Rambling isn't writing, it's rambling

Early in The Loveliest Woman in America, "The author requests the reader's patience." As well she should.

The story of Rosamond Pinchot Gaston is one I've caught glimpses of in other books, most recently in Nancy ... "A Very Private Woman" the biography of Rosamond's half-sister Mary Pinchot Meyer, so I was pleased to see a full biography had finally been written. Rosamond was "discovered" at 19. She went on to star in a Broadway hit and appear regularly in the society columns of the 20s and 30s before her seemingly sudden and inexplicable suicide in 1937. This is a story with definite possibilities.

Even after reading that patience was required for this book I wasn't too put off. I have a very limited tolerance for stories about the author's unconventional childhood. Rarely are these stories worth telling to a wide audience and even more rarely are they well told. But who would anyone spend endless pages on, let us say, what it was like to attend elementary school in Princeton, New Jersey in 1963 when material from the life of a woman who hobnobbed with the likes of George Cukor and Claire Boothe Luce was available? No one would be so foolish, right?

In a word: wrong.

My patience was tried mightily by this book. The chapters about Rosamond aren't bad but they do include some very questionable prose and what I can only describe as an addiction to metaphors. Very, very bad metaphors. Elizabeth Arden is described as "a walking empire of ingenuity, a siren of survival, a roving pink tornado." Another woman is described as "dispensing advice like a wheezing lesbian oracle." The champ, however, is the description of Clare Boothe Luce as "one of those women who attacked life with a sledgehammer."

If you can make sense of out that description, please let me know. I can't figure out if Clare is treating life like a tear-down that she plans to remodel or if she wants to reduce it to small pieces she can cart away to her local landfill. Neither of which strikes me as being particularly indicative of ambition. Still, that sentence is a model of clarity compared to "a woman who mucked around in the world of men whose love was about as murky as pond ooze."

Of course, while that is bad prose it isn't as pretentious and downright insufferable as what goes on in the sections when Gaston ruminates on the meaning of life. These sections are helpfully printed in italics so that the reader can fortify his/herself with liquor to face lines like "I suspect most Americans are lost." By the time I got to Gaston's big thesis, delivered to an ex-boyfriend (who she pointlessly lets us know was Canadian), I was wondering if I can soldier on to the end. Then I read the big idea of this book:

"Longing isn't love, it's longing."

I am very sorry to report that the Canadian boyfriend does not appear to have given this line the response it deserved, namely "Bitch, please." And so, unaware apparently that this is not profundity of the deepest sort, Gaston goes on to repeat this line three more times in the book so that we will all understand that when people we love go away we sometimes think we love them more than they would if they hung around and got on our nerves.

There's only one way to read the italics portions of this book. Out loud, with friends. Lines like "I was in a deep sleep when I chose the men in my life" are surprisingly entertaining in a group setting. Less entertaining, is Gaston's utter failure to grasp the complexity of mental illness in general and depression specifically. She never explores what Rosamond meant by "Cinderella feeling" although it was obviously a code for feelings of depression and anxiety. Instead she either implies that Rosamond was used and discarded by the star machine and men in her life - what a radical notion, or she declares Rosamond's suicide was just a middle finger aimed at the world. Because suicide is such a rational act.

Most of Rosamond's life gets this barely skin deep treatment. We never understand why Rosamond disliked her mother, why she was so resentful of her step-mother and her half-sisters well into her thirties, why she loved any of the men she loved or why she declared that she hated her own sons. Nor does Rosamond come across as particularly likable half the time although Gaston doesn't seem to notice. "Big Bill" Gaston, Rosamond's husband, comes across as a complete jerk which makes her attraction to him all the more inexplicable.

Oddly enough, the two women who do come out best are actress Kay Francis, who is smart enough to know when a man is a good date but would make a lousy husband, and Lady Diana Cooper, who's truly gracious and compassionate letter to one of Rosamond's sons is included. I get the feeling they'd know what to say if someone told them "longing isn't love, it's longing."

If you do choose to read this book, consider the Kindle edition. Not only does it have all the photographs included, the very interested formatting of this version makes hilarious lines like "Clare hatched the perfect plan to rent Big Bill's Crotch _________Island" possible.

