Imperium

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Pants on Fire: The Genre That Cannot Be Named

In her April review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm discussed Mitchell’s beloved, beautiful stories — “cryptic and ambiguous and incantatory and disconnected and extravagant and oracular and apocalyptic” — and his inclination toward invention — toward “radical departures from factuality.” “Mitchell’s genre,” she wrote, “is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”

Almost three-quarters of a century after The New Yorker published Mitchell’s first story, Mitchell’s genre, some kind of hybrid, still has yet to be named. Or, rather, perhaps, Mitchell’esque genres have yet to be given a name that fits. Literary Journalism? New Journalism? Literary Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Immersion, Creative Nonfiction, Faction? Fiction?

Some time ago, I received the suggestion that I conflate two characters in a manuscript I hoped would someday be a book that, in the tradition of, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, combined field reporting, memoir, essay, and history. Some kind of hybrid.

Conflating my characters — two children, in this case — would create a single and more compelling protagonist, I was told. Reflexively, I etched in quotes. “My” characters? But I also felt a different urge: It was true. Inventing one composite kid from two could make the story stronger. Certainly it would make writing the story easier for me, and I wanted that too. But how did what I want matter? I come in part from cheating stock — thieves, adulterers, at least two murderers, as far as I know. I was curious: Could I be a cheater, or, more precisely, a compositor, too?

According to Dan Ariely, absolutely. We all are cheats and liars, his research suggests, and, for writers of some kind of hybrid, this matters, perhaps a great deal. Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely has spent more than a decade studying why humans don’t tell the truth. Last month, with collaborator Yael Melamede, he released a documentary film, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies In 2012, he published a book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, including a back-cover blurb by A.J. Jacobs, author of the immersion memoir The Year of Living Biblically: “…those who claim not to tell lies are liars.”

Humans, evolved to find advantage at the lowest possible cost, possess “a deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others,” Ariely reports. We are dishonest to serve the self — the ego, Latin and Greek for “I,” distinct from the world and others. We are dishonest to serve our fears — of inadequacy, of rejection, of difference, obscurity, going broke, oblivion, death. We are dishonest to serve our desires — for meaning, love, power, fame, a single compelling protagonist. In Joseph Mitchell’s case, perhaps, for art.

Sometimes, he says, we’re dishonest so we can think of ourselves as good and honest people. As Marcel Proust once also observed, “It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.” To further complicate matters, says Ariely, “The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.” This, it seems to me, is both the good news and the bad.

Orwell for one believed that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” He himself was sometimes a cheat, and also a coward, at least as far as we know. I’ve read Homage to Catalonia several times over now, and an essay he wrote about writing books. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” he observed, “like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, complicated, enigmatic, alternately choleric and charming, comes to mind. “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers,” said Salman Rushdie of his friend. Said John Updike, Kapuściński wrote “with a magical elegance that…achieves poetry and aphorism.” Yet, in Imperium, a personal account of communist Russia — the camps, the purges — Kapuściński reports nothing of his onetime collaboration with the communist party in his homeland Poland. When the director of Iranian studies at Stanford met with Artur Domoslawski, Kapuściński’s biographer and friend, he said to Domoslawski, “You can open Shah of Shahs at any page, point to a passage, and I will tell you what’s wrong or inaccurate.” And then he proceeded to do so.

Kapuściński once yelled at a friend asking about his books’ omissions and fabrications. “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up — the point is the essence of the matter!” On this point, Kapuściński was right. In literature, the essence of the matter rather than the adding up of details is the point. But, if in the end, readers perceive that “essence” comes in disregard of the worlds of possibility found between writer and reader — and if readers never pick up another of your books again — what’s the point at all?

Fabricators like Mitchell and Kapuściński may now be the exception, as Charles McGrath wrote in his New Yorker review of Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, “because now…it’s harder to get away with,” but their stories, Ariely’esque in the telling, are enduring, and enduringly stirring.

