by Campbell Geeslin
Margo Jefferson is a former critic at large for The New York Times, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995 and a professor of writing at Columbia University. Her latest book is Negroland, a memoir of growing up in a family of color and privilege in Chicago, where her father was the head of pediatrics at the country's oldest black hospital, the motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment” and children were warned to not “tell your secrets to strangers.”
Jefferson has not entirely forsaken reticence. “I think it’s too easy to recount your unhappy memories when you write about yourself,” she writes. “You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief.”
And yet, Times reviewer Dwight Garner notes, “she gets a lot said about her life, the insults she has weathered, her insecurities, even her suicidal impulses. There’s sinew and grace in the way she plays with memory, dodging here and burning there, like a photographer in a darkroom.”
BRONX KID: Don DeLillo will receive the National Book Award for lifetime achievement and a citation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at a ceremony in November. He told the Associated Press, “The kid from the Bronx is still crouching in a corner of my mind.” His novels include White Noise, Underworld, and Falling Man.
“The novel as a form continues to provoke innovation on the part of younger writers," he told the Associated Press. "It’s true that some of us become better writers by living long enough. But this is also how we become worse writers. The trick is to die in between.”
ABOUT CRITICS: Charles McGrath, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review and a regular critic these days, addressed the question “Is Everyone Qualified to be a Critic?” in the paper’s Bookend column. “In deciding which critics are worth attending to, literary critics especially, we can at least insist on readability—on clearness of expression, some stylishness, and even a sense of humor. Criticism may be a minor art, but it’s an art all the same, and critical writing ought to be pleasing in itself and not just piggyback on whatever work it’s discussing.”
NEEDS: Jonathan I. Levy is the author of the bestselling Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (2012). A tenured history professor at Princeton, he has defected to the University of Chicago, where he did his graduate work. The Chronicle of Higher Education said that Chicago’s interdisciplinary workshop series helped win him over.
“History needs economics,” Levy said. “But as economics moved toward math and models that didn’t account for historical change, it became clear that “economics needs history, too.”
NEW JONG: “Two words have vexed Erica Jong for the last 42 years,” Alexandra Alter wrote in The New York Times. “The first is ‘zipless’ and the word that follows is not printable in this newspaper.” Fear of Flying was published 42 years ago and has sold more than 27 million copies.
Jong is the author of a new book, Fear of Dying, out this week. In addition, she has published three memoirs, six collections of poetry and eight other novels. She told Alter, “Fear of Flying follows me everywhere.”
The September 13 Times Book Review ran some Jong quotes: “I consider plastic surgery as mandatory as leg waxing”; “half of motherhood is shutting up,” and “There’s almost nothing a new dress can’t solve. Until the bill comes.”
Asked what her ideal book club would be like, Kaling said: “Sunday afternoons. Dress Code: warm-weather black tie. Cocktails from 3 to 3:30. Chitchat from 3:30 to 4. Personal drama from 4 to 5. Book discussion from 5 to 5:30. Early dinner from 5:30 to 7. Then everyone goes home.”
JUST X: The title of Sue Grafton’s 24th mystery in the alphabet series she launched with A is for Alibi in 1982, could have been something like X Marks the Target or Xmas Turns Deadly. But she chose to depart from the formula and called it just X. Is there some hidden meaning?
The year is 1989 and the tech onslaught is underway but private detective Kinsey Millhone has no use for computers. Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio notes that X has several villains “who can slip under the radar during a computer search but would never get past Kinsey if she can just sit them down and look them in the eyes.”
SHE SELLS: Nine of Joan Didion’s books have been bestsellers. Now Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Didion, The Last Love Song, is a bestseller too.
In a review of Daugherty’s book in the Times Sunday, Sasha Weiss wrote: “Style is how [Didion] makes herself available to us: by allowing us to borrow her extraordinary vision, by communicating it in an American speech that is really a melody—a sturdy and beautiful folk song. She sings to us—songs of warning, songs of political deception, songs of mourning. These are the songs of herself. Why demand something more?”
Those numbers have gotten a boost from Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World, which has 600,000 copies in print. Who Was?, a bio series, has more than 20 million copies in print.
At Scholastic, in-print figures for the four Minecraft handbooks and the Blockopedia compendium exceed 1.75 million.
“No one taught me more about how to be a doctor than Oliver Sacks,” Gawande wrote, recalling his first encounter with Sacks's approach to medicine in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. "He told, simply, of a few patients he had seen, and their unusual neurological conditions. But he did so with the sort of inquisitiveness and observational power that I, as a young doctor-to-be, could not help but want to emulate. He captured both the medical and the human drama of illness, and the task of the clinician observing it.”
Gawande's essay was directly followed by one Sacks wrote very near the end, about the comfort of gefilte fish.
BIG SELLERS: Dav Pilkey's latest Captain Underpants—12th in his hugely popular picture-book series for middle-schoolers—includes a glimpse of his fourth-grade heroes George Beard and Harold Hutchins as “old people.”
“Soon, everyone had gathered together in Old George’s studio. Old George, his wife, and their kids, Meena and Nik, sat on the couch, while old Harold, his husband, and their twins, Owen and Kei, plopped down in the giant beanbag chair."
Then it's right back to fourth grade.
The Captain Underpants books have sold more than 70 million copies worldwide.
SELECTION: John McPhee has a long article called “The Writing Life: Omission” in the September 14 New Yorker. He wrote, “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to chose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out.…Write on subjects on which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.”
TRUTH: Ransom Riggs is the author of Library of Souls, to be published this month. In an admiring review of Brian Selznick’s 600-page children's book, The Marvels, in Sunday’s Times Book Review, he asked: “Do true stories ‘matter’ more than invented ones?”
“Fiction isn’t false, but a container of encrypted truths: autobiographical ones, sometimes, and in very good stories, emotional and universal ones too—the sort of truth facts aren’t much good at reaching. Fiction is often better at the truth than facts, and that’s the marvel of it. You either see it or you don’t.”