I feel obligated to share this helpful guide. Don't watch late at night or you might not like your dreams.
I feel obligated to share this helpful guide. Don't watch late at night or you might not like your dreams.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is still my go-to recommendation for someone who asks what they should read, no matter what sort of book they usually like--I just recommended it the other day, in fact. I really can't imagine someone not appreciating it. It has everything: science, history, race and class, ethical dilemmas, a compelling family history, and a dramatic story of writing the book itself, all folded into one. And when people talk to Rebecca Skloot about the book (as I did, way back before it came out), the talk tends to turn to those big thematic issues, for good reason.
But what is often lost in marveling at the rich story she tells and considering the questions it raises is what a technical tour de force she pulled off. Not in a flashy way: she's not trying to wow you with style, and her boldest move, including herself in the story, seems made out of necessity not vanity.* Rather, it's the sort of technique that succeeds by hiding itself. I remember getting to the end of the book the first time through and looking with bewilderment at the page number: she did all that in 384 pages? To weave all her threads and do them justice (but not overdo them) the way she did is a mark of real skill, all the more impressive in a first book that took so many twists and turns in its development as Skloot was learning journalism on the fly.
So I loved seeing today an interview she did with The Open Notebook that focuses entirely on two questions of form: how she structured the book, and how she decided to include herself in its story. Skloot has been talking nonstop about the book since it came out--and if you've talked to her you know she can talk nonstop--so it's remarkable to see a new interview with her that still feels fresh. You can tell these are questions she's glad to be asked.
The whole piece is worth your time, but here are a couple of my favorite quotes. First, about structure, and one of the places she found a model:
So I started watching a lot of movies structured like that and eventually found my way to “Hurricane,” about Hurricane Carter, the boxer. As I was watching it, I just freaked out because after the first few scenes I realized, Oh my God, this is the structure of my book. Three narratives braided together, a journey, etc. So I storyboarded that whole movie frame-by-frame on color-coded index cards (one color per narrative thread). I’d already mapped my own book out using the same three-colored index card scheme, and I’d mapped out a structure, but it wasn’t working. After I mapped out “Hurricane” I spread the cards out on a bed and put my book’s index cards on top of them, lining up the colors, to see how the film was braiding differently than I was. I immediately realized the problem with my structure was that it didn’t move around in time fast enough. That was the big lesson I learned from movies: that to make this kind of structure work, it has to move quickly. You can’t linger too long in any one time period or you lose the momentum of the other two.
(Those are the index cards in her photo above, which I plundered from TON.) And about including herself, she got some excellent advice which I think applies to many writing (and other creative) situations: follow the resistance.
Pretty early on, when I was struggling with this, I knew this wonderful fiction writer named Albert French who lived right around the corner from me in Pittsburgh. I would talk to him about the story as I was figuring it out. And he kept saying to me over and over again, about the Lacks family, pounding it into my head: “Their resistance to you is part of the story.”
At that point I didn’t know why they were resistant to me. He just kept repeating that. I realized I had to figure out why they were so resistant to me and that doing so would lead me to the real story. Which it did.
*--I don't mean to say that style is merely a function of vanity. Or, rather, I don't mean to say that style is merely a negative function of vanity. I'm generally pro-plumage.
I just saw this evening that Lynn Margulis, the maverick evolutionary biologist, died this week. The Times obit mentions her most significant work--her thesis, once radical and now accepted, that the cells of organisms evolved out of the symbiosis of bacteria and other microorganisms--as well as her National Medal of Science from President Clinton and her marriage to Carl Sagan. But I wanted to note another side to her career, which was not mentioned in the obituary but was the reason she belatedly came to my attention: her fiction.
Four years ago she published a collection of short stories about science called Luminous Fish, and I ended up writing a short review for a science periodical of her book along with Jim Lynch's novel, The Highest Tide, as two versions of small-sf "science fiction" (in other words, fiction about how science is actually done, not speculative fiction). I don't think I had much hope for her stories at first, written by a scientist and with the cheesy subtitle, "Tales of Science and Love." But they were quite good, or at least one story, as I remember it, was very good (I don't seem to have my copy of the book around anymore).
