Robert Weibezahl

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.

John Keats exists in many minds as an effete, epigraphic nature lover (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) rather than the spirited, earthy man he was. The profile that historian and literary critic Lucasta Miller assembles in her engrossing Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph is a welcome corrective that seeks a truer understanding of the life and work of the iconic British poet.

Keats’ life was short (he died in 1821 at 25), and some of its details are scant (the exact day and place of his birth, for example, are sketchy), but as in her previous literary study The Brontë Myth, Miller doesn’t offer a full-fledged biography in Keats. Instead, as the subtitle plainly states, she looks closely at nine of his most representative works in chronological order, threading in literary analysis as she unspools the pertinent life events that may have inspired or unconsciously influenced each piece.

Those seeking a truer understanding of John Keats will welcome this invigorating reappraisal of his short life and enduring poetry.

Miller is an avowed Keatsian, but one of the strengths of this study is her refreshing willingness to call out the poet for some inferior writing just as often as she extols the brilliance of his more enduring masterworks. The Keats she presents here was a work in progress, cut off in his prime (or perhaps before), and Miller is quick to point out the peculiarities, and sometimes failures, of even his most revered poems. This candor adds to rather than detracts from the affectionate picture she paints of a young man who alternated between ambition and insecurity: a poet who routinely compared his own work to Shakespeare’s yet wrote his own self-effacing epitaph as, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Keats embraced the pleasures of life and art while wrestling with childhood demons. He was born in the waning years of the 18th century, into England’s newly formed middle class, and his father died under suspicious circumstances when the future poet was 8. He was fully orphaned by 14 but was effectively abandoned by his mother years earlier, when she ran off with a much younger man. Keats may have been somewhat emotionally crippled by parental longing, Miller suggests, but he was also a full participant in day-to-day life, devoted to his brothers and sister as well as to a passel of equally devoted friends.

The extraordinary language with which Keats fashioned his then-radical poetry percolates with striking neologisms and is laced with coded sexuality. Indeed, Keats himself could be profligate in matters of sex, drugs and money (he abandoned an apprenticeship to a doctor), and Miller sharply centers his life in the context of its time, detailing the moral ambiguities and excesses of the Regency period that would later be whitewashed by the Victorians.

While the U.S. publication of this superb volume misses the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death by a year, it is never a bad time to revisit a poetic genius. Miller has given us a thing of beauty, indeed.

Historian and critic Lucasta Miller assembles a candid yet affectionate portrait of poet John Keats in this creative blend of literary analysis and biography.

Women wearing red cloaks and face-concealing bonnets at political protests in recent years speak to the enduring popularity and relevance of Margaret Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale. In a 30th-anniversary essay about the novel, featured in her delectable new collection, Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021, Atwood lays no claim to prescience, but of course, she is just being humble. (She is, after all, Canadian.) With an inquiring mind and the razor-sharp intellect to fuel it, this cherished and award-winning writer, now 82, is never afraid to push boundaries or speak her mind about the things that matter to her and, collectively, to many of us. What may surprise casual readers of Atwood’s work is the way her mind is honed by a delicious wit that makes reading her thoughts on a wide array of subjects as entertaining as it is edifying.

There are more than 60 wide-ranging pieces gathered in this capacious collection: essays, speeches, reviews, introductions and appreciations. Somehow the book manages to be both an enchanting hodgepodge (in the best sense) and a cohesive amalgam of a writer’s vision. Many of the entries tap into one or both of Atwood’s primary concerns: literature and environmental science. The daughter of a scientist, Atwood has true bona fides in the latter category and has been sounding the call for climate change awareness for some time, such as with the MaddAddam trilogy.

In addition to providing invaluable insight into her own work, Atwood digs with enthusiasm into Shakespeare, Kafka, Dickens, Dinesen, Bradbury and the ancient Greeks. She writes with cleareyed affection about women slightly older than her who paved the way, such as Alice Munro, Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin. Rachel Carson, a clear favorite, makes numerous appearances, and the book ends with a brief reflection on the 2020 death of conservationist writer Barry Lopez.

This is the third collection of occasional nonfiction pieces Atwood has assembled over her 60-year career, and she divides it into five sections reflecting societal changes over the course of the last two post-9/11 decades. Some of the pieces are quite current—there is a piece on quarantine, for instance—but as one might expect, Atwood avoids a straightforward or navel-gazing approach even when contemplating our current state of affairs. Instead, the COVID-19 piece hearkens back to the everyday realities of quarantine (against diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough) when she was a child in the 1940s.

While no means an autobiography, Burning Questions scatters a generous enough smattering of personal recollections and details throughout to grant intriguing, often charming insight into Atwood’s singular life, from girlhood to her life partner’s death in 2019. Years ago, a lesser-known Toronto-based writer told me that “Peggy” Atwood was always a welcome—and hilarious—guest at dinner parties. That appraisal stayed with me, and upon reading Burning Questions, there can be little doubt it’s true.

Read our review of the audiobook, which boasts a huge cast of notable narrators.

A bracing, entertaining collection of nonfiction pieces further illuminates Margaret Atwood’s inimitable and indomitable mind.

In many respects, Lorraine Hansberry could be called a one-hit wonder. But that hit, A Raisin in the Sun, is an iconic masterwork that continues to speak to audiences more than 60 years after its premiere. Hansberry was only 29 when she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the first Black female playwright produced on Broadway. Six years later, she died tragically young, precluding further literary greatness. Charles J. Shields, best known as a biographer of Harper Lee, delves into the short yet significant life of this great writer in Lorraine Hansberry, an evenhanded and informative study that reveals truths about a woman whose complexities were largely erased from the public portrait she and her heirs fashioned.

Shields has not written a glitzy showbiz biography that takes readers behind the scenes of the theater world. In fact, the triumph of A Raisin in the Sun only takes up a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and Hansberry and the team that mounted the show—including her cheerleader husband, Bob Nemiroff—were Broadway outsiders. Instead, the story Shields tells is of a smart, reserved and gifted young woman from the Black upper class who applied her intelligence, and sometimes anger, to a quest for her authentic personal identity in midcentury America.

Hers was a life of confounding contradictions. The Hansberry family wealth was amassed by Lorraine’s father, a Chicago real estate tycoon who fought racial covenants all the way up to the Supreme Court yet was himself a slumlord who preyed on Black tenants. His daughter’s rebellion manifested in part through her embrace of communist ideals (which triggered FBI surveillance), yet she did not refuse the monthly profit checks she received from the family business. Married to a Jewish man, Hansberry eventually came to terms with her lesbianism but stayed married. While she was at the center of the Black cultural dialogue in her time—counting Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Alice Childress among her friends and influences—she maintained that her most famous play at its heart was about class rather than race.

To paint the full landscape of the time and place that Hansberry inhabited, Shields often detours from the writer’s immediate story to place the many supporting players in context. These side trips are generally informative, although some seem extraneous and interrupt the flow of the main narrative. Shields raises interesting questions about others’ contributions to Hansberry’s work—particularly those of original A Raisin in the Sun director Lloyd Richards, and of Hansberry’s husband, who worked doggedly to shape her posthumous image and keep her literary legacy alive—but the answers remain largely unexplored. Overall, this equitable portrait of Hansberry is thoughtful and deftly rendered, a welcome corrective for the carefully curated and sanitized version that has long constituted fans’ received wisdom.

An admiring portrait of the great American playwright Lorraine Hansberry lays bare both her greatness and her complications.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!