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This Sunday: Van Vechten's Renaissance, Watergate, Szymborska and more

February 17, 2012 |  5:41 pm

Carl-van-vechtenHe was a critic, a novelist, a photographer and he counted among his confidants some of the most accomplished black literary figures of his day including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson. But Carl Van Vechten’s most notable role may have been the one he played as patron to the Harlem Renaissance. “Van Vechten,” writes Lynell George in her review of “Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance/A Portrait of Black & White” by Emily Bernard, “dedicated his life’s work to, as Hughes once put it, ‘all things Negro’ -- literature, theater, ragtime, jazz and blues -- nurturing art and alliances, but not without acrimony.” Bernard explores the question of whether his presence in this cultural movement was a gift or a curse: “[W]as he an insider or an intruder?” George’s review of this fascinating figure leads our Sunday book coverage.

Scott Martelle reviews Thomas Mallon’s new novel “Watergate,” (yes, that Watergate), and he frames the discussion by noting that to write history “the story needs only to be true” but to write a novel, “the story must be plausible -- an often more difficult thing to accomplish.” While many of us were alive and witnessed the broad outlines of the third-rate burglary that brought down a U.S. president, the novelist’s task here is to make it plausible. Does it work as fiction? 

The notion of truth and fiction are at the heart of David Ulin’s fascinating critic’s notebook on “The Lifespan of a Fact,” John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book -- a discussion between writer and fact-checker  -- on the issue of invention in the world of literary nonfiction. Central to the discussion is an essay that D’Agata wrote about the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower observation deck of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere hotel in 2002. The piece was commissioned by Harper’s, then rejected and picked up by the Believer after details in the piece could not be verified. And that’s the jumping-off point for the discussion.

Wislawa Szymborska died earlier this month at age 88.  Charles McNulty, The Times' Theater Critic, is fond of the Nobel laureate’s poetry and offers an appraisal that looks at the question of how someone who witnessed the inhumanity of 20th century history in Europe could transform her experience into verse that was light and accessible.

Where does our food come from? Carolyn Kellogg considers the question in her review of Tracie McMillan’s “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table,” an examination of how the food chain works in America from the bottom up.

Susan Carpenter’s YA title this week is Nina Lacour’s novel for the 14-and-older set “The Disenchantments,” which focuses on two best friends -- Bev and Colby -- who “reconcile their disparate aspirations and affections for each other.”

And we have our best-sellers lists where Suzanne Collins’ “Mockingjay” hits the one-year mark with its 52nd week on the list. But that’s not the longest current tenure on our fiction rolls. That honor goes to Collins’ “Catching Fire,” which marks its 70th week.

As we do each week, here are a couple of our offers from the daily news cycle that you may have missed in the Valentine’s Day, or whatever, madness.

Adam Tschorn reviews  “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars,” Scotty Bowers memoir with help from Lionel Friedberg, who claims to have serviced a who's who of celebrities in his role as sexual service provider to the stars. Tschorn notes that many of those named are now dead so veracity may be a bit of an issue. And Jessica Gelt talked to Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur grant winner whose first book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" was just released to wide critical praise.

And, sadly, we note that another Pulitzer winner, New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid (who won two for Mideast reporting while working for the Washington Post) died Thursday reportedly of a severe asthma attack while working inside Syria. He was 43. His loss is enormous to anyone, layman or journalist from any outlet, who appreciates excellent reporting and graceful writing. His book, “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East” was due to be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 27. It will now be available on Feb. 28.  

Thanks for reading,

Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: Carl Van Vechten in 1946. Credit: Associated Press