the Hemingway character and that of the narrator Joe Lucas, an FBI man with no patience for fiction. Hem defends his novels and the truer-than-true nature of fiction, saying “that’s why I write fiction rather than fact.” Wait, what?? Is Simmons unaware of the nine full-length works of nonfiction published by Hemingway, including the canonical A Moveable Feast and Death in the Afternoon?! The man decidedly wrote both fact and fiction. For goodness sake, he got his start in journalism. Simmons lost a lot of credibility in that line.

The plot is strong, if a bit incredible. Characters are shaky; Lucas himself felt a bit overdrawn, as well as my concerns about Hem. And Simmons may be a bit too invested in detail: FBI dossiers, the finer points of codes and code-breaking… I think the story could have been exciting, and more engaging, at two-thirds this length, or less. I found myself involved enough to stick it out, which is no small thing with this audiobook of twenty-one hours. I repeatedly thought about quitting, but I stuck around, because I wanted to see what happened. So I guess that’s an endorsement of sorts. Certainly, my interest is piqued about the events in question.

Pretty mixed review on this one. For a Hemingway completist like myself, it’s worth a try. Simmons has many fans; maybe you’ll love him, too.


Rating: 6 five-letter sequences.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood (audio)

A randomly selected audio treat recently returned me to the world of Ernest Hemingway, whom I have not read for years now, but who I feel as strongly about as ever.

This is a novel about the Missuses Hemingway: Hadley, Pauline, Martha, and Mary. Therefore it begins in Antibes, France (with flashbacks to Paris and Chicago, where Hadley and Hemingway met), and follows the strangely morphing family to Key West, Cuba, Spain, London, and Idaho. Chapters are told from the point of view of each Mrs. Hemingway in turn. These are third-person perspectives, but very close.

How to sum up this story I feel I know so well? Hadley Richardson is the first wife. Older than Hemingway, she had resigned herself to spinsterhood and is called ‘homely.’ Their marriage was most innocent, since another hadn’t ended to allow for it. They had a baby, Bumby; they lived together in Paris, dirt poor and very happy – these years are later mythologized by Hemingway in such terms. Next comes Pauline Pfeiffer, or Fife, a wealthy socialite who inserted herself into the Hemingway marriage, as a close friend to Hadley as well as to Hem; she made a concerted effort to win him, which she did. This breaking point opens the novel: Hadley gives Hem a tearful ultimatum, and then issues her conditions for divorce. She wants him and Fife to spend 100 days apart to decide if they’re really serious. Then she lifts the requirement, out of sympathy for the lovers’ plight.

Fife was Hem’s longest-lasting wife. They had two sons, Patrick and Gregory, and settled in Key West. Fife’s section also opens near its end: Hemingway returns from Spain, where he’s been covering the Spanish Civil War, and alternates between treating Fife better than ever, and sort of teasing her with his new mistress, Marty. Fife is the only one of his divorces to really fight to keep him, beg him to stay. She loses, and the two are never on excellent terms again. Cue Marty, or Martha Gellhorn, herself an accomplished war correspondent: Hemingway’s problem with her is her independence, her own writerly accomplishments, her refusal to wait at home for him. They have been apart for some time when she shows up in Madrid to find him and break it off, only to learn he’s taken a lover, Mary. This upsets Marty briefly, but then the two women meet and team up in taking care of him. His drinking and self-sabotage are worsening, and Marty is relieved to pass him on to the next wife.

Mary Welsh was there at the end, when he shot himself with both barrels of a shotgun in their home in Ketchum, Idaho, and much of her section of the book takes place after his death, as she tries to sort through papers and her own grief. Here Mary receives a final visit from a most interesting secondary character, one whom Naomi Wood invented: Harry Cuzzemano, a collector/dealer of books and literary ephemera, who has harassed all four wives for papers and especially, the famous briefcase Hadley lost at the Gare de Lyon. (If you don’t know, go look up this most fascinating mystery in the Hemingway legend.) The final meeting with Harry is part of the final wrapping-up, which is a little odd (he has been peripheral throughout) and a little appropriate (he has been a through-line, and in making his own final peace, he helps Mary find hers). The last moments involve Mary’s coming to terms with the fact that Hemingway was not the fatal victim of a gun accident, as she’s been claiming. I can only imagine how difficult this must be. There was plenty of evidence in support of a suicide – his mental health in the last years of his life, several suicide attempts, forensic evidence – but how hard it still must be.

