Robert Weibezahl

Some 50 years ago, Edna O’Brien shook up preconceptions about the inner lives of Irish women with searing, lyrical fiction that spoke the truth about sexual yearning, moral repression, insidious abuse and symptoms of depression long shrugged off as chronic melancholy. Much has changed in Ireland since then, yet the sharply unapologetic stories in Louise Kennedy’s accomplished collection The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac tap into the same vein of quiet despair. 

These 15 perceptive stories center largely on women confined by their circumstances, futilely grasping at elusive happiness. The very title of the opening story, which lends its name to the collection, sets the tone as a young woman, abandoned by her crooked husband, languishes like a prisoner in a newly built house that will soon be repossessed. Many of the situations that launch these stories are heartbreaking: A young mother internalizes feelings of anxiety and guilt over her developmentally challenged child (“Brittle Things”); a middle-aged woman watches her marriage wither after she and her husband agree to terminate a pregnancy (“Garland Sunday”). 

Kennedy’s has a notable gift for infusing even fraught scenarios with a jaundiced Irish humor. The old friends who travel to Tunisia for an ill-conceived girls’ holiday in “Beyond Carthage” are savagely drawn bundles of human imperfection. In “Powder,” an awkward tentativeness is palpable between a young woman whose boyfriend has died and his grieving American mother as they drive through the west of Ireland scattering his ashes. One of the most penetrating stories, “In Silhouette,” harkens back to the troubles in Northern Ireland, as a ghost haunts the sister of the man who killed him. The troubles, of course, formed the backdrop of Kennedy’s well-received debut novel, Trespasses, which brought wide recognition to her as a writer in her 50s sharing her voice for the first time. The stories in The End of the World is a Cul de Sac reflect the formative experience of living through years of conflict, and confirm her place as a trenchant, keen observer of the violence and turmoil that live inside. 

The sharply unapologetic stories in Louise Kennedy’s accomplished collection confirm her place as a trenchant, keen observer of the violence and turmoil that live inside.

Most art thefts are simply for financial gain. The thieves, often opportunistic crooks and rarely art connoisseurs themselves, view their stolen masterworks as loot to be fenced. Stéphane Breitwieser is different. Growing up in the Alsace region of France, he fell in love with art and artifacts under his grandfather’s tutelage, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had begun to steal compulsively from museums, auction houses and even churches. In eight years, often aided by his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine, he filched more than 300 irreplaceable works—including small oil paintings, silver chalices, ivory sculptures, tapestries and a historic bugle—estimated to be worth billions. When he was ultimately caught, Breitwieser said his sole motivation for stealing was to surround himself with beauty. He never sold anything he procured but instead displayed it all in a cramped attic room he and Anne-Catherine occupied in his mother’s house.

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by journalist Michael Finkel is a fascinating account of Breitwieser’s crime spree that attempts to understand the mind of this criminal aesthete. This proves a herculean task, since Breitwieser’s singular condition has defied clear-cut diagnosis by a passel of mental health experts, but Finkel’s re-creation of the thief’s nefarious activities is nonetheless a riveting ride. As the only American journalist who was granted interviews with Breitwieser, Finkel spent some 40 hours with him, even accompanying the now ex-con on visits to some of the museums and churches from which he once stole. From this personally reported material, as well as other interviews and documentation, Finkel has fashioned an engrossing true crime narrative—mostly told in present-tense prose to heighten the drama—that takes readers along on Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine’s daring robberies, quite often carried out in plain sight. 

The Breitwieser whom Finkel deftly portrays is a social misfit, a virtuoso of stealth, an inveterate moocher and, most of all, a self-deluded hero. (He claims he is protecting and preserving the art by stealing it.) Anne-Catherine seems a complicit accomplice—a lovestruck Bonnie to her cultured Clyde—until Breitwieser is caught and the tables turn. Breitwieser’s enabling, much-in-denial mother, meanwhile, alters the course of events in a way that will shock and disturb art and history lovers. Obsessive crime, dangerous beauty, ill-fated love: The Art Thief is the stuff of noir fiction, made all the more compelling and audacious for its authenticity.

