A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

512bpnaxg3rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“We’re living in this terrible world with wars and broken hearts and starvation, but some of us are compelled to make art, like that’s supposed to help anything.”
The narrator in Rebecca Makkai’s short story, “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart”

Rebecca Makkai’s short story collection, Music for Wartime, was originally scheduled for publication on July 14, 2015 — the same day, her publisher learned, that Go Set a Watchman would hit the shelves. Short story collections, regardless of their literary merit, have a tough enough time attracting  readers’ attention without competing with the year’s most talked-about book. So Music for Wartime came out on June 23, and Makkai’s job as a salesperson for her book — which was 13 years in the making — began.

Makkai, the author of two acclaimed novels (The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House), is one of today’s most accomplished writers of short fiction. The Kansas City Star says: “If any short story writer can be considered a rock star of the genre, it’s Rebecca Makkai. She has had a story selected for the annual Best American Short Stories anthology in four consecutive years.” Music for Wartime includes those four stories, along with 13 others. Divergent in tone, style, and subject matter, the stories all address the same question — “what it means to be an artist in a brutal world,” as Makkai put it.

Rock stars don’t have any trouble filling arenas with screaming fans. Literary stars, on the other hand, are relieved when a bookstore has to set up extra chairs to accommodate readers who have come to hear a favorite author. Makkai’s appearance last week at Lake Forest Book Store (her hometown store) was her last bookstore event promoting Music for Wartime. On Thanksgiving, I’m sure she’ll be feeling gratitude that she can now turn her full attention to writing! She graciously took time out from a residency at Ragdale (a writers’ retreat), where she is working on her third novel, to discuss her short story collection.

10738849Here are some edited highlights of my 45-minute conversation with Rebecca Makkai.

I though we could start out by talking about short stories in general. I have to say, having been a bookseller for a long time, short stories can be a hard sell. I absolutely love them — I’ve always loved them. But the minute you tell a customer about a book of short stories, you can see the look on their face — “Oh no, not short stories!”

They always get critically recognized — it’s a matter of the commercial sales. My first experience a couple of years ago — which is proof of this — was when I was working on Small Business Saturday. Sherman Alexie started this initiative to get authors in bookstores the Saturday after Thanksgiving, to handsell books. I’ve done it here, and last year I did it at City Lit in Logan Square, and this year I’m going to Women and Children First down in the city.  I started to realize, selling here and selling in Logan Square, that I could not move a story collection to save my life.

You should have gotten a bonus if you did.

There was one guy, who came in shopping for his girlfriend who wanted to be a writer. That was the one person, who bought three story collections.

You’ll notice, they didn’t put “stories” on the cover (of Music for Wartime) — sneaky move!

I think part of the reason is there’s no hook for people the way there is with a novel. If someone wants to pitch a book to their book club, if it’s a novel, they can say “It’s the story of a woman who buys a bookstore, and this happens to her, and this happens to her”, and people get involved, and they want to hear more about it. With a story collection, you can’t pitch the plot that way.

And I have to add — tonight is the National Book Awards, and good news for the short story: two collections are on the short list: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Karen Bender’s Refund.

And last year, the one that won was a book of short stories — Redeployment, by Phil Klay.

You always hear about how people’s attention spans are shorter today, in the Internet Age . . . you can read a story in 15 minutes, versus investing all that time in a novel.

I don’t think that’s true. Look at what people watch on TV. The age of the little 30-minute sitcom is over. People want epics. They want to binge-watch seven hour-long episodes of something. I get it, I write novels too. But I feel that people are missing out if they don’t read short stories. They’re missing out on what can be done — the avant-garde of literature.

You can take so many more risks with a short story.

Yes, think of something like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. You cannot maintain that for 300 pages. No one wants to read a 300-page novel about a cockroach. But you can do it for 15 pages. You can be experimental with form, with language in a short story in a way that would be unsustainable or unbearable in a 300-page novel. So when people miss that, they’re missing, I think, what literature can do.

I’ve made my peace with it because every year I watch the Oscars, and when they start with the awards for short films, I go make popcorn.

Getting back to Kafka, you have a couple of stories that sort of remind me of his. This collection is so great because of that — the stories are all different in terms of tone, subject matter, and style. There’s magical realism, there’s humor, there are family legends — there’s so much variety here, but there’s something binding them all together. Every story is about somebody who’s creating something. Can you talk about how you assembled this group of stories and how you chose which ones to include?

