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Patti LuPone, Part II: “Don’t Give Critics the Power”

A big difference between books and theater, as Broadway star Patti LuPone points out in her enlightening and instructive memoir (Crown; 324 pages; $25.99), is the fact that in publishing it takes an accumulation of negative reviews to damn a book; in theater, one review can kill a play overnight.

Here’s one reason: With books, the Internet has ushered in our current era of “the democratization of publishing” in which everybody’s a critic. True, traditional critics at newspapers and magazine may still be influential, but readers give as much or more weight to reviews by bloggers, customers, book clubs and, of course, themselves.

Theater criticism, on the other hand, has remained more parochial and elitist. A handful of trusted reviewers still seems to reign, and among these few, for Broadway shows especially, the New York Times has inordinate power.

Fighting Back

LuPone is both victim and victor to this oddly provincial tendency. She has even been doubly damned: Despite her incredible talent and wildly favorable notices in Europe, LuPone has been the subject of hostile critics in New York not just for a few years but for entire decades.

This forced LuPone to re-earn audience regard every time she appeared onstage. For example, thanks to early publicity, tickets for Evita, her first big hit, were sold out so far in advance that LuPone and her co-star Mandy Patinkin had to outlast the sour impact of New York critics who hated her performance. This surprised even LuPone: Continue reading

Patti LuPone: A ShowBiz Memoir to Remember

She is probably the last of the great Broadway musical stars, certainly has the loudest (and funniest) wit, couldn’t be more honest (or complaining) and, with her trademark honesty and bawdy humor, has a heart and a funnybone as big as the Great White Way.

All of which to say that while actor/singer/comic/tuba player Patti LuPone sails through her memoir bringing one skeleton after another out of the closet from New York to Hollywood to London, we readers get to chuckle and wonder in wow-I-didn’t-know-that delight all along.

Who knew, for example, that centuries ago, opera singers canceled performances at the peak of their menstrual cycle because blood would so engorge their vocal cords that they could blow a singing gasket, as it were, that would render them silent for days and weeks afterward.

The great Jessye Norman told LuPone this, but too late: Following disastrous vocal blowouts (especially during Evita previews because that !@#$%^&! Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn’t lower the register but more about that below), LuPone — one of Broadway’s most powerful and versatile singers — had to have surgery and learn how to sing all over again. Continue reading

Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it. The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough; that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) Continue reading


Iron-willed, big-hearted and unforgettable

The recent death of Berkeley, Calif., bookseller and activist Pat Cody reminds me what a privilege it is to work with books at any time.

Pat and her husband Fred opened Cody’s Books in 1956, long before the emergence of computers or chain stores, and right in the middle of a conservative backlash called McCarthyism that ravaged free speech almost as badly as the Patriot Act has in our last decade.

The Codys are remembered as champions of civil rights, but throughout even the most turbulent decades, when gas masks hung by the cash register and protesters squared off against police outside the store, their core belief was the value and the right and the privacy of reading.

To Fred and Pat, it didn’t matter who walked into the store — a homeless self-publisher (hardly an oxymoron) or a professor of physics from UC Berkeley: Matching the right book with the right customer was the highest act of political engagement they knew. Their first and last job as booksellers, they felt, was to contribute to the experience of quiet solitude that can only happen during the act of reading. When the reader’s mind meets the author’s mind, they believed, the world will change. Thank heaven that Andy Ross, who bought Cody’s Books in 1977, believed the same thing. Continue reading


Andre Agassi’s ‘Open’ Reveals Dark Underside of Early Training

I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader of Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, to laugh when announcers at the US Open mentioned what a crime it would be if the legendary tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri, is passed over for the Tennis Hall of Fame.

A Prison for Teenagers

In Open, Agassi lambastes Bollettieri’s famous tennis academy as a “prison” where teenaged hopefuls are forced to exhaust themselves on tennis courts, live in “cell blocks” and act out in a cafeteria that resembles “a mental hospital where the nurses forgot to hand out the meds.”

And that’s just in the mornings. In the afternoons, students are taken by bus 26 miles away to Bradenton Academy, another windowless prison where “the light is fluorescent and the air is stale, filled with a medley of foul odors, chiefly vomit, toilet, and fear,” Agassi writes.

The school, more than the tennis academy, overwhelms Agassi with feelings of claustrophobia and failure. “At the Bollettieri Academy, at least I’m learning something about tennis,” he says. “At Bradenton Academy, the only thing I learn is that I’m stupid.”

Under Bollettieri’s management, however, even tennis takes a back seat. As the other boys tell Agassi, “our job is to keep Nick’s four sports cars washed and polished” because Nick is “a hustler, a guy who makes a very nice living off tennis” while stifling his students’ growth.

Worse, Nick reminds Andre of his tyrannical father, Pops, a seeming tennis mentor who is, like Nick, “captivated by cash.” It never occurs to the former paratrooper Bollettieri that he’s really known for running “a tennis sweatshop that employed child labor.” Continue reading


Finally Getting Rid of Important Gasbag Author David Shields — Part III

So back to the most delicious part of that blowhard David Shields’ book, “Reality Hunger.”

To summarize Parts I and II below, Shields says that thanks to the Internet, we’re all bombarded with so many words and ideas from so many sources that it’s impossible to find truth or meaning in daily life, especially from authors we used to trust.