Stéphane Breitwieser stole more than 300 irreplaceable artworks. Journalist Michael Finkel now attempts to understand why this criminal aesthete hoarded those treasures in his attic.

Patti Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life is the first comprehensive biography of the great American playwright, who died 18 years ago at the age of 60. Hartigan, a theater critic and arts reporter who knew Wilson professionally, has done her homework in parsing Wilson’s complicated story from many layers of half-truths and myths, some of which were propagated by the legendary raconteur himself during his lifetime. The result is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.

An autodidact who learned to read by age 4, Wilson was born Freddy Kittel and grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the largely Black neighborhood that he would immortalize in his plays. Wilson’s father was white—and for complex psychological reasons still left largely unexplored in this book, Wilson spent his life convinced he had a different white father than his siblings. However, Wilson identified exclusively as Black. His mother arranged the best education she could for her brilliant son, but he repeatedly faced skepticism and racism, and he never finished high school. Aspiring to be a poet, Wilson dove into the nascent Black arts scene in Pittsburgh, where his writing talents were put to use in local theater productions. Confident in his abilities and focused on his ambitions, he began sending unwieldy scripts to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

When he was finally accepted with what was at the time a four-and-a-half-hour version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson quickly took the theater world by storm. Just a few years later, he was on Broadway and had won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. The playwright, known for his powerful and poetic monologues, soon embarked on a daunting project: a 10-play cycle that would hold a mirror up to the experiences of Black people in 20th century America, decade by decade. He finished the last play just months before his premature death.

In her five-year-long excavation of August Wilson’s family history, Patti Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories the celebrated playwright created and the actual past he never fully knew. 

The man Hartigan profiles is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a generous, congenial companion who could at times seethe with rage; a lover of women who often gave them short shrift in his plays; a storytelling seer who made well-drawn specifics of the Black experience speak to audiences across racial barriers. August Wilson: A Life is a worthy and overdue first biography that will trigger new conversations about a magnificent playwright and the origins of his talent.

August Wilson: A Life is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.
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Patti Hartigan was a self-described “baby theater critic” when she met August Wilson in 1987. The two were chatting at the National Critics Institute at the famed O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and Wilson asked if Hartigan had seen his play Fences, which was then the talk of Broadway. “Being green and subsisting on a freelancer’s pitiful wages,” she recalls in her debut book, August Wilson: A Life, “I blurted out, ‘My mother saw it, but I can’t afford a ticket.’ The minute I said it, I wished I could take it back.” But the next day, Hartigan received a note that two tickets would be waiting for her at the box office.

This act of generosity toward a fledgling critic was emblematic of Wilson, Hartigan would discover. After landing at the Boston Globe as theater critic and arts reporter, she built a rapport with Wilson over the years, talking with him whenever he opened a play at the city’s Huntington Theatre. Then in January 2005, with Wilson poised to complete his monumental 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle—one play about Black life in America set in every decade in the 20th century—Hartigan flew to Seattle to interview him for a celebratory piece. Neither she nor Wilson yet knew that a fast-spreading cancer would lead to his death just a few months later. He managed to complete the final play, Radio Golf, under great physical and mental strain, and when he died in October 2005, the world mourned the loss of a voice that had changed the landscape of the American theater.

“He didn’t want to be the first. But certainly, in carving out room in American theater for Black playwrights . . . he paved the way.”

But “time passed and there was no biography,” Hartigan says in a video call. “I decided someone has to do this, and because I knew him, I decided to jump in.” The first-time biographer spent five years researching and writing August Wilson: A Life, an accomplished work that not only takes full measure of the playwright’s career but also delves into his childhood and ancestry to unearth a family history that Wilson himself did not fully know. Hartigan would even climb a mountain in Spear, North Carolina, where generations of Wilson’s strong-willed antecedents were born. Wilson himself never undertook that journey, saying that he wrote from “the blood’s memory” rather than doing research. Yet again and again, Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories he created and his family’s actual past.

