Books

Fact or Fiction?

StrangeStories

I’ve never quite understood people who only read nonfiction (or that rarer beast, the person who only reads fiction and is uninterested in history or the news). I like well told and interesting stories, whether they’re true or not. (I’m also pretty bad at focusing on one thing all the time, so maybe I’m just a fox with an inability to understand hedgehogs.) But even though both fact and fiction are united by use of narrative—storytelling—I’ve also never had much sympathy for the idea that they’re therefore the same thing. (This is the idea behind much “post-modern” literary criticism, as well as, to some extent, in Hayden White’s analysis of history writing as literature and David Shields’s Reality Hunger.)

To my mind, the important difference between the two is not necessarily in how much is factual, though of course that’s part of it, but in the role of imagination and experience and the deal the writer makes with the reader. In fiction, the writer’s experience is filtered or projected through his or her imagination, and thus altered by it, sometimes beyond recognition. This is true for even the most fantastic writing, which always uses gestures and details the writer experienced—even if only through reading other writers’ descriptions of gestures and details! Meanwhile nonfiction uses imagination to illuminate the experience and research of the writer. Imagination picks the details from the reality, arranges them in an often unexpected order (think of the seemingly—but not at all—random structure of John McPhee’s books on geology), but tries not to alter the facts themselves, only illuminate them by description and context.

Imagination is like light, but light can be used for colored gels and kaleidoscopes and Lazer Zeppelin shows at the planetarium, or as a high-powered spotlight. So the main difference between fiction and nonfiction is the deal the writer makes with readers regarding how his or her imagination will be used. Because all good readers know that facts and imagination will be jumbled together in both “true” and “made up” stories, but we need ground rules so we know what we’re getting into, and what we can do with the story after we read it. People think James Frey is a scumbag because he presented stuff he made up as fact—the quality, good or bad, of the writing was irrelevant. But of course Frey’s writing wasn’t very good. The sole interest in his book came from the idea that the crazy things he described had actually happened. They were implausible as fiction. This is why it would likely have failed if marketed originally as a novel.

Good fiction reveals the strangeness in ordinary things. The best nonfiction tells us surprising and weird stories, but reveals them to be part of a larger pattern or web—part of our ordinary lives, whether we knew it or not.

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Story

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Book Report: Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

stay_awake

This an excellent collection of creepy and mysterious short stories. If you’ve read Chaon before, you’ll know what to expect: gloomy midwesterners, suggestions of ghosts and painful pasts, an obsession with twins and changing identities, all written in his simple but vivid style. Highly recommended! The first story, “The Bees,” is the most creepy, disturbing, and nightmarish; read it first or last depending on whether that appeals to you or not.

Another I particularly liked is “To Psychic Underworld:,” about a widowed father who keeps finding (and collecting) little notes and lists and scraps of paper he finds, a habit I have, as well. He describes the appeal, mystery, and sadness of finding such things well:

Now, suddenly, it seemed that there were notes everywhere, emerging out of the blur of the world. Something had happened to him not that Beth was gone, he thought—there was an opening, a space, a part of his brain that had been deaf before was now exposed, it was as if he were a long-dormant radio that had begun to receive signals—tuned in, abruptly, to all the crazy note-writers of the world.

“Please,” someone had written on a napkin and left it on the table in McDonald’s, where he had taken Hazel for a little peaceful snack, a casual Toledo afternoon, but now here was this other voice poking its head through the surface of his consciousness like a worm peeking up out of the ground. “Please,” in ballpoint pen on the napkin. And then “Please” on the napkin underneath it, and “Please” again on a third. Someone was either very polite or very desperate.

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The Big Takeover

Amazon.com has bought Goodreads.

Why do people think blogs are dead (or dying)? As more and more sites are bought by the same big companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.), it’s easy to imagine that many people will want to go back to a format in which they can create their own networks, without targeted ads or annoying algorithms, that won’t be feeding quite so directly into those big companies marketing data operations. Isn’t it?

Books
Culture
Economics

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Books I Have Read More than Once

I posted quotes from Roland Barthes and François Mauriac about rereading to my Tumblr yesterday, and it’s got me trying to think of all the books I’ve read more than once. I’m sure I’m not remembering a few, but here’s a partial list (not including children’s picture books):

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Right Ho, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
  • Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor (I’ve also reread most of her short stories.)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Not sure what Mauriac would make of me. Lots of fantasy, because I was an obsessive fantasy reader when I was in junior high school, and then I reread some of those books as an adult to see if I could remember why I was so obsessed with them. Rereading a book you first read when you were younger reminds me of the saying about egg nog: when you drink it as a child it makes you feel like an adult, and when you drink it as an adult it makes you feel like a child again.

