Category Archives: book reviews

Notes in the Bardo

I’m happy to report that I have a long review of the George Saunders novel Lincoln in the Bardo in the latest issues of the Quarterly Conversation. In it I express many thoughts and feelings, not just about Bardo in particular but about the demilitarized zone between writing short stories and writing novels. I had so many thoughts and feelings that here are some fragments that didn’t make it into the review.

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It’s an American cultural truth universally acknowledged that you can spend a lifetime writing brilliant short stories and be all but ignored—by publishers, critics, readers—while one mediocre novel with more soft spots than a week-old pear will make people’s heads turn. It takes a short story writer 40 years of highly praised work and an 800-page collection to garner the same level of attention that a garden-variety, 400-page, family melodrama receives. It makes no sense. Pile it upon the pyre of garbage that makes no sense.

The Novel is the Stanley Tape Measure of literary categories—the measurement by which all forms are measured.

Even books that are thrown together and simply labeled novels garner more acclaim than prose classified as anything else. It’s essentially neurotic. For example, you can see the yearning grasp for status in the label “nonfiction novel” that Truman Capote applied to his book-length reportage In Cold Blood (though, to be sure, that alleged work of nonfiction contains plenty of fictional wiggle)—this from a writer who never wrote a successful novel.* Of course I’m not counting Breakfast at Tiffany’s, at most a novella, which can be otherwise defined as a piece of literature publishers won’t publish as a stand-alone book.

Often what’s missing in these story-writer novels is the crucial ingredient of time; not enough of it passes. Whereas stories distill moments from a life, which is why they are hard to remember afterward and harder yet to use in larger cultural conversations, novels gain strength as they gain pages, enough time passing to show the gears of fate or character grinding out its pattern. Think of how the multiple generational narratives in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! overlap in a way that feels accidental and yet utterly unavoidable. This might be one of my favorite feelings a novel can generate. Obviously, there are many others. But the expansive treatment of time helps the novel work its magic, or a type of magic. Novels end up creating their inhabitable worlds not so much by overbuilding them with characters and information, as the short story writer is wont to do, but just by letting time pass. Think of One Hundred Year’s Of Solitude, and how that town feels like a known place simply because so many fictional feet have trod through it as the pages pass by. It’s a kind of sleight of hand. Think of Lolita, when the word “waterproof” is uttered at the end, and the reader’s attention-over-time is either rewarded or tested, and the unseen pattern emerges. Maybe a novel is just a prose work that contains more than one season. As I write this list, exceptions fly toward my face like asteroids.

Why do story writers feel pressured to write novels? Why is the novel so dominant? I don’t know, but I suspect the reasons are fairly plain: money, for starters. There is a splinter of a chance that people will actually buy your novel. After all, people once read them! And they still might turn them into movies, or an extended Netflix series, or whatever new entertainment package they’ve invented before I publish this. Second, and relatedly, it was the genre of the heyday of mass literacy, a historical coincidence we will never be able to forget. They didn’t line up on the docks of New York to hear about the death of Bulbasaur. Finally, novels are like milk jugs; if they reach a certain size, they contain their own handles; novels are simply easier to talk about, can be picked up and passed around a culture, can be used for all manner of misunderstanding. Meanwhile the short story sits inert, implacable, and glowing. The novel’s trickster shadow, never to be fully caught and sown back on.

I’m mixing my metaphors. And I sound like an old man.

It’s a little weird that our most popular shorter contemporary literary genres are the graduation speech and the advice column. The former has now become how we recognize deep thinking writers and the latter is now a legitimate way to build a body of work. It’s like a more soulful op-ed column. All of which is fine, I guess. What do I know? But are we that starved for love and instruction that these are the greatest hits of the age? Have we been that abandoned by our parents, figurative or otherwise? Rather than another novel, it seems like what we all really need is a big hug.

They won’t publish a novella as a standalone book but they’ll publish a graduation speech, each sentence blown up like a billboard slogan.

These thoughts are just practice swings before stepping to the plate. Overworked but underbaked taken as a personal aesthetic.

