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Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby Hardcover – January 23, 2014

3.8 out of 5 stars 102 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


The Wall Street Journal:
"Careless People blends biography, scholarship and literary journalism to generate a narrative that is almost novelistic in its urgency….Ms. Churchwell is committed not only to digging up long-forgotten historical nuggets but also to telling a well-crafted story....The finest achievement of Careless People may be to return The Great Gatsby to its moment. Time, place and the material world necessarily feed the imagination, and Ms. Churchwell presents a wealth of historical material that ought to inform any reading of Fitzgerald's great novel as a product of its era.”

USA Today:
“[A] compelling biography….The book is stuffed with wonderful and quirky cultural nuggets….Above all, Churchwell does a fantastic job of conjuring the magic of the Jazz Age, as well as its more lurid side. Regardless of how much of Fitzgerald's great novel was the result of fate, coincidence or pure imagination, it is fascinating to read about the era that shaped him, and to see how brilliantly he captured the happenings of his time.”

The Washington Post:
“[A] rewarding work, a history of 1922 as it was lived by the Fitzgeralds and their circle, as well as by the fictitious cast of The Great Gatsby. Like the jazz that defined the era, the book tells its story through digression and repetition, building up a pattern of internal references and refrains."

American Prospect:
“[T]he liveliest contribution to Fitzgeraldiana to come my way in years... [Churchwell’s] delight in everything she's dug up renews the novel's enchantments even for the Gatsby-wearied likes of me... a vivid and often witty account of all the zany, sad, ridiculous things that Scott, Zelda and their fellow Jazz Age glitterati got up to during the boozy summer and autumn of 1922... impressively researched.”

Entertainment Weekly:
“If you put all the books about F. Scott Fitzgerald in a stack, the resulting tower would be—apologies for the scientific jargon—really, really tall. In fact, it would almost certainly fall over. So it takes a bold writer to try tossing another one on the pile—and here comes one now! Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People concerns the writing of The Great Gatsby and the cultural and societal forces that inspired its superdrunk author. The book’s an unusual mix of criticism, biography, and true crime, all of it bound together by Churchwell’s lyrical prose and, frankly, the sheer force of her will. Not everything is new here (how could it be?), but it's an evocative read. It belongs on the tower, even if somebody else’s book has to come off. A-”

“Sarah Churchwell’s zesty cocktail of history, biography and literary criticism (with a dash of philosophical musing) so vividly captures the disordered existence of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during the 18-month sojourn on Long Island that inspired his greatest novel, many readers will close her book astonished that Scott managed to write The Great Gatsby at all....She does a brilliant job of re-creating ‘the world that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby,'….Insights such as this make Careless People a book that anyone who cares about The Great Gatsby will want to read.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Churchwell introduces real-life equivalents of Fitzgerald’s characters, and she follows the stories in their morning papers. The results are often as glamorous, lurid, depressing, and fun to read as one would imagine… [Careless People] brings 1920s New York City vividly to life.”

Seattle Times:
“A thoughtful book that’ll be catnip to all Gatsby lovers….we’re given fascinating glimpses of social history.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“Sarah Churchwell, in this utterly pleasing and thorough ‘biography of a book,’ brings the two views together in a worthwhile effort at achieving whole sight…. Re-read The Great Gatsby, read Careless People and, if you still have any lingering doubts, go see ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’”

Boston Globe:
“The latest to fall under its spell is the scholar Sarah Churchwell, whose own seductive style borrows liberally from the novel….Grounded in archival evidence, but also richly speculative, her book is delightful reading for lovers of the novel and a provocative introduction for everyone else....[an] often fascinating reconstruction….Churchwell’s narrative has three principal strands: an account of the murder investigation, biographical information about Scott and Zelda, and a smart critical reading of the novel itself.”

“Fascinating….Churchwell has produced an intriguing glimpse into how his mind worked, as he mined the Jazz Age innovations that still shape our world.”

The Daily Beast:
“Sarah Churchwell proves herself a master mixologist combining meticulously researched historical detail, equally tantalizing biographical tidbits and a subtle reading of Gatsby—the resulting cocktail is an intoxicating biography of a novel.”

