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A Week to Remember: Happy Birthday, Jonathan Lethem!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Graphic collage of American novelist Jonathan Lethem and two of his books Gun, with Occasional Music and The Feral Detective

Jonathan Lethem was born on February 19, 1964. Lethem is a writer of novels, short stories, and essays; his work moves freely among genres, from science fiction to detective stories.

Lethem was mixing genres from the beginning of his career. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was a hard-boiled private eye story set in a futuristic version of San Francisco and Oakland in which some animals have artificially been elevated to human intelligence levels; the detective's antagonists include a hit-man kangaroo.

Lethem would remain in science fiction for most of the 1990s. Amnesia Moon (e-book | print) is a post-apocalyptic road trip through a variety of surreal landscapes; in As She Climbed Across the Table (e-book | e-audio | print), a young woman falls in love with a black hole; and Girl in Landscape (e-audio | print) puts a teenaged girl and her overprotective father into an SF variation on the classic western The Searchers.

Lethem's breakthrough to a larger mainstream audience came in 1999 with the detective novel Motherless Brooklyn (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), in which a private eye with Tourette syndrome attempts to solve the murder of his boss. The novel won the National Books Critics Circle Award, and a film adaptation is due to be released later this year.

The Fortress of Solitude (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), published in 2003, is a semi-autobiographical novel about two boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s. The novel explores the subcultures that form around certain music and artists, and Lethem adds elements of superhero fantasy to the story. Lethem continued to explore the world of superheroes as the author of a 10-issue revival of the Marvel Comics character Omega the Unknown (print).

three book covers of Jonathan Lethem

Lethem says that his 2007 novel Chronic City (e-book | e-audio | print) was influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, and Hitchcock's Vertigo; it follows a former child star and a cultural critic as a series of inexplicable events take place in Manhattan. Dissident Gardens (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) follows the lives of several generations in a family of political activists; A Gambler's Anatomy (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) tells the story of a professional backgammon player who undergoes experimental surgery.

Lethem's short fiction has also spanned a range of genres. His early stories in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (e-book | print) are strongly influenced by science fiction; the stories in Kafka Americana (print), a collaboration with Carter Scholz, are inspired by the life and stories of Franz Kafka.

His comfort with genre-blending, Lethem has said, comes from his father, a painter whose work mixed realism and abstraction. In recent years, he has become less interested in critical discussion of the genre aspects of his writing, saying "I've come to feel that talking about categories, about 'high' and 'low,' about genre and their boundaries and the blurring of those boundaries, all consists only of an elaborate way to avoid actually discussing what moves and interests me about books—my own, and others'."

Lethem has also published several collections of essays. The title essay from The Ecstasy of Influence (e-book | print) is one of his most controversial. In it, he argues that it is impossible for any artist to create without being influenced by others and that these influences and borrowings are to be celebrated and encouraged. The controversy derived largely from Lethem's choosing to label his arguments about influence as a defense of "plagiarism."

His most recent essay collection, More Alive and Less Lonely (e-book | print), is a collection of essays on books and writers. It's not his first venture into cultural criticism; his 2010 They Live (e-book | print) is a series of essays on John Carpenter's 1988 B-movie.

In 2017, Lethem ventured into songwriting, as the co-writer of most of the songs on Lee Ranaldo's Electric Trim. His most recent collection of stories is Lucky Alan and Other Stories (e-book | e-audio | print | audio); his most recent novel is The Feral Detective (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), which returns Lethem to the world of private eyes, this time set in Los Angeles.

Also This Week

February 20, 1954

Patricia Hearst was born. Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a domestic terrorist organization. During her time in captivity, she participated in bank robberies and other crimes of the SLA. Prosecutors charged her for those crimes, arguing that she had taken part voluntarily. Hearst was sentenced to seven years in prison; that sentence was commuted to time served by President Carter, and she was later pardoned by President Clinton. Jeffrey Toobin explores the complicated story of Hearst and the SLA in American Heiress (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

February 20, 1984

Trevor Noah was born. Noah made his first appearances as a correspondent on the satirical news program The Daily Show in 2014 and has hosted the show since 2015. Noah was born in South Africa, the son of an interracial couple whose relationship was illegal under the apartheid laws then in effect. He writes about his parents and his childhood in the memoir Born a Crime (e-book | print | audio).

February 23, 1994

Dakota Fanning was born. Fanning began her acting career as a child, and was the youngest person ever nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award at the age of seven, for I Am Sam. Fanning has worked steadily in film and television for almost twenty years, successfully making the transition from child star to adult roles. She stars with Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves, about a group of radical environmental activists.

February 21 is International Mother Language Day

UNESCO has observed this day each year since 2000. As a handful of languages come to dominate international politics, commerce, and entertainment, International Mother Language Day is a reminder that all languages have value, and that the promotion of international communication should not mean the extinction of languages spoken by smaller groups of people. In Lingo (e-book | print), Gaston Dorren looks at the linguistic characteristics of sixty European languages, not only large ones like English and German, but also smaller languages, including Yiddish, Manx, Esperanto, and Ossetian.