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Some of the best narrative nonfiction springs from when an author is able to get really granular with the subject at hand. When the writer digs deep, vein after vein of precious literary gems can be unearthed, painting vivid and compelling portraits of people and places. These stories are captivating and enlightening in the best of ways.

Some of the WORST narrative nonfiction starts in the same place. These are the stories wherein the author treats the subject(s) as some sort of vaguely anthropological study, holding themselves above the people with whom they are engaging. They parachute into a place and imagine that their brief dalliance is enough to bestow actual understanding.

The State of Maine has unfortunately seen a bit more of the latter treatment than the former in recent years, with this place and its denizens being rendered simplistically and/or stereotypically – junk shop kitsch instead of fine art.

I honestly wasn’t sure which I was going to get from “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” (Harper, $27.99), the new book from Gigi Georges. I’ve been around long enough to know that these efforts to somehow “unlock” the truth of rural America often wind up being little more than condescending confirmations of the author’s already-extant attitudes, cherry picked to prop up whatever thesis they sported upon their arrival.

This book is not that.

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A perhaps underrated aspect of a story’s quality is our engagement by the storyteller.

Yes, I mean the person crafting the story in question, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Once we venture beyond the third-person omniscience POV, well … now you’ve got a narrator. Another layer of the storytelling onion.

There are plenty of narrators in the world of fiction, with wave upon wave of first-person perspectives lapping against assorted narrative shores. There’s a certain degree of familiarity that comes with that plentitude – it’s rare for you to get a story to you by someone whose like you’ve never encountered before.

But in Will Leitch’s new novel “How Lucky” (Harper, $25.99), that’s precisely what we get.

The person at the center of this story – the one through whose eyes we watch it all unfold – is unlike anyone you’ve met in literature. And the story that he shares with us is thrilling and funny and just a little off-kilter, driven by the notion that the desire to save the day isn’t confined to a certain type of person. It’s a story of living a life of limitation, yet refusing to be defined by those limitations – even when the world around you isn’t quite so free of judgment.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 19 May 2021 11:01

‘Total Olympics’ goes for the gold

I love the Olympics.

There’s something so captivating about watching someone at the peak of their performance do what it is that they do best. This notion of being recognized as the literal best in the world at something – fascinating.

And that’s what the Olympics do. They celebrate the glory of athletic achievement (as well as nationalistic jingoism and bureaucratic graft, but still).

There’s more to the Olympics than the winners, however. For every famous gold medalist’s face gracing a Wheaties box, there are scores of stories of those who were just as excellent, yet now linter in obscurity. Not to mention those who, for whatever reason, never quite reached the same iconic pinnacle. And just like anything that has been around for more than a century (or centuries, if you start counting from its Greek origins), a lot has changed – both good and bad.

These are the sorts of stories that you’ll find in Jeremy Fuchs’s new book “Total Olympics: Every Obscure, Hilarious, Dramatic and Inspiring Tale Worth Knowing” (Workman Publishing, $22.95). Yes, you’ll get stories of the giants of various eras – Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton, Michael Phelps – but you’ll also be reminded of (or learn for the first time) names of exceptional athletes with less longstanding cultural resonance.

In addition, Fuchs has brought forward numerous tales of Olympic history, digging into some of the behind-the-scenes chicanery that came with hosting the event and revisiting some of the wild and weird competitions that were once part of the proceedings.

It’s a compact and fun trip through the history of the Games, a catch-all of trivia, biographical sketches and fascinating forgotten moments. Anyone with affection for the Olympics will find plenty to enjoy in these pages.

Published in Sports

Fame can be fleeting. No matter how talented a person, no matter how renowned in their time, oftentimes it comes down to mere chance whether an artist is forever feted or ultimately forgotten.

For the author Rachel Field, the latter was true. Field, best known for her Newbery Award-winning book “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” was also a winner of the National Book Award among other accolades. For years, she spent her summers in a house on Sutton Island, a small private island off the southern coast of Mount Desert Island. She was incredibly prolific and generally beloved by both critics and readers.

And I had never heard of her.

Thanks to author Robin Clifford Wood, however, I have been relieved of my ignorance. Wood’s new book is “The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine” (She Writes Press, $16.95), which tells the story of this notable woman of letters who produced celebrated work right up until her untimely passing at the age of just 47.

But this isn’t your typical literary biography. While Wood undeniably digs deep with her research into the life and work of Rachel Field, the book’s strength lies in the author’s connection with the subject matter. Her fascination with Field plays out in many ways throughout the book, binding together Wood’s own story with that of the once celebrated and now obscure writer.

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Space has always been scary. There’s this unsettling blend of known and unknown when it comes to space – we can see a lot, sure, but there’s so much more that we can’t. It’s a vast mystery whose extreme inhospitality and infinite size make a battle out of every new discovery.

It is this place of wonder and fear that so fascinates Andy Weir. The engineer-turned-author returns to those harsh environs with his new book “Project Hail Mary” (Ballantine, $28.99), venturing deeper into space than in his previous offerings (“The Martian” and “Artemis”) while still maintaining the distinctive wonkiness that renders his work so idiosyncratically enjoyable.

