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So you know the Best American Essays book series that comes out each year? And how there’s a list of the top 100 essays published that year near the back of the book? I’m on that list! It’s for the first creative nonfiction piece I published, which appeared in The Gettysburg Review.
The weird thing is that no one bothered to tell me I was on the list, right there with people like Jamaica Kincaid, Michael Cunningham, David Sedaris, and Sherman Alexie. I only found out because my high school friend’s mom noticed it and told her and then she told me last night.
I didn’t believe her, I said, “Sorry, but I think they would have let me know.” But, it just so happens that my dad gave me the Best American Essays of 2007 for Christmas, and the very book was sitting a few yards away from me. I opened it up and there I was. It was kind of like magic.
Anyway, it is kind of a big deal for me. Especially considering how doubtful I can be about the whole quitting-my-job-to-write-things decision, this makes me feel a little more legit. I mean, there are way more than 100 American creative nonfiction writers and there were way, way more than 100 essays published in America as year. I’ve got a chance!
I come from a family of scientists: my parents both have doctorates in microbiology, my brother’s field is bioinformatics (the double-nerd study of biology and computer science), and my sister is currently studying psychology. I grew up on science, I love science – it just happens that I’m a writer. Alas.
As a science family, though, we all deeply love Oliver Sacks. My dad (who also has the writing gene somewhere in there) discovered him years ago and all of us grew up reading his books, with our family-owned dog-eared copy of An Anthropologist on Mars being our collective favorite. (You might be familiar with him from his non-fiction work Awakenings, which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro).
So, it follows that I got Sack’s new book, Musicaophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, from my dad for Christmas (my brother and sister, funnily enough, both brought copies of the same book with them to read on the plane).
Sacks is, for me, a perfect meeting of a science writer and a writer of creative non-fiction. He has an equal interest in telling an affecting, human story and with exploring how (and why) the brain works. While lots of science writing is dry and objective (as it should be) and while mainstream feature writing often ignores the more complicated science stuff, Sacks is a rare talent who has a penchant for story telling and for explaining the newest research on the brain. He doesn’t condescend, and he doesn’t mind forming personal relationships with his subjects.
In Musicophilia, Sacks focuses on the mysterious and fascinating connection between music and the brain. Through studying musical oddities in patients, he hopes, we can hope to better understand our greater relationship with music – something that, although it is universal among cultures, doesn’t seem to have a clear function or origin.
For example, the book opens with a middle-aged man who is struck by lightening. He isn’t badly hurt, but since the accident, he’s been obsessed with the urge to play the piano. He’s never really played before or had an interest in music, but suddenly he’s up all night composing and trying to get better. Why has this happened? Why is he unaffected except for this urge, which takes over his life? Brain scans show that his left frontal lobe has been damaged and Sacks hypothesizes that the left hemisphere of the brain might actually inhibit the more creative and musical right side of the brain. Left brain damage might lead to more “freedom” in the right brain.
The book moves on from there to cover a huge spectrum of diseases, phenomenones, and rarities – spanning from music therapy for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, to people who suffer from musical hallucinations, to people with perfect pitch, to people with amusica (to them, music sounds like noise – Nabokov suffered from it), to musical savants. The structures of the chapters are very satisfying to me: they start with a story of an individual and then, by the end of the segment, lead to a more general description of the science behind the patient’s symptoms.
One of the more fascinating chapters covers children with William’s Syndrome, which affects about one out of 10,000 people. These people, who all have strangely elfin features, suffer from severe mental disabilities: they can’t add 5 + 3, they can’t draw a square, they can’t tie their shoes. They have IQs around 60. However, they also tend to be very verbal, very social, and exceptionally musical. Most have perfect pitch and start composing as toddlers. Unlike some cases of severe autism who show a more mechanical and isolated musical talent, patients with William’s Syndrome love to play music in groups – within a community. Sacks visits a camp for children with William’s Syndrome – which is a constant drum circle, sing-along, and musical wrapped up in one.
