Tag Archives: Nonfiction

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (2010)

Elif Batuman is a grad student in Russian literature, and these essays are about her adventures.  Aside from some dense portions related to the actual Russian literature, this book moves, due in no small part to Batuman’s dry, quick-witted humor that pokes fun at everyone from the Uzbek landlord who feeds her from an ant-covered jam jar to the elderly professor who literally shits his pants.  The real gems, however, are Batuman’s introduction on why she avoided creative writing (reminiscent of her essay “Get a Real Degree”) and her reflections on grad student obsessions—both pointed commentaries on academia.

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Last Words, by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra, 2009)

Carlin’s posthumous memoir (based on a decade of conversations with co-author Hendra) covers his New York childhood, his humdrum ‘60s comedy, his departure into gritty realism (“Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV”), his cocaine addiction, and finally his move toward satirizing politics and society.  This was my first real foray into Carlin’s work, and it proved a solid start—many of his most famous pieces are transcribed with commentary, and his biting, thoughtful voice is always present.  I was most drawn to his reflections about leaving the mainstream to find his real voice—undoubtedly the strongest section.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami (2008)

Every day, Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes and runs, each on a set schedule with set goals.  Most of this essay collection is ostensibly about running, but when Murakami talks about the discipline involved with marathon training he’s also talking about the discipline involved with writing, so that reading about his stretches and his Hokkaido ultramarathon provides insight into a disciplined creative mind.  He also recounts his transition from jazz club-owning twentysomething to focused writer, and the entire book forms a quiet, unpretentious reflection on what it means to pursue a skill—even if you don’t like sports.

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The Best of McSweeney’s, Edited by Dave Eggers & Jordan Bass (2013)

This 600-page tome from the McSweeney’s journal packs a hard punch—not just because of how much they’ve crammed inside, but because the writing is straight-up good.  There’s a comics section, a play starring three cavemen, an account of a NASCAR weekend by a man who knows nothing about racing, a list of facts about Spokane, Washington, two stories based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notebooks, and a scattering of 20-minute fiction.  Extra points go to the fine design: the dustjacket folds out into a poster and the bonus materials include a box of postcards and colorful booklets.

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As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Sterling, by Anne Sterling (2013)

Anne Sterling’s memoir/biography of her father, Twilight Zone host, creator, and writer Rod Sterling, does twofold duty: on the one hand, Anne shows her father the writer, social activist, and continual innovator, while on the other she shows his decidedly human, funny, fatherly side through anecdotes and the many jokes they shared.  While I found myself most interested in Sterling’s early struggles to earn money for his writing and wrest creative control from the TV censors (and wish there was more to this section), Anne’s difficulties after her father’s untimely death also form a solid, more personal story arc.

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The Big Book of Porn, by Seth Grahame-Smith (2005)

This coffee table book would have worked a lot better had it focused solely on a detailed guide to classic ‘70s and early ‘80s porn, since that section is filled with history, insights into the industry, and a ton of cool ‘70s movie posters.  The rest of the book, though, is eye-rollingly uneven, alternating between genuinely enlightening info and some seriously lame jokes.  The lowlight of these extras is an overly detailed discussion of fetish porn, while the highlight is a hilarious list of porn title spoofs (Genital Hospital, Hump Up the Volume, etc.) that had me in stitches.

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The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

In general, I enjoy collections (short stories or essays) less than novels because the act of repeatedly beginning anew is less fulfilling than starting a single story and following it to the end. That said, 2013 was a good year for essays, and Strayed’s selections are astute. My favorite ones (about a tour through a Nazi storehouse, a highway serial killer cold case from the 1980s, and a new mother watching her neighbor’s infant through a crossed baby monitor signal) hit hard, with raw, succinct power. There are some losers here, but the good ones far outweigh the bad.

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Shakespeare Wrote For Money, by Nick Hornby (2008)

I love Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading column (which he’s written on and off for The Believer since the 2000s, and perhaps will again when the magazine finally makes its return??) because he talks about books like a real person, avoids pretentious review-speak, and jokes about how Americans don’t understand British football.  Though this review collection’s in the same vein as his others, I missed the more stylized jacket flaps and the book excerpts that came with the first two collections, which made finding new books for my own towering To-Read stack that much easier.

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Lichtenstein, by Janis Hendrickson (1988, 2012)

This picture-filled guide to Roy Lichtenstein’s career covers both his paintings of starry-eyed comic-book heroines (an example of which graces the cover), his images of everyday objects like washing machines and golf balls, and his later, more abstract paintings.  There’s also a close technical and thematic look at the Benday dots used in so many of his works.  Though I was most interested in Lichtenstein’s Pop Art images, the book covers much more, though the latter half goes into more depth than I was looking for.  Still, a solid introduction to Lichtenstein’s life and work with cool pictures.

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Where I Got It

At a bookstore in the Germantown section of Columbus, Ohio in summer 2015.  I’d been interested in Lichtenstein’s Pop Art works for a while (one of my teachers had a large “I’d Rather Sink Than Call Brad For Help” print on his office door in college, below), and buying this book was my reminder to actually learn more about him.

 

 

Updike, by Adam Begley (2014)

Begley’s biography of writer John Updike exhaustively covers its hero’s rural Pennsylvania childhood, his stint as a twentysomething New Yorker writer, his years in suburban Massachusetts, his elderly descent into isolation, and his many, many novels.  Though Updike’s serial adultery plays a key role, Begley keeps the details vague for privacy reasons—unfortunate, since it often feels like there’s more we’re not getting as Begley instead summarizes the autobiographical facets of Updike’s vast oeuvre.  The result reads more like literary criticism than biography, but still decently flushes out one of America’s most prolific 20th century writers.

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Where I Got It

Ordered online in Fall 2016.

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Longer review

If you haven’t already, you should probably read Rabbit, Run instead, because it’s excellent.

The Medium is the Massage, by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967)

Marshall McLuhan is the guy Woody Allen pulls from offscreen to prove his point to the pretentious academic in Annie Hall.  His work in the 1960s tackles the power of media and its ability to deliver information in different forms; this book is a short, coherent explanation of how media affects us, assembled by graphic designer Quentin Fiore with black and white photos to enhance McLuhan’s points.  There are comics, two-page spreads, ‘60s pop culture, and a page printed in backwards text to keep things interesting, pushing the limits of what the printed form can do.  Very cool.

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Where I Got It

Found in a free box outside my apartment building with a bunch of other textbooks and books on programming, sometime in the fall of 2015.  This was the only one that looked interesting.

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Official site

Aphorisms on Love and Hate, by Friedrich Nietzsche (1878)

This pocket-sized British edition of Nietzsche reflections is pretty awesome: it’s more manageable than the full-length essays by Nietzsche I’d read previously, but more substantial than the 140 character Nietzsche Twitter feed.  The editors picked 55 pages of reflections from Human, All Too Human that tackle such truths as how we despise the people we pretend to like, how we can’t ever really promise to always love someone, why rich people just don’t understand their own cruelties, and why those who seek to understand life will always undergo struggle.  Nietzsche’s ideas are relatable and real, so check ‘em out.

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Where I Got It

Picked up from the break room free table at the university press where I used to work, sometime in the spring of 2015.

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Nietzsche quotes on Twitter

Nietzsche on Love (essay)