Phillip Lopate is a master of many literary forms. Best known as an essayist and a champion of the personal essay, Lopate has also written three books of fiction and two volumes of poetry, with his next, At the End of the Day, forthcoming in January. This spring Princeton University Press published his latest book, Notes on Sontag, as the first in a series of Writers on Writers. In Notes on Sontag, Lopate weds his memories of Susan Sontag as a teacher (though never his), cinephile, cult figure, and intellectual idol, with an analysis of her essays and fiction, and in doing so takes on her aversion to the personal essay. Lopate states accurately in his introduction, “Those who are looking for a hatchet-job here will be as disappointed as those seeking hagiography.” The end result is a thoughtful, intellectual, and at times comic account of Sontag’s writing and life. As Monica McFawn’s Quarterly Conversation review claims, “Lopate’s strongest case for the personal in literature is his own riveting sketch of Sontag.” I was lucky enough to take a nonfiction workshop with Lopate this summer as part of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Lithuania. The intellectual rigor and witty sense of humor that informs his prose made the class both stimulating and enjoyable. We met one morning in Vilnius, not far from Cathedral Square, to speak about Susan Sontag, the personal essay, and his book. The Millions: In your introduction to Notes on Sontag, you call your ambivalence for Susan Sontag “a promising basis for a work of literary reflection.” Could you talk more about your ambivalence and why you thought that was a good starting point for this book?” Phillip Lopate: I think the essay gravitates toward doubt and self-doubt. And then you untie the knots along the way, only to create more knots. So in many ways this book on Sontag is a defense of the essay. It’s a book-length essay, and what I value most in Sontag is her work as an essayist, especially her first three collections of essays: Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, and Under the Sign of Saturn. I have a complicated relationship with Sontag, both as a reader and as an acquaintance, and I thought that this project would give me the chance to work out what I really thought about her and her work. Ambivalence is a good starting point because you don’t run out of things to say. You’re always at war with yourself, in a sense, and that guarantees a certain tension. TM: You mention your personal relationship with Susan Sontag. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the way that you interspersed analysis with personal reflections. I was wondering how much that played a role in your conception of the book, and if you think you would’ve written the book without having known her. It obviously would’ve been a different book. PL: Well, I’m a personal essayist first and foremost, and one of the curious things about Sontag was that she went on record expressing a disdain for the personal and thought there was something tacky about writing about yourself, though the times that she did it she did it brilliantly. So, in some ways, I’m a different kind of essayist from Sontag and this book is mainly an analysis of her work. I would say it’s 80 percent analysis, 20 percent personal vignettes and memories. You can’t be 100 percent objective. I wanted to show that a human being was writing the book, and one comes with certain predispositions, prejudices, and so on. I also thought it would be funny because a lot of the memories are funny. One of the amusing sides for me in the book is that Sontag was a brilliant writer who was not particularly known for having a sense of humor. A lot of my material is comic, more or less, and so I thought that even though Sontag isn’t funny I could find a way to write in an amusing way about her and about myself. Because, in a way, there’s nothing funnier than someone who takes herself very seriously and has a solemn reverence for greatness. So I was able to play with that. I think that one of the main things that gets me going as a writer is the opportunity to do mischief. And in this particular respect I was analyzing one of the sacred cows of contemporary literature, an icon really. I knew that I was on thin ice a lot and that itself piqued my interest because I could get in a lot of trouble. One of the ways I could get in trouble immediately was by confessing that in some ways I had always wanted Sontag’s respect for me as a writer, and I had never quite gotten it. I would be handing those hostile to the book a weapon against myself, saying, Oh, well, he’s just got an ax to grind, or has a vendetta, but in fact I really wanted to give her my respect every time I could for the work that I love by her. So I don’t think it’s at all a hatchet job. It’s really an attempt to be much more measured. But I gave critics the opportunity to say, He doesn’t understand that he’s just working off his pique. I did understand I was playing with that. The personal is part of what makes the book dangerous—dangerous for me, anyway. TM: In the book, you mention that Sontag ended up writing quite a bit about herself in spite of her desire to avoid the personal. I’m wondering in what ways you think she revealed herself through her essays and what is the source of her disdain for writing about herself. PL: Well, it’s funny, when she was quite young she said in a diary entry something to the effect that all writing is an exposure