Tag Archives: biography

A new biography serves up Jerry Brown, once over lightly


A review of Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown, by Chuck McFadden

@@@ (3 out of 5)

If you wrote a novel about a guy like this, who was the son of a popular and successful governor; dated a rock star; married for the first time at age 67; twice served as governor of the country’s largest state, four decades apart; talked the voters of a notoriously anti-tax state into raising taxes substantially; ran for president three times; spent three years in a Catholic seminary, studied with Zen masters in Japan, and worked with Mother Teresa; and . . . well, you get the point. Would anyone believe this? No doubt they’d think you’d gone, as my British friends say, barking mad.

If, instead, you wrote a biography of this curious phenomenon, you’d need it to be a lot longer than a couple of hundred pages, right? And, of course, you’d need to spend days in face-to-face interviews with the guy, if only to get a solid sense of whether he’s for real. How could anyone possibly do justice to him otherwise? Well, Trailblazer is 248 pages long, one-third of them taken up with notes and other backmatter, and the author never managed to interview his subject. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Trailblazer, Chuck McFadden’s new biography from Berkeley’s University of California Press of the impossibly self-contradictory  Governor Moonbeam.

Don’t get me wrong: Trailblazer is a well-informed portrait of our Governor, written by a man who reported on his ups and downs for many years as a Sacramento political reporter for the Associated Press. As an introduction to Jerry Brown for anyone who doesn’t remember his early days in politics or is too young to do so, Trailblazer works. McFadden, now retired, retains numerous contacts among the working press in California, whom he quotes extensively in the pages of this book, adding considerable insight. His writing is clear, his understanding of the extraordinarily complex politics of this nation-state is impressive, and he brings the story of Jerry Brown up to the present moment. It’s just that a reader would have wished for something more — something new and fresh that a truly in-depth study of the man’s life and work might have brought to light.

If you know little or nothing about our second Governor Brown, you’ll learn that he has long been accustomed to being “the smartest guy in the room”; that, as a politician, the fundamental contradiction in his life is the give-and-take between idealism and pragmatism; that the women in his adult life, Linda Ronstadt in the 70s and his wife Anne Gust for the past two decades, have smoothed over the rough edges in his personality and brought a considerable measure of balance and stick-to-it-iveness to his conduct; and that he may well be one of the most skillful politicians this state has ever seen. Is this enough? You be the judge.

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So it goes: The sad life of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A review of And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The face that peers out at you from the cover is immeasurably sad. It’s the face of a man in middle age weighed down by lifetimes of tragedy. The man — one of the most remarkable novelists of the 20th century — is Kurt Vonnegut, known throughout much of his adult life as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields plumbs the depths of Vonnegut’s sadness. He began work shortly before Vonnegut’s death in 2006 and conducted lengthy interviews with his children, his first wife, contemporary writers, business associates, and neighbors. The intimacy and detail of the book is remarkable: a whole man emerges from its pages.

Vonnegut struggled through the first four decades of his long life — he died at 83 — then gradually gained readers through the 1960s until, with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, he became famous “overnight” as he neared the age of 50. After years of eating cereal for dinner and scraping for pennies selling what he regarded as hack stories for the popular magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, he and his wife suddenly found themselves rich as royalties poured in from reprints of his earlier work and as each succeeding book, good or bad, lingered on the best-seller lists for week after week.

Like the best of his novels — Cat’s Cradle, published in 1953, as well as Slaughterhouse-Five — Vonnegut was deceptively complex. In public, Vonnegut affected the manner, even for a time the moustache and the white suit, of his literary hero, Mark Twain. Like Twain, he was folksy and often screamingly funny. A rigid moralist and a plain-spoken opponent of war and defender of freedom of speech, he was idolized by a generation of students and was one of the most popular speakers on college campuses throughout the country during the 1970s and 1980s. In public appearances, Vonnegut generally came across as avuncular, considerate, and witty, often leaving audiences gasping from laughter. At the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he proved himself to be a popular and talented teacher.

The man himself, however, though consistently witty throughout his life, bore little other resemblance to his long-time public image. He treated his long-time first wife, Jane, with undisguised contempt, ignored his children and frightened their friends, betrayed his own friends by summarily ending decades-long business relationships, and, in his final years, became intolerably grouchy.

