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Desiderata: Our Favorite Nonfiction of 2013
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing is a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” and in her memoir, just over 100 pages, Levy combines sharp wit and a dark sense of humor along with questions about literary influence, childhood and wanderlust. Lyrical, probing, full of thoughts on longing and belonging, the quote on the book’s front cover brings into focus (and with capital letters as noted here) the compelling story in Things I Don’t Want To Know: “To become a WRITER, I had to learn to INTERRUPT, to speak up, a little louder, and then LOUDER, and then to just speak in my own voice which is NOT LOUD AT ALL.” Published by the London independent publisher Notting Hill Editions whose “commitment [is] . . . reinvigorating the essay as a literary form,” the book itself is beautiful, with a marine blue cloth-bound hardback cover and thick cream-colored pages. Things I Don’t Want To Know is definitely a memoir to know all about.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor. From the author of The History of the World in 100 Objects comes this fast paced look at Shakespeare through the people and things that made up his time on earth.
Nanci McCloskey (Publicity Director, Tin House Books): Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I have to say right off the bat, books like this one are like candy for me. I love biography and I love insider publishing gossip, and Boris Kachka combines both in Hothouse. I feel like I’m intimates with Roger Staruss and Robert Giroux, both iconic figures, and I couldn’t help to wonder if people like them still exist in publishing.
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, by Scott McClanahan. Oh man, how am I just finding out about Scott McClanahan? This book is amazing, and wild, and funny in that special way that only gallows humor can reach. It’s a thrillingly unsentimental book, and the myth building warps and works in strange ways. Mostly because McClanahan’s not cutting anybody any slack, least of all himself. In a bravura move SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER he reveals in the Appendix where he lied, combined figures in his life, fabricated events for the sake of the story. He pulls the rug out on you, because even as he’s building the myth he can’t let it stand. But likewise, he’s not about to bore you; McClanahan understands the power and the joy of a good story. It’s the best example of the best kind of memoir, and everybody needs to read it right now.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Sister Mother Husband Dog, Etc., Delia Ephron. One of my favorite books as a kid was Do I Have to Say Hello?, a super-sarcastic manners guide that spoke to my black little elementary school heart. This fall I was trying to track down a copy for my nieces. Imagine my surprise to discover it was written by Delia Ephron, a name lost on 7-year-old me (oh, provincial youth!). It felt serendipitous, then, when I spotted Ephron’s essay collection Sister Mother Husband Dog on my next trip to the bookstore. The wide margins and slight page count of Sister Husband Mother Dog give the impression that Ephron’s publisher was looking for a way to get the collection’s (wonderful) lead essay on Nora Ephron’s death out into the world in a book. But no matter. All of Sister Mother Husband Dog has made me happy in a way no other book has this year; it was the nicest possible treat to find that quippy, perceptive and self-deprecaticing, most-loved voice of my childhood waiting here for me as a still-ill-mannered adult.
Rob Spillman (Editor Tin House Magazine): Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander. A synthesis of Hofstadter’s longtime work on how the brain builds out patterns of associations, aided by his French colleague Sander. The wordplay and gaps between languages make for a highly entertaining read.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Jess Walter’s Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family, originally titled Every Knee Shall Bow. I am often fascinated by writing about crime, but good God, the actual writing can be so terrible sometimes. So I was thrilled when I saw that among the list of past works for the wonderful writer Jess Walter was a book on the infamous 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff with Randy Weaver. That standoff, which resulted in the shooting of Weaver’s wife Vicki, among others, besmirched the FBI for good reason, but I was never fully clear on what led to it in the first place. Walter takes the reader not just into that final, thoroughly avoidable, standoff, but into the Weavers’ relationship years earlier, the relationship dynamics and the echo chamber of their ever-metastasizing beliefs, that led them to an isolated mountaintop in Idaho. The events may be 20 years old, but the radical fringe the Weavers inhabited has hardly gone away.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Between 1961 and 1972, 159 commercial flights were hijacked in the United States. “All but a fraction of those hijackings took place during the last five years of that frenetic era, often at a clip of one or more a week. There were, in fact, many days when two planes were hijacked simultaneously, strictly by coincidence.” The stories behind those staggering statistics make Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking an addictive and often head shaking, how-in the-hell have-I-never-heard-of-this read. Focusing on a young couple who pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in US history (armed with a fake bomb and copious amount of marijuana), the book includes vignettes about Black Panthers living in Algeria, Detroit hit-squads, a grumpy Fidel Castro (almost all the hijacked planes landed in Havana), an amazingly sympathetic French legal system, and the various ways the airline industry fought tooth and nail from implementing any sort of security measures that might have stopped their planes from getting stolen. Above all, this is story about Vietnam-era disillusionment and the way love can help temporarily mask the scars of trauma. Already cinematic on the page, I hope you read the book before the inevitable Hollywood adaptation arrives on screen.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. For me, Lawrence Wright’s investigation into the Church of Scientology is worth it for one scene alone: L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons attempting to summon the Antichrist by chanting and masturbating onto a piece of parchment (Crowley’s old “invocation of the wand,” wink wink). Of course, the book is far more than that: a phenomenal character study of man as strange as he was charismatic, an exegesis on one of the most successful religious cults in American history, and a clear-eyed look at power from the perspective of those that wield it and those seduced by it.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Going Clear, anybody? To attempt to talk about this book is to find oneself already in a web of qualifying clauses that end, at bottom, with dumb fascination, mute terror. (e.g. the little taste of onanism TP cites ^above^.)