There’s a lot of great work out there right now, people! Here are some of the stories and storytellers who’ve caught our attention lately — and why. Highlights: a Mexican cemetery for drug lords, a near-death experience in a bullring, a guy trying to sell swimming pools in a down-economy, and reporting the history of breasts. Enjoy.
Russell is a novelist and short-story writer whose work usually appears in The New Yorker. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was a Pulitzer finalist this year, and her preceding book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was heralded as a thrilling debut. In this month’s GQ, Russell has a stunning first piece of long-form nonfiction: “The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Spanish Matador,” about Juan Jose Padilla, the “Cyclone of Jerez,” a bullfighter who came back from a near-fatal goring. What’s especially noteworthy here is Russell’s talent for sentence building. No one can light up or wring out a sentence like Russell. One gets the sense that she plays with her lines endlessly until they perform just right. Tom French once said, “Writing narrative is like rendering a complex piece of music on the page. The writer hears it and then must reproduce it. For the reader to really hear it, too, each note – each component of your story – must be struck in a way that develops the reader’s experience of the text.” With Russell’s work, we hear the music. Her sentences teach us how to see – and how to think about how we see. Six great lines and passages:
Padilla is luminously scaled in fuchsia and gold, his “suit of lights.” He lifts his arms high above his head, like a viper preparing to strike. For fangs, he has two wooden sticks with harpoonlike barbs, two banderillas, old technologies for turning a bull’s confusion into rage.
Cameras clock the instant that a glistening orb pops loose onto the matador’s cheek.
Skin stretches away from his jawbone with the fragile elasticity of taffy.
Lidia Padilla is a sedately beautiful woman, dark-haired, with a doll’s porcelain face, and she’s been Juan Jose’s girl since antes antes, cradle-robbed when she was 14 and he was a high school senior, the handsome bread-delivery boy.
Diego Robles is 60-plus and leather-skinned, so super-marrón he seems to be getting tan from within, as if at any moment he might hiccup a tiny sun.
His working eye follows his daughter, who is babbling some song under the taxidermied heads of six Miura bulls that Padilla killed in a single afternoon in Bilbao.
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History is the narrative of a human body part. Williams, a science journalist and contributing editor at Outside, tells the tale of perhaps our most important yet misunderstood gland – a serious story, engagingly told. But don’t just take our word for it. Listen to New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer: “Here is a wonderful history, stretching across hundreds of millions of years, of an astonishingly complex part of the human body. Williams weaves together research on nutrition, cancer, psychology, and even structural engineering to create a fascinating portrait of the breast: that singular gland that gave us, as mammals, our very name.” You can hear Williams talk to Terry Gross about the book on Fresh Air. And you can read science journalist Michelle Nijhuis’s chat with Williams at The Open Notebook. An excerpt:
Nijhuis: I’m curious when and how you made the decision to put breasts – instead of the forces affecting them, such as endocrine disruptors and cancer – at the center of your book. When did you decide to make the book an environmental history of a body part?
Williams: As I was learning about how the environment changes the lactating process, I also started learning more about early puberty. And there’s a fair amount of breast cancer in my family – that’s always been (the) big elephant in the room in terms of my family’s health. I realized that at every life stage of the breast, there’s a vulnerable period during which the environment acts upon it. I thought it would be interesting to examine and explore all those different stages, from the earliest development of the mammary glands in utero, to puberty, then to pregnancy and lactation, and all the way through menopause. At the same time, I also became aware of how diet and modern lifestyle choices are changing breasts. Breasts are actually bigger than ever, which is a natural consequence of our being fatter than ever. But that has enormous implications for breast cancer, because we know that obesity after menopause is a risk factor for breast cancer. Then, of course, we’re having children so much later than our earliest ancestors, and we’re having fewer. So that also has dramatic implications for breast-cancer risk. So that breasts are living a different life than they ever have before, and I wanted to use them as a lens to focus on environmental change.
Saslow, a Washington Post staff writer, showed us the state of the American economy through the story of a middle-aged swimming pool salesman named Frank Firetti. We meet Frank on the hottest day of the year in Manassas, Va., as he’s headed out to sell luxury from his 2004 Toyota and thanking the heavens for the heat advisory, for the “98 degrees and rising at 11 a.m.” We see him move through a summer when he needs to move pools, and the questions hanging over the narrative and a seamless interweave of context and exposition are: Will he do it? Will Willy Loman Frank Firetti sell enough pools in this beat-up economy to stay solvent? To live up to his own idea of the so-called American dream? If he doesn’t make it, what will that mean? So few narratives take us inside socioeconomic issues in a story-driven way. This one does. We’ll revisit this piece soon in another post, but for now here’s a taste:
But the more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.
Boo’s chronicle of poverty in a Mumbai slum was named a National Book Award finalist on Wednesday. Emily Brennan spoke with her for Guernica about how she reported the book. A slice:
Guernica: Does reporting’s reliance on interviews too often determine who is featured? What is lost as a result, and how do you try to recover it in your own work?