Part of the reason this wasn’t my first book  and that I focused on my novels first is that I couldn’t understand how to put the stories I’d written into a collection. I feel like a story collection should be more than just a pile of stories and more than just a sum of its parts — it should be like an album, that adds up to something more.

Very early on, before I’d published my first novel, I sent out a really incomplete collection — someone had gotten me an introduction to a publisher — and they very wisely passed on the collection, because it didn’t come together at all. But the editor who wrote back took the time to say, “I could see these stories eventually coalescing around a theme. I notice the themes of both music and war are really prominent in these stories.” I was thinking about that letter years later, and the title, Music for Wartime, came to me. I liked that it sounded like an album, like an old LP of World War I songs.

The idea that those themes could coexist, and the themes I was already writing about, the stories I was already writing about artists and music, and the stories I was already writing about refugees and dissidents and interrogations and war, that they were really speaking to the same question. I think of it as a question rather than a theme, the question being, “What does it mean to try to make beauty, to make art or order in the midst of a brutal and chaotic world?”

auth-ph-13-cropped-jpeg1-300x400There are some stories interspersed that are almost like memoir snippets — I assume they’re fictionalized family history?

Overtly fictionalized nonfiction . . . It’s already  in many ways a collection about the line between fiction and reality — there’s a story about a reality TV show, for instance. So it felt right that these stories went in there — I was taking the story I’d been told, acknowledging that I don’t really know what happened, and then working with my uncertainty to create a piece of fiction. But it’s very clear that that’s what I’m doing, rather than passing them off as fiction, or passing them off as nonfiction, kind of laying bare the process a little bit.

Can you share a little about your family history? 

My father was a refugee in 1956 following the failed Hungarian revolution. There are three stories in here that are about his parents. These are the pieces that I thought fit into a collection of fiction rather than a nonfiction account. Her mother was a really well-known Hungarian novelist. She wrote something like 40 novels — which I haven’t read because they’re written in Hungarian. My grandfather — and they were only married for a few years — was a member of Parliament and was in many ways, at least for a while, on the wrong side of history and was the author of the second set of anti-Jewish laws in Hungary. Later, he did other things that sort of contradicted that, but it’s not entirely clear to me why and what the pivot point was for him. So they’re fascinating people . . . ultimately, I’m going to be writing something longer about them — a sort of nonfiction investigation.

What do you think makes a great short story? I know you teach writing — if a student were to ask you what makes a story successful, what would you say?

What literary fiction is trying to do in the contemporary age is really different from what it was trying to do, say, 200 years ago. The contemporary project is largely concerned with how much people can change over the course of a narrative — over the course of a novel, over the course of 20 pages. Our question is really one of character development — which is where literary fiction tends to differ from certain genre fiction, which is much more about the conventions of plot, or establishing an alternate world. So when short stories fail, it’s almost always because the character doesn’t change, or only changes once. You need a change to set the story in motion, but you also need a change at the climactic scene of the story, you need an ultimate change for that character, a reason that the story has been told. It can happen in three pages, it can happen in 25 pages, it can happen in 320 pages.












Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club (YA for Grownups)

imgresA children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
C.S. Lewis

Last year, journalist Ruth Graham published a provocative article (“Against YA”) in Slate that inspired a tedious debate about whether adults should waste their time reading books written for young people. This isn’t a new dispute — 15 years ago,  in a New York Times essay called “Besotted With Potter”, William Safire said:

The trouble is that grown-ups are buying these books ostensibly to read to kids, but actually to read for themselves. As Philip Hensher warns in the Independent newspaper, this leads to ‘the infantilization of adult culture . . .’

It seems to me that a greater concern is prematurely exposing children to adult culture.

You can waste hours of your life googling “adults reading YA” — you’ll find countless impassioned responses to Graham’s piece. Or you can spend that time actually reading a YA novel and decide for yourself. Make sure you choose one that’s critically acclaimed, not the latest dystopian vampire thriller (unless that’s your thing). Read a recent award winner, or reread a favorite from your teenage years, and then decide if young adult literature is worth your time. I’ve reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Wrinkle in Time many times, gaining new insights with each reading.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, is a member of “Kidlit”, a book club that reads children’s and young adult fiction. Paul says of the group: ” . . . none of it feels like homework. The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun.” Author Gretchen Rubin started the group when she found that many of her friends and colleagues in the publishing industry shared her passion for children’s literature. Similar groups have sprung up all over the country — I’ve heard of groups called “Young at Heart”, “Forever Young”, and “Never Too Old”.

