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9780374182212The cover of Jonathan Franzen’s strange, wonderful, and occasionally frustrating latest work, The Kraus Project, is immediately striking. Its peach smoke and antiquated type make for a different and mysterious feel. The typical Franzen cover is big, abrasive, traditionally American and in some cases, tactile or reflective. Into the world came The Kraus Project and it was greeted with a small well-mannered hooray and scarcely a glimmer of anticipation, like someone whom nobody was excited to see arriving late to a dinner party. The usual Franzenian hallmarks were strangely absent—there was no cannonade of tweets, motions for canonization or general controversy.

HeroinesIn the eighties, we began to see writers popularly crafting new prose types—namely the one we now call “Creative Nonfiction.” More specifically, we began to see quite a few women (though fewer men) embarking on what we’d recognize as personal and autobiographical criticism.

imagesI can’t write this review without disclosing that After Visiting Friends is my story. Or so it felt, as I read. Like Hainey, I am a member of what he calls the DFC, the Dead Father’s Club. Hainey was six when his father died at age 36 in Chicago. I was seven when my father died at 32 in Detroit. A veil of silence hung over the details throughout Hainey’s childhood. And mine.

Crapalachia by Scott McClanahanScott McClanahan’s Crapalachia (Two Dollar Radio, March 2013), a memoir of growing up in West Virginia, is a brilliant, unnerving, beautiful curse of a book that will both haunt and charmingly engage readers for years and years and years. A compelling, compressed personal history that weaves together threads of heart-breaking and brutal truths with characters evolved into hyperboles of themselves, Crapalachia taunts the line between memoir and fiction, teasing us with the inability to know which is which. Too, like McClanahan’s earlier story collections, the anecdotes and tales that wend upward to form Crapalachia are full of gravel and grit and wit and wonder, stories as rugged and rusty as McClanahan’s upbringing.

Memoirs fall into two general categories – shockers and quests.  Both feature a before and some kind of cathartic after, but they do it in different ways. The shockers are voyeuristic reads in which we witness the writer crash and burn and then resurrect –   from depravity/abuse/some kind of trauma.  The quests are journeys where the writer is trying to figure something out and the reader is invited along for the ride.  It’s “watch me” vs “come with me”.  Shockers are narcissistic, quests are universal.  They aim to address the human condition, and despite the specificity of the individual journey, allow us to recognize ourselves in someone else.

David McGlynn’s memoir, A Door in the Ocean is a quest.  It’s also a beautifully written book marked by precision of language, acute observation and the sense that the hard work of defining what’s important to him and why has not been shirked.  He struggles – in his life, and on the page – to define the meaning of family and religion and morality, and to show us the struggle. It’s a brave book.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story has in common with so many literary works a noticeable feature: It is not by David Foster Wallace. D. T. Max has written an utterly professional biography, exhaustively researched, and yet he does not quote DFW downplaying the usefulness of a life of Borges. “A biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable. In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer’s personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work.” It might be that Max both refuses and draws on the clichéd explanatory power of Wallace’s despair and intelligence, madness and genius. Those connections are perhaps gracefully under-explicit, but there they are.

What’s the difference between New York City and Paris? “New York is fried, Paris is baked,” Baldwin tells us. When he leaves Brooklyn for a two-year stint in Paris, he hopes for more of a contrast than that. What he finds is that the world is smaller than even Disney could have imagined. “The Great French Dream didn’t sound much different than the Great American Dream, only with More Vacation Days.” Even the costumes are the same. “Hey, is it me,” he asks, “or did Parisians ditch berets for Yankees caps?” All the Parisian men he knows dress like him, in jeans. Shockingly, two-thirds of his ad agency colleagues lunch on McDonald’s (albeit in courses, with chicken nuggets serving as the entrée). Even the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an American-style leader, all flash and bling.

The difficulty with a great number of books that attempt to catalog or illuminate a given industry or segment of our society is that they often end up opening more threads than they close, so we read to learn or uncover and yet end up with a bigger reading list of equally interesting secondary sources. But Dave Madden’s The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy avoids this pitfall by selecting the subject of taxidermy, a practice with enough of a lifespan to tell an engaging story and yet such a tight cultural focus that it can be sutured completely (and entertainingly) in a single, well-written book.

Close-Quartersjpg-218x300When I read Amy Monticello’s first nonfiction essay chapbook Close Quarters, I knew I wanted to review it for The Nervous Breakdown. But the project included a few complicating details: First, I know Amy personally. Rather than simply reviewing the book, I thought it made sense to be upfront about our personal relationship, and incorporate conversation with Amy into my review. Second: Amy is also a TNB author, so in the  tradition of the TNB self-interview, we decided to do something a little different: a reverse interview.

Below are the author’s questions about her own book, and one reader’s answers.

The Rules of Inheritance begins with a mother dying. It is 1996 and Claire Bidwell Smith is eighteen years old. By this time, both of her parents have been diagnosed with cancer, and though her father’s was discovered first, her mother’s was farther along once finally found, too late, for some terrible reason, for many terrible reasons, none of which Claire will know for years, and some never. She receives the call in an unfamiliar bed under the same roof as a boy with whom she yearns to be familiar, but will never be, and not for lack of trying. This moment, many before it, and even many after it, solidify the circumstances that control Claire’s life for years. She is young and wild, uninhibited, restricted, hurt, abandoned. Death, the inevitable loss and end (or physical end) of all things, fills every crack in Claire’s being, the cracks that form following the deaths of both of her parents before she is old enough to fully realize the severity of these events and the consequences that will follow, many of which are self-inflicted.

What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

Journalist, documentary filmmaker and chief editor of Le Temps modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann is perhaps best known for the nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, a milestone not only in documentary cinema but in Holocaust studies. And now we have his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, translated by Frank Wynne and handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

You saw them everywhere—Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver—on the street, in the shops, in the park. This was definitely not your typical rock group; no one in it could be mistaken for, say, Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, and none of their songs resembled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Surfin’ Safari.” Instead they played “Group Grope,” “Dirty Old Man,” “Kill for Peace” and “Slum Goddess.” It was fun, rough, streetwise stuff, the lyrics of which prevented it from being played on most radio stations. (I was once docked for a week from my radio show at a Midwestern college for having wandered off from the studio while one of their songs spun its raunchy way into the ear of the portly science professor in charge of the station—the only person listening at the time). There was nothing pretty about these guys: they looked like most of the people you’d see in the East Village that summer of 1969—a bit wasted and borderline demented.

Astrophysicists work to uncover a Theory of Everything, the mathematical equation of all life in the universe. Religious zealots describe heaven and hell in florid detail. Tarot cards, constellations, the all-mighty Google. In our search for certainty, whether through belief, proof, or a near-perfect search engine, what is the value of choosing not to know?

I bought Blue Nights in a train station. I said goodbye to a friend and got on the subway and got off and went home. Joan Didion had a signing in Boston the following week and the event sold out before I could buy my ticket. I found this ironic. I started reading.