I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham until a few weeks ago, when her name showed up in an article in conjunction with Hemingway, who was apparently a fan. Her memoir, West with the Night, would have certainly been of topical interest to Papa Hemingway, but the prose styling is also squarely in that mode that has been defined by his work. Markham writes with a directness that is not softened by the touches of aristocracy or privilege that are present in the work. There is little obfuscation or posturing -the only aspect of her writing that might be considered an act of narrative self-preservation is her tendency toward personal understatement. Markham herself is sometimes less revealed than a contemporary reader might wish, but the strength of the other characters populating her life make up for that.
While Markham’s prose lacks ostentation and extravagance as a rule, there is a certain kind of Colonial philosophical authority that grates a bit, especially within our contemporary world of postcolonial theory. The romantic attribution of racial character is much more liberal and evolved than that of her contemporaries, but it still can cause a wince or two. Notably, this sort of thing only really occurs outside of Markham’s personal narrative accounts, and is perhaps best understood as her attempts to ape the conventions of serious men writers, resulting in both the aesthetically weakest and the most culturally and morally problematic writing in the book. Narrative episodes lack these problems almost entirely.
And when Markham is just telling the stories that comprise her life, this book kicks. This is a woman who hunted boar with grown native men as a small girl, killing a leopard to save her beloved and ambitious dog, who bred and trained racehorses, who flew a small bush plane in colonial Africa well before the second world war. The book opens with her delivering an oxygen tank to a sick miner and then sitting with another man dying of malaria, confronting her own irrational phobias regarding g the sickness of others, and after this episode, the story begins to unfold in a rough chronology. Markham is a creature set at a remove, both in her literal human isolation and in her narrative position. This does not prevent incredible scenes from being told with such a sense of involvement and urgency that the book down. West with the Night is another one of those happy intermeshings of lyrical prose chops and amazing events. While the pacing and rhythm of her stories sometimes feel incomplete, the stories themselves are enthralling.
“BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever” is a Kindle Single written by Tony Horwitz, detailing his investigative reporting of as many aspects of the contemporary domestic oil situation as he can fit into 117 pages and 4000 miles (Canada tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries and all the pipeline drama in between). This project was written before the Dakota Access Pipeline drama, which was unfolding as I read it -a confluence that I’d love to recommend, were it possible.
As might be expected, “BOOM” reads like good old-fashioned investigative journalism -while Horwitz himself is inserted into the narrative, this is more Gonzo-Lite than some of the more contemporary forms of creative nonfiction, the kind of pieces that perform more as a personal essay viewed in an external framework. Neither of these forms is necessarily superior, but Horwitz has certainly chosen the correct one for his purpose, with mainly concerns exposition. You will learn shit about how Northern America does fossil fuels here. You will come into contact with good people who participate directly in potentially damaging practices, and you will have some sympathy for them. This is something that Horowitz does really well.
All in all, I think that E-readers and E-reading apps offer, if not a better media form, then an additional and valuable one. I can’t think of many magazine publications of 100+ word narrative nonfiction/reporting -the closest thing that comes to mind are the essays of David Foster Wallace, but that seems to be the exception that proves the rule. I don’t want to read a weighty-ass tome on this shit -as much as I perhaps ought to- and a fifteen-page distillation is going to leave a lot of worthwhile shit on the cutting room floor. I was reminded of the value of Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room. These kinds of things are time-sensitive and valuable, and digital publication of much longer longform work that simply isn’t book material is something I intend to keep paying close attention to.
So this book won a shit-ton of prizes. Katherine Boo’s decision to depict strict nonfiction/reporting within a novelistic framework is ballsy as hell and hard to do, but she pulled it off perfectly. There are so many pitfalls in this approach and Boo managed to navigate around them all perfectly. Everyone in here comes off as both a real and living human being and a character, but never to the detriment or exclusion of either of those identities. Her authorial chops within the context of nonfiction were already very well established by the Pulitzer, but the knack she has for long-form narrative is even more impressive.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers deals with the daily realities of living in a Mumbai undercity. These slumdwellers are just as fully realized as the inhabitants of any other piece of Earth-based real estate, but the realities of their situation have forced the potential of their lives into the kind of narrow confines that mirror the actual living conditions. Everyone is on very shaky ground -tragedy abounds in a terrifyingly random way, and people respond to this reality in the best and worse ways that humans are capable of.