Consider anthropologist Wendy “Wednesday” Martin, for instance. Her new book, The Primates of Park Avenue, one of two books she’s written that she describes as “very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science,” earned this New York Post headline in early June: “Upper East-Side Housewife’s Tell-All Book Is Full of Lies.”

After The Post published its revelations of Martin’s practices — compression, conflation, fabrication — Cary Goldstein, vice president and executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times, “It is a common narrative technique in memoirs for some names, identifying characteristics and chronologies to be adjusted or disguised, and that is the case with Primates of Park Avenue.”

Ariely argues that the human inclination toward deception, highly evolved and driven by dread or desire, has a slow corrosive effect on society. Think subprime mortgage crisis. Neural MRIs show the more we lie, the less the region of the brain associated with guilt responds, suggesting the act of lying desensitizes us to the shame of lying. There are those who argue dishonesty has a slow, corrosive effect on nonfiction. Think Jim Fingal, the one-time Harper’s fact-checker who took John D’Agata and his fictionalized essay “About a Mountain” to task in the book they co-wrote, called The Lifespan of a Fact. Near the end of the book, Fingal and D’Agata come to verbal fisticuffs. Fingal writes, exasperated, “I mean, the whole point of all these shit storms over the last ten years…isn’t that the reading public doesn’t understand that writers sometimes ‘use their imaginations.’ It’s about people searching for some sort of Truth…and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified…for seemingly self-aggrandizing purposes.”

Or maybe don’t think of Jim Fingal, however spot-on his words. Maybe we ditch Jim Fingal, who, it was revealed in post-publication coverage, partially reinvented his correspondence with D’Agata for their nonfiction book. “Contrary to the impression created by the promotional material, and the way it has subsequently been characterized in reviews,” wrote Craig Silverman on Poynter.org, “…The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t, you know, factual. D’Agata never called Fingal a dickhead, to cite but one example.”

In journalism, where truth is an explicit part of the deal between writer and reader, shit storms are understandable and necessary, as real harm is often a consequence.

Ironically, during filming, Ariely and Melamede couldn’t find any journalists who’d talk to them about deception in their field.

Yet in hybrid genres where rules are less clearly defined, the consequences of unreliability are also often felt at great intensity. Even in memoir, recently described by Daphne Merkin as an “elasticized form for truths and untruths,” outrage and pain seem to register when a writer is perceived to betray the trust.

It is curious to note the research that suggests the emotional experience of social pain, and betrayal specifically, lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Humans remember social pain more acutely and for a longer duration than physical pain. Neurologically, the experience of being cast away appears to mirror that of being burned. Like, with fire. I confess to feeling something akin to this when I learned the cat in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek didn’t exist. It was a metaphorical cat. Jesus Christ. Annie Dillard. I thought she was perfect.

The truth is, many readers want to believe they know who the author is. Readers have for millennia. In Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, novelist Gish Jen reminds us that the independent self — “the self unhitched from the collective” — has been “making things up [since] even before the words ‘fiction’ and ‘poetry’ were coined.” In ancient Rome and Greece, writers who fabricated were eyed with suspicion, “not only because they could make the untrue seem true, but because they tended to be highly individualistic, with interests that might or might not be yours.” This has not changed. Many readers still eye with suspicion writers who fabricate. Which, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, (which, as Ariely notes, is harder than it might first appear) is quite a lot of writers. Hell, many readers eye with suspicion writers who don’t fabricate. As author Robin Hemley observes in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “Whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to get pummeled in one way or another.”

Orwell called for “discipline.” In Homage, he copped, “…beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”

In her essay for the anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations on the Fringes of Nonfiction, Naomi Kimbell advises, “[T]he first and most important gesture a writer can make to the reader is letting him or her in on the joke.” And yet, in the words of author Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, there are no “creative nonfiction police” handcuffing those who don’t, nor should there be.

Gutkind, identified on his website with a quote from Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” advises writers to rely upon conscience. Yes, fact-checking is critical, he writes in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction, but so too “following the old-fashioned golden rule by treating your characters and their stories with as much respect as you would want them to treat you.” “Conscience,” he writes, “a reminder and an invisible artbiter over us all.”

