Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, holding their son, Archie, in 2019 (Reuters file photo/Toby Melville); Random House Books for Young Readers
As if we could love her any more than we already do: Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, will publish her first children's book on June 8. In a statement released by Penguin Random House, Meghan said that the text for “The Bench” started as a poem she wrote for Prince Harry on Father’s Day, the month after their son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, was born. (By the way, Archie turned 2 yesterday in case you want to send a card or a pony.)
“The Bench,” for ages 3-7, will be illustrated by Christian Robinson, winner of a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Meghan will narrate the audiobook version herself. This project is just the latest example of the way Harry and Meghan “are reinventing themselves as multi-hyphenate American celebrities” (story).
In a sentence perfectly crafted to prick Prince Charles, the publisher notes that “The Bench” “touchingly captures the evolving and expanding relationship between father and son and reminds us of the many ways that love can take shape and be expressed in a modern family.” I haven’t seen a copy of the book yet, but I’m guessing it doesn’t include an illustration of a father refusing to take his son’s calls (story).
Washington Post technology policy reporter Cat Zakrzewski and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Washington Post Live, May 4, 2021
Ordinarily, an online discussion about a book on antitrust law wouldn’t generate enough heat to melt an ice cube. But Sen. Josh Hawley’s “The Tyranny of Big Tech” arrives smoldering with controversy, and his appearance on Washington Post Live sparked spirited discussion even before it took place on Tuesday.
That reaction isn’t surprising. The young Missouri senator is a Ken doll of Orwellian manipulation. He flamed suspicions about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election and then demanded that Congress respond to the public concerns that he had helped stoke. Simon & Schuster was so disturbed by the senator’s association with Trump’s deadly supporters on Jan. 6 that it dropped “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” But the book was quickly picked up by the conservative publisher Regnery (review).
Which brings us back to Washington Post Live, a series that pairs Washington Post writers and editors with leading figures. Some critics were angry at The Post for giving Sen. Hawley a public platform. But talking with politicians — even controversial politicians with books for sale — is central to The Post’s work. Unfortunately, though, our announcement of Hawley’s appearance consisted mostly of an effusive and fawning description of the senator written by his new publisher.
That gaffe unfairly set the stage for the conversation with Washington Post technology policy reporter Cat Zakrzewski, but she did a good job of challenging the senator about the actions that led Simon & Schuster to drop his book. And Hawley’s responses serve as a useful record of his rhetorical maneuvers (watch).
For instance, listen to how cleverly Hawley condemns the violence on Jan. 6 but does so in a way that renders the identity, cause and affiliation of the rioters irrelevant. It's a masterful act of obfuscation -- seemingly principled, but fundamentally revisionist – that expunges his own complicity in inspiring the assault on the Capitol: “Those who committed acts of crime on that day, January 6th, they deserve to go to prison. And I don’t care what their justification is. It was wrong. It's violent. It was lawless. It’s criminal. I don't care if you’re doing it because you’re on the right or you’re on the left.” (That “on the left” is the pièce de résistance.)
Even as Zakrzewski pushed the senator, Hawley continued with this strategy, never mentioning the white supremacists, Proud Boys or QAnon wackos who fed off his claims. He did, though, manage to name-check “BLM protests,” and twice he referred to a violent adherent of “the Nation of Islam.” (If you can't hear those dog whistles, get your politics checked.)
My favorite moment was when Hawley demonstrated the inanity of his claim that conservative voices are being repressed. Five minutes into his book talk, he suddenly declared, “Don’t try to censor, cancel and silence me here!” Zakrzewski calmly reminded him, “Senator, we’re hosting you here.”
Pages, from McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., is the bookstore-scented candle you've been craving. (Photo courtesy of McLean & Eakin Booksellers)
“Every time I open a book, I think of your store, and I just want that smell.” Jessilynn and Matt Norcross, who own McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., heard that over and over again from their loyal customers during the pandemic.
Even when McLean & Eakin finally reopened its doors for limited shopping, customers still craved the olfactory pleasure of the books. “We literally had to tell some people to leave their masks on,” Jessilynn tells me, “not because they were trying to disobey the rules, but because they wanted to smell the store”
Then a light went on — literally. The Norcrosses asked Lindsey June, a local candle maker with a background in biochemistry, to make a candle that smells like McLean & Eakin. “Every week I would take home all of these samples and put them all around the house,” Jessilynn says. “I would wander from room to room sniffing, thinking, ‘Does this remind me of the store?’” That process took several months, but they finally got it just right. The result is Pages, a hand-poured, natural soy candle by June Apothecary. The first batch immediately sold out, but more supply is coming soon, along with book-scented room and linen sprays and diffusers (details).
