by Campbell Geeslin
Judith Thurman is a staff writer for The New Yorker. In the November 16 issue she wrote about Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, who were married for 52 years: “She was his first reader, his agent, his typist, his archivist, his translator, his dresser, his money manager, his mouthpiece, his muse, his teaching assistant, his driver, his bodyguard (she carried a pistol in her handbag), the mother of his child, and, after he died, the implacable guardian of his legacy.”
Thurman said that the luckiest writers are those married to “a Véra,” a spouse of either sex who liberates them from life’s mundane chores; “the less fortunate long for a Véra between loads at the laundromat. There is also the option of a paid Véra for writers of means—or of scruples.”
AN EXCEPTIONAL OBJECT: David Campany is the author of The Open Road, an illustrated celebration of the American road trip and now winner of the Alice Award, which recognizes the "well-made illustrated book" as "an essential document of a civilized society."
Campany is quoted in Sunday's New York Times Book Review: “To be worthwhile, a book now has to be an exceptional object. It seems there are plenty of publishers who are stepping up to the challenge. The Internet hasn’t killed printed matter, but it has redefined it. I welcome that.”
QUESTIONS: “Is it heroism if a dog risks its life to save humans?” children’s book columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon asked in The Wall Street Journal. “Or is the animal simply doing what it must, according to its instinct and training? Perhaps it all amounts to the same thing, that mingling of valor, determination and resourcefulness that gives us the word ‘doggedness.’”
Gurdon was writing about The Tale of Rescue by Michael Rosen, a book for children 10 and older.
ON FAILURE: Garth Greenwell is the author of a first novel, What Belongs to You. It is due out in January. In an essay in PW, he wrote: “So much of making art is the courting or indulgence of failure, of trying to make something you’re not sure can be made, of knowing that whatever you make will fall short of your vision for it. I hope so much that my novel will be a success, whatever that means. I also know that, where art is concerned, success can only ever be a distraction from failure.”
BIG AWARD: A total of 160 novels from 44 countries have been nominated for the 2016 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Forty-four of them are by American authors. The Dublin's $108,000 award is the most lucrative literary prize for a single work. Among the nominees are A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Silkworm by J.K. Rowling, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
ON BIOS: Scott Donaldson is the author of eight biographies of writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish and John Cheever. He has now written a book about the challenges and pitfalls of his trade, The Impossible Craft: The Literary Biography. The book was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal by Carl Rollyson, whose most recent book is a biography of the actor Walter Brennan.
“Literary biography is a thankless task if not quite impossible,” Rollyson writes, though “In spite of his book’s title, Mr. Donaldson believes that there are ways of ameliorating virtually every shortcoming of literary biography." Donaldson parses his topic topically, with short chapters— Becoming a Biographer, Writers as Subjects, Ethical Issues, The Mythical Ideal Biographer—and case studies, and confesses his own mistakes as a biographer along the way, as well as the reason he has persisted. He credits Malcolm Cowley for showing him that biography is “the best way to get beyond the restrictiveness of literary criticism and discover the origins of the literature that great writers produce.”
ME, ME, ME: Is the word “me” in the title all you need to get a book on the bestseller list? Nicholas Sparks is near the top with See Me. Auggie & Me is the title of R. J. Palacio’s book of stories. Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? is a book of essays.
CROWDED SHELF: “The marketplace for books about World War II becomes more crowded every year,” wrote Fredrick Taylor in The Wall Street Journal. “In consequence, there is an understandable trend toward scouring the details of the war for new, or new-seeming, themes, concentrating on the historical microcosm and hoping to spin a fresh yarn about it. Of course, for the bolder historian there is an alternative to head the other way, toward the macrocosm and make your mark there.”
Taylor, whose Coventry: November 14, 1940, is out this month, was reviewing The Rise of Germany by James Holland.
REMEMBERING A WRITER: Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clorice Lispector. In response to the Times's Sunday Book Review's weekly Bookends question—“Do we romanticize writers who die young?”—he wrote:
“There is something grotesque about finding romance in drug abuse or car crashes, or venereal disease. Far better to admire the writer’s real talent: for getting up every morning, going back to the desk, keeping at it, not dying. Writers, like anyone else, never lack for reasons to give up. And if we remember a writer, it should not be for his death—for what he might have been—but for what he was, for what he managed to become.”
PERIODS, ETC.: “Picture the scene,” writes Keith Houston in The Wall Street Journal. “An Anglo-Saxon monk is hunched over his desk, copying a manuscript character by character by painstaking character. It’s a tedious, unrelenting task to decipher the unspaced, uncapitalized, under punctuated text, made worse by the fact that the Latin before him is little better than an archaic, half-remembered second language.”
The book under review is Making a Point by David Crystal. It’s a history of punctuation, “sprinting from eighth-century Britain to the modern world in less than 100 pages.”
LIFE CHANGER: Rick Moody’s new novel, Hotels of North America, is due out this month. The editors of the AARP magazine’s October/November issue asked him to name a “book that changed his life.”
Moody wrote about The Stories of John Cheever: “The Stories is the moral imperative of storytelling itself, how storytelling is the conscience of humankind. It’s a riveting argument that [Cheever] demonstrates in his entertaining tales.”
WITH BAGGAGE: Susan Cox’s first novel is The Man on the Washing Machine, out in December.
In a PW interview, she said that the book began as project for her masters thesis. "I thought of writing about a woman who flees a troubled history only to be entangled in new and far more dangerous secrets in the city she hoped would be her safe haven. . . I wanted to write about a San Francisco murder mystery . . . I learned quickly in San Francisco that everyone comes with baggage and nobody cares.”
WHERE WE ARE: Not much has changed in the sci-fi world, according to columnist Tom Shippey in The Wall Street Journal. It’s the year 2066. “Nothing apocalyptic, no plagues, no nuclear exchanges. Even in space, people are still just puttering around fixing satellites.
“What could disturb this peaceful scenario? That grand old sci-fi theme, First Contact. A starship enters the solar system, docks around Saturn, then leaves. Is it a threat? An opportunity? A nation that acquires starship technology will surely dominate the world.”
The book under review was Saturn’s Run by John Sanford and Ctein.
POEM FOUND: The Bodleian Libraries at Oxford has acquired a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley during his first year at the university and has been placed on display.
The poem was published in an 1881 pamphlet titled “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things.” The New York Times said the pamphlet became the 12 millionth book in the Bodleian collection.
In 1811, after he published a book on atheism, Shelley was expelled from Oxford.
FOR DAUGHTERS: Robert Beatty, a former tech entrepreneur, is the author of Serafina and the Black Cloak for middle graders. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, N.C., with his wife and children. The New York Times said the book is set in 1899, when “children go missing at a sumptuous Vanderbilt estate.”
On his website, Beatty said: “Serafina’s journey grew out of my desire to write about an unusual and heroic young girl for my three daughters.”