What’s That Book? Gunslinger by Jeff Pearlman

whats-that-book

Title:  Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre

Author: Jeff Pearlman

Genre: Biography

Rating:  5 stars

What’s it about?  This is a great, thorough biography on Brett Favre, the NFL great who played almost 20 seasons in the league, mostly for the Green Bay Packers. While the author doesn’t ever directly interview Favre for the book, you quickly forget that, as it’s clear that dozens of people were interviewed for this story. Play-by-play action is almost always boring in game stories, yet Pearlman has a way of making a game more than a decade old sound as exciting as if you were watching it on TV.

He paints Favre’s character without holding back — this is by no means a book chronicling only the best moments of his football career. It goes through the personal struggles that Favre endured such as drug addiction and rampant infidelity, but just when you think he’s a terrible human being, you realize he has another side. Another side that proves humans are more intricate and complicated than they appear in a news article or a TV segment. Pearlman finds a way to force the reader to put their own values and morals to the test. Are some of the things Favre did unforgiveable? Is he just a fun-loving guy who gets carried away sometimes? Did the constant spotlight make some of his actions inevitable? Everyone will have their own opinion, but the argument is by no means one-sided. In an age where fans are forced to grapple with whether to cheer for a player who’s committed a crime or moral wrongdoing but still plays for their favorite team, this story shows this isn’t a new problem.

The author captured the unconditional love that the city of Green Bay had for Favre, which then turned on him temporarily when he signed with the rival Minnesota Vikings. There’s a reason he’s arguably the first name that comes to mind when you mention Packers’ greats. Not many players were truly idolized like Favre was by Packers’ fans.

It is hard to find fault in this book. The vocabulary is impressive without sounding like he’s trying to brag. The story is a good length without feeling like it lasted as long as Favre waffled over retirement. It is, above all things, fair. Obviously, it would’ve been great to hear directly from Favre, but there are enough interviews with other people to make up for that.

How did you hear about it?  I followed the author on Twitter and he had been talking about the book a lot when it was released in 2016, so I decided to give it a try.

Closing comments:  I am not usually much of a biography guy, but this might change my mind. It’s one of those stories where you don’t have to be a Packers fan to enjoy it. You don’t even have to be a football fan. You’re certain to go back and forth on whether you like the legend that is Brett Favre, and that’s what makes him such a fascinating character.

Contributor:   The author of this review is Austin Vitelli. He currently works as an assistant editor for Matrix Medical Communications, a medical publishing company. He is a recent journalism graduate from Lehigh University. He is a huge NFL fan, specifically the Philadelphia Eagles. You can view his website here or follow him on Twitter here.


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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From the early archives: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Celebrating four years of blogging – and sharing some early book reviews!

stevejobsSteve Jobs
by
Walter Isaacson

Rating:
4 book marks

This biography gives us the full picture of Steve Jobs, good and bad. It is a detailed history of Jobs, his life and his creations at Apple, NeXT, Pixar and Apple again. And it’s a look at the impatient frustrations of a perfectionist who, with the genius of vision and presentation, liked to distort reality, had poor people skills and thought no rules applied to him.

I don’t know what to think of Steve Jobs. He derived his happiness from creating and was driven to do so. Isaacson shows a man who manipulated people, berated them, and often ignored his wife and children. He regularly took credit for ideas that came from his creative team and rearranged facts to benefit his point, all with no regrets. But time and again he enabled people to achieve the impossible by refusing to believe that something could not be done.  The combination of persistence and genius made him a remarkable man.

AND…Steve Jobs gave us the Mac, fonts, graphics and desktop publishing. Then he gave us the iPhone, the iPod, iTunes and music. He allowed us to re-experience the feelings we used to have in record stores as we excitedly flipped through albums and heard new music on the store speakers. Then he gave us the iPad, movies and books all with a touchscreen. He knew what we wanted, just as he said, before we knew what we wanted.

This was a very interesting read. My only negative comment is that it was sometimes repetitive, particularly on the subjects of distorted reality and Jobs’ belief in closed-end product design. I also thought the author often portrayed Jobs as too much of a beloved hero in the second half of the book, once Jobs returned to Apple. But then again, that’s when we got all these great products. And I don’t think I could live without them!

