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Category: Books

Novelist Belva Plain dies at 95

Belva Plain, who wrote more than 20 bestselling novels, died in her sleep Tuesday at her home in New Jersey, her daughter Barbara said. She was 95.

Plain, known for epics about family and forgiveness, wrote her novels longhand on a yellow pad. She had written short fiction for women's magazines but didn't start writing novels until after she became a grandmother.

Her first novel, "Evergreen," was published in 1978 and spent more than 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and was developed into a TV miniseries.

Shortly before her death, Plain completed a sequel to "Evergreen," which will be published in February.

-- Associated Press

Carla Cohen, co-owner of famed Washington, D.C., bookstore, dies at 74

Carla Cohen, a community activist who co-owned a Washington bookstore that became a city institution and a key stop for writers ranging from Bill Clinton to J.K. Rowling, has died.

Cohen died Monday of cancer of the bile ducts, the Politics and Prose bookstore announced on its website. She was 74 and died at her home in Washington.

A former city planner, congressional aide and federal housing official, Cohen founded the store in 1984 with co-owner Barbara Meade.

Politics and Prose has become a key stop for political and literary figures promoting books.

A Baltimore native, Cohen graduated from Antioch College and worked for years in Philadelphia and Washington as an advocate for greater local control of housing and of neighborhood planning. In the late 1970s, she was an aide to Robert Embry Jr., assistant secretary for community planning and development in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration.

After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, Cohen was out of a job and decided to start a bookstore, her devotion to reading and current affairs besting her disregard for profit and loss. The money side would be handled by Meade, who answered a classified ad in which Cohen sought a store manager.

"She had never been interested in running a business, so her friends told her she had to partner up with somebody who could do that," Meade said.

-- Associated Press


One year ago: Marian L. Gore

Marian Gore

What Marian L. Gore sold, she told The Times in 1974, was nostalgia.

The antiquarian bookseller, who died a year ago at 95, specialized in historic tomes about food and wine. From 1967 through 1991, she sold them out of her San Gabriel home.

"Favorite Recipes of Our Friends" by the Cafeteria Club at St. Gabriel School might sell for $10, while Abby Fisher's 1881 "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking" could go for $2,100.

Young people particularly "feel it must have been better then -- it had to be better. They buy these books out of a feeling of nostalgia," Gore once said, "sort of relishing of the qualities of a world where people did not operate by shortcuts."

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Photo: Marian L. Gore in 1974 with a selection of early California cookbooks. Credit: Times file photo




One year ago: Dominick Dunne

Dominck-dunn Dominick Dunne seemed to have everyone whispering in his ear. The author and Vanity Fair writer, who died one year ago, made a career out of exposing the scandals of the Hollywood elite and zealously crusading against celebrity criminals.

Dunne was called the "Boswell of the bluebloods" and the "Jacqueline Susann of journalism," and he was described by the Cambridge History of Law in America as "one of the nation's premier popular chroniclers of notorious criminal trials and lawsuits involving celebrities."

Former Vanity Fair Editor Tina Brown said he was "the only person writing about high society from inside the aquarium."

Dunne fluidly mixed fact and rumor in his exposés, which were well-laden with anonymous sources. His technique earned him the disdain of many. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., after the murder conviction of his cousin Michael Skakel, said Dunne -- who fought for the conviction -- was "not a journalist. He's a gossip columnist."

Dunne was a television and film producer for two decades until drugs and alcohol ruined him. He had started life over as a writer when his daughter, Dominique, was killed in 1982. The slaying energized his foray into crime and court coverage, which was epitomized by the vigilance with which he advocated for O.J. Simpson's conviction in the murder of Simpson's wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

Although conviction in the criminal case never came to be, Dunne, while ill, covered Simpson's 2008 armed robbery trial in Las Vegas, which resulted in a pronouncement of guilt -- a verdict that had Dunne awaited for more than a decade.

For more, read Dominick Dunne's obituary by The Times' Elaine Woo.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Dominick Dunne. Credit: Associated Press

One year ago: Karla Kuskin

Karla-kuskin Karla Kuskin was a children's book author and illustrator who had a celebrated read-aloud writing style that reflected a rare understanding of a child's perspective. She died one year ago at age 77.