and that you basically want to say something to express yourself, but then she joined a kind of high-minded backlash against the memoir, saying that self-expression was not important and what was important was imagination. She herself moved away from the essay and thought more and more of herself as a fiction writer. So in a way, she devalued her own thinking and put a greater value on making up plots, making up characters, in other words, getting away from the self. That’s one thing you can do. I’ve done that myself—I’ve written fiction where I’ve made up characters, but a lot of what I do is also detaching myself from myself and making myself into a character so that I know I’m not exactly the person I call Phillip Lopate in my writing. Now, her work is very expressive, for better or worse, of her character. And you can track that development, how she was enthusiastic first about some things and how that changed. It’s very revealing. One of the things that I say in the book is that she didn’t think against herself. She liked to take a strong position and back it up. And then ten years later she would take the opposite position. But in a way, one way of defining the difference between us is that she was an enthusiast and I’m a skeptic. As soon as I begin to march in one direction for a cause, I begin to see the arguments against it and wonder. You could say that I’m just more doubtful from the start. So it is a kind of conversation between two writers. Even though one of the writers is no longer with us, she has written all these books and I am talking to her. She is my captive audience. TM: It’s an interesting choice to write about Susan Sontag, given that you’re a personal essayist and that she avoided the medium. How does one write a personal essay without becoming too self-absorbed, or having it become therapeutic? What’s the line? PL: I think the line is you attend to the form of the work. That is, it’s not a question of what you need therapeutically but what the essay needs. You keep shaving off one part, adding another part, and building a form the way a potter works with clay. I don’t think that writing is intrinsically therapeutic, though I do think that it helps us to come to terms with our demons and it helps us to attain some consolation or equanimity. There is a kind of psychological benefit from writing, at least I’ve experienced it as such. But I think that if you can make a work of literature—it doesn’t matter whether you’re starting from your own experience or inventing something—you are imaginatively shaping it in some way. There’s the imagination of the real as well as the imagination of the made-up. For me, starting from more experience and shaping it into a pleasing meditation or a pleasing autobiographical piece or memory piece—that’s the justification. Really, giving pleasure is the justification. And the reader can tell right away whether you’re fooling yourself or whether you’ve gained enough detached perspective on yourself. The reader really is the final judge and you just have to internalize the reader and say: Oh no, that’s way to self-absorbed, the reader doesn’t care about that, why are you going on about that? That’s how you acquire some sense of perspective. TM: Returning to what you were saying about the imagination and Sontag’s writing, in spite of her triumphs with the essay, she preferred to think of herself as a novelist. In the book you mentioned that you, as well as many others, don’t think that her fiction measures up to the level of her essays. Do you think her disdain was a reflection of a greater literary sentiment? PL: Certainly I think that fiction has more status than nonfiction, just as poetry does. In the beginning of MFA programs, God created fiction and poetry and saw that it was good. Some upstarts came from nonfiction and said, "Hey we want to get in on this boat, too." I think that if you look at the prizes that are given out every year, there are many more given out in fiction and poetry than are given out in essay writing or other kinds of nonfiction. I don’t think that Sontag was alone at all in this. She was part of a whole generation of writers who actually can be said to have been better at nonfiction than fiction but preferred to think of themselves as fiction writers. I include in that James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, possibly even Norman Mailer, Joan Didion. Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Noble Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things. Somehow she also disdained realism and naturalism for a long time, so that meant she didn’t put that much emphasis into building characters and situations but was much more interested in experimental fiction; when she practiced it, it seemed a little dry. I’m not saying anything that devastating because she was so good an essayist, it’s not a crime not to be a terrific fiction writer also. It’s just that because I love the essay, I regret that she came to put her eggs in another basket. TM: You are a champion of the personal essay, we’ve talked a lot about this in class. I was thinking about Sontag’s dismissal of nonfiction in relation to our nonfiction workshop, where many people are turning in pieces of fiction. What do you think about the status of nonfiction in general? PL: I think nonfiction is going to be around forever, and in many ways may sell more books than fiction. That is, in the marketplace, nonfiction probably does better on the whole than