Category Archives: nonfiction

Change is in the air

If you’re in Key West, you know that we just experienced The Change — that marvelous moment each late October when the humidity suddenly drops considerably and you think, oh yeah — that’s why we live here. To me, this means reading weather — more on the back deck than in summer (which is also reading weather, because it’s too freaking hot to do anything active, only then it’s inside in the air conditioning). Which means, yes, it’s always reading weather.

But the change of seasons and a couple of upcoming literary events have me thinking about changing up my reading list. And there are some good titles on the way if you want to take part:

1) The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss — historical fiction set after the Revolutionary War, as the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians duke it out for the future direction of the young country and regular folks are collateral damage to some of the duking. It’s the title for the November Book Bites Book Club at the Key West Library so we have lots of copies. The group meets Nov. 10 at the Library.

2) Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford — it’s going to be our One Island One Book choice for 2012, timed to the Centennial of the Overseas Railway reaching Key West. Les will be coming to talk about the book and we’ll have other programs around that time — there will be lots more information in the future at our One Island One Book blog. Bookmark it!

3) Any or all of the writers coming to the Key West Literary Seminar in January 2012 – it’s an amazing bunch especially if you’re into the speculative fiction — superstars like Margaret Atwood and William Gibson, Pulitzer Prizewinners like Jennifer Egan and Michael Cunningham, new voices like Dexter Palmer and Charles Yu, guys with hot new zombie titles like Colson Whitehead. It’s going to be extraordinary. It’s sold out, I’m afraid, but there will be free sessions on Sunday afternoon, as always. And the Seminar will post the audio from as many sessions as we can on our ever-expanding archives.

So read, dammit!

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It was better when … wait, it’s still pretty damn cool

My review of Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West ran in the Miami Herald today . The book chronicles a very interesting moment in the cultural history of the island and, to some extent, the nation. For another, longer and in some ways more positive review, check out this one from The Wall Street Journal.

The book made me think a lot about some of my longtime obsessions — in ways that weren’t really down to the merits of the book so I didn’t address them in the review. That’s why I have a blog, right? First, there’s the nostalgia thing, specifically the baby boomer nostalgia thing. If you’re a Gen X-er, as I am, you grew up with — and are still dealing with — the overwhelming, overbearing weight of the giant generation before you that set the cultural norms and insists, to this day, that their music/writers/political opinions/lifestyle choices are superior to yours and should continue their culturally dominant positions for … well, apparently forever. My college newspaper had a reunion in the early 1990s, drawing people who had been staffers from throughout the paper’s recent history — someone brilliant made up coffee mugs with the slogan “It was better when we were there.” Exactly. I am not arguing that the 1970s in Key West were not a remarkable moment for many reasons, not least the cultural convergence that saw Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison and I guess Jimmy Buffett drawn to the same small island at the same time. But it’s the notion that this was some paradise that has been lost, that there was a golden age when everything was better — and the conclusion that everything happening now just sucks that irritates me.