Kuskin first achieved fame with "Roar and More," a 1956 book about animals and the noises they make that was her senior project at Yale.

She could "think herself into a child's skin" by using memories of her childhood as inspiration, Margaret F. Maxwell wrote in the "St. James Guide to Children's Writers" (1999). "That she has been able to distill these memories into simple yet lighthearted verses . . . is Kuskin's lasting talent."

Her flowing, simple and readable style is reflected in an early work, "James and the Rain" (1957), which Publishers Weekly called "one of the best read-aloud stories" for children:

James pressed his nose against the pane
and saw a million drops of rain.
The earth was wet,
the sky was gray,
it looked like it would rain all day.

For more, read Karla Kuskin's obituary in The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Karla Kuskin. 

For the dedicated obituary reader

Check out this review on NPR for "The Daily Telegraph Fourth Book of Obituaries." Tom Rachman, a former journalist who recently published his debut novel, takes a look at the Telegraph collection edited by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd.

Rachman, who says he wrote a few obits in his day, offers this insight:

The obit is as close as news gets in structure to the short story. After all, how many other news articles have a conclusion? An obit also shares with literature a talent for the revealing detail, as in The Times of London obit of Cyril Connolly, which delightfully describes the intellectual's "habit of marking his place in a book at the breakfast table with a strip of bacon."

During my past career as a journalist, I relished writing obits and equally dreaded phoning relatives for the necessary facts. But to my surprise and great relief, they often wanted to talk — they wanted their recently deceased loved ones recorded in print.

Rachman's essay was on "All Things Considered," from the "My Guilty Pleasure" series.

-- Claire Noland

Frank Kermode, critic for London Review of Books, dies at 90

Literary critic Frank Kermode, a British scholar who inspired the founding of the London Review of Books, has died. He was 90.

The London Review of Books, for whom he wrote around 200 pieces, announced that he died Tuesday in Cambridge, England.

His publisher, Alan Samson of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, says Kermode will be remembered not only for his influential book, "The Sense of an Ending," but for his openness to contemporary literature. He was also the author of "Romantic Image," "Shakespeare's Language" and "Concerning E.M. Forster."

He was the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University.

-- Associated Press

Elaine Koster, who backed Stephen King and Khaled Hosseini, dies at 69

Elaine Koster, a publisher and literary agent who gave a second chance to an obscure horror writer named Stephen King and took on an unknown Khaled Hosseini and his novel "The Kite Runner," has died. She was 69.

Hosseini's publisher, Penguin Group (USA), said Koster died Tuesday at St. Luke's Hospital in New York. The cause of death was not immediately available.

As publisher of the New American Library in the 1970s, Koster paid a then-enormous $400,000 for the rights to King's "Carrie" and was later credited with helping to make a blockbuster out of Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying."

As an agent, she was quickly drawn to Hosseini's manuscript for "The Kite Runner." Thanks to word of mouth, millions of copies of the book have been sold.

-- Associated Press

One year ago: Michael Viner


Michael Viner, who died one year ago at age 65, had a reputation for publishing tabloid-like stories from notorious figures, earning him the scorn of many in the traditional publishing world.

Viner first made his mark in the audio publishing industry when he opened Dove Books-on-Tape in 1985 with his then-wife, actress Deborah Raffin. He quickly grew the company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that rivaled the books-on-tape operations of major publishers such as Random House and Bantam Books.

He eventually expanded into hardcover publishing, releasing such titles as "You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again," which claimed to present the true sexual adventures of four women seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, and Faye Resnick's "Nicole Brown Simpson: The Diary of a Life Interrupted."

Viner and his wife sold Dove in 1997 after some ill-timed expansion efforts, but then opened New Millennium. That company went bankrupt in 2003. Viner's next effort was Phoenix Books, which he opened in 2005, the same year he divorced Raffin.

His last big book was Rod Blagojevich's memoir, "The Governor," which was released a month after his death.

Before publishing, Viner was an aide to then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the senator's fateful 1968 presidential bid. After Kennedy's death, he worked in a series of studio jobs at 20th Century Fox, Universal and MGM.

For more on the man who shook up the publishing world, read Michael Viner's obituary by The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Michael Viner with a copy of "Burning Down My Masters' House," which was published by Viner's New Millennium Press. The book is the memoir of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, whose plagiarism brought down two top editors at the paper.

