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Posts Tagged ‘Alexandra Fuller’

Some of the books I love

In books, culture on May 11, 2012 at 12:10 am
Cover of "Are You Somebody?: The Accident...

Cover via Amazon

To older followers of Broadside, a thank you — I loved hearing all your book recommendations!

Here are just a few of the many books I’ve read and loved, with the nationality of the author.

Most are memoir and non-fiction, with fiction listed at the bottom:

Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller. A memoir of growing up white in rural Zimbabwe with a mad mother. (British.)

When A Crocodile Eats The Sun, Peter Godwin. Another memoir of Zimbabwe, after its terrible wars, by a journalist now living in the U.S. (British.)

Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol. If you want to understand American apartheid — the stunning lack of social mobility that starts with often appallingly weak public education for the poor — read this powerful book. A classic. (American)

Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc. The best book likely written in the past 30 years about the daily life of the American poor. The writer spent the better part of a decade getting to know the women she writes about here, low-income women living in New York City. (American.)

The Creative Habit, Twlya Tharp. This legendary choreographer has tremendous drive and ambition, and her book offers many ways to tap and harness your own creativity. Life-changing book. (American.)

My War Gone By, I Loved It So, Anthony Loyd. A very dark work, this will make immediately clear the psychic costs of covering war. Not an easy read, but powerful and unforgettable. (British.)


Are You Somebody?“, Nuala O’Faolain. An midlife female journalist talks about her life in no uncertain terms. She died of lung cancer in 2008, costing us a terrific voice. (Ireland.)

Brown“, Richard Rodriguez. Cranky, smart, provocative, elegant. Must we view everything through the filters of race? Rodriguez told an audience at a writers’ conference he felt he was crying in the wilderness when writing this excellent book. (American.)

No Logo“, Naomi Klein. This young writer has made the globe her niche. This fascinating book addresses the many political, economic and psychological effects of corporate control and globalization. (Canadian)

“Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, Caitlin Kelly. My first book, which examines how women and guns intersect — whether a woman is a police officer, FBI or military using it for her work or has been the victim of violence or a loved one’s suicide or a hunter. The book has 104 interviews from 29 states with women of all ages, races and income levels. Booklist called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.”

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, Caitlin Kelly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012, this book has been compared to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed” about what it’s really like to work at a low-wage job in the United States. I worked part-time for 27 months in a suburban New York mall selling clothing and accessories for The North Face. It is being published in China in September 2012 and was nominated for the Hillman Prize, given annually to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

Fiction:

Lost Illusions“, Honoré de Balzac. This classic novel, written between 1837 and 1843, works just as well today as a guide to the symbiosis of ambition and greed binding would-be authors and their publishers. Follow the trials of Lucien, a naïve and ambitious poet. “You bite the hand that feeds you – and you can toss off an article as easily as I can smoke a cigar”, says a newspaper employee when Lucien struggles for decent pay. Plus ça change. (French)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. I love this book so much. Barbery is a professor of philosophy and a keen observer of human nature. Her story about the inhabitants of a French apartment building, and its concierge, is a wondrous work. (French)

Come, Thou Tortoise. Jessica Grant. The author is not a big name and this is her only book. I found it charming and touching, quirky without being cute or twee. (Canadian.)

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. She has written many, many books, but this one is my favorite, deeply evocative of my hometown (and hers), Toronto, and what it’s like to be a little girl. (Canadian.)

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje. Life in Toronto in the 1920s. His writing has a distinctly poetic, dreamlike quality. (Author of “The English Patient”, much better known.) (Canadian.)

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. A fellow journalist and University of Toronto alum, he’s written a charming and touching fictional portrait of life at an overseas newspaper. This is one of my absolute favorites of recent years. (Canadian)

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Loved this book! I literally could not put it down. (Russian.)

The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell. If you, as I do, love Japan, the 18th. century and deliciously descriptive writing, this is a book you’ll hate to put down. It’s a slow, gentle, lyrical book, like entering a dream. (New Zealand)

Falconer, John Cheever. One of the great American writers of the late 2th century. (American)

Triomf, Marlene van Niekerk. An astonishing book and thick as a doorstop. It’s graphic and shocking, but unforgettable portrait of a poor Afrikaaner family in the post-apartheid world of Johannesburg. (South African)

Anything written by Ray Bradbury, (American)

Anything written by Nadine Gordimer (South African)

Anything written by Thomas Hardy (British)

Anything written by Virginia Woolf (British)

Tossing Old Books And Looking For Something New To Read

In books, education, History on November 7, 2011 at 1:11 am
Books

Love 'em --- who can ever have enough? Image via Wikipedia

It feels good to cull the herd once in a while.

