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Stuart: A Life Backwards Paperback – May 29, 2007

4.1 out of 5 stars 79 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The British antihero of this moving biography started with teenage glue-sniffing, petty thievery and gang brawls, then graduated to heroin and major thievery. He endured prison stints and led a "medieval existence" on the streets, finally emerging into triumphant semistability as an "ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath" with only occasional episodes of violence and suicidal impulses. In Cambridge, England, Masters, an advocate for the homeless, befriended Stuart—someone for whom "cause and effect are not connected in the usual way"—and found him at times obnoxious and repellent, but also funny and honest. Masters notes bad genes and childhood sexual molestation, and critiques "the System" of British welfare and criminal justice institutions that help with one hand and brutalize with the other, but he doesn't reduce Stuart's intractable problems to simple dysfunction or societal neglect. By eschewing easy answers (the easy answers—don't drink, don't use, don't steal, don't play with knives—are precisely the hardest for Stuart), he accords full humanity to Stuart's stumbling efforts to grapple with his demons. Hilarious and clear-eyed, the author's superbly drawn portrait of Stuart is an unforgettable literary evocation and a small masterpiece of moral empathy and imagination. Photos. (June 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker

Masters's tragicomic portrait of Stuart Shorter, an "ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath" whom he befriended while studying at Cambridge University, starts in the present and moves backward. Through the particulars of a fractured life, including stays in seventeen prisons and a parking garage, Masters hopes to answer Stuart's question "What murdered the boy I was?" Masters is candid about his exasperation with Stuart—he confesses at one point to feeling "sated" with his subject's troubles—and achieves a perfect balance of empathy and comedy. The real attraction, however, is Stuart's own voice, as when he recalls "getting rageous" or offers recipes for "prison hooch" and "convict curry." His life resists easy explanation, which makes Masters's patient attention to its concrete details all the more affecting.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reprint edition (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007790171
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385340885
  • ASIN: 0385340885
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #324,386 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jesse Kornbluth on June 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Stuart reads the manuscript of his biography. He doesn't like it. And now he has to tell Alexander Masters, his biographer, what the problem is.

Stuart begins gently: "I don't mean to be rude. I know you put a lot of work in."

And then Stuart gets specific. He'd like more "jokes, yarns, humor" and less research. In fact, he'd like a different book --- a bestseller, "like what Tom Clancy writes." Then he drops the bomb: "Alexander, you gotta start again. You gotta do better than this."

Please understand who's talking: a 30-odd year-old formerly homeless ex-junkie who has been in and out of jail, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, who was repeatedly abused as a child by his brother and a teacher. In short, a loser. What qualifies this disaster of a man to deliver literary criticism?

But one of the many great things about Stuart is his honesty. And his originality. "Do it [the book] the other way round," he advises. "Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards."

Alexander Masters takes that advice. As he says, at the end of the first chapter:

"So here it is, my second attempt at the story of Stuart Shorter, thief, hostage taker, psycho and sociopath street raconteur, my spy on how the British chaotic underclass spend their troubled days at the beginning of the twenty-first century: a man with an important life.

"I wish I could have done it more quickly. I wish I could have presented it to Stuart before he stepped in front of the 11.15 London to King's Lynn train."

Well, that's starting at the end, isn't it? The absolute end. And Stuart was right --- it worked better that way, and on every level.
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Format: Hardcover
Masters' boggles the mind with the creativity and poignancy of this book. The style is the first thing to hit the reader; as the reader notices that the biography goes from death to birth and not the other way around. This brilliant technique gives the book a literary style that is unique and playful; on a topic that is anything but playful.

Masters' integration of style and message is truly superb. He tries to convey the actual visceral reality of homelessness through the biography of a real homeless person. There are two things Masters attempts to elucidate and succeeds brilliantly. Firstly, he tries to illustrate how a person could become a homeless person in the first place. Second, he tries to illustrate how even in the UK, where the "System" is so much different than in the US, there is little positive result in either system. In many ways, the "System" only exacerbates the original conditions that created the environment to turn a person to the street.

Interestingly, Masters tells lots of amazing details about homelessness. His statement that it only takes about 4 weeks before a new homeless person becomes acclimatized to the "homeless life" or "rough sleeping" as he calls it, and finds that it is not so bad and they don't want to go back. This speed is almost inconceivable.

Masters is not high and mighty in his book, he does not claim to have an answer to the problem. But rather, he looks at the problem in its nakedness in order to try and find a resolution. The book is truly a wonderful example of how a person could get to a condition of permanent homelessness. It is recommended for all readers with a social conscience.
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Format: Hardcover
"Stuart: A Life Backwards", the new book by Alexander Masters, deserves every accolade that can be awarded. With a keen writer's eye, a gift for narrative and a friendship that lasted only four years, Masters recounts the life of Stuart Clive Shorter whose untimely death in 2002 inspired this work.

The essence of Stuart's life seemed to be courage in the face of so much adversity that one wonders how he lived even into his early thirties. His drug addiction, his MS, bouts of homelessness countered by months of living in small flats, an incestuous relationship with his brother....all of this did not keep Stuart from enjoying a certain high degree of humor and acceptance of the way of life that only he could lead. Masters takes these things into account as he spends some of his own time among Stuart's acquaintances on the street. While the author keeps an appropriate distance he can't help but being amused and fascinated by this man about whom he would eventually write.

"Stuart" is not an easy book to get through, at times. Far from your summertime read at the beach, this book is better read without distraction because Masters comments with great care not only on Stuart, but his situation at all aspects of Stuart's life. Writing it "backwards" works very well in this case, because it endears the reader to Stuart as the book continues.

Stuart Shorter is not a person that most of us would ever get to know or maybe even care to know, but Alexander Masters has shown us that there are those people in life we either overlook or tend to forget. I'm glad he reminds us and I highly recommend "Stuart" for its warmth and complexity.
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