Monday, March 10, 2014

My Mistake: A Memoir by Daniel Menaker

"Still, if we give our lives any thought, especially when we are drawing near the end of them, we try to marry the opposites into a coherent whole. A life story that comprehends and supersedes its contradictions and says Ecce Homo, or maybe Echhh Homo - almost certainly both."

Daniel Menaker wrote this statement about his life as he entered his seventies and joined the ranks of people struggling with cancer. Appropriately it is near the end of his book My Mistake: A Memoir, which sounds as though it might be a sober, serious book. In its way, it is a serious account of his life, but he tells stories about himself with humor and joy as well as with sadness. Though memoirs are often suspect writing, I am left feeling Menaker is honest. Who but an honest man would admit to mistakes.

Menaker is known to book industry people and somewhat to readers of The New Yorker where he worked for decades, rising from the position of fact checker to an editor of fiction. Early on he was told by magazine editor William Shawn that "we" wanted him to look for another job. "We" wouldn't fire him in the meantime but he was not really made of New Yorker stuff. Menaker did look but only left decades later when Tina Brown wanted him out of the way. Then he worked as a book editor for Random House and HarperCollins publishers.

Obviously readers looking for insider stories about The New Yorker and big publishing houses are going to want My Mistake. Readers who are not so interested in publishing may enjoy the first section in which he humorously sketches his Jewish childhood in and around New York, but may then lose interest. But then again, they may not. His accounts may turn them on to the subject of pitched and nuanced inner office rivalries among now legendary literary figures. I enjoyed every page.

As for the mistakes, they come in many forms. For good and bad, they shape his life, and this generous telling makes him one of us.

Menaker, Daniel. My Mistake: A Memoir. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 234p. ISBN 9780547794235.

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