Patti Hartigan

Wilson is largely associated with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, specifically its Hill District, where he set all but one play in his monumental cycle. The Hill is where his mother, Daisy, and others in the family settled during the Great Migration, and it’s where Wilson was born in 1945 and grew up. His singular intelligence was apparent from an early age, and Daisy made sure he was educated in the best parochial and public schools. But his intelligence could not shelter him from endemic racism, and after being belittled and undervalued at school, he dropped out at just 15. (Years later, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh awarded the autodidact a high school diploma, an honor he cherished alongside his two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards.)

Read our starred review of ‘August Wilson: A Life.’

Wilson’s earliest literary aspiration was as a poet, which Hartigan says is hardly surprising given the soaring poetry of his monologue-driven plays. His move into theater was both accidental and serendipitous, coinciding with the politically fueled Black literary movement of the 1970s, which played out in neighborhood theaters in Pittsburgh. Wilson was driven, and when he learned about the O’Neill Conference—arguably the preeminent play development opportunity available at the time—he began submitting a play each year. He was met with rejection after rejection until 1982, when he received the coveted telegram from artistic director Lloyd Richards. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had been selected.

Richards was perhaps the most influential Black theater maker of the age—he was the first African American to direct a play on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun—and “a presence like no other,” says Hartigan. He took Wilson under his wing and played a major role in the playwright’s progress. When asked if she thought there would have been an August Wilson without a Lloyd Richards, Hartigan admits there is no way of knowing, but probably not. “The two of them fed each other. August would come with a play that was four and a half hours long, and Lloyd could cut it down and streamline it and ask the right questions,” she says. “But the relationship was key for both men. Lloyd’s career had a resurgence when he began working with August.” The professional falling-out that came later, which Hartigan thoughtfully chronicles, was painful. “Both were right and both were wrong, and it’s a tragedy. Yet you can praise the relationship that was.”

Hartigan, clearly a great admirer of Wilson and his work, is nonetheless forthright in her appraisal of both. She does not shy away from portraying the playwright’s flaws as a man, a husband, a father. More than once she addresses the frequent observation that, with a few notable exceptions, Wilson’s female characters are weak. “I think the criticism is warranted,” she says. “Yet I’ve seen later productions where the women are painted in by just the direction [of the play]. So I think there might be a little more to the women [in Wilson’s plays] than we initially thought.”

The August Wilson Estate declined to grant permission to Hartigan to quote from his intimate letters or from some of his early writings, a decision she regrets because “paraphrasing just can’t do him justice.” Yet she manages to capture Wilson’s voice well. “He didn’t want to be exceptionalized,” she says. “He didn’t want to be the first. But certainly, in carving out room in American theater for Black playwrights—and the subject matter that he was able to bring to the stage—he paved the way.”

Patti Hartigan spent five years researching and writing August Wilson: A Life, an accomplished work that takes full measure of the playwright’s career and life.

Susie Boyt’s Loved and Missed is a disarmingly droll tragicomedy about imperfect motherhood and fractured families, generational trauma and the scars of addiction. Unexpected humor, subtle but honest, percolates through the matter-of-fact voice of its engaging narrator and main character. 

After the perceived failures that led to her daughter Eleanor’s downward spiral into lifelong drug dependence, 50-something schoolteacher Ruth seeks redemption through raising her granddaughter, Lily. The compact narrative—which nevertheless traverses 15 years—takes flight when the nomadic Eleanor agrees to meet Ruth on a gray Christmas day for a picnic, where Eleanor reveals she is going to have a child. Smash cut to Lily’s frenetic christening (the funniest scene in the book), with Ruth trying to rein in the chaos. She gives Eleanor and Lily’s father, Ben, who is also an addict, 4000 pounds as a ploy to convince them to let her take the baby home with her for a week.

Unsurprisingly, the new parents’ promises of baby purchases and educational savings accounts prove empty. After Ruth discovers a junkie’s corpse in Eleanor and Ben’s bedroom, she swiftly takes unofficial custody of Lily. A de facto mother again, Ruth throws herself into the task and bonds with Lily in ways she never managed with Eleanor. The quotidian story that unspools proves engrossing thanks to Ruth’s stream-of-consciousness musing and the occasional surprising revelation. We come to know Ruth and the other women in her life intimately, and it is their very ordinariness that makes the novel resonate. Eleanor enters the story only sparingly, typifying the pain and disconnect of having an addict in one’s family orbit.

