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Two Awesome Non-Fiction Books You Should Buy/Borrow Immediately (News of a Kidnapping and Will Storr vs. the Supernatural)

May 6, 2008

Did I get your attention with that title? I think it might be my longest ever! After yesterday’s somewhat downer of a review (and a few lukewarm reviews hanging out in my drafts section), I decided I wanted to be perky! And the following two books are ones that I read in San Antonio (when I had limited internet), and that I keep meaning to review, because they’re both so incredibly perfect, in their own very different ways. Get ready for a bunch of exclamation points and fawning adjectives!

News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Did you know that Marquez wrote non-fiction? Because I didn’t; I even managed to mooch this book thinking it was a novel about the Colombian guerrilla fighters. But nope: it turns out that Marquez was a reporter a long time ago, and he’s ‘returned to his roots’ to tell the story of several Colombians kidnapped by Pablo Escabar’s forces (in case you’re thinking “Um, Pablo who?” I didn’t know who he was before this book either; he was the head of the Medellin cartel and the Colombian government’s most wanted man in 1990). I’ll let Marquez tell you how the book came about…

In October 1993, Maruja Pachon and her husband, Alberto Villamizar, suggested I write a book about her abduction and six-month captivity, and his persistent efforts to obtain her relase. I was already well into the first draft when we realized it was impossible to seperate her kidnapping from nine other abductions that occurred at the same time in Colombia. They were not, in fact, ten distinct abductions-as it had seemed at first-but a single collective abduction of ten carefully chosen individuals, which had been carried out by the same group and for only one purpose. This belated realization obliged us to begin again with a different structure and spirit so that all the protagonists would have their well-defined identities, their own realities. It was a technical solution to a labyrinthine narrative that in its original form would have been confused and interminable….I interviewed all the protagonists I could, and in each of them I found the same generous willingness to root through their memories and reopen wounds they perhaps preferred to forget.

This is part of the foreword to the book, and right after that Marquez lets the reader know which two hostages don’t survive their imprisonment (personally, I think this helped me read the book, since I could emotionally distance myself from those two and cheer for all of the others). While it sounds like it must be depressing and dreary, I think it’s actually a triumphant book: the victims’ attempts to find normalacy, their families’ unwavering fights for their freedom…Marquez has captured all of the best of human nature. You’ll learn a little bit about Colombian politics, but this is a book about people, not policy, so it never drags. And for those of you who don’t go near Marquez because you’re allergic to magical realism, let me assure you that his non-fiction style is splendidly straight forward. Not to mention, think of how cool you’ll be the next time someone mentions One Hundred Years of Solitude and you can say “Oh yes, that was an amazing work, but I feel he’s at his best when he’s capturing the emotions of actual people. Have you read News of a Kidnapping?” And did I mention Edith Grossman, the preeminent Spanish to English translator, did this one? Ok-I’ve busted out all of my big guns, and now I just hope you’ll go get a copy.

Will Storr vs. the Supernatural by Will Storr
This one is much more playful, due to its subject matter and the author’s general irreverence. Will Storr is a British journalist who did a feature on an American ‘demonologist’ for a journal. Rather skeptical, he ends up having some spooky experiences that lead him on a quest to find out if ghosts are real. In fact, he considers this a rather pressing question, because as a rational atheist raised Catholic, he worries that

if I accept that ghosts do exist, then the hard walls of my straightforward and rational world fall down likek colossal reality dominos. Because if we don’t die when we die, then nothing is as it seems and everything is up for questioning. All logic is gone. The priests, with all their smoke, spells and bad news, could turn out to be right after all. There could be an afterlife, and if there is, that means there could be angels and demons and heaven and hell and rules of right and wrong by which I should be living.

The book is about his contact with various people who claim to know/be in contact with/etc. ghosts or demons. It’s great, because he’s a total cynic, and when people are whacky he tells you, which makes his genuinely disturbing moments all the creepier. And he’s really funny:

Two weeks ago I was at my parents’ house, perusing my brother’s Web User. And as I clicked, I noticed that the online home of a real-life ghostbuster had been awarded ‘Website of the Month.’ His site looked fantastic. Encyclopaedic, grandiose, and full of gothic kitsch and portentous admonitions about divination and devil worship. This, I thought, would make a brilliant story. It’d be fantastic, because it concerns an American eccentric, and American eccentrics are great. They’re more sincere, unabashed and convinced in their madness than any other eccentrics in the world. And they hilarious things like, ‘Rule number one is don’t freak out.’