Related to which is the question of Key West’s authenticity, something with which anyone who chooses to live here longterm must wrestle. In Mile Marker Zero, McKeen describes present-day Key West  as having been “embalmed as an alcoholic theme park” and his main character, Tom Corcoran, finds that “the quaintness and weirdness that Corcoran found when he stepped off the plane in 1968 had largely been institutionalized.” I can see why you’d think that. Key West can appear as a theme park with a strong alcoholic bent, as a hippie version of an Amish community, as a tacky cruise ship stop. But that’s only if you see the place at its most superficial, namely Lower Duval Street. Key West has tons of authenticity and it’s not that hard to find — it’s at Sandy’s Cafe and Five Brothers. It’s at the bocce courts and the high school baseball field and and Lucky Street Gallery and the Green Parrot. It’s at the library and the Holiday Parade and the Porch and the MARC Christmas tree sale and Bad Boy Burrito and the Burlesque. True, it has a high tolerance for alcohol and other behaviors that get people into trouble — but that stems from a culture that is remarkably nonjudgmental and open to new things and unconventional lifestyles. People are constantly coming and going. Lots of them are short-timers, some of them are scammers, some have ridiculously unrealistic ideas of what they can do here. But a few stay on and add interesting new layers to the place. If you’re from here, you can draw on a tightknit community of surviving natives who have learned to adapt to the constant changes and know things about the island that we newcomers will never figure out, no matter how long we’re here. If you’re from elsewhere, you get to reinvent yourself as you choose, as an adult. Despite what McKeen says, it is not “millionaires and the homeless and hardly anyone in between” — most of the interesting stuff is in between and there’s plenty of it. And despite what Mrs. Buffett and Mrs. McGuane and Tom Corcoran may think/have thought, it is a fine place to raise children. Some of the coolest people I know grew up here — and kids regularly go off the rails in affluent suburbs, wholesome rural communities and elite private schools. People sometimes ask me if I plan to stay in Key West forever (I don’t plan that long-term but have no plans to leave at the moment) or why I’ve stayed. My answer is always the same: It’s a small town that’s never boring. I’m sure this exists elsewhere and I imagine it might be nice to live somewhere with a lower level of drunken idiocy. I might find another community with as many smart, funny, interesting people where I can ride my bike to my job, the movies, my friends’ homes and any number of interesting restaurants. But I kind of doubt it.

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My top 100

I wonder what it is about lists? Is it staving off death by making sure there’s always something left to do? Is it trying to bring order to chaos? Whatever it is, I’m obsessed with them, both with the “best of” types compiled by various publications and organizations and with my own, books to be read, books I have read, etc.

So I was intrigued to see on Pages of Julia, one of my favorite new blogs, a list of 100 books people most like to read, give and share compiled by a British organization called World Book Night. It’s an interesting list. Julia, a Houston librarian and book reviewer, also has a page on her blog with her own list of 100 “most important/should read/best books”. So as with all excellent ideas, I decided to steal it.

My list of 100 consists of books I’ve read and that have stayed with me, some for decades. When I was a kid I was a big re-reader; I would read some books (the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, Caddie Woodlawn) over and over.  The first 31 of these titles I came up off the top of my head; after that I had to consult my LibraryThing catalog.

I had thought a lot of my personal “best books” were nonfiction so I was surprised to find fiction winning the race here — especially impressive since fiction in series were limited to one entry. I hope anyone who finds their way to this list might come up with some titles of interest — and it may change over time. The last entry is a book I finished reading last night — Susan Orlean’s new book about Rin Tin Tin — which I think is her best book yet.

I hope this list also helps me, and anyone who comes across it, in providing book recommendations. A friend asked me awhile back to name my favorite book — and i blanked. After compiling all of these … I still can’t name a single favorite book. But all of these are books I would recommend to others and would not mind re-reading.

Addendum: Time magazine provides its list of 100 best nonfiction books of all Time. Hmph. I think the only one we share is Mystery Train by Greil Marcus — though it has me considering switching from The White Album to Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. My list will change, by the way. Just yesterday I took out one of the three Jane Smiley titles and replaced it with A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. And I’m always reading!

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Falling in love again: the nonfiction tome

Just the other day, I was complaining to a friend about how so many works of nonfiction are obese, topping the 500-page mark, when they would be so much more appealing at, say, 250 to 300 pages. Yet for the last couple weeks I have been happily ensconced in just such a work — Robert K. Massie’s new biography of Catherine the Great, which weighs in at 579 pages before the bibliography and end notes.

I used to read these kinds of tomes all the time. This was a time when I lived in a city far from where I’d grown up where I had no friends outside of the workplace — and I lived two blocks from an excellent independent bookstore and about five blocks from the library. I had a studio apartment that didn’t require much upkeep. There was no Internet. So basically I’d do nothing all weekend but read. I’ll even admit that this studio apartment and all this free time happened to be on South Beach circa 1989-1991 — but hey, I’m a dork. I read lots and lots, current fiction and classics, and lots of giant biographical tomes like Carlos Baker on Hemingway and William Manchester on Churchill and whoever was writing about Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth I. I loved diving into a big nonfiction tome. This might be the fault of David Halberstam, whose doorstop about journalism dynasties, The Powers That Be, was one of my favorite books when I was a young and impressionable college journalist.

