Tag Archives: publishing

My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown

“It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there’s so many of us.”

My Biggest Lie, a humorous debut novel from British author Luke Brown is a tale of self-destruction, self-promotion, and the collision of both set against the unbridled hedonistic excesses of the publishing world. Thirty-year-old Liam Wilson was well on his way towards a good career–he lived with Sarah, the girlfriend he claims to love, moved from an indie publisher in Birmingham to a major publishing house is London, and was mentored by rockstar publishing director for fiction, the “flamboyant” James Cockburn.

my biggest lieWith Cockburn out of commission and in hospital under strange circumstances, Liam is entrusted with minding author Craig Bennett whose book Talking to Pedro won the Booker prize. Sarah has just broken up with Liam, and feeling lost and sorry for himself, all of Liam’s self-destructive urges emerge. Set on the task to babysit Bennett and make sure he doesn’t have access to drugs, Liam, as Bennett’s minder engages in a long-drug-fueled evening which ends with Bennett dead and Liam agreeing to “resign.” Now the scourge of the publishing industry, Liam heads to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to write that novel he’s always been talking about.

My Biggest Lie is a look at the life of that familiar character–the Affable Dickhead. That’s my term to describe Liam whose morally reprehensible behaviour is slightly ameliorated by his tarnished charm.  He’s not someone you’d want in your life–although I suspect we all know a Liam, and while as a friend his behaviour is intolerable, he’s great fun to read about. He’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but he’s definitely a dodgy one. He doesn’t initially tell us the whole story of exactly what he did with either his girlfriend or with Craig Bennett. He makes us wait as he parcels out details, hoping to win us over with that overworked charm of the bullshit artist. Once on the top of his world, with a bright future, he blew it all in a series of self-destructive moves, and now he hopes he can win it all back: the girlfriend, the career, and perhaps even the self-respect. Liam is an entertaining narrator–definitely obnoxious, but with just enough self-disgust to make his train wreck of a life well-worth following.

I’d arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That’s the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

The novel started off very strongly but wobbled a bit when Liam arrives in Buenos Aires. Liam doesn’t know what to do with himself, and the plot seems to reflect Liam’s uncertainty. Left to his own limited devices leads to some self-examination, and while Liam admits some ugly truths about himself, he’s not exactly a reformed character.

Becoming a vainglorious prick has never been fundamental to creating literary art. No, I did that because it was fun, because I was morally exhausted and it was easy to pretend my behaviour was separate from my essence. But if the man careening around town in my clothes wasn’t me, then why did I feel so bad, and so proud, about the way he talked to women.

Stuck in a youth hostel with only Bleak House to read, Liam wallows in self-pity and admits his failings, but he’s soon back to his obnoxious ways when he resorts to stalking his ex-girlfriend via Facebook, and even contacts her friend Lizzie, whose macho boyfriend, Arturo, triggers bisexual fantasies in Liam’s already confused brain. While trying to jumpstart his novel, and attempting to arrive at some resolution about his involvement in the death of Craig Bennett, Liam decides to contact the two most significant people in Bennett’s life: Amy Casares and Alejandro Montenegro.

The book is at its funniest when describing the mud-slinging antics of the publishing world–writers who are “needy little vultures,” who chart “line graphs of their Amazon rankings.” The novel sagged in spots, and the endless drug fueled odysseys across London and Buenos Aires felt a bit anachronistic. At one point there’s even a mention of Jay McInerney (a sure sign we’re in Excess territory), and I wondered for a moment if we were in the 80s, but no, it’s post 9-11, present times. Who knew that people in the publishing industry were such party animals? One of the book’s most interesting and subtle aspects is that Liam doesn’t seem to get that when you’re a Booker prize winner or high in the food chain in the publishing industry, self-destruction is a form of celebrity-style self-promotion, but when you’re lower in the food chain, then being drunk at a book fair only makes you a liability.  The same rules just don’t apply.

Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn’t for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

 I liked this novel in spite of its faults; I don’t think it’s easy to write something funny, but Luke Brown managed it first time out of the gate.

review copy


Filed under Brown Luke, Fiction

Victorian Secrets: Publisher

No, I’m not talking about lingerie, so keep your smutty thoughts to yourself.  I’m talking about a publisher I recently came across and I wanted to spread the word:


A small, independent UK based company obviously going against the flow, and for that reason alone, they deserve some support. My regular readers know that I read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed two novels by George Gissing: New Grub Street and The Odd Women.   I was lucky enough to have long-ago purchased print copies of these books on my shelf. Yes, if you have a kindle, Gissing is available FREE, and while there’s a lot to be said for e-versions, these new Victorian Secrets critical editions have their advantages too. Some of us like to read those 19th century multi-plot Victorians in a print version with introductions and notes.

Victorian Secrets have several other Gissings in print:



ThyrzaWorkers in the Dawn

workers in the dawnVictorian Secrets has some interesting non-Gissing titles too, so I encourage all you 19th century fanatics to take a look. Some of their titles are pleasantly and tantalizingly obscure. And here’s their latest release:

Not wisely but too well


Filed under publishing

Stranger than Truth by Vera Caspary

The editorial department was a garden of nepotism. Poor relations blossomed all over the place.”

There’s a great deal of Vera Caspary’s professional life in the crime novel Stranger than Truth, and so the title which could reflect the author’s experiences may have more than one meaning. This is the story of a murder and its solution, but the author takes a different approach, so that the crime, told through a range of voices, isn’t solved by the police or by a PI. Originally published in 1946, Stranger than Truth is back in print for the kindle after almost disappearing from the radar. Vera Caspary was a fascinating woman who lived through some interesting times, so for those who’d like to know more about Caspary, her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups is highly recommended. The blurb for the recently released kindle version calls Caspary’s autobiography “captivating,” and that’s really no exaggeration. But if you’re read Laura and Bedelia and you want to delve a little deeper into Caspary’s body of work, then that brings us to a lesser work,  Stranger than Truth.

stranger than truthJohn Miles Ansell works for BarclayTruth Publications. Millionaire Noble Barclay owns this large firm which publishes many different magazines, including Truth and Crime, Truth and Love, Truth and Health, and Truth and Beauty. When the novel opens, John, the new editor of Truth and Crime is rushing to meet a publication deadline, when he receives notice that his story concerning the murder of a man named Warren G. Wilson, a middle-aged recluse with an unexplained income stream, has been rejected.

I had recently become editor of Truth and Crime, and was still new enough to believe I could improve the magazine. Truth and Crime was just another of the fact-detective magazines, filled with hashed-over newspaper stuff and old police-blotter cases, served up with sensational titles and pious crime-does-not-pay endings.  The Wilson story has no ending, so I decided to use it as an Unsolved Mystery of the Month.

John doesn’t understand the reason behind the rejection–after all he was hired by Barclay at $125 a week to “lift the magazine out of its present rut,” and that’s just what John is trying to do.  Truth and Crime selects one unsolved crime for each issue, and John, rather than follow the regular format of rehashing a well-known cold crime, has written the piece on the recent murder of Wilson. John is intrigued by the story as Wilson is a bit of mystery man, “no criminal,” and yet a man who died violently, and curiously, a man who, according to the IRS does not exists. The story was pending approval for weeks, and now at the last minute, it’s rejected which leaves John angry for an explanation. This anger leads to John confronting Noble Barclay and his right hand man, the very creepy Edward Everett Munn. There’s the definite sense that Munn, in spite of his nice suit and job title, is there to perform any dirty work that his boss Noble Barclay wants. And as for Noble Barclay, the Guru of Truth, he may appear to be a very reasonable man, but behind that façade of benign, charismatic pleasantry, lurks a Totalitarian.