As in all of his tales, Sacks is sure to find the hope and humanity in even the most difficult patients. One man, an amnesiac who has a short-term memory of only a few seconds, can only stay present within himself while he plays the piano.
More importantly, Sacks doesn’t see his patients as freaks or abnormalities who are simply interesting to read about, but rather as windows into how we can collectively understand how we function. In Musicophilia, I was truly moved by what I read – both by the humanity of the patients and by the awesomeness of the science.
Here are a few things I’m suspicious of:
- A book with two authors. It’s kind of like having too many cooks in the kitchen.
- A book in which one of the two authors is the main subject of the book.
- A book in which even though one of the authors is the main subject of the book, the book is written in third person.
- Cultural imperialism.
With these four suspicions in mind, I started in on Three Cups of Tea, which was my book club’s choice for this month. Mortenson is a quirky do-gooder who commits himself to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to educate the poor (especially the girls) who are so often lost in the rural mountains of these isolated areas. He started his quest after stopping in a small village after failing to climb K2 in the early 1990s and since then has built over 50 schools, health centers, and women’s centers.
There were lots of things I liked about this book. First off, I love reading adventure stories about far-away places, and learning more about the variety of cultures in Islamic Pakistan and various other -stans was enough to pull me all the way through the book. I also love reading about single-minded esoteric people with crazy missions who stop at nothing to accomplish their goals. Thirdly, I love the idea of fighting the war on terror through education instead of fighting – it seems like it will be more successful long-term and way less expensive, not to mention way, way, less violent.
I’m not sure I was so hot on the book itself – the writing wasn’t interesting (and it had so many chances to be) and, more importantly, the book was terribly skewed in Mortenson’s direction. He’s referred to as a hero at least a few times a chapter and praised non-stop by the people around him. Only smaller sub-prose hints clue you in to the real negative stuff – which I’m as interested in as the positive stuff: Mortenson is kind of crazy and obsessed, he has trouble with delegating jobs to people and handling money, he unapologetically spends months and months away from his family in Montana. He seems to be hurting his health in order to continue with his cause.
Now, I think these negatives could have been dealt with well by the authors – I don’t think any hero is all good or absolutely flawless. In fact, most people who have ever accomplished great things have more than his or her share of weirdo personal problems. I would have loved for the book to explore his flaws in light of his accomplishments instead of brushing his flaws to the side and dropping the Hero-bomb over and over again.
By the end of the book, I felt pretty good about his mission in general, thought. I haven’t taken any developmental studies classes and I don’t know much about rural development, but I can’t see how building schools and educating girls could possibly hurt anything. I was impressed by the way Mortenson adapted to the Islamic culture – learning the languages, dressing the part, and even learning to pray to Allah. He didn’t seem into forcing Western ideas onto the villages, beyond simple wants to educate and equalize.
More than that, though, I was interested in learning about how the Taliban is using the same tactics as Mortenson in order to win support in these rural areas – and they are winning. They have already established tons of schools called madrassas in these places, barring women and teaching only Islam and warfare. They also offer something that is rare in these isolated areas: paid employment. If Mortenson is right, giving these people options other than joining the Taliban, and giving them schools where you learn basic skills instead of extremist propaganda, might be the best step toward a long-term solution for everyone.
I just wish the book had been less one-sided and had a little more depth. It seemed like they were hammering three or four main points over and over again instead of getting inside the issues and really exploring how these schools are changing the region – beyond hyperbole and anecdote.
Only one author on earth can produce from me the following sentence: “Yeah, I’m reading this book called Despair about an insane murderer with no respect for human life, and it is HILARIOUS.” That author is Nabokov.
In this, one of his lesser-known works, the egotistical and foppish narrator confesses to murdering someone who looks exactly like him in an attempt to collect his own life insurance money (and, more subconsciously, to rid the world of his weird doppelganger). Of course, Vladdy isn’t satisfied with a straight-up story, and slowly reveals that the first-person narrative we’ve been reading is really only just scraping surface of what actually took place.