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Santas in July

Late July in Key West means a couple things. It’s hotter than Hades. You start seeing interesting blobs on satellite images of the Atlantic. If you live in my house, you spend most of your nonworking waking time watching the Tour de France. And if you hang around Old Town, you suddenly have sightings of Santa wherever you look.

Only it’s not supposed to be Santa. The hale white-bearded fellows are entrants in the annual Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, a guaranteed publicity winner for the tourism council (and I’ve been as guilty as anyone; I once wrote a cover story called “The Papas and the Papas” for the late, lamented Tropic magazine, chronicling one year’s contest). An earlier story I wrote about Hemingway’s long, strong, posthumous celebrity pointed out that Amherst doesn’t hold Emily Dickinson lookalike contests — only now they do.

I’ve always hoped one year the winner would be the rare entrant who looks like the younger, darker-haired, nonbearded Hemingway — as Hemingway looked when he actually lived here in the 1930s. You do get the occasional entrant who gives it a try but since previous winners serve as the judges, the late-Hemingway look appears to have a lock on the thing.

All of which is a longwinded introduction to a couple of recent book reviews, one of which has a strong Hemingway connection: My review of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses ran in Sunday’s edition of Solares Hill. And a couple Sundays before that they ran my review of Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills. Both interesting, well reported and written books of nonfiction, though naturally very different. I liked the Malcolm book a lot about the court system; not so much with her pronounciations on journalism. And I liked Trubek’s tour of writers’ house museums though she was a bit snarky in approach at times. I hadn’t realized how many of these museums I had toured until I really thought about it though to be fair two of them are in my backyards, past and present (Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway, whom Trubek holds up as sort of polar opposite of house museum ethos).

Like many a Key Wester, I’m almost as sick of Ernest Hemingway as I am of Jimmy Buffett — but lately I’ve been thinking it might be time to read him again. One reason is the hilarious portrayal in Woody Allen’s recent movie “Midnight in Paris” — young Hemingway again, before he was the self-created celebrity and legend. Another is simply in reaction to all the late-Hemingway hysteria; I haven’t read the short stories and early novels since I was in my 20s and I have learned that books take on a whole new dimension when you bring some life experience to them. Maybe it’s time for A Farewell to Arms. After I finish re-reading Jane Austen.

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Is this just fantasy?

Best lists aren’t just for the end of the year — and they’re not just for professional book critics, either. Right now, NPR has a fun exercise going, compiling a list of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy books ever written. They’re soliciting suggestions (five titles at a time) from listeners/readers and in four days they’ve received more than 4,600 posts. Take that, all you reading-is-dead handwringers!

There are a couple rules — you can suggest a series as one of your entries, as long as that series is written by a single author. And YA is banned, which made it a little difficult for me because Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy would have been high on my list.

Still, even though I would not consider myself a big reader of scifi or fantasy, I managed to come up with five. * Here’s my list, in no particular order: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (always glad to give this one a mention; it’s alternative historical fiction, Napoleonic wars with dragons and it’s AWESOME). Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, a loopy literary alternaworld to which I will be forever grateful for getting me through the Horrible Hurricane Year of 2005. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis — highly recommended for people who like medieval stuff and/or time travel. American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which needs no help from me but is pretty cool, and will soon be a major motion picture. And The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, a book about a book that is powerful and strange. Both books, I mean. Just read it.

If you are into books, by the way, and you don’t follow or check NPR’s books coverage (it’s compiled at their website and has the requisite Facebook and Twitter feeds) then you are missing out. And if you prefer to get your radio auditorially but can’t listen to NPR all day long, they do a nice podcast of compilations of their books coverage every week or two.