All of these fragments come from a short story writer who’s been thrashing within his own drafty, overbuilt novel for longer than he’s willing to admit, and who has become desperate for explanation as to why novel-writing is so consistently defeating. He’s hoping it’s not simply a failure of imagination.

*Other Voices, Other Rooms is a mess. Sorry! The Grass Harp is too much a book for children, and Answered Prayers is unfinished. There’s nothing more judgmental than a novelist working on his novel.

Bass guitars & Barry Hannah

Update #1
It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s time for a new essay. Consequently, I’ve got a new essay out (or is it “up”?) at The Collapsar. It’s called “The Bass Guitar as a Mode of Being,” and it’s about that wonderful activity of playing the bass guitar. You might think there’s not much to say about playing the bass, but you would be wrong.

After the essay went up, a friend notified me of this old Kids in the Hall bit, which I hadn’t seen before (which is probably for the best; their jokes are better than mine).

And then, last week New Yorker writer Matthew Trammell had a piece about the musician Thundercat, and Trammell has some interesting things to say about the bass as well.

And finally, finally, though I am not in the market to acquire a new bass (sadly), if I were, and if I were dishing out bass-buying advice, I would first watch this video and then I would buy one of those Sire basses.

Update #2
I’ve also got a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation. It covers Michael Bible’s novel Sophia, which I enjoyed, and which I sorted into the long line of literature that trails Barry Hannah. As a premise for the review, I argue that there is a Hannah tradition now. Hannah seems like one of those writers whose large, almost overbearing influence isn’t acknowledged in current literary criticism, while being constantly acknowledged among writers. Though perhaps there’s tons of discussion of this and I’m just not reading in the right places.

There wasn’t room in the review to mention Padgett Powell, but he is the preeminent Hannah writing today, perhaps even eclipsing Hannah himself. His sentences are beautifully ugly and create their own vernacular; he manages to write eloquently without slipping into a fussy, overly self-aware mode of high writing. I don’t know how he does it. It sounds like someone speaking but not in any way anyone has spoken before.

Another stray thought: the original Hannah was probably Beckett.

P.S. Adam Dorn is awesome.

Note on Marilynne Robinson

I’m happy to report that I have a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, this time of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays The Givenness of Things.

And now here is a little thought fragment that did not make it into the review: In the review I joke briefly about the idea of Robinson running for president and dicuss the interview/conversation between her and President Obama that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books. In that talk, which is more than anything a chance for Obama to interview a writer he admires, Robinson discusses her parents:

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something — drawing or painting or whatever we were doing — then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.

Now, compare this parental residue to a real-life presidential candidate, whose parents are a known entity: Jeb Bush. A few weeks ago, Jeb! had this exchange:

The next morning in Manchester, after a child asked what it was like to grow up the son of a president, Bush told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighed on him.

“All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression,” he said.

I’m struck by the overwhelming sadness of that statement — how haunted and trapped he must feel. Think of having to run for president in order to alleviate your father’s disappointment in you, or perhaps to preempt it.

And then think, on the other side, the Robinson side, of the freedom that she received instead, a freedom that comes from a kind of love, almost a careless love, almost a form of inattention. As someone who is now a parent myself, I am haunted by these two anecdotes. It could be argued that Jeb is the much more successful adult in many contemporary, measurable ways, and yet one doesn’t have to pay much attention to perceive who the more seemingly content figure is, spiritually or otherwise. In that race, Robinson wins by a landslide.

Beefier hands and more of them

All of the Moore–Updike ping pong from last week has me thinking of Moore’s descriptive powers. Updike is rightly praised for his indefatigable eye. Moore is praised for her “zingers,” her jokes, her unseen sideswipes into the absurd. And yes, she does have those (and great paragraphs, too!), but she also has great descriptive powers. Her descriptions are not of the pointillist nature of Updike’s, but they are metaphorically richer. Here is an example from A Gate at the Stairs:

I began working in my father’s baby greens field that very week. My job was to run in front of the shaver, a special attachment on the thresher, which he had contrived himself and which he was amused by and drove proudly like a car, though our field was so small that it was hard for him to make the turn-arounds. I ran ahead of it with fake feather and plastic hawk-wing extensions on my arms, whacking at the greens to scare the mice so they would not get into the mix. (If we had to take the greens to the triple-wash facility, it ate into the profit.) My father had actually designed my outfit for this, partially from a kite we had once brought to the Dellacrosse Kites on Ice festival. The costume had an aquiline-beaked mask and long wings I slipped my arms through, dipping them as I ran, brushing near the ground, beating the leaves, to resemble an actual predator and to encourage rodents to run from the shaver: nobody wanted sliced mice in their salads. At least not this decade.