The review, I'm pretty sure, was never published (the editor didn't like my long sentences; he wasn't the first), so I'll just paste in the whole thing here. But to summarize myself (maybe my sentences were too long!), while I liked Lynch's book, it told a pretty typical fictional tale of science, of a romantic solo investigator making observations in nature. Margulis's story, though, was something I have rarely seen, a personal story of Big Science, of a life given up to the bureaucracy and vast project management that many of our major discoveries now require. I hope that story at least, called "Gases (Raoul)," will be remembered as well as her groundbreaking work as a Big Scientist.
Here's that review:
How do you write fiction about science--not the speculations of science fiction, but the empiricism of science as actually practiced? It seems like there has always been more fiction written about salesmen, socialites, or spies than scientists, although I do have some favorites: Primo Levi's chemist's tales in The Periodic Table, Richard Powers's poignant novel of artifice and intelligence, Galatea 2.2, and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, a sci fi classic where institutional science meets the fantastic.
Two recent fiction debuts have the practice of science at their hearts, but very different kinds. Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide, recently out in paperback and already a Northwest word-of-mouth favorite, is a tale of small science, of the lone, self-trained naturalist whose patient observations, made for no purpose but curiosity, see larger patterns before the professionals do. Miles O'Malley, a thirteen-year-old who looks like he's nine, comes of age one summer on the tidal flats of south Puget Sound, where his notice of a series of anomalous natural events--a beached giant squid, a new kind of crab--makes everyone else take notice of him, and the changing Sound, for the first time.
The Highest Tide is charming and well-made, local and romantic, accessible like the wader's nature of the tide pool. By comparison, Lynn Margulis's mostly fictional collection, Luminous Fish, appears like an odd, old creature from the deep. Margulis is a prominent scientist--her title is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences and her honors and citations are many--and the scientists in her stories are worldly and weary representatives of Big Science, spending more time now on committees and in airports than at the lab bench or in the field. While she follows the lapsed and neglected affections left behind by her work-driven characters, the most moving moment of her book, in the long, central story, "Gases (Raoul)," comes not when the title character's young lover leaves him but just after, when he imagines the careful, unpleasant, and thankless tasks ahead if he accepts the leadership of his research institute. Her book, by turns awkward and stylish, is an animal rarer and more strange than Lynch's, and to me more interesting because of it.
I'm still somewhere down the rabbit hole reading books about Michigan, trying to find my way back up to the surface but getting detoured into further digging at every turn. The other day, in the library to get a book on the history of Longfellow's Hiawatha, I remembered to check on another promising title I'd come across: John McDonald's A Ghost's Memoir: The Making of Alfred P. Sloan's My Years with General Motors. McDonald was the Fortune reporter who cowrote Sloan's memoir of his many decades at the helm of GM. Sloan's account is certainly a classic Michigan book, but not the sort I'd curl up with at the end of an evening. McDonald's, however... As you might tell from my affection for DVD commentary tracks, I love a good "Making of..." story, and I'd heard this one, about McDonald's legal battle to keep GM from suppressing its former CEO's book,* was a good one. Would McDonald's short little recollection be to Sloan's as Hearts of Darkness is to Apocalypse Now or Burden of Dreams to Fitzcarraldo: a behind-the-scenes story that's (to my mind) even better than the original?
The answer turned out to be no, unfortunately, but that doesn't mean the book was without interest. For the most part, it's a dry account of corporate law, with lengthy quotes from lawyers' letters and notes on strategy, and with machinations so subtle I could hardly follow them. Sloan, at this point an elderly man of fading powers, is hardly a charismatic character on the scale of Coppola or Herzog, despite his fierce personal loyalties and occasional flashes of steel. And it almost goes without saying that there are no Brandos or Kinskis to be found anywhere in the vicinity. The one fascinatingly malign figure, Maurice "Tex" Moore, the corporate counsel to both GM and Time, Inc. (McDonald's employer) as well as the personal lawyer to both Sloan and Time's Henry Luce, is an implacable foe of McDonald, revelling diabolically in his conflicts of interest, but alas he remains at a distance throughout the story.