The Guardian, another bastion of book coverage in the popular media, has also compiled a 100 best list recently, their picks for best nonfiction titles. They solicited reader suggestions after the fact; my contribution was The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Amazing book about biodiversity and evolution and island biogeography and if those sound like heavy, dry subjects then trust me, in Quammen’s hands they are not. If and when I have to do a serious weed of my own book collection, this will be one of the last to go.

* Addendum from 8/18/11 — Since writing this I have joined the George R. R. Martin Cult and am midway through the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series — and they really as addictive as everyone says. Martin didn’t need my help — he still scored high on the final list – and I’m not sure which of my initial five I’d knock out. Either American Gods or the Thursday Next series, which is loopier than straight-up fantasy anyway.

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Reading about reading Jane Austen

Like just about every female English major on the planet, I am a Jane-ite. I read the books. I watched the movies. I watched the various miniseries. It was a screen version — the 1980 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” shown on Masterpiece Theater — that first sent me to read Austen as a youngster. As an adult in the 1990s, when the BBC began a new round of Austen adaptations, I bought the new P&P miniseries on VHS. I bought it again on DVD. I go to the movies for new adaptations and then I buy THEM on DVD. I own a gigantic Modern Library Jane Austen compendium and a couple of the novels as individual volumes.  They’re free on Kindle so I have them there, too.

I have never, however, been a big consumer of the rest of Janeworld — the zombie mash-ups, the novels where Jane solves crimes, etc. I read The Jane Austen Book Club and thought it was OK. But generally, I prefer the original.

Only I realized recently that it has been quite some time since I’ve actually read the original. For the last decade and a half — yes, OK, since the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” — my Austen consumption has been almost entirely onscreen.

And that’s too bad, as William Deresiewicz reminded me in his appealing new memoir, “A Jane Austen Education.” He doesn’t diss the movies (well he does, a little; more on that later). But his focus is all on the books, the actual Austen, and the life lessons her small but significant output offered him.

The book is broken into six sections, one for each of the published novels, with a lesson or moral value he received from each. That can feel a little pat and I disagree with a couple of his choices — he has “Persuasion,” my favorite Austen novel, teaching him about true friendship. He makes a good case but, to me, that novel is all about constancy, and learning to have the courage to do what’s right for you, even if the people around you disapprove.

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RIP, belatedly

Recently I learned that two writers I admire – very different from each other – had died. Embarrassingly, it seems they died months ago but I somehow missed the news in both cases. Despite the fact that I try to keep an eye on literary news in all kinds of media. In my defense I can only say that I had good reasons to be a little distracted and disconnected early this winter.

The first I heard about was Diana Norman – a writer better known in recent years and on this side of the Atlantic as Ariana Franklin. She wrote a series of historical mysteries generally known by the title of the first book in the series: Mistress of the Art of Death. And as I learned from this obituary in The Guardian, she had a long and interesting writing career, both as a journalist and a writer of historical fiction, before that series. The Mistress of the Art of Death books helped get me started on what has become a three-year (so far) jag of historical mysteries; set in the 12th century, they follow a female physician who winds up in Henry II’s England. I have no basis on which to judge their historical authenticity but they are enjoyable reads. Now I’m going to have to track down her earlier novels, several of which are set in Revolutionary America.

The other, who actually died a few weeks before Norman, was Wilfrid Sheed. I came across the news while browsing through Slate’s cultural coverage a couple days ago; here’s Timothy Noah’s appreciation and here’s the New York Times obituary. Sheed spent quite a bit of time in Key West in the ’90s; I may have met him once or twice but I certainly didn’t know him. But I did really enjoy his writing, coming across his book Essays in Disguise when I was living in Miami right after college and my entire life, outside of work, consisted of buying books at Books & Books and reading. Sheed’s essays, as the title indicates, were exactly the kind of literary journalism I like most — intelligent, clear, appreciative, and written for readers, not the academy.