The Millions:
“Sarah Churchwell has done something almost unimaginable: She has discovered something new and she has written something fresh and revealing about the most chewed-over piece of fiction in the American canon….Churchwell’s book is handsomely illustrated and her research into the existing source material is prodigious….A literary journalist and author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell even unearthed a few morsels than no Fitzgerald scholars were aware of—most notably a letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions in Gatsby that was quoted in a lost review of the novel by Burton Rascoe. Churchwell, clearly thrilled by her spadework, calls Fitzgerald’s letter ‘a tiny, heart-stopping treasure….’ Careless People is a delightful blaze of a book….One of the chief virtues of Careless People is the way it leads the reader back to its source material.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred):
"Churchwell... has written an excellent book... she even manages to find fresh facts that escaped previous scholars... At times, Churchwell attempts Fitzgerald’s lyrical style—one chapter-ending sentence alludes to “the vagrant dead as they scatter across our tattered Eden”—she’s earned the right to play on his court. Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.”

Publishers Weekly:
“[Sarah Churchwell] evokes the Jazz Age in all its ephemeral glamour and recklessness in her latest book….She excels at providing rich period details….the book highlights how accurately Fitzgerald intuited what was to come: the damage being done to American society by focusing on wealth; the way mass media would give rise to a celebrity culture.”

The London Review of Books:
“Churchwell brings… a lively curiosity, a gift for making connections, and an infectious passion for Fitzgerald and his greatest novel…. A suggestive, almost musical evocation of the spirit of the time.”

The New Statesman:
“The first readers of The Great Gatsby thought it was all about themselves, a book of the moment. Today, we tend to admire its enduring mythology of aspiration and undoing. Churchwell brilliantly brings these two perspectives together as she holds in counterpoint the sprawling stuff of Fitzgerald’s daily life and the gleamingly taut prose poem that emerged from it… Fitzgerald offered the year 1922 as the chief exhibit when he tried to explain the meaning of the jazz age. It is an exhibit worth looking at very carefully. Careless People does so with a mixture of patience and panache and it would take a long time to get bored of that particular cocktail.”

Sunday Telegraph:
“The wonder of Careless People ... is that it rewinds the years and allows the reader to appreciate again just how well Fitzgerald reflected his times.”

The Observer:
"A literary spree, bursting with recherché detail, high spirits and the desperate frisson of the jazz age."

Literary Review:
"A treasury of new material. Churchwell adds considerably to our understanding of the early 1920s, and how life for Fitzgerald played into the development of his art."

Corduroy Books:
“Not a second is wasted in this 350 or so page-turner. Careless People was fascinating. . . .It’s utterly smashing.”
Book Reporter:
The Great Gatsby, like all great cultural highpoints, evolved, and Churchwell manages to infuse them all, boring and not, with an energy and drama that turns the book into a page-turner. . . . We feel so close to the action that we almost forget we are reading a history and not a daily diary account of the goings-on. Churchwell takes what could have been a treasure for literary theorists and turns it into a potboiler that could make great beach reading (or ski resort fireplace reading, I guess, given the season). Careless People is a highly recommended read for all. A thriller that combines history and fantasy is a rare and beautiful thing, and this book is just that.”

About the Author

Sarah Churchwell is the Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe and coeditor of Must Read: Rediscovering the Bestseller, and her literary journalism has been published widely. An American currently living in London, she is a regular broadcaster and contributor to the BBC.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (January 23, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594204748
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594204746
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (102 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #622,665 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S Riaz TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 26, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
"The Great Gatsby" was first published in 1925, but Fitzgerald set the novel in 1922, when he and Zelda returned to New York. Fitzgerald was planning his new novel and he wanted to do something different - it would take him two years to finish Gatsby and, in a way, this is a biography of a novel. For, in this book, the author cleverly takes us through the time that Scott and Zelda spent in New York - the events that influenced him and the eighteen months he spent in Great Neck, just outside the city.

