Daniel Menaker

Altitude Check

Friday, November 22, 2013

At the terrific Skylight bookstore in LA, I read two nights ago. A small, cozy reading, with four or five old friends in the audience, ten or fifteen others. And a cousin, Susan Mogul. We tried for five minutes to follow the branches of our tree but ended up out on separate limbs. My guess: She is my second cousin once removed. (The family is huge, on both my mother’s WASPy side–four aunts and one uncle–and my father’s revolutionary emigrant Jewish side–six uncles. I once counted more than forty first cousins.)  But she was right there, kindly, not removed at all. Noel A., who runs the events (and the store) has you sit upstairs in a kind of work attic, with screens and pens and papers spread out over counter-like surfaces. Then, when it’s time to read, he comes upstairs and fetches you and you walk down the stairs like a bride or a dignitary. It’s funny. You half expect to hear “Hail to the Chief” or at least “Pomp and Circumstance.”  It went well, even though the little slips of paper I put in the book to mark sections I wanted to read slipped away and down, like November leaves. But I figured it out.

Stayed with Leo Braudy and his wife, Dorothy. Leo a Swarthmore ’63 classmate and the author of “Trying To Be Cool,” a memoir of the Fifties in Philadelphia, just out now, and terrific. Esp the stuff about doo-wopp music, in which he analyzes how essential all the singing parts are–not just the lead but the bass and the falsetto. Now it’s off to Seattle, for another reading. My Amazon number (yes, yes, I check) seems to be keeping pace with the plane’s altitude climb–which is bad. Not the altitude–the number.

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Dead Metaphors

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I posted this on facebook, but then I figured why not make it a blog post too? Twofer. Saves trouble.

Giving a TED Talk junior tomorrow about language and metaphor (I know, I know), and the rehearsal was today at Stony Brook University, which is incredibly vast to a boy used to the urbanly condensed Columbia campus and the excellent but single-floor offices of the Manhattan Stony Brook MFA program and a small liberal-arts college, and they said the presentation was “good” and then said:

Don’t look down so much; I didn’t understand that bit about your mystical belief; You said that all language is metaphorical except for certain rudimentary words and then you said that they were metaphorical too and I didn’t quite understand that; You don’t have to be defensive at the beginning and say you’re no expert; Don’t look back at the screen filled with cliches, just memorize a few.

Here is the trouble: They were RIGHT in every instance and so tonight, fueled by what the waitress in the Hilton Garden Inn called “sahv”–sauvignon blanc–I must retool, with very little chance of success. Plus I’m using my “travel deodorant”–Mennen Speedstick, or something antique like that–and I have serious axillary pruritus. Sorry. Its the “sahv.” The waitress said, “We’re at the end of the bottle–why don’t you just finish it off for us, gratis. I’ll drive you home.”

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Promises to Keep

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Here is an email from Stephanie Kim, the excellent publicist for “My Mistake” at Houghton Mifflin, along with an update of publicity stuff and then some commentary.

Hi, Dan

Hope all is well! RJ Julia’s (a great bookstore in CT) would love to host you for an event in early December. You have Porter Square in Cambridge on 12/5 — if you’re interested, maybe we can do RJ’s on Saturday afternoon 12/7 or Monday evening 12/9? Let me know what you think. Below is a rundown of our events thus far.



10/8 – NEIBA author breakfast (Prov, RI)
10/10 — Stony Brook University, Tedx Talk
10/21 – Introducing Billy Collins at 92nd Street Y
10/30  — Stony Brook Southampton, Dwight Garner Interview
11/19 – Upper West Side B&N, NYC,  7pm (NYC)
11/20 – Skylight, 7:30pm (LA)
11/21 – respite
11/22 – Elliott Bay (Seattle)
12/3 – Prairie Lights (Iowa)
12/5 – Porter Square, 7pm (Cambridge)
1/9-19 – Key West Literary Seminar

And now, RJ Julia, the great independent bookstore in Madison, CT, has asked me to go and read there. And I will.

The bookstore readings on the coast are financed by me–or, I should say, largely by AMEX Delta Skymiles.  With any luck, the attendance will be low double figures. I once read to a busboy, a passed-out drunk, and my sister-in-law–who left in the middle to browse. Readings–so 20th Century. I feel like Willie Nelson–but with the opposite affect. Maybe it was the back taxes that made him love the touring.  Speaking of odious self-promotion, the Sauvginon Blanc required me, the other night, to write this deranged FB message to The Daily Show.  I paste it here again at the insistence of wine, this time Gruner Veltliner:

“You need to have me on your show, which I admire beyond all reason. Memoir, My Mistake,  coming out mid-November. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Very famous man. To myself. And even more famous to my dog. I have written for just about everywhere and I know things, a lot of things, about publishing and The New Yorker and the fear of death and how to overcome it. (The fear–not death. Not yet.) You can Google me–I know you know how.  I am 72 and look like a man three or four years my junior. I was going to connive and work the room to get your attention, but then I thought, Why not be direct, so you can see whence the title of the book. [Here I put the quotes for the book, which are available elsewhere on this site and on the sandwich board i wear just about wherever I go these days.]”

