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Book News: Author J. California Cooper, Whose Simple Prose Drew Acclaim, Dies

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Acclaimed author J. California Cooper, who famously leaped from the stage to the printed page, has died at the age of 82. According to her daughter, Paris Williams, Cooper passed away Saturday in Seattle. She wrote 17 plays and nearly as many books of fiction.

Although better known for her later short stories, Cooper first earned recognition as a playwright. It was in this capacity that she came to the attention of critics — winning Black Playwright of the Year for Strangers in 1978 — and, perhaps more importantly, the iconic novelist and poet Alice Walker.

In fact, it was Walker who suggested that Cooper begin to write short stories rather than plays ("because it was easier to get paid," her daughter has said, according to The Associated Press). Walker's own Wild Trees Press published Cooper's first story collection, A Piece of Mine, in 1984.

In her introduction to the collection, Walker wrote of Cooper's work: "Like [Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston], her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which some of her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a person's foolishness cannot be heard."

Walker's praise was to be echoed by critics and readers alike in the decades to come. Cooper easily stepped out of Walker's shadow, winning an American Book Award for her collection Homemade Love, but Cooper's own past as a playwright lingered in the conversational style of her stories. She never shied from vast matters of morality and race, but she approached them in voices that sounded familiar, even intimate.

In a 2006 interview with NPR, Cooper spoke a bit about the motivations behind her style:

"You know, I'm not writing up — and I'm trying to write to people who don't know. That's why the language is simple; that's why the stories are simple — sort of like parables — because these people who are out here struggling. This is no game out here in life. They call it a game, but this is serious. This is survival."

Cooper is survived by her daughter, by her own countless stories and by the personal acts of kindness and generosity that she hoped would be done in her memory.

Nerdfighters, Assemble! Author John Green — the man behind The Fault in Our Stars — has plans to move his fans to more than just tears. As Ashley Ross reports for Time, the young adult novelist has begun a fundraising campaign to help make clean water more accessible in Ethiopia. With more than a week to spare, the campaign has already surpassed its $100,000 goal, which Bill Gates has pledged to match.

Irony, However, Is Welcomed: The Highland Park Independent School District in Dallas has stumbled into the national spotlight for some alarmingly poor timing. A Dallas Morning News blog reports that seven books, including Song of Solomon and Siddhartha, were suspended from the district's classrooms — just days before the start of the annual Banned Books Week.

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