9781631060229In homage to movie director John Hughes, who understood adolescents so well, we at Lake Forest Book Store named our YA book group “The Breakfast Club”. (We meet in the morning, before the store opens.) After his retirement, Hughes lived in Lake Forest and was a frequent visitor to the bookstore. Always impeccably dressed in a beautiful sport coat with a pocket square, he was an avid reader and fascinating conversationalist. I highly recommend Kirk Honeycutt’s recent book,  John Hughes: A Life In Film: The Genius Behind The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone and More.

We’ve meet three times (September, October, and November). The books we read this fall, all award winners, inspired interesting discussions and would be good choices for any book club, whatever the focus of the club.

51VH2IQT8AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

High school senior Hayley, daughter of an emotionally damaged Iraqi war veteran, struggles to live a “normal” life when she and her father, Andy, settle into his childhood home. Anderson’s father, who was stationed at Dachau during World War II, inspired her to write the story of a family affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Odysseus had twenty years to shed his battle skin. My grandfather left the battlefield in France and rode home in a ship that crawled across the ocean slowly so he could catch his breath. I get on a plane in hell and get off, hours later, at home.

A good companion adult book would be Phil Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for fiction last year. 

51LOhJFau8LBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.

But it’s never just been the journals that have made the difference, I don’t think. It’s also the way the students are with one another . . . the way they talk about books and authors and themselves. Not just their problems, but their passions too. The way they form a little society and discuss whatever matters to them. Books light the fire—whether it’s a book that’s already written, or an empty journal that needs to be filled in.

Belzhar isn’t a retelling of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but The Bell Jar plays an important part in the story. Wolitzer’s adult novels are excellent — particularly The Interestings, which follows a group of friends from adolescence through middle age. 

515e3HFpceLI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.

Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.

Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, is a perfect companion book, since sculpting out of stone plays an important role in I’ll Give You the Sun — and the twins’ mother has written her own book on Michelangelo.

We’re deciding now what to read for the first quarter of 2016. The 2015 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, Challenger Deep, by Neil Shusterman, seems like an obvious choice. (I’m also intrigued by one of the finalists, Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby.) My co-leader Diane, who reads lots of YA, just read and loved the historical novel Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (due February 2), recommended to us by our Penguin children’s book rep, Sheila Hennessey. Sheila also suggested Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, which has been on my list for a long time. We’d love other suggestions of YA books that grownups can learn from and enjoy!

All the Stars in the Heavens — Book Review

I’m interested in how we survive by the labor of our own hands, and who we choose to love. Those are my two themes—they’re in every book I write.
Adriana Trigiani

Adriana Trigiani’s latest novel is an unabashedly romantic story of Hollywood’s golden age, peopled with the stars of yesteryear — Spencer Tracy, David Niven, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Hattie McDaniel — and Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Trigiani paints a romantic picture of Gable and Young as star-crossed lovers, kept apart by the strict moral codes and sexist double standard of the times.

Their problems were not of the heart, or their intentions, but of the practical world, which was defined by the wily and improbable laws enforced by the studios that employed them, and by the public, whose ticket dollars gave them the final say. Gable and Young were indentured to the stardom that made their lifestyle possible.

Fans of old movies and old-fashioned, multi-generational sagas will love All the Stars in the Heavens. It’s the kind of novels described in blurbs as “sweeping” — an overused word that is, nonetheless, apt when applied to this Hollywood epic. If the book were a movie it would be called a “biopic”. We first meet Loretta Young as a child actress, working to help her single mother pay the bills, and follow her as she becomes a leading lady in Hollywood, falling in love with the wrong men, and eventually a grandmother, watching herself and Clark Gable on a VHS tape of The Call of the Wild.

Warning to readers: don’t Google “Loretta Young”, “Clark Gable” — or anything else in the book that piques your curiosity. I made the mistake of doing that and I not only ruined the story for myself, but came across some recent information (so recent that Trigiani wouldn’t have known about it while writing the book) that cast doubt on one of the central plot elements. Granted, All the Stars in the Heavens is fiction, but it’s clear Trigiani tried to keep her story within the basic outline of Young’s life.

