Critic, Book World

(Courtesy of Bob Woodard)

Bestseller highs — and lows. Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” won’t be released until Sept. 11, but it’s already No. 13 on our bestseller list, based on advance sales. Speaking of presidents, “The President Is Missing,” by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, has now sold more than 1 million copies in all formats, according to the novel’s co-publishes, Knopf and Little, Brown. And then there’s “The Briefing,” by former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Given the massive media attention it received, this insider account of “politics, the press, and the president” got off to a surprisingly slow start on July 24, and hardback sales dropped by 50 percent during its second week. Perhaps the most appropriate thing we can say about “The Briefing” is that “this was the largest audience ever to read a memoir — period — both in person and around the globe.”


Balloon stories from McSweeney's issue No. 53 (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

Hot Air. It was only a matter of time before those buoyant folks at McSweeney’s started publishing stories on balloons. The new issue of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (No. 53) comes with eight stories you can read only if you’re willing to blow. Hard. Each 150-word micro-story — by such writers are Lauren Groff, Percival Everett and Amelia Gray — is printed on a colorful balloon. That idea came from managing editor Claire Boyle, who remembered the childhood pleasure of drawing on a balloon and then watching the image shrink as she let the air leak out. But creating the opposite effect was a challenge. “No one had ever printed stories on balloons before,” Boyle said, “as we discovered when we went around trying to find someone to make these for us.” The authors, however, were easy to convince. “Some people let the balloon shape their content, and for some it was entirely inconsequential. Carmen Maria Machado said that she just sat with a balloon and that triggered a memory. She engaged with the balloon.” Fun as those rubber texts are, though, the real treat here is the vinyl-bound book that accompanies them. Issue No. 53 contains a fantastic selection of darkly magical short stories. “Dad.Me,” by C Pam Zhang, describes trying to find an apartment while the ghosts of dead fathers hover in the rooms. “Any thinking person got used to death standing in front of the TV,” Zhang writes with literally deadpan wit, “death by the sink when you got a drink of water, death hovering at the end of the dinner party. Most adjusted without a hitch.” The highlight of the issue is a story by Lesley Nneka Arimah called “Skinned.” It imagines a society in which girls must take off all their clothes at puberty and remain naked until they marry. Do whatever you must to get ahold of this story — it’s a new feminist classic on the order of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”


Biographer T.J. Stiles (Michael Lionstar)

No way to wealth. After two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award and countless other honors, there was nothing particularly surprising about T.J. Stiles winning a $60,000 NEH grant this week. But what might shock many readers is the financial stress of being an independent scholar. “My royalties don’t even pay my family’s health insurance premiums for the year,” Stiles said in my original story. But here’s more of what he told me: “It takes an indeterminate number of years to research and write a biography, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it takes me four (the least amount of time I’ve ever taken). Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the cost of keeping myself and my family of four going requires an income of $50,000 a year — a gross understatement in my experience. That’s $200,000. Advances now are usually paid out in fourths — on signing, submission and acceptance of the manuscript, on hardcover publication, and on paperback publication. So for a $200,000 stake up front, I would have to get a total advance of $800,000. I have never gotten anything close to that.”

Soul of Wit. This week I reviewed an academic comedy called “The Shakespeare Requirement,” by Julie Schumacher, which reminded me of the first book I ever reviewed: an academic comedy called “Straight Man,” by Richard Russo. As it turns out, Russo is coming to Washington on Oct. 20. He’ll be the guest of honor at the annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, where he’ll deliver a reading and accept the Achievement in American Literature award. Registration is now open. For information on all the activities at the festival, including workshops and additional readings, click here.

‘I lov’d my books.’ The Shakespeare Theatre Company has a book club you should check out even if you aren’t in the Washington area. Two years ago, the theater started selecting books that complement the season’s plays. But this year, STC is inviting the public to vote on titles, and the choices are clever and thought-provoking. For instance, what pairs best with “The Comedy of Errors”: Michael Frayn’s “Skios” or David Lodge’s “Changing Places”? Jared Shortmeier, the theater’s community engagement manager, says, “The selections echo STC’s productions by having similar themes, stories and characters or by providing new contexts to the plays and their authors.” Book club dates and times will be announced soon.


President Barack Obama presented a 2010 National Medal of Arts to poet Donald Hall, during in a ceremony in the White House. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Poetic Justice. The Bennington Writing Seminars announced a new MFA scholarship for poets in honor of the late Donald Hall. Funded by an anonymous donor, the scholarship will be awarded every six months and covers the full cost of the two-year, low-residency MFA program (approximately $41,000). Applications are due by Sept. 1. Hall, a former poet laureate of the United States, taught at the Bennington Writing Seminars for many years. He died earlier this year at the age of 89. (During the Jurassic period, I attended an early permutation of the Bennington Writing Seminars; Nicholas Delbanco was my teacher. Decades later, I edited his book reviews for The Washington Post.)

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.