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Life Story

Judi Dench: My Inspiration

Alex Bailey/The Weinstein Company

The extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee, the Irish mother played by Dame Judi Dench in Stephen Frears’s new film.

Philomena is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman. Philomena Lee was a naive teenager, whose only sin was to get pregnant out of wedlock. “Put away” in a convent by an Irish society dominated by the Catholic Church, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. For three years she cared for young Anthony, working all the while in the convent laundries. Then, like thousands of other ‘fallen women’, Philomena was forced to give up her child as a condition of being released from the near slavery she found herself in.

Sibling Tales

All About Jane

Universal History Archive/Getty

Jill Lepore’s ‘Book of Ages’ about Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane didn’t win the National Book Award last night, but it reveals profound truths about sibling relationships and how far women have come since that time.

Jane Mecom was Benjamin Franklin’s sister. They were two among a group of seventeen siblings, an unfathomable number to we who live in the land of an average 2.5 children per couple. That they were part of what we would call today a “blended’ family—seven of their siblings were the product of their father Josiah’s first marriage—makes their circumstances no less astounding. Even being among the cohort of Josiah and Abiah Franklin’s ten children puts Jane and Benjamin’s situation far outside the experiences of current day Americans.


National Book Award Winners Announced

Victoria Will/AP

The Good Lord Bird takes fiction prize.

The winners of the National Book Awards were announced on Wednesday night. James McBride won the fiction prize for his novel The Good Lord Bird, beating out heavily favored authors George Saunders and Jhumpa Lahiri. The novel is about a young slave who joins John Brown’s posse of anti-slavery crusaders in antebellum Kansas; typical of McBride’s darkly comic tone, the slave, Henry Shackleford, is forced to pass as a female named ‘Little Onion.’ The non-fiction prize went to George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine: Poems won for poetry and Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck won for young people’s literature.

Read it at The National Book Foundation

Final Days

The Essential JFK Books


Of the countless books written about JFK’s death 50 years ago, these are the only five that count—from the boiling hate pot of Dallas to definitive debunking of all the conspiracies.

Oswald’s Tale By Norman MailerOne of the rare books by Norman Mailer that got good reviews and sold poorly. British critics were more enthusiastic than their American counterparts. Mailer’s attempt to make Oswald if not sympathetic at least human did appall many on this side of the Atlantic. But Andrew O’Hagan praised Mailer’s fictional account of “Oswald’s struggle to become a man—to become an important and effective male character—as the foundation of much of his adult distress …” Allen Massie found Mailer’s Oswald, “both likeable and repulsive; to be pitied and feared.


Brazil’s Ban on Bios

The Daily Beast

Thanks to an arcane law, the country’s rich and famous are able to block publication of books on their lives—but the Supreme Court may be set to loosen the publishing stranglehold.

Like torture and curfews, book banning in Brazil went out with the military dictatorship almost 30 years ago. Back then, intellectuals, artists, and politicians hailed the end of the long night of authoritarian rule (1964 to 1985) with a burst of creativity and civic commotion. É proibido proibir—“Prohibition is prohibited,”—proclaimed singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, who was censored under the military and spent years in exile. Veloso’s slogan became the meme for the new era of democratic liberty.

Family Album

Jane and Serge in Love

Andrew Birkin/Taschen

Andrew Birkin provides a trip down memory lane with rare photographs of the public relationship of his sister, Jane, and her decade-long lover Serge Gainsbourg.


Judging a Book by Its Cover

What if you really could tell something about a book by its cover? With the National Book Awards impending announcement of the National Book Award winners color expert Jude Stewart weighs in on what the covers reveal.

You might not be able to tell what a book is about, but on first glance a book jacket will attract or repel you, or (perhaps worse) leave you indifferent. Brian Gresko talks to color expert and design critic Jude Stewart about the covers of the National Book Award Finalists, in order to find out what makes a successful book jacket.As the first thing you see, the cover is how a book introduces itself, and just like a limp gripped handshake leaves a less-than-perfect first impression, so too can a mishandled book jacket set you against the contents before you’ve even cracked the spine.