What is interesting is the offhand portrait of a narrow culture, the clubby, Mad Men-era world of corporate management, corporate law, and corporate journalism that McDonald is as much a part of as any of the other figures. They know each other socially as well as through business, and the social ties and graces seem as important to the drama's resolution as the legal and business concerns. And McDonald negotiates this world with consummate skill, playing the other players against each other and ultimately succeeding in his David vs. Goliath quest to get the book out and get paid what he deserved. But there's actually little said about McDonald himself--only from the introduction did I learn that he was friends at one time with Leon Trotsky as well as Sloan, and also with Robert Penn Warren, John von Neumann, and any number of colorful denizens of the race-track world, of which he was himself one.
From time to time, McDonald does leave aside his legal discussions to sketch a character in a way I'm sure came in handy in his numerous Fortune profiles, and one is memorable enough to leave you with here:
Mr. Sloan tended to be loyal to persons around him. His long-time secretary, Miss Kucher, had been with him from the nineteenth century and remained with him at General Motors for her lifetime. She typed with two fingers and spelled according to her likes and was that kind of person. She referred to him as "that man."
Oh, Miss Kucher! You deserve your own book.
* GM, though they were never explicit about it (or really about anything), clearly tried to suppress the book out of fears its thorough and relatively open history of the company would somehow give the federal government fodder in its antitrust claims against the company, which at that time held over half of the U.S. car market. Weirdly, the 1990 introduction to the copy I have of Sloan's book, by the management-theory legend Peter Drucker, makes no mention of antitrust concerns and claims that the book was delayed because of Sloan's senses of loyalty and decorum, which kept him from publishing the book while any of the GM executives featured in it were still alive. But many of those execs were still alive when the book finally came out, and Dan Seligman's introduction to McDonald's memoir lists a handful of similarly bizarre errors in Drucker's piece (including his assertion that the death of Sloan's younger brother Raymond was "the greatest tragedy" in Sloan's life, although Raymond actually outlived his brother by 17 years), and makes clear that its misinformation was one of the reasons McDonald wanted to set the record straight in his own book, which, in a nice bit of historical rhyming, he wrote in a burst of passionate documentary energy in his final years, just as Sloan had done with his memoir four decades before.
I do like Errol Morris, and from his new mini-doc on the Times site, "The Umbrella Man," I get the rare feeling, as I got on a much larger scale from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life earlier this year, that some basic element of my philosophy of life is being expressed.
What I connect with here is that sense that weirdness cannot be reduced to conspiracy. And by that I don't mean to say that there aren't malign, organized forces at work in our lives, but that the entropic--or, better yet, idiosyncratic--forces of weirdness, of individual desire or passion or laziness, are often even stronger.
But what is, to me, especially beautiful about the moment of the man with the umbrella and his reasons for carrying a black umbrella on a sunny day at a place and time that would become one of the nexuses of history is something the film doesn't remark on. It's not merely that his behavior, and his reason for it, are weird. The umbrella isn't just a random human expression, a freak flag flown for the sake of freakiness. It's an expression of history that connects this cathected nexus with another one almost equally resonant, a reference, fiercely and silently made--and so cryptically and hermetically performed that only the massive industry of post-assassination investigation could unearth its explanation--to Chamberlain's appeasing umbrella in 1939. It's a presence so subtle, but still so evocative of the Cold War pressures swirling around the late president, that it feels straight out of a book by Sebald or DeLillo.
And that's the real beauty of it for me: the individual weirdness and indecipherability of such an expression and, at the same time, the presence of communal history within it.