“Being a small business, you get to do lots of little experiments,” Jessilynn says. “We can adjust to the market in different ways that I think great big companies don't have the ability to.” That innovative spirit is crucial, but how, I ask, did McLean & Eakin manage to survive a year-long lockdown while competing with Some Other Online Bookseller?
“We’re just a whole lot nicer,” Jessilynn says. (I take no official position on that claim.) “People instantly and inherently understood that if they didn't shop with us, we were not going to be here. We didn't even have to say it. It was crystal clear to people. The outpouring of support would daily bring us almost to tears. I mean, the notes we got, the things people were saying. . . . People would bring us food. A box of oranges would arrive from Florida. Somebody brought us donuts one day, bagels, flowers. It was just . . . it was wonderful.”
PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award winner “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” by Deesha Philyaw (Photos courtesy of West Virginia University Press)
Deesha Philyaw has won this year’s PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut story collection, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” She will accept the $10,000 prize at a streaming ceremony May 10.
I hope you’ll watch — and not just because I’m this year’s host. In addition to hearing Philyaw and the finalists read from their work, you’ll be able to see LeVar Burton accept PEN/Faulkner’s new Literary Champion honor. There will also be special appearances by Laura Bush, founder of the National Book Festival, along with Stephen King, Angie Thomas and other literary stars. The festivities start Monday night at 8 p.m. ET (details).
Other literary awards and honors
Maggie Doherty, author of “The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s,” won the $10,000 Marfield Prize. This annual award, sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, honors a nonfiction book written for a general audience about any artistic discipline. (Full disclosure: I was a juror for this year’s contest.)
Julian Barnes, the author of more than two dozen books, won the Jerusalem Prize, a biennial honor given to “a writer whose work best expresses and promotes the idea of freedom of the individual in society.” Barnes’s most recent novel is “The Only Story” (meh review).
“A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn,” by John Murillo, won the Four Quartets Prize. This annual $20,000 award from the T.S. Eliot Foundation and the Poetry Society of America, honors a unified sequence of poems. Murillo’s winning sequence appears in his latest collection, “Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry,” which was featured last month in the Book Club newsletter (April 9).
Common App; Mariner Books
Everything about America’s corrosive college admissions process makes me a little ill. The scandal in 2019 involving actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman was really just an extreme example of the systemic scandals of privilege and influence that go on at many elite institutions every year (ugh).
But here’s something I found encouraging: The Common App, the standardized application form used by almost 1,000 colleges and universities, has added a new essay prompt for students to consider:
“Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”
Scott Anderson, a senior director for Common App, tells me that this new prompt grew out of a desire to help young people. “We saw this as an opportunity to give an explicit invitation to students — especially in this incredibly difficult time — to think about something that has had a positive impact on them.”
Given that more than a million students use the Common App every year, changes are instituted very carefully. Each prompt is designed to be clearly understandable by students and broadly useful to colleges. In this case, Anderson says, the administrators consulted with school counselors, teachers, admissions officers and “psychologists who operate in the field of gratitude.”
One of the leading psychologists in that field is Robert A. Emmons, who teaches at the University of California, Davis (interview). In “Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” Emmons writes about discovering “scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical and interpersonal.” If applying to college could encourage even a bit of that, we’d all have one more thing to be grateful for.
James Swanson's Capitol Hill rowhouse – for sale for about $3.6 million – was elaborately redesigned in the 1880s by Washington architect Robert Stead. (Chris Zimmer/Urban Capitol Photography)
Popular historian James Swanson is selling his elegant rowhouse on Capitol Hill for about $3.6 million. The author of “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” says the four-story mansion is “my silent writing partner. It makes it possible to do my books.” (Cue F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”) Swanson’s writing career has focused largely on books about assassinations — Lincoln, Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. His house sits just a few blocks from the Library of Congress, which would make it incredibly convenient for your next research project (more details and photos).
American Guides produced by the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Happy days are here again. With a plan reminiscent of the 1935 Federal Writers’ Project, Representatives Ted W. Lieu (D-Calif.) and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) want the Labor Department to put 900 unemployed writers to work. Lieu and Fernandez say their 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act will create a written repository of stories about life in this era.
“Many writers were laid off or had their work reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lieu said in a statement Thursday. “Additionally, many young people have graduated into an economy that has not been able to provide opportunities to leverage their skill sets. My bill would create a new jobs program for these talented and high skilled individuals, while allowing them to capture invaluable American stories that may otherwise go untold.”
Unsurprisingly, the bill has the support of Author’s Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger, who noted that “the original Federal Writers' Project employed more than 6,000 writers, historians, librarians, editors, teachers and others to document the stories and experiences of the Great Depression through guidebooks, oral histories, and other projects.” Such writers as Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston worked for the 1935 Federal Writers’ Project, which began by producing guide books to America's scenic and cultural resources and later produced a historically invaluable set of interviews with formerly enslaved Americans.
