My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
Donald would’ve been an easy book to get wrong. After all, when McSweeney’s announced in early January that it would release Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott’s “high-wire allegory” on the same day as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown, the message seemed clear - Rummy is about to get waterboarded. And, some would feel, rightfully so. To many, the lines crossed by the United States in the War on Terror were not fine but coarse, and although the former administration has moved on, the ire it incited remains. But rather than exploiting this obvious emotional peg, Martin and Elliott take the high road. Donald is a smart, subtle story that provides new insight into a man at the center of it all. The plot is roughly what you’d expect. After a day of research and an evening out with friends, Donald, a former senior government official, is abducted from his study while his wife is upstairs. A team of masked gunmen hood, bind, and drug Donald, who later wakes up in a cell where he is subjected to oblique interrogations. This routine is repeated a few more times, as Donald is shuffled through a disorienting system of temporary prisons. But if bloodthirsty Rumsfeld-haters are hoping for a good killing here, they’ll be disappointed. Yes, Donald gets a bit roughed up. But he’s never waterboarded and you won’t hear him beg for mercy. This isn’t a literary flogging. Critics and columnists alike have knocked Known and Unknown for the gaps it reveals in Rumsfeld’s character. In a recent column, Maureen Dowd said that the memoir, “is like a living, breathing version of the man himself: very thorough, highly analytical, and virtually absent any credible self-criticism.” The Times’s reviewer Michiko Kakutani added, “It is a book that suffers from many of the same flaws that led the administration into what George Packer of The New Yorker has called ‘a needlessly deadly’ undertaking — that is, cherry-picked data, unexamined assumptions and an unwillingness to re-examine past decisions.” Martin and Elliott somehow anticipated those gaps, and they fill them in with Donald. In the opening scene of the novel, a young man and woman confront Donald in a library over his testimony in a commission’s report. “There are omissions in your account,” he says. “We’re looking to set baselines for productive dialogue.” In the end, productive dialogue with Donald is impossible. But it’s hard not to root for the guy a little when he’s abducted. His pluck and tougher-than-thou ethos, his old-school self-reliance, and the tenderness with which he expresses his love and concern for his wife almost render him sympathetic. But these impressions fade as Donald’s true character inexorably emerges over the course of the novel. His blind ambition and arrogance are highlighted when he considers overtaking his captors by force, mano a mano. Donald can’t see that the wrestling instincts of his youth now inhabit the 78-year-old frame of a retired bureaucrat. His love for his wife morphs into a kind of grotesque solipsism as he ultimately uses her voice to reminisce about their relationship in his prison scribbling. The fact of his doing this is not that bothersome. What’s disturbing here is the way he does it. The bottom line is I never would have married anyone until he married someone other than me. I’m sure he would have liked to live the bachelor’s life for a few more years. But he thought: Gee, I’m not going to wake up someday and say why didn’t you act faster or sooner. So it was more of an intellectual decision, not knowing that I would have waited. So the fact that we were engaged was just a big surprise to everyone. It’s not that there wasn’t passion. Of course there was. But it was always a lifelong partnership. One night, late in his captivity, the questioning young man from the opening scene in the library returns. He stands outside Donald’s cell, presumably waiting for that productive dialogue to begin. Here, what initially appeared to be self-reliance, is revealed to be mean self-righteousness. Donald barks, “These people are trained to lie. They’re trained to say they were tortured. Their training manual says so. We learned a great deal about them. Their methods. Their skill sets. We’ve learned a great deal through this process which has been humane.” The subtext here is clear –“Hey, don’t look at me; these people got what they deserved.” At a tight 110 pages, Donald is written in gorgeous prose and makes for a hypnotic read in one sitting. As Donald dines with his wife and another couple, their champagne, “looks like ice washed in gold, with perfect beads of bubbles skipping to the surface.” When Donald is abducted, the bodies around him smell, “like leeks and batteries.” “Motes of sunlight dance in his new cell,” when Donald is returned to the general population after a stint in solitary. The elegant writing coupled with Martin and Elliott’s emotional restraint allows for Donald’s ultimate point to stand in high-relief. When the person chained in darkness is dragged into the light in Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave", his eyes eventually adjust and a new reality emerges. Perhaps because he is too confident in his own perception of things or simply a relic of a simpler time, Martin and Elliott’s Donald is incapable of such adjustment. He is blinded by the realities of the world in which he finds himself.
