Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The New Kings of Nonfiction

I ordered this book, which is a collection of nonfiction essays edited by Ira Glass from This American Life, from the TAL Web site. The nonfiction essay is my favorite form of writing, the kind of writing I wish I was better at. It's also why I've maintained my subscription to The New Yorker since I was in college. And why I usually read it cover to cover each week.

I was so excited when the book arrived that I dove right in, ignoring my children and reading at the dinner table. It turns out that my excitement was justified. There were some absolutely outstanding essays in the book.

My favorites were Malcolm Gladwell's on the theory of Six-Degrees of Separation, Dan Savage's on his attempt to reform the Seattle Republican Party from within, Susan Orlean's on an averge 10-year-old boy, and some writer whose name I can't remember at the moment on her life as a hostess at a hot New York nightclub.

Other essays were so-so, like the one on how people remember World War II. It had some interesting bits, but it dragged on way too long. Another was on the author's adventures at the World Series of Poker. I don't know enough about poker to really grasp the full impact of the story.

I completely skipped the essay by David Foster Wallace. I attempted to read The Infinite Jest when it was published and was showing up on all the Best Of lists that year. But when I got 3/4 of the way through and still had no idea what was going on, I gave up. I had begun to suspect that the jest in the title was really on the reader, that I'd get to the end and still not have a clue. A friend who managed to get through it confirmed my suspicion, so I'm glad I didn't struggle through.

But back to the book - I'd highly recommend ordering it. Make sure you order it from the TAL site so that they get the credit for the sale.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell

OK, so this isn't about a book I've read; it's about an author I want to read.

I've resisted picking up The Tipping Point or Freakonomics by Malcolm Gladwell because I figured they were both probably filled with dry statistic and economic lessons. I don't know why I thought that given the books' popularity with people who have read them. One friend, a freelance business writer, raved about both to me. But I tend to be stubborn and not do things lots of people tell me to do. I still haven't seen Ghost or Indecent Proposal or The English Patient precisely because I had too many people tell me they were the BEST MOVIES EVER!

But I think I'm about to reverse my position on Gladwell. He has an essay in The New Kings of Nonfiction about the six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon that was completely entertaining and fascinating. When I was finished I actually understood the principle.

And then I just saw a repeat of The Colbert Report with Malcolm Gladwell and I loved it. First, he's not the stereotypical dry economist or academic. He's youngish, with wild fuzzy hair. The show ended with Gladwell, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a gospel choir and Colbert singing "Let My People Go." It was great. Enough to make me want to buy and read his books.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

At Large and at Small

Anne Fadiman's collection of familiar essays is the most charming little book I've read in a long time. It's a small book, filled with stories about things near and dear to her heart - coffee, ice cream, moving, night owls and morning larks, Charles Lamb - but it's so much more than that.

The art of the familiar essay is to write about something you love, say coffee, but to include bits of history on coffee, quotations from other coffee lovers, anecdotes of your personal history with coffee, and to make it all entertaining. Fadiman pulls it off in style. I smiled through the whole book.

Fadiman has another book I love called Ex Libris, which is a whole book about books. Each time I'm feeling a little down or overwhelmed, I'll pull out this book and read an essay or two. It's a treat to spend time with someone who loves books as much as I. My favorites are her essays on her family's compulsive need to catch typos and misspellings in menus and on her struggle to combine her book collection with her husband's - two areas with which I am all too familiar.

Fadiman has a third book, called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which I haven't read yet. After reading At Large, I may have to pick it up the next time I'm at the store.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


B picked up this Michael Crichton book at the airport when he went to Chicago a couple of months ago. I picked it up last week because I was looking for something quick and easy to read while I had a migraine.

I think all of my eye rolling may have made my migraine worse, but I was too stubborn to put the book down. I'll say this for Crichton, he knows how to write a gripping story. But he has the same problem as Hiaason - too many dang characters.

The plot centers around genetic engineering and unscrupulous biogenetics lab stealing genes from unsuspecting patients and around transgenetic animals, specifically a half chimp/half man and a half parrot/half man. The parrot looks like a parrot, but he has a personality and can think and speak on his own.

I rolled my eyes a lot while reading the book because Crichton likes to fill his stories with lots of "facts" and explanations that are meant to alarm the reader. After reading this book, one might think that scientists are on the verge of really stealing genes from people and of creating human/animal hybrids. Crichton includes a long bibliography and recommended reading list at the end of the book, like the reader is supposed to do further research.

I've enjoyed a lot of Crichton's books - Jurassic Park is a fun read, and the Great Train Robbery was a pretty amazing novel - but I can't say I'd recommend this one.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Nature Girl

I generally like Carl Hiaason's writing. He's got a breezy style and a sharp wit. His books are good beach and airplane reads. I picked up Nature Girl at Target last month because I was in the mood for something fun to break up all the history I've been reading.

My complaint with this book is the same I have with most of Hiaason's others - there are too many characters.

This book has a good basic story - a slightly loony woman named Honey decides to take revenge on a telemarketer named Boyd who calls her during dinner and then insults her. It's a cause I can get behind, and her plan for Boyd is pretty ingenious. But then Honey's son Fry and her ex-husband Perry get dragged in. As does Boyd's mistress and his wife and the private dective Boyd's wife hires to get proof that Boyd is cheating on her. Then there's a half-Seminole Indian who calls himself Thlocko who's taking refuge in the Everglades because a man died on his airboat tour. And an FSU co-ed who becomes the Seminole's willing hostage. All these folks end up on the same island in the middle of the glades, which is just stretching belief a little too much. Oh wait, there's also Honey's lecherous ex-boss who is stalking her. And a group of religious nuts who think Boyd is the Saviour, born again and delivered from the sea.

I think Hiaason needs a new editor, one who is willing to overlook Hiaason's success and able to get him to trim a bit.

Skinny Dip is still my favorite of all his books, although this one is in the top three.