nonfiction

There are a hundred writers that I want to have a beer with, but Etgar Keret isn't one of them.

I want to almost have a beer with him — to have plans and a time and a place — and then for everything to go wrong. For trains to break down, cabs to be late; for him to be delayed by a missing wallet or a flood in his hotel, for me to blow a tire and for my cell phone to die so that we miss each other, arriving at the bar at different times to find it actively on fire or already burned to the ground.

'Modern Romance:' Love In The Age Of Demography

Jun 17, 2015

Editor's note: There is some adult language in this piece that some readers may find offensive.

They say that all actors really want to direct. That all journalists dream of being novelists. That all babies want to grow up to be cowboys. And that all comedians want to become data analysts. Okay, maybe not all comedians. Maybe just one: Aziz Ansari. And with his new book, Modern Romance, he finally gets his shot at living the dream.

Audiobooks have traditionally been tricky to get right and even harder to make special. Very often, they're literally just books read aloud, to the best of the ability of a single, usually highly skilled reader. In fiction, you get readers who are asked to provide voices for however many characters the author invented.

Write brilliantly and readers will follow you anywhere — even into a swarm of hoverflies. That's one takeaway from The Fly Trap, a charming, off-the-beaten track, humorously self-deprecating memoir by Fredrik Sjöberg, a biologist who muses and amuses about his baffling passion for hoverflies. "No sensible person is interested in flies, or anyway, no woman," he writes. His book may change that: It is a paean to some of the tiniest wonders of the natural world, but even more to the benefits of intense focus.

Senators beelining for roll call at the U.S. Capitol, protesters brandishing signs on the Supreme Court sidewalk, guides mama-ducking tourists past the Beaux-Arts splendor of the Library of Congress — they don't always stop to note the elegant Art Deco low-rise tucked in alongside those showier landmarks. Andrea Mays thinks they ought to — and in The Millionaire and the Bard, a brisk chronicle of how William Shakespeare almost vanished into obscurity and how one obsessive American created the playwright's finest modern shrine, she makes a snappy, enjoyable case for why.

Orson Welles thought he was ruined after the 1938 broadcast of his adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The 23-year-old actor-director's star was just beginning to rise, but the panic caused by the radio show sparked an immediate backlash. Major newspapers reported on cases of mass hysteria across America. Because of The War of the Worlds, they alleged, hundreds of thousands of unassuming citizens were convinced that a real Martian invasion was taking place, starting at ground zero: The small town of Grover's Mill, New Jersey.

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is, on one level, a memoir about Nelson's pregnancy with her first child, Iggy, and her partner Harry's concurrent female-to-male "transition." (The quotation marks are borrowed from Nelson, who at one point wonders "how to explain ... that for some, 'transitioning' may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others — like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T [testosterone] — it doesn't?")

One of Us opens with a girl running for her life. She and her friends are being stalked, hunted by a young man in a police officer's uniform on the small Norwegian island of Utøya. They lie down in the woods, pretending they're dead, hoping the man will see them and move on. He doesn't. He shoots the girl in the head, shoots her friends in their heads, point-blank, execution-style. In search of new victims, the man moves on. But almost four years after that July day when 77 people, many of them children, were slain in cold blood, the nation of Norway still struggles to move on.

In April 1944, a Nazi commander on the island of Crete was somehow mysteriously and miraculously kidnapped right under the nose of the Germans. No shots were fired, there was no bloodshed and no sign of a struggle. General Heinrich Kreipe simply vanished.

For decades, the name Renata Adler has provoked a host of differing opinions. She's been loved, hated, feared, admired and ostracized by literary institutions for her brazen and uncompromising views on journalism and the role of the journalist. Adler has never been one to succumb to the pressures of the establishment, a fact she has proved through her work time and again — even if it means calling out her employers and colleagues by name.

Mary Norris has spent the past 20 years working as "a page OK'er" at The New Yorker, a position she says is unique to the magazine. Essentially, she's a highly specialized proofreader and copy editor on the publication's elaborate author-to-print assembly line. Alternate job descriptions include "prose goddess" and "comma queen."

When it came time for Chucky Taylor to propose to his girlfriend Lynn, he didn't bother with embellishments. After having spent most of their relationship an ocean apart — he in Liberia, she in Pine Hills, Florida, where they'd met — Chucky drove Lynn to a beach in Monrovia and handed her not a ring but a bag of uncut diamonds.

Justine Sacco. Jonah Lehrer. Mike Daisey. The names sound vaguely familiar, like an old college friend or distant relative.

Clive James' most anthologized poem is commonly known by its first two lines: "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered/And I Am Pleased." Those lines tell the uninitiated almost all they need to know about the pleasures to be found in reading James: chief among them, his wit and his appreciation of the underlying absurdity of so much literary effort — including his own.

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? The unseen hand moving a cup or the shadow climbing a staircase promises an existence beyond our mundane realities. Hannah Nordhaus' new book, American Ghost, is an offbeat mishmosh of memoir, cultural history, genealogical detective story and paranormal investigation, but it opens in the classic manner of spooky tales — with a sighting.

