20 Oct 2008
One difficulty with positive reviews is that there seems to be so few ways to say you like the book. Bad books are bad in their own way, but good books only seem to be good in one way.
“Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages” is a collection of weird stories about famous people. It tries to position itself as a study of the connection between artists and self-destruction. But, really, it’s slumming. It just wants to dish the dirt and parade the freaks, and I’m happy with that. It’s a great collection, and that’s speaking as the proud owner of the”People’s Almanac” series, “An Incomplete Education,” John Scalzi’s “The Book of the Dumb” and the highlight of my collection: “Who’s Had Who,” which compiles chains of people linked by “rogers” (I have to mention that you may know two of the authors: Helen “Bridget Jones’ Diary” Fielding and Richard “I wrote all those BritRomCom movies starring Hugh Grant that your girlfriend loved and you hated” Curtis).
“Genius and Heroin” is a high-end bathroom book. It’s beautifully laid out. The tall trade book fits easily into one hand, and the text is an attractive mix of fonts and interspersed with photos, quotations, clip art, movie posters, Japanese prints and even briefer sidebars. An entry on Lulu Hunt Peters, the 1920s diet guru who died of we now recognize as anorexia, is accompanied by a note about Karen Carpenter; the death of River Phoenix — see what I mean about this not being a book about geniuses? — is followed by a list of other actors who died young from drug overdoses.
Author Michael Largo did quite a lot of research. His entries are packed with facts and some of the entries have the depth and flavor of the best biographies. Moreover, for all the obvious candidates (Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Hunter S. Thompson), there are plenty of lesser-known figures, from the classical era (Lucan, Seneca) to today (John Minton, Jaco Pastorius and Louis Verneul, the popular playwright — now forgotten — who filled his bathtub with blood from his slashed throat).
I could go on, but you get the ideal. My liking for “Genius and Heroin” is turning into an obsession, so I have to finish this review and put the book out of sight before I pick it up and spend another pleasant hour or two thumbing through its pages. Now, I wonder where my copy of “Who’s Had Who” went?