As always with Nabokov, the language is beautiful and you are sure to learn at least a few new and awesome vocabulary words. You are also sure to either 1) write a bunch of new fiction with a weak, pseudo-retarded version of Nabokov’s style or 2) become paralyzed completely.
Despair was one of his earlier novels, written in Russian in 1932 and then translated into English (by Nabokov himself, the goddamn genius) with extensive edits, in 1965. It’s absolutely fascinating to see a younger, less experienced Nabokov write – you can see all of the seeds of his future works. The themes that he returns to so often during the latter part of his career — mirroring, unreliable narrators, unlikable protagonists, mistaken identities, dark humor, botched violence – are here, too, a little more apparent and a little less smooth and adept.
As a writer, I was happy to see a lower-level Nabokov – unlike in say, Pale Fire, where it is hard to pinpoint how he is pulling off the literary tricks he pulls off, in Despair, it’s a little easier to look into Nabokov’s mind and see the blueprints he was working with. For example, while it is hard to tell how he so subtlety reveals that Pale Fire‘s protagonist is delusional, in Despair, I could pick up on specific techniques he was using to create Hermann, the book’s unreliable narrator. It’s sort of like watching a magic trick before the magician has perfected it — you can maybe glimpse a trap door or a string and get a clue as to how to execute it yourself.
And while the exacting and masterful art of his later books is partially missing, his weird, twisted humor is on full display from the first page to the last. It might be the best kind of joke – 240 pages of non-stop dramatic irony which becomes more and more obvious with each page (all while the “author” is forced to continue complicating the story in order to continue deluding himself). And even while Nabokov can pull off a novel-length leg-pull, he also appreciates and condones the lowest forms of humor – puns and fart jokes. There truly was never a greater writer, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
After seeing the Scott McFarland exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago, I decided to learn more about the history of photography. Luckily for me, Geoff Dyer’s latest book, The Ongoing Moment, recently came out in paperback and is about just that.
The book looks at the entire history of photography, focusing mostly on pictures taken in the United States by Americans. Of course, since it’s a book by Geoff Dyer, it isn’t your normal dry study of the art – its fluid chapters focus on reoccurring images (hats, hands, signs, benches, backs, stairs, etc.) that tie noted photographers together (Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus). The result is a somewhat successful look at how photographers have “conversed” not only through actual, physical meetings and relationships, but also through emulation and homage, whether conscious or unconscious.
The book is a great introductory for someone like me, who could only named one or two famous photographers and even then couldn’t tell you much about them ( like, “Ansel Adams likes mountains”). Dyer, who is isn’t so much an expert in photography as someone with a deep interest, doesn’t assume you know anything, and doesn’t try to teach you everything so much as to conduct closer studies about certain pictures or sets of pictures while quoting from various art critics and theorists.
Although I appreciated the book and learned a lot, though, it’s certainly not Dyer’s best work. Unlike Out of Sheer Rage and But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, this effort is a bit drier and a bit less creative. Dyer mentions in his acknowledgments that his wife through this book didn’t have enough of him in it, and I agree – what has made his books unique (and so loved by me) is the integration of his journey researching the book with the final product – his discovery of the information and his own interest in the people behind the art he discusses makes him a truly different and innovative writer. The Ongoing Moment, though, is a more traditional approach, and, therefore, a bit harder to wade though.
There are moments when Dyer slips into his natural style – the chapters about Stieglitz, his wife Georgia O’Keefe, his protégé Strand, and Strand’s his wife Rebecca (who looked eerily like O’Keefe) are the best in the book. Through various nudes that the two photographers took of each other’s wives, Dyer illustrates the somewhat weird, somewhat touching love-square that the four shared (which finally ended with the two women abandoning their husbands for each other). It’s Dyer doing what he is best at – tying art to the personal lives of artists just as he ties may of his own books’ subjects to himself, the author. Especially after reading these chapters, the rest of the book left me wanting as much heart as I found with these four.
