A Writer's Life by Gay Talese Knopf, $203 I can recall my excitement in 1985 when, as a new journalism instructor, I was selected to participate in the first international conference hosted by my university in Shanghai. An American delegate presented a paper on the genre pioneered by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe known as New Journalism - the art of making non-fictional reportage read like a novel. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Talese's 1966 Esquire magazine profile set the standard. Among his other celebrity portraits are those of boxing greats Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Floyd Patterson, British actor Peter O'Toole, and baseball star Joe DiMaggio. The son of an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-American mother, Talese grew up in a New Jersey resort town and graduated from the University of Alabama. From 1956 to 1965, he reported for The New York Times before becoming a full-time, independent writer. His best-selling books include The Kingdom and the Power (1969), the inside story of The New York Times; Honor Thy Father (1971), documenting the rise and fall of the Bonanno New York mafia family; Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980), on changing sexual mores in the US; and Unto the Sons (1992), an immigrant family saga. Less than a fifth of A Writer's Life, the 74-year-old Talese's first offering in 14 years, is devoted to his personal life and career. Instead, the focus is on four stories, with one about China framing the book. When Liu Ying, a female Chinese soccer player, missed a decisive penalty kick during the China versus US Rose Bowl final in July 1999 - a match telecast live to millions in China and watched by many in the US - Talese was intrigued by what might happen to Liu. Envisioning her loss as a metaphor of Sino-US relations, he set out for China in October that year to chase the story of the 'Wrong-footed Chinese soccer maiden' and stayed five months. Such impulsiveness and dogged inquisitiveness are characteristic of his approach. Talese also provides updates on US race relations and civil rights clashes in Alabama, and Ecuadorian immigrant Lorena Bobbitt's severing of her ex-Marine Corps husband John's penis in 1993 - dubbed by the then New Yorker editor Tina Brown, for whom Talese was writing, as the 'penis chopper case'. There is a cameo by Hongkonger Jackie Ho, who, after marrying the owner of a Manhattan property, became the landlady who 'would react [to tardy renters] with the cantankerous temperament for which Cantonese women are renowned and dreaded.' Well over a decade after I first heard of him, the opportunity came to meet the well-dressed reporter. An attentive listener and processor of information, Talese is avuncular, meticulous and observant, much like his prose. He attributes his interviewing skills to having been raised around his parents' tailoring business, where 'the shop was a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother'. Perhaps not the autobiography one might expect, A Writer's Life is an outstanding piece of journalism from one of its finest practitioners.