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Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

little-house-on-the-prairie-set

Little House on the Prairie Book Series
by
Laura Ingalls Wilder

(and other titles by Roger Lea MacBride,
Melissa Wiley, 
Maria D. Wilkes and Celia Wilkins)

Rating:
bookmarks-5a

It all started when our youngest son was in second grade. “My teacher is reading us a great book,” he told me one day. “Little House in the Big Woods. Do you know that book, Mom?” I knew the book, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and, of course, the hit TV show that came after Little House on the Prairie.

So when we were looking for something to read together, he asked if we could read Little House in the Big Woods again. “You’ll like it Mom,” he told me.

little house in the big woods piclittle-house-on-the-prairie

I had the vague memory that these Little House books were more for girls than boys, but when we finished Little House in the Big Woods and then Little House on the Prairie, I remembered that there is plenty in these pages to keep a young boy interested. There are stories in every chapter about hunting and the dangers of living a frontier life. The conflicts between settlers and Native Americans are presented matter-of-factly and that makes them real. Illness and hardship, loss and set-backs occur regularly. Drought and bad weather ruin crops and threaten the family’s livelihood. Wilder also includes long descriptions of how things were made and the hard work that went into building log houses, doors, windows, sleighs and furniture.

But the stories are more than that. There is warmth and kindness in these books. As a mother, I like the family dynamic and the message it sends. The children in these books are far from spoiled and are happy with what they have. Laura Wilder’s writing style is both gentle and straightforward as she tells us what it was like for her to grow up during this time. She doesn’t sugarcoat and I like that.

When we finished the first two books, we moved on to Farmer Boy, one of my favorites. The months passed. We read a chapter each night. We watched Laura grow up. We watched her family move into town, watched Laura meet and marry Almanzo and start her own life. And then came Rose, Laura’s daughter.

farmer-boy-jpg
Ms. Wilder stopped writing at the end of The Laura Years, but Roger Lea MacBride, a long-time family friend, picked up with The Rose Years and continued writing in the same style as Ms. Wilder. We read about Rose and her family traveling in a covered wagon and settling in the Ozarks. We watched her grow into an independent spirit, move to New Orleans to finish high school and start a career.

Not ready to stop, we went backwards in time and read about Laura’s great-grandmother, Martha as a young girl in Scotland, written by Melissa Wiley. Wiley has also written a series about Laura’s grandmother, Charlotte and Laura’s mother, Caroline and she writes with the same pleasing style as Wilder and MacBride.

I recommend this classic series to anyone who is looking for realistic children’s books with the important themes of family, adventure, hardship and perseverance.

Check out all the Little House books!

The LAURA Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House in the Big Woods
Little House on the Prairie
Farmer Boy
On the Banks of Plum Creek
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Long Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years
The First Four Years

The ROSE Years, by Roger Lea MacBride
Little House on Rocky Ridge
Little Farm in the Ozarks
In the Land of the Big Red Apple
On the Other Side of the Hill
Little Town in the Ozarks
New Dawn on Rocky Ridge
On the Banks of the Bayou
Bachelor Girl

The MARTHA Years, by Melissa Wiley
Little House in the Highlands
The Far Side of the Loch
Down to the Bonny Glen
Beyond the Heather Hills

The CHARLOTTE Years, by Melissa Wiley
Little House by Boston Bay
On Tide Mill Lane
The Road from Roxbury
Across the Puddingstone Dam

The CAROLINE Years, by Maria D. Wilkes & Celia Wilkins
Little House in Brookfield
Little Town at the Crossroads
Little Clearing in the Woods
On Top of Concord Hill
Across the Rolling River
Little City by the Lake
A Little House of Their Own

Image source:  lauraingallswilderhome.com

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That’s life! Books about life

Life has many ups and downs, but you can always count on a book to get you through the tougher days.  Heavy or light, fiction or nonfiction, there is no shortage of books on the subject!


Books with the word “life” in the title:

Archie The Married Life
Archie – The Married Life Book 2
by Paul Kupperberg
:  Even comic book characters have challenges and Archie has his hands full with both Betty and Veronica!


Barbarian Days A Surfing Life
Barbarian Days:  A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan:  winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, a self-portrait of a life-long surfer.


Dear Life coverDear Life by Alice Munro:  terrific collection of short fiction by one of the best.


life after life pic

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson:  One of the best books I’ve ever read, Atkinson looks at the what-ifs during the world-changing events of World War II.


