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The Book of Other People Paperback – January 2, 2008

3.2 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. "The instruction was simple: make somebody up," explains novelist Smith in her introduction to this marvelous compendium of 23 distinct, pungent stories that attack the question of "character" from all angles. From David Mitchell's hilarious rendering of one menopausal woman's fantasy internet love-affair to ZZ Packer's heart-wrenching Jewish guy-black girl romance, each story is, as Smith puts it, "its own thing entirely." There are moments of prosaic precision (Andrew O'Hagan's eerily incisive "Gordon" is introduced "in the talcum-powdered air of the bathroom muttering calculations and strange moral sums about the cause of Hamlet's unhappiness"), but this volume is more than a showcase for deft prose and quirky souls. Toby Litt's lovely, lyrical "Monster," for example, playfully upends notions of personhood, as does Dave Eggers' surprising "Theo," a moving tale of a mountain who falls in love. Also on hand are a number of wonderful graphic shorts: Daniel Clowe shrewdly explores an insufferable critic's solipsistic lapses, Nick Hornby's "A Writing Life" gives a knowing wink with a series of writer bios and mock headshots, and "Jordan Wellington Lint" by Chris Ware cleverly chronicles the first 13 years of its hero's life. With so much to savor-the sensuality of Adam Thirlwell's "Nigora," the knowingness of George Saunder's "Puppy"-this anthology will sate even the most famished short story fan. Sales benefit Eggers's nonprofit literary organization 826 NYC.
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"...But just when you're ready to howl in frustration at the anthologification of the book world-I've seen the best minds of my generation, live blogging about recipes that inspire them-along comes The Book of Other People...Other People collects 23 pieces by a who's who of 21st-century geniuses and wunderkinds, from Dave Eggers to Edwidge Dandicat...Smith sent her contributors just one instruction: Make somebody up."
-USA Today

"Truly hip."
-The Boston Globe

"Whether they are old-fashioned narratives, playful improvisations or comic- strip-like tales told in pictures, these stories force us to re-evaluate that old chestnut "Character is destiny." They remind us that an individual's life is itself a narrative with a beginning, a middle and at least the intimations of an end. And they showcase the many time-honored techniques that writers use to limn their characters' predicaments, from straight-up ventriloquism to the use of unreliable narrators to a "Rashomon"-like splitting of perspectives."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"From its strange, graphic-novelesque cover-an array of cartoonish sketches of odd-looking faces in profile, stacked like ladder rungs-to its uncommonly eye- catching lineup of contributors, "The Book of Other People," a 2008 paperback from Penguin Books, is extraordinary."
-Charlotte Observer

"If you only read one book, make it this dazzling selection of short stories..."
-Eve Magazine UK

"...Some of the wittiest and wisest stories you'll read all year..."
-Elle UK

"Character provides the thematic key to these stories, all new to this collection, from some of our finest younger contemporary fiction writers.

Editor and contributor Smith (On Beauty, 2005, etc.) invited 22 other authors, many of them (like her) better known for novels than short fiction, to write a story inspired by the creation of a character. "The instruction was simple," she writes in her introduction, "make somebody up." Yet the stories correspond to no consensus about the role of character in fiction, or a return to realism, or the responsibility of fiction to mirror society. To the contrary, what Smith believes the stories show is that "there are as many ways to create 'character' (or deny the possibility of 'character') as there are writers." The title of each story comes from the name of a character or type ("The Monster") with the selections sequenced alphabetically. Many of the writers, including Smith, come from the McSweeney's and/or Believer literary circle (Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits, Chris Ware, Nick Hornby et al.) and most of the contributions range from the short to the very short (Toby Litt's "The Monster" is a four-page paragraph). With proceeds benefiting 826 New York (a nonprofit organization for the inspiration and development of student writing), none of the writers were paid for their work, with the results sometimes more playful (and occasionally slighter) than one has come to expect from them. Jonathan Lethem's Dickensian titled "Perkus Tooth" offers a hilarious dismissal of rock critics. A.L. Kennedy's "Frank" provides an existential parable about a man who isn't who he thinks he is. Though many of the stories have a first-person perspective, the narrator is rarely the title character, and some of the challenge for the reader can be determining whom a story is really about. In Colm T-ib"n's "Donal Webster," the name of the title character is never even mentioned, leaving the reader to guess who is addressing whom.