So Shields has decided to “help” matters along by adding his own thoughts to quotes from our best thinkers (Woolf, Emerson, Orwell, Goethe, Yeats, Gornick, Thoreau, etc.) to generally f— pardon me, mess with our minds.

The ensuing confusion is not a departure from reality, Shields suggests –

it is reality, and we’re all adding to the confusion by asking for lies when we say we want the truth.

The Memoir Hoax

Remember how incensed everyone was about yet another “memoir” that turned out to be a fake? Well, I was. That pissant James Frey lied about so much that didn’t really happen to him in his whole drug-addicted life that Oprah Winfrey, who had loved his book, “A Million Tiny Pieces,” dressed him down dramatically on her show.

You’d think publishers or agents or editors or somebody would stop these liars from making millions from an obvious hoax. But no. Continue reading


“Reality Hunger” — Part II

So the question (following Part I below) is whether professor and novelist David Shields is a dilettante and a liar (he praises himself for both), or a genuine intellectual who’s onto something original and possibly profound as “author” (itself a lie) of “Reality Hunger” (Knopf; 219 pages; 24.95 obscene dollars).

Certainly many of the reviews and interviews thus far have brought acclaim to “Reality Hunger,” a collection of 619 statements that are sometimes attributed to the correct source (Picasso, Orwell, Kierkegaard, etc.), sometimes “remixed” with (a better term might be “violated by”) Shields’ own statements, and sometimes rewritten according to Shields’ whimsy.

So let’s see what happens when we take Shields seriously.

First a little background:

To paraphrase Shields’ first point, “reality” in our time has become a bombardment of comments on reality from, say, YouTube, 9/11, Google, two wars, Wikipedia, bailout funds, Tea Party antics, the Obama “Hope” poster, climate change, Russia from my window, professors like David Shields, Oprah, “bail out,” Twitter, “Glee,” Mobb Deep and the Texas Board of Education’s version of “history” (more about this in a later column but really, in an age where history books may replace Thomas Jefferson with 16th-century puritan John Calvin, literary con artists like Shields look like scholars).

Excuse me, back to taking Shields seriously.

So instead of having a mental blueprint of current history and culture in our minds, average people like you and me carry the chaos around with us — wildly random bits of information that in the past have made sense only through artistic forms, like fiction.

As a novelist himself (tragically, he was a good one), Shields used to think that reshaping of facts through story could bring readers closer to the truth about life than nonfiction ever could. Reading fiction, we could decide how to build our own mental blueprint, turning to it often as a guide to how the world works and what life asks of us. Continue reading


Silliness Seen as Brilliant

That semi-talented professor David Shields is certainly enjoying unprecedented acclaim for his new book, “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” released recently from Knopf.

Just the other day on the “Today” show, Matt Lauer confirmed that the book is such a mixture — so brilliant and so offensive at the same time — that no one can read it without vomiting.

Lauer himself admired the book yet succumbed when he said, “My favorite part was when Scrotie McBoogerballs slid his head up into the horse’s — bleagh! awwwrrflgh!! ptui! pppt. ppt.”

As soon as he recovered, Lauer asked about the deeper significance of the book: “Was that chapter a slam on healthcare reform, as people have suggested?” he asked the author.

Answering from his home, where his parents have grounded him for using dirty words in print, author Butters Stotch said, “Yes, I pretty much think so.” Continue reading


Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran

This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.

The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.

In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.

Too Shy to Paginate

The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.

1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”

Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious. A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.

I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.

Uh-huh… said Niko. Continue reading


What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns (and Spends): Pt 2

Often when talking to Seth Harwood (see last column) I’ve been struck (again) by the fact that American writers are forced to adjust to a publishing industry that has removed authors from the top of the hierarchy and told them to be grateful to be stuck at the bottom.

I’m not talking about the small number of blockbuster authors who pay all the bills.

In fact, the few stars who remain on top seem to encourage publishing excesses like the shamefully overdone Random House book launch for Dan Brown in New York a while ago.

Dan Brown Party

At that party, waiters bedecked in George Washington wigs served lobster BLTs and other expensive noshes to a few hundred guests while “theatrical lighting [was] rigged up under the massive ovoid dome of the former bank that now houses Gotham Hall,” observed New York magazine (see photo at right).

Surrounding this “most lavish publishing cocktail party in a long time” were signs about saving money, such as this wordy mouthful (quoted by the New York Observer): “There is no gain so sure as that which results from economizing what you have.” (I see. Waiter, could I have another scallop?)

And this one: “Having little, you cannot risk loss; having much, you should the more carefully protect it.”

Protect it? Heavens, you could increase a thousand Random House advances by cutting out the gazpacho shooters alone.

Back to Seth Harwood

No, I’m talking about the talented unknowns and hardworking mid-range authors who need to be nurtured and given time to find their audience but are still getting low advances and dismissive treatment.

(One has to ask, what are publishers thinking? It’s not healthy for the book industry when a writer who lucks out like Dan Brown is “the only guy who’s in the running,” as the Los Angeles Times observed. “The movie industry couldn’t survive on Meryl Streep alone; the publishing industry might benefit from nurturing more of its own demi-stars to fill out the program.”)

So I thought there was hope when I first heard about up-and-coming authors like Seth Harwood, a writer with so many rejection slips from the New York mainstream that he built an audience from zero readers to about 80,000 by podcasting his unpublished book, “Jack Wakes Up,” with his own equipment in a closet at home — and giving it away free on iTunes. Continue reading