Still, it was a great way to learn some of the basics of American photography and some of the ideas and philosophies that surround and inspire it. It might also be an interesting read for someone who does know a lot about photography but is interested in the connections and conflicts between some of the better-known photographers over the last hundred or so years.
In the book, Dyer writes about how some photographs are more about the subjects while others are more by the photographer (is this photography more of Queen Elizabeth or by Cecil Beaton?). In The Ongoing Moment, I’ll say that it is more about photography than by Geoff Dyer. Personally, I’d rather read a book that is more by Geoff Dyer – Such as Out of Sheer Rage or his essays, Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it. Although I doubt I’d be more interested in a book about photography written by anyone else.
I must have been living under a rock this last week (or, more accurately, living with my face in a great book) because today was the first time I heard of the Kindle, the new “ebook” released by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. It’s the size of a paperback, it can download books off the net, among other reading-related functions, and it cost $399.
News of the thing is suddenly everywhere. Today, while talking on the phone with my mom and checking my email at the same time, she asked me what I thought about it at the same time that my dad emailed me wondering my reaction to it. Upon arriving home this evening to curl up with my (hardcopy of) Newsweek, Kindle was on its cover. I took the hint and read the article.
What do I think of Kindle? Well, first off, I find it kind of weird that it’s named after something that starts a fire (a non-ebook burning fire?). Secondly, I’m not sure what to think.
My first impulse is to push it away. I love books. I also love bookcases and bookmarks and bookstores and book lights and bookends. Aren’t they good enough as they are – that is, totally wonderful? Why would I want a piece of cold, buzzing technology in my hands instead of a soft, fluttering book, each with its own scent and texture and font?
My second thought was that this rejection of new things was exactly how I felt about other things that are now not so new: cell phones (if I want to call someone, I can do it at home!), laptops (it doesn’t feel like I’m using a computer!), DVD players (it’s a fad like laserdiscs!). Maybe I wasn’t giving Kindle a chance.
The most interesting part of the Newsweek article (which I recommend you read, in whatever form suits you) was a first-person account by Steven Levy of using the device to read a few books – a real world test run. There were some surprising pros that had me thinking a little differently: 1) Since Kindle connects to something called the wireless Whispernet, you can download books from wherever you want, whenever you want – no more getting stuck without a book 2) you can subscribe to newspapers and magazines for a fraction of the cost 3) you can search your books for keywords or passages and 4) unlike I would have guessed, the reading experience is pretty similar to reading a regular old book.
On the downside, it seems to have a few too many buttons and, like all devices of this kind and unlike regular old books, runs on a battery that has to be recharged every now and again. I guess the thing that bothers me a bit is that I don’t want people to try and make reading “easier” or “more fun” or “more like surfing the web”. I don’t want reading to become a victim of a gimmick or of trends (screens are everywhere – we should have screens instead of books!)
Really, though, I don’t want to be the old lady that gets left behind in the eDust. You know, the lady who refuses to use the self check out at the grocery store even though the line’s a lot shorter? Or the lady who I cannot, for the life of me, explain the concept of Netflix to? The Kindle could save students tons of money on textbooks for example. The Kindle could save trees. The Kindle could change more than how books are read, but how they are written.
What I’m getting at is that I can’t fathom my life without books – lying all over my apartment, weighing down my bag, dominating my Christmas list. But I also couldn’t fathom what the hell the internet was even ten years ago and now it’s an almost vital part of my life. One thing that I really love about my mother is that through her life she’s always embraced new gadgets – she tells us about her first ten-pound calculator, or how they saved to buy one of the first VCRs – the kind that loaded from the top. It’s an important part of life to be curious, learn new concepts, and accept change and innovation.
Let’s see how things go. It’s way too expensive right now, but I’m not going to shut the idea of the Kindle out. On one hand, I’m not convinced that Bezos has reinvented the printing press. On the other hand, I don’t want to be like that old lady in second century Rome who didn’t think anything could truly replace her precious scrolls.