While the quality inevitably varies, the spirit of the anthology is that reading should be fun rather than work. -Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 287 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (January 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143038184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143038184
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #668,923 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amanda Richards HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on March 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
The premise behind this anthology is simple. A group of contemporary authors having fun, each contributing a short story about a fictional character, with proceeds going to a named charity - 826 New York. This charity is dedicated to helping children develop their creative and expository writing skills.

There are 23 contributing authors, from the United States, England, Ireland, Haiti and further afield, and the vastly different stories showcase their different styles of character development and description. Editor Zadie Smith is herself the author of three books, and also contributes a story for this anthology.

I thought that some of the stories were absolutely brilliant, but quite frankly, I didn't understand quite a few of them, and one or two were way beyond my limited comprehension skills. I have no doubt that fans of great literature will enjoy this book more than I did, but it's only fair that I warn the casual reader that it isn't always easy sailing.

The first story, "Judith Castle" by David Mitchell of the UK is by far my favorite - a tale of love and loss that certainly isn't all it appears to be at the beginning of the story. This one belongs in my "brilliant" category. There are also two stories done in graphic format, and some that aren't about human characters.

For the sake of simplicity, I list below the stories in two categories - "Stories for Everybody" and "Stories for the Literati"

Stories for Everybody:
1. Judith Castle, by David Mitchell
2. Justin M. Damiano, by Daniel Clowes
3. Gideon, by ZZ Packer
4. Hanwell Snr, by Zadie Smith
5. J. Johnson, by Nick Hornsby & Posy Simmonds
6. Lélé, by Edwidge Danticat
7. The Liar, by Aleksandar Hemon
Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
Quite an eclectic little collection from some of the who's-who in the literati scene these days. Sure, it's a little uneven, but that's to be expected in a compilation of works by such an almost-wacky variety of authors. Loved some stories, disliked others, was frankly baffled by a few as well. Will definitely seek out some of the contributors' other works. All in: good stuff.
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The Book of Other People is a compilation of twenty four character sketches by a group of talented writers, some established, some up and coming. What originally drew me to this book was the fact that it was a Zadie Smith project; she had instructed each contributor to write a short story centered around a new character. It was a unique idea that offered endless possibilities. And that's what happened; The Book of Other People presents a snapshot of the diverse world we live in. There's everything from imaginative young boys to snotty rich women, from judges to voice actors. Not to mention the giant and the monster. There weren't any constraints on format (except, they were all put into the same font, Smith reveals in the introduction), so you have the occasional graphic short story, comic book strip and illustrations.

For me, the concept of the book was what really won me over. The stories themselves were decent, some better than others. "Puppy," by George Saunders, is a story about a dog that manages to bring together two opposite families, making you sympathize with both. David Mitchell's "Judith Castle" was an interesting take on how internet dating can become just plain sad. And Vendela Vida's "Soleil" gives you just a glimpse inside a love triangle that leaves you begging for more information. I was slightly disappointed with two of my favorite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer (again, another story about immigrants in America) and Nick Hornby (Posy Simmond's illustrations were good, though, just not the idea of an author progressing through life and constantly changing his image).

All in all this a interesting piece of literature, but don't except any sense of cohesion connecting the stories, or for them all to be of the same quality.
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so i was forced to read this book for my book club (i say forced because i would have never picked it myself) and found myself really enjoying it. it was great to read so many different authors and their writing styles. and a group of 8 women, we all related to different characters in different ways and all had our favorite stories. i liked that some stories were short other long and even a few comic strips. i became tuned into some authors that i had never heard of and later went out to purchase their books. i would recommend this book to anyone that is looking to read something different, interesting and outside the norm.
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Zadie Smith commissioned twenty-three reputable writers (including herself) to each "make someone up." Their stories were named after their characters and compiled into this book, published and sold for the benefit of 826NYC, a non-profit that gets kids into writing. It's a good enough idea, but unfortunately, most of these stories are instantly forgettable.

Some of the authors I've found to excel at short-form character studies before (like Dan Clowes and Miranda July) don't disappoint, and others (like Nick Hornby and Jonathan Safran Foer) take a novel, economical approach to telling a simple and satisfying story. Many of the rest, though, have an oppressive, off-putting weight to them that's either gratuitously academic or unapologetically maudlin.

It's like the message to the kids at 826NYC is, "Work hard at your writing, and one day you too can make a successful career out of loss and regret!"
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