[. . .]

Sometimes in the afternoon, upstairs in my room and still with my hawk outfit on, I would get out Ole Upright Bob, the double bass, dust him off, his bow quiver clipped at the tail beneath the bridge, like a scrotum, and we would rustle up a tune. There was a kind of buoyancy in making these four low strings sing something that was not a dirge. It was a demanding instrument, the stand-up bass — by comparison, my guitar, with its buttery, mushy fingerings, was a toy — and sometimes I just played it with open strings, Miles’s “Nardis,” which was basic, and which spelled starry backwards in Latin, or something, and which I loved, and which didn’t take a lot out of me. I had once, in the state music tryouts, played a solo from a double bass concerto by Sergei Koussevitzky, who in 1930 had been on the cover of Time magazine. That’s about all I knew about him. But either I wasn’t that good or the sight of a girl standing beside this huge wooden creature, grabbing its neck and stroking its gut, pulling the music out of the strings by force, made them ill at ease, and I was not selected. The faces of the panel listening were the very embodiment of skepticism made flesh, as if they were all saying Get a load of this!, and I had never experienced the weaponry of such expressions before. Subsequently, I drifted away from classical entirely, needing to leave behind the memory of that event. It was an aspect of childhood adults forgot to think about when they encouraged their children to try new things.

My mother came to the doorway once, seeing me winged and wrapped around my bass, one hand moving squidlike down the neck of him, the other bouncing the bow in a kind of staccato, and she said, “No wonder I couldn’t sleep. Look at you. What a sight.” There I was, I supposed, a bass-faced bird, embracing the sloped shoulders of another bird whose long-necked wooden crested head, like a knight in chess, hovered over my head as if it were a fellow creature advising me what to do. Still, she smiled. I was playing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She thought that it was my own arrangement, but it was one I had copied, or tried to copy — if only I’d had beefier hands and more of them — from Christian McBride.

“Your grandmother used to sing that song!” she exclaimed, and then went back to her room to rest.

I’m sure that with a little digging, I could come up with an equally metaphorically interesting string of paragraphs in Updike’s work; it’s not so much that as how Moore gently ladles her absurdities so that they somehow reharmonize into touching evocations of character. I’m mixing my metaphors terribly; my thoughts are all aflux. Moore is able, in her best moments, to be both absurd and terribly sympathetic.

Perhaps another way to cast this would be to think of Updike as a musical virtuoso, and like a virtuoso, he is sometimes unbearable; he never relents from being a virtuoso, in reminding you of his talents, whereas Moore is the type of singer (go with me) who is someone you actually want to listen to.

Yet another way of saying this is that I have often thought — and this is a point that James Wood has made in a much more substantive way — that part of Updike’s “problem” was his eloquence. He could never not be eloquent, and his irrepressible verbal felicity was a handicap, especially in some (some!) of his fiction. You, as a reader, were never allowed to forget that you were being dazzled by Updike’s brilliant prose. Of course, whether or not this is “good” or “bad” for fiction depends on the kinds of effects one is after, whether you want the reader to forget the author for a while, etc. But, to continue a mental comparison with Nabokov that I’ve got continually running in my head, Nabokov encountered this same problem, and he seemed to tame it somewhat by always conspicuously positioning his narrators or framing them in some way so that their eloquence was a feature of the narrative itself, rather than just there in the air like water vapor.

To put it even another way (aphoristically, reductively), to become a virtuoso is to deny taste.