The most interesting character in the book is one Trigiani invented — Alda Ducci, Young’s secretary and dear friend. An Italian immigrant, Alda came to the Young household after being asked to leave the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, where she had been training to become a nun. The Mother Superior at the convent says, “‘I’m told this a fine Catholic family, very devout. You would be a secretary to one of the daughters. She works in pictures. Her name is Loretta Young.'” I was reminded of The Sound of Music, when Maria leaves the Abbey and falls in love with Captain von Trapp. (Remember the Baroness: “And somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.”)

Not only does Alda form a deep and abiding friendship with her employer, she falls in love with Luca Chetta, a scene painter on the set of The Call of the Wild. Both the friendship with Loretta and the relationship with Luca happen improbably fast. Almost immediately after meeting Alda, Luca says, “‘I’m already crazy about you . . . You got a big, sad heart. And big, beautiful eyes. I want to understand why you’re sad. And I want to look into those eyes of yours forever.'”  Alda responds: “‘You sound like a movie script.'”

The dialogue in All the Stars in the Heavens does sound like a movie script — a movie script from another era. It’s sometimes corny, but often the repartee is witty and flirtatious. Trigiani knows how to set a scene too, from the cold and isolated area of northern Washington where The Call of the Wild was filmed to the ancient and crowded neighborhood in Padua, Italy where Alda’s family lives.

Would I recommend All the Stars in the Heaven? For me, it was a welcome break from serious nonfiction, as well as a nostalgic trip to a bygone era. It’s fun reading, and you’ll learn a little something about old Hollywood. Like many of the movies the book references, All the Stars in the Heavens is clever, entertaining, and doesn’t probe too deeply. Trigiani is a terrific storyteller, and she has great material to work with in this book — which is her first biographical novel.

It’s not surprising that Trigiani chose to write about the movie business. A theater major in college, she spent 15 years as a playwright, comedy troupe actress, TV writer/producer (writing several episodes for the Cosby Show), and documentary filmmaker before turning to fiction writing. Her first novel, Big Stone Gap, the first in a series set in her Virginia hometown, started out as a screenplay. The movie version (written and directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd) was just released last month. The reviews have been middling; the Washington Post’s was typical, concluding that “In a lot of ways this is a Chicken Soup for the Soul sort of movie. But sometimes, especially when the air’s starting to turn brisk, that’s exactly what you need.”

And every once in a while, what you need is a Hollywood novel that gives you a glimpse of a glamorous world that no longer exists. I also recommend A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott (the filming of Gone With the Wind) and, if you’d prefer something more literary, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (the making of Cleopatra).

Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story . . . your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Click here for my review of Adriana Trigiani’s 2014 release, The Supreme Macaroni Company.

Matchmaking: 10 Nonfiction/Fiction Pairs

Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths.
Yann Martel

The National Endowment for the Arts recently studied the reading habits of Americans, and one of their findings won’t surprise any bookseller: “Men are more likely to read nonfiction books than fiction, while the opposite holds true for women.” The NEA defines a “literary reader” as someone who has read “at least one novel, play, or poem within the last 12 months”. According to this definition, 47% of American adults are “literary readers”. So if a person (female) reads one novel in a year — say, Fifty Shades of Gray — she is a “literary reader”, but if a person (male) reads dozens of nonfiction books — The Boys in the Boat, The Innovators, The Warmth of Other Suns — he is some type of “non-literary”, inferior reader?

Like Nancy Pearl, librarian, NPR book critic, and author of Book Lust, I’m an omnivore when it comes to books. When asked how she chooses the books she discusses on Morning Edition’s “Under the Radar” segments, she said:

Simple: I just pick some of the titles that I’ve most enjoyed since the last time I was on, without concern for whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, genre or not, or aimed or classified as being for children or teens. Because I am an omnivorous reader, at first glance my choices always seem to me to be completely higgledy-piggledy, with no book bearing any similarity to any other.

So whether you’re an omnivore, a carnivore (nonfiction reader), or herbivore (fiction reader), here are some complementary sets of fiction and nonfiction books. (For a list of books for the confirmed carnivore, check out 10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers — which includes Steven Rinella’s Meat Eater: Adventures of an American Hunter.)