Mrs. Hemingway was an enjoyable read (listen) for me. Each of these four women is evoked in her own fashion. I loved feeling steeped in Hemingway again, after too long. These stories were familiar, although the particulars were often new. Kate Reading (great name), who narrates the audiobook, did a good job: I did not think of her a bit, which is the ideal, meaning that her role as reader kind of disappeared for me and I felt I was receiving the book unadulterated. I see that Naomi Wood spent time with letters and papers written by each of these women, and I feel good about her fictionalized but faithful representations.

As a gentle criticism, I guess I would say that this still felt like a book about the man, more than about the women. Maybe that’s the only way to go, with such a massively larger-than-life male lead; at least three of the wives were most famous for being just that, and it seems Hemingway had this effect on women (and men, too), that everything becomes about him. They all four loved him in their own ways. They all kept in touch in their own ways, or didn’t: Hadley and Hem remained chums; Pauline was an antagonist, but a co-parent, so some contact was necessary; Marty and he never spoke after their divorce. I appreciated how they kept in touch with each other, too (or didn’t), including the friendship between Mary and Hadley, the first and last wives, whose relationship was largely a collaboration on how to best care for the man they’d all shared. There’s something deeply creepy about this polygamous-feeling string of women. But it’s true to life, as far as I can tell. (As an aside, I’ve always wondered what my relationship with Hem would have been, if we’d been alive at the same time. Would I have been able to resist his prodigious charms, and see what a cad he was?)

This is a book of high emotions, love and devotion and anger and betrayal and rejection. Looking over that last paragraph, I don’t think I mean to criticize, after all. I think the Hemingway focus is accurate. He’s what these women have in common. If it’s a little less than feminist and empowering to be so mad for this flawed man, so be it: it’s what happened. I am glad that Wood gave each woman her own time and her own personality. I’m glad to be with the flawed man again, myself. I’m very glad I read this book. It was sweet and harrowing, and engulfing. Recommended.


Rating: 7 shallow white bowls.

hemingWay of the Day: on the writing tool

It has been too many years now since I reveled in Hemingway who I so love, and therefore since I posted a hemingWay of the Day. I blame graduate school, among other things. Lately I’m trying to read a few short stories here and there, and so of course I’ve got The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway nearby.

In the preface to section 1, “The First Forty-Nine,” Hem writes,

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

This is such a powerful statement, and one that I’ve thought of often in reference to other aspects of life: money, for example; energy; youth; my degenerating knees. The bicycle one hangs on the wall and keeps pristine and never rides, seems to me a waste. I had not thought about life and experience dulling one’s writing tool; and I had not necessarily thought of that tool being reconditionable in these terms. I needed this thought right now. Thank you, Papa.

movie: Genius (2016)

I have had a book on my shelf for years called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, sadly. But you know I was thrilled to see this movie come out. Genius is based on the book: it’s about Max Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house, who shepherded the careers of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among many others.

geniusThis movie is about Perkins’s relationship with Thomas Wolfe (although Fitzgerald and Hemingway make brief appearances). I knew almost nothing about Wolfe when I came to the film, and my impressions of Perkins were hazy, based on what I know of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: I understood him to be a decent, humble, kind man, well-suited to handle such stormy personalities and expert at doing so. He is known to be both a very fine editor and a very fine guardian and guide to the difficult men who were his three most famous writers.

These impressions were held up by the film. Perkins (Colin Firth) is quiet and modest and professional. Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is wild: noisy, passionate, emotive. Talented, but unrestrained in several senses. He sought a father and Perkins sought a son, and their relationship is characterized as such. Together they produced Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Wolfe’s lover and patron Aline Bernstein, played by Nicole Kidman, is an especially tragic character. The couple’s threats and fights add pathos and drama to that already provided by Perkins’s conflicts with his own wife (he is perhaps overly committed to his work) and the fiery, explosive talent Wolfe sprays across his life and Perkins’s offices. The acting is great – to be expected from such a cast.

Following closely on my viewing of Papa, I saw parallels. Literary talents can be oh so dramatic, and their lives can be woeful, tragic and (again) dramatic. I enjoyed both movies very much, but I confess they often hit the same emotional notes. This strikes me as accurate; but I can see where a viewer less invested than I am could perhaps get a little weary. These are the risks of loving characters like Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

For fans of these writers, their work and their community, not to be missed. Very fine acting & production and a fine film all around.


Rating: 8 marks.

movie: Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015)

YARI-PAOS-01_27x40_031816.inddI’m afraid I’m quite late in writing this review: it has been at least a month since I saw this movie at a local theatre. I was really hoping for a reprise so I could take Husband to see it, and see it a second time for myself, but no luck. I recall my impressions, though, and will share them here.