fiction. But it’s still hard to get collections of essays published. You can get them published individually in magazines, but you have to create an aura of specialness to get a book of essays published. I do think that recently nonfiction has been invaded by the allure of fiction and poetry, and there’s a great deal of hybridization that’s fascinating in some ways. It’s a period of experimentation and mutation. It just so happens that I cherish the assets and values of good nonfiction, so I am championing them and saying before we mutate too much in the direction of fiction and poetry, we should just take a step back and realize there are some things quite wonderful that nonfiction can do, including reflection and analysis. You don’t have to make everything into a scene with dialogue. You can actually have the narrative voice reflect as hard and as stimulatingly as possible and give us the full benefit of the thought. TM: Speaking of reflection, you write that when reflecting on Sontag, she is always provoking you to think harder. At one point you speak of her heroes of the intellect, including Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin, and how they shaped her intellectual approach. I was wondering if you would include Sontag as one of your heroes of the intellect, and what aesthetic standards you hold yourself to. PL: I certainly would include Sontag as someone who had a great influence on me as an essayist. She taught me how to write, let's say, the twenty-five-page essay where you go in and you circle something from all sides, the way she did in “Notes on Camp.” Clearly the title of my book, Notes on Sontag, plays off of “Notes on Camp,” and the idea of taking notes and arriving at some greater understanding is something that appeals to me a lot. And also, she wrote in a rather epigrammatic, aphoristic, condensed way and I do find that attractive just as I find it attractive in the people who she was inspired by, such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. In a way, Sontag and I were both drinking from the same fount. She certainly was one of my intellectual heroes and the people who were her intellectual heroes were some of my intellectual heroes as well. I guess I also consider myself more proudly American than she did, and so I don’t only take inspiration from abroad but I take it from American writers as well, including a lot of American essayists, like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy. TM: In Notes on Sontag, you follow a section called Don’t Get Personal, about the ways that Sontag avoided the personal essay, with a section of your own reflections, Later Memories of Sontag. I thought that added to the levity and the humor that you spoke about earlier. In that section you also mentioned a desire to become closer to Sontag, and this reminded me of your essay about Donald Barthelme,“The Dead Father,” where you speak of a desire to be closer to him, too. Do you think the personal distance they imposed on you and on others enabled them to write as well as they did? I was also thinking of the section in Notes on Sontag where you cite, “Sontag commented often how difficult it was for a woman writer to appropriate the oceans of alone-time that every writer needs.” PL: Well, they were both, for want of a better word, provincials. They both came from other parts of the country and moved to New York, Sontag from the west—Arizona and California—and Barthelme from Texas. In a way, they were both self-invented and they came to New York. They remade themselves in New York. The whole avant-garde is always from out-of-towners. I’m a native New Yorker, and so in some ways I’m more traditional, you know, because native New Yorkers have seen avant-gardes come and go. We say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m not going to get too excited about this.” I think that in both cases, my piece about Barthelme and my book about Sontag, I was working on the double portrait. And the double portrait means that it’s going to be about the other person and it’s going to be about me. And that creates an extra interest and tension. In both cases, I was exposing myself to the charge that I was basically chagrined that these literary lions did not take me to their bosom. It’s funny because there have been a number of terrific writers who have given me the benediction and said that they really liked my writing. But it’s less interesting to write about that than it is to write about relationships that only grew so tall. I call them bonsai tree relationships. I wanted to investigate why some acquaintanceships don’t turn into friendships, for instance. What is it that prevents them from growing more? And of course that says something about the literary life and about people protecting their status and choosing quite carefully who will be a peer, who will be an acolyte, and so on. That’s part of what makes the literary life so brutal and so fascinating. In both cases, with Barthelme and Sontag, I was younger than they were but not so young that they could embrace me as one of their mentees so to speak, and therefore more threatening. I was breathing down their necks. But that’s a curious thing—the whole notion of how people choose to withhold themselves or to give themselves is very interesting and I have to say that I’m the same way. I’m fairly self-protective. I’ll be cordial and helpful with my students but I won’t necessarily let many of them become my friends. Writers