9780804137744Interested in Civil War cross-dressing?
Nonfiction: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott
A rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies (two Union, two Confederate) during the Civil War.
Fiction: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin McCabe
In this beautiful story of love and war, a headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband off to battle.

Want to read about work/life balance?
Nonfiction: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s book advising young women to be more ambitious received a lot of unfair criticism — much of it, I suspect, from people who didn’t read it. Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the recent book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Faa-window-opens-9781501105432_lgmily, wrote an excellent review in the New York Times.
Fiction: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
The clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture

Want to understand more about developmentally disabled young adults?
Nonfiction: An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter by Paul Daugherty
A wonderful book for any parent — through the story of the first 25 years of his daughter Jillian’s life, Daugherty reminds us of the precious gifts our children are, “exceptional” or not.
Fiction: A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
In McGovern’s second novel for young adults, two achievement-oriented high school students fail to protect a developmentally disabled classmate, Belinda, at a pivotal moment. Belinda, who narrates sections of the book, comes to life as a three-dimensional character.

Think you need to learn more about why school shootings happen?
Nonfiction: Columbine by Dave Cullen
Cullen spent 10 years researching the events at Columbine High School, and what he found was that “most of what we ‘know’ about Columbine was wrong.” The killers, he points out, were not bullied — they were, in fact, bullies themselves.
Fiction: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read.

Interested in the craft of writing?
Nonfiction: On Writing by Stephen King and Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg
Both are not only excellent writing manuals but entertaining memoirs as well.
Fiction: How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner9781101873472-1
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch pairing How to Write a Novel with books on how to write, because Sumner’s debut novel is only on the surface about writing a novel. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, 12-year-old Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel.

Fascinated by World War I?
Nonfiction: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
This classic memoir of love and loss in World War I-era England should be required reading for anyone interested in that time period.
Fiction: The Absolutist by John Boyne and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
I love both of these books so much that I can’t decide which is my favorite World War I novel. (Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, is a runner-up.) Both are beautifully written and almost unbearably sad.

9780061958274Are you a Little House on the Prairie fan?
Nonfiction: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill
Hill, the author of a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited Wilder’s memoir — which is really a rough draft of the Little House books. An article in the Los Angeles Times points out that the Little House series was written for children, and Wilder’s memoir “would have been rated R for violence and adult content.”
Fiction: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien, daughter of hardworking Vietnamese immigrants, is a newly minted Ph.D. in English literature with no job who finds a mysterious gold brooch belonging to her mother — an item that may have belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Curious about reclusive authors?
Nonfiction: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Actually, Salinger doesn’t show up much in Rakoff’s memoir of her stint as a famously eccentric literary agent, but his brief appearances are memorable — and so is the book.
Fiction: & Sons by David Gilbert
A big, fat novel centering on A.N. Dyer — a reclusive writer reminiscent of J.D. Salinger. If you like Jonathan Franzen, you’ll like this. There’s a lot going on — a novel within a novel, lots of characters, and even a touch of science fiction.

9781101872871What happens when cultural and religious differences collide with modern medicine?
Nonfiction: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
Published almost 20 years ago, this award-winning book — one of my “top 10” works of narrative nonfiction — includes a new afterword with updates on the characters and on the author herself.
Fiction: The Children Act by Ian McEwan
The morally complex and emotionally resonant story of a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness.

What was it like to live through Hurricane Katrina?
Nonfiction: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina.
Fiction: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina, has ‘the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.

Nonfiction November: This Year’s Overlooked Gems

You can tell a more incredible over-the-top story if you use a nonfiction form.
Chuck Palahniuk

There is really no fiction or non-fiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other . . .
E.L. Doctorow

November is a busy month, and that’s not just because of Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season. I don’t know how these things work, but the powers that be have determined that November is also National Novel Writing Month, National Peanut Butter Lovers Month, Historic Bridge Awareness Month, Manatee Awareness Month, and International Drum Month — and of course, it’s No Shave November. Thank goodness for that, because who has time to shave while writing a novel and learning about historic bridges?

In the world of book blogging, it’s Nonfiction November.  Dozens of reviewers share their favorite recommendations for nonfiction books. Many of the same best-selling titles pop up again and again, and for good reason — they’re excellent books, well worth reading. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal should be required reading for anyone who’s mortal, but you don’t need me to tell you about it.