... Like a reader scorned

Good true crime books very rarely come in two. The trusting reader may finish an excellent book about a well-known case, see another book on the same case and think, "that was so good, I think I'll have another." Think again, dear reader, because the next book might be as mind-bendingly awful as "Hell Hath No Fury".

One truly great, genre-transcending book has been written about the Betty Broderick case. It's called Until the Twelfth of Never, by Bella Stumbo. This book, by Bryna Taubman is an assault on the genre aided and abetted by St. Martin's Paperbacks. Of all the out of print true crime books they had to pick THIS ONE to reprint as "True Crime Classic"? Perhaps their definition is more elastic than mine. Certainly their definition of "astonishing" is. The back cover promises "8 PAGES OF ASTONISHING PHOTOS. Inside are photos of (sensitive readers may wish to skip to the next line) people testifying at the trial. But that's not all, there are pictures of the house and of the victims, BEFORE THEY DIED.

With content like that you'd think they'd slap a warning label on this book.

Actually, a warning label might be a good idea. I'd have appreciated knowing in advance that I was going to be subjected to two full paragraphs describing the exterior of the house in which the murder were committed. Especially when the description included this:

"The curved driveway passed in front of the four white columns that rose to the overhanging roof."

Gee, you mean the columns didn't just keep on rising until they reached they sky? The driveway didn't go behind the columns and cut through the living room? Those crazy Californians and their ideas on architecture. It gets worse. Betty Broderick, packing heat and having broken into her ex-husband's house at dawn, is "undaunted" by a closed door. We then get details, and I do mean details, about Betty's escape route. The names of the roads she took, the nicknames of the roads she took, what the roads pass, how direct they are, etc. Google Maps should dream of being this comprehensive.

At the time, the Betty Broderick case was widely covered, and thank goodness or how would this book have been written? Surely not through actual first-hand research. Taubman quotes liberally from the People, The San Diego Tribune, Hard Copy, even Ladies Home Journal. She takes the view that Betty was driven to kill and never lets up. When Taubman finally gets around to noting that nothing "can justify" the taking of two lives, it's in the last five pages. Up until then she takes whatever Betty says and presents it as gospel.

Taubman makes some nutty claims, such as "a man accused of killing of killing an unfaithful mate ... is portrayed as defending his honor." Seriously? In San Diego in 1990? Later she excuses Betty as having even "lost her mind for a few seconds." Which seconds would these be? The ones where she dumped her kids off in the middle of the night outside an empty house? When she drove her car through the front door? When she took a gun to her ex-husband's house "to talk"? The Broderick story never gets any thoughtful analysis here, just hyperbole and ranting.

If you want a nuanced, balanced telling that shows the selfish, appalling behavior of both parties, see Bella Stumbo's book. If you want to know more about the author, you'll be left wanting once again. There's no info about Bryna Taubman included; no "About the Author" blurb. Which makes sense. If I'd written this book I'd want to enter the author equivalent of the Witness Protection Program too.

A Cup of Victorianism and a dash of Fascism

Homages to Victorian Thrillers are plentiful these days. Charles Palliser has reinvented the Dickensian novel. John Harwood has stake out territory that adjoins M. R. James and Wilkie Collins. While Andrew Taylor owes a debt to Wilkie Collins, he seems as influenced by Sheridan Le Fanu.

The back of her husband Marcus's hand jolts Lydia Langstone out of the sleepwalking that has characterized most of her life. Lydia packs up and heads to the dreary flat of the father she barely knows, located in Bleeding Heart Square. He shares the building with a cast of characters that would be as comfortable in Uncle Silas as they are here. A few, Fimberry for one, verge on the grotesque both physically and psychologically. The one beacon of normalcy in this house is Rory Wentwood, a journalist newly returned from India. Both Lydia and Rory are drawn into the mystery of Philippa Penlow. Taylor overlays this Gothic mystery with the arguably Gothic events of 1934 England, namely the Depression and the rise Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists.

This isn't a subtle story anymore than The Wyvern Mystery is a study in understatement. Those who appear to be villains are villains; the question isn't "are they guilty" it's "what is the crime?" Learning who has done what and what secrets lie beneath the aristocratic surface of Lydia's family form the core of the mystery. There is a whodunnit here but I'd guess than many a savvy mystery fan will have spotted the culprits and the secrets in advance.