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“My Mistake” Mistakes (UPDATED)

Friday, September 13, 2013

The editor of “My Mistake” has just reconfirmed the aptness of the book’s title by emailing me two factual  corrections  from an unnamed person who “adored” the book. They are bad mistakes–one small, one monstrous. The small one is that after lunch at the Century Association in New York, I say that my host “signed the check.” Well, there are no checks at the CA. Members sign the orders when the orders are placed, and the charges go on their accounts without further Hancocking. The monstrous one is my recollection that during an oral exam in college, the professor mentioned “Rembrandt and his apprentices” and I triumphantly said, “Rembrandt had no apprentices,” and the examiner was impressed. But: Wrong. All wrong. R did have apprentices. The examiner couldn’t have been impressed. Maybe I didn’t even go to that college.  Where did this so-called memory come from? And to think that I was an ace fact checker in my time!

Every time we remember something, neuroscientists tell us,  we are remembering only our last memory of that something.  But still, there has to have been something that happened fifty years ago that gave rise to this self-congratulatory fabrication.  I am going to track it down. If I remember to.

Edited 9/14/13:

P.S. Dept. of No One Cares But Me: I did remember, and there was!  From a piece I found on jstor.org:

“It has already become clear that—unlike the practice in Rubens’s workshop—studio collaboration with Rembrandt primarily entailed the production of entire paintings and that those were either copies of the original from the master’s hand, or more-or-less original inventions which often used motifs from his work and often imitated his style…. There is as yet no evidence of large compositions, whether history paintings or group portraits, having been executed in part by pupils following the master’s design…”

So now the adorer of my book who sent the corrigenda to my editor can adore it even more. Who IS it, I wonder? Why didn’t my editor tell me? Doesn’t everyone want to know who adores him or her?

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Staying Afloat

Friday, September 06, 2013

I was planning to discuss the semiotics of Aflac commercials, but then this showed up, from Kirkus, and, well …

“A well-known editor’s funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing.

As Menaker (A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, 2010, etc.) 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.”

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P.S. Full Circle

Monday, September 02, 2013

In 1982, someone got the smart idea to put together a parody of the Wall Street Journal.  Someone asked me if I would contribute a piece, and so I wrote what turned out to be the lead story, “Christians Seek Controlling Interest in Jewish Faith.” It was about the corporatesque  acquisition of Jews by Christians, with per-share prices and other “financial” details, and it had the Christian acquirers trying to speak Yiddish and Jews shrugging their shoulders in indifference.  It was funny enough.  Here are some of the specs:

APRIL 1, 1982

Off The Wall Street Journal

Editor: Tony Hendra

Off The Wall Editor:  Robert Vare
Art Directors: David Kaestle, Richard Yeend
Conceived by: David Blum, Terri Minsky
Published by:  Off The Wall Street Journal Inc. (David Blum, Terri Minsky, Jon Meyersohn, Peter Cohn, Barry Kaplovitz, Douglas Miller, Michelle Pleskow, Martin Sumner) and Larry Durocher
Lede story:  “Christians Seek Controlling Interest In Jewish Faith,” by Daniel Menaker

Writers/artists: Kurt Andersen, Allan Belcher, Tom Benford, David Bennett, David Blum, Elliott Brown, Christopher Browne, Cathy Canzani, Brooks Clark, Peter Cohn, Glenn Collins, Steven Crist, Valerie Drysdale, Jack Egan, Randy Enos, Richard Erlanger, William Flanagan, Phil Franke, Tony Geiss, Jeff Greenfield, Lewis Grossberger, Ken Hauser, B. Joyce Jamison, Gerry Jonas, Sean Kelly, N.R. Kleinfeld, Gregg Kilday, Phil Koenig, Lim Lukas, J. Anthony Lukas, Bruce McCall, Cyra McFadden, Daniel Menaker, Ellen Meshnick, Rick  Meyerowitz, Jon Meyersohn, Eddie Novak, Tom O’Hanlan, David Owen, Lisa Powers, Steve Radlauer, Bob Rakita, Nancy Saarinen, David Saltzman, Mark Schubin, Jim Sherman, Andrew Tobias, Elizabeth Van Italie, Ellis Weiner, Chris Welles, Mike Wilkins

The parody issue sold 337,000 copies, if I’m not mistaken.  Financial shenanigans or small print of some kind limited contributors’–or at least this contributor’s–payments to three figures, as I recall. Except for that unfunny wrinkle, the enterprise was great fun, and as you can see above, it  included the work of some people who went on or continued to be famous.  It puzzles me now, since I don’t have a copy of the thing (am trying to get one), what J. Anthony Lukas, Kurt Andersen, N. R. (“Sonny”)  Kleinfield and a few others could have written for a parody of the WSJ. But there they are.