Stll Life with Bread Crumbs
Still Life with Bread Crumbs
by Anna Quindlen:  Love enters the picture at all stages of life in this popular story.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty new
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
by James Thurber:  A henpecked husband escapes into his own world in this Thurber classic.


The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
by Jeff Hobbs:  an absorbing story about a super smart and caring guy from a poor neighborhood in New Jersey who just couldn’t make it work.


helen-keller-the-story-of-my-life
The Story of My Life
by Helen Keller:  Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a baby and overcame tremendous obstacles and became a well-known supporter of many causes.


Of course you don’t have to have the word “life” in the title to write about the subject.  Here are some notables from this year’s reading list:

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:  Hemingway looks back on his days in Paris and his marriage to Hadley Richardson.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín:  A young Irish woman takes a chance on a better life in America after World War II.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume:  a fictionalized depiction of life in 1950s Elizabeth, New Jersey when three planes crashed in their town.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout:  How do you put the hushed experiences of your childhood into words, and should you?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie:  terrific semi-autobiographical story about a life of poverty on the Spokane Indian reservation.

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler:  Life changes in an instant when a man’s wife dies.  Will he get a chance to fix unreconciled conflicts in his marriage?

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor:  great 1950s historical fiction about the lives of accused spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were the only civilian Americans to be killed for spying for the Russians.

Traveling Mercies – Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott:  an honest and often humorous memoir about finding faith.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas:  A family’s life is transformed after a loved-one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler:  a solid reminder that successful people put in a lot of time at the bottom, before anyone knows about them.


Thanks for visiting – back to my book!

Currently reading The Time Between by Karen White

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead by Crystal Zevon

I'll Sleep When I'm DeadI’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
by
Crystal Zevon

Rating:
4 book marks

Warren Zevon once said, “my career is about as promising as a Civil War leg wound.” These morosely funny words are a great example of the unusual wit  in Zevon’s lyrics and music. His career took off in the 1970s, with two terrific consecutive albums which featured some of the best music of the time, including Excitable Boy, Tenderness on the Block and The French Inhaler. His genius mind exploded with ideas for songs and he lived the life of a rock star, filled with excesses of drug and alcohol abuse. Even later, when his professional and personal life were in trouble, by his own fault, he was always full of ideas. He continued to write and collaborate and he toured at smaller venues to enthusiastic fans. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a chronicle of Zevon’s life and career, spanning over forty years and ending with his death in 2003.

The book is written and compiled by Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife. The two remained friends after their divorce and Warren asked her to write the book when he learned he was dying of lung cancer. He told her to include everything, and she did.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is presented in an unusual and somewhat confusing format, forcing the reader to jump into a scene with unfamiliar characters. But the narrative eventually gains momentum as Warren’s life story unfolds. It includes the comments and perspectives of many famous musicians and writers and, I think, gives an accurate description of Warren’s creativity, his relationships and the destructive forces that took over his life.

I enjoyed reading this biography/memoir because I have always liked Warren Zevon’s music and I am a big fan of many of the famous musicians and bands he collaborated with, including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, REM and Bruce Springsteen. There seemed to be a real camaraderie and generosity between these musicians and also among the lesser-known, but highly respected guitarists, drummers and writers. I always enjoyed looking at the liner notes and seeing who was singing in the background or who co-wrote a song and reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead reminded me of how much fun that was.

This isn’t a fun memory book, however. Warren Zevon was an abusive alcoholic with a big temper who could not conform to any lifestyle except his own. He hurt a lot of people, yet strangely, he had a lot of close friends who either chose to ignore the ugly side, were completely naïve to the darkness in his life, or desperately wanted his love. Even after he successfully quit drinking, his personality was often impossibly difficult.