What makes this book worth reading even though you may not be surprised at the twists and outcomes is Taylor's undeniable storytelling talent. He invokes the spirit of the Victorian Sensation novel without adopting all of the conceits. His prose is less luxuriant than Le Fanu's or Harwood's, for example, and Bleeding Heart Square has almost no scenes that don't move the plot along. Taylor is particularly good at describing the horrific in a spare, compact style that heightens the horror.

The grotesque elements may be a problem for some: cows hearts sent through the mail, a child who collects animal bones and skulls, and that old Victorian standby - foul smelling food - all feature prominently. Another drawback is Taylor's heavy-handed irony - how many times do we need to see Lydia Langstone reading "A Room of One's Own" to get the picture? I was also disappointed in Taylor's use of British Fascists as stock villains. I certainly didn't want to see them presented as heroes but a few more details than the well-known tendency of BUF meetings to descend into brawls would have been welcome.

All in all this is a satisfying book that left me wanting to explore more of Andrew Taylor's work. Recommended for historical mystery fans but especially Victorian Thriller/Sensation novel fans.

Lack of proportion is barbarism

For anyone alive in the 1970s and 80s the phrase "Baader-Meinhof Gang" has a certain ring to it. The particular melody might be terrorism for some, activism for others. At the time I was too young to understand what Baader-Meinhof stood for or purported to stand for and the press, at the time and later, never succeeded in putting their actions in context. Possibly because the press was too busy either demonizing or glamorizing them as the whim struck. Over the years I've read a number of books on the radical groups of the Sixties and Seventies and most aren't much more illuminating.

Stefan Aust's newly update Baader-Meinhof (The Baader-Meinhof Complex), however, is that rare effort that brings the immediacy of journalism and the unbiased examination of academia to the subject. Aust tells the story of the group and its leaders in a step-by-step fashion that focuses on events rather than analysis. Its a tricky technique, especially when a lot of the events involve people hiding out in apartments for weeks on end, but in this case it was the right choice. Aust lets the reader see the events play out in all their claustrophobic inevitability; he also lets the reader judge the events and the actors on their own.

Successful journalist Ulrike Meinhof, minister's daughter Gudrun Ensslin, and all-around-jerk Andreas Baader formed the leadership of the self-christened Red Army Faction . It's noted early in the book that "You either loved or loathed" Andreas Baader. The loathing part I understand but then I've never had a soft spot for misogynist drug-addicted petty thieves. Either Andreas had loads of personal charisma or the rest of the "Gang" had serious masochism issues because it sure wasn't the clarity of Baader's political believes that drew people in. The most one can say for Baader is that he was willing to break the law for his beliefs - that must have seemed impressive to nice middle-class German youths looking for a way to change the world. What Baader wasn't willing to do was do any prison time for breaking the law. Nearly all of the violence and other crimes committed by the RAF revolve around either breaking Baader out of jail, keeping him out of jail, or otherwise getting him out of jail.

And that's the main problem for me. I've long been fascinated by extremist groups - from the ancient to modern times - by what motivates them to step outside of society to achieve their aims. The Baader-Meinhof aims are barely comprehensible. Yes, they wanted to end the war in Vietnam, eliminate poverty and do something for Palestine. I can't tell you much more about their believes because a lot of what they said and wrote was very much like this mind-bending sentence:

"It also means, that is, it is the premise of the decisions - that whatever the Government may decide no longer has the same meaning for us as that from which they proceed."

This is what prolonged isolation in a prison will do, it will make you write sentences that no one can decipher. The German prison system was a revelation to me. Apparently prisoners could self-prescribe any legal pharmaceutical of their choice - uppers, downers, cough medicine. Actual medical care, on the other hand, was a bit more ad hoc. And security can only be described as something special.

During their trial Meinhof, Ensslin and Baader all claim that the prison conditions were driving them crazy. Not likely, since these three were seriously crazy all on their own. When Gudrun wasn't coming up with code names for the group from Moby Dick and Ulrike wasn't penning RAF manifestos they were playing mind games with one another. Sometimes Andreas would join in the fun by declaring the two "grotesque madwomen." All the while Gudrun and Ulrike look up to Andreas as somehow the most politically pure of the group even as he declares hunger strikes that he himself will secretly break while costing the life of another group member. The sanest comment made is by a government agent who asks Baader "Don't you think these ideas of yours are out of touch with reality?"