Noble Barclay is a self-made man, a millionaire who reinvented himself, wrote the inspirational book self-help, My Life is Truth and created an immensely successful publishing empire after a successful battle with alcohol. There’s something a little false about Barclay’s mantra about seeking the truth, and for a man who swears by speaking the truth, he’s much happier throwing distractions at John than explaining why the story was rejected.

After a close brush with death, John is offered a large raise and a promotion as the editor of Truth Digest, “truth in tabloid.” John takes the job and the raise but he’s still determined to discover the truth behind the Wilson murder. In the meantime, he finds himself becoming involved with Barclay’s daughter, Eleanor–a girl unhealthily devoted to her father. And what on earth happened to Eleanor’s mother?

One of the best characters in the book is Lola Manfred, a one time-poetess whose hair is “dyed the color of a Christmas tangerine.” Lola now works in Truth and Love, swigs whiskey hidden in a milk bottle, and despises “the modern Messiah,” Noble Barclay and Truth Publications. Lola and John find they share common ground as they both refuse to drink the Barclay-Truth Publishing cool-aid, yet in spite of Lola’s criticisms of her employer, she understands his mass appeal, and his apparent sincerity when it comes to his “formula for health and happiness” which he is ready to roll out to any listener if given the slightest conversational opening. Lola argues that Noble Barclay isn’t motivated by sincerity but by self-promotion and self-interest.

We are surrounded by people who can believe in anything sincerely as long as it brings them a good living. Fascists believe in Fascism, don’t they, especially the big ones whose attitudes pay a profit? There’s nothing in the world, my friend, so sincere as self-interest.

Stranger than Truth, in spite of a couple of stiffs and a poisoning, lacks tension. What’s interesting here is Caspary’s presentation of a different type of crime embedded into the phenomenally successful echelons of Truth Publishing, the way one man through the poor man’s psychoanalysis” creates and controls a workplace environment, and the sly references to the author’s early career in correspondence schools and advertising. Stranger than Truth was written several years after a disillusioned Vera Caspary left the Communist Party. Was Stranger than Truth, in its portrayal of a workplace environment in which employees were indoctrinated into a specific way of thinking, a metaphor for life under Stalin?

*The vintage cover shown is of an abridged version, but the e-version is not abridged.


Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction

Bookshops & the internet

I came across an article, written by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times which included a number of facts and figures regarding some of the differences between the publishing industry in America and France. One of the main differences is the Lang Law–a law which addresses the discounting of books, and due to this law, book prices cannot be discounted more than 5% below the publisher’s list price. Another point the article makes is that e-book sales in France are 1.8% of the market compared with 6.4% in America. Apparently 13% of French books were purchased from the internet last year. On another note, an article in the Telegraph says that the number of bookshops in Britain halved in the years 2005-2011 shrinking from 4,000 down to 2,178.

Interesting reading which of course raises the question: is the demise of the independent (or even chain) bookshop (thinking Borders here) inevitable? Amazon often comes out as the villain in these ruminations, and I’m sure that if I owned and operated a bookshop, I’d feel that I was fighting in a price war I couldn’t match. But as a reader there are other considerations.

Before the arrival of the internet, I liked nothing better than to head my car towards a book-friendly town and spend the day browsing through the shelves of a number of used book shops. Santa Monica had the added attraction of the British pubs, of course, and I always came away from these forays with a decent amount of plunder. Some of the titles I bought came from the continually overhauled list of books I wanted, and some titles were a complete, delightful surprise as I stumbled across books on the shelves by pure accident. At the time (pre-internet), I typically read books by favourite authors, books recommended by friends or work colleagues, and the occasional unexpected title excavated at a bookshop. I also picked up names of books from magazines such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Then came the internet…. I came across more and more obscure titles, books from small publishers, and the trail led deeper and deeper off the beaten path. Then came blogging, my reading community expanded, and now I’m reading recommendations from all over the world, including: AustraliaCanada, Britain, France, and the very multi-cultural Caroline. I still love book shops, but they simply cannot stock the vast number of titles available via internet outlets. Here’s an example, I recently visited a used bookshop sure that I’d find at least one title by John O’Hara, but alas no. I ended up buying a book for someone else so that I wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

All this reminds me of the days when video shops were the only way to go for VHS and then DVD rentals. I remember picking over the sad little foreign film section at a local Blockbuster and then learning about Netflix….