And, yet, as Ariely’s research and the nonfiction world’s regular shit storms reveal, relying on conscience is slippery business.

Ariely recommends concrete approaches designed to address the conflict of interest between self and other — a signed legal contract, if you’re a trader at J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, for instance. If you’re a writer of some kind of hybrid that blends fact and invention, an author’s note, disclaimer, afterword, use of the conditional tense, caveat, or limitless other artful and crafty techniques. It’s reasonable to assume this is why Simon & Schuster announced soon after The Primates of Park Avenue shit storm that they would add “a clarifying note” to the e-book and subsequent print editions. At the back of the Kindle edition I consulted in mid June, in addition to an introduction that describes the book as “an academic experiment,” is now an author’s note:
This work is a memoir. It reflects my experiences over a period of several years. Some names and identifying details have been changed, and some individuals portrayed are composites. For narrative purposes and to mask the identities of certain individuals, the timeline of certain events has been altered or compressed.
“Every time we lie, we dilute the trust,” Ariely said when we corresponded. Ariely can’t prove this with empirical evidence, but he believes it to be true. When Ariely was in high school in Israel, a magnesium battlefield flare exploded at his feet, and he was trapped in a chemical fire. He spent three years in a hospital. “The experience of pain has led me to beauty,” he later wrote in an essay. Also, “as I am not very concerned with my personal ‘small problems,’ I…can’t get too excited about the ‘small problems’ others are experiencing.”

All the same, Ariely took time to respond to my questions: Given everything we know, why do nonfiction writers continue to make stuff up and not tell readers? Given everything we know, why do readers continue to feel betrayed and outraged when nonfiction writers do this?

“I don’t think this is planned,” Ariely said in a recording he made because typing can be hard. “I think people start writing something that is based in reality, and then the boundary for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is not very clear.” He said, “It’s very human.”

So, too, the timeless desire for a good story well told. Writes Malcolm of Mitchell, “We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.”

While Mitchell’s genre remains nameless, there is a name for the startling discovery of the truth of it: Anagnorisis, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, the moment of change from ignorance to knowledge. I was wrong. It is here, he believed, “the finest recognitions.”

This essay was adapted and updated from a longer article about constructing nonfiction personae, originally published in the pedagogy department of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

Image Credit: Flickr/Alexa Fades Away.

Reading in Translation

Tomorrow, as part of Scott’s month-long Reading the World series, I’ll have a review of Per Petterson’s In the Wake up at Conversational Reading. Reading the World is focused on “bringing international voices to the attention of readers,” and reading In the Wake and considering it as a “work in translation” rather than simply a novel got me thinking about how much non-English language reading I actually do. As it turns out, I don’t read many books that weren’t written in English. I don’t think this is necessarily a deficiency, but considering how much I’ve enjoyed the literature in translation that I’ve read, it seems I should seek these books out more often. Here are the books in translation I’ve read over the last few years (As you might expect, Ryszard Kapuscinski figures heavily.)2003:Imperium by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez – my thoughtsThe Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski2004:Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes – my thoughtsShah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski my thoughts2005:Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov my thoughtsThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – my thoughts2006:Television by Jean-Philippe ToussaintWhite Spirit by Paule ConstantWizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa’Thiong’O – Garth’s review2007:In the Wake by Per Petterson