Credit: Neil A. France / For The Times

One year ago: E. Lynn Harris

E. Lynn Harris, who broke ground with his bestselling novels featuring gay black characters, died one year ago Friday while visiting Los Angeles. A resident of Atlanta and Fayetteville, Ark., he was 54.

Harris took the long road to literary success. After quitting his job as a computer salesman and while struggling with depression, he told a doctor that he had always dreamed of being a writer.

"Why don't you do it?" the doctor asked.

Then in his 30s, Harris got to work on his first novel. "Invisible Life" was about a previously straight black man who becomes attracted to a man during college and begins leading a double life. Rejected by publishers, Harris decided to self-publish 5,000 copies in 1991. He sold them wherever he could and would leave the books in black beauty parlors with a note inside saying, "If you like this book, please go to your local bookstore and ask them to order it."

He found his audience in this fashion and attracted the attention of Doubleday, which bought the reprint rights.

Harris followed with "Just As I Am: A Novel," "And This Too Shall Pass" and others.

"It's not that there weren't black gay authors writing and being published before," Charles Flowers, Harris' editor at Doubleday, told Times reporter Dennis McLellan. "You obviously had James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, but he broke out in kind of a very popular literature that had not been done before, and the majority of his audience were straight black women."

Harris' last novel, "In My Father's House," was published last month.

Read the entire obituary of E. Lynn Harris that appeared in The Times.

-- Claire Noland

One year ago: Frank McCourt


My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone. When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. And worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

So begins "Angela's Ashes," the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by Frank McCourt, who died one year ago. He was 78.

McCourt didn't write his life story until years after he retired as a New York City schoolteacher in 1987. "Angela's Ashes" was published in 1996, became a No. 1 bestseller and was translated into more than 20 languages.

Although it took him years to write the memoir, McCourt knew his way around a good story, as explained in the obituary written by Times staff writer Dennis McLellan:

Storytelling came naturally to McCourt, whose skills were nurtured over pints of Guinness at places such as the Lion's Head tavern in Greenwich Village, which was a hangout for newspapermen and authors such as Pete Hamill and Norman Mailer.

"We were all storytellers growing up," McCourt said of his family in a 2000 interview with the Toronto Sun. "That's all we had. There was no TV or radio. We'd sit around the fire and make up stories. My dad was a great storyteller. We'd mention a neighbor, and he'd make up a story.

"But I also had to be a great storyteller to survive teaching. I spent 30 years in the classroom. When you stand before 170 teenagers each day, you have to get and keep their attention. Their attention span is about seven minutes, which is the time between commercials. So you have to stay on your toes."

McCourt followed up "Angela's Ashes" with the sequels " 'Tis" in 1999 and "Teacher Man" in 2005.

Read the complete obituary of Frank McCourt and an appreciation by Times columnist Tim Rutten.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: Frank McCourt in 2005.

Credit: Peter Foley / European Pressphoto Agency

One year ago: Kenneth M. Stampp

Kenneth-stampp In the 1950s, the standard college text on slavery in the United States portrayed slave owners in a largely favorable light as a civilizing influence on their African slaves. But then came Kenneth M. Stampp, who wrote "The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South," a 1956 book that marked a turning point in historians' treatment of slavery. Stampp died one year ago.

Stampp was a UC Berkeley historian when he wrote the book, which rejected the moonlight-and-magnolias mythology that inspired such stereotypes as the benevolent plantation owner and the smiling black mammy. He also showed how slaves resisted their bondage, not only through rebellion and escape but also through more passive methods, such as work slowdowns and breaking tools.

The power of Stampp's book stemmed from its rich documentation -- which included narratives by fugitive slaves, antebellum newspapers, court records and slave owners' correspondence -- and its literary style.

Although Stampp's book came out during the eve of the Civil Rights movement, it was a product of thoughts and research he had been developing for at least a decade. Still, the book's theme meshed well with the temper of the times and within a few years became the generally accepted account of slavery.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who studied under Stampp in the early 1950s, said this about the book:

"What his book asked us to do was view slavery through the eyes of the slave as well as through the eyes of the slaveholders. ... The voice of slaves could no longer be denied."

For more, read Kenneth M. Stampp's obituary by The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Kenneth M. Stampp. Credit: UC Berkeley


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