Boyt is a well-established literary voice in Britain—she is the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund—yet Loved and Missed, her seventh novel, is the first book of hers other than her memoir, My Judy Garland Life, to be published in the U.S. With Loved and Missed, she proves herself a perceptive writer who invites readers in with a singular voice that both upends convention and cuts to the heart of the matter.

Unexpected humor percolates through the matter-of-fact voice of Loved and Missed’s engaging narrator and main character, Ruth, a 50-something schoolteacher raising her granddaughter, Lily.

The art of letter writing seems all but doomed in our age of digital communication, and one wonders where future literary biographers will turn for the singular insights that a writer’s correspondence affords. Scholars of John le Carré will have no such concerns. Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, who died in December 2020, was perhaps the most thoughtful and erudite purveyor of the spy novel in the second half of the 20th century, a crackerjack storyteller who elevated the thriller to literary heights. He was also a prolific correspondent, and in A Private Spy, Tim Cornwell has assembled a generous collection of his father’s letters spanning a lifetime.

Fans of le Carré’s fiction know the outline of his own story—how, when working for British intelligence, masquerading as a junior diplomat in postwar Germany, he began to publish espionage novels that precipitated the end of his budding career as a spy but rapidly brought him fame and unaccustomed wealth. The letters from this seminal period paint a portrait of an enthusiastic and ambitious young man not fully comfortable in his new garb. Some of that discomfort, we discern, stemmed from the lingering effects of an alienated childhood and his god-awful relationship with his huckster father, Ronnie, whose unwelcome presence, both real and psychic, hovers over much of le Carré’s early story. The letters also imply that another casualty of le Carré’s newfound success was his first marriage; but while Cornwell fills in gaps with helpful background commentary, the letters often skim the surface about this and other personal events. Not for nothing is the book called A Private Spy.

The sweep of le Carré’s formidable 60-year career resists easy encapsulation, but through these letters readers encounter a panoply of the interesting people he called his friends and colleagues: fellow MI6 agents; writers such as Graham Greene, Ian McEwan and Tom Stoppard; actors Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman, who each portrayed le Carré’s best-known recurring character, George Smiley. There are many insightful letters to his stepmother, Jean, another survivor of the Ronnie long game, that reveal le Carré as a man who often contributed to his family’s well-­being by assuming the roles of benefactor, confessor and substitute patriarch. Letters to publishing colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, while more formal than the personal missives, offer a window into a literary life pursued with meticulous and demanding professionalism.

“I hate the telephone. I can’t type. Like the tailor in my new novel, I ply my trade by hand,” le Carré once wrote. The engrossing letters in A Private Spy—curated with great affection and care by Cornwell, who sadly passed away in May 2022 before seeing the book published—are not unlike an exquisite bespoke suit crafted by a master: careful to both accentuate the assets and conceal the flaws.

The collected letters of John le Carré, master of the spy novel, reveal and conceal in equal measure.

Using the well-worn adjectives elusive and idiosyncratic to describe Haruki Murakami may be clichéd, but if ever a writer embodied these sobriquets, it is certainly the internationally beloved Japanese author. His fiction can be hard to classify—is it science fiction? dystopian? satire?—so it stands to reason that a nonfiction work wherein he shares his thoughts on writing would be equally hard to categorize. Novelist as a Vocation, part memoir and part informal advice guide, offers a glimpse into a personal life Murakami has long kept guarded. Originally published in Japanese in 2015, it has now been translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen into straightforward English prose that captures Murakami’s unadorned, conversational style and self-deprecating wit.

Murakami declares up front that he should be viewed as a regular man who happens to write hugely popular novels. “If I do say so myself, I’m the type of ordinary guy you’ll find anywhere,” he writes. “Not the type to stand out when I stroll around town, the type who’s always shown to the worst tables at restaurants. I doubt that if I didn’t write novels, anyone would ever have noticed me.” In his telling, his path to writing was accidental. While in his late 20s, working long days and nights running a jazz club, he went to a baseball game one day (jazz, baseball and running, we learn, are his three great passions) where he spontaneously decided to write a novel. In six months he produced Hear the Wind Sing, which went on to win a prestigious Japanese prize, launching his literary career.