This is a story about one man’s fight to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, bringing to bear every bit of cleverness and intuition in an effort to solve a huge problem. It’s a story of isolation, friendship and the looming specter of incomprehensible loss – all refracted through a prism of well-researched and joyful nerdery. And of course, the science is sound (and in more ways than one).

Published in Buzz

Our country’s history is packed with stories. And while some of those stories are generally familiar, even those that we’ve dug deeply into time and again have new nuances waiting for us to explore. Take the Salem Witch Trials, for instance. It’s one of those vividly bleak moments in time with which the majority of Americans bear at least a passing familiarity.

But those trials, as horrible as they were, were not the beginning of the story. Those terrible acts didn’t take place in a vacuum, but were rather the culmination of a decades-long period of repression and hysteria.

Chris Bohjalian’s new book “Hour of the Witch” (Doubleday, $28.95) takes us further back, some 30 years before the horrors of Salem. It’s a look at one woman’s efforts to reconcile her religion and her beliefs with the pain and suffering – emotional and physical – inflicted on her by those around her. It’s the story of what it means to stand up for oneself, even in the face of a society that has little interest in protecting her.

Blending historical events with page-turning thrills, “Hour of the Witch” offers a propulsive and powerful tale of what can happen when a person who is pushed to the brink simply refuses to accept the status quo and pushes forward in a quest for justice – even if that person knows deep down that justice is almost certainly not forthcoming.

Published in Buzz

If you haven’t read Chris Bohjalian, you really should.

It’s not like you don’t have options – over the course of his decades-long career, Bohjalian has written over 20 novels. He’s graced the New York Times bestseller list numerous times. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he has shown not just the willingness, but the ability to explore a wide range of themes and styles along the way, even as he maintains a consistency of voice throughout.

From his 1988 debut novel “A Killing in the Real World” to his latest work “Hour of the Witch,” which was released just this week (you can read our review here), Bohjalian has demonstrated a proclivity for taut narratives and well-realized characters. He’s that rare writer whose prolificity has never undermined the quality of his output – if anything, he just keeps getting better, even as he refuses to be bound by the trappings of any particular genre.

Few authors are able to combine Bohjalian’s prose gifts with his unwavering empathy and concern for the world around him. He wraps important issues in compelling narratives, leaving the reader to be exposed to powerful ideas even as they turn page after thrilling page.

Published in Cover Story

There’s wonder in water.

Whether we’re gazing across a mirror-smooth lake or bouncing over crashing ocean waves or simply skipping stones across a swiftly moving stream, we find wonder in water. There’s a quiet power to it, an energy that is as undeniable as it is indefinable. There is joy and knowledge and yes, there is magic.

Maine author Ellen Booraem offers up some of that wonder in her new book “River Magic” (Dial Books, $16.99), her latest offering for younger readers. This fantasy tale – aimed at readers 10-12, but accessible to readers on either side of that range – is a story of what happens when magic intrudes on real life. It’s a story about grief and loss and the many ways – some healthy, some not so much – that we deal with those feelings.

It’s also about thunder mages and dragons, a story of inadvertent adventure that celebrates the meaning of family and friendship even as it offers wild weirdness aplenty.

Published in Buzz

There’s a tendency to think of genre fiction as somehow less than, even though we’ve always known that some of our most gifted writers happily appropriated some of the tropes and themes inherent to sci-fi or fantasy or thriller or horror or what have you.

Our foremost practitioners of genre work have shown themselves capable of embracing and elevating the precepts and preconceptions that define their genre of choice, all while also showing themselves capable of both literary and ideological excellence.

Jeff VanderMeer is one such practitioner, an author dubbed “sci-fi” because no other label fits. One of the best-known luminaries of the so-called “Weird Fiction” school, VanderMeer utilizes the tools that genre gives him to create works that are very much their own thing, even if recognizable elements appear within them.

His latest is “Hummingbird Salamander” (MCD, $27), a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which he excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place – this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

VanderMeer’s affection for the natural world – as well as his concern for its future – plays out regularly in his books; “Hummingbird Salamander” is no exception. Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous.

Published in Buzz

The personal essay boom of the past decade or so certainly makes sense as part of the ongoing explosion of internet content. The current landscape is ideally conducive to, well … talking about yourself, taking the old adage “Write what you know” to its most extreme logical conclusion.

This isn’t always a good thing. Too often, this sort of writing devolves into solipsism, a kind of self-celebratory navel-gazing that winds up reading equal parts indulgent and disingenuous. But on those occasions that it works, it’s as impactful as any formal autobiography, giving readers a glimpse at the kind of unexpected truth that can only come from someone else’s experience.

The essays in Lauren Hough’s new collection “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays” (Vintage, $16.95) work. This selection of 11 stories drawn from Gough’s checkered and fascinating life coalesces in a remarkable way. Through these tales of a unique journey – a childhood spent in a cult leads to a turn in the military followed by a rough-and-tumble awakening of her sexuality, all while simply trying to understand the world in ways many of us take for granted.

Hough’s lacerating wit hits many targets, though none so often or so bitingly as herself. There’s a brutality to her honesty and to her self-deprecation that is compelling as hell to engage with. These alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious tales stand strong on their own, but as a unit, they form a multi-faceted memoir-in-stories that is a true delight.

Published in Style
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