Here are some things I found interesting about the story and about the people around Zevon:

  • Crystal Zevon’s portion of the narrative has the annoying self-serving bias of a memoir, as if to say, “Hey, I was there too.” But she was there and bore the brunt of a lot of Zevon’s madness, so I was forced to give it a pass.
  • Jackson Browne has some very insightful things to say about his friend. The whole time I was reading the book, I kept thinking about how Warren Zevon reminded me of Ernest Hemingway and I was glad to see in the last pages that Browne had once described Zevon as “the Ernest Hemingway of the twelve-string guitar.”
  • Zevon’s journal entries say a lot about who he was. They are cryptic, but they reveal his unique point of view. They show his needy side and made me feel like he was a genius child his whole life. He uses the word “nice” a lot to describe people he’s met, as if maybe he was worried that they wouldn’t like him.
  • I like Roy Marinell’s description of how Excitable Boy became a song, how critics were trying to analyze the lyrics and give them significance when the “built a cage with her bones” line actually comes from a schoolyard taunt Marinell and his friends exchanged when they were kids.
  • It was so interesting to see how Zevon’s music was really produced, especially the song I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. No one even saw each other when they recorded that song. Each musician recorded his parts separately.
  • I didn’t know that the comedian Richard Belzer had been Zevon’s regular opening act. That’s a good combination!
  • What’s interesting to think about is how a fan listens to music and never really understands the massive creative process that’s behind putting together an album. And for Warren Zevon, the huge, painful, abusive, emotional process was something a regular person would never survive being a part of.
  • It also makes me think about how some intensely creative and genius people like Zevon are almost destined to live self-destructive lives.
  • I also wonder how some dysfunctional people are enabled and allowed to continue their irresponsible and destructive behavior because the people around them want to be a part of, want a piece of that creative process and fame.
  • It also makes me think about other super-talented and creative people who did not fall apart but also led insanely wild lives as rockers – Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey – and survived. What makes them different?

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a big book and is, at times, hard to get through, but I ultimately enjoyed learning more about Warren Zevon.  There are some great pictures of Zevon and the people in his life and everyone looks like they’re having a great time!  After watching him on Letterman, I think I will  check out his later music. He made his peace when the time came and it’s not for a fan to judge.

For more insight, click here to check out DD’s review of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.

You may enjoy reading The New York Times review of the book.

Click here to watch a YouTube video of Crystal Zevon.

And check out Warren Zevon’s final appearance on The David Letterman Show.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

What’s That Book? I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead by Crystal Zevon

I hope you enjoy this new feature of my blog.  Many thanks to “DD” for being the first contributor!

Whats That Book

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

TitleI’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

Author:  Crystal Zevon, Warren Zevon’s former wife and lifelong friend

Genre: Biography

Rating:  3 stars

What’s it about?  The structure of the book is a composite of quotations from friends, family, fellow musicians and music industry executives. It chronicles Zevon’s life starting with his relationship with Igor Stravinsky, through his ugly destructive alcoholic period, his relationships with friends, family, and children, his commercial success and ends with his life-ending battle with cancer.

The book includes quotations from family members, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Barry, Billy Bob Thorton, David Letterman and many more, all admirers of his song writing and wit.  It also includes excerpts from his personal diary providing insight into his perspective and a personality which varied from a sensitive and thoughtful friend, husband and father to a cold and distant figure to the very same people.            

What I liked the most about I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead was rediscovering his music, lyrics and wit. I was reminded of the many songs and lyrics I enjoyed and shared with family and friends, the concerts I attended and how for a period of my life his music very rarely left our turntable.  While reading this book I listened to his music nearly every day and downloaded many of his songs onto my iPad.  If you are or were a fan I recommend reading this book.

Closing comment:  Upon finishing the book I could not understand how a man who regularly destroyed relationships through his behaviour and distance could also have so many admirers and close friends. But being only a fan, the enjoyment of his music is what matters most to me. Whether you read the book or not, it is worthwhile to dust off those old albums, download his music onto your iPad or iPhone and fill your days with his music once again as I have done.

Contributor: DD

Have you read something you’d like to share?  Consider being a contributor!  Contact bvitelli2009@gmail.com for more information.

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Empty Mansions Update

empty mansions picThanks to Bill Dedman, co-author of Empty Mansions, for sending me this update about the book, the Clark estate and the upcoming film!

I very much enjoyed reading this book about Huguette Clark, a reclusive millionaire heiress who, by choice, lived in a New York hospital for twenty years.  Clark died in 2011, just short of her 105th birthday.  Her will was hotly contested by the Clark family when they discovered that Clark had given away a large portion of her $300 million fortune to her caregivers, personal assistant, accountant, the hospital and other non-family members.  Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. tell Huguette Clark’s story in this fascinating best-seller.  (Click here to read my review of Empty Mansions.)