I really like the idea of an intersection between novel-form storytelling and investigative journalism. There’s certainly a diverse skill set required to do this sort of thing well -especially in the mode that Boo has presented here- but the payoff is great, and the audience is wide. This kind of book appeals to the kind of policy wonks that aren’t going to be picking up a Milan Kundera novel any time soon, and it appeals to the poets and other artistic types who aren’t really reading, say, The Atlantic. While other instances of creative nonfiction have been just as good -I’m thinking specifically about Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, here- few of them have the kind of mass appeal that Behind the Beautiful Forevers does, nor do they relate such important realities.
The essays in Consider the Lobster span around thirteen years, and offer thought on the adult film industry celebrating itself, the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain, the sad decline and increasing indefensibility of John Updike’s novelistic output, and a 62-page review of and commentary on an American English usage dictionary. One of the best benchmarks I’ve found for excellent writing is its ability to make me give a shit about something I have not and do not give many shits about -like John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. All of the writing in here clears that benchmark easily, although I must confess that I’m probably going to be way more into a protracted monologue on Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary than most.
Wallace’s nonfiction has always been a favorite of mine -even throughout the years where I was dismissive of his fiction, I always had, at the very least, grudging respect and tractable positivity about essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (not in this collection, but the first piece of his that I’d read). The sometimes-cascading footnotes require a lot less mental work for me when found in nonfiction, a reality that reflects solely upon myself and the conventions that I’ve grown accustomed to, but still, customs that many share and do have an effect on the experience of reading. As such, familiarizing oneself with Wallace’s voice via his nonfiction is probably the best way to work your way into his body of work. And if you don’t like this shit, man, you are gonna hate Infinite Jest.
Recommendation: Read it. This is the best starting place I can think of, and if you’ve read other Wallace but haven’t got to Lobster yet, you’ll love it.
Kenzaburō Ōe published these essays over a short span during and after the twentieth anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. This is not pleasant reading, and if you are not yet familiar with the specifics of that attack, if you don’t know what keloid scarring is or about the elevated leukemia rates persisting through generations, you will. And while the book starts off very slow -almost in the vein of a report on municipal feuding as various groups gathered in Hiroshima bring very different political ideologies to the table- things really pick up about forty pages in. We are introduced to a number of survivors and victims, men and women who will keep cropping up throughout the essays. Ōe builds a remarkable continuity that rewards a close reading of the first few essays, so don’t rush, and don’t skim.
Ōe’s writing in 1965 would not be out of place today, published as creative nonfiction. He weaves himself into the story, detailing his own perceived cowardice as a child as a juxtaposition against the very different forms of Japanese heroism found in soldiers loyal to the Emperor and those survivors of the bombing who strive for treatment and for peace. His place in these narratives is never self-aggrandizing -he doesn’t even make his cowardice a focal point, choosing instead to use it as a framing device to talk about something bigger and outside himself. The stories of the survivors and the stories of the dead are what matter here.
So why read this? Why slog through some challenging reading that starts off pretty dull and stays that way for a while? Why read about all this depressing shit? Moral arguments aside, Ōe’s writing is amazing. The way his narratives develop is a damn masterclass, and even in translation the prose alone is moving. But beyond the merely aesthetic, Ōe is a chronicler of some very important shit, a chronicler of the lives of those who lived near the epicenter of the most deadly technology ever unleashed on human beings by other human beings. This is not something we ought to be ignorant about.
Recommendation: Read it. Annotate it. Spread the word.
Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.
As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.
The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.
I recently came across an editor and writer who is in the process of putting together an anthology that I find particularly interesting. Flooded will deal specifically with brain injury and concussions, a collection borne out of project runner Victoria Griffin’s own painful experiences. While I have no direct involvement in the project, I plan to submit to the anthology and I plan to support its Kickstarter when that goes live in a few months.
If this project is of interest to you, Victoria is collecting the emails of interested parties. Get involved and support independent publishing and independent writers!