Review of Adam Begley’s ‘Updike’

I’m happy to announce that I have a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in the new issue of Open Letters Monthly. The Begley bio recently came out in paperback. My take on the book was . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s complicated. I can’t come up with a pithy re-cap. Just go read the review.

Anyway, as with all reviews, there were scraps of thoughts I couldn’t include. Here are some of them:

Updike as great compartmentalizer
It’s difficult to read a biography of a writer and not come at it with a self-help kit. There is always the banal but necessary question of how did he get the work done? Aside from the talent, from the special blend of circumstance, and the capacity for endless hard work, was there some special “trick” that this writer used?

I feel like this whole line of inquiry is shameful, like I should know better than to read a biography in this vampiric way, but I can’t seem to help it.

Anyway, Updike’s trick, if it can even be called that, was that he had a talent for compartmentalizing his life from his work — this in addition to all of the other myriad talents he possessed. He seemingly could work anywhere, under any circumstance, with no sense of procrastination or doubt.

While writing the review, I was tipped off about this video of Philip Roth, who briefly muses on Updike’s greatness. He says Updike “could find the sentences for anything.” And he’s right, I think. The one thing that’s missing in Updike is any real sense of doubt, or fear, or insecurity, or exhaustion, or mute perplexity, or cosmic paralysis that he was wasting his life amidst a pile of empty signification, that maybe he should have taken up something — anything — else, or any of the other routine gales of doubt that the contemporary writer is heir to. (Not me, not me, naturally.) Whatever doubt he felt, he filed it away and got to work, and this lifelong ruthlessness seems extraordinary.

Lorrie Moore as the anti-John Updike
Or the sequel to John Updike, or the contra-Updike, or Updike from the other side of the marital bed. In the review I muse about the possibility of a biography of Mary Updike, the author’s first wife and seemingly the true hero of his writing career. But in the meantime, while that book (hopefully) gets written, we will have to make do with the stories of Lorrie Moore, who I was re-reading coincidentally while working on the review.

If Nicholson Baker, in his inimitable way, continued the diamond-cutting progress of Updike’s prose, Moore continued the subject of his stories — the ruination of the modern American marriage, especially when its victims are well-educated and employed, that is, on the surface, winners in the lottery of first-world experience. (Call it “The Postwar Ruins of Prosperity and The Pill.”) Except the difference is that Moore creates the opposite protagonists, stories told from the point of view of the wry female who’s been sentenced to the domestic hell of dealing with men who are emotional terrorists.

Moore also, interestingly, even daringly, has not written any autobiography. Though many of her stories smell faintly of veiled memoir, and though she has one brilliant, famous story about a baby diagnosed with cancer that mirrors her own son’s diagnosis with cancer, she has not rushed into the contemporary trend of memoir writing, confessional essay penning, or “autofiction,” to use a term I read about just yesterday. (Why, sweet lord of the library, we must come up with yet more idiotic nonce words to re-decorate the endeavor of literature I’ll never know.) After first reading her latest book of stories, Bark, I toyed with the idea of writing an essay about Moore called “The Lost Memoirs of Lorrie Moore,” because though she had been through various “life material” (to use a crude phrase) that seemed ideal for memoir (a pediatric cancer fight, a subsequent divorce, a long-in-the-making but ultimately great novel), she chose to keep writing fiction, albeit fiction that dealt with some of the biographical ingredients that were easily visible from her author interviews and other bits of promotional flotsam. That is, she kept at the old Updike strategy of re-translating her lived experience into fiction.

Obviously, I haven’t worked all of this thought-soup out yet, but the point I’m moonwalking toward is that through this commitment to fiction, and the short story in particular, Moore’s work provides a rebuttal to many of Updike’s stories, not in a point/counterpoint way, but in a way that let’s the Mary Updike–like figures have their say against the blind, reckless, and remorseless force of the male ego-libido.

Postscript: I can’t bring all of this up without linking to this fascinating review she wrote for the New York Review of Books a few years ago.

My review of ‘The Sellout’

Just a quick note to say that my review of Paul Beatty’s newest novel The Sellout is up over at Open Letters Monthly. Did I like it?

Let’s just say it gets a whole garden full of those little blue-cuffed Facebook thumbs . . .