Such fairy-tale serendipity, sadly, does not supply the magic formula aspiring writers might be seeking, but it does underscore the unpredictability of success. Murakami makes many good points, especially as he praises the welcoming embrace of the writing community, where novices can take up a pen or laptop and call themselves a writer without much resentment from established practitioners. But he is quick to emphasize that long-term durability as a writer is more challenging than that initial success, requiring not only discipline and luck but continuing inspiration and originality. 

Is Murakami’s claim at ordinariness genuine? Certainly, the everyday details he reveals in Novelist as a Vocation seem pretty conventional. Meanwhile, the advice he doles out to acolytes is—here’s that word again—idiosyncratic and highly personal, methods that work for him but probably won’t for everyone (which he would be the first to admit). But you don’t become an international literary superstar by being ordinary, no matter how “mundane” your daily life is. A deeper dive into Murakami’s singular mind would be devoured by his millions of readers, but one senses he is not willing to fully breach the wall of privacy he has carefully erected. Still, fans will come away from Novelist as a Vocation with a clearer idea of what makes this elusive writer tick.

Haruki Murakami’s collection of essays about his life and writing provides a tantalizing peek into the famously secretive writer’s world.

Comedy is rarely granted the same measure of literary recognition or respect as works that are tragic, epic or historic, so Andrew Sean Greer’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his comic novel, Less, was a welcome surprise. It didn’t hurt that the contemporary satire unapologetically skewered the literary community as it chronicled the midlife breakdown of “minor American writer” Arthur Less. Greer tapped his singular skill for blending multiple tropes to amusing effect: the life-in-crisis travelogue, the quirky gay love story, a mysterious Bronte-esque narrator whose identity is kept under wraps until the end of the book. (The snazzy red suit Greer wore to the Pulitzer Prize ceremony won him even more fans.)

As the title suggests, Greer’s new novel, Less Is Lost, is a sequel, picking up the misadventures (and misdirected travels) of the hapless Arthur Less. Arthur is facing both emotional and literal upheaval: His former lover and mentor, Robert Brownburn, has died, leaving a hole in his heart and revealing the startling fact that Arthur owes 10 years in back rent for the home where he believed he was living rent-free. Arthur has recently acquired an affectionate pug and a converted camper van from a much-lionized novelist with three initials in his name—so to stave off homelessness, he embarks in the camper van on a bizarre itinerary of marginally literary events that take him to, among other places, a hot springs retreat in the Arizona desert (which he proceeds to flood), the Navajo reservation, an antebellum plantation in Georgia and an island off the coast of Savannah where his long-estranged father is dying.

Enroute across the country, Arthur fields abrupt, stress-inducing phone calls from his fast-talking literary agent. As he discovers the America that lies between the coasts, he also sort of—though not too definitively—discovers things about himself, most of them having to do with our need for love and human connection. As with Less (but no longer a secret), the narrator is Arthur’s beloved partner, Freddy Pelu, who has a magical capacity for seeing into Arthur’s heart and soul in ways Arthur himself cannot. And Freddy, it turns out, proves a third-person narrator in the manner of Nick Carraway, discovering things about himself as he ostensibly serves as Arthur’s Alice B. Toklas. 

Greer writes with an offbeat, gentle humor, and his narrative, in the voice of the somewhat enigmatic Freddy, is peppered throughout with well-observed irony and occasional profundity. Arthur Less himself, no doubt, would be stymied at the prospect of following up the success of a Pulitzer, but Greer clearly is made of sterner stuff than his fictional creation. And if Less Is Lost lacks some of the snap of the prizewinner, it admirably transports eager readers into the world of Arthur and Freddy with tenderness and wit.

Less Is Lost, the companionable sequel to Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Less, traces a hapless writer’s further misadventures.

