An outstanding biography of a prolific author for whom writing was “a ghastly protracted slog."



An acclaimed biographer turns his attention to the author he has called America’s “greatest living novelist."

Philip Roth (1933-2018) was famous enough to socialize with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Claudette Colbert; at one point, he turned down the advances of recently widowed Jackie Kennedy. In this excellent biography, Bailey offers an evenhanded portrait of an author whose many admirers include authors Nicole Krauss, Edna O’Brien, and Zadie Smith but whose depictions of women in novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater infuriated others. For example, in 2011, his Man Booker International Prize spurred one of the judges—Carmen Callil, founder of the feminist Virago Press, the English publisher of Leaving a Doll’s House, the scathing memoir by Roth’s ex-wife, Claire Bloom—to resign in protest. Roth gave Bailey access to his archive and sat down for interviews, and it shows, especially in the many intimate details about Roth’s personal life: his Jewish upbringing in Newark; his friendships and rivalries with John Updike, William Styron, and other contemporaries; his ailments, from lifelong back trouble to coronary artery disease, for which he preferred a bypass over beta blockers because the medicine made him impotent; and his many affairs, including while married to Bloom. Bailey offers positive and negative assessments of Roth’s books, from describing Goodbye, Columbus as “a kind of Jewish Gatsby, given the charm of its prose and humor, its concision, and its theme of meretricious American-style success,” to calling out the “breathtaking tastelessness toward women” in The Great American Novel. While Bailey notes that Roth may not have been the misogynist some would believe, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out his flaws and blind spots—e.g., when Roth referred to the “ghastly pansy rhetoric” of Edward Albee’s play Tiny Alice in a 1965 review or when he organized a party for Bloom’s 62nd birthday with his married lover in attendance.

An outstanding biography of a prolific author for whom writing was “a ghastly protracted slog."

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-393-24072-6

Page Count: 880

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 6, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A refreshing celebrity memoir focused not strictly on the self but on a much larger horizon.

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One of Hollywood’s biggest stars delivers a memoir of success won through endless, relentless work and self-reckoning.

“My imagination is my gift, and when it merges with my work ethic, I can make money rain from the heavens.” So writes Smith, whose imagination is indeed a thing of wonder—a means of coping with fear, an abusive father with the heart of a drill instructor, and all manner of inner yearnings. The author’s imagination took him from a job bagging ice in Philadelphia to initial success as a partner in the Grammy-winning rap act DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Smith was propelled into stardom thanks to the ministrations of Quincy Jones, who arranged an audition in the middle of his own birthday party, bellowing “No paralysis through analysis!” when Smith begged for time to prepare. The mantra—which Jones intoned 50-odd times during the two hours it took for the Hollywood suits to draw up a contract for the hit comedy series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—is telling, for hidden within this memoir lies a powerful self-help book. For Smith, all of life is a challenge in which one’s feelings are largely immaterial. “I watched my father’s negative emotions seize control of his ample intellect and cause him over and over again to destroy beautiful parts of our family,” he writes, good reason for him to sublimate negativity in the drive to get what he wanted—money, at first, and lots of it, which got him in trouble with the IRS in the early 1990s. Smith, having developed a self-image that cast him as a coward, opines that one’s best life is lived by facing up to the things that hold us back. “I’ve been making a conscious effort to attack all the things that I’m scared of,” he writes, adding, “And this is scary.” It’s a good lesson for any aspiring creative to ponder—though it helps to have Smith’s abundant talent, too.

A refreshing celebrity memoir focused not strictly on the self but on a much larger horizon.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984877-92-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 9, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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