Gudrun seems to have been hell on wheels but Ulrike Meinhof comes across as a sadder story. The most disturbing aspect of her story was her relationship with her twin daughters. After her plan to have them spirited away to an orphanage in Jordan to be trained as Palestinian freedom fighters is thwarted, Meinhof writes them motherly chatty letters from prison. She seems to take real joy in their visits to her until one day she abruptly ceases all communication with them. Her motives aren't explained and I was left with the image of her 10 year old daughters suffering yet another abandonment. Early in the book there's a vignette of Meinof jumping up and screaming "I won't let them do this to me" after seeing news footage of the war in Vietnam. On the one hand I was impressed by Meinhof's strong feelings for the suffering caused by war, on the other hand, "to me"? No one was dropping napalm on Ulrike's house. But Meinhof clearly felt that she was being put in a position of tacitly or passively supporting a war she was against. That feeling of being party to an atrocity not by action but by inaction had a deeper meaning for a German in 1965 than an American in 2009 can probably ever understand.

But that reaction, so out of proportion as to be downright bizarre, is emblematic of the entire group. As one former RAF member puts it, "The lack of proportion is barbarism. for years, everything revolved around the release of the prisoners." Twenty-eight people in one year (1977) lost their lives not to create a more just world or end poverty (and the Vietnam War was already over) but just trying to get Andreas Baader and his gang out of jail. That's one pathetic dialectic.

This is a very readable book that goes a long way to explaining what Aust calls the Baader-Meinhof complex. As Aust says in the preface, this is neither an indictment nor a plea for the defence. It is a record that requires readers to decide for themselves what the lessons are. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the specific subject or the times.

That's one off the list

Sometimes I'm embarrassed at how long it takes me to finish a book. I lose interest or get distracted. It took me over a year to finish a mystery set in 19th century New York, for instance, that was all of 300 paperback pages long. The fact that I only seemed to remember I was reading this book was when I was going to get my hair "done" and needed something to read didn't help matters. Once a month for 35 minutes isn't a recipe for reading success.

Great Tales from English History was one of the first books I bought for my Kindle. A year ago the selection of history books on Kindle that I hadn't already read was a bit thin so this seemed like just the ticket. Over a year later, I've finally finished it. It wasn't what I was expecting but it is entertaining on its own terms. This is not a continuous narrative but, as the title suggests, individual tales. Each one is relatively short - most clock it at around 5 pages - making it perfect for bite-size reading. The tales themselves draw heavily on original chronicles and sources and Lacey does an admirable job of providing context for the prejudices of the sources. Most of the stories do involve the great and mighty but Lacey also includes tales of "Cheddar Man", an early English physician and the Venerable Bede. Lacey's tales were the perfect company for the subway portion of my commute, easily digestible in 10 minutes each. They've also proven to be good bedtime stories for my 12 year old niece.

If I had to sum this book up in one word it would be this: charming. That's not faint praise. This is not a substantial work of history but it does provide an entertaining respite for history buff and history novice alike. I particularly enjoyed the way Lacey uses the original source material while still providing a commentary on the likeliness of events happening as written. He also delves into the deeper meaning of the tales whether it's Piers Ploughman and the bell on the cat or Alfred and the Cakes. Doing all of this in five page spurts while still entertaining is an accomplishment.

For the Love of God, READ THIS BOOK

It's not every day I find myself doing this: buying extra copies of a book and giving them to friends with entreaties to "read this, you'll love it." Lately I've bought four extra copies of C. S. Harris first book, What Angels Fear, and gifted them to fellow mystery fans. It's my version of doing the Lord's Work.

There are many reasons to read this latest entry in the series: excellent evolving characterizations, a smart central mystery and the sort of edge-of-your-seat action dozens of thrillers promise every year yet so few actually deliver. After four books it's clear that C. S. Harris is qualified to teach a master class on a number of topics. Take her ability to start a thriller out with a bang - just the right amount of set up and then right into the action. Where Serpents Sleep starts with Hero Jarvis in the midst of one of her blue stocking studies having a conversation with a prostitute when all hell breaks loose. It's nothing short of brilliant and the tension never lets up without once seeming forced.

