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A Non-Fiction Spin on Short Story Sunday

December 31, 2007

Instead of short stories this week, I thought I’d look at essays!  All of these essay collections happen to be memoirs (which would quality them if you’re thinking about the In Their Shoes challenge), but they’re very different in style.

George Kennan extracts passages from a lifetime of travel in Sketches From a Life.  For those who don’t know, Kennan is the foreign service officer who, as a young officer in Moscow essentially formulated America’s containment policy.  In other words, he’s pretty hot sh*t in the international relations world. ;)  This memoir doesn’t really address anything like international relations, however.  Instead, it’s a fascinating travel journal through both place, and more interestingly, time.  The journals start when Kennan is in his twenties and end when he’s in his eighties (did I mention he lived to 100?  told you he’s cool!).  In them, Kennan talks both about what he sees (in places from the Soviet Union to Latin America) and how they make him feel; he tends to wax philosphical.  The entries tend to be short, which helps keep them readable.  Highly recommended-Kennan’s style is luminous, and it’s interesting to see him get older and, perhaps, wiser.

On a completely different vein, David Sedaris shares various, random episodes from his life in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.  Growing up in an eccentric, lower-middle class, Greek family, Sedaris already had plenty of essay material.  To top it off, he turned out to be gay, giving him even more to write about. ;)  (That wasn’t meant at all offensively)  Some of these essays were really funny (especially the first one, about his mom going crazy after too many snow days and the kids desperate plan to get back into the locked house), but most of them had quite a sad feel.  On the other hand, they did make me feel that I don’t have to set the world on fire in order to have a happy life!  (Sedaris and his sisters unapologetically lack ambition)  I’m not sure if I’d recommend this as a collection or not; be prepared for the tragedy mixed in with the comedy.  His writing is quite witty, though, which is fun!

Finally, and for yet another change of pace, I’ll briefly mention Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures.  Co-authored by three UN workers (Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain, and Andrew Thomson), it’s their memories of various UN peacekeeping zones during the nineties.  More importantly, according to them, it’s a coming of age story, for both the New World (i.e.-after the Cold War) and the three people.  The account is no holds barred, but it’s not as raunchy as the title might suggest.  Sure, there are some sex scenes-although much more is hinted than is ever made explicit-but the book is really about what happens to optimism in the face of unrelenting horror.  In other words, it’s about the human condition.  Despite some sad passages (after all, they spend time in Rwanda, Liberia, Haiti), I found this a very powerful and touching account and would recommend it to most people (although I’d qualify that if you absolutely, morally condemn casual sex, drinking, or drug use and can’t look past it, this book isn’t for you)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2007 4:35 am

    They all sound really interesting, especially Sketches from a Life, I will definitely look for that one.

  2. December 31, 2007 6:59 am

    I really admire your writing, you have an amazing range in what you read mixed with interesting cross comments of facts. You are so well educated for someone so young, I assume you plan to be some kind of writer or scholar. I added your RSS feed so I can get ideas for books to read. By the way, if you can, listen to David Sedaris in audio, rather than read him. And his books are at their best when he reads them himself – his voice turns black and white words into a technicolor movie. – Jim

  3. December 31, 2007 2:56 pm

    Eloise, it was a really neat read!

    Jim, thank you for your kind words. :) I’m planning a career in international relations, either as a diplomat or in the field of nonproliferation. Reading is just a hobby for me, although an important one! I’ll have to find some Sedaris on audio now. :D


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