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Janet Malcolm 

Reading Janet Malcolm is like having a conversation with one's ideal best friend. She is a staffer at the New Yorker, an essayist and writer known for her wit, exuberance and-occasionally-horridness.  In her latest collection of essays, Forty-One False Starts, Malcolm is at her shining best, empathetic but never sentimental, clever but never a show-off. She follows Orwell's dictum of not using a long word when a short one will do, and so her prose (as she herself praises William Shawn's) is "profoundly intelligent and utterly intelligible". 

Her sentences glitter with waspish aphorisms, like the sun catching the tips of waves on an already sparkling sea: the artist David Salle's modernist apartment has "a slight sense of quotation marks" about it. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf's nephew, writing about Bloomsbury, is "an upper servant [who] has been with the family for a great number of years". Irving Penn's late work falls prey to "the perils of renown". 

Malcolm is most famous for her books on biography, Chekhov and psychoanalysis (quite the line-up) and these are themes she touches on throughout. Journalism doesn't equip one for autobiography-writing because of "memory's autism, its passion for the tedious". Charleston is "Chekhovian — as perhaps all country houses situated in precariously unspoiled country, with walled gardens and fruit trees and not enough bathrooms are". Cigarettes, in Salinger at least, "have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention . . . [They are] inanimate yet animatable."

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