Harris packs in a few twists in both the central mystery and the on-going interactions of the recurring characters. I'm a fan of mystery series though I always get antsy when the recurring characters take up too much of the narrative - call me shallow but I'm in it for the mystery. Harris always strikes just the right balance between delivering the mystery goods and involving the reader in the lives of her recurring characters. (Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George, take note!)

If you love mysteries or thrillers or historical fiction, if you're a fan of Kate Ross or Dorothy Dunnett (or even Georgette Heyer), give C. S. Harris a try. Start at the beginning with What Angels Fear, if you can, but you won't lose too much by starting with this excellent entry. If you still aren't convinced and you have a Kindle, take an advantage of the free sample chapter. What have you got to lose, right? And you can look forward to joining me in all but stopping strangers on the street and urging them to read these books. The Sebastian St. Cyr series is that good - read one book and you may find yourself giving copies to your friends.

Random Reading Thoughts

Ulrike Meinhoff and Andreas Baader look alike in certain pictures, almost like brother and sister.

Why are most radical groups like cults? A charismatic leader who demands that adherents do his/her bidding in order to proof their worthiness - as true of Baader-Meinhoff as of Jonestown.

Marie Curie had a lousy life. Who knew?

A Boy and His Jewelries

I've learned many things reading The Fabulous Sylvester, among them the importance of looking one's best, of expressing oneself and never, ever to get between a 200 pound drag queen and his jewelries. You can mock his falsetto and diss his music but just try to steal his jewelries and the fabulous Sylvester will mess you up. And that is just one of the many reasons why after reading this book I wish Sylvester were still with us. We can always use more well-put-together dance music, for one thing, and we're perpetually in dire need of entertainers who don't take themselves too seriously. Also I'd like to just hang out with Sylvester for a day - because if this book is any indication, Sylvester WAS the party. I can't remember the last time I read a biography of an entertainer and ended up liking the subject even more.

There's nothing dismissive about calling this story of a boy from South Central who moved to San Francisco and became the First Lady of the Castro a true fairytale. Sylvester dreamed of a world where he could be who he was on his own terms and he sprinkled magic dust on himself and made it happen. Whether hanging out with the drugged out misfits known as the Cockettes or working it on the Merv Griffin Show, Sylvester didn't compromise and he didn't phone it in either.

Author Joshua Gamson uses Sylvester's life story to tell the broader story of gay liberation in the 1970s. If that sounds like a drag consider that Gamson at one point contends that San Francisco was to gays what Israel was to Jews "only with fewer wars and more parties." Gamson nearly always finds just the right balance between telling Sylvester's mostly joyous story and the realities of being gay in America in the 1970s. Even Sylvester's ultimate tragic death from AIDs ends up being a story of staying true to oneself.

This is a fun, smart book. If you read it, as I did, after reading the great punk history "Please Kill Me" you'll find yourself thinking that the Punks may have had all the best lines but the Disco Queens had all the fun.

Clearly John Gavin Shot His Puppy

Sam Staggs has created a franchise telling the stories of the making of classic motion pictures. Behind the Movie - complete with tragedy, triumph, sex-capades and substance abuse. I greatly enjoyed Stagg's first three offerings (on All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and A Streetcar Named Desire) in part because he treated these fine movies as classics without becoming too precious or too snobby about the whole thing. He writes as an intelligent movie fan for other intelligent fans who aren't above sharing a juicy bit of gossip.

This latest outing - the story of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life - finds Mr Staggs having misplaced his sense of humor. Early on Staggs makes it clear that Imitation is a movie that changed his life and his analysis proceeds from there. Like his two earlier books Staggs provides plenty of backstage gossip about the stars and fascinating details about the making of the movie itself. When Staggs sticks to the story behind the story and writes like a fan telling another fan about their favorite movie of all time this is an entertaining book. But this outing just isn't as much fun for several reasons.

First, Staggs takes this movie way too seriously. I'm all for reclaiming popular art as art. I'm also not in the least snobby about the emotional impact even the lowest of art can have on the viewer. But making a case for Imitation as one of the best movies ever made? There you're on your own, Sam. Especially when he has to go through such contortions to explain away the "blonde half" of the movie starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. This would be the part of the movie so beloved by fans of camp - until you've seen Lana "acting" like someone "acting" you just haven't lived - and it's entertaining in its way. It is, however, melodrama, no matter how much Staggs dislikes the word. Melodrama is all about heightened emotions, and what's wrong with that? But whenever Stagg tries to convince the reader that Douglas Sirk was achieving something brilliant by having a weak actress playing another weak actress he lost me. No, Sirk was doing the best he could with the actress he had. This wasn't all part of some cunning plan.

