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Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – May 15, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Way back in 1926 the founding editor of The New Yorker suggested that the title Profiles be registered with the copyright bureau. Harold Ross had ample reason, for though he didn't invent the word itself, he certainly invested it with new significance. Over the years, New Yorker Profiles came to represent a new kind of biography: concise, well-researched, and impeccably written sketches of personalities who were often famous--but just as often not. Take for example "Mr. Hunter's Grave," Joseph Mitchell's 1956 Profile of George H. Hunter, the 87-year-old chairman of the board of trustees of the African Methodist church on Staten Island. This delightful piece leads off a select group of Profiles culled from The New Yorker's first 75 years and collected in Life Stories, edited by David Remnick. More a study of a place and a way of life than of a particular man, Mitchell's Profile stretched the parameters of the form.

The very next piece, Mark Singer's "Secrets of the Magus," is a prime example of what The New Yorker does best. In Ricky Jay, "perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive," Singer has hit on a quirky, eccentric, and fascinating subject--one that offers plenty of scope for writer and reader alike to dip into an arcane and little-known world of magicians, mountebanks, card handlers, and confidence men. Alva Johnston achieves similar success in "The Education of a Prince," his 1932 Profile of con man Harry F. Gerguson, who spent years masquerading as the lost Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff:

The Prince had a glittering career in New York, Boston, Newport, on Long Island, in high-caste settlements along the Hudson, and among the aristocracies of a dozen American cities. Twice he swept over Hollywood in a confetti shower of bad checks. He was repeatedly exposed, but exposure does not embarrass him greatly. He is widely admired today, not for his title but for his own sake. He has convinced a fairly large public that a good imposter is preferable to the average prince.
Of course The New Yorker covered plenty of household names, as well, and Life Stories contains sketches of such celebrities as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor and Marlon Brando. The arts are well represented by pieces on Ernest Hemingway, Anatole Broyard, and David Salle, and even the contributors are stellar, including such well-known scribes as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Truman Capote, and John McPhee.

But where is that famous Profile of the sea by Rachel Carson, you ask? Pauline Kael's piece on Cary Grant or Janet Malcolm's controversial study of psychoanalyst Aaron Green? In his introduction Remnick acknowledges the many great Profiles that did not make it into this volume, explaining that he decided to publish pieces only in full. "I wanted the reader to get the real thing--no excerpts, no snippets," he writes. "As a result the reader will have to go elsewhere for a range of long or multipart Profiles." What's here is choice, though, and die-hard New Yorker aficionados who turn to the Profiles even before perusing the cartoons won't be disappointed by what they find. All in all, Life Stories makes a fine 75th anniversary bouquet for the magazine's many devoted readers. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