And here's the list of authors in order, for the photo quiz I just posted, along with the books the photos were taken from:
If you want to guess the authors in the previous post with the help of a list of the names to choose from, or if you want a hint after trying to guess them cold, you'll find them in scrambled order below, after the jump:
Of course in skimming through my house full of shelves last week for the most recent Firmament, I came up with more than ten favorite author photos, and so here I'd like to present 19 more whose scans I didn't want just to end up sitting neglected on my hard drive. And rather than chatter semi-endlessly about them, I'm presenting them without explanation, for the pleasure of their images alone, and their juxtaposition. And why not make a quiz out of it, for the three or four people who stop by here?
Here's how I'll do it: I'll post the composite photo here, and then do two more follow-up posts, so the answers aren't spoiled for those who want to play, and so those who do want to play can have two ways to do so. The first follow-up post will give the 19 names, but out of order, for those who'd like a head start in identifying the authors. And the second post will list the authors in correct order as an answer key. (I'll also list the books the photos are from, but you only have to get the author to be correct, at least according to my rules.) If you want to try to guess the authors cold, then jump straight to the answer key after you guess, but if you want some hints, stop by the middle post and try to unscramble the names.
Please post how you did. I'm guessing some of these will be easy, some middling, and some virtually impossible unless you have exactly the same book collection I do. But here they are, in their motley glory:
I love a good DVD commentary track almost as much as a good movie, and I had heard the tracks for The Social Network were particularly excellent, so I rewatched it recently with both tracks, David Fincher's as well as Aaron Sorkin's with a few members of the cast (Jesse Eisenberg*, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer, the guy who played the Winklevi). It wasn't a game-changer, as far as commentary goes (my favorite is still Raging Bull, which has something like four or five superb commentaries, especially from Michael Chapman, the cinematographer, that I watched back to back to back over a few days and that made me love the movie even more--yum!), but pretty interesting stuff. My few notes of interest:
David Fincher, at least from the evidence of hearing him talk about his work and his colleagues for a couple of hours, seems like a total sweetheart and a wonderful person to work for. Can this possibly be so? I just assume you have to have a huge jerk quotient to direct hundred-million-dollar movies--especially if, like Fincher, you ask for 30 or 50 takes for each shot. And this may still be true, but he certainly presents well.
Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure that over four hours or so of commentary, the name "Ben Mezrich" was never spoken. Does that name ring a bell? He was the author of The Accidental Billionaires, the book the movie was based on, but throughout the commentary, all the elements of the story and characterization were credited to Sorkin, the screenwriter. Which is certainly not new in the movies--the books movies are "based on" are often left in the dust, along with their authors. But in this case I remembering being struck, when I first saw the movie having already read the book, at how closely the movie hewed to the book, both to its weaknesses and its strengths. I knew, from interviewing Mezrich when the book came out, that the fact-to-book-to-movie adaptation had an abnormally compressed development (which nearly matched the speed at which Facebook has taken over our lives): Sorkin was working on the script at the same time Mezrich was completing the book. Does that mean that Sorkin did have a strong role in developing the story in the book as well? Could be, but my sense from Mezrich was otherwise, especially since the book so closely fits the narrative pattern of his other books.
Mezrich's book is not a great one--it's not written with much subtlety and it felt like he was cramming this big, complicated corporate drama into what has become the Mezrich formula: Ivy League nerds make a lot of money so they can finally get laid. I was frustrated with that in the book, and then very surprised at how closely to that formula the movie stayed (and I was also surprised at how good the movie was, despite that). But really, you're still going to try to tell me Facebook was just built out of sexual frustration?
But the thing that impressed me about the original book was that Mezrich, despite having a clear point-of-view because Eduardo Saverin, the disgruntled co-founder, was his main source, still managed to let you see the justice (and flaws) of each of the main characters' positions: Eduardo and the Winklevosses each were there at the beginning and had legitimate claims to the business, but none of them would have taken it to where Mark Zuckerberg did. And that moral balance is one of the great achievements of the movie as well, which brings me to my last note about the commentary track: I loved the way each actor still saw the story from the perspective of the person they were playing. Eisenberg was a passionate advocate for Zuckerberg, Garfield for Saverin, Timberlake for Sean Parker, Hammer for the twins, even though each of them, except perhaps Saverin, comes off unsympathetically at various moments in the story. And it comes out subtly enough (perhaps because most of the actors' commentaries were recorded separately) that only as the commentary goes on do you realize the investment each actor had--and still has--both in his character and in the real person in the actual drama.