Second, Staggs can't seem to keep his mind on the topic at hand. If Staggs goes easy on Lana, not that I mind, he's downright vicious to John Gavin. I'm not a big fan of John Gavin, I wouldn't even call him an actor if I could think of another word for someone who appears in movies and recites his lines accurately but he's far from the worst thing ever to hit the cinema. Staggs' enmity for Gavin goes beyond his limited thespian skills and seems to have something to do with the fact that Gavin didn't like to do shirtless scenes. Staggs attributes this reluctance to Gavin's political beliefs. Instead of the more believable idea that Gavin was insecure about his acting and didn't want to be sold as a slab of beefcake. Despite the fact that several interviewees declare John Gavin to be a nice man Staggs isn't having any of it. You'd think Staggs would have a little fun with the man who nearly replaced Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever (the first American James Bond!) but, no.

The only things that piss Staggs off more than John Gavin are the Catholic Church, Condeleeza Rice and George W. Bush. Again, I have no quarrel with this beyond the fact that these three have nothing to do with the movie in question. I do not know the Catholic Church official opinion on Imitation of Life. Nor do I know whether Condie or George have ever seen this movie, whether they like it or not, or where they stand on who stabbed Johnny Stompanato. And since Staggs doesn't see fit to share any of this with the reader I don't know why any of them make appearances. He also doesn't bother to place the movie in the political context of its own time so these current asides are doubly weird. These venomous drive-by remarks only serve to jar the reader out of the narrative and, ultimately, to date this book.

Third, Staggs is so partisan that he fails to see the virtues of the 1934 film version of the 1959 version. In the earlier film, the main characters are business partners; in the remake, Annie Johnson doesn't help create a business, she's the maid to a self-absorbed actress. In 1934, an African-American actress plays a young woman who "passes for white." In the 1959 version, a white actresses passes for white. Which sounds more ground breaking to you?

Finally, Staggs is so convinced of the greatness of the 1959 version and Douglas Sirk in general that he doesn't bother to make a convincing case for either. They're both great, and if you don't get it Staggs doesn't want to know you. That and the endless, pointless axe grinding (what does he have against poor Celeste Holm and Claudette Colbert?) makes this a disappointment.

Kindle version: no photographs and some glitches in the linked Table of Contents.

The Vertigo Years

Part of the fun of finding a new book is anticipating it. First I browse the aisles of the giant Barnes and Noble near my work looking for interesting new non-fiction. When I find a book that looks interesting I usually check to see if it's available for Kindle - because I'm out of book space at home. Whether it is or not I usually consign it to my wish list (if it's not available for Kindle) or get a sample chapter (if it is) and then ... wait. With all the books I have around here, electronic and other, that I haven't read yet I'm trying to be a little more discriminating about what I purchase. Not that I got to the library either anymore, not with 100-plus unread books on the walls around my apartment.

Philipp Blom's The Vertigo Years is one of those books I've been anticipating for months. It was on my wish list for a while and as soon as it was available on Kindle I snapped it up. So far, it was worth the wait. A true history of ideas and personalities rather than a litany of dates and events. If Judt's The Postwar Years is as good I may be headed for a history binge.

Blimp Vision

Early on in Hit Charade one of Aviation Entrepreneur/Boy Band Impresario/Con Man/All Around Large Guy Lou Pearlman's business partners declares "He had the same sort of blimp vision that I had!" For a split second after reading that line I wondered if Blimp Vision required special glasses like a 3-D movie. Then I realized what a perfect metaphor blimps are for any of Pearlman's business ventures: large, full of hot air and liable to explode.

At the three-way intersection of True Crime, Business Expose and Celebrity Tell-all, Hit Charade is a winner. Tyler Gray tells the unlikely story of a boy from Brooklyn who conned nearly everyone he met in pursuit of his dreams of aviation greatness and then, bizarrely, decided to go into the entertainment business where he "rescued" pop music from the clutches of grunge. Explaining the ins and outs of any business related fraud is difficult. Explaining it without inducing comas is even more difficult. Gray manages to explain what Pearlman did clearly and entertainingly. Of course, he has awesome material for this venture.