To long-time readers of the New Yorker, one of the reasons to welcome this excellent collection of 43 stories written over the past seven decades will be the recollection of their first encounters with some of the writers who were fresh new voices when their stories set in Manhattan first appeared. Such then-newcomers as Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides, Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Beattie and Laurie Colwin portray New York in their distinctive voices. The literary Old Guard is here in solid phalanx too: stories by John Updike, Bernard Malamud, John O'Hara, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Cheever, Peter Taylor and William Maxwell define aspects of their decades with timeless clarity. Holden Morrisey Caulfield makes his debut in J. P. Salinger's "A Slight Rebellion Off Madison"(1946); Philip Roth's millionaire author Zuckerman is accosted on Second Avenue in "Smart Money"(1981); one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's innumerable group of displaced Jews and ardent lovers holds forth in "The Cafeteria" (1968) on the Lower East Side. At opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, two entries, Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa," (1974) and "Mid-Air" (1984), by Frank Conroy, have become classics. Published this year, Jonathan Franzen's "The Failure" defines the '90s in the city, yet Maeve Brennan's 1966 "I See You, Bianca," a quiet narrative about loss highlighted by "the struggle for space in Manhattan," could have been written today. If Dorothy Parker's wit now seems shrill ("Arrangement in Black and White," 1927 ), and Irwin Shaw's "Sailor Off the Bremen," from the same year, seems mannered, Jean Stafford's "Children Are Bored on Sunday"(1948), still resonates with a peculiarly New York atmosphere. Of course, there are tales from such New Yorker stalwarts as John McNulty, S. J. Perelman, E. B. White and James Thurber. Manhattan as geographical area and emotional landscape takes visible shape as haven and hell, locus of opportunity and of dead end lives.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Expanded edition (May 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375757511
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375757518
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #440,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. Hawkins on March 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
It's easy, I suppose, to knock 'The New Yorker' as effete and self-satisfied. Certainly its left-wing bias looks a bit strange surrounded by all those ads for expensive imported whisky and porcelain figures. This book demonstrates, however, that for seventy-five years the magazine has been turning out splendid profiles of a very disparate group of people. And, what's even more important, they're written so beautifully. Even an oddball piece like Ian Frazier's 'Nobody Better, Better than Nobody' is lucid and full of fine sentences. Every one of the profiles in this book has something to recommend it. You needn't admire or be familiar with the subject of the profile. I harbour an intense dislike for Roseanne Barr, for example, but John Lahr's profile of her had me enthralled; and I enjoyed Roger Angell's piece on Steve Blatt, despite my never having seen a baseball game. David Remnick states in his introduction that he gave pride of place to Joseph Mitchell's 'Mister Hunter's Grave', and that's understandable: it's a masterpiece. But Richard Preston's long story about the Chudnovsky brothers and their search for pi, or Mark Singer's tale of the amazing sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay, would distinguish any anthology. I think that Remnick could easily compile another volume as strong, and I hope he does so in the future -- he should include something by himself next time.
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Format: Paperback
You have heard of the obnoxious person who, upon meeting a biographer who has given up the last 25 years of his life to write the definitive biography of say Queen Elizabeth II, asks, "Now tell me, what's she REALLY like??" Friends, I am that person, which is one reason I always find New Yorker Profiles an unalloyed delight. Rightly or wrongly, I always believe I am getting the real insider stuff.
David Remnick makes thoughtful selections in this anthology. He has covered a time period from the `30s to the present, some very famous people and some you have never heard of, and the same is true for the authors of the Profiles. I fully intended to make a leisurely tour through the book, picking and choosing a Profile here and there for a short read. Once I read the very first one, Joe Mitchell's "Mr. Hunter's Grave," I was hooked and read the whole book from start to finish. So much for leisurely reading!
It is hopeless to attempt to select a favorite; all have their own merits. I was particularly fascinated by Truman Capote's insightful piece on Marlon Brando. Capote's flamboyant personality frequently overshadows his tremendous skills as an interpretive writer. Jean Acocella's study of Mikhail Baryshnikov is an excellent in-depth study of both the man and the artist. John Lahr's Profile on Roseanne is almost scary (or at least Roseanne is!) Joe Mitchell's, "Mr. Hunter's Grave" is so beautifully rendered you can understand why The New Yorker never took him off salary even after Joe suffered the granddaddy of all writer's blocks; he didn't submit an article for fourteen years! The New Yorker always said Joe had a "work in progress."
"Life Stories" is worth it at twice the price. Some of these profiles are unobtainable (unless you have a roomful of old New Yorkers). This is a book you will go back to again and again.
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Format: Paperback
It is expected that the profiles contained herein are what they are: insightful, well-written vignettes of interesting, often celebrated, lives. What isn't expected, and what I found most appealing, is that the collection achieves a certain unity, a distinct flow, from one profile to the next. It makes the reading experience less like an irrelative tour through a picture gallery, and more like a deconstruction of the human community.
Not willing to arrange this "greatest hits" package chronologically, editor David Remnick structures the book to create pregnant dichotomous pairings. In some cases they are rather obvious, as Mikhail Baryshnikov follows Isadora Duncan. But in other cases, the order enhances both pieces: A dissection of a man passing himself off as a descendant of the Romanoff's is followed by one of Anatole Broyard, a black literary critic trying to pass himself off as white. These two pieces, which on their own didn't hold my attention, came into full view once I'd read both (furthermore, Broyard is followed by Floyd Patterson, much reviled by Muhammad Ali for being a black boxing champion easily digested by white audiences).
Connections are made in other ways. Roger Angell's piece on Pittsburgh Pirate Steve Blass is followed by a profile of legendary New Yorker editor Katherine White, Angell's mother. The outcome of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election is made more palatable -- in hindsight -- by back-to-back profiles on Bush and Gore, both done by Nicholas Lemann.
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Format: Hardcover
The well-known New Yorker writer, Nicholas Lehman's profile of George W. Bush on the campaign trail would be an atmospheric, perhaps poignant look at the country previous to the Supreme Court decision and 9/11, except for one thing. On the campaign bus, Bush came up to Lehman and said, "So who you writin' this piece for Nicky?" - (NICKY?) Lehman answered, with the name that Bush already knew. And Bush replies, "The Noooo Yawkuh, don't see why any of those readers would be interested in me." That, no matter what your political viewpoint or opinion about the magazine and its readers may be, is an indicator of the power of the magazine via its writing. The authors of the selected pieces are sometimes the primary reason to read the article. Perhaps the most famous example is Capote writing on Brando making Mitchener's Sayonara, an impossible thing to imagine today. The grandiosity of Brando doing something that he would no doubt later be ashamed of is not lost over time. Capote always boasted of his ability to keep himself out of an interview, something that I found amazingly untrue and part of his attraction. In this case, he managed to find the comedy in the Japanese girls calling, "Marron" while remaining deferential to the star. Capote innocently notes every plate of high calorie food consumed like Henry VIII and the serious tone Brando took about his own artistic endeavors. The result was that upon reading the article, Brando vowed to kill the author. Every reader will find their particular famous people who are no longer interesting, and that itself is instructive. For me, those were Johnny Carson, an early Roseanne, Baryshnikov and perhaps sadly, Al Gore.Read more ›
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