Friday, April 18, 2014

My Mistake by Daniel Menaker

After graduating from Swarthmore (he wanted Dartmouth, like his brother Mike - Mike of the "dazzling smile" - but his debonair father and redoubtable mother insisted he go to Swarthmore where they had met), Menaker started as a fact checker at The New Yorker in 1969. He soon moved on to the position of editor, a job he held  for over 20 years, in spite of the magazine’s legendary chief editor, William Shawn, advising him early on to find a job elsewhere.

In addition to editing at The New Yorker, Menaker also wrote for the magazine and for many other publications. Later in his life, he was Editor-in-Chief at Random House, and he also published two books of his short stories. So the man knows his way around a sentence, and there are plenty of beautifully-crafted ones in this short, simple, and very moving memoir about his life in publishing, his family, and his cancer. That last bit made me sit up straight certainly, but as he has recently had his fourth "clean" CT scan, he is happy and hopeful, even pointing out the diseases’ good aspects ("It allows you to dodge onerous commitments, it strengthens friendships"). His illness is also the reason he has written this lovely book, in which he takes stock of his life.

And cancer aside (OK, it’s a big aside. . .) it’s been a much better than average life, complete with a loving family, an interesting and successful career, and a love affair with words; all this in spite of the pall cast by his brother’s death after a family football game on Thanksgiving 1967. Menaker usually had played backfield in the annual family game, but that year, he goaded his brother, who had bad knees, into playing it. "My mistake," he writes of the switch in positions, also taking those two simple words to be the title of his memoir. His brother tore a ligament in the game, which resulted in surgery, which resulted in a blood infection that killed him when he was not yet 30 years old.

His brother’s death haunts him over the course of his life, and he makes many references to it throughout the book. He writes that he knows "that I didn’t take a vial of staph bacteria and pour it into the incision during surgery, and I know that the accident’s outcome was violently random and arbitrary, and I know that we all tend to take responsibility for things we aren’t responsible for. But on the other hand, try not to tell me that there’s no chance that my brother would be alive today if I had not done what I did."

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