Two simple phrases are all you need to evoke the absurdity of war and of life: "catch-22" and "So it goes." The two 1960s works that gave us these now-indispensable phrases, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, changed our idea of what a war novel could be: irreverent, caustic, comic, yet brutally realistic. Four years after Vonnegut's death, we have bestselling author (Mockingbird) Charles J. Shields's And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life; the 50th anniversary of Catch-22's publication brings Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Donald Barthelme's biographer, Tracy Daugherty.
And since publishers are gluttons for anniversaries, we also look forward to the 2012 bicentennial of the birth of the quintessential Victorian novelist in Charles Dickens: A Life by the multiaward-winning Claire Tomalin.
On a more morbid note, it is five decades since Ernest Hemingway's suicide, and NBCC-award winner Paul Hendrickson gives some insight into that tragic event in Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934–1961.
No anniversary is required for Herbert Leibowitz's much anticipated life of one of America's greatest poets, "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams.
We still know little about the inner life of first lady Pat Nixon. Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life is neither a biography nor a work of fiction. It is something more original: Beattie starts with actual facts and then lets her imagination run wild, illuminating the workings of fiction and the writer's creative process.
Someone who well understood both fiction and the creative process was Lionel Trilling. It's almost inconceivable that a classic work by one of the pre-eminent literary critics of his time could ever have been out of print. But that was the case for Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (recently reissued by New York Review Books). Why should it matter? Adam Kirsch, a senior editor at the New Republic, tells us in Why Trilling Matters in a time when many fear literature is in decline.
The equally eminent John Berger has ranged in his writings from Booker-winning fiction and art criticism to sociology. In Bento's Sketchbook, he brings the arts of seeing and reading together in discussing art as a form of storytelling that can allow us to see the world in new ways.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is the newest literary voice on this list. PW called the former sportswriter's first book, Blood Horses, "as remarkable as the finest horses it documents." Now a contributor to GQ and Harper's, Sullivan brings his unique voice and perspective to all areas of American culture in Pulphead.
Pomegranate Press has undoubtedly found a gem in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer. Gorey, whose inimitable illustrations are known to all, was contracted to illustrate a children's book by Neumeyer, and the two men shared both personal and intellectual companionship in a voluminous correspondence printed along with reproductions of decorated envelopes that Gorey sent to his friend. This will be a treasure trove to fans of both authors.
PW's Top 10 Literary Essays & Criticism
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
Charles J. Shields. Holt, Nov.
Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller
Tracy Daugherty. St. Martin's, Aug.
Charles Dickens: A Life
Claire Tomalin. Penguin Press, Oct.
Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934–1961
Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, Sept.
"Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams
Herbert Leibowitz. FSG, Oct.
Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life
Ann Beattie. Scribner, Nov.
Why Trilling Matters
Adam Kirsch. Yale Univ., Sept.
John Berger, Pantheon, Nov.
John Jeremiah Sullivan. FSG, Oct.
Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer
Edward St. John Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer. Pomegranate, Sept.