July 25, 2014
I’m overloaded reading fiction right now, while these three non-fiction books, released this summer, pull at me with a siren call. Here are brief summaries of what they’re about, so you, too, can hear the call.
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
John Dean’s new book is here to divulge the full and complete story of President Richard Nixon’s role in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building — that nasty 1970’s scandal that riveted the nation, famously written about by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. August 8 marks the 40 year anniversary of Nixon’s resignation due to the scandal. From the publisher’s description: “In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John W. Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon’s secretly recorded information and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President Nixon know and when did he know it?” Kirkus in its starred review tempts us with this statement: “And as for that missing tape, the one about which so much was made at the Watergate hearings? It would spoil the surprise to tell it here, but Dean has the answers.” Prepare to buckle down: The book’s page count is close to 800 pages. (Check out History.com for videos about the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation speech.)
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
Kevin Birmingham takes us inside the story of James Joyce the writer and the struggle he endured to get his now classic novel published. Granted, Ulysses may be a challenging read, but the story around it is fascinating. For years it was banned in the English-speaking world, “disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain,” according to the book’s dust jacket that also states: “The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.” Kirkus gives it a starred review. So does Publisher’s Weekly stating: “Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece.” If you haven’t read Ulysses, at least you could say you read about it in The Most Dangerous Book. The publisher says it’s “written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman
I’ve loved Francisco Goldman’s novels since his first, The Long Night of White Chickens that’s a love story and murder mystery set in Boston and Guatemala. Then came The Ordinary Seaman and Say Her Name, not a full list of his novels but the ones I read. And so I’m drawn to read his new, non-fiction book. It bears knowing that in 2005, Goldman married Aura Estrada. Two years later, during a vacation on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Estrada died in a bodysurfing accident. The Interior Circuit, written after grieving for his wife in the fictionalized account of her tragic death in Say Her Name, explores the people, politics and communities of Estrada’s native city, “balancing personal memoir and reportage,” according to the book’s dust jacket. Publisher’s Weekly gives the book a star and describes Goldman as “a perceptive, funny and philosophical narrator.”
March 30, 2011
One of my long-standing favorite novels is Franciso Goldman’s 1992 debut, The Long Night of White Chickens. In dreamy, elegant prose, Goldman tells the story of Flor de Mayo Puac, a Wellesley College graduate who returns to her native Guatemala to run a private orphanage. There she is murdered. The plot pivots on the mystery of her violent death. Even though Goldman spends too much time dwelling on Guatemalan politics, it remains an impressive work.
Nineteen years and three books later, Goldman has written a new novel that takes into account the life of another Latin American woman, Aura Estrada, a promising PhD student at Columbia University. Only Aura isn’t a fictional character, despite the “novel” label given to the book. She’s Goldman’s recently deceased wife. Aura died four years ago from injuries sustained while body surfing in Mexico the summer of 2007. Say Her Name is a “memoir novel” about their four-year relationship, their marriage in the summer of 2005, the tragedy of Aura’s death and Goldman’s paralyzing grief.
From the very beginning of this heart-breaking story, we’re informed of Aura’s death at the age of 30 and the blame cast upon the 50-year-old Goldman (“this is your fault”) by Aura’s protective mother. But we’re not given the full details of the accident just yet. Those come in the end, although the narrative offers hints along the way as the couple’s life together in Brooklyn and Mexico City unfolds. Back and forth in time and place, the narrative wanders flawlessly, with Goldman taking us into scenes of Aura growing up in Mexico with her mother and stepfather and pursuing a scholarly life at a Mexican university and then universities in New York City. We also experience Aura as girlfriend and wife living with Goldman in Brooklyn and then visiting him in dreams and ghost-like illusions after her death.
We come to know a spirited, determined young woman filled with hope and also the talent to become a notable Latin American writer. Her infectious joy and child-like volubility radiate from the narrative, as does her energetic and fun-filled personality. But the narrative always loops back to Goldman’s overwhelming grief, scenes of his emptiness and dread, and a reader’s sadness hovers as we suffer with him knowing what’s to come. When I reached the final pages that would reveal the moments of the tragedy at the beach in Mexico, the month before their second wedding anniversary, a sickening feeling came over me, and I had to walk away from the book for a moment. All that had come before had brought me so close to the author and Aura, I couldn’t bear to live through those horrible last moments of her life, a feeling that testifies to the grip this deeply moving story had on me.
To put in perspective Goldman’s use of fiction and non-fiction, here’s what he said in the book’s press release: “I’ve surrounded Aura and myself with a fictionalized family and friends for numerous reasons, including the duty to protect, to keep secrets, including our own secrets, while providing the space to write a true account of our lives — Aura’s and my own, with and without her.”
Say Her Name surely will stand among the great memoirs in grief literature for its powerful story of love, loss and mourning, next to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.