Friday, July 20, 2007

Style and Substance

Whenever I go to the library, I browse the "New Nonfiction" section. Lately I have been reading extensively in memoir and creative nonfiction. But unlike fiction, where a browse through the stacks results in all kinds of happy connections -- authors I've never heard of, books I'd never otherwise find -- nonfiction is more "destination" reading. I go, locate a specific book by its call number, pull it from the shelf, and leave. Occasionally I'll find an interesting book nearby, but this is generally more the case with, say, books on travel in Italy than with memoir, where the adjacent books have no more in common than the alphabetization of the subject's last name. The "New Nonfiction" section opens up again the possibility for literary serendipity, albeit on a smaller and time-delimited scale, since I'll find only books published in the last few months.

An so on a recent troll through my library's single case of new nonfiction Abigail Thomas's brilliant memoir, A Three Dog Life, caught my eye. I confess that I picked it up because there was a dog on the cover. I read a few pages and that was enough to propel me at a run to the checkout desk. I got the book home, devoured it in a day, and immediately requested her previous book, Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, via interlibrary loan. I have since bought copies of both books for myself. Both are in my current Top 10 for 2007, and I guarantee that they will still be there at the end of the year.

Thomas is the rare writer with a style that is vividly distinctive and yet somehow does not call attention to itself. The chapters are short -- often a couple of pages or less -- and the prose is generally spare, almost telegraphic in places. While you cannot read her books without noticing her style, there is nothing flashy or affected about it; it is entirely in service to the work.

"Don't spell everything out," the instructor of my first memoir class told us. "Let the reader do some of the heavy lifting." Thomas's writing is the first where I can see how that collaboration actually works. I think of her technique as "bell ringing." Thomas touches on a topic or emotion that resonates in the reader's mind and then moves on. Later, she circles back and touches on the same topic again, but with a slightly different emphasis or point of view, like a bell rung at a pitch that harmonizes with the first occurrence. The result is something greater than what is on the page: a work of art that is not so much the book itself as the multi-layered effects it creates in the reader. And as a reader, it is exhilarating to feel oneself an active partner in this act of creation with the author.

Thomas's web site contains a wonderful section called Getting Started that gives me inspiration and new ideas every time I visit. Today it's this: "Sometimes it’s what you’re not saying that gives a piece its shape."

Monday, January 1, 2007

The Final Top 10 for 2006

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
  • Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn
  • The Thin Place, by Kathryn Davis
  • The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass
  • March, by Geraldine Brooks
  • How It Feels to Be Adopted, by Jill Krementz
  • The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost
  • All Hallows' Eve, by Charles Williams