Selections from recent mail

A friend traces his own Mark Twain obsession to the grandfather who read him Twain’s work as a child.

I inherited his library of Twain, which, apart from a bust that I keep on my bookshelf and most of the major works (plus small university press printings of stuff like “A Pen Warmed Up in Hell,” etc.) includes about twenty different biographies (none written after about 1970, alas). I think, after Lincoln, he may be one of the most written about Americans.

An agent who specializes in nonfiction writes:

As if you haven’t had enough of this already, there’s another angle on the James Frey issue that has just grabbed my interest and ire.

According to the sales figures reported to the New York Times, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in the country and Jared Diamond’s Collapse is the bestselling paperback. Looking at this week’s list, however, tells a different story: James Frey is the bestselling non-fiction writer in the country. Period.

This seems fundamentally wrong to me. Not because I think that Didion and Diamond and better writers (I do), but because the NY Times seems to approve of selling Frey’s fictions as fact. Notwithstanding the op-ed by Mary Karr, and recent pieces by Frank Rich and Michiko Kakutani, the Times still accepts the author’s claim that his books are non-fiction when, arguably, he should be jockeying for placement alongside W. E. B. Griffin, Dan Brown, Arthur Golden and John Grisham. Or better yet, in a new category – something like “not fact,” or “imaginary memoir” or maybe “essentially non-fiction” – where Frey can share space with with other con-artists like JT LeRoy and Forrest Carter.

And don’t get me started on Oprah’s choosing Eli Wiesel’s Night, one of the great true memoirs of all time, as a followup. The new edition will include a new preface by Wiesel about the translation — maybe Oprah can add something explaining the difference between “truth” and “essential truth”.


Inspired by the Israel Museum exhibit I mentioned earlier, Joanna forwards a link to a bar made of 700 hard-bound medical books pulled from a dumpster. Here’s a pictorial history.

John says: “The talk of ‘shit barriers’ and such at The New Yorker got me wondering when they first used ‘fuck.’ I’ve heard that it was in an Ann Beattie story, but I don’t know for sure. A few embarrassing Google searches didn’t yield an immediate answer.”

And in a final contribution to last week’s literary first loves posts, Geoffrey Philp shares his own.

The first book I fell in love with was Another Life by [Nobel Prize winner] Derek Walcott. The poems traced Walcott’s life through his first loves (Anna, painting & drinking), his friendships, marriage and career as a writer.

I was sixteen and in love with my own “Anna” and Walcott’s poems described the kind of life that I wanted to have. And it didn’t help that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce was our assigned reading for the British GCE “O” Levels.

Another Life‘s description of the landscape I inhabited, “Darkness soft as amnesia furred the slope,” came at a time of growing nationalism in Jamaica when Michael Manley and Bob Marley held our teenage imaginations. It was a great time to be alive.

As I move deeper into middle-age, Walcott’s lines still haunt me:

And I answer, Anna,
twenty years after,
a man lives half of life,
the second half is memory,

the first half, hesitation
for what should have happened
but could not, or

what happened with others
when it should not,


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