Last weekend I managed to fill three cardboard boxes with outgoing books — soft covers, coffee table books, (we don’t even have a coffee table), books by friends and acquaintances and review copies Jose and I have snagged, free, over the years from the Niagara of copies that pours into every newsroom.

I’ll take them into Manhattan to The Strand, a legendary store that I hope will buy them. If get $100 for them all, I’ll be happy.

Then I can buy some new ones!

I sorted the remaining books into sections: Canadian history and politics, American history and politics, French history and politics, art, music, antiques, auction catalogs, photography, business, design, dictionaries, (of economics, foreign terms, French, Spanish), cookbooks, travel, and a dozen essentials — books on how to sell and promote my own books.

I lined up, on one shelf, the 20 or so books that aren’t reference (or just too heavy to delve into for fun) as a reminder to actually, you know, read them. I tend to return to non-fiction, memoir, essays and history. I rarely find fiction I enjoy. 

I don’t read sci-fi, romance, chick lit or anything about vampires or werewolves. Some of my favorite writers include Grahame Greene, Thomas Hardy, Gerald Durrell, Amy Bloom, Alexandra Fuller, Peter Godwin, Balzac, Jan Morris. Yes, they’re almost all British men. Not sure why.

One of my recent favorites was this delightful, quirky tale by a woman from St. John’s Newfoundland, “Come, Thou Tortoise” which I found — of course! — in the bus station bookshop in Vancouver, B.C.

My second-favorite of recent years was The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, by David Mitchell. Oh, what a beautiful, moody book! As a huge fan of ukiyo e Japanese woodcuts, reading this book, set in 18th century Japan, was like sliding into a delicious fever dream.

And this, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a French book I adored; it’s also now out as a film, “The Hedgehog.” It tells the story of the secret life of a Paris concierge.

I liked Cat’s Eye, by fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood; she became my first celebrity interview when I was editor of my high school newspaper. Since she also attended my high school, she agreed to the interview. I liked Cat’s Eye a lot because it reminded me so powerfully of my hometown, Toronto.

In The Skin of A Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a gorgeous little thing, also set in Toronto. I recently read Divisadero, also by him. I love his poetic style.

So my favorite authors seem to be Canadian, a New Zealander, British and French. I need to find a few American writers! (I do like Richard Ford and Richard Russo and lovelovelove John Cheever.)

I’d love to hear some of your recommendations!

What are the best three books you’ve read, and why?

Six (Of Many) Challenges Of Writing Memoir

In Media on January 25, 2010 at 9:08 am
Memory (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbe...

A statue of memory...Image via Wikipedia

On the long-running listserv WriterL, populated by everyone from eager fresh grads to Pulitzer winners, we’ve been chewing over the many practical challenges of writing a memoir.

I’m halfway through mine, and am finding it challenging on many levels. It’s a totally different animal from my first book, which includes 104 original interviews from 29 states, five of which I visited.

This book relies on my ability to recall, describe and make compelling my own experiences and feelings and those of others. This time, I’m living inside my head, reporting my own life and that of about 20 other people.

Anyone hoping to write a memoir faces many challenges. Here are some the ones I’m now grappling with:

1) Other, real people become your characters. Many times the writer must do this, or chooses to do this, without asking their permission, no matter how much they reveal about these people. If they are alive, you have to find a way to be truthful to your experience of/with them without — or does this matter? — destroying their affection or respect for you.

When you change their names or identifying details, do the new ones help the reader or confuse them? Which of their qualities are most germane to your narrative?

If they are dead, are you free(r) to say whatever you wish?

2) It’s your memory. Is it reliable? Walt Harrington, a terrific writer, has said he carefully re-reports his own life; if he writes that Tuesday November 13, 1973, (I’m not sure it was a Tuesday, but he would be), was cold and cloudy, raining later that afternoon, he goes back to check the weather reports. Every writer, potentially, can fact-check his or her impressions by confirming them with others — if this is part of your plan. You may not want others’ input and it may not be gettable any other way. Then you’re on your own, unless you took detailed and copious notes or (unlikely) have audio, film, video recordings or other documentation for reference.

3) Our memories are clouded by emotion. One of the arguments made about recall is that traumatic events are more clearly embedded in our brains than others more banal. Can you remember last Wednesday’s lunch? How about your wedding day? The day your first child was born or the death of a loved one? What emotions are clouding or coloring these memories? Are they accurate? How would you know for sure?

4) Describing and conveying emotion is difficult. Maybe not for some, but as a certified WASPy Canadian (i.e. not someone who’s wild about emotional displays or drama), I find this especially challenging. A memoir without emotion is a meal without cutlery — you can get get through it, but it’ll be hard work and not terribly enjoyable. I wonder if writing memoir, then, comes more easily to more confessional cultures or generations; Americans, much to the consternation of more buttoned-up natives, often seem very at ease telling total strangers a lot of very personal detail.