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The story that surrounds Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel is captivating. The Sentimentalists, published by Canada’s tiny Gaspereau Press in an initial print run of 800, was the surprise winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (The Giller, for anyone who doesn’t obsessively follow the Canadian literary scene, is one of the two or three most prestigious national literary prizes to be won in Canada.) It was a year of small-press triumphs on both sides of the border: Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co) took the National Book Award, while Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press) won the Pulitzer. Skibsrud’s win made for a wonderful story—a book by a very small press, with a very small print run, beating out contenders from some of the largest publishers on earth. I was delighted, as I had been with the Gordon and Harding wins, to see a book from a small press getting such attention. And yet hype, of course, is a double-edged sword. Too much of it puts an unfair weight on any novel, particularly a quiet and poetically-written debut. Napoleon Haskell—shaky father, inconstant husband, and Vietnam vet—has been living for some years in a frankenhouse of pieced-together trailers in Fargo. He never meant to settle here, but Fargo was where he was pulled over for a DUI after he abandoned his family. He’s sick and exhausted, slightly unbalanced from the lingering effects of the war, growing old alone in a town where he never meant to stay in the first place. His daughters, the narrator and her older sister, step in and transport him to the tiny Ontario town of Casablanca where his dear friend Henry lives. Twelve houses in the town were flooded decades earlier when a dam was built. The drowned houses form a ghost village under the water, a few hundred yards from Henry’s kitchen door. Henry, at this point, is more family than friend; Napoleon was close friends with Henry’s son, Owen, who died in Vietnam, and he found Henry after an extended search in the years after the war. Napoleon and his daughters summered in Casablanca for years, starting when the narrator was a small child. The narrator is oddly ghostlike. She’s an American and she's Napoleon’s daughter, but aside from that we learn very little about her. We are given glimpses of her childhood memories and we are privy to her sadness—she arrives home one day to find the man she’d been planning on marrying having sex with another woman on the laundry pile; devastated by the infidelity, she uproots her life in New York and travels to Casablanca to stay with her father and Henry—but we never learn her occupation, or the passions and interests of her adult life, or how she manages to support herself while living illegally in Canada, or even her name. She exists to narrate. The story is Napoleon’s. The daughter’s insubstantiality is a curious choice, because Skibsrud has formidable skills in character development. In Napoleon, Skibsrud convincingly portrays a complex and difficult man. He is monstrously selfish—the kind of person who can’t remember to crack the car window when he lights a cigarette, no matter how many times his daughters beg him over the course of the interminable car ride from Fargo to Ontario—but capable of tenderness; mean on occasion, but often kind. Much of the book is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her father, but here Skibsrud has given herself a considerable challenge: it’s difficult to fully explore the nuances of a relationship when only one character is fully conveyed. Still, even if we can’t know the narrator very well, her longing to understand what made her father into the man he became is moving. She has known all her life that her father was forever altered by his experience in the Vietnam War, but he’s never spoken of it until now, in his last days in Henry’s house, when she begins to question him about the past. The Sentimentalists is concerned with themes of submergence—a drowned town, a buried past—and the theme is echoed in the structure of the book. Most of the book is given over to a slow unfolding and explication of the narrator’s childhood and her current life in Casablanca, before the faster-paced sections dealing with Napoleon’s Vietnam experience and the ensuing inquiry begin. Skibsrud is a careful, unhurried writer, and her background in poetry shows. The Sentimentalists contains a great deal of text about the inner lives of characters, exquisitely written but so intricate that I found it necessary to go back and reread whole paragraphs on occasion, trying to follow the descriptions of the various shapes of the empty spaces within her characters’ respective souls, descriptions of that metaphorical room, this metaphorical windowsill, that metaphorical bird. It’s a condition common among novels written by poets. Plot momentum inevitably suffers, but whether you count this as a flaw depends entirely on your tolerance for digressive poetics. Skibsrud’s dips into the inner lives of her characters are often lovely. The Sentimentalists contains moments of pure beauty. And yet it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain tension in a novel that’s allowed to move so slowly, and with so many digressions, and it’s difficult not to wonder what this book might have been if Skibsrud’s obvious talent had been subjected to a stronger editorial hand.
