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07-28-11: Bruce Duffy Proclaims 'Disaster was My God'

Seasoned in Hell

If it weren't based in fact, it probably would not fly as fiction. In 19th century Paris, a 14-year old poetic prodigy shows up and changes the face of literature. He is beyond brilliant, and he seems to think himself beyond all convention. He moves in with a famous poet and his wife, then proceeds to have an affair with the poet, who shoots himself when the boy genius threatens to leave. And this is just the first act of Arthur Rimbaud's Life.

Rimbaud is a legend and an inspiration to writers, poets and artists of all stripes to this day. And it is not just the art he created, the poetry that plagues tortured souls. Rimbaud's words are practically the Platonic incarnation of that inner torment. It is his life that pulls to us, that speaks to our desire live beyond compromise.

Not surprisingly, Rimbaud has been written about often, but not until now by Bruce Duffy in 'Disaster Was My God' (Doubleday / Random House ; July 19, 2011 ; $27.95). Back in 1987, Duffy sent the world biographical fiction reeling with the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 'The World As I Found It,' recently added to The New York Review of Books Classics series. Duffy manages the difficult feat of bringing a larger-than-life figure to life, with nothing more — or less — than language.

It's not an easy task and Duffy does not take the easy path. 'Disaster was My God' is an audaciously constructed, powerfully composed work that manages to create for the reader not simply the facts of Rimbaud's life, but rather, the driving, almost insensate force that made those fact so alarming, so alluring. Duffy finds fire with fire.

Rimbaud lived a famously short life, and the plot structure of Duffy's novel manages to capture the brevity while preserving the power. We meet the boy-genius, the holy terror in Paris as he arrives to wreck both lives and literature, to change both forever while seeming not to give a fig about either.

In alternating sections, we are with a man who should still be young, who physically is still young. But he is now a haunted soul, a man who has moved so fast he has left life behind. He is the walking dead, an incarnation of the tortured souls he wrote about in his incandescent youth. Duffy's careful edits propel the reader through a life that had to by definition be cut short. Arthur Rimbaud could never have lived longer. It's possible that Duffy gives us more than we need with regards to plot, but if we must overdose, then Rimbaud is at least a potent and pretty drug with which to do so.

But Duffy's smart plotting is buttressed by prose that is alternately spare and lush, see-sawing in and out of hallucinatory grace. There are times when the swings seem too intense, and times when the cuts are too sharp, but Rimbaud was not an easy man. He is not an easy creature to capture and Duffy's prose has a rough feel about it that feels like raw footage.

'Disaster Was My God' may begin with a burial, but it raises the dead, or rather brings to life those who never really died. Nobody alive today could ever have looked Arthur Rimbaud in the eye. None of use could know his soul. We can only read his work and read about him. We need and want more than the man himself could give us. Bruce Duffy manages to create fiction that we believe in our hearts from facts that our minds would deny.

07-27-11: Arielle Eckstutt and David Henry Sterry write 'The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully!'

Swiss Army Knife for Would-Be Writers

I'm a skeptic so far as how-to write books go. Those who want to write will, and those who don't, won't. It's not rocket science. Moreover, the effort required to read a book about how to write generally exceeds the threshold of actually writing something. But once you've actually written something that you want somebody else to read, some kind of guidebook can actually be helpful, particularly if you've spent more time writing your book than surfing the Internet looking for the means to publicize it.

Arielle Eckstutt and David Henry Sterry call themselves "The Book Doctors," and if you have been surfing instead of writing, then chances are you have happened across their site. You can now help justify their investment in that site with an investment in your own writing, that is 'The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully' (Workman ; November 4, 2011 ; $15.95). It will not write your book for you. It will not sell your book for you. But it will not waste your time, either.

"The Guide," as I shall henceforth call it, covers pretty much everything with regards to writing and selling a book, and these days, that's a lot. It's divided into three parts; "Setting Up Shop," "Taking Care of Business" and "Getting the Word Out." Chances are that you won't need to consult the whole shebang, but also that you'll be able to find the parts you do need and read them without getting frustrated. Moreover, there are lots of Internet-oriented pointers and recommendations in here that are as up-to-date as can be, since the publishing world has been turned upside-down in the last ten years.

What this translates to is lots of useful, readable and ultimately usable information to help otherwise harried writers wrap their brains around .... I just can't make myself type that phrase, but you know what I'm talking about, the standardized services that we use instead of email and website hosting. More and more, writers are being told, even famous writers, by New York publishers, that this is a swamp into which they must wade. Consider this book your first set of waders. Good luck! Be sure to shower afterwards. (I do.)