The release of video excerpts of testimony, new pictures of Clark’s childhood home and additional court rulings make this an ongoing story.

Here’s Dedman’s update for readers of the Huguette Clark stories and the No. 1 bestselling book “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune”.

  • Huguette’s inner circle speaks: Interesting new videos are online. Watch 25 video excerpts from testimony by the reclusive copper heiress’s nurse, personal assistant, goddaughter, attorney, and accountant.
  • Court rules against Clark estate: A judge in New York has rejected an attempt by the Clark estate to recover millions in gifts and fees paid by Huguette Clark to Beth Israel Medical Center. Litigation continues against two doctors and a nurse. Half of any proceeds from the lawsuit would flow to the Clark relatives, who previously received $37 million from the estate settlement. See an article on the legal action in The New York Times.  The relatives have also established a charity, the Huguette Clark Family Fund or Protection of Elders.
  • Events and discussions of “Empty Mansions” are planned in Cedar Falls, Iowa; in Los Angeles; in Santa Barbara; in St. Paul, Minnesota; and in Philadelphia. See our events page and let me know if you’d like one of us to speak (via Skype or in person) to your book club or association.
  • Photos from the Clark home in Butte: Here are striking photos of W.A. Clark’s first great house, the Copper King Mansion in Butte, Montana, built 1884-1888. Take the full photo tour. The interior photos are by Daniel Hagerman, who granted permission for us to post these photos at EmptyMansionsBook.com. The Clark home in Butte is now a bed and breakfast, with tours and rooms for rent. Thank you to owners Erin Sigl and John Thompson for being such a friend to “Empty Mansions.” They have copies of the book, signed by the authors, for sale at the mansion. Plan a book club retreat at The Copper King Mansion .
  • Bellosguardo Foundation update: We’re waiting for news of an agreement with the IRS on the unpaid gift taxes owed by the Clark estate. That agreement will determine how much money flows to the Bellosguardo Foundation, which will receive the Clark home in Santa Barbara. That foundation now has a board of directors but has announced no decisions on whether or not to open the home to the public. Click here to see the names of the board members.
  • Book revisions: An update on the settlement of the Clark estate was added to later printings of the book, and all paperback copies. You can see those updated pages, Nos. 348-350, in a PDF file here,  “Empty Mansions” has gone back to press for its 14th hardcover printing and its 10th paperback printing, passing 250,000 copies sold.
  • Hundreds of photographs of the Clark family and their homes have been added to the galleries. Click here to view two videos from C-SPAN and other programs about “Empty Mansions”.
  • Signed first printings of “Empty Mansions” are for sale on the AbeBooks website. The first printing was quite small, but a bookseller in California has books signed by both authors.
  • Film news: “Empty Mansions” has been optioned for a feature film by Hollywood producer Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “The Normal Heart”). We’re awaiting word on cast, director, etc.
  • The Pulpwood Queens book clubs, with more than 650 clubs in 15 countries, named “Empty Mansions” its nonfiction book of the year. Click here to see the announcement.   .
  • Watch for updates on our blog, at , and on Facebook.

Thanks to everyone for reading and contributing to the Clark story.

Regards,

Bill

Bill Dedman
Bill@PowerReporting.com

And be sure to click on the links below to visit my earlier posts about the book, including an interview with Bill Dedman:

“Some updates on Empty Mansions – the book and the movie!”

“Author interview with Bill Dedman of Empty Mansions”

“More Empty Mansions updates!”

“Update from Empty Mansions author Bill Dedman”

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
by Jeff Hobbs
Rating: ***

Here’s a book that tells an interesting and sad story about a very smart guy who grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, earned all A’s, won awards and wound up at Yale on a free ride. It was a dream come true, but he found himself stuck between being “the man” in his old neighborhood and finding his place as a minority in the Ivy League and he just couldn’t make it work. He graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biochemistry, all the while running a lucrative business selling marijuana. For reasons no one can explain, time after time, despite a stint as a teacher and a low-paying job at Newark Airport, he stubbornly chose selling drugs over finding a legitimate job. And it’s this choice that led to his ultimate death.

Rob Peace died at age thirty, shot over a drug-related dispute. This book is written by one of his college roommates and is an attempt to understand a man who spent his life trying to take care of others, but could not take care of himself.