Boo: You try everything when you’re doing this work. You figure out what works and what doesn’t. With questions, you ask them, and sometimes the person’s wondering, “What is the right answer? What does she want? What does she think? Let me give her what she’s looking for.” Listening and observing often work much better (and) reveal much more about the complexity of someone than the answers that they give to questions about themselves. That’s certainly true in my life and the life of my friends and family. Often the people who have the most verbal dexterity have had some amount of education in their lives, and you don’t want to limit your reporting to just those people. You take a kid like Sunil, the young scavenger, he’s been raising himself, so conducting long interviews and eliciting illustrative anecdotes was out of the question. When I started spending time with him, it became clear that Sunil had an extremely strong aesthetic sense that helped him through life. Moments of natural beauty were very important to him. For example, there were parrots on the other side of the sewage way, and some boys would climb up and capture the parrots and sell them at the market. Sunil felt so strongly that this was wrong. He thought the parrots should be left where they were so that everybody could hear and see them. Another time, he found six purple lotuses blooming on an airport wall and protected them, kept them a secret, so that no one could cut them down and sell them. These aspects of his character emerged over time from observation. I wasn’t going to get them through conversation. It’s one thing to have somebody talk about what they value in whatever language they have; it’s another thing to really see what they value. And with Sunil, after it became clear he had this sense, I could talk to him about it. I still asked questions, and a lot of them – endless questions if you ask some – but what works best for me is when I can observe something and then ask the person about that moment afterward.
In “The One Who Jumped,” Holland, a freelance writer based in the Yukon town of Whitehorse, tells the sad story of Julian Tologanak-Labrie, a young man who killed himself by jumping out of an airplane. The piece, published in Up Here magazine, where she is an associate editor, surely advances what is known about how suicidal patients are handled in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and what needs to be done to plug the systemic loopholes. Holland, usually a travel writer who specializes in Alaska and the Yukon, got inside Tologanak-Labrie’s near-final and final moments, including this one:
The officers told Julian to drop the knife. He didn’t move. Constable Warren Hudym drew his sidearm and asked him, again and then again, to drop the knife. Eventually Julian put the knife down, and, following Hudym’s directions, lay on the floor.
The officers ran through the ritual questions: “Are you going to hurt yourself?”
“I don’t know,” Julian said.
“Are you going to hurt someone else?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Why were you holding that knife?”
“It’s a long story,” he answered.
A documentary filmmaker in Mexico City with dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States, Almada last week won a MacArthur “genius” grant for films that capture “rich new perspectives on Mexican history, politics and culture in insightful and poetic films that push the boundaries of how the documentary form addresses social issues.” We’re particularly moved by El Velador, a nearly unspoken profile of an ever-expanding Mexican graveyard for drug lords – “a nonviolent film about violence,” as the New York Times’ Stephen Holden put it. “Even as crypts are being dug and the dead buried, life buzzes around the cemetery,” Holden wrote. “During the day children and pets frolic among the tombs that devoted family members methodically clean and polish. The image of an impoverished worker in torn flip-flops, perilously perched on a rickety ladder, speaks volumes about class divisions in a country that threatens to become a narco-state dominated by a wealthy criminal elite.” El Velador alone makes us want to see the rest of Almada’s films for her attention to layered storytelling. Her use of silence creates an almost unbearable tension; she deploys found snippets of audio like patiently observed, acute detail. Here’s the rest of the MacArthur citation about her growing body of work:
Almada does not use conventional structures or techniques, such as interviews with specialists or a linear timeline. Instead, she incorporates powerful visual images and the observations of ordinary people she encounters with her camera into an intimate, multilayered form of storytelling. In El General (2009), Almada weaves together archival material; audio tapes of her grandmother’s recollections of Almada’s great-grandfather, Mexico’s president Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–28); and compelling footage of Mexico City during the contested presidential election of 2006. The result is a lyrical, quietly mesmerizing meditation on the legacy of Mexico’s political history, the relationship between personal and collective memory, and how memory informs one’s view of self, family, and country. Almada creates a striking and moving portrayal of the violence of drug trafficking and its effects on Mexican society in El Velador (2011). Although there are no scenes of violence in this haunting and contemplative film, it conveys the overwhelming crisis of the drug war through snippets of radio and television broadcasts, the sounds of construction in an ever-expanding cemetery, and the quiet imagery of families visiting the graves of loved ones. In films that pose more questions than they answer, Almada is capturing complex and nuanced views of the issues that define Mexican-American relations while reaffirming the potency of documentary both as an art form and a powerful medium for highlighting the often unseen implications of social conflict.
In other MacArthur-related news, check back tomorrow for excerpts from a long conversation with Junot Diaz, another new “genius” grant winner, who visited the Nieman Foundation earlier this year, to talk about writing.