Legendary literary journalist Kidder (Strength in What Remains, 2009, etc.) and his longtime editor trade war stories and advice for the ambitious nonfiction writer.
“Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write,” an Atlantic editor told Todd about Kidder, who had been constantly revising his first feature in 1973. The authors tell this story upfront as an inspirational anecdote for young writers: Great writing is less often the product of flashes of genius than it is dogged persistence as a researcher and rewriter. The book is largely an entertaining handbook on matters of reporting (do lots of it, much more than you think you need) and style (simpler is better), but Kidder and Todd are not prescriptive the way Strunk & White and its inheritors are, and they allow greater leeway for writers. Throughout, they implore writers to shrug off the shackles of “journalese” and blog-y posturing and strive for creative, essayistic approaches. They’re also forgiving, to a degree, of the imperfect memories that propel many memoirs. Outright fabrications (see James Frey) are out of line for them, but they appreciate that no memoirs “that strive to dramatize moments in the past can be wholly faithful to knowable fact.” After the practical matters are settled, the two indulge in “Being Edited and Editor,” a lengthy chapter in which they recall their contentious relationship tussling over paragraphs. Even here, though, the memories are studded with practical tips and memorable aphorisms—“Something is always wrong with a draft,” in particular, should hang over every writer’s desk. The authors also offer fine recommendations for further reading, from Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (1967) to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012).
Other writing guides have more nuts-and-bolts advice, but few combine the verve and plainspokenness of this book, which exemplifies its title.
The life and times of the creator of Bertie and Jeeves, as told to friends and family.
Although they don’t reveal him at his stylish, polished best, these letters by P.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) are casual, funny and revealing asides from a prolific and successful career. Although he began his working life in a dull banking firm, it wasn’t long before writing would make him rich. By the 1920s, he was getting top dollar. “I have just signed a contract with the Cosmopolitan for eighteen stories at $6500 each (including English rights),” he wrote Ira Gershwin in 1928. “Also a serial for Collier’s for $40,000.” As one of the most popular writers (and Broadway lyricists) of his day, he kept up an indefatigable pace. (A typical progress report from 1932: “I’m writing like blazes. A novel and eight short stories in seven and a half months.”) Wodehouse was constantly on the lookout for stories, and he didn’t mind using retreads (“I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations”). Evelyn Waugh noted that Wodehouse characters live in a perpetual Eden; their creator was a similar case of arrested development. At the age of 51, he wrote, “I sometimes feel as if I were a case of infantilism.” Taken prisoner by the Nazis while living in France, he made broadcasts over German radio in hopes of letting his readers know he was OK; it took years of postwar damage control to convince them he had been a “Silly Ass,” not a Nazi stooge. To wife Ethel (“precious angel Bunny”) and stepdaughter Leonora (“Snorky”), he was affectionate; to fellow writers and readers—he always answered fan mail—he was instructive, gossipy and supportive, sometimes financially.
Editor Ratcliffe’s (On Sympathy, 2009) generous annotations and judicious edits give scope to a rich, brilliant, happy, oblivious life.
In a follow-up to Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2008), Shubin (Biological Sciences/Univ. of Chicago) delivers an equally engrossing history of life’s connections to everything else.
The author begins with the most common element in the human body, hydrogen, which also makes up 90 percent of the universe. All hydrogen existed along with helium and a trace of lithium when everything began 13.7 billion years ago. Heavier elements were made later inside stars, some of which end their lives violently. Cosmic dust that condensed to form the sun 5 billion years ago also made the planets. Microorganisms appeared soon after the Earth cooled enough to support liquid water—so soon that many scientists believe that life is not a rare accident, but inevitable under the right circumstances. Shubin recounts the subsequent 4 billion years of changes in both life and its surroundings. Oxygen, absent at first, slowly accumulated as photosynthetic plants multiplied. The Earth’s rocky crust shifted, eroded and cracked, leaking volcanic gases from the interior. Continents formed and split, expanding and shrinking the oceans; the resulting mountains, shifting ocean currents and migrating landmasses carried life across the planet, forcing it to adapt to the changing environment or nearly wiping it out. The sun is 30 percent hotter than when life began; in another billion years, it will make the Earth too warm to support life.
An intelligent, eloquent account of our relations with the inanimate universe.
A veteran journalist captures the functioning chaos of Haiti.