Reflecting the truism that “what goes around comes around,” Vonnegut’s childhood was deeply troubled. His mother, having been raised in luxury and dependent on servants for even the most mundane tasks, was emotionally upended by the Crash of 1929, when the family’s circumstances were sharply reduced. She spent the rest of her life sleeping for days on end and moping about the house, finally killing herself when Kurt was just 21 — on Mother’s Day, 1944. His feckless father, a talented engineer trapped in life as an architect like his brilliant father, paid little attention to Kurt as a child and almost never encouraged him in any way. All the family’s attention was fastened on Kurt’s older brother, Bernard, a gifted scientist who later in life discovered the technique of cloud-seeding to induce rain. When Kurt announced his interest in pursuing studies in the arts, Bernard insisted that he enroll at Cornell to study science, and the younger brother was powerless to resist. He lasted two years there and, later, pursued an anthropology degree at the University of Chicago with a similar lack of success. (Years later, he persuaded the Chicago Anthropology Department to accept his novel Cat’s Cradle in lieu of a thesis and was awarded an M.A.)

Though tragedy in other forms continued to dog Vonnegut in later years, one event stands out as central to his character and his career: the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. Vonnegut had enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army the year before and, as his luck would have it, his unit was eventually sent to the Western Front in Europe — positioned at the farthest-forward salient in the Allied lines. Shortly afterward, the Germans attacked in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut and his buddies were quickly taken prisoner along with thousands of other Americans and marched overland to POW camps in Germany. Eventually, Vonnegut and a small number of his fellow prisoners were taken into Dresden and housed in a old slaughterhouse– very shortly before the horrific fire-bombing attack that killed more than 60,000 civilians. The Americans survived by hiding in a basement. They were put to work once the attack had ended — collecting and stacking corpses.

Is it any wonder why Kurt Vonnegut was cranky? Naturally, none of what he endured can excuse his bad behavior. But it certainly does begin to explain the current of profound sadness that ran throughout Vonnegut’s life.

So it goes.

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The real Cleopatra

A review of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Elizabeth Taylor she wasn’t. Nor was she the Cleopatra of Shakespeare’s imagination, or of Plutarch’s. Cleopatra was, simply put, one of the ablest and most powerful women in the history of the world. She ruled unchallenged the richest kingdom of the Western world for more than two decades.

In this extraordinary work of historic reconstruction, prize-winning biographer Stacey Schiff digs deep below the surface of the available sources, both primary and secondary, to write what is surely the fullest and most accurate picture we’ll ever have of the elusive first-century Egyptian queen.

Cleopatra was, of course, the long-time lover both of Julius Caesar and of his protege, Mark Antony. She bore four of their children, three of Antony’s and one of Caesar’s. History has tended to know her as the wily seductress who reduced both men — two of the most significant figures of the ancient world — to love-slaves. Schiff sets us straight.

Cleopatra was unquestionably a consummately charming and accomplished lover, but as Schiff paints her, it was more her charm — and the staggering wealth she commanded — that was the lure for the Romans. Apparently, she may not even have been beautiful by the standards of the age (several decades before the life of Jesus). She was, however, a brilliant linguist, adept in seven languages, and the richest person in the Mediterranean world. She effectively owned the Kingdom of Eqypt, with its fabulous wealth in wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, shipping, and trade. The splendor of her palace; her capital, Alexandria; her wardrobe; and her court easily put to shame the best efforts of Rome, a rustic provincial town by comparison.

Strictly speaking, Schiff’s life of Cleopatra is a work of historiography, an inquiry into the validity of the sources of historical information. In telling the story of this truly astonishing woman, she examines contrasting accounts written both by contemporaries and later historians and weighs their claims in the light of available evidence. In lesser hands, the book would languish in tiresome scholarship. Schiff succeeds admirably in holding the reader’s attention, even introducing an undercurrent of tension and suspense as the story rushes toward its inevitable end with Cleopatra’s dramatic suicide.

Schiff sums up her story as the book comes to a close: “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act and ended with another.” With Cleopatra’s death and the subsequent accession of Augustus to the Roman throne, the ancient world became history and the modern era began.

ISBN-10: 0316001929

ISBN-13: 978-0316001922


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