In World War II England, 13-year-old Briony Tallis misinterprets her older sister’s love affair with their family’s gardener to be something much worse than what it is. Her innocence and partial understanding of the world begins a chain of events that tears the family apart and alters the course of the rest of the girl’s life.
Sounds a little dry, right? Wrong! I guess I forgot to mention that the book was written by Ian McEwan, the king of uncomfortable moments, weird sex stuff, the rotating third-person close perspective, and – I’ll say it! – writing about the human psyche. While I’ve found some of his earlier books to be a little too uncomfortable (or, rather, too uncomfortable without good reason) or a little too sexually deviant (again, in the way that it seemed for shock value rather than for a reason), this was a freaking masterpiece. My definition of a masterpiece: I was jealous while reading it and cried while reading the last page.
I think the one thing that makes this book so wonderful is McEwan’s eerily accurate understanding of how a 13-year-old girl’s mind works – her understanding of the world and her emotional reaction to it. Briony is trapped between childhood and adulthood. She’s old enough to recognize the dark and startling behind-the-scenes facets of her proper British family’s life, but not old enough to properly analyze or judge them. She’s old enough to impose her will and her ideas on others, but not wise enough to know when to act or when to question herself. It’s a frustrating and fascinating (and uncomfortable) time, and he has it down pat.
McEwan also experiments with structure in ways that are truly innovative and new without being gimmicky. Briony is an aspiring writer who grows and develops her style throughout the 60 years that the novel covers, and McEwan’s novel mirrors her literary growth. Part One of the story is extremely traditional (broken into chapters, with a clear rotation of perspectives and a uniform chronology). Parts Two and Three are much more modern – the story, which switches gears to follow the gardener into WWII France and Briony to her experiences as a nurse in London, loses structure and fluidity and uses more modern storytelling techniques. Finally, the last section is utterly contemporary – the story becomes even more abstract, with unreliable narrators and more conceptual writing favored over simple narrative.
And yet these games with structure and story and perspective in no way take your focus from the story and the characters. Instead, they add to the experience of watching the main character grow and develop.
If the book suffers from anything, it might be a little slow in some places and move too fast in others. Since McEwan tends to be very thorough when it comes to interior thought, the story often slows down a bit more than it should so that he can explain how every single person felt about a certain moment in time (although the story spans 60 years, the first 200 pages span a single afternoon and evening). The slow story is a necessary evil, though, if we want to keep the detailed character studies in place. And we do. And the action-filled second half of the book, which covers the British retreat from the Germans in 1940 and the over-capacity army hospitals of London, makes up for the sometimes austere and rigorous first half. It just takes a while to get the story rolling.
Overall, if I were you, I’d get this book and read it over Thanksgiving break.
I don’t know how, but I got through all of high school and college in America without reading a word of Willa Cather. It all worked out for the best though, since ten years ago I would have probably found her work like, totally boring and about farming and the human condition, or whatever.
I picked up My Antonia a few months ago and loved it to bits – to me, nothing beats stories written in ordinary language about ordinary people. Mix in some bleak, sweeping plains, some overtly lesbian action, and, yes, some awesome stuff about the human condition, and I’m happy.
O Pioneers! was written five years after My Antonia and you can pretty much tell. The story, while similar, is a bit more fantastic and formulaic – Cather studied a lot of Henry James early in her life, and you can tell. Everything is a little simpler and more straightforward in this book — the themes are more concrete, the storyline moves forward steadily, and the ending is clear-cut.
Still, though, there is some beautiful, wonderful stuff happening. The flat, blank unrelenting landscape makes for a great setting in that the characters are very much on their own – affected only by the weather and by each other. There’s not much out in Nebraska during this time period besides sod and humanity, and Cather knows how to write about both.
