April 6, 2016

March Reading Recap

Last month's reading was an excellent and varied set of books:

THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Leo is the oldest of the four adult Plumb siblings, and he's screwed up the future for all of them. His brother and sisters have been relying on their shares of The Nest, the family trust fund, to save them from financial troubles they've been trying to conceal. Shortly before the money was to be distributed, their mother drained the fund to bail Leo out of a costly substance-fueled car accident. Now he's home from rehab, and the others want to know how he's going to pay them back when he has no resources, or at least none he'll admit to.

Dysfunctional family drama is my favorite type of story, and this novel is one of the best I've read in the genre. The plot hinges on money, but it's really about siblings who haven't been close forced to come together in a crisis and figure out how they actually feel about one another. Each of the Plumbs is a complex, uniquely flawed character stumbling through a specific set of problems. They're brought to life by Sweeney's vibrant dialogue, well-chosen details, and funny observations. Even the story's smaller characters are fully developed and given their moment in the spotlight.

I just loved this book all the way through. I wished the best for every character, though several were often jerks, and I was satisfyingly moved by the story's resolution. I'm also thrilled to see wonderful things happening to this wonderful novel.

THE SELLOUT by Paul Beatty opens with the narrator in the chambers of the Supreme Court, waiting for a hearing on the case that has made him a target of national outrage. He's a modern day black man from Los Angeles who stands accused of owning a slave and implementing racial segregation in his inner city community, with the surprising aim of bringing people together. The narrative then jumps back to recount how the whole bizarre situation arose. It's a rambling, inventive tale written in biting prose that's sometimes uncomfortably funny and sometimes simply uncomfortable.

The story builds slowly, with most of the focus on the dynamics of the unconventional characters. Our protagonist (often nicknamed but never named) is a skilled urban farmer trying to carry on the legacy of his radical psychologist father while also recovering from his childhood as a subject of relentless behavioral experiments. He accidentally acquires a slave in the elderly Hominy Jenkins, who was once a bit player in the Little Rascals and still misses the simplicity of old-fashioned racism. The town's segregation begins as an attempt to cheer up Hominy, with help from the narrator's unrequited love, a bus driver who always speaks her mind. As the project grows, they enlist more co-conspirators and face opposition from a local talk show intellectual who seeks to end racism by rewriting classic literature in an ever more ridiculous fashion.

I laughed frequently while reading THE SELLOUT, and I cringed just as often. The story's absurdity couches nonstop commentary on the realities of racism in America. The result is an intense and very effective novel.

INTO THIN AIR is Jon Krakauer's riveting account of climbing Mount Everest with an expedition that ended in disaster. Krakauer had extensive climbing experience, though none at high altitude, when he was sent by Outside magazine to climb with a commercial guiding company and write about the operations and effects of commercial expeditions. When a severe storm hit the mountain as several groups attempted the summit on May 10, 1996, numerous climbers were overcome by the wind and cold and became lost for hours, and eight never made it back to safety.

The book is an engrossing mix of memoir and reporting. Krakauer describes his own experience during the weeks of the expedition while also presenting the stories of the people he climbed with. Based on interviews conducted later, he reconstructs the disaster from the perspectives of everyone involved. Woven into this narrative are fascinating tidbits about the history of climbers on Everest as well as discussions of ethical issues surrounding guided ventures that make Everest available to less skilled climbers.

Krakauer's effective writing conveys the scale, difficulty, and thrill of the climb, and he never shies away from addressing the risk and unpleasantness involved. He writes with moving candor about his own guilt over the harm he may have caused through his presence as a journalist and by his actions and mistakes during the disaster. The conscientiously detailed account explains the how and why of everything that happened, both when the expedition was operating normally and when catastrophe struck. This is a fantastically executed work of narrative nonfiction.

I first read INTO THIN AIR ten years ago, and I was inspired into a rare reread after watching Everest, a movie that dramatizes the same events. Krakauer has criticized the film for getting things wrong, including his own portrayal, but it's pretty accurate for a movie, and it does a good job of showing the challenge of the climb and the horror of the disaster. Though I don't read much nonfiction, I've counted this book as a favorite since my initial reading, and I found it just as excellent this time around. I should remember to make time for more of the great narrative nonfiction I hear about.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Catapult, Tony Tulathimutte shares tricks to keep things short in your writing: "The most useful and underrated technique is what's sometimes called the 'scalpel edit': clipping and nipping your manuscript line by line. Once I started focusing solely on lowering the word count, everything looked baggy. My first draft contained the line: 'Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work,' which ended up as: 'Still, it beat real work.'"

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