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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!

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.

despair nabokovOnly 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.

kindleI 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.

You can read the Newsweek article in full here (due to the wonders of technology). 

atonement coverIn 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.

Read my review of Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach.

I have trouble finding the right way to have conversations about books. Book clubs usually bother me. And while getting my MFA, the three required 500-level literature seminars I took probably rank among the least favorite and most useless hours of my entire life. Literature classes are too much about showing off, about making other people in the class feel bad, about assuming that the author and his work fit perfectly into certain genres, time periods, and trends. Literature classes too often assume that any book read in a literature class is perfect and that the author knew exactly what he or she was doing with every single word. Not to mention that literature classes are usually way too serious and seriously boring.

On the other hand, book clubs suffer from different but equally bad problems. Too often the discussion disintegrates into emotional reactions – like which characters we liked or didn’t like, as if these characters really existed. Too often after that, the conversation too quickly deteriorates into talking about boys or shoes. Usually, these book clubs take place in quaintly quirky coffee houses with mismatched chairs, $5 espressos, and music that is just a little cooler than the music you listen to. Without exception, these coffeehouses have punny names like “The Daily Grind” or “Not Your Average Joe” or “See You Latte.”

So, you can imagine my horror yesterday, walking to a tea house called “Subtle Tea” to meet with my work-related book club for the first time. As I walked into the place, esoteric trip-hop music on the stereo (which was a just little cooler than my music ) and Mac laptops covering every flat surface (way, way cooler than my Mac laptop), my hopes were not high. Even though I wanted to talk about the book, I wasn’t sure I was ready to be disappointed again. You might even say I was filled with a deep Apa Tea.

But what followed, to my delight, was a pretty intelligent and fun discussion of the book we read (it was Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics – you can read my review here). No one got interrupted, no one talked too much, no one said “semiotic” or “paradigm” or “post post modern.” Someone brought chocolate.  

It reminded me that, even though most organized book-talking sessions go wrong somehow, getting to talk about what you’re reading with a diverse group of people is something to work toward, even if it means sitting within earshot of a hipster knitting circle discussing skinny jeans. Not only do you get to ask questions and hear about totally different and interesting readings of the book, but I also find myself reading the book more closely before the discussion and getting more out of it. The whole thing filled me with hope and got me totally excited about next month’s book, Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

After the meeting, I met my friend Amanda and we got talking about books, too – a new short story writer she’s discovered, her first experience with Dos Passos. And when I got home, I talked with Ben about the short story I read on the train that he had recommended. Here I was thinking that I never get to talk about books, when really I spent the whole night doing it with one person or another, in one way or another.

My friends, I suppose, make up a more loose-knit un-official book club – we often borrow and lend books to each other, argue over this or that author, talk about this or that review or trend. And I think that’s just as rewarding and just as important. I supposed the only difference is that our book club meets in bars. Bars with more straightforward names like “Cheap Shots” and “Why Not?”

Either way, I’m glad I now have both venues.