Every Love Story is a Ghost Story has in common with so many literary works a noticeable feature: It is not by David Foster Wallace. D. T. Max has written an utterly professional biography, exhaustively researched, and yet he does not quote DFW downplaying the usefulness of a life of Borges. “A biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable. In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer’s personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work.” It might be that Max both refuses and draws on the clichéd explanatory power of Wallace’s despair and intelligence, madness and genius. Those connections are perhaps gracefully under-explicit, but there they are.

What’s the difference between New York City and Paris? “New York is fried, Paris is baked,” Baldwin tells us. When he leaves Brooklyn for a two-year stint in Paris, he hopes for more of a contrast than that. What he finds is that the world is smaller than even Disney could have imagined. “The Great French Dream didn’t sound much different than the Great American Dream, only with More Vacation Days.” Even the costumes are the same. “Hey, is it me,” he asks, “or did Parisians ditch berets for Yankees caps?” All the Parisian men he knows dress like him, in jeans. Shockingly, two-thirds of his ad agency colleagues lunch on McDonald’s (albeit in courses, with chicken nuggets serving as the entrée). Even the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an American-style leader, all flash and bling.

The difficulty with a great number of books that attempt to catalog or illuminate a given industry or segment of our society is that they often end up opening more threads than they close, so we read to learn or uncover and yet end up with a bigger reading list of equally interesting secondary sources. But Dave Madden’s The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy avoids this pitfall by selecting the subject of taxidermy, a practice with enough of a lifespan to tell an engaging story and yet such a tight cultural focus that it can be sutured completely (and entertainingly) in a single, well-written book.

Close-Quartersjpg-218x300When I read Amy Monticello’s first nonfiction essay chapbook Close Quarters, I knew I wanted to review it for The Nervous Breakdown. But the project included a few complicating details: First, I know Amy personally. Rather than simply reviewing the book, I thought it made sense to be upfront about our personal relationship, and incorporate conversation with Amy into my review. Second: Amy is also a TNB author, so in the  tradition of the TNB self-interview, we decided to do something a little different: a reverse interview.

Below are the author’s questions about her own book, and one reader’s answers.

The Rules of Inheritance begins with a mother dying. It is 1996 and Claire Bidwell Smith is eighteen years old. By this time, both of her parents have been diagnosed with cancer, and though her father’s was discovered first, her mother’s was farther along once finally found, too late, for some terrible reason, for many terrible reasons, none of which Claire will know for years, and some never. She receives the call in an unfamiliar bed under the same roof as a boy with whom she yearns to be familiar, but will never be, and not for lack of trying. This moment, many before it, and even many after it, solidify the circumstances that control Claire’s life for years. She is young and wild, uninhibited, restricted, hurt, abandoned. Death, the inevitable loss and end (or physical end) of all things, fills every crack in Claire’s being, the cracks that form following the deaths of both of her parents before she is old enough to fully realize the severity of these events and the consequences that will follow, many of which are self-inflicted.

What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

Journalist, documentary filmmaker and chief editor of Le Temps modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann is perhaps best known for the nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, a milestone not only in documentary cinema but in Holocaust studies. And now we have his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, translated by Frank Wynne and handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

You saw them everywhere—Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver—on the street, in the shops, in the park. This was definitely not your typical rock group; no one in it could be mistaken for, say, Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, and none of their songs resembled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Surfin’ Safari.” Instead they played “Group Grope,” “Dirty Old Man,” “Kill for Peace” and “Slum Goddess.” It was fun, rough, streetwise stuff, the lyrics of which prevented it from being played on most radio stations. (I was once docked for a week from my radio show at a Midwestern college for having wandered off from the studio while one of their songs spun its raunchy way into the ear of the portly science professor in charge of the station—the only person listening at the time). There was nothing pretty about these guys: they looked like most of the people you’d see in the East Village that summer of 1969—a bit wasted and borderline demented.

Astrophysicists work to uncover a Theory of Everything, the mathematical equation of all life in the universe. Religious zealots describe heaven and hell in florid detail. Tarot cards, constellations, the all-mighty Google. In our search for certainty, whether through belief, proof, or a near-perfect search engine, what is the value of choosing not to know?

I bought Blue Nights in a train station. I said goodbye to a friend and got on the subway and got off and went home. Joan Didion had a signing in Boston the following week and the event sold out before I could buy my ticket. I found this ironic. I started reading.

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark KriegelHe was the sad-eyed wizard of the hardwood, wearing floppy socks and scraggly hair upon his head, the prodigy child of his father, Press Maravich. To a generation he was known as Pistol Pete, a soulful magician with a leathery, orange globe ricocheting from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history—a legend.

Born in the Ukraine but uprooted to the Boston suburbs after the KGB blacklisted her physicist father, Alina Simone is responsible for several great indie rock albums. Her 2008 all-Russian-language tribute to the too-short career of Siberian punk-folk singer Yanka Dyagileva, Everyone is Crying out to Me, Beware, was called “lovely and mournful” by Billboard, “mesmerizing” by Spin. Released simultaneously with her third full-length album (Make Your Own Danger), Simone’s You Must Go and Win is an essay collection that chronicles the author’s struggles with family, with her homeland, and with the elusive dream of success in the music world.

“Writing about architecture is like dancing to music.”

-Nobody

 

Last summer I gushed over the unbridled majesty of a well-written music biography. The purpose of the essay was to highlight the elements of a compelling rock biography and to point out some of the better examples in the last twenty years. I confess that I also enjoyed writing about the mud shark incident.

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Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
—William Faulkner

I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:

I first saw a copy of Fishboy through the window of a Virginia bookstore. This was 1997 or so. I was walking through Richmond with Vincent, about my only friend in the state at this time, on a short break from college. He’d read the book; the cover stopped him in his tracks. He swore I’d love it. I went inside and bought a copy.