have to be very protective. They can’t just give pieces of their heart to everyone. TM: Is that because you have to maintain space in order to write? PL: Yes. And in Barthelme’s case he was an alcoholic, which meant after a certain hour of the day you weren’t getting the full sober Barthelme, you were getting somebody who was, you know... in a funny way alcoholics lose some of their individuality. But he was certainly brilliant during the working hours. TM: I’m wondering if there’s something that I didn’t touch on that you’d like to talk about. PL: I’d just like to say that for me the book was a literary and stylistic challenge. What I was really trying to do was to write well. To do a kind of peculiar thing, which is a book-length essay that functions on a lot of different levels so that it has this kind of novelistic component, as though it’s about a relationship. You might say that Sontag is an older sister. It has this familial quality but it also has a lot of literary criticism, but I didn’t want to be an academic literary critic who was applying ready-made theory. I liked the idea of reading her work and then saying, “What do I really think about this passage?” Not, “What should I think about it?” but, “What do I actually think about it?” and, “Does this ring true, does this ring false?” without the benefit of a ready-made theory. So you might say it’s amateur literary criticism, but honest, trying to be as honest as I could.
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I'm in the early stages of War and Peace and last night read a battle scene in which the Russian troops are retreating from the advancing French army. The chapter follows Nicholas Rostov, as he and his company try to cross the Danube in time to destroy the bridge behind them. The scene is written with a sort of detached, tableau quality that reminded me a lot of the evacuation of Dunkirk section in Atonement. I went back to McEwan's book to look for passages that compared directly with Tolstoy's writing and found a couple:The crush of men.From War and PeaceThe soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvitski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying around the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.From AtonementThe crowds were bunching up again. In front of the canal bridge was a junction and from the Dunkirk direction, on the road that ran along the canal, came a convoy of three-ton lorries which the military police were trying to direct into a field beyond where the horses were. But troops swarming across the road forced the convoy to a halt. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted insults. The crowd pressed on. Men tired of waiting scrambled off the backs of the lorries. There was a shout of 'Take cover!'Observing nature in the thick of the retreat.From AtonementAs they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of gray and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun.From War and PeaceNicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in mists to their summits.
Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father's Day just a week and a half away, you're leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don't know what book to get him. Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book. Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20. 1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt -- as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day. Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada. 2. Literary Fiction Dad He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War. But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic. 3. Big Bad Noir Daddy Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages. But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read. 4. Politically Incorrect Dad He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask. Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight. 5. World War II Buff Dad Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater. A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill. 6. Civil War Buff Dad Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders. This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles's Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page. 7. Business Maven Dad If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent. But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages. 8. True Crime Dad Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways. Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence. 9. Sports Nut Dad As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate. To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading. 10. Vinyl Collector Dad The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix. Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear. 11. Aspiring Writer Dad If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary. But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry. Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