While Gray can't provide any juicy tidbits from the behind the scenes stories of The Backstreet Boys or *NSync, he can tell us about the time Pearlman taught a wanna-be boy band star the "hit, hit, pump hit thrust maneuver." In public. On stage. He can also quote Pearlman telling a interviewer of the aquatic toys at his home, "If these Jet Skis could talk they would tell you about all of our artists who have been riding them."
Sadly, Jet Skis weren't the only things being taken for rides in Lou "Big Papa" Pearlman's world. Apparently taking business lessons from the movie The Producers, Pearlman liked to sell shares in his corporations over and over and over. Anyone can give 1000% to their company, Lou liked to sell 1000% of his company. He was also quite the forgerer, happily producing his own letters of insurance from Lloyd's and AIG. (These stories hark back to the days when a letter from AIG inspired confidence in investors.) All this helped Big Papa to steal the life savings of hundreds of people to keep himself in Jet Skis, cornflower blue Rolls Royces and fine restaurants. Along the way we have ex-Nazis, pretty boys, home-care nurses who stay for ten years and Art Garfunkel.

There are dark rumors that the Jet Skis weren't the only things being ridden by artists at Casa de Big Papa. Gray, to his great credit, doesn't wallow in the gutter on this. He reports the rumors, makes it clear that no one has ever made a verified claim and moves on. Of course, the presence of a casting couch would be positively classy compared to the facts surrounding Pearlman's model scouting venture. The business revolved around "scouts" asking strangers if they've ever "considered going into modelling" and then selling them $1,000 modelling portfolios. Bad enough, you say? Well, add on the fact that even the absence of a limb didn't stop these scouts from convincing the naive that a successful runway career was just a check away.

Until the Madoff scandal Lou Pearlman held claim to being the perpetrator of the largest Ponzi scheme in US history. Not unlike Bernard Madoff, it's obvious that Big Papa couldn't do this on all his own. Nor are his crimes without a similarly ghastly human toll including suicide. But unlike Bernie, Lou made a run for it only to be caught by an *NSync fan at a Bali resort. As the saying goes, publicity doesn't kiss back. Tyler Gray's prose is almost perfectly suited to this story. He has just the right balance of factual reportage prose with snarky asides like "he threw his fat assets behind the model scouting business." Pure gold.

Pearlman has moved from his plus-size mansion to the big house for an extended stay. For fraud, not in punishment for making The House of Carter possible. One could make a case that Pearlman made a life's work out of exploiting the secret dreams of others but I'm not convinced Lou ever thought anything through to that degree. He was just an improviser who kept the gag going for an astonishingly long time.

100% More Depressing

I'm reading three books at the moment. Stefan Aust's Bader-Meinhof, Jacqueline Winspear's Among the Mad, and Sam Stagg's Born to Be Hurt. So one book about a group of murderous terrorists, an installment a historical mystery series and a gossipy book about the making of camp classic Imitation of Life. Guess which one isn't either depressing the hell out of me or making me wish a fiery death on a main character.

What on earth possessed Stagg's to fill his latest "behind the scenes of a masterpiece" starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee made in 1959 with references to the soulessness of Condelezza Rice and the relative Stalinism of the Bush Administration? Talk about tenuous connections.

Then there's Maisie Dobbs, or as I'm starting to think of her, "Maisie Effing Dobbs". I thought she was a bit stiff in the first outing but I thought, Winspear just needs to relax a little. Once she gets passed all this backstory - unnecessary backstory, in my opinion - Maisie could turn out to be a solid heroine. Well, I just might be wrong. Because I'm not through the first chapter of Among the Mad and Maisie is just insufferable. She's helping her faithful assistant hone his skills so he can move his family to Canada, she's bought his entire family "Christmas Boxes", she's giving money to a beggar in Depression-era London, she's tried to single-handedly prevent a suicide and she carries a "document case." Not an attache case or a briefcase. A document case. What are the chances that Maisie is the victim in this book?

The Baader-Meinhof gang are just the soul of reasonable behavior compared to this lot.