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Mike Scalise begins his illness memoir, The Brand New Catastrophe, by reflecting on the art of storytelling: “Telling a good catastrophe anecdote,” he writes, “means becoming a maestro of sympathy. People’s reactions to these kinds of stories usually involve some defense mechanism…As the teller of the anecdote…this is the wrong place to be.” Because the storyteller wants to avoid, above all else, appearing pitiable, he must find different ways to engage the listener. “The trick to keeping them engaged,” Scalise explains, “is to focus on the oddities and ironies that would seem incredible and ridiculous in any context, not just that of your disaster.” Putting his cards on the table from the start, Scalise not only challenges us to judge his book according to his own criteria, but asks us to consider the conventions of the genre he is writing in and what purpose -- both positive and negative -- these serve. As Scalise realizes, it is almost impossible to write a contemporary illness memoir, a genre whose arc of sickness-to-health has been exhaustively traced in hundreds of books, without this kind of reflexivity. As such, he keeps these meta musings going throughout the narrative, questioning the way in which he tells his own story and why. The first thing to note is that Scalise lives up wholly to his own criteria. In relating the story of his pituitary tumor -- which stimulates an excessive degree of growth hormone and then bursts, leaving him unable to produce any -- Scalise takes on a gently self-mocking tone coupled with a penchant for relating humorous incidents. His reaction to the possibility of part of his buttocks being inserted into his brain (“Take it from my ass. I want my ass in my head.”) or his dry telling of a disastrous interview he conducted with a rock singer are exactly the type of “oddities and ironies” that make his book both so engaging and free of the self-pitying tone he advised tellers of catastrophe anecdotes to avoid. But beyond simply providing a rubric for how to read his novel, Scalise is obsessed with narrative. Part of the arc he traces in his book is the shift in the way he tells his story to the many curious people he meets. He first develops a taste for this kind of self-revelation when, after a high school swimming accident, a false rumor spreads that he has died. Because he is, in fact, very much alive, it seems to his classmates that he has come back from the dead and he is called on frequently to speak about his accident, an experience he comes to greatly enjoy. “I was just a conduit for an accident narrative,” he writes, “and filled a need for redemption that many in my high school longed to experience. What surprised me was how electric it felt to be that conduit.” With that revelation, he is off and running and so, when he comes down with the pituitary tumor, he revels in his ability to one-up anyone else’s conversation with his own narrative. At a party shortly after his diagnosis, for example, he responds to a woman’s question about what he does by saying, “I walk into Brooklyn emergency rooms with super crazy brain tumors that explode in my head” before hijacking the party with his story. In this, he aligns himself with many other writers of illness narratives who understand that, although their disease may be horrible, it also confers a sense of uniqueness and individuality on the sufferer, at least temporarily. In Lucy Grealy’s 1994 memoir Autobiography of a Face, the narrator comes down with a tumor in her jaw at the age of 9 which causes half of her face to become collapsed; leaving her with a striking facial difference for which her schoolmates mock her. Although the whole experience is traumatic for Lucy, she comes to take a defiant pride in her situation. Narrating a birthday party that she worked at as a teen, she writes “while the eyes of these perfectly formed children swiftly and deftly bored into the deepest part of me, the glances from their parents provided me with an exotic sense of power as I watched them inexpertly pretend not to notice me.” Later, when she starts reading Russian novels, she further embraces her outsider status, looking down on her classmates with a “perfectly calibrated air of disinterest.” Similarly, Sarah Manguso, in her 2008 memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, experiences a sense of superiority because of her long bout with the autoimmune disease, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy. “When a friend or stranger mentioned anything about a difficult or noteworthy event,” she writes, “I chose one of the countless hospital visits from recent memory and told the little story in a way that prevented further conversation about it or any other subject.” Scalise isn’t quite so brutal with himself, but he does come to realize the limits of the narrative impulse. As the disease goes on and he accustoms himself to living with it, it no longer seems so necessary to tell everyone about it. When, at a party many years after his diagnosis, a guest tells him about his sick cousin, Scalise begins to tell his own story and, ignoring his own prescriptions about the catastrophe anecdote, he tells it flatly, almost perfunctorily. Reflecting on his own lingering need to narrate, he writes “in my mind I was shoving forward the parts of my pituitary tumor’s tale that made me special…I wanted to replace whatever meaning I feared people projected onto me when they saw my face, my eyes, my hands.” After years of defining himself solely by his illness, however, the appeal wears off and he begins adjusting to his new life as a person who just happens to be ill. If defining ourselves by our disease is one of the principal traps for the reflective sufferer, then a different narrative snare awaits the illness memoirist: tracing a too-neat trajectory that leads the narrator from sickness to health and a triumphant ending. One of the reasons why contemporary illness memoirs, with Scalise’s as a prominent example, take on a meta aspect, is because, at this late date, everyone is hyperaware of the dangers of an easy arc that gives false reassurance to the reader. Grealy touches on this need when she realizes that the simple narrative of her finding her true face after many surgeries is misleading, and she finds freedom in that revelation. But it is Manguso who most complicates this need for easy coherence. Manguso is careful to insist upon her story’s adherence to convention. At the end of the book, she declares, “This is the usual sort of book about illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well” before