That kind of captures his tongue-in-cheek style: there are a ton of one-liners in the book that had my actually laughing out loud (and unfortunately quoting them here would be pointless, because they need context). At the same time, his descriptions of some of the things he witness, and his recountings of some ghost stories he hears, gave me goosebumps. What more can I ask of a book? It made me ponder spirituality, burst out laughing, and be afraid of the dark all at the same time. It reminded me of when I was little, and I’d go to a slumber party and we’d all start telling scary stories to the point that we were too afraid to turn out the lights or get out of our sleeping bags: it was a delicious kind of fear, though, because of course it wasn’t quite real. I think everyone who ever had that kind of sleepover should go read this book; in fact, just reviewing it has made me want to reread it all over again. One word of advice, though: don’t read it at night unless you’re equipped with an understanding sleeping partner or a nightlight!

Favourite Passages (Marquez)
It was a providential visit for Juan Vitta [one of the victims whose illness required the guerillas to bring in a doctor], not because of the diagnosis-severe stress-but for the good it did him as a passionate reader. The only treatment the doctor prescribed was a dose of decent reading-just the opposite of the political news Dr. Prisco Lopera was in the habit of bringing, which for captives was like a potion capable of killing the healthiest of men.

Another guard had taken the twenty thousand pesos Pacho [a victim] had in his pocket on the day of the kidnapping, but as compensation he promised to bring him anything he asked for, books in particular: several by Milan Kundera, Crime and Punishment, the biography of General Santander de Pilar Moreno de Angel. Pacho may be the only Colombian of his generation who had heard of Jose Maria Vargas Vila, the world’s most popular Colombian writer at the turn of the century, and he was moved to tears by his books. He read almost all of them, lifted for him by one of the guards from his grandfather’s library.

There was little the judicial system could do. Judges and magistrates, whose low salaries were barely enough to live on, but not enough to pay for the education of their children, faced an insoluble dilemma: Either they sold themselves to the drug traffickers, or they were killed. The admirable and heartbreaking fact is that many chose death.

Favourite Passages (Storr)
I’m in a roadside diner somewhere on the outskirts of Philadelphia, USA. Everything that just jumped into your head when you read the words ‘roadside diner’ and ‘USA’ is actually here. There’s a run-to-fat waitress with a heart of gold and a hairy chin, chewing gum and taking orders for cawfee. There are little, table-top jukeboxes with slots for quarters and multiple Elvis options. There’s a handsome stubbly man, who looks like he’s on the run from the law, sitting at the counter, chewing a toothpick and considering his next move. Any minute now, he’s probably going to start a fight with the serial killer in the next booth.

“You could call it multiple personality if you want,” says Dr. Mark. “We’ve all got the capacity to have the,”
There’s a silence. I put my tea down on the floor between my feet. “I don’t have multiple personalities,” I say.
“Try a little trick for me,” he sais. “How are you going to get home from here?”
“I’m going to cycle,” I say.
“Well, as you’re cycling home, imagine a version A and a version B of yourself and have a conversation in your head beween them. You know, like: What are you doing tonight? Well, I thought I might write up this interview. Well, you could, but there’s some great telly on. I know, but I have a lot to get through. Carry on like that for an hour and see where you end up. I promise you you’ll scare yourself.”
Dr Mark tells me that, before long, the first voice will become more extrovert, more outgoing and prefer art and German techno. The second voice will be quieter, more nervous and likes cience and South American heavy metal. In other words, they will develop distinct and consistent personalities of their own.

I watch Dave creep up the track and, as the dangerous dark folds in around him, it strikes me that everybody needs a Satanist. Because knowing whose fault it is can be a great comfort. It helps define you, knowing who you’re not. It’s reassuring. Especially if you’re an anti-Satanist vigilante or, indeed, a Christian. And then it occurs to me that having enemies can also be exciting. The thrill of having the spicy breath of the dark side prickling the skin on the back of your neck can be seductive and thrilling and vital. Isn’t that one of the reasons why we want to believe in the supernatural, in the devil and in evil and in ghosts? Because their very presence in our days makes our lives feel less ordinary? And the fact that they never quite get you has the perverse effect of making you feel safer.

I’m convinced that an eleven-year-old couldn’t fool a mother of four, her neighbours and all those journalists and miscellaneous strangers that a ghost was causing chaos, when it was actually her. Nobody could. If you, as a child, threw a Lego brick at a houseguest’s head and blamed it on a poltergeist, there wouldn’t be a mother on earth that would fall for it. Not even once.

