The members of the One-Man Book Club have been reading ‘em faster than all the members (total: one) can get on here to blogscuss ‘em. I’m going to try to clear out all the One-Man Book Club recent selections this week, and include some selections where the membership couldn’t finish the book. Ready? Chug!
To start, here’s a book I liked very much and recommend to others: Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction, by Jake Silverstein, which came out in the spring. I dug it deeply, starting with the title and alluring jacket. But another journalist I know (someone who is really keen about innovation in nonfiction), said he dropped out after page 40 or thereabouts. So there’s that.
Silverstein is the new(ish) editor of Texas Monthly. This book ingeniously and even bizarrely weaves together some of his longer non-fiction pieces (from Harper’s magazine in the ’00s) and short fiction stories (all new), which are all essentially about a young man who’s just trying to find great stories and sell them to big New York magazines.
What is true? What isn’t? I know that sounds like a dreary exercise made for journalism ethics seminars, but there’s something subtly original in how he makes it work, and I’m sad that this book didn’t get a lot more attention when it came out.
Silverstein turns himself into a narrator, a “Jake Silverstein,” who is in his early 20s circa 1999 and, having given up on dreams of becoming a poet, moves to far West Texas to work at a small newspaper and learn to be a journalist. The eight chapters in Nothing Happened and Then It Did are evenly split (and labeled in the contents) as “fact” or “fiction,” and Sliverstein stitches them into a dreamy recollection of what it’s like to be a wannabe writer stuck way out in the middle of the nowhere. My favorite chapter is a fictional one, where the narrator accepts a job driving a famous photographer around the Midland/Odessa landscape that defined presidential candidate George W. Bush; the photographer (irritable, European) has to make one singular photo that will run with an campaign-related story in the New Yorker, which has already been reported and written by a Susan Orlean-like writer whom Silverstein envies from terribly afar.
And I especially admired the tight introduction, in which Silverstein recounts how the Spanish explorers — e.g., Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza, circa 1530 — were so mesmerized (or intimidated, or mentally dislocated) by this landscape that they returned with fabricated accounts of what happened to them on their journeys through it. Silverstein writes:
Why did the friar lie? Historians have chewed on this for centuries. … “Since the rarefied atmosphere of the southwestern deserts is very deceptive,” explained a pair of New Mexico historians in 1928, “it may be that the pueblo appeared much larger than it really was.”
A long sojourn in the Southwest provides another explanation. It is unquestionably true that the desert is deceptive, but this may have more to do with its giant solitudes than its refractive atmospheric phenomena. To travel for hours over hundreds of of miles of treeless flatland without seeing a soul is to be forcefully reminded of your inherent aloneness in the world. … I can confirm that is not unusual, in such situations, for the curtain between the real and the imaginary to lift. …
Same goes for <<”Jake Silverstein,” who comes down with a case of gringo-style magical realism and inherent aloneness. He leaves the newspaper job in West Texas for New Orleans, then Mexico, then back to West Texas, always in a clunker Toyota: He is taken with the desolate world around him and half-motivated by a comically deluded sense of self. It’s Don Quixote, cub reporter, adrift on the highway.
There are stories about searching for Ambrose Bierce’s grave site, the grand opening of a McDonald’s in the Mexican interior, a hunt for doubloons in the Louisiana gulf islands and a cross-country road race in Mexico. It’s not trippy, hallucinogenic gonzo journalism stuff in the Hunter Thompson sense. I’ve never met Silverstein, and now I want to, but my hunch is he may be only somewhat like the “Jake Silverstein” of this book — a castabout who is clearly not on his way to becoming the editor of Texas Monthly.
Halfway through, I no longer cared what was real and what wasn’t and stopped checking the table of contents for confirmation. Biography? Journalism? Coming-of-age novella? Nothing Happened and Then It Did is the first time I felt willing to throw away the carefully tended fences between fact and fiction. His prose isn’t highly stylized (it could be more so), and I skimmed through a couple of the “real” stories I’d already read in Harper’s, but Silverstein’s writing has great momentum. As it went along, I related to his loneliness and his drive (literally, miles and miles) to get a story he never gets. The better stories are the ones he makes up. By the end, as “Jake Silverstein” is deciding to give up journalism, I wanted to know the author a little better than he reveals. This recent Austin Chronicle profile helped with that.
• • •
Next, an example of a journalist doing rural Texas much more straightforwardly and therefore a bit more tediously: Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town, by Karen Valby.
Valby is a reporter for Entertainment Weekly. In 2006, in an uncharacteristic break from its wall-to-wall Harry Potter and Lost coverage, the magazine asked Valby to find a “town without pop culture,” or, at least, a town without the steady bitstream/shitstream of celebrity-logged pop culture that was quickly taking over American society in the mid-2000s.