It’s not that I don’t want to buy from bookshops. I love bookshops. But they simply cannot offer the inventory of online book sellers. It’s not all about pricing and discounting and cut-throat tactics. It’s also about selection. I recently read a review of a Peter Stamm book on Tony’s Reading List. Fat chance of my local used bookshop having that in stock.


Filed under publishing

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

It had been some time since I picked up a novel by Muriel Spark, so when Caroline mentioned Muriel Spark Week, I decided to join in. For her quirky world view and dark sense of humour, this author is a great favourite of mine, and so I returned to A Far Cry From Kensington–a marvellous novel set in 1950s London.

While the story is set in the 1950s, the events that take place are recalled decades later by a woman who now lives in Italy–“a far cry from Kensington.”  During her long nights of insomnia, the woman, once known as Mrs Hawkins reminisces about her post WWII life as a vastly overweight “comfortable in her fatness,” 28-year-old war widow. Mrs Hawkins recalls how she lived in a Kensington boarding house with an assortment of fellow lodgers and worked in a small publishing house, Ullswater Press.

Mrs Hawkins (or Nancy as we eventually discover) has the ability to reassure people. Perhaps this is due to her matronly figure, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that she listens and freely dispenses advice (to become thin “you eat and drink the same as always, only half,” and to improve concentration, you need to adopt a cat). She has a responsible position at work, appears to be much older than she actually is, and at the boarding house, she’s perceived as reliable.

However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a ‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She insisted. I realized she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins may be a source of comfort to those around her, but she’s also a woman of firm principles, and those principles are tested, mainly through her professional life. There’s something fishy afoot at Ullswater Press, and it’s here that Mrs Hawkins first falls foul of the very shady character, Hector Bartlett. They become enemies, and this is a relationship that plagues Mrs Hawkins for some time and follows her on to future employment.

A Far Cry from Kensington is full of Muriel Spark’s dark, off-kilter humour, and her novels have the tendency to skewer hypocrisy while exploring beneath the surface of everyday, seemingly respectable life. Here’s Mrs Hawkins and her landlady, Milly, at night, standing on the landing watching the “Cypriot husband and his English wife” next door fighting.

Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. we sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. so far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.


Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple’s feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. but finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.


“Can’t you stop them?” said Milly, passing the chocolates.

The policeman accepted a chocolate. “Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”

The British publishing industry which may first appear to be a bastion of respectability in the novel, becomes the target of Sparks’s merciless humour. Mrs Hawkins works for the small, ever-shrinking publisher, Ullswater Press, a publisher of “serious books.” One of the partners is largely absent, and that leaves the younger partner, Martin York in charge with various creative financing plans to revitalize the business which include his knowledge about how to “throw off” the Income Tax inspectors. Mrs Hawkins moves on to the publishers Mackintosh and Tooley, and while this firm appears to be eminently more respectable than Ullswater Press, again there are darker forces lurking beneath the surface. With one of the office mottos, “the best author is a dead author,” the culture at Mackintosh and Tooley appears to be pro-reader and pro-employee, but as always Muriel Spark shows us that appearances can be deceiving.

As fate would have it, all of the strands of Mrs Hawkins’s life connect with a “glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path,”  and eventually, she finds herself mixed up in blackmail, anonymous letters and suicide as she determinedly confronts evil for the first time in her life. Ever stalwart, Mrs Hawkins sticks to her principles simply because she can do no less:

I can’t help it. Sometimes the words just come out and I can’t stop them. It feels like preaching the gospel.

