Friday, March 9, 2012

Not Your Father's Nonfiction

Here are a pair of brand-new nonfiction books that I've read recently and recommend; I mostly read fiction, and when I do delve into the nonfiction world it's usually of the narrative variety, but these two are outside my usual reading realm. That being said, they were both absolutely fascinating!

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.  This book is endlessly fascinating!  I had no idea until I read The Lifespan of a Fact exactly what happens behind the scenes of any responsibly published nonfiction piece. This book was born out of an article by John D'Agata that had a few too many factual inaccuracies to get published by mainstream periodicals. Enter Believer magazine, who was willing to publish the article as long as they could determine where facts left off and fiction began. They put their staff fact checker Jim Fingal on the job, and some years later, the article was finally published. Now Norton has published this wonderful behind-the-scenes book, with D'Agata's article intact, printed in black, and surrounded by the fact checking correspondence, much of which is printed in maroon.  It’s clear to me after reading this book that the unnamed fact checkers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world, no matter where we draw the line between journalism and creative nonfiction, and I’ll never take them for granted again. Take a look at this book that is both intriguing to read and a beauty to behold. 

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall.  I was surprised upon picking up this book to see how much our lives are defined by story: there are the expected books of course, but also tv, movies, jokes, commercials, lies, gathering ‘round the water cooler, and even sports events; really, the list goes on. Gottschall delves into the fascinating evolutionary, cultural, biological, and even neurological reasons why our species is defined by our storytelling, both communal and individual.  This is by far the most compelling non-narrative nonfiction I’ve read in simply ages, and what’s more, it should be required reading for every single reader and writer out there. This book will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in a few short weeks, but it's available for pre-order now through our website or by calling the store. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Terrific Tuesday: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

We've been madly busy updating our new website and selling Rachel Maddow tickets (hurry--they're almost sold out!), but I couldn't let one of my favorite spring books go unremarked on the blog today.

Wow.  Amazing. Stupendous.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.  

Okay, is that enough of a review for debut novel The Song of Achilles, by classics scholar Madeline Miller?  Because I feel that anything else I say about it won't do it justice.  It's astonishing.  The writing is marvelous. The characters, like Athena from her father's head, leap fully-formed from their pages.  

All right, I'll at least try to tell you what this book is all about.  In Miller's words, from the back of the advance reading copy I read: "I had always been especially moved by Achilles, and his desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. But who was Patroclus? I searched the ancient texts for every mention of his name and discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.  I had not thought The Iliad had a love story; I was wrong."

Song of Achilles, then, is the story of Achilles and Patroclus, narrated by the latter.  It's a love story and a war story, and these twin narratives weave in and around each other to the point that they're impossible to separate. This is like no book I've read before! I never would have thought that there was any book that could both keep me up all hours to finish it AND send me straight to the bookstore to purchase a copy of The Iliad to read back-to-back with it. This book is beautifully imagined and written. Clearly the Greek classics are NOT dead, not with Madeline Miller at the helm. Brava! 

On a completely random sidenote: the character of Odysseus is *exactly* like what Remus Lupin would have been like, had he been sorted into Slytherin.  So yes, Odysseus is the amalgamation of my favorite two DADA teachers!

I raved about this book to my husband, which piqued his interest.  Then I forced suggested that he read it on vacation last week.  He did and he was a bloody mess about it.  The story engaged him to the point that he was distant over dinner conversation.  And forget about talking to him in the wake of the conclusion--he was a weeping shell of a man* over breakfast that morning!  I trust I don't really give anything away when I remind readers that Greek stories are usually tragic or comic, and that this one ain't comic, and we know what happens in tragedies. 

Now I'm off to go read Homer and his many epithets.... 

Madeline Miller will be at the Odyssey on Wednesday, March 21, at 7:00pm.  We hope to see you there!

*not that there's anything wrong with being a weeping shell of a man, or the fact that it was pretty much hard to differentiate that morning from any other day, given that weeping is actually a distinguishing feature of my gentle-souled DH. Hey--that's not a bad epithet, come to think of it!