The Spy: Ryszard Kapuscinski

News has emerged from Poland that renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski may have at one time been a collaborator with the secret police there. Apparently he is the latest of several prominent figures in Poland whose past ties to the Communist regime have been revealed.I’ve often wondered, when reading Kapuscinski’s books, how he was able to travel so far and wide and write with what seemed to be freedom. This collaboration would have likely made his journalistic wanderings more palatable to the government. As Reuters notes, between 1967 and 1972, when Kapuscinski apparently cooperated with the secret police, “it was almost impossible to leave the country without signing a document to co-operate with the regime.” Written after the fall of communism, Kapuscinski’s book Imperium would seem to betray his true feelings. The book is a poignant indictment of Communist atrocities that begins with a recollection of Soviet troops overrunning his town when he was seven, though it does not speak much of the Polish government during the Communist era.It seems clear that this was likely an impossible choice for Kapuscinski, either cooperate and write or resist and remain silent (or worse). Reuters quotes a friend and fellow reporter who says, “But Kapuscinski had to… If he didn’t agree, he wouldn’t have written his books. There would be no Kapuscinski.” It seems, as well, that Kapuscinski wasn’t a significant collaborator. Newsweek in Poland, which broke the news, quotes Kapuscinski’s file as saying, “During his co-operation, he has demonstrated a lot of willingness but he has not supplied any significant documents.” The revelations, meanwhile, come amid a wave of similar “purges” by Poland’s current leaders, who some have suggested are pursuing the issue with excessive zeal as a political ploy.Ultimately, the episode illuminates the terrible choices that many were forced to make behind the Iron Curtain, while also challenging our desire to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys” under a regime where resistance of any kind was met with severe punishment. Given that Kapuscinski used his freedom, though it came at a price, to shed light on cruel governments in Iran and Ethiopia and on suffering and conflicts in many other parts of the world, it would seem that, based on what we know now, Kapuscinski achieved a karmic balance of sorts.See also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski and The Fabulist: Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski

Reading the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, it sometimes seemed to me that he had he had slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every dusty village in the forgotten corners of the world. He brought us with him to peer at the world’s unknown “little” wars. There are many who, in the last few decades, have taken up this sort of reporting, people like Jon Lee Anderson, William Langewiesche, and Mark Bowden, but none possess the sympathetic eye of Kapuscinski.In his book Imperium, Kapuscinski chronicles the invasion of Poland by the Soviets in 1939, which he witnessed as a boy, and one can see how being one of history’s forgotten people shaped his view of the world. Kapuscinski’s writing is notable as much for what is there as for what it lacks, namely a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it, which even the best Western reporters are rarely able to avoid. Living much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, he could write about oppressed people from the point of view of the oppressed, but from enough distance to eschew any of the ideologies involved. He had a gentle eye for details and always satisfied by being just as incredulous, weary, and terrified as I would have been had I somehow found myself in the astonishing situations he sometimes ended up in. No tough guy swagger for Kapuscinki.And those moments, they were incredible: Kapuscinski, out of bribe money watching his driver plow though flaming roadblocks in the Yoruba country of Nigeria in The Soccer War; arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane in The Shadow of the Sun; stuck for days in a stifling, crowded airport in Yakutsk with little hope of getting a plane out of there in Imperium.But Kapuscinski does not assume he is the only one with a story to tell. For entire books – Shah of Shahs about the abuses of the Shah of Iran and The Emperor about the mad Ethiopian king Haile Selassie – he turns his pen over to the people who were there. Those two books fit into the now familiar genre of “oral history,” and they provide an invaluable look into the lives of the oppressed.Kapuscinski’s singular point of view is perhaps best summed up by what he wrote in a section of The Soccer War about his time in Ghana: “The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves.”Kapuscinski brought that different reality to his readers, and in doing so helped shed light on the forgotten corners of the world.Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the PAP news agency said. He was 74. The AP obit.Some Links:New work from KapuscinskiMy review of Shah of ShahsA bit on Imperium (scroll down)A bit on The Shadow of the Sun (scroll down)Excerpt from ImperiumExcerpt from Shah of ShahsExcerpt from The EmperorExcerpt from The Soccer WarExcerpt from The Shadow of the SunExcerpt from Another Day of LifeWikipedia bioKapuscinski’s writing in GrantaBill Buford interviews Kapuscinski