I suspect many readers regard nonfiction as a homework assignment, not riveting reading. Novelist Chris Bohjalian said, “People seem to read so much more nonfiction than fiction, and so it always gives me great pleasure to introduce a friend or family member to a novel I believe they’ll cherish but might not otherwise have thought to pick up and read.” I’ve found the opposite — in my experience, nonfiction is usually a harder sell than fiction.

Over the past year, I’ve read plenty of nonfiction, including a few books that — at least in my little corner of the world — haven’t received the love they deserve. I’ve mentioned these terrific books before, but they’re worth mentioning again.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Poet Alexander has written a gorgeous chronicle of her family’s grief after her 50-year-old husband died unexpectedly. Every short chapter (most are 2-3 pages) is like a poem, with spare, beautiful feeling and intense feeling. The book is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
From the Boston Globe review:  ” . . . A poetry lover, and a memoirist of loss myself, I expected to like Alexander’s book. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of reading The Light of the World. It riveted me, rent me, sent me reeling. It flooded me with ineffable joy.”

9780804140164The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Resilience in an American Town by Ryan D’Agostino
The devastating true story of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two daughters — and was critically injured himself — in a brutal attack in the family’s Connecticut home. Amazingly, Petit has not only survived but managed to rebuild his life.
From the Publishers Weekly review: “D’Agostino’s tender approach to his subject and story is impressive as he artfully charts Petit’s emotional thawing without resorting to cloying prose or melodrama . . .Though a horrific crime provides the backdrop, this book is a remarkable account of hope, fellowship, and love in the face of tragedy.”

9780062268679Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
From the New York Times review: “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

9780062351494The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
A hilarious (and sometimes heartbreaking) memoir about a bookish son’s relationship with his testosterone-fueled father. Although Key is a gifted humorist, The World’s Largest Man is not a nonstop laugh riot. At its heart, it’s a story about love and acceptance. Much of the book is heartbreaking and poignant. Key succeeds in showing us the contradictory aspects of his father’s deeply flawed personality — a personality that turns out to be a greater influence on him than he had ever imagined. Perfect for fans of Pat Conroy.
From the Florida Times-Union review: “The first part of this memoir by Savannah College of Art and Design professor Harrison Scott Key will have you laughing out loud. The remainder may bring you to tears . . . Key laments the lost art of Southern story-telling, one he believes has gone the way of the family farm, but once you read The World’s Largest Man, you’ll realize he may be a tad premature.”

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Much more than a copy editor, Norris is a delightfully wicked and witty writer. She’s been on staff at the New Yorker since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.
From the New Republic review: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is  “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

Which books this year have you loved that haven’t received their share of attention?

Thieves, Murderers, and Psychopaths: Why I Like True Crime

Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Last week, a customer asked me to recommend a new true crime book. It took me a minute to think of one, because nobody has ever asked me that before. I don’t know why, because true crime books are really popular. In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, The Executioner’s Song, The Devil in the White CityUnder the Banner of Heaven — all bestsellers. But “true crime” sounds just a bit unsavory. Maybe readers think they’ll appear macabre or voyeuristic if they’re interested in true crime. Some true crime authors have been accused of profiting from other people’s misfortunes. Others have been criticized for falsely befriending criminals to extract information.

15749967517_c304ed6a38_bThe 2014 podcast Serial, which tells the true story of the investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, has become the most popular podcast in history. According to the Wall Street Journal, Serial “gets people to drop everything and just listen . . . it’s a testament to the power of good storytelling”. Also, Serial is open-ended, like many true crime stories. In real life, often we don’t know what really happened. I think that’s part of the appeal of true crime. The loose ends are not as neatly tied up as they are in fictional murder mysteries. Certain details remain hidden. Even in situations when a criminal cooperates with an author, the criminal can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

I’ve always preferred true crime stories to fictional ones. Even as a child I didn’t care for Nancy Drew, but gravitated to encyclopedia entries about Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden. I think they reason may be that I’ve always been more interested in character than plot. In most true crime, the reader knows “whodunit” at the beginning of the book. True crime author Walter Walker said that Ann Rule, perhaps the best-known author in the genre, possessed “the narrative skill to create suspense from a situation in which the outcome is a matter of fact, known to many readers before they open the book.”