The Craziest JFK Conspiracies

Donald Uhrbrock/Getty

From the Secret Service agent whose gun went off accidentally to alien abduction, here are 12 experts’ favorite conspiracy theories about who killed JFK and why.

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the crime. Depending on whom you ask, however, that may be either all we really know about the assassination or all there is to know. No crime in American history has inspired as much debate—or as many books—as the events of November 22nd, 1963. Not all conspiracies are created equal; we asked twelve scholars of the crime of the century for the most unbelievable theories they’ve ever heard.

Guns and Germs

How I Write: Jared Diamond

Alberto Cristofari/Contrasto/Redux

The famed geographer, whose latest book ‘The World Until Yesterday’ is out in paperback, discusses bird-watching, the size of his computer, why he wants to bring Bach back to life, and why you shouldn’t write a book until you have tenure.

Describe your morning routine.My morning on any day, regardless of whether I’m writing or not, is the same. I get up around 6am, and I go for a bird walk on my street. I live in a dead end rural canyon in Los Angeles, which is very good for bird-watching. I just came back ten minutes ago from my morning walk, which lasts between an hour and a half and two hours. My bird list for my street is 149 species! Pretty good, by North American standards.

Parental Injustice

Why Kimmel’s Lies Matter

Randy Holmes/ABC, via AP

Taking candy from children, and then laughing at their tears—as Jimmy Kimmel has been doing for three years on his show—is morally not OK.

This story was originally posted on author Sam Harris’s blog.Last Christmas, my friends Mark and Jessica spent the morning opening presents with their daughter, Rachel, who had just turned four. After a few hours of excitement, feelings of holiday lethargy and boredom descended on the family—until Mark suddenly had a brilliant idea for how they could have a lot more fun.Jessica was reading on the couch while Rachel played with her new dolls on the living room carpet.

Murder, Sex, and the Writing Life

Marty Lederhandler/AP

How do you tell the story of one of the 20th century’s larger-than-life literary figures? Norman Mailer’s latest biographer J. Michael Lennon talks literary reputation, omens, women, and the never written.

It took J. Michael Lennon seven years to write Norman Mailer: A Double Life, the 900- page authorized biography of Lennon’s longtime friend. But when you think about it, that’s pretty fast.Mailer’s very public life was as rich in incident as a 19th-century novel, fueled by what his longtime rival and friend Gore Vidal called “an extremely radical imagination.” Besides the familiar litany of Mailer’s triumphs and humiliations, Lennon read Mailer’s almost 50,000 letters and the more than 7,000 interviews that Mailer gave in his lifetime.

Paperback Writer

The Underrated Novels I’ve Edited

The veteran New Yorker and Random House editor, whose new memoir is ‘My Mistake,’ picks the most under-appreciated books he’s edited.

In book publishing, in which I was in for 15 years, eventually becoming Editor in Chief of Random House, about five out of six books don’t “work.” (Or six out of seven, seven out of eight, etc., depending on what kinds of accounting shell games are or are not being played in the back office.)  That is, they don’t earn back their advances, their sales are negligible, and/or their reviews are scanty and ignorant.  But almost every book, except those that are published most cynically and graspingly, has the passionate support of its editor.


Jackie’s Letter to Khrushchev

Underwood Archives/Getty

About a week after JFK was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ‘on one of the last nights I will spend in the White House.’

Washington, December 1, 1963.Dear Mr. Chairman President,I would like to thank you for sending Mr. Mikoyan as your representative to my husband’s funeral.He looked so upset when he came through the line, and I was very moved.I tried to give him a message for you that day—but as it was such a terrible day for me, I do not know if my words came out as I meant them to.So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.