A Year in Reading by Andrew Saikali

This was the year I played catch-up. My failing as a reader has always been my near-total ignorance of contemporary authors (say, those that emerged in my own lifetime). That all changed this year thanks to some wonderful recommendations from my Millions cohorts. In no time at all I was transfixed by Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll) and captivated by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). I delved further into Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium), feasted on a trio of novels from the wonderful William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, Blue Afternoon, Armadillo), and finally read Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Edward P. Jones (The Known World), and T.C. Boyle (The Tortilla Curtain). Most if not all of these have been written about by either Max or Emre so I’ll just echo them and say READ THESE.To this list I’d like to add one of my own. I was blown away, earlier this year, by the young Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and his short story collection Sightseeing. Set in Thailand, the seven stories present a vivid and engaging depiction of families and friends and day-to-day life. The locale is exotic, the sounds and smells permeate the pages, but the relationships are familiar, universal. It was a treat to read. [See also: Andrew’s review of Sightseeing]

Staying Sane: A Year in Reading by Emre Peker (Part 2)

The depth of Ignatius’ wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book’s thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon’s personal background, and a very scholarly – yet novelistic – narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleon’s life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski – a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era – who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it’s inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski’s accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d’etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski’s account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki’s visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki’s accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1

Brave Historians

To continue from yesterday’s post about Iris Chang, I mentioned that she was among the brave historians who choose to study some of the most horrible and painful periods in human history. There are many others like her, and though these books are not a pleasure to read, the knowledge that they impart is a valuable reminder of, as I said yesterday, what we are capable of. So, because I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve compiled an informal list of brave history books. I’m sure there are many others that I don’t have here, so feel free to add your suggestion in the comments field.Gulag by Anne Applebaum (excerpt) — the Soviet forced labor system that underpinned CommunismWe Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (excerpt) — “An anatomy of the war in Rwanda, a vivid history of the tragedy’s background, and an unforgettable account of its aftermath.”Maus by Art Spiegelman — Spiegelman’s unique and emotional look at how the Holocaust shaped his family history.“A Problem from Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (excerpt) — “A character-driven study of some of the darkest moments in our national history, when America failed to prevent or stop 20th-century campaigns to exterminate Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, and Rwandans.”Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (excerpt from Imperium) — Each book describes how a sick government can destroy its people.Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami (excerpt) — A bizarre cult poisons innocent commuters on the Tokyo subway.Hiroshima by John Hersey — We ended the war, but at what cost?

2003: My Year in Reading (Pt. 2)

After two weeks of distractions, spotty internet service, and a massive dose of holiday merriment and madness, I am finally back in Los Angeles, which is why I can now move towards completing the year end list that you are all awaiting so patiently.Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum: Earlier in the year, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Imperium had made me more fully aware of the vast Soviet prison system. Years ago, when I was in high school, I had read bits and pieces of The Gulag Archipelago, and, bewildered by the density of it, I had come away with little more than the notion that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been a political prisoner held by an evil, totalitarian state. I carried this notion of the Gulag with me for a long time, and though Solzhenitsyn certainly would have been able to correct my misconceptions had I been a more diligent reader, I encountered nothing else that showed me the real picture of a state-run system that killed tens of millions. Then Kapuscinski’s forays into the long-hidden depths of Siberia opened my eyes to a tragedy that is, of course, no secret, yet manages to be overlooked when people are taking stock of recent historical tragedies. This negligence is the launching point for Applebaum’s considered history of the Soviet prison system. She covers the system from all the angles, from the bureaucrats at the top to the zeks toiling in mines and forests and withering away on frozen ground. I began reading the book in early June and I was halfway through it when I left for Europe. I didn’t bring it with me because I didn’t want to lug the heavy hard cover with me, but I ruminated over what I had read for much of my trip.Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick: This was one of three books I read while I was in Europe, mostly on interminable airplane rides and also while I was in Ireland as I recall. I hadn’t planned to read all those books about Russia, but the three put together taught me more about the subject than any course might have been able to. Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning book about the fall of the Soviet Empire is truly exhilarating. Through his eyes, you see the collapse of the great empire from Moscow. The book reads like breaking news, and though I was, of course, aware of the ultimate outcome, his blow by blow account is really exciting. Being halfway through Gulag at the time, I was especially fascinated by the role that “Memorial,” a group dedicated to uncovering the crimes of the Soviet regime, played in the process.The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez: I spent a week in Barcelona last summer, and before I left I decided it would be fun to read a novel set in the city while I was there. I managed to track down this slim volume, which I found to be a bit thin, but nonetheless a perfect book to read at three in the morning in a steaming bedroom whose only window looks into an airshaft, and when I walked through the bustling old city, I have to admit, I felt like I could see the city through Frankie’s eyes. Here are my comments on the book, which I posted after my trip was over.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: Years from now, people won’t remember that the graphic novel was once a marginal format, consigned to hobby shops and newsstands. Literary historians, however, will point to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan as the book that brought graphic novels out of the dark and into the cultural spotlight. I read this one in Europe, too. It’s one of my favorites ever.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I mentioned this book dozens of times this year, so I won’t bother to once again mention how much I enjoyed it. Instead you can read what I wrote right after I read it. (It’ll be at the very bottom.)The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: Ditto on this one, which I probably talked about on this blog and in the aisles of the bookstore more than any other new book this year, so here’s my review.That’s all for now. I’m jetlaggin’.