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In February, an editor asked me if I’d be willing to read a weighty, new book and review it, since she’d been hearing murmurs that not only was it an incredible read, but that it was also going to be one of the “big deal” books of the year. My editor was right. Recently, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, hit the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Throughout the process of writing about her work, Yanagihara herself remained a mystery to me. I read the reviews and the few interviews, and her publicity team did that thing where they send you a tote bag. But further inquiries eventually allowed me to set up an interview, albeit by email. Having read her books, and having seen that she is a discreet and apparently quite private person (no Twitter account here), I wanted to see what she was like, where she came from, and what her thoughts were on the content she works with in “real life,” that life that stands behind every writer’s authorial magic. The Millions: I’ve read that you were born in Hawaii. Did you grow up there? When did you move to New York, and what was that process like? Hanya Yanagihara: I was actually born in L.A.; from there, we moved to Honolulu, and then to New York, and then Baltimore, and then Irvine, and then Honolulu, and then a small town in Texas called Tyler—I moved back to Honolulu when I was in high school. I came to New York almost immediately after college; like generations of people, I was beguiled by the city. It was 1995, and it wasn't particularly difficult, in part because I was so ignorant that I didn't even know what I should be intimidated by—I just bumbled into town, and within a month had a roommate, an apartment and a job as a sales assistant at Ballantine, which is an imprint of Random House. It was only years later that I truly understood both how lucky I'd been, and how clueless I was. TM: Why did your family move around so much? Did you like the experience, did it teach you something? HY: My father was a researcher for many years, and so we moved for his career -- and because he was often beguiled by one place or another: California, Texas. In general, I liked the experience, though there were places I liked more than others. However, it taught me that I can always find a person or two for company, even in inhospitable environments, and that a life can be created anywhere. Not happily, necessarily, but a life nonetheless. TM: Your “About the Author” page in your most recent book, A Little Life, reads only: “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.” Are you a private person? Or did you assume simply that if people wanted to know more about you they could google you and find where else you wrote online? HY: I just don't think more information makes a difference -- or it shouldn't, at any rate. If you're writing a nonfiction book or declaring yourself an authority on one subject or another, then yes, you probably need to detail your credentials in some way. But for fiction, it's irrelevant. Your book won't be any better or worse than it already is if you've published in a particular magazine or not, and your reader won't appreciate the book any more or less if you have or haven't. I wouldn'tve had a biography at all, except my publisher said I had to. TM: When did you start writing, as far as you can remember? HY: Probably when I was five or six. I was in fact more interested in drawing; words were something to accompany images. My grandfather owned a small print shop, and so there was always lots of thick, cottony paper lying around. I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged both of these interests -- although there's a long tradition of artists who had to rebel against their parents' expectations in order to pursue their crafts, I've been privileged to have been raised by people who actually spent years hoping I might be a cartoonist when I grew up. They were very naive when it came to money, which was frustrating in many ways but had its benefits as well. TM: Were you a reader as young as you were a writer? What do you think were your literary influences in writing the novels you've written? HY: My parents never skimped on books, but I don't think I was a particularly precocious reader -- I've never asked. And while my books don't have any deliberate literary antecedents, I can tell you that the contemporary writers I admire most are Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and John Banville. Banville because he just writes so beautifully; no one can craft a sentence as distinctively and gorgeously as he can. But as much as I admire writers who are consistently, recognizably themselves book after book, I also admire those who are constantly reinventing what their novel, and the novel, is. I marvel at how all of Ishiguro's books are united by one or two thematic ideas, and yet are so textually and texturally different each time -- I'm not sure how he does it. Mantel is another of those shape-shifters -- her early work is very brittle and funny, a series of salty confections, and then her style changed completely with The Giant, O'Brien: everything -- tone, language, sentences, rhythms -- became something new, yet remained uniquely and identifiably hers. TM: You’ve written two novels now but you were also editor-at-large for Conde Nast Traveler. How do you differentiate writing fiction from non-fiction? YH: The kind of writing I did for Traveler was largely what magazine editors call "service writing": that is, short, information-dense blurbs. I've always appreciated this kind of writing, and appreciated people who can do it well. The emphasis is less on form than it is on the efficient, pithy, authoritative conveyance of facts; such writing is the bedrock of all glossy magazine journalism. I found it relaxing, as well as satisfying: so much of this type of