Now, the Editor of this sendup was Tony Hendra.  He later went on to write Father Joe–about his spiritual relationship with a marvelously colorful Catholic priest–which I edited and published at Random House.  It was  a very good book.  Don Imus pushed the book relentlessly. After a few weeks high on bestseller lists, this book–which was at first, perhaps presciently, underestimated and undersold by Random House–was torpedoed and sunk by Hendra’s daughter Jessica’s allegations of sexual abuse by her father when she was a child.  Who wrote the front-page New York Times story about these accusations? N. R. Kleinfield. Weird.

But also, what a weird decision it was by the Times to print the piece!  It included some semi-graphic detail and may have torpedoed the book, but the publication of Kleinfield’s article itself ignited intense debate in the world of journalism about whether a newspaper should run such accusations when they are unprovable (which is, most unfortunately, usually the case). I spoke heatedly against the paper’s decision to Daniel Okrent, who was then the Times‘ Public Editor, and so did others, no doubt, and he subsequently wrote this column about the controversy.

Now, I don’t know, and neither do you, whether Hendra molested his daughter. But to this day–when I’ve been reminded of the incident by the Times’ review of the book by the girl (now a fifty-year-old woman) whom Roman Polanski interfered with in 1977– I have no such uncertainty about the Times’ Hendra decision. It was wrong.  The Times is like a miracle, every single day, but it is human, and humans make mistakes.

P.S.  (Full Circle Department). Anent my Wall Street Journal parody-issue piece about Christians acquiring Jews: a) A friend told me it was anti-Semitic. It wasn’t. b) Daniel Okrent went on to do many other wonderful things, including, most recently,  conceiving of and producing the revue “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

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“The Cockroach of the Gardening World”

Monday, August 26, 2013

I am NOT complaining! My uncle, Frederick Engels Menaker, one of seven sons of Solomon Menaker, six of them named after radicals and utopians, left me his house and land in the Berkshires. Otherwise my family and I could never have had such a place.  Enge (“Rhymes with ‘mange,'” he liked to say) was gay and childless, to my good fortune. In many ways, he was more nearly my father than my father was.  But I remember the year he planted some of what he called “Angelica” around the house–as a ground cover, he said. It bloomed nicely in the late spring and smelled OK. But in the years since his death, it has turned into something you might see on the  SyFy channel’s Horticulture Hour, spreading everywhere, colonizing lawns, crossing the road as Caesar crossed the Tiber, choking off vegetables, overwhelming flowerbeds.  I believe another name for it, goutweed, suits it much better. Here is a wonderful jeremiad about it from a gardening site. It’s terrific writing, from the heart.

“KILL IT, KILL IT, KILL IT !!! This plant is the cockroach of the gardening world, and should never, under any circumstance, be sold in gardening outlets. I have seen tracts of beautiful woodland taken over by this monster, with all trace of native wildflowers forever eradicated. I lost a stretch of beautiful border along a brook to this pernicious beast, and I almost cried as it swallowed a lovely established bed of vinca, cimicifuga, and siberian iris. Those who are happy with it either live surrounded by concrete, or they have little else in their gardens that they care about. Be considerate of others, please and NEVER knowingly plant this thing. Petition all garden stores to stop selling it, too.”

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“My Mistake”–The Outtakes

Monday, August 05, 2013

To pre-supplement the memoir I’m going to publish in November (My Mistake; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), this blog will for the foreseeable future consist of outtakes from and additions to the book, most of them involving some of the louder quacks from some of the odder ducks I’ve waddled along with during a lifetime of listening.

Thomas Whiteside was a reporter for The New Yorker who wrote tirelessly about the ravages of Agent Orange–the toxic defoliant that U.S. planes dumped on Vietnam during the war in order to be able to spot guerilla troop movements and to kill crops. Whiteside had an odd kind of curiosity, the best example of which that I know involved another New Yorker writer, Maeve Brennan, who haunted the halls of the magazine well after her most productive years as the pseudonymous contributor–“The Long-Winded Lady”–to The Talk of the Town.  Ms. Brennan was homeless or nearly so, unkempt and unpredictable, and often slept in one of the magazine’s ladies’ rooms. One day, for reasons unknown to me and, apparently, Thomas Whiteside, she threw a carton of milk against the closed door of an editor named Pat Crow. The carton split open and milk splashed everywhere. As the fact-checker on one of Mr. Whiteside’s Agent Orange jeremiads, I was in his office the day of the milk bomb, and Whiteside and I were talking about the incident, how sad Ms. Brennan’s general state was.  Whiteside paused for a full minute, maybe longer, and finally said, “I wonder where she got the milk.”

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