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Writers bring a lifetime of experience to the page

2013 was a very good year for writers with many years behind them.

When she was 81 years old, author Alice Munro published her 16th short story collection, "Dear Life," and told Canadian news outlets that she was done with writing. At 82, after she won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, Munro admitted she might not be ready to quit after all. "I have promised to retire but now and then I get an idea," she told the Wall Street Journal.

Writing is an art that, with persistent ideas and enduring talent, can be carried on for a lifetime. 2013 saw a bounty of excellent books from writers long past the official retirement age. Here are a few that make inspiring gifts for young and old, starting with the most senior.

Theodora Getty Gaston turned 100 shortly after her memoir "Alone Together" (Ecco, $26.99) was published. It was the first book for the fifth and last wife of J. Paul Getty, and she remains a charming redhead. Her remarkable life story includes a privileged but troubled childhood, meeting Getty while she was a nightclub singer and studying opera in Europe, which might have led to a career had World War II not broken out. Instead, she was thrown into an Italian prison before returning home to the U.S.

She writes openly of affairs on both sides, their son's tragic illness, and she provides a slice of life — of a particularly strong-willed young woman — in Los Angeles and New York from the 1920s to the 1950s.

It's been a decade since we've seen new work from the author of "Little Big Man," Thomas Berger. This year the 94 year old author published "Abnormal Occurrences" (Open Road Media, $14.99), a short story collection that showcases Berger's absurdist sense of humor. In a very up-to-date twist, it's available only as an e-book.

Philosopher, critic and challenging fiction writer William Gass, now 89, has published six novels and eight major works of criticism. In 2013 he again turned his relentless intellect to fiction with "Middle C" (Knopf, $28.95). Saying this is a novel about an Austrian émigré who grows up in the American Midwest and becomes a professor of music — which it is — doesn't really hint at the book's layered lies and truths, its delight in language, its digressions, suppressions, ironies and insights. And the dialogue can be funny. It's the kind of book that will be enjoyed by the ambitious reader in your life.

And then there's James Salter, 88, who published his best-known novel, "A Sport and a Pastime" (about an affair, not sports), back in 1967. Salter has written many things, including screenplays, and after a 35-year break returned to fiction in April with "All That Is" (Knopf, $26.95). The book begins at the end of World War II and follows a quiet, literary man through the arc of his life: love, marriage, friendship, loss. In some places vigorously virile, in others, melancholic and beautiful, Salter captures small moments with vivid depth.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary founder of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore and publishing house, is still going strong at 94. The man who brought us Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" will publish a slender new collection of poems, "Blasts Cries Laughter," with New Directions in January 2014. It may not be printed in time to wrap the book up and put it under a tree, but it's available for pre-order now — a sign that even nonagenarian writers are planning for the future.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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