I’ve got a pet theory (thankfully deleted from the review) about stand-up comedians . . .

Update
Here’s my theory: the most ambitious stand-up comedians evolve into novelists.

Or they seem to want to turn into a type of novelist, by which I mean they begin to get less funny — intentionally — as a way to knit together their comedic observations into some kind of larger aesthetic/point. The only examples I have are male: Pryor, George Carlin, Louis CK. This also seems particularly a late-period comedian development; it’s something that they mature toward.

Carlin might be the most perfect example of this pet theory: in his late shows he seems less a comedian than a civilization’s grumpy uncle, the neighborhood crank, dressed all in back, pinning us to our seats for 90 minutes with his dystopic theories. The results were not consistently funny, nor were they consistently enjoyable, and both of those reactions seemed to be intentional.

J.C. Hallman on Nicholson Baker

I’ve got a review of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal in the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation. The book is an exploration of Hallman’s infatuation with Nicholson Baker and is similar but meaningfully different from Baker’s own book, U & I, which chronicled his infatuation with John Updike.

Hallman describes what he’s up to better than I can:

What needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there are writers out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.

The resulting book is totally, enjoyably, maddeningly nuts and I couldn’t put it down. Before you read the review, just go ahead and buy it. Here is a link.

The book is way more fun than whatever exercise in cultural sensitivity is currently being given the critical thumb job. For instance, while I’m just being recklessly opinionated here, instead of buying Ishiguro’s latest bland beast, save those hard-earned bucks and get this book instead.

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In related matters, my one small teensy beef with the Hallman book is what I’ve come to call the Bluets Problem. That is, an illusory commitment to full disclosure on the part of the nonfiction author, which then gets elided at some point of ultimate narrative convenience. Certain details one has come to expect are withheld from the reader. It’s the false promise of total honesty, which on the one hand totally makes sense. No author can or should tell you everything. But this completely reasonable sentiment is trapped within the autobiographical confessional mode, which subsists on the promissory premise of “I’m going to tell you everything.” What happens is that by the end of these books I feel chagrined that I’m not told more about these characters’ lives, and then I feel guilty for wanting to know everything, and then I feel like I’ve been manipulated into being a voyeur.

This also goes into my personal file of what fiction can get away with vs. what nonfiction can get away with, and actually a useful insight into this comes from none other than Jonathan Franzen.

Quick aside: I know, I know. “Jonathan Franzen, blah blah blah.” I’ve given up on the mission of having an opinion on everything Franzen does or says and whether or not he is Good or Bad for literature. Seemingly, a whole generation has substituted having a ragey opinion about Franzen in place of being well read. Love him, hate him, I do not care. (But props where props are due: the first section of Freedom is a magnificent panoramic Steadicam of novelistic goodness, even if you don’t dig that kind of thing.) (Update: See below.)

Susan Lerner: Given that you’ve written novels as well as personal essays, do you find these two forms suited to different types of exploration?

Jonathan Franzen: I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive. And it’s true that in journalism and reported essay I am exploring something. I go to China because I want to know what the environmental situation is like in China. But for internal investigation there’s nothing like fiction, because you have so much more freedom to go to places that would be too personally compromising either for yourself or for other people. You’re essentially putting on a mask, various masks, in the form of these characters. The demands of a novel are so much greater in terms of narrative propulsion, that you are really forced to poke around deep inside yourself to find strong enough emotional drivers to get you through five hundred pages of the book.

The emphasis is mine (obv).

Now, lord knows I’ve had my own critical beef with some of Franzen’s nonfiction (short version: much of the time it reads like a failure of narrative persona), but this idea of fiction as an arena that allows you to mercilessly explore what would be too compromising to explore in nonfiction — isn’t this just the essence of my Bluets Problem? Because aren’t the rocks that these nonfiction books run up against actually the shores of fiction? Isn’t the solution to the convenient narrative blurring that happens at key points in these types of books — sort of like narrative blind spots — for their authors either to throw caution to the wind and fully exploit their friends and family, or to fully fictionalize their experiences and thereby discard the booster rockets of the factually verifiable and either make up or mine and shape experience as needed? Where “need” is defined here by the necessary steps that a book has willed itself into taking? Isn’t this similar to what Lorrie Moore said in her essay a while back in the New York Review of Books, where she reviewed three memoirs and did a sort of punchy eloquent shrug at the contemporary memoir as a phenomenon and said that the books under review acted like they wanted to be novels but didn’t give themselves over to the full reckless imagination of becoming novels? In other words, these works of nonfiction come across as somewhat post-novelistic but their apparent limitations paradoxically point back to the benefits of fiction. There’s gold still in them thar hills.