Valby wound up in Utopia, Texas, which is up in the hill country near San Antonio. I sort of remember that story when it ran in EW; one of the great failings of Welcome to Utopia is that it doesn’t include the full, original article for us to see how this all began, which is the whole reason for the book. True to form, the townsfolk weren’t too pleased with what happened when a big-city magazine writer came to their town to write an arty-cull about them. Once again the great middle-of-America inferiority complex announces itself — we are so offended that you would take time out of your life to come write about ours, you good-for-nothing writer from somewhere else, you.
But Valby decided to return to Utopia (which I think translates to: she sold a book proposal based on the article) and sit among the Utopians for a longer spell. She’s determined to understand Utopia for reasons never quite known. The original premise (a town without pop-culture addictions) quickly dissolved with better phone coverage, Internet access and satellite TV. Without that, I didn’t ever sense what the real theme of Welcome to Utopia is. All books should be able to answer that question, in two parts:
A: What is This Book About? The answer to that should be a couple hundred words, very detailed, sort of like a slightly less advertorial version of the flap copy inside a book jacket and THEN …
B: What is This Book REALLY About? That answer needs to be one very short, very amazing sentence.
I don’t think Valby really gets a handle on part B of the question. Her discoveries aren’t profound, though she does respectfully portray her subjects, including the group of old men every small town has, who meet for coffee in the local convenience store at the crack of each dawn; a black teenage girl at the mostly white local high school; a mother whose sons have all gone to war; a restless teenage boy. Valby either transcribed a mountain of taped interviews and ride-alongs, or she’s extremely good at taking dialogue down in her notes. This is all a lot harder than it looks, and no matter what you end up writing, it will always be the tale of the outsider who visits the natives. I salute her determination to spend several months in Utopia and get to know those people on an intimate level.
But I could only admire that for so long. Welcome to Utopia can be moving, but it starts to drag as it fails to find or make a statement. An old-school editor would say it’s a very long feature story without a nutgraf; Augusten Burroughs compares it to To Kill a Mockingbird. (!!) I wonder if Valby was too worried about projecting a too-strong of point of view — which is my main criticism of so many works of nonfiction. I started skimming along in the last 100 pages, even as Utopia grapples with the idea of a black president. At the morning coffee group, the lone liberal in the bunch regretfully announces he’ll have to vote for McCain. He just can’t vote for a black man.
• • •
SIDE RANT: Like all books about or set in Texas, including my own, both Nothing Happened and Then It Did and Welcome to Utopia must work extra hard to seem “interesting” to people in, let’s just say, New York.
Notice how it never works in reverse; we non-New Yorkers are required to remain eternally interested in (and purchasers of) novels, memoirs and non-fiction books about: New York, Manhattan, a whole lot of Brooklyn; New York real estate, the New York immigrant experience way back when and right now, the rituals/customs/experiences of New York Jews, and, less frequently, the rituals/customs/experiences of New York Catholicism, especially in the Italian and/or mafia sense; recollections and roman-a-clefs about East Coast college days followed by a move to New York; the New Yorker; New York media, the world in relation to New York; New York food, New York business, New York garbage, sewers, bridges, sex, marriage, divorce, children, politics, crime; New York history; What Would Happen if There Ceased to be New Yorkers on Manhattan island?, etc.
But don’t get me started on this. It’s a big bugaboo right now, and if I get going on it, we’ll be here all fucking night.
• • •
So much praise and <<bestseller glow (and now an Alan Ball/Oprah Winfrey/HBO movie deal) has been heaped on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, that there’s little else I feel I can add or should hurt my fingers typing here. So, some general thoughts:
• It’s as good as the reviews say it is. It’s a scientific page-turner that is also a heart-wrenching family epic. And while it’s perfectly organized and manages a chronology that goes forward and backward, some of us in the One-Man Book Club wondered if the prose sometimes falters. Frankly, too much stylishness probably would have gotten in the way of the story, and the bestseller list would indicate that it hit the sweet spot between literary journalism and CSI.
Skloot made all the right choices, including the parts where she details her quest to get closer to Henrietta Lacks’s children and grandchildren. As much as anything, it’s a book about a determined reporter and a determined batch of cells.
• More than once, the story of the HeLa cells (and the woman who unwittingly donated them) made me think of batty Eileen Welsome and her unstoppable devotion to uncovering and telling the “Plutonium Experiment” stories when we were both working as reporters at the Albuquerque Tribune. Eileen spent, what, seven years or so on that story, plus another six or seven working on a book version. Skloot’s got her beat by a little — 21 years passed between the biology class where Skloot asked her first questions about the origin of HeLa cells and the publication of this book.