New Yorker writer Wilentz has been covering shattering events in Haiti since the Duvalier dynasty fell in 1986, culminating in her book The Rainy Season. Now based in Los Angeles, the author again felt the fatal pull of the country after the recent natural-disaster devastation and returned repeatedly in order to record the uneven progress in reconstruction and humanitarian aid as well as interview many of the so-called (in politically incorrect parlance) Fred Voodoos, or Everymen on the street, for a reality check. Describing herself as “a naïve person, and a romantic,” she has grown enormously wary of the good intentions heaped on the country from one crisis to another and is frequently cynical after many years of her “Haitian education.” Since its very inception as the first (and last) slave revolution in history, Haiti has been victimized, plunged into poverty, denuded of resources and patronized by rich white neighbors bent on a “salvation fantasy” that has never lifted the country out of poverty. After the hurricane, suddenly whites appeared everywhere to help out. While Wilentz does chronicle some extremely good work being done—by the indefatigable infectious-disease specialist Dr. Megan Coffee and by actor Sean Penn in setting up a workable refugee camp—much of what the journalist witnessed remained a familiar profound malaise and dysfunction. Seeking out her old acquaintances and former protégés of President Aristide, the author found drugged-out zombies, many living in permanent refugee camps without proper sanitation and little or no literacy. She learned that nothing is as it seems in Haiti. Like voodoo ceremonies, society runs on “artifice and duplicity,” and its government (a kleptocracy) has been organized “to be porous and incompetent, to allow for corruption.”
An extraordinarily frank cultural study/memoir that eschews platitudes of both tragedy and hope.
Flynn (The Ticking Is the Bomb, 2010, etc.) writes about having his memoir made into a movie.
In Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004), Flynn told the story of reconnecting with his homeless and alcoholic father when the author was working at a Boston homeless shelter in the late 1980s, after Flynn’s mother had committed suicide years earlier. That memoir became the basis for a movie, Being Flynn, filmed in 2011 and released this year, starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore as his parents. (Actor Paul Dano, of There Will Be Blood fame, portrayed Flynn himself.) This new memoir is told as a series of short, almost pointillist vignettes—most a page or less—creating a complex patchwork of thoughts and ruminations on memory. Flynn systematically tries to make sense of his roiling emotions as he cycles through episodes from his and his parents’ lives. The inherent surreality of having your life portrayed by actors is a major theme. Describing a table reading of the film script, Flynn writes, “De Niro opens his mouth and my father comes out, then Dano opens his mouth and I come out, then Julianne opens her mouth.” Several times, Flynn uses a quote from another writer—Joan Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone Weil and others—as a springboard to a new thought or to sharpen a previous one. He also analyzes other works of art, from glass flowers to a scene from The Godfather Part II to an obscure Samuel Beckett/Buster Keaton film.
Flynn’s determination to better understand his life through the act of writing and remembering has yielded a truly insightful, original work.
How to survive any possible disaster, from aliens to zombies to everything in between.
If there was a massive earthquake, would you have enough water on hand to last for even a week? In the event of a thermonuclear detonation, would you be able to hot-wire a car quickly enough to escape the shock wave that will kill you? Questions like these (and many more like them) have all occurred to Sheridan (The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game, 2010, etc.) during sleepless nights. A former kickboxer and an experienced sailor, the author’s nightmares finally got the better of him once he became a father. “If something was going to happen,” he writes, “I wanted to be ready.” Using increasingly unlikely theoretical disasters as an impetus, Sheridan set out to learn every possible survival skill, from the most rudimentary (making fire and learning to hunt), to taking a driving clinic for stuntmen, because “when you’re driving a slalom course through a zombie-infested city, you need to…maintain control because if you lose it and crash, now you’re zombie food.” Sheridan is a charming storyteller, and his prose is both thoughtful and playful. He closes the book with a chapter on optimism and the inherent goodness of humanity, stressing that everything he has learned has not made him paranoid and believing that the end of the world is nigh; instead, it’s given him the confidence to face anything and the peace of mind that brings him. “At some point,” he concludes, “when you’ve done your best, you have to get on with your life and trust the universe not to fuck you.”
An upbeat and entertaining survival guide for the end of the world.
How to analyze “the numbers behind the news [and appreciate] the extraordinary (and growing) power of data” in today’s market-driven economy.