Of course all of this is in my wheelhouse of self-justification because I’m constantly looking for some kind of genre legitimacy for my own work. But my main point is that authenticity, full disclosure in prose, is always a pose. And a pose is the beginning of a mask.

Update: Today, March 19, 2015, FSG released the book cover for Franzen’s next novel Purity, which won’t come out until September 1, and people are losing their everloving minds.

Come on, people. We’ve got bigger Franzens to fry than this.

Review of ‘Loitering’

I’ve got a review of the new Charles D’Ambrosio essay collection Loitering in today’s new issue of the Quarterly Conversation. It’s been a while since I’ve had a review in QC and it feels great to be back.

Are we living through some kind of surprise golden age of the personal essay, or at least the book-length collection of personal essays? Beats me, but after reading books like D’Ambrosio’s, it sure feels like it.

Favorite 2012 Books, 1/4 Year Late

Well, it’s Spring, at least in terms of the calendar, if not the temperature. That means it’s time for my small list of favorite books from last year.

Colm Tóibín, The Master
This novel shouldn’t work, but it does: Henry James, fresh from his opening-night Guy Domville catastrophe, slowly retreats into novel writing and moves to a new house away from London — Lamb House. That’s it. The story has almost no suspense and only the gentlest of plot-pressure, and yet I was pegged. James comes across as put upon, perversely prim, persecuted by desire, and, when provoked, ruthless. It’s a somber book with a happy ending.
 
Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme & Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
What was life like before Geoff Dyer? I don’t want to remember. I thought these two books showed Dyer at his extremes. Otherwise … is the huge compendium of book reviews, travel pieces, art reviews, etc., that he’s accumulated thus far, and it both shows how far his eye travels but also how focused his attention actually is. The fact that the book is sometimes repetitive turns out to be more interesting than not. Even hitchhikers have routines. And The Missing of the Somme is an excellent condensed punch to your reading weekend — an analysis of memorials of the Great War and what memorials actually mean.
 
Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First
Food is, weirdly, now a fashionable topic, and this book is Gopnik’s latest collection of essays culled from the New Yorker. All relating to food, they’re organized around “letters” to the 19th-century food writer Elizabeth Pennell. I myself enjoy how Gopnik braids his individual New Yorker essays into loose, book-length arguments; it both preserves the exploratory nature of the original essays while giving the books themselves argumentative thrust. Two things make this particular book worth your time: Gopnik is professionally curious and he’s relentlessly eloquent. One of the pleasures of reading him is to see what he’ll make of something.
 
Paul Maliszewski, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders
In contrast to the stuntlike effect of The Lifespan of a Fact and John D’Agata’s other fact-bending shenanigans, this book actually investigates the how and why of artists who fake it, everything from recent false memoirs to intentionally fabricated journalism to the author’s own stint as a con-artist-in-prose. It moves beyond the shock-and-hand-wringing phase of frauds uncovered and points the finger back at the readers who believed originally in the fakes and what that might mean.
 
Cynthia Ozick, Fame & Folly
This collection of essays actually came out in 1997, but I picked up a copy this fall and reread it. To me, Ozick is to the literary essay as James Brown is to funk. Sometimes I thumb through her five collections just to feel better about human existence. Such talent relentlessly applied is inspiring, overwhelming, a model and a curse. If there’s any American writer alive who should be in a vest on a billboard in Times Square, it’s Cynthia Ozick.

And for special mention:
Tom Bissell, Magic Hours
It’s a grab bag of his nonfiction but it’s good.