Critic, Book World

Don Delillo meets Margaret Atwood at the National Book Festival in Washington in 2013. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

The Library of Congress Wants You. If you’re in the D.C. area, please consider volunteering at the National Book Festival. The Library of Congress is looking for about 1,000 people to help manage more than 100,000 bookworms expected to descend on the Washington Convention Center on Sept. 1. You can find more information about volunteering here. I’ve been doing it since I joined The Post in 2005. (The Post is a charter sponsor, and Book World produces a special guide to the festival.) Seeing all those tens of thousands of smart, enthusiastic readers never fails to reinvigorate my faith in humanity. My Top 3 National Book Festival moments are:

● Don Delillo asking me to introduce him to Margaret Atwood.

Stephen King telling me, “A Trump presidency scares me more than anything else.”

● Sheila Berger informing me that she’s Tom Wolfe’s wife, “not his assistant.”

This year, I’ll be interviewing Jennifer Egan and Meg Wolitzer in the Fiction pavilion. Hope to see you there. A full list of the featured authors is here.


Ron Charles performing magic in St. Louis, c. 1977. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

Abracadabra. Michael Dirda’s review of “The Secret History of Magic,” by Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer, transported me back to my own history with magic. I was once that kid pestering relatives to pick a card, any card. I could make eggs disappear and my pride. I subscribed to “Genii: The Conjurors Magazine” and pored over the back issues like they were a secret stash of Playboys. My dad built me a magician’s table with a black felt top and a red velvet skirt. (Yes, it matched the cape that my grandmother sewed for me.) I was much in demand at birthday parties. (That is not true.) Once a year, we’d drive into downtown St. Louis to shop at a magic store older than Merlin where I’d hand over my lawn-cutting money for increasingly elaborate parlor tricks: floating balls and jumping scarves, all the usual cheesy paraphernalia of the chronically geeky teenage magician. I couldn’t throw a football, but could I cut a deck of cards in one hand faster than you can blink.


Dawn Charles in the Totally Hip Video Book Review: ‘The Mere Wife’ (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

Worker’s Comp: This week’s episode of the Totally Hip Video Book Review offered a frightening case of life imitating art. The episode is pegged to Maria Dahvana Headley’s fantastic new novel, “The Mere Wife,” which is inspired by “Beowulf.” I thought it’d be funny to begin with my wife, Dawn, launching one of Grendel’s raids. So, Dawn storms the set, beats me, throws books on the floor and pulls the drapes down. Our first take went perfectly, except that we forgot to turn on the camera (details!). For the second take, I must have attached the curtains a little too firmly because when Dawn pulled them off, she yanked the heavy curtain rod out of the wall. You can see it just narrowly missing my head at 0:16. There’s now a gash in our window sill and a hole in the floor. Where’s Beowulf when you need him?

Hello, Again. Speaking of reimagining old tales, “Mary B,” by Katherine J. Chen, publishes next week (Random House). It joins dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of books inspired by Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” but this one focuses on Mary Bennet, “the only plain one in the family.” It’s priggish Mary, you may remember, who explains, “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” Earlier this year in a roundup of forthcoming “twice-told tales,” our reviewer, Bethanne Patrick, called the heroine of “Mary B” “a simmering, churning, smart woman determined to concoct an independent life.”


(Little, Brown)

A Book I’m Not Reviewing: “Hits and Misses” (Little, Brown, July 24) is a collection of weird, funny stories by Simon Rich, the creator of “Man Seeking Woman,” one of my favorite TV shows. Rich’s special genius is his ability to nest an absurd premise in an otherwise ordinary situation. For instance, in the opening piece, a writer grows jealous of his son in utero because the fetus is a much more successful novelist. “In the thirty-sixth week of Sue’s pregnancy,” Rich writes, “The New Yorker published an excerpt from the fetus’s unfinished book.” One of my favorite stories is narrated by Paul Revere’s horse. (“Everyone ask me, Why did Paul treat you so bad?”) The GQ profile of Hitler is also spot on. And the tale of an actual dinosaur being laid off as a comedy writer is a perfect example of Rich’s ability to mix humor and poignancy.


(The Point Magazine)

Get the Point: The new issue of the Point contains a thoughtful, wide-ranging feminist essay titled “Leaving Herland ,” by Nora Caplan-Bricker. Offering a rich mix of literary criticism, social analysis and memoir, she moves from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel to the #MeToo movement to her adolescent experiences on a horse farm. The Point, which publishes three times a year, describes itself as “a magazine of philosophical essays on everyday life and culture.” The previous issue, “What Is Church For,” was also superb.

Looking Far Ahead: I recently got a galley of “Bridge of Clay,” an upcoming novel by an Australian named Markus Zusak (Knopf, Oct. 9). If you don’t know who he is, ask any teenager. Zusak’s 2005 historical novel “The Book Thief” sold 16 million copies worldwide and was the basis for Brian Percival’s 2013 movie adaptation. (Fun fact: New Book World editor Steph Merry wasn’t too impressed by the film.) Thirteen years is a long time for an author to make his young fans wait, but “Bridge of Clay” should find a ready audience. Zusak told EW the story is about “a boy building a bridge to save his family, and himself. A boy who carries his sins, aiming to cure himself in search of greatness.” Knopf is planning a whopping 500,000 first printing and a 12-city tour, which is a brilliant move. I heard Zusak speak to an auditorium full of kids at Highland Park High School in Dallas in 2013; he was irresistibly charming.

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

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