You never really read the same book twice, because you change between every reading.

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Adding to the Pile

The Millions tells us of interesting books to be published this upcoming year. It’s a good list, and contains many titles I hope to read. At my current rate, however, I feel I won’t get to many of them until the next decade. This week I started reading a book (The Verificationist, by Donald Antrim) that I bought in 2001 but have only now gotten around to reading.

(It’s good, by the way. Not sure why I waited so long to read it.)

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Purloined Letters

An acquaintance of mine, Margo Rabb, recently wrote a piece for the New York Times on which books are most often stolen from book stores. The Bible, along with books by Martin Amis, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo and Jack Kerouac, are at the top of the list. As Rabb points out, the most stolen books tend to be written by men, and this is probably because the shoplifters tend to be a certain kind of young man. That young man was identified in an article Ron Rosenbaum wrote years ago on a similar theme for the New York Observer. He is “Bukowski Man”:

Bukowski Man, sort of like our anthropological forebears Peking Man or Piltdown Man, almost a special subspecies of human. You’ve probably run into Bukowski Man in one form or another. He’s like, you know, a rebel, he’s not into conventional literature, man. Because it doesn’t tell the truth. The man can’t handle The Truth, which of course is all about (and only about) getting drunk and pissing and shitting and puking and fucking and passing out, not necessarily in that order, sometimes virtually simultaneously. What else do we know about Bukowski Man? He’s probably a suburban white boy who’s never been more down and out than a collect call to his parents. Usually there’s a surfboard or a skateboard or a Frisbee involved. His dog wears a red bandanna around its neck. Oh, and yes, he’s likely to be a shoplifter.

Anyway, I find the topic of most stolen books (and cars and records and other things) fascinating, and wish papers would run a “most stolen” list next to the bestsellers.

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Bleak House

Asra Q. Nomani relates a dispiriting story in the Wall Street Journal about Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’s “racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet [sic] Muhammad.” The reason for the decision is depressingly familiar:

Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Well, considering the mayhem that followed the publication of Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, I’m sure the publication of a book describing Muhammad and Aisha’s wedding night might “incite” acts of violence (by people, it must be remembered, who are perfectly capable of deciding not to be violent in response to such “incitement”). But it’s not as if Random House’s decision not to publish will be free of nasty consequences. It will embolden that small, radical segment to threaten other publishers with violence the next time something it finds offensive is published. Perry’s statement might more accurately be rendered as, “If we’re about to publish something you don’t like, threaten us with violence and we won’t publish it.”

It’s especially shameful that this has happened at Random House, whose co-founder, Bennett Cerf, faced an obscenity trial for trying to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Cerf and Random House won the case, of course, and began typesetting copies of Ulysses within ten minutes of the decision.) It’s hard to think of a more dismal way to traduce Cerf’s legacy than to cave in to the demands of religious fanatics.

It’s shameful, too, that the University of Texas, alma mater of my parents and my paternal grandfather, has a part in this. Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at UT, was asked to review Jones’s book by Random House and after doing so took it upon herself to mobilize Muslim opposition to the publication of The Jewel of Medina. According to Nomani’s article, Spellberg said, “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

You can’t? Why not? It’s a novel, that is, a work of the imagination, not a history book. And anyway, offending religious sensibilities and titillating readers with soft-core pornography are an important part of the novelistic tradition and have been since the very beginning, as anyone who’s ever read François Rabelais or Laurence Sterne, to name only two early novelists, can tell you. I hope there is a publisher out there with a spine and an understanding of the fundamental importance of defending freedom of speech against thugs, bullies, and perpetually offended humanities professors (someone in other words more like Bennett Cerf than Thomas Perry), who will publish this book.

Books
Censorship
Religion
Uncategorized

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The Long Arm of the Sea-Puss

When I first read the introduction to James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times some fifteen years ago, I laughed out loud at the mixture of menace, melancholy, and absurdity in its concluding sentence: “As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.” “The claw of the sea-puss” is pretty unbeatable as a simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying metaphor for the ravages of time and death. I imagined the sea-puss as a cute but murderous deep-sea monster, some fell hybrid of crab and Hello Kitty, perhaps betentacled and squid-beaked as well. I meant to look up “sea-puss,” and F. Hopkinson Smith, of course, at the time, but I was living a careless, profligate existence when I was in my early twenties, and I became distracted by other things (not least by laughing at other things in Thurber’s book, like the “Get Ready Man”) and I simply forgot about them.

