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Book News: Politician's Story Of Growing Up Poor Wins Ondaatje Prize

Alan Johnson's <em>This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood </em>describes life with his mother and sister in public housing in London's North Kensington neighborhood.
Oli Scarff
Getty Images
Alan Johnson's This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood describes life with his mother and sister in public housing in London's North Kensington neighborhood.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Former U.K. Home Secretary Alan Johnson has won the Ondaatje prize, an annual £10,000 award for "a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place." His memoir This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood, describes his origins in the poor London neighborhood of North Kensington, in public housing with his mother and sister, a place of "peeling plaster, rotten window frames and cracked panes." Prize judge Jenny Uglow called it "a scrupulous but moving memoir of a particular area of London, with its boundaries, streets, people and poverty — you can see, and almost smell every room — which also captures the elusive spirit of place that imprints itself on a child, and is never forgotten." Johnson has held a variety of cabinet positions and was once considered a contender for the prime minister's job.
  • Rivka Galchen talks to Gawker about the experience of writing her new book: "The great thing about a first novel is that you really don't feel bad that the main person you are trying to keep amused is yourself. Writing a second book I found that I still wanted to mostly attend to whatever seemed like the stories' inner logics, but there was more of the sense that I was brushing my teeth in public. Or Q-tipping. Either way, something that is relatively private, if not excruciatingly private."
  • Freegan, crowdfunding, fracking, steampunk and hashtag are among the new words Merriam-Webster says it is adding to its Collegiate Dictionary. NPR's Alan Greenblatt reports that many of the new words focus on technology, adding, "Social media and other forms of digital expression are less formal — more like speech — than earlier written sources such as plays and political speeches that earlier generations of dictionary editors relied upon."
  • Joshua Ferris talks to The Paris Review about the difficulty of naming characters: "Names generate meaning in a short amount of space — they provoke thoughts, questions. That's something I like doing. Of course, you have to be careful. Sometimes it can alienate the reader, it can be another level of mediation, to make a character carry the great burden of a metaphoric name. The character can be a device before he or she becomes a person, and that can be a bad thing for a writer who wants to offer up a kind of emotional proximity in the work. It's a constant struggle, the desire to be playful and the desire to communicate on some very stark emotional level."
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.

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