Wheelan (Public Policy/Dartmouth Coll.; 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, 2012 etc.) extends the scope of his 2002 best-seller, Naked Economics, to encompass the statistical know-how necessary in making informed economic and other decisions. The author provides tools to help the nonmathematical reader develop an intuitive grasp of apparently arcane topics such as the “central limit theorem,” which is used to estimate likely outcomes. Using forensic medicine as an analogy, he compares a statistician to a detective gathering information at the scene of a crime. Both are frequently involved in “building a circumstantial case based on imperfect data” and are dependent on sampling techniques. Wheelan uses a seemingly high-risk marketing campaign by Schlitz beer to illustrate the point. In 1981, the company spent $1.7 million to run a blind taste test between Schlitz and Michelob, involving 100 contestants. In fact, as Wheelan shows, it was a sure winner. While the likely outcome of a random sample would be a 50/50 split, any percentage could be framed to Schlitz's advantage. The key was in the sample. Contestants were selected on the basis of their previously expressed preference for Michelob, so that even if only 30 percent chose Schlitz, the claim that Michelob drinkers chose Schlitz was still valid. The author explains how the normal distribution works and emphasizes the importance of measuring both the mean and medium in a given study. Wheelan also explains the famous brain-teasing Monty Hall problem, which has stumped experts for years.
A delightful, informative guide to an often-intimidating subject.
Kennedy (The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations, 2006, etc.) presents what he calls “a new way of treating that epic conflict,” World War II.
The author begins with the agenda and priorities of the 1943 Casablanca Conference, and his inquiry traces the interrelationships among strategic decision-making, the accomplishment of the five major tasks identified by conference attendees, and the capacities and weapons systems that made the achievement of the goals possible. The aim was to overcome obstacles to the successful invasion of Western Europe, with five ranked top priorities: winning the battle against U-boats in the North Atlantic, securing control of the airspace over Europe, developing ways to counter the Nazi blitzkrieg, learning how to coordinate landings and establish secure beachheads on enemy-held coastlines, and mastering the technology and skills required to coordinate and fight combined arms warfare over thousands of miles. Kennedy's fine-grained analysis and suspicion of any one single cause—like cipher cracking, intelligence and deception operations, or specific weapons systems, like the Soviet T-34 tank—permit him to persuasively array his supporting facts. He discusses key elements in each of the five areas and the commonalities among the different global theaters of war. The succession of accomplishments highlights the special importance of control of the air. Kennedy rebuts those who argue that the second front could have been opened in 1943, by showing what was learned from the succession of amphibious landings and their impact on the D-Day preparations and ultimate success. The author introduces many individuals whose inventions and capacities contributed profoundly.
A top-notch account of Haiti's recent history, including the January 2010 earthquake, from the only American reporter stationed in the country at the time.
Katz broke the story of how the deadly cholera outbreak, which spread in the months after the earthquake, was brought to the region by infected Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers and spread by inadequate sanitation. In his debut, the author chronicles his many investigations during his years living in and writing about Haiti. Unlike coverage by other writers on the island's recent history, Katz's recounting of the earthquake disaster, and the international mobilization that followed, is part of an ongoing story. This account complements those of others who have written of their direct experiences with the aftermath of the earthquake, but Katz’s position on the ground when the disaster struck makes this book unique—“it allowed me to understand both sides of the divide, between those who seek to improve how aid is given, and those who have been trying to improve their own lives for so long.” His contacts and local knowledge gave him special insight into the way the relief operation developed. Katz shows in detail how well-meaning actor Sean Penn (who lacked expertise) fed media hype about flooding dangers and diphtheria scares, which got in the way of efforts by qualified experts such as epidemiologist Paul Farmer. The author reports how promised aid funds didn't arrive and NGO relief funds were misspent, while Haitians, presumed to be corrupt, were shut out of involvement in relief efforts. He also examines the involvement of the Duvalier clan.
Theoharis (Political Science/Brooklyn Coll.; co-author: Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare, 2006, etc.) has discovered the soul of Rosa Parks (1913–2005), and it’s not that of a docile, middle-age seamstress.
The author successfully goes “behind the icon of Rosa Parks to excavate and examine the scope of her political life.” Parks learned to stand up for her rights as a child; she never backed down from black or white, rich or poor when she knew she was right. She began working for civil rights early in her life and was the first secretary of the Montgomery NAACP in 1947. She also wasn’t the first to refuse to relinquish her seat on the bus, but the strength of her character and a push too far by the local police made her the poster child for the struggle. Her arrest was the impetus for what began as a one-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. That, in turn, united the black population, which had been deeply divided by class and education. While her refusal wasn’t planned in advance, the bus boycott was no spontaneous action. Parks continued to work for equality after she and her husband moved to Detroit, where racism was as bad, if not worse, as that in the South. How Theoharis learned the true nature of this woman is a story in itself. Parks always stood in the background, never volunteered information about herself and eschewed fame. There were no letters to consult; even her autobiography exposed little of the woman’s personality. She hid her light under a bushel, and it has taken an astute author to find the real Parks.