As a teenager, I discovered Ann Rule”s The Stranger Beside Me, a study of the serial killer Ted Bundy — who happened to be Rule’s colleague. When Bundy was arrested for a series of murders in the Seattle area, Rule initially didn’t believe her friend could be guilty. Rule, who died several months ago, wrote dozens of true crime books after the success of The Stranger Beside Me. Her books focus on the “why” of heinous crimes more than the “how”:

I look for true stories where, just when you think nothing else bizarre can happen, it does . . . What real people do is far more compelling than anything a novelist can think up! . . . I am drawn to cases where the suspect(s) is NOT the classic murderer. I’ve learned that my readers are as interested as I am in the psychopathology of the criminal mind.

IMG_1807Rule’s obituary says, “In a crowded field, she consistently led the pack, taking up most of the real estate in the true crime shelves of bookstores.” From what I’ve seen, most bookstores today don’t separate true crime into its own section. If you google “true crime books”, the same ones come up on every list. On a recent visit to the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois, I was surprised to see several shelves dedicated to true crime. Most were historical, rather than contemporary in the vein of Ann Rule, but what a treasure trove of new and exciting true crime:

Bizarre family secrets in 19th century England (The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue) by Piu Marie Eatwell

Arsenic poisoners (The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic Murder and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel and The Poisoner: The Life and Times of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates)

The previously unsolved murder of a Hollywood mogul (Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann)

A Prohibition-era kidnapping and the birth of the FBI (The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt That Changed the Nation by Joe Urschel)

A father and son spy team (The Spy’s Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia by Bryan Denson)

9780062273475A teenage psychopath in 19th century Boston (The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo)

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft (Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist by Stephen Kurkjian)

A murderous Parisian con man and his mistress (Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder in Belle Époque Paris by Steven Levingston)

Why do I enjoy true crime? Why does anyone? A few minutes of cursory Internet research was unenlightening, to say the least. An article in Psychology Today claims that women like true crime because the books “may provide important information and survival strategies should they ever be in a dangerous situation”. Hmmm, I don’t think so. Edmund L. Pearson, who wrote many nonfiction crime books in the early 20th century, including one on Lizzie Borden, said it best:

Writers of book reviews, sixty to eighty times a year, begin their articles with the grave inquiry: Why do people like to read about murder? After a discussion, in language that seems to be the result of profound thought, they come to the conclusion that people like to read such books because they do.

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party — Book Review

The Indifferent Stars Above COVERAnd they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above.
W.B. Yeats, “A Dream of Death” (epigraph to The Indifferent Stars Above)

But I think what Sarah’s story tells us is that there were in fact heroes in the Donner Party, and that heroes are sometimes the most ordinary-seeming people. It reminds us that as ordinary as we might be, we can, if we choose, take the harder road, walk forth bravely under the indifferent stars.
Daniel James Brown, The Indifferent Stars Above

Before he wrote The Boys in the Boat, which has been a New York Times paperback bestseller for 73 weeks (and is currently #1), Daniel James Brown published two other works of narrative nonfiction: Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 (2006) and The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (2009). With the popularity of The Boys in the Boat, surely one of the decade’s best-loved books, Brown’s publisher has released a paperback edition of The Indifferent Stars Above, changing the subtitle and adding a “P.S.” section at the back. (Brown published his first two books with HarperCollins, switching to Penguin with The Boys in the Boat.)

TheBoysintheBoatWhat has made The Boys in the Boat so successful? It’s a story that’s not only universally appealing but also previously unknown to most readers. The book initially received no national media attention, but became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. According to the Seattle Times:

When The Boys in the Boat was published in hardback in the spring of 2013. It immediately gained an audience of rowers. Then “the rowers started giving it to their moms and dads,” Brown said. Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA says that “The Boys in the Boat is the kind of book readers almost feel compelled to testify for . . . It’s a book that people are passionate about sharing.”

The Indifferent Stars Above is a fascinating historical narrative about the pioneer era and the limits of human endurance, but it’s not one that most people will be recommending to all their friends. It’s a “niche” book, not a book for everyone. Many readers, even history buffs, will find the book just too grisly. Let’s face it — when you think of the Donner Party, you think of cannibalism. Brown says:

Though we understandably tend to think of it as a story about death and cannibalism, I wanted to approach the Donner Party saga as a survival story. After all, roughly half the people who constituted the Donner Party lived through the ordeal, which means that at the end of the day there were some forty individual survival stories to be told. To my mind, how each survivor managed to sustain his or her life is ultimately more interesting than how the others died.