Cults and religions exist on a continuum, not in clearly delineated categories. It's even hard to claim that the distinction between the two comes down to "knowing it when you see it." For the most vulnerable people, the victims of groups that sit nebulously on the divide between cult and religion, that kind of clarity is what's often lacking.

The Ecstatic, Erotic Joy Of Reading 'Girl In The Dark'

Mar 12, 2015

Anna Lyndsey lives in the dark. She was living a pleasantly ordinary life, working for the British government, when she began to feel a sensitivity to light: At first, computer screens seemed to burn her face, and then artificial lights, and then, finally, sunlight.

Loss is the rough tie that binds two memoirs that, otherwise, are as different as day and night. What Comes Next and How to Like It is a sequel of sorts to Abigail Thomas' best-selling 2006 memoir, A Three Dog Life, which chronicled the one-two punch death of her husband — by her account, a sweetheart of a guy who took their dog out for a walk one afternoon in New York and was hit by a car. He suffered brain injuries and lingered for five years. Even after that catastrophe, more losses now loom for Thomas.

J.C. Hallman's audacious B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, is a textbook example of "creative criticism" — a highly personal form of literary response that involves "writers depicting their minds, their consciousnesses, as they think about literature." Hallman, who has championed creative criticism in two anthologies, has written a wildly intelligent, deeply personal, immoderate — and somewhat belabored — exploration of Nicholson Baker's entire oeuvre, reading in general, and the state of modern literature.

"I am homesick most for the place I've never known," writes Kent Russell in his debut essay collection. He's referring specifically to Martins Ferry, Ohio, his father's childhood hometown — but it could be anywhere. The essays in I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son find the young author miles away from his native Florida, at a music festival in Illinois, on a small island near Australia, and other out-of-the-way locales. He never seems to feel quite at home, or maybe he hasn't yet decided what home really is to him.

Pier 54 on the Hudson River in Manhattan is padlocked and forgotten now. Like whispers of the past, the engraved names of the shipping companies Cunard and White Star remain barely legible atop its rusted iron gate. Few of the present-day joggers and cyclists who pass by might recall that a century ago, on May 1, 1915, the Lusitania set sail from this berth on her last doomed voyage.

Ever since Michel de Montaigne hit on the winning mix of frankly personal and broader philosophical reflections in his 16th century Essays, the personal essay has attracted those for whom the unexamined life is — well, unthinkable. In recent years, we've seen a spate of auto-pathologies — minutely observed meditations on the tolls of often strange ailments. A newer trend is the meta-diary — short autobiographical entries that frequently explore the writer's relationship with time, memory and identity.

You probably don't need me to enumerate the pains of navigating bureaucracies. Lines and forms and hold times are the stuff of daily routine — and it's just as routine to complain about them.

A climb "to the top of a greasy pole" are the immortal words coined by 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to describe his rise to political power. Disraeli was two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, as well as a novelist and famous wit whose way with a catchy phrase was rivaled in the 19th century only by his younger admirer, Oscar Wilde. But when he entered politics in the 1830s, Disraeli was burdened by debt and, even more seriously, by his Jewish parentage.

"The more I visit libraries the more I find myself opening up to them," writes Ander Monson in his essay collection Letter to a Future Lover. It's not surprising that an author would be attracted to libraries; they are, after all, some of the last places in the world dedicated to the preservation and celebration of literature. They're also at risk of becoming endangered, casualties of budget cuts, increased Internet availability, and apathy.

Low-Key, Real-Life Heroism In 'March: Book Two'

Jan 29, 2015

Some media are custom-made for heroes. Ava DuVernay's gripping film Selma gains much of its drama from the beauty — physical and metaphysical — of David Oyelowo's portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo's incredible voice gives practically everything King says the compelling force of a sermon, and his physical presence — strangely small and economical of motion — is as unique as it is potent.

Michelle Tea has been many things: poet, novelist, memoirist, columnist, editor, drummer, film producer and darling of the queercore scene. She captured the hearts of punk-literature fans with her 1998 debut, the novel The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and drew praise from critics with her memoirs Rent Girl and The Chelsea Whistle.

'The B-Side' Sings A Sad, Sad Song

Jan 21, 2015

The B-Side, Ben Yagoda's cultural history of Tin Pan Alley and the American Songbook, begins near the end of its story. In 1954, Arthur Schwartz, the co-writer of standards like "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," is at the Columbia Records building in Manhattan, waiting to present Mitch Miller, Columbia's head of popular music, with some possible songs.

'Whipping Boy' Is Part Memoir, Part Crime Thriller

Jan 20, 2015

Bullying has become a hot-button issue in recent years, a fact that Allen Kurzweil hasn't overlooked in Whipping Boy. It's his first volume of nonfiction, and the premise is as ripped-from-the-headlines as they come: Forty years after suffering the vicious abuse of a bully in school, Kurzweil has written an account of his decades-long search for Cesar Augustus Viana, the boy who tormented him.

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