• Finally, my biggest overall thought was this: Waitaminnit. I was a terrible biology student, but I was surprised, about midway through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to realize the obvious: the HeLa cells are CANCER CELLS. They are the cells of the disease that killed Henrietta in 1951. They are part of her, as cancer insidiously took over her body on a cellular level, but they are not “her,” at least not the same way that her blood cells are.
And anyhow — all human genome mapping developments to the contrary — I don’t easily draw a line from my “cells” to the essential “me”-ness of me. You can clone me, but here I fall back on the philosopher Heraclitus talking about the same-foot-in-the-same-river thing. There is such a thing as a soul, or whatever you want to call it, and it eludes the Petri dish.
I was therefore sort of saddened by all the mythological thinking — the premise of this book — that orbits the origin story of the HeLa cells as the years go by: Her family thinks the cancer cells are their mother, almost in a Frankenstein sense, and who can blame them? But, in a way, the scientists also speak strangely (for scientists) about immortality here, of Henrietta’s ongoing contribution to science. They hand out awards to honor her and her family, mainly in order to minimize the fact that Johns Hopkins took Henrietta’s diseased cervical tissue without her permission and started reproducing the cells and selling them.
The scientists (and Skloot) seem all too willing to play metaphorical make-believe about a poor black woman who, in a way, posthumously travels all over the world, helps science cure diseases, and even takes a ride to outer space. (Also worrisome is how the HeLa cells, unchecked, contaminated other samples and possibly set cancer research back several years in the 1960s; it slightly negates the principal narrative of a book about HeLa’s contributions to science.)
Whether talking to researchers or to Henrietta’s daughter and sons (who struggled with the basic science), Skloot makes that thematic point over and over: Henrietta lives on. I don’t quite see it like that. A form of Henrietta’s cancer lives on. Or did I miss something?
• • •
Before I knock off for the night, let me get three books off the table that failed the One-Man Book Club’s FIFTY-PAGE TEST. That’s right — the books that failed to keep me going after page 50.
Never the fault of the book, of course. I rarely let a book into the house that didn’t interest me in some way — either from a review, or publicity (an NPR interview, e.g.), or an attractive jacket, or the recommendations of people I trust. So failing the Fifty Page Test is almost always the fault of the fickle, difficult One-Man Book Club…
<<The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. So sue me. Tried FOUR TIMES since 2007 to get into this novel and just can’t. But it’s so wondrous, you say, and it won a Pulitzer. Fine. But I need to move on.
Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, by Michael Greenberg. See my rant above about New Yorky books by New Yorky New York writers. This was wrongly touted (to me, anyhow) as a moving memoir about the ups and downs of the writing life. It’s actually a collection of short columns the author penned for the Times Literary Supplement. Redundant themes in p. 1-50: He didn’t get along with his tough, workaholic father. There’s nothing like New York. He’s just a man, a man making his way every day in the word-business of New York. Writing is a bitch but he can’t let her go.
Etc., etc. Zzzzzzz.
<<American Voyeur: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. My thinking here was that, if I read Denizet-Lewis’s feature stories collected in once place, I would see something special about them that had eluded me when they ran in the New York Times Magazine. After a rather dry and perfunctory introductory essay, the stories all started to feel like homework and I checked out. This book is in every way the opposite of Nothing Happened and Then It Did, which for me has set the new gold standard for getting people to read one’s old magazine pieces.
The House of Tomorrow, by Peter Bognanni. It came highly recommended and I set it aside for a rainy Sunday when I was free and needed to jump into a good debut novel. This one is about a kid and his grandmother who live in a Bucky Fuller dome and museum. I didn’t get too far past p. 50. It was just going too slow for me; the characters were exhibiting a weirdness that seemed too much like fiction-class weirdness. It’s a real bummer when someone you admire and like insists you read a new, very good novel, and she even arranges to have it sent to you from the publisher; then I let down that trust and enthusiasm by not being able to get into it. Part of my deep guilt complex is feeling somehow responsible for that, which is crazytalk.
This is why we drink at the One-Man Book Club.
MORE TO COME THIS WEEK, if there’s time: Sarah Silverman’s THE BEDWETTER! Megan Daum’s LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE! Gabrielle Zevin’s THE HOLE WE’RE IN! Daniel Clowes’s WILSON! William Powers’s HAMLET’S BLACKBERRY! And a 25th anniversary re-reading of LESS THAN ZERO!