While I found Robert Peace’s story engrossing, I was frustrated with the author’s story-telling, which at points became a memoir of his own less interesting life. Details about his experiences in college and his novel-writing efforts after college did not fit in. Hobbs also includes his own reflections on 9-11 and a weird comment about how he and his friends wondered why a few years later the World Trade Center site was still empty. Other stories about mingling with Peace and other minorities at Yale seem both naïve and insincere.

There is also an imbalance that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t know whether it’s a matter of not knowing the whole story, or just that there was a long line of people who let Rob’s behavior slide because he was so smart and cared so much about the people around him. For example, Rob’s mother, Jackie is no doubt hard-working and a good person, but I wonder how well the author knew her. Hobbs reveals very little else about Jackie except her work history and a few minor stories. It’s hard not to wonder why Jackie stayed involved with (though she chose not to marry him) Rob’s father, even though he was a drug dealer. Just because Skeet was smart and sociable and knew everyone in the neighborhood and helped young Rob with his homework doesn’t erase the fact that he sold drugs, ran with a dangerous crowd and was ultimately convicted of murdering two women. It’s annoying to read that Skeet had to have been a good guy because he coached a youth basketball team. And there’s the assumption throughout the book that Skeet was somehow wrongly accused and that the loaded murder weapon was planted on him.

And throughout, Jackie asked no questions when Rob put money on the counter for her. She didn’t want to know how he got his money even when this cash came from drug deals.

Rob’s teachers, despite one attempted intervention at St. Benedict’s by Friar Leahy, also looked the other way. The entire high school water polo team partied hard in hotel rooms before and after tournaments and Hobbs describes this as a bunch of lively guys unwinding after a long day. Likewise, when Rob was nabbed at Yale for dealing, I wonder why the university gave him a second chance.

It’s also hard to believe that Rob was doing all the things that Jeff Hobbs says he was. Earning straight A’s, conducting study groups, playing water polo, getting up at 4:30 am to work as a lifeguard, interning at a real estate firm, sitting with his grandparents, paying other people’s rents, taking trips to Trenton State Prison to visit his father, researching his father’s legal case, preparing a business plan for a house-flipping investment, etc. And when the day was done, drinking and getting high and making deliveries to his customers deep into the night.

Some smaller things also bothered me. Rob Peace grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, not Newark. The town and the city are close by, but distinct. But Hobbs interchanges these towns and when he refers to Newark, I feel as if he’s trying to make Peace’s neighborhood sound worse than it was.

Despite the compelling story, I found his writing style a little pompous, using words like “tchotchkes” and describing food processing for hospital patients as making “stews ingestible by straw.” He describes Rob at Yale as holding court with his pot customers and “presiding with his trademark grin and barbed bons mots.” I know these guys were a bunch of Yalies, but Hobbs sounds like he’s trying to work a big vocabulary into the book. There’s also the matter of overusing the word “impel” and a misuse of the word “infer” when he describes friends visiting Jackie and reminiscing about Rob. Tell me what you think about this sentence: “When he did come up and someone inferred directly or indirectly what a good boy he had been…” Yes, that’s picky, but I’m a little picky.

But I think the author raises some thoughtful points about how acts of generosity can tragically backfire. For a man who unselfishly gave away his own money, it’s a sad irony that he couldn’t manage the gift of an Ivy League education, which everyone presumed would launch him out of a bad neighborhood and lead him to success. What I guess it must be is the author’s over-sympathetic hero-worship of a man he didn’t fully know and that’s what gives the story an inaccurate slant.

So I give it three stars because the subject matter is very interesting. It’s a bit of a leap to re-create conversations from long ago, before the author even knew Peace, relying on his own imagination and interviews of people who knew his friend. Of course that makes the story more readable. But despite the lengthy research and interviews, there are gaps in the story, making me wonder just how well Jeff Hobbs knew Rob Peace. Or maybe Rob was just impossible to fully understand.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

What’s up next? The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

My local book club is reading this biographical account of Robert Peace, a man who grew up in a notoriously rough neighborhood in Orange, NJ, just outside of Newark. His mother worked tirelessly to keep him safe and show him the way to a better life, but his father was a drug dealer who went to prison for murder, setting a different example. Robert Peace was brilliant. He made it to Yale and graduated with a degree in biochemistry. But he couldn’t pull free from the lure of dealing drugs and was gunned down back home at age thirty.