Perhaps today’s teens and 20-somethings, sexting and posting on-line videos and details of their most intimate lives, would find this “challenge” absurd.

Yet, no one wants to read 75,000 or 100,000 words of pure confessional. It’s not a race to emotional nudity, stripping bare to the goriest and most salacious details reallyfast. Which are the most powerful? Says who? Like any great story, yours must also contain suspense, structure, conflict, resolution. It’s not just a matter of publishing your raw, unedited diary or a big pile of blog posts.

5) Which bits of this life you’re telling are most compelling, not to you, but to your readers? Why? After I’d written what I thought was a really great chapter, I shared it with my partner, who is not a writer but a fellow journalist and someone whose opinion I trust. “You can do better,” he said. Ouch.

It may have sliced you to your core the day your French or math professor laughed at you in front of your 7th-grade classmates — or whatever — but this moment, like every single one, must pass the “Who cares?” test. If it isn’t making a powerful or larger point, include it at your peril.

6) Which “you” is telling this story? I heard someone on NPR recently make a great point: once you’ve got the tone for your memoir, you’re good to go. Without it, you’re wandering aimlessly, no matter how great your raw material. I think of every memoirist, now myself as well, as simply one more character within the narrative, albeit the narrator. But we all have many facets and colors to our personality or character. None of us is 100% funny or calm or outraged or sad all the time, while the reader needs a consistent, persuasive voice in order to enter and follow your path.

I was one of those who really enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love”, the much-lauded memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of her global journey. I liked her authorial “voice” and trusted she would tell me a good story, and she did. For every reader who loved it, there are many who found her whiny or tedious or self-involved.

It is memoir. It is about you and what you’ve seen, heard and felt; that’s an inherent risk every author must take. It demands rigorous self-editing and fantastic help from your first readers and your editor.

Two of my favorite memoirs, oddly perhaps, are both of their African lives by British writers: “When A Crocodile Eats The Sun”, by Peter Godwin and “Let’s Not Go To The Dogs Tonight“, by Alexandra Fuller. Both are filled with sensual details — one smells Africa in their sentences — but also limn powerful, dark stuff. Godwin opens with a description of cremating his father and talks about his sister’s murder; Fuller’s life was spent in the care of a somewhat crazed mother in a foreign place, far from any possible rescue.

From this week’s New Yorker, by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This awkward blurring of the real and the artificial both parallels and feeds off another dramatic confusion: that between private and public life. The advent of cell phones has forced millions of people sitting in restaurants, reading on commuter trains, idling in waiting rooms, and attending the theatre to become party to the most intimate details of other people’s lives—their breakups, the health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic progress, their arguments with their bosses or boyfriends or parents. This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone. The Internet bears crucial witness to a factor that Yagoda discusses in the context of the explosion of memoirs in the seventeenth century (when changes in printing technology and paper production made publication possible on a greater scale than before): the way that advances in media and means of distribution can affect the evolution of the personal narrative. The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher.

So if we’re feeling assaulted or overwhelmed by a proliferation of personal narratives, it’s because we are; but the greatest profusion of these life stories isn’t to be found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions. In the street or in the blogosphere, there are no editors, no proofreaders, and no fact-checkers—the people at whom we can at least point an accusing finger when the old-fashioned kind of memoir betrays us.

True?

Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!

In culture, Media on August 31, 2009 at 3:22 pm
An uncut book after bookbinding from folded pa...

Image via Wikipedia

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. — Groucho Marx

Can you live a day — a week, a month, a year — without reading a book? Whether on a Kindle, borrowed from a friend or the library (i.e. depriving us authors of our desperately needed royalties), bought for 50 cents at a yard sale or thrift store, or, maybe, purchased at full price in hardcover, are you still reading books at all?

Gotta love the irony that the film (which, of course, began with a blog) “Julie and Julia” has now turned Julia Child’s cookbook into a best-seller. “This was a secret dream,” Nora Ephron, the film’s writer and director, recently told The New York Times, “that the movie would sell a lot of books. I’m completely delighted that people are walking out of the multiplex and into the bookstore.”

The Wall Street Journal recently ran this essay on why so many of us turned away from modernist novels — with all the allure of eating overcooked vegetables in their pitiless difficulty — and started reading fun stuff about vampires instead. The New York Times, in a front-page story this weekend, focused on a schoolteacher taking the radical (?) step of letting her students read what they prefer, albeit nudging some of them toward tougher and more challenging material, instead of the same-old “To Kill A Mockingbird” and its reading-list equivalents. I don’t have kids, but if they did, they’d have grown up as I did, in a home where every shelf is filled with books, from reference works on art, design and architecture to cookbooks, travel guides and fiction. A life without books is, for me, a life without oxygen. Read the rest of this entry »

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