Even though her refusal to give up her bus seat sparked a revolution, Rosa Parks was no accidental heroine. She was born to it, and Theoharis ably shows us how and why.
After World War II, why did the United States admit many high-level ex-Nazis for a variety of purposes (the space program, anti-Soviet espionage) but relentlessly pursue prison guard John Demjanjuk?
Rashke (Trust Me, 2001, etc.) follows the bizarre, jagged trajectory of the various trials of Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker from Cleveland whose tangled experiences in the war sent him from courtrooms and jails in Ohio to Tel Aviv to Munich, sites where he was variously accused of being the heinous Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka (a charge ultimately dropped) to serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp, a charge of which he was ultimately convicted when he was 90 and dying. But Rashke, whose research is prodigious, has a much busier agenda than just the Demjanjuk case. He also describes the numerous other cases of ex-Nazis brought to America, many quietly under the aegis of the FBI, the State Department or the CIA, war criminals (in many cases) who escaped prosecution because of their usefulness in the U.S. Some were high profile (rocket scientist Werner von Braun at NASA); others flew totally below the radar until Soviet and American archives opened decades later. Throughout, Rashke raises moral questions (is it conscionable to employ ex-Nazis?) and draws distinctions (what’s the difference between working for and working with an occupying force?). His accounts of Demjanjuk’s various legal proceedings are swift but also enriched by much relevant quoted testimony. The author also explores the profound passions of all involved—from the families of those whose relatives suffered and died in the camps to the Demjanjuk family and their Ukrainian-American neighbors who never believed the accusations.
A richly researched, gripping narrative about war, suffering, survival, corruption, injustice and morality.
The propulsive bass guitarist for Joy Division puts his fingers on the beating pulse of one of the U.K.’s most influential bands.
After the cinematic portrayals of the band’s tragic central figure Ian Curtis in the films 24 Hour Party People and Control, it’s easy to lose track of their central influences. In an unflinchingly honest memoir, Hook (The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, 2009) peels away the romantic sheen colored by its dark history and gives unfettered insight into the band’s origins and inspirations, as well as its comedies and tragedies. From Hook’s first vision of the Sex Pistols, the young musician-to-be was hooked. After recruiting mates Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, they sought out the sensitive, artistic Curtis to lead them forward. Hook captures his lead singer well: “A poetic, sensitive, tortured soul, the Ian Curtis of the myth—he was definitely that. But he could also be one of the lads—he was one of the lads, as far as we were concerned.” What the author does even better is to remember the whole outrageous scene, from the tabloid outcry over the band’s murky name to the explosive shows dominated by bands like The Clash and Throbbing Gristle. Even the expected recollection of writing “Love Will Tear Us Apart” comes with decidedly unexpected truths. From the manifold perils of life on the road to his ongoing guilt over the band’s treatment of Curtis, Hook never pulls a punch. Add in a comprehensive timeline and track-by-track notes on the band’s two sole albums, and this is required reading for anyone who ever felt moved by Joy Division’s cold, dark music.
Electric transmissions from a bygone era, etched in blood by someone who was there in body and spirit.
Keen observation, incisive analysis and passionate engagement mark this author’s account of the 2010 earthquake that devastated his native Haiti.
Through vignettes that range from a paragraph to a couple of pages, novelist Laferrière (I Am a Japanese Writer, 2011, etc.) delivers a knockout punch through prose favoring matter-of-fact understatement over sentimental histrionics. A literary festival brought him back from French-speaking Canada, where he emigrated to establish himself as a writer, to the homeland where his mother and much of his family still lives. He ordered dinner at a restaurant and then heard what sounded like a machine gun, a train or an explosion. It intensified: “The earth started shaking like a sheet of paper whipped by the wind. The low roar of buildings falling to their knees. They didn’t explode; they imploded, trapping people inside their bellies.” The author is no journalist, and he engages in none of what would conventionally be called reporting. Instead, he describes what he saw, how it felt and what it meant. For those who survived, the aftershocks continued: natural, personal, political, cultural. Laferrière is particularly sharp on the ambiguous motives and ambivalent effects of humanitarian charity and celebrities who helped keep the world’s spotlight on Haiti (and, of course, themselves), until attention turned to the next world calamity. The framing is particularly strong, beginning with vivid detail of the experience itself, culminating in a multileveled meditation on what it means to be Haitian, to be a survivor, to be a writer, to be alive. “We say January 12 here the way they say September 11 in other places,” he writes of the cataclysm most vividly experienced at street level, which is where this memoir operates.