This Week’s Hot Reads

From a season spent embedded with the New York Jets to a biography of a self-mythologizing Pinkerton detective.

Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff.As we learn more about the long-term effects of concussions on retired players, their Faustian-bargain has become harder and harder to ignore on Sundays. Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football is a timely book. Embedded with the New York Jets during the 2011 NFL season, Dawidoff details just how much the players and coaches sacrifice for the game, both in terms of physical wellbeing and sheer devotion of time and effort.


Of Sin and College

Kevin Landwer-Johan/Getty

From novelist Robert Stone comes a surprisingly new novel, ‘Death of a Black-Haired Girl’, set on a college campus and suffused with questions of sin, judgment and punishment.

What’s this, a college novel from Robert Stone, our foremost chronicler of adventurous Americans in foreign lands? Yes, and not set in some metropolitan university that might attract his dangerous aliens, either, but on an elite whitebread campus in a small city close to New Haven. Stone did teach for many years at Yale, but his novels since Dog Soldiers have taken place outside the United States: A Flag For Sunrise and Children of Light south of the Rio Grande, Outerbridge Reach on the high seas, Damascus Gate in Israel, Bay of Souls in Haiti.


Author Barbara Park Dies

Wrote the “Junie B. Jones” series.

Barbara Park said she wasn’t grown-up enough to write grown-up books, but she certainly made a lot of children happy. The author of the beloved Junie B. Jones series died after a long battle with ovarian cancer, her family confirmed on Sunday. She was 66. Park wrote more than 30 illustrated books about Junie B. Jones, kindergartener and first-grader, since 1992. The books went on to sell millions of copies—as well as draw ire for Junie’s bad grammar and mischievous ways (in fact, it is one of the top 100 banned books). Park said she herself was a troublemaker who often was in the principal’s office, and she said she was inspired by Judy Blume to write for children. Park is survived by her husband, Richard, and their two sons.

Read it at People

22 Days of JFK

‘It Will Not Be Lyndon’


Just days before he was assassinated, JFK confided to his secretary that he wanted to replace his vice president when he ran for reelection—he didn’t think LBJ was fit for president.

President Kennedy’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln wrote in her 1968 book Kennedy and Johnson that November 19, 1963 had been “one of the most pleasant days” she could remember in the White House. Kennedy’s schedule was light and he had spent long stretches of time in the rocking chair in her office, speaking pensively as he rocked. “You know, if I am reelected in ’64,” he said. “I am going to spend more and more time making government service an honorable career,” adding, “I am going to advocate changing some of the outmoded rules and regulations in Congress, such as the seniority rule.

Sunday Talk

Myth of American Decline


Josef Joffe on American exceptionalism, why Europeans hate Israel, and why China may not be the next superpower.

Josef Joffe is that rare European: a well-known and respected public intellectual, an academic with sinecures at prestigious universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the publisher-editor of the left-leaning German newspaper Die Zeit, and a staunch defender of the United States against reflexive and voguish European anti-Americanism. In The Myth of America's Decline, his first English-language book since a treatise of the “imperial temptation of America,” Joffe argues that despite consistent predictions of decline—and much to the irritation of the European cognoscenti—America will not be displaced as a superpower any time soon.


Writer Doris Lessing Dies

Martin Cleaver/AP

Nobel Laureate was 94.

Doris Lessing, the Nobel prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook, died Sunday. She was 94. She is the author of over 50 novels, including Memoirs of a Survivor, The Summer Before Dark, and Under My Skin. She became the oldest Nobel Laureate in 2007, at the age of 88. Born in what is now Zimbabwe, Lessing published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing in 1950. Her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook was considered a “feminist Bible.” She died in London.

Read it at Guardian

Summer in the City

The Bronx Riviera

Wayne Lawrence/INSTITUTE

In ‘Orchard Beach,’ photographer Wayne Lawrence honors the working class people who flock to the Bronx’s only beach.

How I Write