by Campbell Geeslin
Twenty-eight years after his death, The Complete Works of Primo Levi have been published as a three-volume collection. Ann Goldstein was the editor.
A trained chemist who joined the Italian partisan movement at 24 and survived a year in Auschwitz mainly because his skills ensured him indoor labor, Levi wrote about his experience after returning home to Turin in 1945.
“Levi earned world fame for the quiet, undramatic lucidity of If This Is a Man (his memoir of Auschwitz) and for the strangely moving blend of scientific fact and quicksilver fantasy in The Periodic Table (his autobiography),” wrote Edward Mendelson in a first-page review in the November 29 Times Book Review.
“Levi gave two different explanations of how he became a writer,” Mendelson said. “‘I write precisely because I am a chemist,’ he said once. He also said, ‘If I hadn't had the experience of Auschwitz, I probably would not have written anything.’”
DINNER GUESTS: Margaret Atwood's most recent book is The Heart Goes Last. Interviewed for the By the Book page of the Times Book Review, she recalled a dinner party she attended with E.L. Doctorow during a literary festival in Finland, “before the Iron Curtain fell down. The Russians were there in pairs—one real writer, one K.G.B. Günter Grass was there too. He thought I was either the secretary or the floozy, I'm not sure which. In those far-off days, such a mistake was moderately understandable."
ABOUT ME: Blake Morrison is the author of many books, including The Last Weekend. He wrote an essay in The Guardian: “Narcissism, they say is inscribed in the very word ‘memoir’: me-moi. But the genre has a long history: Ovid’s Amores, St. Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey [Confessions of an English Opium-Eater] and the American poets (Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, WD Snodgrass, John Berryman.) They became prominent in the 1950s and 60s and there has been no let-up over the past two decades.”
Morrison then cites contemporary memoirists Jeanette Witherson, Dave Eggers, Lorna Sage, AM Holmes, Tobias Wolff, “and the current doyen of life writing, Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of whom have contributed significantly to the genre.”
SMILE: Alice Gregory, a contributing editor at the Times Style Magazine, was a guest essayist for the Book Review’s Bookends column this week. The question posed was, "In an age of specialization, is it still possible to be a public intellectual?"
Gregory observed that public intellectuals are indeed rare these days, but that their place has largely been taken by comedians. “Jokes told in service of signaling a world view are our primary mode of commentary, and it makes sense that we now take our cues most readily from those who are best at it: Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Louis C. K., Hannibal Buress, Aziz Ansari…
"Good comedians aren’t furnishing their audiences with an escape hatch, nor are they offering it up as mere amusement. Humor gives them both permission and incentive to examine the world for its flaws, as well as a medium for reporting them back to us.
“Jokes bring pleasure that is intoxicating in a way that an argument almost never is. A joke forces you to agree with it. Or at least reckon with its truth by acknowledging that it made you smile. Laughter is pre-analyzed agreement.”
COOL: Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, took up the subject of words and catch phrases in an essay in The New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/opinion/why-cool-is-still-cool.html, asking why some “become popular while others die out and wither away.”
“The word ‘cool’ has been cool for a long time,” he wrote. “Originally associated with temperature, by the 18th century the term had evolved to describe not just the atmosphere, but also an internal state of calm, almost icy composure. And by the late 1800s it began to signify style and hipness and some of the other meanings with which it is associated today. Now cool is used as a synonym for almost anything good. Music can be cool and restaurants can be cool. Every so often even a minivan seems cool.”
NO HIDING: Robert Crais is the author of a bestselling novel, The Promise. Detective Elvis Cole, who has appeared in 16 of Crais’s 20 novels, is one of the author's best-known creations.
Another of Crais’s fictional characters, Sgt. Dominick Leland, is a more recent invention, closely based on a real police officer, Sgt. Michael Goosby, who Crais sought out while writing Suspect, about a former military dog that teams up with a detective. “I needed more research for that part of the book,” Crais told the Times's Brooke Barnes, “and when I came to observe and talk to the canine crew up here, Sergeant Goosby kind of became my babysitter.”
Goosby, the chief dog trainer for the Los Angeles Police Department, proved so interesting that Crais wrote him into Suspect, as Sgt. Leland, and again into The Promise.
Barnes tracked Goosby down for an interview. "His unit’s motto is stitched on the front of his jacket: 'You can run, but you can’t hide,'" Barnes wrote, and he answered the reporter's first question, "'Why dogs?' by quoting Hemingway: ‘There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.’
“It’s the thrill of the hunt, man,” Goosby told Barnes. “To hunt for someone who thinks they might still get away? That’s adrenaline.”
CRITIC: The Man With the Golden Typewriter is a collection of letters by Ian Fleming, edited by his nephew Fergus Fleming.
The author was a critic of his bestselling James Bond novels: “Probably the fault of my books is that I don’t take them seriously enough and merely accept having my head ragged off about them. If one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond. . . . my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.”
The quote is from a letter Ian Fleming wrote to his friend and fellow crime writer Raymond Chandler in 1956.
THE REAL: Vendela Vide is the author of five books. In an Author’s Note essay in Sunday's Times Book Review, she wrote: “When something extraordinary happens, we often say it’s stranger than fiction. But reality routinely, every minute of every day, outdoes all realist fiction in its strangeness. Recently two women working on the same floor of a Florida hospital discovered they were sisters (they had been adopted by different families in the 1970s). We read this item in the newspaper and accept it as astonishing, but real. The same occurrence in a realist novel, though, would be called unlikely or unbelievable. We’ve arrived at a point where not only is reality stranger than fiction, but we don’t allow our fiction to be even close to how strange real life is every day.”
BOOK BOOSTERS: If you can't think of a book to give someone this season you can't blame it on The New York Times. On Thanksgiving day, the Times devoted half a page to coffee-table picture books about New York City architecture, from The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building (the “Dowager Queen Mother of apartment houses”) to Andy Warhol’s house, included in Unforgotten New York: Legendary Spaces of the 20th-Century Avant-Garde.
On Black Friday, books dominated the paper's annual Holiday Gift Guide, recommendations for fiction, poetry, gorgeously illustrated art books and a full half page dedicated to graphic novels. “Because superheroes have become the default assumption when it comes to comics,” wrote Dana Jennings in an intro to the section, “it’s easy to forget that the graphic novel is a medium and not a genre. The books here explore and extend the range of what comics can do, from tender autobiography to fairy tales, from nuanced short stories to Arthurian legend. So set aside your preconceptions. There’s nary a steroidal cape in sight.”
The first book listed is The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden, a cancer memoir that the author calls a "dramatic comedy."