A Far Cry From Kensington is one of my favourite Spark novels–a must-read for fans, and a great place to start if you’ve never read this brilliantly entertaining and vastly amusing author.


Filed under Fiction, Spark, Muriel

E publishing

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I own a kindle, initially for the ease of reading long-out-of-print Balzac, and I’ll admit that I don’t leave home without it. Years ago, someone gave me an electronic reader and I hated the thing. Loathed it with a passion, and so I was surprised by how quickly I became inseparable from my kindle–and bear in mind that I am NOT a gadget person at all.

I get a lot of comments about the kindle. Positive, of course from other kindle owners, as we recognise a fellow user like some lost tribe member: “so how do you like your kindle?” “Love it,” but most of the comments still tend to be derisive, negative and snotty: “I prefer books.”  (emphasis on “I”) and “I refuse to have one in my home.”  I’ve given up explaining that I haven’t stopped buying books, or that it’s not an either/or situation. Instead I chalk the reader debate up to a matter of taste. But of course, that’s not the only issue at stake here.

I came across a post called Talking Shop written by Lee Goldberg on his blog in which he discusses e-publishing, and how the publishing world is changing. In particular, he discusses how the “ebook revolution” is empowering authors–especially “mid-list authors” (and this was a point made by John Barlow when he decided to take Hope Road directly to kindle). Another very important point that Lee Goldberg raises is that it’s not easy to get the rights of out-of-print books back from the publisher.

While there’s a consensus that the publishing world is changing, it’s difficult to predict just where it’s going to go. With newspapers folding and downsizing, professional book reviewers are dwindling even as we see the rise of the non-professional (like me)–someone who’s just an obsessive reader and gets some sort of cheap thrill from passing on posts about the books I’ve read. The literary world has been managed by gatekeepers–publishers who select what is going to be published and then managed by literary journals which tell us which of those books are worth buying and reading. While this structure isn’t exactly collapsing, it is undergoing a metamorphosis. Scary if your livelihood depends on it, and exciting f0r someone like me whose major pastime is reading.

An interesting fact is that crime readers are early adopters of the kindle, and along with that goes the idea that the world of crime reading isn’t subject to the same gatekeeping (the gatekeepers of culture and taste–such as literary journals). You’re not going to see the TLS or NYRB stuffed with reviews of crime novels–although there are sites such as The Rap Sheet, edited by J Kingston Pierce, a self-described “labour of love,”  which survey the world of crime and inform readers of new and upcoming books. So I speculate that it’s perhaps no accident that crime readers were early adopters of the kindle–there were underlying factors at work–including the fact that we don’t rely on gatekeepers of culture and tend to be more fan-based.

And from that last point I’m moving on to the issue of what it’s like to be a reader who wants to read out of print books or just books that are no longer hot-off-the-presses. Amazon shipping is 3.99, and it’s possible, as we all know, to get a book for a mere penny. Many crime authors seem acutely aware of this pricing, and so they price their work accordingly.   Lee Goldberg’s  4 novel Jury Series is a mere $5.99. Allan Guthrie has several titles for $1.99 and $2.99 –including his oop Two-Way Split which is available used in traditional print form for .02 (plus 3.99 shipping) and $2.99 on the kindle. He gets a big fat zero if you buy a used copy, but he gets a percentage if you buy a kindle version.

And this brings me to my another observation, and one I don’t see often. If the publishing world went 100% electronic reader, and I don’t advocate that, by the way, and neither do I think that is the future, but let’s just say that happens, eventually the used book market would dry up. Let’s argue that this happens in the year 2030 and from that point on, only e-books are released (nook, kindle). The used book market after 2030 would be non-existent, so publishers who get zero for used books would still get a chunk of the action via the e-book version if and only if they were involved in the contractual process.

