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best essays of 2007So 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!

musicophiliaI 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.

three cups of teaHere are a few things I’m suspicious of:

  1. A book with two authors. It’s kind of like having too many cooks in the kitchen.
  2. A book in which one of the two authors is the main subject of the book.
  3. A book in which even though one of the authors is the main subject of the book, the book is written in third person.
  4. 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.

I’m not much into New Years resolutions, but I am into best-of end of the year lists. I mean, really into them. Not only do I keep detailed lists of what I read and listen to each year, but I also read everyone else’s top-ten lists and make my own. What’s the greater purpose of this, you ask? Well, I say, let’s not run around asking questions.

Since I don’t read brand-new published-in-2007 books all year long, I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite books and mention a few books you should stay away from at all costs. The complete list of what I read this year is down below – it’s shorter than most years because I spent a solid three months at the beginning of the year reading nothing but short essays. Not that I’m making excuses.

This might also be a good time to tell you about my favorite book website, GoodReads. If you’re on it, you should be my friend. And if you’re not on it and like reading (and making exhausting lists) you should join.

Also – if you read something awesome this year, leave me a comment about it so I can get my hands on it.

Without further delay…

The best book I read in 2007 that was published in 2007:
Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard.

Runner up: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. So I thought the movie that she wrote and directed You, Me, and Everyone We Know to be completely unwatchable. And I found her author photo to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. And when I was feeling cynical, I found her stories to be trying too hard and a little too focused on some sort of weird Daddy issues she might have. HOWEVER (and this is a big however) she has an unbelievable ability to describe small moments and tiny emotions. It is amazing and it is worth reading through all of the other stuff for these alone. Ignore the Aimee Bender weirdo quirky Hipster-Realism stuff and focus on the little bits of humanity.

The best book I read in 2007 regardless of when it was published: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. I had read most of Hemingway’s popular stuff over the years but hadn’t ever picked up this one. I read it while Ben was gone on a business trip and it might have been the most intense, weirdly isolating three days of my life. His writing style makes me want to give up. I sobbed while reading the last page – and I don’t usually sob over anything. I’m more of a whimperer.

Runner up: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Ben and I have been nothing less than evangelical about making our friends, family, and strangers read this book. I’ve talked to weirdos about it on the train. Ben has mailed copies across the country. We should really make a pamphlet that outlines the major points about why this book will make you love the people you love just a little bit more than you thought you could. I don’t know anyone who has taken more than 48 hours to read it.

The other runner up: West With the Night by Beryl Markham. I love reading about totally badass women and I love adventure stories. And I love beautifully written prose. I just wish I had read this book when I was 12 – it might have formed me into a better person. Buy it for your daughters and nieces. Hell, buy it for your sons and nephews.

The worst book I read in 2007 that was published in 2007: Flower Children by Maxine Swann.

The worst book I read in 2007 regardless of when it was published:
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This is also the runner up. That’s how bad it was.

The complete list (highlighted books link to my blog reviews of them)

paintingRecently I’ve been talking to Molly, a friend from college who now lives in Chicago. We share a lot of the same interests (writing, improv, reading, complaining about our jobs) and are in a similar place in our lives. She’s just re-started her blog, Bittersweet, and we thought to share some of our correspondence (this one’s about writing, non-fiction, and the internet), split between our two blogs. You can read the first half at Bittersweet and then come back over here for the second half.

Sarah, speaking of writers, over at Geek Buffet there was a post that quoted Milan Kundera as saying, “One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.” How does the culture of blogging and social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook affect our generation of writers and thinkers? Has the age of universal deafness and incomprehension arrived?

Sarah: Since I moved to New York, everyone I’ve met has claimed to be a writer. Everyone’s working on a novel, everyone’s scribbling in a journal on the train, everyone either went to an MFA program or applied or is going to apply next year. To be honest, I was bothered by it — it doesn’t you feel very special.

But then I started to see past it. Everyone has this idealistic image of what a writer does: they don’t work, they go to book parties and readings and spend their huge advances and smoke cigarettes. But like I mentioned a few weeks ago, I went to a reading recently where a person in the audience said that they were a writer, except that they didn’t write. And she was being serious. It cleared a lot of things up for me.

There won’t be a day when everyone wakes up a writer. Just like there won’t be a day when we all wake up painters or politicians or Martians. I write all day and it isn’t fun, but it’s all I know to do. We don’t go to literary events and we don’t smoke cigarettes and we don’t talk about the novel we’re working on (after work, at lunch,
during work) because we’re embarrassed by this problem we have: writing.

As for being deafened by the sheer volume of people writing words these days, I’ll bring back the painter metaphor. Anyone can cover a canvas in paint, but I will never, ever be able to paint a picture that moves someone. I read an article recently in the New York Times about a woman who found a priceless painting leaning against a dumpster in New York. She said that when she saw it she didn’t want to carry it, didn’t have room for it in her apartment, and she knew it was worthless. But it spoke to her and she couldn’t help but carry that painting home, against all of her logic. We’ll always be able to hear the best, real writing over the din.

(the painting is pictured above, “Tres Personajes” by Rufino Tramayo)

Molly, I’ve just talked about the writing community in New York and how I find writing to ultimately be a solitary and lonely act. What parts of your writing life do you share with a community and which do you keep to yourself? Is being a writer something you can teach, or is it innate?

Molly: Writing is such a strange and contradictory practice, because it isolates you in the very act of reaching out to communicate. We write to share our stories, to add our voices to the global discussion, and yet to do so we must separate ourselves from the world. And not only are you physically apart from people as you sit with your notebook or your computer screen, but you’re also mentally apart; while the rest of your friends are laughing over beers together, you’re planning your next essay or story in your head. It can be incredibly lonely.

I’m currently taking a writing workshop through Story Studio Chicago, which has been a great experience simply for the opportunity to talk with other writers about all the boring writerly questions that don’t interest my friends and family very much. It’s been interesting, too, workshopping the first chapters of my new novel with them, when with my first novel maybe one person got to see it before I had a working second or third draft of the entire manuscript. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to find a few fantastic people willing to read my work and give me incredibly thoughtful, detailed feedback about that. So I do feel that I’ve created a good little community of support and critique for myself, but it took me a long time to do so. I spent a lot of time writing in the dark, writing by and for myself, and I think that was just as critical as the community is now.

As for whether being a writer is something you can teach, yes and no. I think you can absolutely teach techniques and ways to focus your writing, ways to strengthen it, to sharpen it. In my writing group, I’m seeing a lot of manuscripts that could benefit from attention to some very simple elements: setting, dialogue, pacing… things easily covered in a class.

However, what can’t be taught, I think, is the sheer will – the need – to write. Can you be taught to keep going after a million rejections? Can you be taught to ignore the people who laugh at you or tell you to grow up and get a real job? Can you be taught to – after any success or failure, no matter how small or large – come home and set the pen once more to the page? Probably not. It’s a cliché, but I really can’t imagine anyone becoming a writer unless some deep, hidden part of them tells them that they have no choice. That they must.