Tuesday, March 13, 2018

About a Mountain | John D'Agata

The first half of this book is utterly boring. I struggled through the intense stream of lifeless statistic and personal anecdote only half-full of feeling, wishing I could be reading LITERALLY anything else. If you handed me a car manual, by now I'd be able to tell you how a carburetor works. If I hadn't had to read ABOUT A MOUNTAIN for my nonfiction class, I never would have picked it up.

I did not know that D'Agata was praised as a forefront of the genre. Reading the first half of this book, I would have doubted that entirely. The second half, however, got much more intense.

The book parades as a chronicle of the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, a then-potential home for nuclear waste that wouldn't be safe for humans to come near for at least 10,000 years. That was the problem of the first half of the book; how do we communicate to the humans 10,000 years from now that the mountain is dangerous? How do we keep people away? How do we warn them, what signage do we use, what sounds can we emit, what message can we leave behind?

But this book isn't really about Yucca Mountain.

ABOUT A MOUNTAIN is about the immensely high suicide rates in Las Vegas, Nevada, and shyly follows the suicide of a teenager named Levi as the narrator hints every few pages that this specific death is what he is after.

Levi jumped off of the Stratosphere one evening after he lost a Tae Kwon Do tournament, when his parents thought he was just sulking as a regular teenager is prone to do, when he walked past hotel waiters and passersby and casino workers and ticket-takers. He got on the ledge, waved to a security guard supposedly sent to stop him, and jumped.

The details of Levi's life and of his death are chronicled near-expertly by D'Agata, and the book is laden with emotion and a style of reportage ultimately attractive to a reader who craves a story. But real life isn't like a story. Suicide isn't romantic at all.

That's my problem with this book. It's too romantic. The details of Levi's death and of the day on which he died, the details of the Yucca project and of witness reports and D'Agata knows what else are details altered and falsified. D'Agata changed the most minute details – claiming that the temperature on the summer day when Levi jumped was 118º when really, it was 113º – because of some authorial will to make things flow better, to appeal to a readership more interested in attractive metaphor than truth.

Honestly, I don't care that D'Agata called something nine seconds when it was really eight, that his characters are conglomerations of several people, that his anecdotes are embellished. But little lies like these for the sake of fluidity open the door for harsher lies, like calling the other suicide that day a hanging instead of the jump that it was because he was already writing about a suicide by jumping, and he want his to seem more unique.

That isn't fair to the other woman who jumped.

I'm the type of reader of nonfiction who fully trusts the person writing to me. I was moved by this book and it's because I was moved that I felt so lied to when I learned that most of the quotes, anecdotes, and statistics in this book were falsified in the name of art. If you're like me, take this book with as a shot of tequila and don't open your heart all the way to believe in the romanticism that D'Agata has created for you.

In the words of Ander Monson in his response to ABOUT A MOUNTAIN and its fact-checked spinoff, THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT,  "...that’s what makes us angry when we hear about confabulation in works of apparent nonfiction, even as the deep satisfaction we may take in the artifice of the book (until it is exposed) moves us greatly. It’s as if we are angry in proportion to how deeply we allowed ourselves to be possessed by a book or an essay. We are angry at ourselves, and we project this onto the author."
(Ander Monson, "The Skeptical Gaze," The Los Angeles Review of Books. Published March 20, 2012.)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Actor's Life: A Survival Guide | Jenna Fischer


I read this book in preparation for one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking days of my recent life: during the 2018 Tucson Festival of Books, I was assigned to be Jenna Fischer's personal author escort for 24 hours. I picked her up from the airport, took her to her hotel, and spent all of Saturday with her as we shuffled from signing to session to signing and back to the airport. People asked if I was her best friend, her publicist, or her personal assistant. I'm in the background of dozens of photos she's tagged in on Instagram, and dozens more are my own personal handiwork as I took pictures on hundreds of people's phones of them in the moments that they met her. It was, in short, a cool day. 

For those of you unfamiliar, the Tucson Festival of Books supports literacy efforts in southwest Arizona. It sees over 135,000 people every year during its two-day run. I volunteered over 760 hours with TFOB as an AmeriCorps volunteer my first two years of college and it is because of this experience that I was chosen to work with Jenna. Because of a general love of literature and a fermented responsibility to read the book of the woman I would be representing, I picked up THE ACTOR'S LIFE at the University of Arizona Bookstore. 

THE ACTOR'S LIFE: A SURVIVAL GUIDE is a book for aspiring actors. It's a how-to, a personal narrative, a gag reel and an overall good read regardless of whether or not you want to be an actor. But I cannot stress this enough: it is a survival guide. There are steps in this book that you'll never follow if acting isn't your passion, if acting doesn't set your soul on fire. I absolutely recommend this book to people who want to act, but it's still worth a buy if you're just a fan of Jenna's. 

I bought this book and then bought the audio book, available on Audible and read by Jenna herself. (Because I listened to the book in the car, I was quite used to having her voice fill that empty space beside me, and thus was comfortable driving her around and hanging out with her – I am proud to report that I was not too fan-girly and not too awkward about it. A little awkward. I accidentally spilled coffee on her. But she was super nice about it.) 

The book chronicles her acting career and provides insights that I think will appeal to people who are at a crossroads in their career, who need a kick in the ill-fitting dress pants to persevere. Unlike UNFILTERED, the memoir by actress Lily Collins, this book is not laden with cliché. It's specific and to-the-point. It's cheerful and honest. 

Jenna Fischer moved to Los Angeles, worked office jobs (which subsequently prepared her for her role as Pam) and faced myriad rejections. She was a part of shows that would never air. She got a job as an extra on a commercial for Universal Studios and had to ride the Jurassic Park water ride... for 12 hours. She lived in cramped places, had nameless roles, and suffered the necessary struggle for the modern actor. 

She is, ultimately, an immensely helpful resource for those looking to get involved in this world. 

(Also, she's really nice in person. Loves green tea.) 

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