What We're Reading: Nov. 10 - 16, 2009More staff picks of standout books. This week, new nonfiction: Newspaperman Harold Evans traces his rise, while poet Mary Karr details her fall — and redemption. Nina Totenberg reads the Scalia biography. And great detective writers reveal the origins of their famous sleuths.
At NPR, we cover a lot of books every week. Among those, there are always a handful of standouts — the great reads as well as the books whose buzz level makes them impossible to ignore. "What We're Reading" brings you our book team's shortlist of new fiction and nonfiction releases, along with candid reactions from our reporters, critics and staff.
In his new memoir, Harold Evans recounts his journey from working-class British youth to editor of both the The Times of London and The Sunday Times. Whether it's describing his first job as a cub reporter at a weekly newspaper where his assignment was to type the letters to the editor, or recounting his epic battle with the British legal system so that he could tell the stories of children affected by the drug thalidomide, Evans champions the traditional newspaper journalism he believes to be most important and most imperiled.
This is a fascinating story and Evans is a beautiful storyteller. He came from modest means in Manchester, but ended up challenging people born to privilege who served at the highest levels of government, the intelligence services and the courts, along with some of the most powerful corporate figures in British life. It reminds you of the importance and influence of the press, when exercised intelligently. But it's also an intimately told story, and a strong personality emerges — one defined by insight, energy, exuberance, wonder and humor. A book worth reading and a guy worth knowing. — David Folkenflik, media correspondent
Brilliantly and grippingly told. His love of the printed word and passion for journalism is infectious. It's a refreshing change to read a story where the journalists are the heroes. — Courtney Dorning, Morning Edition editor
Hardcover, 592 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $27.99, pub. date: Nov. 5
The Life And Constitution Of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
By Joan Biskupic
Whether you find Antonin Scalia infuriating or inspiring, his influence as a leader of the Supreme Court's conservative wing is undeniable. In American Original, Joan Biskupic, legal-affairs correspondent for USA Today, interviews Scalia and those who knew him. Combining anecdote with analysis, Biskupic traces the influences of Scalia's Italian upbringing and early years in the Ford and Nixon administrations, takes the measure of his judicial philosophy and examines his contributions to prominent cases, such as Bush v. Gore.
Antonin Scalia is, without doubt, the most entertaining justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, whether he is speaking in public in his typically operatic way or writing Supreme Court opinions. For those of use who practice the craft of writing, he is a marvel — pithy, pungent, purposeful, sometimes funny, and in dissent, sometimes vicious. For those who want to know more about the justice, Biskupic's biography lives up to her trademark thoroughness. She is a wonderful reporter. I must admit that if you are not a court aficionado, this may be more than you want to know, but you can dip into the chapters that interest you, learn something new, and know that if Biskupic is writing it, it has been checked and rechecked a dozen times over. No lie! — Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent
Hardcover, 448 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $28, pub. date: Nov. 10
Mary Karr's third memoir (her first, The Liar's Club, was a best-seller in 1995) delves into her years of heavy drinking as she struggled to raise her young son. Eventually, she sobered up and found herself on a genuinely unexpected path — to Catholicism. Lit starts with an open letter to Karr's son that begins with the words, "Any way I tell this story is a lie," and it ends with a chapter called "My Sinfulness In All Its Ugliness." So no one should be surprised to find a certain combination of gut-spilling emotional volatility along with the survivor's keen ability to detach far enough to tell a rollicking story. But the book is more than a recovery memoir. Karr writes unflinchingly about marriage, class, guilt and the struggle to make peace with her raw, melodramatic, yet wildly interesting past.
When I saw that Mary Karr was writing her third memoir, my first thought was, how many times can you make yourself the subject of a book? But she pulls it off because, despite the narcissism and drama, she's a very likable character. If you've read Karr before, you know she's a terrific storyteller — and a poet. Her language is both precise and vivid, as though she were writing in color. If you like her other books or recovery memoirs in general, you'll probably enjoy this one. (For myself, I hope she tries a novel next time.) — Ellen Silva, senior editor, All Things Considered
The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell The Inside Story Of Their Greatest Detectives
By Otto Penzler
Otto Penzler is not just a crime-fiction aficionado: He owns the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, a store specializing in mysteries that's been around since 1979. In a fiery introduction, Penzler explains that he began collecting "profiles" of crime-fiction characters from the authors who created them, hoping to sell them in his shop as collector's editions — a way to compete with the encroaching chain stores he says are "malevolently" endeavoring to put him and other small bookstores out of business. The Lineup is a collection of those character sketches, written especially for his series by authors including Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Laura Lippman and Jonathan Kellerman. The authors take different approaches, but all offer an opportunity to see a familiar character in a different way.
I liked it a lot. I liked that there's no one single plot to the story of how these characters are born. Some of the writers are very calculating; they take a formula and tweak it. Others are more possessed by a city or an image or even a voice, and that's the start of a great detective series. The best stories were from people like John Lescroart or Ken Bruen, who spent years fiddling with different ideas and getting rejected, and really struggling to bring these characters to light. This should appeal to the same people who go to author appearances — people who want the back story of a book. It's also a great way to get a taste of some of the series you haven't read yet, by hearing what the authors themselves love about the characters and worlds they've created. — Maureen Corrigan, reviewer, Fresh Air and NPR.org
Hardcover, 416 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $25.99, pub. date: Nov. 10