Nonfiction with the resonance of literary fiction and the impact of real tragedy.
A devastating history-cum-exposé of the Church of Scientology.
Wright has written about religion on several occasions (Saints and Sinners, 1993; Remembering Satan, 1994) and received a Pulitzer Prize for his book on terrorism (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006)—all of which clearly served as excellent training for this book. It begins, of course, with the life of L. Ron Hubbard, a manic-depressive, wannabe naval hero, sci-fi writer and self-styled shaman who “believed that the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him” after receiving a gas anesthetic in the dentist’s chair. After that experience, the visions kept arriving, leading to his 1950 self-help best-seller, Dianetics, which laid the groundwork for a “religion” where “thetans” (souls) are stymied by “engrams,” self-destructive suggestive impulses lodged in the brain (not a few of which were inflicted on mankind following an intergalactic war that took place 75 million years ago). Through personal, deeply revelatory counseling sessions known as auditing, adherents deal with these obstacles, and for wealthy celebrities, Scientology (and its many Hollywood connections) has supposedly cleared the path to success. It has also destroyed many others, usually less well-heeled people from within, who raise questions or try to leave, or outside forces (journalists, the IRS, family members) investigating the church’s multiple personal or financial abuses. Wright exposes the church’s many sins: covert espionage, psychological torment, threatened blackmail using confidential information from auditing sessions and constant physical assaults on members by tyrannical current leader David Miscavage. The author is also interested in something deeper: If it's all a con, why is everyone involved (especially the late Hubbard) so deeply invested in its beliefs? Wright doesn't go out of his way to exaggerate the excesses of Scientology; each page delivers startling facts that need no elaboration.
A patient, wholly compelling investigation into a paranoid “religion” and the faithful held in its sweaty grip.
A compelling, plainspoken piece of advocacy in which the author maintains that everything we think we know about nuclear weapons is wrong.
Though Wilson stops just short of making the case for immediate and unilateral nuclear disarmament, he builds a methodical, step-by-step argument that the very notion of such weapons as a deterrent is fallacious, based on a misunderstanding of when and why Japan decided to surrender in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima. What makes his case so convincing (though not all will be convinced) is that he makes it not in the spirit of Utopian idealism, but fact-facing pragmatism. He argues that most of the support for nuclear weaponry is in fact irrational, based on the misconception that mankind has no control over the future—that, having opened the Pandora’s box of nuclear technology, we live in fear of apocalypse. The fallacy begins with the bombing of Japan, where “the danger is that we have overinflated their value [of nuclear weapons] by misinterpreting that one event.” The threat of Russian invasion, not the nuclear bombing, forced Japan’s hand—“the atomic bomb swept all mistakes and misjudgments under the rug.” If it didn’t end a war, as generally perceived, neither has it stood as a deterrent, with Wilson citing the Cuban missile crisis as a sign of recklessness that actually pushed us closer to war. Yet even if one agrees with every one of his points, the author admits that “I am not sure what can and should be done with nuclear weapons.” He offers the plea that “the wisest scholars need to be enlisted to go back over the problem.”
A provocative reframing of a problem that still awaits a solution.
A tour de force of Big Picture thinking in which the former vice president gets his inner wonk on.
Gore (Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, 2009, etc.) writes that this book had its origins in an on-the-road conversation about the drivers of global change—of all kinds, from economic to cultural to environmental. The author spent the next few years outlining, outlining and outlining again—and then thinking, gathering, sifting and writing a tome that he reckons is “data-driven and based on deep research and reporting—not speculation, alarmism, naïve optimism, or blue-sky conjecture.” It is all of the former, with a quarter of the book given over to notes, and none of the latter. One of the six drivers Gore enumerates is the emergence of a technologically driven “global mind” that tends toward the liberating and away from the repressive. At the same time, though, there has emerged a libertarian puritanism that insists on “the reallocation of decision-making power from democratic processes to market mechanisms,” dismissing “the very notion that something called the public interest even existed.” Sustainable energy sources have similarly emerged even as market mechanisms have pushed “fracking” of fossil fuel deposits, such that—it would not be a Gore book without, yes, alarming statistics—“in the United States an estimated 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid waste have been injected into more than 680,000 wells.” Biomedicine has made extraordinary advances, and yet, because of “unhealthy corporate control of the public policy decision-making process,” medical care is in complete disarray. And so on, the good with the bad. Which will prevail is the question; if for the good, Gore urges, we will need to see “a shift in consciousness powerful enough to change the current course of civilization.”
Provocative, smart, densely argued—and deserving of a wide audience and wider discussion.