I recently reread My Life and Hard Times, however, and I’m happy to say that the World Wide Web has the sea-puss answers I seek. According to Webster’s online dictionary, “sea puss” is an alteration of an Algonquian word for river, and means “a swirling or along shore undertow.” According to a number of sites I could find, F. Hopkinson Smith was for most of his life a marine engineer, and designed the foundations for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In short, Smith was a man intimately familiar with the powers of the sea-puss. Smith didn’t begin to write until later in his life, apparently egged on by friends because he was such an engaging “after-dinner raconteur.” I found one of Smith’s novels, The Tides of Barnegat, on Google Books. Chapter XXII is entitled, “The Claw of the Sea-Puss.” The flavor of Smith’s prose, and the terrible destructive power of the sea-puss, can be found in an earlier passage, describing the weather at a beach in the fall:

The cruel north wind now wakes, and with a loud roar joins hands with the savage easter; the startled surf falls upon the beach like a scourge. Under their double lash the outer bar cowers and sinks; the frightened sand flees hither and thither. Soon the frenzied breakers throw themselves headlong, tearing with teeth and claws, burrowing deep into the hidden graves. Now the forgotten wrecks, like long-buried sins, rise and stand naked, showing every scar and stain. This is the work of the sea-puss—the revolving maniac born of close-wed wind and tide; a beast so terrible that in a single night, with its auger-like snout, it bites huge inlets out of farm lands—mouthfuls deep enough for ships to sail where but yesterday the corn grew. 

If that has whetted your appetite, you can read Smith’s entire novel online at its page on Google Books. And may you avoid the sea-puss’s awful claw for as long as you can.

Books
Comedy
Culture
Language

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Damn Your Eyes!

Flashman!

George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series of historical novels, died Wednesday. I only discovered the Flashman books last year, but after reading the first, Flashman, I liked it so much I read the next eight without stopping. There are three more.

The books are presented as the memoirs of Harry Flashman, a drunken bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, after he was expelled from Rugby School. “Flashy” joins the army soon after and ends up being involved in many of the significant battles of the nineteenth century, including Little Big Horn, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Indian Mutiny, among others. In all of them, he steadfastly refrains from doing anything heroic, trying instead only to save his own skin and make it with the ladies. He’s a coward, a cad, a bully, disloyal, untrustworthy, and self-centered, and yet, since he is completely honest about it all, ends up being an oddly endearing, ridiculous, and occasionally even sympathetic character.

Fraser’s Flashman books may be the best, and almost certainly are the funniest, historical fiction ever written. The historical information in the books is meticulously researched, so even as you are entertained by a bawdy boy’s adventure story, you end up learning a great deal about the British Empire, knowledge which provides a deeper background for much of the news that comes out of today’s troublesome hotspots.

If you’ve never read them, I enthusiastically recommend them. His creator is dead, but Flashman will live for a very long time, I think.

Rest in peace, Mr. Fraser.

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Recommended Reading

Now that I’m (long) out of college, I choose what books to read in three ways: friends’ recommendations, books I need to read for my writing and editing jobs, and books referred to or recommended in books and articles I’m already reading. The first and third method send me down certain paths and subject areas, all related to each other in some way, and thus necessarily excluding other paths, other authors. It occurred to me when Norman Mailer died recently that I have never read anything he wrote, and that’s primarily because nobody I know has ever recommended him to me and the writers I read hardly ever refer to him, and when they do it’s usually unfavorably. The only exception I remember is George Orwell writing that The Naked and the Dead was a good book, so if I read anything by Mailer, it will be that one first. It’s the same thing with John Updike and William T. Vollmann, two other writers whose books I always see in the bookstore but have never read, and there is certainly a vast constellation of others I have never read, and may never read. If I had the time, it would be interesting to draw a chart of these recommendation connections, to see what my own reading’s constellation looks like, and to see just how far away across the galaxy it might lay from those of other people.

Here are some recommended reading lists I’ve found on the Internet recently from writers or bloggers I like:

  • In an interview with the National Book Foundation, Christopher Hitchens recommends the following as his favorite non-fiction books: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield; The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell; and The Prophet Outcast, by Isaac Deutscher.
  • Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, has a long list of recommended reading on his Web site, including books on philosophy, religion, mysticism, and neuroscience.
  • Michael Weiss and Nic Duquette’s blog, Snarksmith, has a list of recommended books, movies, and music running down the left side of the home page, including Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and several other books I would also recommend and several which are on my “to read” list.
  • Butterflies and Wheels, self-proclaimed “fighters of fashionable nonsense,” has a list of favorite books, too. (Hitchens is on it, and is also on the Snarksmith list, providing at least one node in my constellation, or one constellation in my galaxy, perhaps.)
  • Journalist Danny Postel has a list of readings in a syllabus he prepared for a class on writing for magazines.
  • Finally, a MetaFilter post in which people post their answers to the question, “What single book is the best introduction to your field for laypeople?”

I’m working on my own list, which I hope to post to the site soon.

Books

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