This book is written by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s roommate and friend at Yale. It’s a look at two very different worlds and a study of one man who lived in both.

I’ve already started and it’s a pretty fast read so check back soon for my review!

Author interview with Bill Dedman of Empty Mansions

Bill DedmanBill Dedman

empty mansions pic

I am very pleased to post my recent interview with Bill Dedman, co-author of Empty Mansions – The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. Bill and his co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., are very excited about the reader response to this fascinating story. In addition to hardcover, audio and e-book formats, Empty Mansions is now available in paperback form.

Here are Bill’s responses to the questions I prepared.

BCM: Empty Mansions began as a story about an empty house in Connecticut. When did you discover that this was a big enough story to be a book?

BD: The reader response to my series of articles on NBC’s website was surprising. I received more than 2,000 emails and letters, and it was the most popular story ever on the site. What began as a feature about empty mansions and a mysterious owner named Huguette Clark turned into an investigation of the people managing her money, and then a fight over her money. It seemed to me that early on there was enough information and mystery for a book. It would have been enough to have a child of a forgotten Gilded Age tycoon living in a hospital for the last twenty years of her life, while her fabulous homes full of treasures and art sat unoccupied. But then Huguette Clark’s story became stranger. Add in a nurse who received $31 million in gifts, a felon accountant, an attorney who is in the will, a grasping hospital, a fiancé in France, and relatives seeking her fortune. It was the story that never ended.

BCM: You conducted a massive amount of research to prepare to write Empty Mansions. And I read that your research was ongoing during the entire writing process. How big was your team of researchers and experts?

BD: Paul and I did most of the research. (Paul is Paul Clark Newell, Jr., my fellow author and Huguette’s cousin, who spoke with her frequently over a period of nine years.) We had help from a student who took on tasks, such as reading 20,000 pages of medical records and flagging days in the nurses’ notes that seemed different. Many institutions and individuals contributed memories and documents.

BCM: Was it difficult to decide when to end the story?

BD: We decided to end it before the trial, to get the book out before the trial was scheduled. Otherwise, much of our material would have been given away in daily news coverage of trial testimony and documents. And we couldn’t be sure whether a trial would begin on time. As it turned out, that was the right decision. A trial began, but was cut short after a day of jury selection, as the parties reached a settlement. The paperback edition of Empty Mansions includes an update on the settlement, and my news articles about the case are at http://nbcnews.com/clark/.

BCM: People are naturally drawn to stories about the wealthy and their lifestyles.   W.A. Clark certainly fits the bill for an engrossing read, before we even meet his daughter. Huguette was a very interesting person too, so shy, but nevertheless very interested in people. I liked that about her and think others must have felt the same way. I think her unusual way of coping with shyness made her all the more endearing. Besides the mystery of her empty homes and apartments, when did you know you were onto a special story about her?

BD: I was surprised, and pleased, that she turned out to be so fascinating, so alive and lively. For a recluse, she had a lot of friends, pen pals, telephone friends. She was a maintainer of relationships, keeping alive her family’s friendship and support of friends from generation to generation. She was relentlessly generous, and loved sending not only her “little gifts,” as she called them, her checks for $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000, but also toys for children — so long as the children sent a photograph of themselves with the gift.

BCM: I’m sure having the input from your co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., was very valuable, especially his telephone conversations with her. How did you and Paul first come in contact with each other?

BD: Paul and I were introduced by one of the relatives. Paul is not, as you know, one of the relatives who challenged Huguette’s last will and testament. He’s not a nephew, not in line to inherit if the will were thrown out, but a cousin. (His father and Huguette were first cousins. To put it another way, Paul is descended not from Huguette’s father but from Huguette’s father’s sister.) I have to say a word for Paul, who has been a wonderful equal partner in this book: One might expect that a relative would try to shade the story to protect the reputation of Huguette’s father, Sen. W.A. Clark, whose name is remembered mostly for political corruption, but Paul was steadfast in saying, let’s get it right, let’s make sure it’s accurate.

BCM:  I read that before you met Paul, he had been working to finish a book his father had started about the Clark family. Is he still working on this separate book.

BD: We’ve discussed the possibility of doing a book just on the senator. The question is, did we already tell the most interesting 90 pages of his story, or should he have his own full biography. There is a lot of political and financial history that we left out or summarized.

