My Mistake

By Daniel Menaker

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

After teaching high school English, he went from lowly fact checker to copy editor to New Yorker magazine editor, a literary career many would envy. Daniel Menaker worked for (in my estimation) the best magazine in the world for 26 years and then went to Random House, where he was an editor and then became its Editor-in-Chief. Menaker is also is the author or six books and also has written for such publications as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Parents and Redbook.  He is a professor at Stony Brook University’s MFA program and once taught  humor writing at Columbia University.  Here are some of the authors with whom he has worked: David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie, Curtis Sittenfeld, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Janet Malcolm, Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Kellerman, Elizabeth Strout, Colum McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Silva, Billy Collins, George Saunders. Pretty impressive. He once got a fan letter from Groucho Marx, which is even more impressive. And he has successfully – at least “for the time being,” he says – fought lung cancer.

What is this book about?

Daniel Menaker, as mentioned above, started as a fact checker at The New Yorker in 1969. He says his hard work, good luck and support by William Maxwell helped him rise to being an editor, despite never getting along with the magazine’s legendary editor, William Shawn. In “My Mistake,” a many-layered memoir, he looks back on life at the magazine, with all its quirks and quirky writers; contemplates how the early death of one of his brothers affected his life and gives us plenty of insights into the ever-changing world of publishing.

Why you’ll like it:

It goes without saying, but let me say it anyway: if you are going to be the editor of talented writers such as those listed above, you’d better be a pretty darn talented writer yourself. Make no mistake: Menaker is just that. Besides offering a delicious helping of book-flavored insider information (otherwise known as gossip), this is a very entertaining, often wry, often self-deprecating and often poignant look back at a life at the top of the contemporary literary mountain.

What others are saying:

” My Mistake’ is only sometimes rueful. It is also frequently funny and splendidly precise as it takes a look back at a life led in the world of magazine editing and book publishing, a behind-the-scenes rumination of a time gone by. Intriguing now, it will be necessary later; readers will be thankful for this quirky and delightful piece of history,” says Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys.

In the New York Times Book Review,  Meryl Gordon writes: “Daniel Menaker loves words, and you can see it in every clause, in the rhythms of his language, even in the length of the sentences in his bracing memoir…He grabs the reader with urgency as he grapples with big questions: What shaped me? Where did I go right and wrong? What has my life meant? His clever, fast-paced prose makes you stop and think and wonder, meandering down your own byways, contemplating the ways his story reverberates.”

Publishers Weekly says:  “Menaker, once an editor at the New Yorker and Random House, grew up in the now-endangered class of New York communist intellectuals that had the nerve to call an elementary school (his alma mater) Little Red. He writes here of his hectic childhood with well-preserved romanticism. The result is charming. The memoir’s title phrase—it recurs, songlike, throughout—refers primarily to Menaker’s small but pivotal role in his elder brother’s sudden death when they were both young men. That event stands in sharp contrast to Menaker’s own slow battle with lung cancer. Mortality, that “Great Temporariness,” haunts this humble book. Menaker is at his best when irreverent: chuckling at aptronyms (people aptly named), or deflating New Yorker legends (William Shawn and Tina Brown, most notably). Still, in this book of years, gossip is secondary to the writer’s own musings and memories. Menaker leaves the reader with a sense of the vast triumph that is a life well lived.”

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “A well-known editor’s funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing. As sums up his life, he can’t get past his mistakes–the big ones he’ll never stop paying for and the small ones that changed his life. As a young man, he goaded his older brother during a game of touch football, leading to his brother’s fatal injury and leaving himself with a lifetime of guilt. He smoked, quit and got lung cancer years later. He began working for the New Yorker, where it was easy to sweat the small stuff under the famously idiosyncratic editorship of William Shawn. Urged to find another job, he stayed for 26 years, skating on thin ice even as he climbed the editorial chain. There were rules of decorum (“You don’t say ‘Hi’ to Mr. Shawn–you say ‘Hello’ “) and regular surprises on what would or would not pass the Shawn smell test. When Menaker suggested ending a story with a mild pun, Shawn told him it “would destroy the magazine.” “What you want to write is an article,” Shawn admonished him at one point, “and the New Yorker doesn’t publish…articles.” On the plus side, Menaker learned high-level editing, not just from Shawn, but from the contrasting examples of magazine stalwarts Roger Angell (rough and tumble) and William Maxwell (kind and gentle). After the Tina Brown coup, Menaker moved on to Random House, where he eventually became editor-in-chief, wrestling to stay afloat and to stay alive. Menaker doesn’t just recount experiences; he digs away at them with wit and astute reflection, looking for the pattern of a life that defies easy profit-and-loss lessons.”

“[Menaker] contemplates the origins, happenstance, and consequences of his devotion to literature in a warm, humorous, on-point memoir. Amiably self-deprecating, Menaker is a deft sketch artist, vividly portraying loved ones (especially his older brother, who goaded him to excel and whose early death is the source of depthless sorrow) and colleagues (his portraits of New Yorker staff are hilarious, barbed, and tender). His insider view of publishing is eye-opening and entertaining,” says Booklist.

When is it available?

It will be your mistake if you do not borrow a copy of this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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