2003: My Year in Reading (Pt. 1)

When I was a teenager and I slept in my teenager’s bedroom in the basement of my parents’ house, I used to keep my stereo on all the time. Every moment that I was in that bedroom there was music playing. I kept it on while read at night, and then I left it on while I was asleep. I liked my music so much that I would have rather listened to it all night than go to sleep. My compromise was to try to do both at the same time. The lasting effect of this, aside from my residual insomnia problems, is that I have intense musical connections with many of the books I read in high school. This has given rise to some odd but unbreakable pairings, like whenever I happen to see a copy of Lloyd C. Douglas’ classic of historical fiction The Robe, I get songs from Bob Marley’s Legend stuck in my head. I can use these odd musical, literary pairings like an archeologist to dredge up memories from years ago. Likewise, I can look back over the books I read this last year and extract the various experiences that are wrapped up with each one. When 2003 began I set a goal to read 75 books over the next twelve months. I didn’t even come close. Unless I have left one or two off the list, and I may have, I read 29 books last year. I have many excuses for this, but the one I like the most is that I read a few books this year that I enjoyed so much that I couldn’t help but to savor them, to ingest them nibble by nibble as I pushed aside my silly goal of gluttonous literary consumption. What I’m saying is, it was a good year, so lets get started.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee: This monster of a book is McPhee’s paeon to the geology of the United States. As always McPhee is readable, but the ambition of this book (which is really five books in one) is what won him the Pulitzer when it came out. Sometime in the summer or fall of 2002 I read McPhee’s book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, because it happened to be sitting on the bench next to me on my break at the bookstore. Once I started reading it I was hooked, and I’ve been a big fan of McPhee’s ever since. This one is big (almost 700 pages) and it took me a while to read. I was also moving at the time to the house where I live now with fruit trees and a balcony and a guy who sells tamales out of the back of his car on our street every day. As far as I can tell, though, there are no exposed rock faces nearby and therefore no opportunities for amateur geology, though the book did manage to get me very interested in the subject.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I have long bemoaned the huge gaps in my library. There are many classics that I have never read. As I recall, I was particularly struck by this notion early in 2003 and one Sunday night shift at the book store, afroth with my desire to get some of those classics out of the way, I dove into Gatsby. I read half the book that night on my breaks and the other half when I got home, staying up late to finish the last few pages. I hadn’t read a whole book in a day in a long time, and that felt good. When you digest a book as a single unit like that, you are able to look at differently. It’s like the difference between falling in love in one night and falling for someone over a period of weeks or months. I enjoyed the book, of course, though it is referred to so often, in so many settings, that it felt like I had already read it. Still, it was great to finally see what all the fuss is about.Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson: It was a very happy coincidence that I happened to read Gatsby right before I read this book because one of the sections of this book is an extended riff on the Daisy character. Gilligan’s Wake is a truly bizarre post-modern confection the created a minor splash at the beginning of 2003. It’s outlandish premise is to describe the lives of each of the characters of Gilligan’s Island before they went on their fateful three hour tour. The result is a vibrant pastiche of twentieth century history and popular culture, for, you see, the Skipper and Ginger and all the rest happened to lead very complex lives that intersected with the lives of some very important people. Having said that, this book isn’t a farce or a parody or anything like that, and in fact the language can be quite brutal. It might be best to describe the book as Pynchon soaked in TV culture. It’s an interesting read that I never would have come across had it not been for the fact that many of the folks at the book store read it when it came out.Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski: When I read Kapuscinski’s book The Soccer War a couple of years ago, I did so under the assumption that it was his best book. Maybe I was told this by a book store clerk somewhere, or I based it on Amazon rankings and reviews. It’s a very good book, kind of mind-blowing for me, really, since I had never read anything like it. I was very excited about discovering the work of this globe-trotting Polish journalist, but I assumed that his other books might be slightly lesser works. So, naturally, I was thrilled when I discovered that Imperium, his book about the Soviet Union and its fractured remnants, was a fantastic book, full of Kapuscinski’s usual personal insights and vision. This book propelled me on to a Soviet kick that would lead me to read several books on the subject before the year was out.The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor: For some reason, the review of this book in the New York Times put me in a real frenzy to read it. I think because it reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book from 2002 that I really loved. Although I have read and enjoyed many of Trevor’s short stories, I just couldn’t get into this book. It was too even. There is a dramatic event at the center of this story but it is too buried by the passage of time to be a driving force.On Writing by Stephen King: I’ve always been a defender of Stephen King. As he will readily admit, he has written some clunkers for a buck, but his best books are really fantastic. I have also always enjoyed his writing about himself. This book is part memoir, part writing handbook, and part pep talk, and it is very readable. King avoids all the double talk that many writers will shell out when they write about writing. King manages to tell us that, just like anything else, writing is best when you have fun doing it, and if you’re having a lot of fun, it’s probably good enough to be publishedThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This was the great discovery of the year for me, a book that I spent a lot of time on and a book that I never wanted to finish. I spent nearly two months reading this one, and Mutis’ book is so vivid with adventure and characters, it felt like I was living a double life. It all started with a review of the book by John Updike in the New Yorker early last year. I read the first few paragraphs and something clicked. I knew I had to read this book, and as soon as I started I knew it would be fantastic. Soon, I had convinced several coworkers to read it and we recommended it to many others. Over the course of the year my bookstore alone sold hundreds of copies, and friends of friends of friends were asking me if I had ever read this incredible book about a mysterious fellow named Maqroll. In March I happened to meet a hero of mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and we talked briefly about Maqroll. Lately, my thoughts have turned to reading it again, and I’m thinking that sometime soon I will add it to my reading queue so that I can read it again soon, and I think I will probably keep it on the queue so that I can read it again every year or two. It’s just that good.American Studies by Louis Menand: After reading Menand’s Pulitzer prizewinner The Metaphysical Club, I added Menand to my list of favorite writers, so I was excited to read his follow up, a collection of essays with subjects ranging from T. S. Eliot to Larry Flynt. Menand is truly a master of the form, but I yearned for another book-length work that would allow him to really strut his stuff.Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards: I picked up this hardcover on a bookfinding expedition and had a good time reading through it. It’s chock full of pill popping divorcees and heavily cloaked anti-Nixon screeds. Joking aside, there are actually some truly remarkable stories in this book as I describe in this post from May 13th.Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: I’ve always been a baseball fan, but it seems like I spent much of 2003 in a baseball frenzy. Recognizing this, my friend Patrick recommended this book to me and I really enjoyed it. Okrent spent months researching and preparing to write an entire book about a single game. The result is a detailed picture of the individual intricacies that combine to create one ballgame.That’s all for now. Parts 2 and 3 to come.

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