The next few months will bring two books inspired by the life and work of a long-dead French essayist. The first is a straight biography: in How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press), Sarah Blackwell takes on the literary giant's major question—How to live?—and answers it in 20 different ways based on his work.
Well educated and wealthy, Montaigne retired from society for a long period following the deaths of a daughter (one of six), his brother, his father and a close friend. It was then that he composed his essays in an attempt to understand himself and the world. The witty, intelligent writings had instant appeal and are full of quotable quotes that are still familiar today, such as the title of the second Montaigne biography, When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know that She Is Not Playing With Me? (Pantheon), coming in March.
Have you read Montaigne? Are you interested?
The Long Journey Home (Spiegel & Grau) hits bookstores on March 1, 2011, and early buzz is Robison's story is compelling and well-told. The author, who has been wheelchair-bound since suffering a stroke in 1989, has been largely quiet about her sons' writings, saying only that she doesn't always agree with their portrayals of their early lives, and "I've had to forgive myself for many things."
It's well known that Robison had her own psychological troubles during her sons' childhoods—she attempted suicide and endured at least one abusive relationship.
Will she tell all in the memoir? Will you read it?
Hanna Rosin is one of my favorite contributors to Slate and The Atlantic (her piece titled "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" made waves). She's also an author; her book God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2007.
This month, she has a story in The Atlantic about the unprecedented role reversal of genders taking place in the United States—women are earning larger percentages of their family income, gaining more college degrees and are better positioned for success in fields that will grow in the coming years. Rosin will now turn the article into a book.
To be published by Riverhead in spring 2012, the book will examine "the upended state of gender roles and relations that seems to be putting women on top and leaving men in the dust—in education, work, money, health, home—and in the process radically reshaping cultural and political dynamics."
Like the article in The Atlantic, Rosin's book will be titled The End of Men. According to Publisher's Marketplace, it's "in the tradition of The Feminine Mystique, Backlash, The Beauty Myth and The Second Shift.
Does this sound like something you'd like to read? I enjoyed Gail Collins' 2009 book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present [read my interview with Collins about the book here], and it seems that Rosin's book might be an appropriate follow-up. Or, if Rosin's article makes you worry about your sons, Richard Whitmire's new book Why Boys Fail might be of interest!
In other news, if you read this blog you know BookPage editors have been reading, discussing and recommending Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut. Rosin recently posted a note from Adam Ross on Slate blog XXFactor; he is responding to Rosin's comment that Mr. Peanut is about "men who obsessively fantasize about killing their wives as their only form of escape." The letter is worth a read, and I look forward to Slate's DoubleX book club podcast of the novel (coming this month).
Novelist Andre Dubus has hit the bestseller list, been a National Book Award finalist and had one of his novels selected for Oprah's book club. But even this talented writer has had projects that ended in failure: In a 2008 BookPage interview, Dubus told us that he had been working on an autobiographical novel, but kept throwing away drafts. "Terrible, man. It was just so bad," he said. "So I think I've decided I'm not one of those fiction writers who can write from my life. It's like calling a dog. Maybe the dog just doesn't want to come."
But memoir? That, apparently, clicked: Townie (Norton) will be published on February 28, 2011. From the publisher's catalog:
After their parents divorced in the 1970s, Andre Dubus III and his three siblings grew up with their exhausted working mother in a depressed Massachusetts mill town saturated with drugs and crime. To protect himself and those he loved from street violence, Andre learned to use his fists so well that he was even scared of himself. He was on a fast track to getting killed—or killing someone else—or to beatings-for-pay as a boxer.
Nearby, his father, an eminent author, taught on a college campus and took the kids out on Sundays. The clash of worlds couldn't have been more stark—or more difficult for a son to communicate to a father. Only by becoming a writer himself could Andre begin to bridge the abyss and save himself. His memoir is a riveting, visceral, profound meditation on physical violence and the failures and triumphs of love.
Are you influenced by blurbs? (Lynn is. . . on very rare occasions.)
At first glance, Gordon Grice's Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals didn't sound like my cup of tea. But then I read David Sedaris's cover blurb—mostly because I thought it was strange for David Sedaris to be blurbing a book about dangerous animals:
“Did he say repugnatorial gland? What a wealth of information Gordon Grice is, and what a fine, beguiling writer. This book is a must for anyone even remotely thinking of getting a monkey, a sea lion, or, heaven forbid, a dog.”
By the way, I will definitely be picking up Deadly Kingdom after reading Grice's behind-the-book essay for BookPage. I love the part where he explains his unusual research: "I stuck my arm into the flensed skull of an alligator to see how it felt. I searched for the black bear my neighbor spotted on her morning jog. I read things in medical reports I'd rather forget, and I learned all over again how gorgeous even the humblest animals can be."
Deadly Kingdom is out this week—will you pick it up?
