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My Mistake Hardcover – November 19, 2013
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Menaker has been steeped in language his entire life, as the son of a copy editor, a perceptive reader, an incisive and witty writer, and an editor for the New Yorker and Random House. He now 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. What elevates Menaker’s clarion reminiscence is his eloquently affirming appreciation for the humanities: Everything in your life is enriched, everything has a more universal human context. And his illumination of the exacting work of a New Yorker editor can serve as a veritable guide to the practice of getting things right in life, word by word, realization by realization, as we open ourselves to facts and art, truth and compassion. --Donna Seaman
“In this insightful memoir, Menaker leads his readers down the hallowed halls of The New Yorker... But the book isn’t all business. Menaker also delves into the ups and downs of his personal life, from summers at his uncle’s camp, to the death of his mother. Tender, smart and witty, this book is truly unputdownable.” -- Real Simple
"A ruefully funny insider’s tour of the publishing world.” -- Vogue.com
"[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." -- Booklist
"[Menaker] writes here of his hectic childhood with well-preserved romanticism. The result is charming. [He] 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." —Publishers Weekly
"A well-known editor’s funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing. . . 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."
—Kirkus, starred review
"Menaker examines a life lived well if not perfectly. He’s bold enough to explore his years at The New Yorker, where he stayed for 26 years despite discouragement from William Shawn, and the perpetual self-doubt that has dogged him, particularly owing to his role in his brother’s inadvertent death. Certainly of interest to memoir fans and literati."
"How can something written so accurately be so witty? Don't you have to cheat a bit to wring the humor out of life? Daniel Menaker has constructed a compelling tale that irises down to a powerful and emotional climax and is delivered in exacting prose woven into affecting poetry."
"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."
—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys
"Daniel Menaker's distinctive journey through his own memories is impossible to resist—and not just for those of us with an appetite for literary anecdote. My Mistake is also the story of literary New York, with keen, vivid impressions from Menaker's Forties childhood, Cold War coming-of-age, and long career at the epicenter of the publishing industry during the onslaught of the Digital Age."
—Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
"I can't remember when I've read a memoir this—let's say 'soulful.' Funny, sad, and wryly self-aware, Menaker shines a bright light on his own background, our literary life, and his own path through it."
—James Gleick, author of The Information
"My Mistake brings to mind the poetic prose of James Agee. Menaker's stories of life as fiction editor at The New Yorker and Random House are a delight, the way he tells them simply perfect. Humorous, thoughtful, heartbreaking and brave. I have not enjoyed a memoir more."
—Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of Please Excuse My Daughter
"Menaker has spent a life with words as an editor at the New Yorker and Random House. Now he takes us behind the scenes with William Shawn (who didn’t like him), Tina Brown (who gets her husband, Harry Evans, to hire him so she can get rid of him) and a parade of writers." -- Bloomberg
"A charming and revealing insider's look at the world of the New Yorker and big-time book publishing." -- Shelf Awareness
"A wild ride that will provide insider glimpses of the New York publishing world from 1969 onward, with the author serving as one of the scene’s principal participants and sharpest observers...Not easy to pigeonhole, this is an amalgam of autobiography and cultural history at its best." - Bookpage
"My Mistake is a memoir of editor Daniel Menaker's life and long career, including 26 years at The New Yorker, which he calls a "brilliant crazy house." Set in the world of literary New York, it is undeniably insider-y and gossipy. (The stories about Tina Brown are not to be missed.) But the human experiences he describes — especially the hard stuff, like family, illness and death — will be familiar to anyone." -- NPR.com
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This author was the child of a mismatched couple. His brilliant, arrogant, seductive mother was a Boston Brahim, a Bryn Mawr graduate, and an editor at Fortune Magazine at a time when few women attended college and even fewer had high-powered careers. She over-shadowed his quiet father - the youngest son in a large family of Jewish emigrants who were fierce proponents of human rights at a time when that was an unpopular and sometimes dangerous stand.
The two sons of this odd couple received fine progressive educations and the subliminal message that their parent's love could only be gained through achievement. In the case of Daniel, the lack of warm acceptance resulted in a life-long diffidence and a fear of intimacy. He carved out a rewarding career and a decades-long happy marriage and two beloved children, but you sense that he never stopped looking over his shoulder expecting to be exposed as a fake.
The best parts of this book are the wonderful stories of his father's eccentric family and how their odd-ball lives touched on and affected his childhood. The warm, loving black woman who served as mother-substitute seems to have been his parents' way of giving their sons something that they themselves were unwilling or unable to give. It was, as the author says, "a rich and strange family history."
Then there's the story of his older brother and their loving relationship and unremitting rivalry. He holds himself to blame for his brother's early death and that grief and guilt permeated his adult life. Shelves of books have been written about the effects of the death of a spouse or a child or a parent, but the devastating effects of the death of a sibling are ignored. For that reason alone, this book will touch many of us.
I was interested in his years at the New Yorker Magazine, since they give a different view than most books about the famous characters who've kept it in national prominence for 100 years. His is a more jaundiced and perhaps a clearer-eyed view than some of the gushier accounts. He loved a few of his colleague, liked many of them, and hated a few, but he admired them all and learned from them.
His years working as an editor for two publishing houses were (to me) duller reading, although I'm intrigued by the publishing industry and he has some good stories. There's a sense that he left his heart (or enthusiasm) at the New Yorker and that his work after that was an anti-climax. I also wish that he included more about his wife and children. He speaks lovingly, but infrequently about them and it gives the book an incomplete feel. He does realize that (not an experienced editor for nothing!) and excuses it by saying that he never set out to write a formal "memoir" but to let his mind wander and record the results.
The results are fascinating. He's a talented wordsmith. The process of going through the detritus left by his parents and uncles he dubs "domestic archeology." Anyone who's every disposed of a dead relative's belongings will savor that wonderful phrase.
It's a fine, well-written book by a man whose life has brushed up against many people who weren't always admirable but who were never dull. Good stories and a likable author. All you could ask for.