BCM: Is there audio of Paul’s conversations with Huguette? If so, are these conversations available to readers?

BD: Yes, the audio version of our book includes about 20 minutes of Paul and Huguette in conversation. Empty Mansions is available in four flavors: a hardcover book, a paperback, the electronic book (such as Kindle or Nook), and an audio book that can be downloaded from iTunes or Audible or similar services. On the audio book, readers can hear Huguette describe how she and her family had tickets on the Titanic’s return trip, and how, as she explains matter-of-factly, “We had to take another boat.” And she remembered that ship’s name, too. She was incredibly lucid and elegant, with a good sense of humor and an iron will.

BCM: What’s interesting to think about is whether Huguette was happy in her life. While reclusive in many ways, she did reach out to people and had many meaningful relationships. My impression of her hospital years was that she was actually quite happy there. And I do think she cared about a great many people. Do you think she led a happy life during these years?

BD: Yes, people often assume, incorrectly I believe, that she became a recluse by going into the hospital. You have it right: She was quite reclusive for years, and going into the hospital made her be more sociable, with visitors and doctors and nurses. If she was ever sad, she didn’t show it. Her conversations with Paul, her correspondence — none of it is sad, and all of her circle of friends and staff and independent doctors and nurses describe her as chipper and full of good memories.

BCM:  You leave the reader to decide whether the people Huguette was close to during her hospital years took advantage of her. What’s your opinion?

BD: It’s not my job to have opinions. We tried to leave room for people to choose their own sides. For example, consider Huguette’s daytime private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri, whose family received $31 million in gifts from Huguette over two decades. If someone wants to be outraged that the nurse received so much in gifts, that’s OK with me. If they want to stress that she worked for Madame for 20 years, much of that time for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, being away from her own children, that’s fair. And even the hospital’s grasping, which we detailed under the heading “Shakedown,” doesn’t surprise me — the temptation would have been so great; and any mention of the hospital’s efforts has to be balanced by pointing out how little effect it had, if any, on the writing of the will. The hospital had to be the least excited recipient of a $1 million bequest.

BCM: What’s new with the foundation that is being set up to house Huguette’s doll collection and other art in the Santa Barbara home? Will it be a private exhibit or a museum that’s open to the public?

BD: It’s too soon to say. The arts foundation, the Bellosguardo Foundation, doesn’t have board members appointed yet, doesn’t own the house yet. I was able to visit the house recently — that story and photos are at http://nbcnews.com/clark/ — and similar tours have been given to potential members of a board. Or to put it another way, potential donors. The foundation will have to decide whether it pours money into keeping Bellosguardo as a public place for the arts — concerts? tours? an art museum? — or whether it would do more good by selling the house and using that money to promote the arts. We’ll see.

BCM: Some of the jewelry that was auctioned off was just beautiful! Did you get to see any of these pieces?

BD: I did see the jewelry pieces before the auction. And we have many photographs on our website, http://emptymansionsbook.com. You can see how the jewelry pieces looked when Huguette’s safe deposit box was opened, and there were the jewels — $18 million worth — still in their original boxes from Cartier and other fine jewelers. Our website now contains hundreds of photos of Huguette’s houses, art collection, her own paintings that she made, and her family.

BCM:  Do you have a sense of whether the art collection to be auctioned will go to a museum or a private collector?

BD: The sales of most of the items will be June 18 at Christie’s in New York. Who knows who the bidders will be. I do hope that some of Huguette’s own paintings, which she created, will end up at her house in Santa Barbara. I suppose that will require that someone there buy the items at the auction — which partly benefits the Bellosguardo Foundation — and then donate them to the foundation for display in her house.

BCM: It’s exciting to think there may be an Empty Mansions movie in the works now that Hollywood director Ryan Murphy (creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story”) has optioned the film. What’s the next step in this process?

BD: We’re waiting to hear whether Mr. Murphy will write or direct the film himself. It’s too soon to say. I hope that a film will be entertaining and also will preserve Huguette’s dignity as a surprising person.

BCM: It’s been so fun interviewing you, Bill. Thanks so much for taking the time to appear on my blog site!

BD: I appreciate your kindness. Paul and I have been bowled over by the reaction from readers. We’ve had the best possible experience. Thank you.