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Houghton Mifflin, April 20, 2010
Debra's obsessions with preservation and perfection have become her identity. She is "the keeper of magazines." If she were to stop colecting or to get rid of them, her sense of self would be lost. When I asked her about this, she said, "To stop would make all those years a waste of my life. It would make my existence invalid." At the same time she realized the cost. "This has ruined me, " she said. "I'm smart and creative, and I could have been happy. But I'm not anything. I have done nothing. I'm collecting life without living it."
On May 25, the winner of the Audio of the Year will be announced at the Audies Gala. Three finalists were chosen for their "excellence in production as well as by their ability to create new interest in the audiobook format through creative and innovative publicity and marketing." The three nominees are all worthy, but Patrick Swayze's memoir, The Time of My Life perhaps has the most poignant behind-the-scenes story. Producer Elisa Shokoff worked with Swayze on the recording during the last days of his life. Here's what she had to say about the experience.
Only a few days before Patrick's 57th birthday in late August, during what was the last month of his life, we began recording the audio version of his memoir. Although the recording became Patrick's final work, and we carried it out under the most unusual & difficult circumstances, it unfolded in the most usual way for Patrick. His well-known passion, intelligence and quest for perfection never dimmed. He was determined to finish the reading with his high standards intact. That determination informed everything we did. It was an exhilarating time.
We set up our equipment in his beloved music studio at the ranch he shared with Lisa Niemi on the edge of the Angeles National Forest in the San Fernando Valley. In the 10 x 12 studio were Patrick, sometimes Lisa, recording engineers Steven Strassman & Matt Cartsonis, two large (often sleeping & snoring) dogs--Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy Kuma & Standard Poodle Lucas, and me.
Together, we would begin at dusk and work late into the night. Before, in-between and after recording, it was clear that Patrick was gravely ill and in terrible pain. But when he was actually reading, the weight of his illness seemed to lift and it was easy to forget that he was even sick. A wonderful, kind, cowboy-storyteller emerged; full of life and humor and a heightened compassion. The resulting audiobook is a testament to the great and graceful performer that he was.
Read more about audiobooks in our monthly column.
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
St. Martin's, July 20, 2010
And I'm so glad I did. Delhi is an engrossing book, by turns romantic and down-to-earth. It takes the form of a travelogue: Miller sets out to walk through Delhi in a spiral, slowly moving out from the city's center at Connaught Place, and recording his impressions and encounters along the way. Miller is an appealing travel guide; a white Englishman married to an Indian woman from Mumbai, he's lived in India long enough to take the country's eccentricities in stride, but he's still enough of an outsider that he makes the reader feel they are discovering the city along with him. Delhi is a fascinating city with a long history and a rapidly approaching future, and Miller's many asides, footnotes and "intermissions" are as enlightening (and entertaining) as the journey itself.
Hidden away behind the construction site . . . is Agarsen's Baoli, central Delhi's oldest building. Six thousand years old, and built by the uncle of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, according to its watchman. A mere seven hundred years old, according to historians. Agarsen was probably a thirteenth-century chieftain and a baoli is a rectangular step-well. Through a padlocked gate opened by a taciturn, bidi-smoking watchman, I climb up onto a large plinth from where one hundred stone steps lead down to the bottom of the well.
Although this is only my second visit, it is a view I have seen many times before, thanks to a Delhi photographer called Raghu Rai, with a Cartier-Bresson-like instinct for the decisive moment. In a photograph taken in 1976, a young boy is caught at the moment of launching himself from a wall into the waters of the baoli, a dive of at least twelve feet. Above loom some of the newly constructed high-rises of Tolstoy Marg and Barakhamba Road, but beneath is the ancient step-well. I ask the watchman if he has seen the photograph, and he stuns me by saying that he, Bagh Singh, grizzled and grey-haired, was that diving boy. He sends a young girl off to get a copy of the picture he has cut from a magazine and gets me to photograph him holding it. In the thirty years in which Bagh Singh has aged so rapidly, the water level at Agarsen's Baoli has fallen by twenty feet. A shortage of water is one of the biggest problems facing Delhi today.
The fall publishing season usually contains at least one blockbuster celeb bio. On the radar for 2010 is Keith Richards' Life, which will be released in October. Little Brown publisher Michael Pietsch calls it "the most exciting memoir I’ve ever had a hand in." He goes on to say
All those encounters and adventures we’ve heard of for decades—Redlands, Morocco, exile in France, Altamont—and the people—Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Gram Parsons, Patti Hansen, Johnny Depp and more—are here in Keith’s own vivid memories. The best news of all is how superbly written this book is. [Richards collaborated with writer James Fox.]
If you had to guess which president was being described in those words . . . would you guess George Washington?
Maybe not, but the real man, not the legend, is who Ron Chernow is said to describe in Washington, out on October 5. Though this is also the angle Joseph Ellis took in 2004's His Excellency, Penguin representatives say that Washington is both a "landmark biography" and a "fabulous read." Since, like Ellis, Chernow is one of America's foremost biographers—he won the National Book Award in 1990 for The House of Morgan, his first book—this is likely. But given the high, high volume of "Founding Fathers" biographies published in the last few years, is there anything new to say about Washington? We'll find out when the galleys arrive . . .