The story is that of a young Miami reporter who idolizes Hemingway. In the film he is Ed Myers; in real life he was Denne Bart Peticlerc, who wrote the screenplay. Myers, played by Giovanni Ribisi (who I really like), writes Hemingway an adoring letter which he does not mean to send. His girlfriend sends it on, which results in a phone call from Papa himself, and an invitation to visit the Finca Vigía, the Hemingway home in Havana. A friendship develops between Myers, Hemingway and Hemingway’s 4th wife Mary.

This is also the first U.S./Hollywood filming to take place in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, an interesting factoid and one that should cue us to look closely at setting and extras.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba has been criticized. Some reviewers find it lacking in background introduction to Hemingway’s story (no problem for this viewer, but okay, noted), or poorly acted, or melodramatic. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but I’ll allow that my fascination (not to say obsession) with the subject may have helped.

It is hard to watch Hemingway and Mary fight, and watch Hemingway struggle with depression and mental illness. It is melodramatic; but so, I think, was his life. It was actually rather painful to see it portrayed, but I do think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal. There were some hilarious as well as pathos-ridden, and very apt, scenes involving Hemingway’s performances in life–because his life was a performance–and Myers’s obvious discomfort. I was occasionally uncomfortable, too. I think Hemingway had that effect on people.

Adrian Sparks plays Papa, rather uncannily, I’d say.

The backdrop was most interesting, especially when I think about how filming took place. There were a few wide-angle shots of streets filled with gleaming, colorful 1950’s American cars: I imagine it took a little looking to find such mint-condition specimens (shot in 2014 but to match a late-50’s setting), but of course these are the cars still largely piloting Havana today. I wondered about the extras, such as musicians playing in bars. How were they hired? How did they approach this project? What a weird, meta-meditation on the persistent issues with U.S.-Cuban relations today. All of which does belong in any story about Hemingway.

In a nod to the Chicago Sun-Times review linked above, I will recommend this movie to viewers with a certain familiarity with the Hemingway story. And be prepared for sad, disturbing scenes. But the one presupposes the other: Hemingway’s life was indeed filled with scenes like these.


Rating: 7 skinny dips.

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

This study of the creation of The Sun Also Rises illuminates both the compelling story and Hemingway’s complex and not entirely likable personality and behavior.

everybody behaves badly

Many books have been written about Hemingway, but it seems there is still more to be learned. Lesley M.M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly zooms in on the creation of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel and the one that firmly established his reputations, literary and otherwise. As her subtitle promises, Blume seeks the true story: in this case, the real men and women whose lives inspired Hemingway’s fiction, which some claimed was not really fiction at all.

Everybody Behaves Badly is not a biography of Hemingway; it skips his childhood to open with his marriage to Hadley Richardson, and the couple’s move to Paris in pursuit of cheap living and a storied expat community. Blume portrays a devilishly charismatic young writer, ambitious and confident, who easily collected mentors and admirers. She follows that young writer to Pamplona with a group of friends in 1925, and through the weeks after in which he wrote feverishly. Unflatteringly immortalized, one of the people Hemingway transformed into a character spoke of lives divided into B.S. and A.S.: before Sun, and after. Blume’s study concludes as Hemingway’s career expands, his first marriage ends and his second begins.

A biography of a novel, then, Everybody Behaves Badly is itself an engrossing and varied tale: raucous and dissipated, pitiable and serious. Blume’s research offers new detail to a well-studied story, and her narrative style is as entertaining as the original. Obviously required for Hemingway fans, this engaging work of nonfiction will also please a broad audience.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 slight changes.

book beginnings on Friday: Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

book beginnings

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Guess what brought me to this one. It’s been a while since I read The Sun Also Rises (first discovered in Mrs. Smith’s English class in high school, which began my Hemingway admiration). I wonder if I’ll find time for a reread…

everybody behaves badly

I think these opening lines set the scene nicely – or the atmosphere of Hemingway’s life and fame, if you will.

In March 1934, Vanity Fair ran a mischievous editorial: a page of Ernest Hemingway paper dolls, featuring cutouts of various famous Hemingway personas. On display: Hemingway as a toreador, clinging to a severed bull’s head; Hemingway as a brooding, café-dwelling writer (four wine bottles adorn his table, and a waiter is seen toting three more in his direction); Hemingway as a bloodied war veteran.

I wonder how much that page of paper dolls would be worth now!

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

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