magazine work is fitting words to space, not the other way around, and is thus a largely visual exercise. I also found it helpful to be able to practice such a different form of writing than I do with my fiction -- you're using language, of course, but the means towards which you're deploying that language are very different. Mostly, though, my work at Traveler -- and now at T magazine, where I started a new job about a month ago -- was as an editor. Working at a magazine has taught me skills (unglamorous ones, perhaps) that've been useful in fiction: it teaches you how to pace and structure a story, whether that story is 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 words; it teaches you about deadlines, and the importance of obeying them; and it teaches you about turning in as clean a first draft as possible, about having respect for the story and for the first person -- your editor -- who'll read it. And finally, it teaches you that after a certain point, you have to just file the piece. It may not be perfect. It never will be. But a few more hours or days or weeks of tinkering and fussing are likely never to elevate it from good to astonishing. TM: I wonder how you feel about “click-bait” titles. Looking through your travel articles for Conde Nast Traveler – though not your current job anymore – the titles are so similar to many that can be found on other, less prestigious, and more bloggy websites. Just for example, the first two: “Three New Books to Bring on Your Next Trip” and “How to Get the Most Out of a Travel Specialist.” How do you feel about the internet readership culture that has made titles like this necessary? HY: Oh, well, this is just part of having a job in any sort of publication whose digital strategy is based on traffic (which is to say, almost all of them). There are some stories you write just for eyeballs, and others that are re-titled by the web team to sound grabbier. It happens everywhere. I suppose I don't have strong feelings about it; when you're working at a consumer publication, your job is to attract readers, which in turn attracts greater traffic, which in turn attracts advertisers, who then give the publication money, which pays for your job. Sometimes there's a nuanced story beneath that clickbait headline; sometimes there isn't. But I understand the need for such reductive titles -- there's too much content online for subtlety. TM: Do you think the internet needs some sort of quality control? Or do you accept that we're just watching the evolution of how journalism and entertainment are conveyed? HY: I'm not even sure how you'd do that. And I don't think it's even necessary: people who want trash will always be able to find it, and that doesn't just apply to the world of online writing -- it applies to print journalism as well. Or film. Or books. Or art. Or food! The dangerous or unfortunate thing would be if trash came to totally eclipse the non-trash -- but I don't think that's happened yet. TM: Returning again to your novel, A Little Life – I wonder what it was like to conceive of, ingest, digest, and then write the characters in the novel, and more specifically, the extremely traumatic events some of them remember or go through. How harrowing was the process, and how did you manage those scenes? HY: The one truly difficult section to write was the part about Jude's time with Dr. Traylor in the fifth part of the book. This wasn't just the fact of the story itself, though; I was in Japan on my annual holiday, and feeling despondent for a number of reasons. Normally, this trip is the most blissful event of the year for me, but that year, it just wasn't. Part of this, of course, was attributable to the book, and what felt like its urgency to announce itself on the screen. So I'd be walking through streets and temples that have never failed to bring me joy, and all I could think about was this section, and how I needed to exorcise it. And so I did, writing it over the course of four nights. I cut my sightseeing short and came back to the hotel at 4pm on each of those days, and wrote until 1 or 2am. It was the worst—the bleakest, the most physically exhausting, the most emotionally enervating—writing experience I'd had. And not necessarily because I think that's the most upsetting part of the book; but it was the time when I felt, and feared, that the book was controlling me, somehow, as if I'd somehow become possessed by it. Much of the process of writing A Little Life was a seesaw between giving myself over to the flow and rhythm of writing it, which at its best, even in its darkest moments, felt as glorious as surfing; it felt like being carried aloft on something I couldn't conjure but was lucky enough to have caught, if for just a moment. At its worst, I felt I was somehow losing my ownership over the book. It felt, oddly, like being one of those people who adopt a tiger or lion when the cat's a baby and cuddly and manageable, and then watch in dismay and awe when it turns on them as an adult. TM: Those nights writing so intensely in Japan - is that your usual process in terms of writing fiction? Having a few days of intense, impossible, yet exhilarating word-production, or do you usually write slower or with a certain method in mind? HY: No, it was unusual. There are occasions when I go on binges, but because my job doesn't really allow time for binges, I've trained myself to use the hours I do have efficiently.
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