In my review of Sloane Crosley’s latest book, How Did You Get This Number, I confessed my love for essays, particularly personal essays with a humorous bent. But I like harder hitting essays too, and this collection of non-fiction writing chosen and introduced by This American Life’s Ira Glass was a real treat for an essay fan like myself. In my mind, it is also a good introduction to non-fiction writing—a genre that so many readers shy away from (for reasons that elude me).
What makes this book so wonderful is that Glass has cherry-picked some of his favorite non-fiction writing and put them all together so you get good writing on a wide range of topics—from profiles of Saddam Hussein to Val Kilmer, from soccer hooligans to a “typical” 10-year-old boy, from where a steak comes from to what is feels like to make the final table at the World Series of Poker. As you know if you’re familiar with Ira Glass’s work, he has diverse interests and a innate curiosity about the world around us—and this sensibility is reflected in his choices for this book. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the diversity of the stories in the book is to provide a brief description of the various pieces (with a little bit of commentary on what I liked and didn’t like).
- Michael Lewis kicks off the book with a piece called “Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities,”which was a fascinating look at a 15-year-old high-school boy who gets in trouble with the SEC after he makes a lot of money (like a half a million dollars!!) via day-trading and promoting various stocks on the Internet. In the SEC’s mind, Jonathan has done something illegal, but his offense is one that even the head of the SEC is unable to clearly articulate. In the end, it seems that the “offense” was simply figuring out how to make money on the stock market at a young age.
- Jack Hitt‘s contribution, “Toxic Dreams: A California Town Finds Meaning In An Acid Pit,” reads like a satire of the legal system—except that the case he writes about (Stringfellow) is an actual case that is ongoing to this day. I suspect that a writer couldn’t come up with a mockery of what legal proceedings can turn into—or how they can take on a life of their own—that sounds more ridiculous than what the Stringfellow proceedings involve.
- Malcolm Gladwell makes an appearance with a story called “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” which is about how some people are people who seem to know everybody—a kind of living embodiment of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. (In fact, Gladwell alludes to this game and makes a pretty good case that it might be easier played with Burgess Meredith.) By the end, I guarantee that you’ll be looking for the Lois Weisberg in your life!
- ”Shapinsky’s Karma” by Lawrence Weschler is one of the longer pieces in the book—chronicling the unlikely rise to fame by an obscure painter named Harold Shapinsky due to the tireless and almost maniacal efforts of an Indian fellow named Akumal Ramachander, which turns into a story as much about Akumal as it is about Shapinsky. A fascinating look at the art world and what one persistent person who believes in another can accomplish.
- Susan Orlean‘s contribution, “The American Man, Age Ten,” was probably my favorite in the book. After her editor at Esquire asked her to write a profile of Macauley Culkin for a piece he planned on giving the same title to, Orlean asked if she could instead write about a “typical” American ten-year-old instead, which is how she ended up shadowing a New Jersey boy named Colin Duffy. The result is a fascinating, humorous and engrossing look into Colin’s world—and what a wondrous place it is.
- “Among the Thugs” by Bill Buford was particularly timely as I read it while the World Cup was going on. The piece in the book (which was an early chapter from Buford’s book of the same name) is a first-hand account of shadowing British soccer hooligans as they travel to Turin to watch their team (Manchester United) play. It was a glimpse into a scary world that I don’t think I would want to get near.
- Chuck Klosterman writes about his interview with Val Kilmer in a piece called “Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy,” which includes writing like: “The worst thing I could say about him is that he’s kind of a name-dropper; beyond that, he seems like an affable fellow with a good sense of humor, and he is totally not f**ked up. But he is weird.” As you can see, this isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill celebrity profile.
- David Foster Wallace‘s piece, “Host,” was my least favorite piece in the book—probably due to the excessive use of footnotes (printed in the most unusual way) that kept distracting me from the main story, which is a profile of a radio talk show host named John Ziegler. I almost skipped this piece entirely but ended up powering through just so I could write this review and honestly say I read the entire book.
- ”Tales of the Tyrant” by Mark Bowden is an extensive piece on Saddam Hussein, which I wish I’d read way back when the U.S. first started getting involved with Iraq. It was quite eye-opening and enlightening and shed a little more light on the country of Iraq and its long-time dictator and what kind of person he was.
- ”Losing the War” by Lee Sandlin is an interesting piece in which the author asks various people what they know about war, specifically World War II. And what does he find? “Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were the big totemic names—Pearl Harbor, D-day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—whose unfathomable reaches of experience has been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone.”
- One of the few pieces I felt didn’t fit in was “The Hostess Diaries: My Year At A Hot Spot” by Coco Henson Scales. Although an amusing enough look at what really goes on behind-the-scenes at an exclusive nightclub, the piece felt too slight in comparison to the other pieces in the book.
- I really loved “My Republican Journey” by Dan Savage because it reminded me how much I enjoy Dan Savage’s writing. (I used to read his sex column in The Onion and just loved his books The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant and Skipping Towards Gomorrah.) In fact, it reminded me that I really should get the rest of Savage’s books that he’s been writing while I was doing other things. Shame on me!! This particular story chronicles Savage’s attempt to infiltrate the Republican Party during the 1996 presidential elections in an effort to change the Republican’s view of homosexuality from the “inside.” If you’ve never read Savage’s biting, hysterical point of view, this essay is a wonderful introduction. (But not if you’re a hard-core, conservative Republican … cuz’ my guess is that you won’t really care for Savage’s worldview. I love him though.)
- ”Power Steer” by Michael Pollan is almost guaranteed to put you off red meat for awhile. The story follows the short life of steer No. 534, which Pollan buys in an effort to “find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days, from insemination to slaughter.” What he finds was eye-opening and probably more than I wanted to know. But if you eat meat, you should probably understand where it comes from the effects of the modern meat industry on the environment. After reading this essay, it made me want to read Pollan’s longer books, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals or In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
- I particularly enjoyed James McManus’s story, “Fortune’s Smile: World Series of Poker,” as Mr. Jenners and I went through a Texas Hold ‘Em craze a few years back (along with much of America). Chronicling the author’s unlikely journey to the final table at the World Series of Poker (back before it was a well-known and a regular fixture on TV), the piece has a “you are there” quality to it that I really enjoyed. If Mr. Jenners hadn’t already consumed almost every anecdotal book on gambling and casinos, I might have even had a shot at getting him to read this one.
My Final Recommendation
If you’re looking for a diverse collection of non-fiction writing that differs wildly in topics and style but that all share a foundation of good writing that involves the reader, look no further. This collection had everything you could want—and will probably lead you to seek additional works by the authors represented in the collection.
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