But once you've washed your hands of Internet publicity, Eckstutt and Sterry give you some step-by-step advice with regards to bringing your book and your self to the public. Eckstutt was an agent, which lends some street cred to her advice regarding agents. Sterry has twelve books under his belt, and that lends credence to his writing advice, which is engagingly sparse and to the point. There's no happy wappy here. There are sharp edges that will perhaps inspire you to quit the whole enterprise, and if that happens, you got your money's worth. But you can also get a few sharp edges yourself when you read this book. They may even help you get your book published.

The critical piece of the puzzle is this; "The Guide" is pretty entertaining even, and perhaps, especially, if you don't have any intention of becoming an instant celebrity. The advice you find in here can be applied to a wide variety of occupations, whether you're a plumber or a graphic designer. If you're a writer, of course, it's all directly applicable. Look, the chances are in this environment that you won't succeed. "The Guide" at least gives you the tools to spend a conscionable amount of time mitigating the certainty of failure. And in spite of what every grammarian in the universe will tell you, sometimes a double negative is the best score you can possibly get.

07-25-11: Mark Seal Meets 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit'

Unmistaken Identity

Realistic crime novels are meant to offer both believability and thrills. There's no reason why a non-fiction work cannot cover exactly the same terrain. Mark Seal's 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter' (Viking Adult / Penguin Putnam ; June 2, 2011 ; 324 pages ; $26.95) is thrilling, exciting, full of twists and turns, and every bit is true — with the exception of the many lies told by the main character, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. Seal's non-fiction work is a brisk, exciting book whose propulsive plot and page-turning story conceals a graceful, complex structure needed to tell a very bizarre tale. Compared to 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,' most fictional mysteries seem tame and realistic.

Even the basic outlines of the overall story require some calibration. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter started his life in the small German town of Bergen. There, he revealed a flair for impersonation. But more importantly, he employed a talent for setting himself up in advance to escape from one situation to the next. He made it to the United States, moved around the East coast, then moved across the country to the West coast, before once again heading east. Everywhere he went he either subtly shifted one identity to include a new background or took on an entirely new name. Eventually, he ended up in Boston, claiming to be Clark Rockefeller, related in some manner to the famously rich Rockefeller family. He married Sandra Boss, a wealthy powerhouse, and they had a daughter they named Reigh, but whom he called "Snooks," and loved very much. It was a love that would prove to be his undoing.

The overall arc of Clark's life (and he lived much of his life under this name) is complex enough as is, but Seal does a superb job hooking the reader into the story with a stinging chase scene and bits of the trial before going back to the source. Seal had an incredibly difficult task ahead of him as he wrote the book, because Clark was highly intelligent, if completely without morals. As investigator and eventually storyteller, Seal had to follow a remarkably twisted and complex mind through a variety of lives. Against the odds, he succeeds, and the book reads like a complicated crime thriller.

Seal creates a large cast of memorable characters, from Americans who pick up a German hitchhiker in Bergen to dowdy housewives in the not-so-ritzy part ("Sub-Marino") of the ritzy suburb of San Marino, California. Clark himself is many characters, and yet, Seal manages to get at the troubled man underneath. But the hardest task confronting Seal is to do what Clark himself does; convince the reader that otherwise intelligent upstanding citizens could fall for Clark's lines. We believe in all these people; yes, they are real, but the situations are incredibly and increasingly surreal. Seal shows us how well-meaning citizens are easily and not-so-easily duped.

'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit' is a stunning page-turner because Seal manages another difficult feat, that of untangling Clark's story and life, and turning an almost incomprehensible timeline into a manageable plot. Sure, the man had to live his life in one place, one day at a time, but Clark's brilliance at creating new faces and lives is matched by Seal's at deciphering them. The research and reporting must have been very difficult, but readers don't have to see that. We're furiously turning the pages to see what happens next.

What happens, time and time again, is almost beyond belief. Much of this book would indeed be unbelievable if told as fiction by a novelist. Seal has a much tougher job. He has to bring the reader into the mind of "Clark Rockefeller," which is a disturbing and difficult experience. That he does so with the economy and grace found in 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit' makes this book a serious competitor with any fictional thriller. The fact that it is true is a plus and, to a degree, a minus, in that readers will be forced to wonder who they don't know.

New to the Agony Column

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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