And then I remember what I’ve done. I close my eyes and wish, wish I hadn’t. Earlier on, I insisted that David let me sleep upstairs, tonight, in the ‘haunted room.’ I sit and sulk at myself quietly for a time.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2008 7:29 am

    I really wasn’t so crazy about News of Kidnapping. I thought it difficult to get into, not having lived in Colombia and heard about all of this as it was happening. It seemed to assume an awful lot of understanding of the politicians and cultural elite of Colombia.

  2. May 6, 2008 7:31 am

    Meant to add to the end of the last comment, “which makes sense, since his audience seems to be Colombian, not American, but I still found it slow.”

  3. May 6, 2008 8:38 am

    I’m sold, especially on the Will Storr book.

  4. May 6, 2008 9:08 am

    I’m sold, too…but especially on News of a Kidnapping. Thanks, Eva!

  5. May 6, 2008 9:13 am

    Yeah…they had News of a Kidnapping at paperback swap, so I ordered it!

  6. May 6, 2008 12:25 pm

    Sounds like some good books. I might have to check them out.

    p.s. I did the meme :)

  7. May 6, 2008 2:04 pm

    I’m also sold on the Storr book. Lately I’ve been feeding on non-fiction. Just finished a memoir on a childhood in Hong Kong written by a Brit. I’m about to begin a book about how a doctor by chance met a Burmese young man and helped get him out of the country.

  8. May 6, 2008 2:39 pm

    I’m sold on the Marquez as well. I recently bought his autobiography, and once I’m done with that one I’ll move on to this. And I’m glad you mentioned Edith Grossman – she translated Living to Tell the Tale as well, which I bought it in English because I found a beautiful hardcover edition for 5 euros (as opposed to the 22 the Portuguese version costs). But I’ve never read Marquez or any Latin American writer in English before, and I was wondering if something would be lost, since the languages are so different. It’s reassuring to know that the translator is so highly praised!

  9. May 6, 2008 2:52 pm

    I just went and ordered the Storr book! Thank you for the excellent recommendation!

  10. May 6, 2008 3:28 pm

    Ohhh, the Will Storr book looks awesome! Added to my wishlist..

  11. May 6, 2008 8:25 pm

    I agree, I need to go get the Storr book! It sounds shiveringly satisfying.

  12. verbivore permalink
    May 6, 2008 10:57 pm

    Both look really interesting but especially the Storr book, some humor would be great for me at the moment. And I also like the idea of an atheist (I’m not quite there, but heavily agnostic) worrying about his belief structure crashing down. I’ll look for this one right away. Thanks, Eva!

  13. May 7, 2008 2:37 am

    Yeah, I knew GGM started out as a reporter. I want to read his book about the shipwrecked sailor. I think that was his first book. Both of your recommends are great…you persuasive minx! Will you ghost my blog for me?

  14. May 7, 2008 6:32 am

    The Storr book . . . thank you, thank you for the recommendation.
    You know that you’re really good at this review thing, right?

  15. May 7, 2008 2:02 pm

    Devourer, that’s interesting! I didn’t know anything about Colombia when I started it, and I thought Marquez provided just enough information, lol. Maybe I’m just more comfortable being ignorant?

    Raych, awesome!

    Debi, yay! I can’t wait to see what you think of it. :)

    Aka Nik, awesome!

    Matthew, I can’t wait for your reviews-I’m been getting really into non-fic lately too!

    Nymeth, I saw that you got his autobiography (and the picture of him on the cover is so adorable!), and I’m glad Grossman translated that too. :)

    Daphne, yay! (and thanks for stopping by if this is your first comment…which I think it is)

    Somer, great!

    Melanie, that’s such a great phrase…”shiveringly satisfying”…wish I’d though of it!

    Verbivore, I hooe you find out. :)

    Bybee, you’re so much smarter than me! Now I want to go look for the shipwrecked sailor book!

    Andi, aww-thanks. I hope you enjoy the Storry book!

  16. May 10, 2008 7:33 am

    Well, nobody ever has to convince me to read Garcia Marquez, and the Storr sounds like it’s right up my alley! Ever read Mary Roach’s SPOOK? If not, you might enjoy it as well.

  17. May 10, 2008 6:16 pm

    Emily, I did read Spook, and Roach’s style drove me insane, lol. The Storr is pretty much what I expected Spook to be! (And when I read the Storr, I thought of you and your ghost stories right away!)

  18. May 13, 2008 7:06 am

    These both sound good, and have been added to my list of books that I feel like I will never have time to get to! :)


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