Soon after it was announced in October 2021 that Tanzanian British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize in literature, a New York Times headline asked, “Why Are His Books So Hard to Find?” Though Gurnah had received acclaim in Britain, including being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, his books had never sold well in the United States, and few American readers were familiar with his work. The Nobel, of course, changed that—not just in our country, where the handful of his novels that were in print in the U.S. quickly went out of stock, but around the world. The belated arrival on our shores of Gurnah’s 10th novel, Afterlives, is a full-fledged literary event—and rightfully so, for it is a captivating, engrossing and edifying work of fiction.

Set in what is now Tanzania during and after the First World War, Afterlives, like much of the Zanzibar-born writer’s work, excavates the colonial and postcolonial history of East Africa. Gurnah offers a rare glimpse into an often-overlooked period at the beginning of the 20th century when Germany flexed its imperial muscles in the region. The narrative takes a pretty quick sweep through the relatively brief history of Deutsch-Ostafrika, providing a backdrop for the masterful portraits Gurnah paints of arresting, interconnected characters. There’s Khalifa, a good-natured clerk whose father was Indian and mother was African, and his less good-natured wife, Bi Asha. When Khalifa’s friend Ilyas goes off to fight with the Germans during the war, the couple takes in his little sister, Afiya, who has endured brutality but remains fearless. There are also German soldiers and missionaries, wealthy and unscrupulous merchants, generous and churlish neighbors—a panoply of life.

Most of all, there is Hamza, one of nature’s pure of heart. The wanderings and fate of this princely young man, whose life trajectory provides the spine of the narrative, are comparable to those of a Dickens faux-naif, akin to some of literature’s greatest picaresque lives—albeit without the roguish aspects. Meanwhile, the persistent mystery of what has happened to Ilyas, revealed only in the final pages, pointedly underscores the fates of myriad displaced victims of colonialism and war, then and still.

In the deceptively gentle texture of its depiction of everyday life among seemingly inconsequential people (who, of course, are anything but), Afterlives may remind readers of the work of another African Nobelist: Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz. Yet Gurnah has his own incomparable, distinctive voice. He is a writer who wraps his anger at historical injustice in a misleading cloak, as his characters seem to acquiesce to the inevitable but repeatedly push against what history has prescribed for them. For the many readers coming to Gurnah’s novels for the first time, Afterlives seems the perfect introduction, supplying the impetus to explore much more of his work.

The engrossing new novel from Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah is filled with human compassion and historical insight.

Like his acolytes Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell is remembered today as much for his mental illness as for his remarkable poetry. This legacy is an understandable, if regrettable, consequence of our fascination with the tortured and tragic in art. By the mid-1950s, Lowell’s bipolar disorder had reached a crisis point. While committed to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, he began a therapeutic regimen that helped him attain a measure of equilibrium. One element of that therapy was a writing project, which Lowell continued over the next three years by working on an autobiography of his family roots and childhood. This narrative, unfinished and unpolished, composes the first part of Memoirs, a gathering of Lowell’s unpublished writings about his life, edited by Steve Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc.

For better or worse, Lowell could not escape his lineage, which dated back on both sides to the founding of New England. His dominant mother, Charlotte, put particular stock in this background, and when his father’s naval career dragged the family away from Boston, Charlotte was never silent about her dissatisfaction. Conversely, in Lowell’s words, his father was “a gentle, faithful and dim man.” That ruthless paternal appraisal comes from the second section of the writings collected in Memoirs, which the editors call “Crisis and Aftermath.” These pieces are anchored by an essay, “The Balanced Aquarium,” that recounts Lowell’s time at Payne Whitney. Written in the wake of his mother’s death, the essay also recalls the earlier circumstances of his father’s final days. Shifting seamlessly back and forth in time—to childhood, to the recent past and back to the time of his ancestors—Lowell attempts to make sense of these threads with customary biting observations wrapped in elegant phrases, as he watches the traffic far below the window of his hospital room.

Lowell, of course, mined this material a few years later in one of his finest (one might even say iconic) poetry collections, Life Studies, turning the anarchy of his mind into clear-cut verse. Indeed, the best approach to “My Autobiography,” “The Balanced Aquarium” and the other pieces here is perhaps to view them as dry runs for something far greater and enduring yet to come. These writings give us added glimpses into the life of a poet who made a new art form out of baring the soul, even while expertly keeping his words measured and precise. 