I am grateful to both of them for writing books that enriched my reading life. We have all four of the Mistress of Art of Death series in the library collection; unfortunately, we only have one of Sheed’s books, his most recent, The House that George Built, about American popular music in the 20th century (the titular George is George Gershwin). For people who like literary essays I highly recommend Essays in Disguise and The Good Word. And for people curious about Sheed’s Key West experiences, here’s a Key West Diary he kept for Slate in 2001. It’s a little name-droppy, to be sure, but not all the names are famous literary ones and it’s definitely a picture of one slice of island life.

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Simon Winchester: A (re)consideration

More than a decade ago, when Simon Winchester’s book “The Professor and the Madman” came out, I was excited. This was exactly the kind of narrative nonfiction I love — historical (set in the 19th century), literary (about two collaborators on the Oxford English Dictionary), written for laypeople. It got great reviews, both in the press and word of mouth. I bought a copy of the book. And I … hated it. I had such a strong reaction, pretty early on, that I didn’t even finish it. Which is very unusual for me.

Since then, I’ve watched Winchester’s career with regret because he continues to write about the kind of stuff I like to read about — Krakatoa, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, brilliant oddballs who made major advances in our knowledge of the world. But I resisted, based on my bad reaction to that book.

Recently, a friend who reviewed Winchester’s recent book Atlantic recommended that I reconsider. And it was just about then that a new, slim volume came across the library circulation desk: “The Alice Behind Wonderland.” In that Winchester tells the tale behind the famous photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Charles Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll. The photograph is haunting and disturbing and especially famous since it was taken around the time that Dodgson entertained his young friend with a story that eventually became “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

So I picked up the book. And … I liked it. I wish there had been more illustrations of other photographs discussed in the text (though fortunately in this age of the internet you can nose around on Google images and see almost anything). But whatever it was that I had a bad reaction to last time, it didn’t happen. So I decided to go back to the Professor and the Madman. I can’t remember precisely what turned me off so strongly though I remember it came around the time of the description of the Civil War service of one of the protagonists. Cautiously, I started reading.

And … it’s fine. I’m about a third of the way through and for the life of me I can’t figure out why I had such an incredibly strong reaction the first time. Obviously the text has not changed so it must be me. Which is a relief, really, because now I can go back and read all of Winchester’s other books about those subjects that interest me. I’ve noticed before, primarily in fiction, how reading the same book at different times of your life can make a huge difference (“To The Lighthouse” is a totally different book at 32 than it is at 19, for instance). So sorry about that Simon, but glad to have met up with you at last.

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Best of the best of the best lists

Once again, the good librarians at the Williamsburg (Virginia) Regional Library have performed a public service and compiled all the best lists, awards and other honors for books published in 2010 for their annual megalist — available as an Excel spreadsheet.

The fiction winner is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is kind of interesting since it hasn’t won the Big Name awards (though it still has a shot at the Pulitzer, which is announced this month). And I was delighted to see that three of the eight writers in the Speculative Fiction category (Gary Shteyngart, Charles Yu and William Gibson) will be here for the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar, Yet Another World (check out the rest of the amazing line-up: still room to register!).  So, by the way, will the author of the No. 2 in fiction (and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner), Jennifer Egan. And yes, we have the vast majority of the top books listed here in the library collection.

BTW, for those of you who follow books more than basketball, that other big tournament is getting ready to wrap up — The Tournament of Books — and the championship round features the top two novels on Williamsburg’s list, Freedom versus A Visit From The Goon Squad. The best part of this tournament is you can go back and read all the different rounds in whatever order you like. I suppose some might frown on this sort of competitive literary exercise, but it’s all in good faith and good fun — I’ve never seen cheap shots or nasty takedowns here. And any time I get to read anything by Elif Batuman, I’m happy. I wonder if they’d consider adding a nonfiction category?

Update: And the winner is … A Visit From the Goon Squad! Which I’m delighted to hear, not only because I happen to have a copy of the book in my house (though I’ll admit I haven’t read it yet — or Freedom, either) — and because Egan will be here in Key West, in January, for the Key West Literary Seminar — still time to sign up!).

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