Reportedly, Lieu’s interest in proposing a new writers’ project was sparked by an essay that appeared last year in the Los Angeles Times by David Kipen, a former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts. Kipen asked, “Could a few individual and corporate foundations, coupled with some ‘catalytic investment’ from a federal agency and a few thousand reporters, somehow cobble together a new kind of Writers Project?” A number of writers and scholars have publicly expressed their support, including former Book World editor Marie Arana, who is the Literary Director at the Library of Congress.
I believe the bill has no chance whatsoever of becoming law, but it’s fun to remember what used to be possible in America when we thought and acted big.
What's your favorite bookish podcast? (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
Several of you responded to my hissy fit about not having my own podcast by telling me about your favorite book shows. I confess, I’m skeptical. Usually, when I check out a new book podcast, it’s either drive-off-the-road dull or so full of aimless jocularity that I want to swallow my earbuds. Revising, cutting, editing — that’s the alchemy that changes discursive riffs into quotable gold. Even the Algonquin Round Table didn’t release raw transcripts of their lunch chatter to the world. Why is there still no “This American Life,” “Planet Money” or “Radiolab" for literature?
Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. Help me out. Use this brief form to tell me about your favorite literary podcast. I’ll listen in and draw up a list of recommendations. And I’ll hold you personally responsible if you mislead me, so be careful.
For years, I kept my books organized by the date of publication, but that system has broken down completely now. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
I’m sure I don’t need to remind all the young people reading this newsletter that the deadline for the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest is fast approaching! TikTok is on fire with excitement about it. That may not be entirely true, but the contest is real, and the first prize is $2,500. The co-sponsors are the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, the Library of Congress and several other organizations interested in keeping the art of book collecting alive for another generation suffering under the deadening oppression of e-books.
Undergraduate and graduate students must submit their entries by June 15. As you might expect for a book collecting contest, the rules are exacting. Among other things, contestants need to include an essay discussing the origin, purpose and theme of their collection, along with descriptions of the collection’s highlights and items they’d like to acquire in the future (details).
Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced. The billionaire philanthropists announced, “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.” If I ever wrote a sentence that vacuous, I hope my wife would just push me down the stairs.
Washington Post writer Lisa Bonos asks, “If Bill and Melinda Gates can’t make a marriage work, what hope is there for the rest of us?” (story) But I can’t imagine how people who live in such a fantastical realm could ever make a marriage work.
Amy Gerstler recently published her 11th collection, “Index of Women.” It contains a virgin’s astonishment at the idea of sex, an ode to birth control, a late-night appraisal of a sleeping man and many other poignant, witty and surprising moments in the lives of women. This poem about the moment a relationship sours feels piercingly accurate:
When our love first became alien to me,
when you first peered at me like I was smeared
and illegible, then a rude-humored voice
started to leak from some objects, a tube of anise
toothpaste, for example, a taste I can’t sanction
given licorice’s near-opiate sweetness,
so like that of a well-told lie. So I questioned
the right of that toothpaste, and later a lamp,
to disparage me. But that was as far as I got
in defending myself. There’s something crushing
about being judged by the butter knife you just
buttered your muffin with. When I took issue
with its critique, I was met by aggressive
metallic laughter. How long have objects been
nursing these grievances? Though the authority
they seized seemed like a disease, I was nonetheless
hurt by what they implied. This winter, while seated
beneath a chestnut tree, trying to unite my mind
long enough to understand a paragraph, the tree
spoke to me, though I at first mistook its voice
for tuba music, a rake scraping flagstone, or
someone snaking a drain. Though the tree
astonished me with its equanimity, though it talked
gently about how to treat ailments not easily named,
when I left the tranquil courtyard that afternoon and
ran smack into you and you looked at me askance,
it took several days to recover from your glance.
From “Index of Women,” by Amy Gerstler. Copyright © 2021 by Amy Gerstler. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
My mom: puzzle maven, mystery solver (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
For Mother’s Day this year, I combined two of Mom’s favorite pastimes: jigsaw puzzles and murder mysteries. “Murder Most Puzzling: The Clairvoyants’ Convention,” by Stephanie von Reiswitz, is a 500-piece puzzle packaged in a box that looks like a giant novel (Uncommon Goods). It comes with a story about a clairvoyant who’s been strangled – which suggests they couldn’t have been all that clairvoyant, but anyhow, you’ve got to put the puzzle together to solve the case. Should I have sent flowers instead? Till Sunday, that’s another mystery!
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