noting that “most people consider their suffering a widely applicable model, and I am not an exception.” But it is impossible to take her at her word. While the bare facts of her story do lead from sickness to a tentative health, Manguso is intimately concerned with the ways in which we disarrange our own narratives. “How long was I sick?” she wonders late in the book. She responds by noting that her first symptoms appeared on March 26, 1995, but that, before that, she had had a head cold for weeks which had probably triggered her disease. She had refused to give in to that head cold, allowing it to linger, held slightly at bay, because her choir was giving a performance and she was supposed to be signing a Gregorio Allegri setting from 1630. “But that story,” she writes, “began in the seventeenth century, before Mozart was even born. So when did I first get sick?” As Manguso realizes, no narrative is self-contained because everything is related to everything else. Although she is forced to provide a shape to her story, she chooses a fragmented one, built on a series of a short chapters that are often little more than short anecdote. Scalise gives his story a more traditional form, but he understands just as much as Manguso the importance of complicating his own narrative. “In the early days,” he writes late in the book, “I endured a disaster, then moved on to tell the tale of it. I made it mine, or at least appeared to. Now I was unmoored and tentative, divorced from that time, part of me glad and bidding it good riddance, but another, louder part of me wishing…that I could return to my lovely tenure under its full influence.” Here as elsewhere, Scalise suggests that the real illness narrative is not about overcoming the initial onslaught of the sickness, but about how to live on in its aftermath, having to define yourself as existing, at long last, apart from the mere fact of your disease.
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Here in Sioux Falls, one of our local Lutheran private colleges puts on a library book sale. In name, it's a sale of epic proportions. In actuality, it's just a clever way for literary junkies and bibliophiles to stock up their collections and appear smarter than they are while the library clears out horribly outdated editions of unread literature.And it works - I'll never read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I'll probably skip W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but I'll be damned if I'm leaving them off of my bookshelf. Think of how intelligent I'll look!Admittedly, though, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar, and book sales of this sort truly fit my fancy. I mean, at fifty cents a book, you'd be surprised how willing you'd be to pick up some book that you may have heard of, or a book that you swear to have some vague recollection of a former college coffee buddy raving about - a willingness that wouldn't be as strong if it was spotted at Barnes and Noble for $13.99 plus tax.So my book stacks grow. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. And in time, I've found that I rarely - no, I'd say never - seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I'm just really lucky, or I'm smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I'm like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.So it came as quite a surprise when I finally picked up Atonement - Ian McEwan's tale of childhood misunderstanding and wartime barbarics - at the Augustana College Book Sale. Sure, I'd heard of him. Sure, I needed the book. I realized, rather shamefully, that I hadn't read anything by McEwan, one of the literary world's darlings, in my entire life. I didn't know what to expect - was he going to be wordy, an intelligent but inaccessible cacophony of allusions and pomp? Was he going to be so brilliant that I'd never look at literature the same way? Was he going to be just another English twit, barred from my life forever because of a critical over-acclaim? How could I continue to write a monthly book column (which I then condense into a smaller and more jovial version for this very website) and not have read McEwan?Would they take away my library card?Well, no. They wouldn't. But I figured I'd better read Atonement before it was too late. And here's the best part: he's actually good. Initially, I was simply pleased with what I was presented: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II. Of course, it only got better as I fell further and further into its pages.Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family's hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it - possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it's a jump forward to 1999 - nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.McEwan's novel isn't just a "symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness," as the back cover so brightly puts it. It's a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child - Briony, in this case - and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony's unwavering account of a violent crime - the rape of her cousin by a stranger.It's wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that's detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it's spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest - how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book - too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) - but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan's novel.My favorite part, though, was the subtle little twist at the end - which I will hold back for those who have not read the book. It's clever, and while many considered it an easy out, I thought it was brilliant. Atonement deserves all the praise it received - I felt the entire gamut of emotions while pouring through each of the characters. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was bitterly jealous. All because McEwan made each character feel as if they were a part of my own family.I scarcely think I need to ever visit the posh fields of England's upper class. I've lived it already - right there where the river flows gracefully though the fields and a horrible crime can cause children to lie, adults to glaze over with adoration and relief, and the law enforcement to barely bother to find the truth. As long as that little darling says it's true, it's going to be true. How horrible. Literarily, though; how wonderful.Now, I wonder what W. Somerset Maugham would think of it all.Oh, who am I kidding? I'll never know.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May