Finally, the oldest surviving cheque was written in 1659, and in Britain there’s a phase-out date of 2018 for check-writing. Ten years ago, most consumer transactions were cheques but now it’s debit cards or credit cards–a system which apparently works great for the credit card industry since they’ve managed to get themselves in between the merchant and the consumer for almost every transaction. There was a time when not having a checkbook would have been unimaginable, and now cheques seem to be the fading into the past. Something to think about….


Filed under Blogging

The Secrets of Grown-ups by Vera Caspary

When reading a biography (or an autobiography), it seems impossible to conclude the book without getting an idea of whether or not I’d like the person I’m reading about. Sometimes the life story of another is incredibly sad (Barbara Peyton) or spectacularly disastrous (Nancy Spungen & Sid Vicious), but after reading the wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-ups, I concluded that I would have liked Vera Caspary very much indeed. I liked her for her determination, her versatility, her intelligence and also for the fact that she frankly admits to telling some whoppers.

For those who’ve never heard Caspary’s name, she was an author, screenwriter, & playwright and is arguably most remembered  for her novel Laura (made into that very famous noir film), and there’s also Bedelia (made into a British noir film). But apart from those two novels, there are many more–now sadly out-of-print.

Vera Caspary was born in 1899 and died in 1987. That’s not so long ago, and yet when Vera’s story begins, she gives us a glimpse into another world. Her relatives were second generation Jewish German-Prussian emigrants, and Vera was the youngest of four children. Vera details her early childhood in Chicago in just a few pages, and while there’s nothing too unusual here, a picture begins to emerge of a strong, determined personality and an early attraction to writing stories.

Vera’s elder sister, Irma, who gave “second-rate candy to little girls whose grandparents had Russian or Polish accents” was 15 years older than Vera, but it was from Irma that Vera learned some valuable lessons about snobbery:

 Prejudice is as destructive to those who employ it as to its victims, and [that] devotion to material possessions is a waste of life.

The family seemed to be fairly affluent in Vera’s early childhood, but when her father suffered a series of financial setbacks, she enrolled at a business college rather than university, and it looked as though she faced a dreary, predictable future.

Vera started as a stenographer but always wanted a “writing job.” Most doors were closed to her because she was female, and she was never content with that–even though many of the jobs she had paid well and granted her a certain amount of autonomy. She worked her way into the advertising business, and at one point crafted a correspondence class in ballet dancing taught by the legendary (read mythical) Sergei Marinoff. Her adventures in advertising are absolutely hilarious; this woman had a natural talent for fabrication, so it’s no wonder she went on to become a writer. Inevitably Vera, who was far too intelligent for anything rote or repetitive, grew bored with advertising:

Whether I wrote coy sales letters in the name of the spinster sisters who manufactured cold cream, plotted a chicken tonic campaign or exploited a new sex book, it was all the same. I worked like a computer that produces variations when different buttons are pressed. I had considered my work creative until I realized that I was merely manufacturing sales devices.

 When writing the story of her life, Vera often seems to go for conveying the atmosphere of the times rather than offering intense detail. She describes her connection with the Leopold-Loeb case, the energy & insanity of prohibition, shoot-outs between rival cab companies, and the dreariness of the Depression.  The story is light on family details and the romances in her life (although men are mentioned). This is not a tell-all, gossipy bio; a few of men appear to have been significant for a various periods, but then they fade without mention. Not that I care how many men Vera slept with or when, but I had questions about a couple of people mentioned who then subsequently disappeared from the pages.

The emphasis goes instead to Vera’s incredible career. Frequently she opted for independence instead of a steady paycheck, and as a result, at times it seemed as though she faced running out of money, but work always appeared. That’s not to say that Vera sat and waited at home for fortune to knock on her door; she didn’t. This woman hustled, and at one point she even worked as a gypsy telling fortunes in a tea-room.