The final section of Memoirs collects short pieces Lowell wrote about poets he knew: Plath, Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ezra Pound and others. The often sordid specifics of his complicated marriages and romances are skirted, but those coals have been well raked elsewhere. Memoirs should not serve as an introduction to Lowell and his work as much as a supplement, inviting us to discover or revisit his peerless poems.

The writings collected in Memoirs give us glimpses into the life of Robert Lowell, a poet who made baring one’s soul into an art form.

Every childhood is unique, but Ada Calhoun’s, as portrayed in her fearless new memoir, Also a Poet, stands out for its blend of adolescent freedom and paternal neglect. The daughter of art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, Calhoun grew up at the vortex of New York City’s East Village bohemia, a world she wrote about in the history St. Marks Is Dead. Young Calhoun, eager and precocious, craved nothing more than the approbation of her father, a complicated, emotionally distant man famously given to saying the wrong thing—a trait from which his daughter was never spared. One piece of common ground that Calhoun and her father shared, however, was a love of the work of Frank O’Hara, the legendary New York School poet who died in a freak accident in 1966.

One day in 2018, Calhoun was searching for something in the basement storage of her parents’ apartment building when she found dozens of loose cassette tapes from the 1970s, labeled with the names of famous artists like Willem de Kooning, Edward Gorey and Larry Rivers. Her father said they were interviews he had conducted with O’Hara’s friends because he’d intended to write a biography of the poet. Circumstances—not least of all a roadblock erected by O’Hara’s sister, Maureen—had killed the project. Schjeldahl told his daughter she could use the interviews for her own purposes, and Calhoun envisioned a new biography of the iconic poet based on these priceless recollections. But the book took on a new shape as she proceeded—in part, again, because of the obstruction of Maureen, who serves as her brother’s literary executor.

As Calhoun began to delve into the interviews, short portions of which she shares in Also a Poet, she began piecing together a multifaceted portrait of O’Hara, greatly loved by friends who painted him as gregarious, whip-smart, generous, sexually fluid and happily promiscuous. (The latter two assessments are most likely at the core of his sister’s posthumous protectiveness.) But the interviews also provided Calhoun with insight into the interviewer: her father.

Frustrated by the ways Schjeldahl had sabotaged his own project, Calhoun plunged back into their often difficult father-daughter relationship with fresh eyes. Lifelong resentments resurfaced as she viewed her father with redoubled awareness. When the aging Schjeldahl, who had smoked three packs a day for decades, was diagnosed with lung cancer, his solipsistic reaction to his illness rankled Calhoun, even as she dutifully stepped in to help.

The unexpected convergence of the challenging O’Hara book project and her father’s sudden decline provide Calhoun with a singular perspective on the timeless issues of family relationships, most especially the vulnerabilities of following in a father’s eminent footsteps and the elusive possibility of ever fully understanding our parents. Calhoun’s honesty and willingness to push beyond her own resentments make Also a Poet a potent account of a daughter reaching out to a perhaps unreachable father before it’s too late.

Ada Calhoun’s literary biography of the poet Frank O’Hara unexpectedly transformed into an absorbing and insightful personal memoir about her father.

We tend to believe that some things get lost in translation, but perhaps, as Jhumpa Lahiri suggests in her absorbing new collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, some things are also gained. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and has subsequently enraptured readers with her penetrating novels and stories. She famously moved to Rome in 2015 and began writing in Italian, publishing in Italian and translating the work of Italian novelist Domenico Starnone into English.

This linguistically bifurcated existence has inspired much thought on the art of translation, which Lahiri says has always been a controversial literary form. The short essays she collects here—some written in English and some translated into English from Italian—explore her passion for translation, a subject she previously taught at Princeton. Yet interwoven with some of the more arcane nuts-and-bolts issues that face the literary translator are other things that Lahiri, as a writer of fiction, has learned from the process of rendering the words of other writers, as well as her own, into a new tongue. “Now that I have become a translator in addition to remaining a writer, I am struck by how many people regard what I am doing as ‘secondary’ and thus creatively inferior in nature,” she writes. “Readers who react with suspicion to a work in translation reinforce a perceived hierarchy in literature between an original work and its imitation.” Indeed, translators rarely even get recognition on a book’s jacket, or enduring recognition outside of academic circles. And yet, so much of the world’s literature would be inaccessible to us without their intensive work. Throughout these essays, Lahiri shows how painstaking and full of care the process of translation is.