I'll credit Fincher for shepherding his actors well, to encourage that investment. And perhaps the unmentioned Mezrich too, for giving each character his reasons. But it's funny to me that in this story of a forgotten founder being written out of the corporate history, the writer who first told the story seems to have largely been forgotten as well.
* Whose performance just gets better each time I watch the movie, by the way.
The author photo is a maligned and poorly used art form. Considered a false distraction from the purity of the words within (especially when the author is a hottie) or consigned to a tiny thumbnail afterthought on an inner book flap (if it appears at all), it's often thought a piece of vain and trashy commerce, best left to be exploited by 25-year-old flavors of the month and aging, airbrushed blockbuster franchises.
But treating the author photo as a bit of pro forma fluff ignores the theatrical possibilities--and even requirements--of authorship. Think of how hard it is to separate our 20th-century literary greats (even more so than the commercial hacks--who remembers what Arthur Hailey looked like?) from their iconic images: Baldwin's giant, weary eyes, Beckett's hawklike brow and crest, Djuna Barnes's boyishly dolled-up profile. They (or their promoters) hardly neglected the importance of constructing such a public image, and their art hasn't suffered from its propagation.
Most author photos, though, seem infected by reluctance and (false) modesty, so here I'd like to celebrate some author images that are as memorable as the books they help present--or that, better yet, help make those books more memorable. I stuck as best I could to true author photos, from book flaps or back covers, and ignored photos that were used as front covers, an entirely different genre of art. It's an idiosyncratic selection, limited by my own taste like all Firmaments, but also by my book collection (most of which are paperbacks with no author photo, further limiting the field). I spent an hour or two skimming through every shelf in my house to cull my nominees, but it turned out the ones that made this list were already memorable enough for me that, except for a few I was pleased to be reminded of, they were the ones in my head before I started my more systematic search.
I've led with John Hodgman's photo above not as one of the official top ten--his new book, That Is All, has only been in my house a few days, not long enough to become a "favorite"--but more as a patron saint of the author photo, since That Is All includes not one but three exquisite portraits of Mr. Hodgman in character as The Deranged Millionaire, including the one above, hidden on the inside of the book jacket despite being the best of the three.
Here are my favorites:
1. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, from The Smartest Guys in the Room. My favorite photo on the list is also the smallest, just a little two-shot above the author bio on the back flap of their book, the definitive account of the Enron collapse by journalists who helped make it happen. (McLean, reporting in Fortune, was one of the first to publicly question its finances.) Even in these few pixels you get a sense of their partnership, with McLean elbowing her way into a majority of the photo and Elkind not appearing to mind at all. And the look on McLean's face says what every investigative reporter dreams of saying: "Yup, I gotcha." And she did.
2. Amy Sedaris, from I Like You. Probably the greatest back cover in modern publishing (except maybe the late Tim Hetherington's incredible photo on the back of War). I've sung its praises before, but I am still unable to look at this picture, from one artist to another of course--right back atcha, Amy--without collapsing in the laughter of love and admiration for her sheer commitment to character. If Cindy Sherman's on the walls of MoMA, Amy Sedaris should be right next to her.
3. Ian Frazier, from Dating Your Mom. Right behind Sedaris in the ranks of deadpan greatness is "Sandy" Frazier. His author photos have become more earnest over the years, but time cannot eclipse this early brilliance, from his first collection of New Yorker casuals (which I just discovered Frazier modeled after his friend George Trow's snapshot poses [for more on Trow see below]). Side note: his almost goofily solemn back-flap photo for Great Plains (see right) is particularly special to my sister, an even bigger Frazier fan than I, if that's possible. After summer spent in Tucumcari, New Mexico, many years ago, perhaps the most exciting news she had to report was that she had seen the photo studio where the Great Plains author shot was taken!