This incisive, illuminating book shows the personal toll that success took on all responsible, the price paid for laughs.

LETTERMAN

THE LAST GIANT OF LATE NIGHT

The tale of a tormented TV star and his legacy.

This is a critical biography, not in the sense of being negative (although there are parts that Letterman won’t like, since he doesn’t seem to like much), but as a work of criticism that focuses on the inner workings of a TV career rather than any life away from show business. “Years before the term ‘Generation X’ moved into circulation, David Letterman made ironic detachment seem like the most sensible way to approach the world,” writes New York Times comedy critic Zinoman (Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, 2011) in this sharp, revealing biography. Such an attitude would establish him as a generational spokesman during an era of political apathy. Yet Letterman was more obsessed than detached, a “spectacularly committed hypochondriac,” a self-lacerating critic of his own show, and a performer who had to be pushed out of his comfort zone for his paradigm-shifting innovations. Though he played his eccentricities and insecurities for laughs, they were no laughing matter for the staff that was crucial in the development of his comedic dynamic, the writers who so often found themselves isolated (or occasionally berated) by the boss they were trying so desperately to please. The most significant of these collaborators was Merrill Markoe, his partner and foil from his early stint on daytime TV, who, “as much as anyone…helped invent the aesthetic of David Letterman.” Most of the rest were men, frequently from Harvard, and the boys’ club atmosphere became more of a problem as Letterman’s sexual relations with female interns became public. Zinoman’s analysis is often refreshingly counterintuitive: Letterman was a good interviewer. He recast and renewed himself during the writers’ strike. He didn’t fail as Oscar host. He was even more miserable as the winner of the late-night ratings war than he had been as the underdog.

This incisive, illuminating book shows the personal toll that success took on all responsible, the price paid for laughs.

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-237721-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2017

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A slim, somber classic.

BLUE NIGHTS

Didion (We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction, 2006, etc.) delivers a second masterpiece on grief, considering both her daughter’s death and her inevitable own.

In her 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the much-decorated journalist laid bare her emotions following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The same year that book was published, she also lost her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, after a long hospitalization. Like Magical Thinking, this book is constructed out of close studies of particular memories and bits of medical lingo. Didion tests Quintana’s childhood poems and scribblings for hints of her own failings as a mother, and she voices her helplessness at the hands of doctors. “I put the word ‘diagnosis’ in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a ‘diagnosis’ led to a ‘cure,’ ” she writes. The author also ponders her own mortality, and she does so with heartbreaking specificity. A metal folding chair, as she describes it, is practically weaponized, ready to do her harm should she fall out of it; a fainting spell leaves her bleeding and helpless on the floor of her bedroom. Didion’s clipped, recursive sentences initially make the book feel arid and emotionally distant. But she’s profoundly aware of tone and style—a digression about novel-writing reveals her deep concern for the music sentences make—and the chapters become increasingly freighted with sorrow without displaying sentimentality. The book feels like an epitaph for both her daughter and herself, as she considers how much aging has demolished her preconceptions about growing old.

  A slim, somber classic.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-26767-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2011

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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