Essays on translation might seem an unlikely conduit for a writer’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, but Lahiri is an engaging guide, and her pensive ruminations provide a window into her soul. In “Why Italian?” she ponders the longstanding connection that she, a woman who was already fluent in English and Bengali, felt to Italian even before learning it and why she was compelled to write in it. “Where I Find Myself,” fulfilling the clever double meaning of its title, examines how Lahiri finds new intentions when she translates her own work from Italian into English (something she long avoided doing but has now embraced), sometimes revising the original Italian in the process in a kind of reverse engineering that she compares to a tennis game. In a very moving afterword, “Translating Transformation,” she reconsiders her mother’s recent death through the prism of Ovid, whose masterwork she is currently co-translating. “In the face of death,” she writes, “the Metamorphoses had completely altered my perspective.”

Translating Myself and Others is a subtle yet ultimately engrossing work, somewhat academic at times, yet infused with the kind of understated, often startling capacity for observation that has always been Lahiri’s literary superpower.

Master storyteller Jhumpa Lahiri spins thoughtful and personal essays on the unsung art of literary translation.

Much of Kim Stanley Robinson’s prodigious science fiction has ecological underpinnings—so it comes as no surprise that the oft-decorated writer has a real-life passion for wilderness. More specifically, Robinson loves the Sierra Nevada, the geological backbone of California, where he has lived most of his life. In The High Sierra, a capacious and truly original work of nonfiction, Robinson expresses his enduring appreciation for these mountains and the time he has spent there. A mashup of travelogue, geology lesson, hiking guide, history and meditation, all wrapped in a revealing and personal memoir (and illustrated with scores of gorgeous color photographs and illustrations), the book is, in essence, an exuberant celebration of finding purpose in nature.

The Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning writer first visited the Sierra as a college student almost 50 years ago, and since then he has made more than a hundred return visits, spending untold hours in its eternal landscape. There have been group excursions and solo treks in every season. In his hippie days, he even enhanced the mountain high by dropping acid. Accounts of these experiences, sometimes risky, sometimes funny, but always deeply meaningful, give shape to Robinson’s larger narrative. The memories are intercut and augmented by chapters delineated by categories such as geology, Sierra people, routes and moments of being. These disparate chapters coalesce into a surprisingly seamless narrative that conveys the full measure of Robinson’s deep affection for the place and its past, as well as its significance to him personally.

Robinson’s writing is companionable and welcoming, never dry or preachy, as any field guide worth its salt should be. There is unconventional humor—he classifies place names as the good, the bad and the ugly, for instance, and his chapters on fish, frogs and bighorn sheep are all grouped under “Sierra People”—but cases of appalling human behaviors, past and present, are never glossed over.

Robinson introduces the usual suspects in the history of the Sierra—John Muir, Clarence King—but devotes equal attention to less familiar faces. He taps into the work of other Sierra-loving writers, too, including early feminist Mary Austin and the poet Gary Snyder, who is Robinson’s friend and mentor. He even shares some of his own youthful, heartfelt poetry, composed amid the elation of the mountain terrain.

Although Robinson’s mountaineering focus is the Sierra, he does take readers on brief forays into the Swiss Alps (including an account of his ascent of the Matterhorn). But The High Sierra should not be narrowly viewed as a book only for the die-hard outdoorsperson. Robinson’s greater project, at which he succeeds splendidly, is to share the magic of his personal happy place, to promote not only its admiration but also its preservation. When asked why this is a lifelong project of his, Robinson says there is no satisfactory answer, except to pose a question of his own: Why live?

The venerable sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson shares his lifelong devotion to hiking the high Sierra in a kaleidoscopic love letter to a majestic landscape.

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