1922 was a remarkable year, which began with the publication of "Ulysses" and ended with "The Waste Land". This book seeks the origins of Gatsby, reconstructs the Jazz Age, and shows how Fitzgerald reflected the stories around him. The major news story at that time was that of the murder of Eleanor Mills, a married woman, and her lover Edward Hall; who were shot through the head near an abandoned farmhouse, their love letters scattered around the corpses. The murder of the adulterous couple held America spellbound and was in the newspapers for virtually the entire time that Fitzgerald was in New York.

When Scott and Zelda decided to look for a house in Great Neck, it was a former fishing village that was becoming popular with the rich and famous - "the Hollywood of the East" and which he re-named 'West Egg' in his novel. His time there is exhausting to even read about, with a backdrop of financial swindles, scandals and fads, car accidents, bootleggers, speakeasies, endless parties, bad behaviour and epic drinking binges. Throughout "Careless People", Sarah Churchwell ties everything together into how it relates to The Great Gatsby, with the chapters of her book corresponding to the chapters of the novel.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The challenge to being F. Scott Fitzgerald's biographer is originality of material. What hasn't already been written about a man who died over 70 years ago? On Amazon, there are over 300 biographies listed.

Author Sarah Churchwell's book parallels the genius behind the "The Great Gatsby" to that of a true crime: a brutal double murder that took place in New Jersey at the same time Fitzgerald decamped to Great Neck, New York, to begin work on his third novel.

It's an interesting angle, but ultimately a thin one that can't sustain the 350-pages that comprise this book. While I agree with her premise that the Mills-Hall murders influenced Fitzergald's Gatsby story and characters, the relentless side-by-side construction is too much and bogs down Churchwell's otherwise excellent narrative.

Fitzgerald is famous for mining many real sources and personalities for his works including his wife and an early girlfriend whom scholars believe inspired his Daisy Buchanan character in Gatsby. Weaving in the murder as yet one more inspiration would have been enough, but to hinge her entire work on that singular murderous event and subsequent investigation, news coverage and trial is tiresome.

Churchwell's exhaustive research uncovers previously unknown direct links between other events in Fitzgerald's life and Gatsby's development - she's done her homework - but the 1922 murder story ends up smothering her main literary investigation and earns this work 3 stars.
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A must for any fan of The Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald. A mix of genres including biography, history and literary criticism. I thought I knew just about everything concerning Fitzgerald and the writing of The Great Gatsby, this book proved me wrong. The author gives a detailed account of the year that The Great Gatsby is set along with a parallel story of a double murder case ala Devil in the White City. The author points out so many possible inspirations for characters and plot points, and while we may never know for sure if they influenced Fitzgerald it is irresistible to make the leap. Buy this book, the cover alone is worth the price of admission!
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There are so many books about F. Scott and Zelda. Therefore, some Fitzgerald's fans might say there's nothing new in Churchwell's book. But, CARELESS PEOPLE is much more fun to read. Churchwell gives a vivid picture of the couple and the Jazz Age. It reads like a novel.

The real life murder mystery which influenced The Great Gatsby adds an interesting flavor to understand the Jazz Age. Gossipy mass media's behavior tells us that we haven't changed very much since then.

Actually the word "mass media" was made in1923 according to Churchwell. I enjoy the list of this era's new terminology such as "cool", "wimp", "multi-purpose", and "power play". I didn't know that "market research" first appeared in 1920. It was a new and exciting era for marketing and advertisement, and Fitzgerald was aware of the power of self-branding. He was even ahead of contemporary authors. That's really "cool' !

Churchwell also successfully portrayed the Jazz Age. It's overall a very enjoyable read.
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I read many reviews heralding the author's credentials, and the impressive body of work, and the insightful detailed views into the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. But this is a quicksand book. You love the primary subject, you want it to become less tedious, less dreary. You want the frankly odd and juxtaposed murder mystery to become interesting or relevant. And slowly this book sucks you down and down. After about 50% of the way through, I hit bottom and skipped to the last 25 pages. Just to say I finished it.

I gave it two stars because here and there was an interesting tidbit of fact. But I've wasted time on this.. Not to mention $12. Don't waste yours too.
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