The book seems weakest in Vera’s explanation of her communist period. It reads like an apologia. Did Vera have unresolved questions about this period of her life or are there necessary gaps ( to protect others) here that weaken the explanation? Perhaps it’s because the sense of chagrin seems mismatched with the rest of her life. Vera’s interest in communism, which only lasted for a short period, seems perfectly understandable. At one point, prior to WWII, Vera says that stories were beginning to circulate about the fate of jews under Hitler. People told her this was Soviet propaganda. It’s fairly easy to see why Vera became a communist–many people saw a choice between being a Nazi or being a communist. Vera chose the latter. She paid the price for that when she was later gray-listed in Hollywood during McCarthyism. Sometimes moral decisions are difficult to unravel, but I still sense that the whole story just isn’t here. The Rosecrest Cell is described by its author as her “confession disguised as a novel.”

One of the marvellous things about this book are the vivid portrayals of people Vera knew who are now lost to history. Here’s one of Vera’s first bosses–a colourful character who recognised Vera’s intelligence and harnessed it for a while:

Schoenfeld was a man of the world, out of Bucharest by way of Paris, Berlin, and London. The books on his shelves and the periodicals that came to our office were in three languages. He wore a ring on his index finger, a fur-collared overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat like artists in the Latin Quarter. As vice-president and manager of a wholesale grocery firm that specialized in imported delicacies, he ordered much of the merchandise through his own brokerage office, collecting commissions on goods he sold to himself. He felt no qualms about this double-dealing because he was a Socialist who enjoyed exploiting capitalists. So long as the system prevailed Schoenfeld profited by it. A middleman’s middleman, he practised the most cynical of capitalist tactics and laughed at the trickery. He subscribed to many Socialist papers, domestic and foreign, as were available in wartime and used their political prophecies to guide him in stockmarket investments. That he called his brokerage office Internationala was another of his jests. At the time I had not the slightest idea of its significance. Nor did his customers.

There’s also “New York legend,” Horace Liveright, one of the founders of  Modern Library. At the top of his game, and known as the “Casanova” of the publishing world, he off-handedly proposed to Vera with the fine print that he’d control her work. She laughily refused and within a few years, he was broke, alcoholic and dying when she saw him for the last time. There are glimpses too of the bizarre publisher MacFadden, a man who “collected freaks” and held an “unending opposition to the medical profession, devotion to muscle power and the sanctity of daily defecation.” Unfortunately, his opinions extended to his children, and it’s in these pages that Vera tells the tragic story of 19-year-old Byrne–a “story she always wanted to write.”

Here’s a quote I particularly liked from Vera after the death of her beloved father:

My father was dead. But the gold of the wildflowers was not dimmed and I could not be unhappy in May sunshine. It was a moment never forgotten, a lesson for the living. If I failed to relish the colors of the earth, to dance to its rhythms, I’d thwart the dear man whose last days had been lived in the hope of my happiness. That field of wild mustard, still green in my memory, has sustained me through disappointment and shock and a season of more grievous mourning.

The love of Vera Caspary’s life was Igee (Isidor) Goldsmith. He was a married man when they met, and sometime into their relationship, as a naturalised citizen, he was recalled to Britain (“All able-bodied males residing in foreign countries were called back to Britain” ). She gave him the “rights to Bedelia” with the understanding that she’d write the screenplay, and this agreement paved the way for her perilous journey by sea to Britain. She did not agree with moving the story from 1913 Connecticut to 1938 Monte Carlo & Yorkshire, but that’s what happened, and this marvellous gem of a film was made at Ealing Studios. Also detailed quite extensively is the production of Preminger’s Laura and Vera’s problems with the script and final product.

The book (published in 1979) continues for just one short chapter after the death of Igee in 1964, and yet Vera Caspary lived for 23 more years–a great part of her extensive body of work was produced in this lengthy, solitary period, so there’s the sense that life ‘ended’ in at least some fashion with the death of Igee.

Vera Caspary’s personality bursts from these pages, and I finished the book with the sense that I’d met her. This is a marvellous autobiography, a wonderful read for anyone interested in her work, and I’ll be reading some of her other novels before too long.


Filed under Caspary Vera, Non Fiction