It’s one of those books where you want to underline things, all the time, like this: “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country that have been singing the save five notes over for thousands of years. The young people, they live so hard. And yet I sometimes envy them.” Or this, on the very next page, about problem with being free: “Freedom so often means one isn’t needed anywhere.”
And throughout so much of the book, I couldn’t help reeling at how ahead of her time Cather seemed: about women, about education, about religion. And, although it can never be confirmed, since she destroyed all of her personal papers before her death, it seems that Cather was one of the first authors to write about gay rights (but do we really need solid proof? Check out her author photo, for goodness sakes!). For example, in O Pioneers! the moral center of the book is an old man named Ivar. Ivar, whose love and understanding of animals makes him integral to the community, is also mostly mad due to a vague temptation of the body that is never named. He always walks barefoot to punish his body for what he is feeling and constantly reads the Bible for comfort – he has sacrificed his freedom to love in order to reach eternal paradise when he dies.
The book, ultimately, is about the constraints of freedom — being constrained in some respects in order to be free in others – and how getting older means choosing which freedoms you can live with best. Too bad I never got the chance to write a five-page high school essay on this.
Jim Shephard is often called a writers’ writer. I was never sure what that was supposed to mean, exactly, except that he seemed to be extremely popular in MFA program curriculums, but not an author you would often see someone reading on the subway – kind of like a cool band that you’ve never heard of. Except replace “cool band” with “nerdy writer.”
A year or two ago, Ben and I were lucky enough to drink a few tumblers of whisky with Jim Shepard and talk about writing. His body of short stories has had a huge influence on Ben’s writing and he is, in all respects, an enormously great teacher and contemporary writer. When the students in our MFA program got a chance to pick a visiting writer, Ben jumped on the chance to meet the guy in person – to attend a workshop, to listen to a lecture, to share some whisky.
When we asked him about what being a writers’ writer might mean, he took a nice long sip from his glass and told us he thought it was equally as baffling as we did – and then said that it might just be a polite way of saying he wasn’t all that popular. But here we are, a little over a year later, and Shepard’s newest book of short stories, Like You’d Understand Anyway, has just been short-listed for the National Book Award and gotten glowing reviews from everyone and everywhere you can think of. Finally, he seems to be on the radar. And I couldn’t be happier.
Like You’d Understand Anyway is a collection of all first-person short stories, though the similarities between them end there. The settings and time periods range from the site of Hadrian’s Wall during the late Roman Empire, to present day Alaska, to Chernobyl during the nuclear meltdown, to gothic France, to summer camp in 1960s America.
In these stories, Shepard does something that very, very few contemporary do these days: he uses his imagination and has fun. No, you won’t find stories here about a struggling writer in New York City wrestling with ennui or a writing professor who longs for his younger days in Europe. You’ll find adventure stories of failed expeditions in the Australian outback and totally awesome hunts by lackluster Nazis for evidence of the yeti in Tibet during World War II. Each story is lovingly researched and each narrator has such surprisingly authentic and passionate voices that you’ll often slip into simply believing what you read. The acknowledgements section for the book is a list of about 50 non-fiction books – if anything, Shepard is a readers’ writer.
Throughout the book, Shepard proves so many of his writing peers wrong: contemporary literature doesn’t have to be boring, and writing from experience doesn’t mean that you have to write about yourself. You can write a self-reflective story that has a lot of action. You can take thoughts and feelings that you’ve had and transfer them to different places and times.
And that’s the real beauty of the stories: Shepard has a genuine, almost scary handle on the human condition. Think you won’t relate to a Nazi yeti seeker or the first woman in space or a rage-filled defensive end on a high school football team? You’re wrong. As far as you’re being a hopelessly flawed human, Shepard’s got your number. He has that rare writer’s talent – to find combinations of words for feelings we can’t normally find combinations of words for. He’s simply a great storyteller.
I really don’t know what else to say except that you should read the book. If you still aren’t convinced, I’ll link to the shortest story in the collection, “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian” which originally appeared online at Fail Better. It takes about five minutes to read. Ten if you read it twice.