Despite Brown’s emphasis on the courage of the survivors, he is obligated to include many gory details of the lengths to which these people had to go in order to survive. I’m not squeamish, but I found a few sections of The Indifferent Stars Above to be difficult reading. I persevered, however, because all my life I’ve been captivated both by survival stories and the pioneer era. A childhood favorite was Patty Reed’s Doll, narrated by the doll of one of the survivors of the Donner Party tragedy. The doll had nothing to say about the cannibalism surrounding her, mentioning only that Patty cries because she has a stomachache from hunger.

The accuracy of Brown’s account seems undisputed. Not only does the book include 13 pages of sources, many of them primary sources (newspaper accounts, diaries, letters) but he retraced the Donner Party’s route — which gave him “innumerable small insights into the physical world Sarah had moved through on her journey.”

Brown, as you know if you’ve read The Boys in the Boat, is a talented storyteller. In The Indifferent Stars Above, he’s wisely chosen to focus on one member of the Donner Party —  21-year-old Sarah Graves Fosdick. Sarah, her new husband, and the entire Graves family (parents and eight children) set out from Illinois as part of a pioneer wagon train seeking better farming opportunities in California. Brown has a “tenuous connection” to Sarah. His great-uncle, George W. Tucker, journeyed west on the same wagon train with the Graves family: “He had traveled where she traveled . . . his bones had walked the same tedious trails, stretched out at night on the same patches of prairie sod, climbed laboriously through the same icebound mountain passes.” I haven’t read Brown’s first book, Under a Flaming Sky, but reviews note that Brown also has a personal connection to that story; his great-grandfather was killed in the Great Hinckley Fire chronicled in the book.

Originally, the book’s subtitle was The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, suggesting that the focus of the book would be on Sarah Fosdick. I’m not sure why the publisher decided to change the subtitle to The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party, but my cynical guess is that they thought male readers would be turned off by the word “bride”. Brown’s choice to concentrate on Sarah and her family makes the story all the more compelling, transforming what could have been a fairly dry historical account into narrative nonfiction about real people. However, as Brown points out, “Sarah hasn’t made it easy. She left little record of her own experiences, and while others who suffered through the ordeal with her that winter have left us with their own, sometimes quite detailed accounts, few of them have had much to say about her.”

Therein lies a problem with Sarah as a character. She serves to help the reader imagine what it would be like to be a desperately frightened 21-year-old woman, stranded in the wilderness and trying to rescue her family, but she doesn’t come alive as an individual. We just don’t know enough about her, and Brown is too meticulous a nonfiction writer to invent personal characteristics. The book, he says in the introduction, is a “lens through which I hope you will be able to gaze with compassion and understanding on one young woman and all that the world once was to her.” By that measure, the book succeeds — but I found it disappointing not to know more about Sarah as an individual. It’s unfair to compare Sarah’s portrayal with that of Joe Rantz and the other “boys in the boat”, but it’s almost unavoidable. Sarah remains at a distance from the reader, while the 1936 Olympic crew team and their coach are people the reader comes to know intimately.

One of my favorite aspects of The Indifferent Stars Above is the historical context that Brown provides. Often, he digresses from the Donner Party story, in a very engaging manner, to talk about nitty-gritty details of life in the 19th century. These asides give us a more rounded picture of the pioneers. They weren’t just “strong-jawed men circling the wagons to hold off Indian attacks and hard-edged women endlessly churning butter and peering out from under sunbonnet with eyes as cold and hard as river-worn stones”. Brown fills us in on common diseases of the time (the “Illinois shakes”), hygiene along the trail (minimal), birth control (not very effective), weapons (generally Revolutionary War-era), burial customs, attitudes toward children, and holiday traditions.

Like the crew team, Sarah and the group of brave pioneers who set out on jimmy-rigged snowshoes across the Sierra Nevada to get help for their starving families were ordinary people trying to do their very best under difficult circumstances. Theirs was a life and death struggle, not a quest for an American gold medal, but the same theme runs through both books: character, hard work, and heroism. Some of the moral decisions the Donner Party made, including the decision to practice cannibalism, are open to debate. Readers who have the stomach for The Indifferent Stars Above will find themselves wondering what they would have done if they were trapped in the snow during that cold winter of 1846-47.