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Best Non Fiction DragonBall Book
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Safety Biscuits
Oct 21, 2010

Here's some non-fiction I've enjoyed recently:

Nisa by Marjorie Shostak
Part anthropology about the Kalahari Khoisan, part autobiography of Nisa, a Khoisan woman Shostak interviewed extensively. Full of interesting information, but the real draw is Nisa's character. She's a brattish, greedy child and a bloody-minded woman who does exactly what she wants. If you like it, you'll probably enjoy The Harmless People by Elizabeth Warran Marshall, who visited the Kalahari in the 1950s and 1980s.

Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon
This is a collection of very brief summaries of news stories, printed in French newspapers about 1906. They really are three lines long, and they're not quite novels, but are intense, funny, and dark experiences.

Influence by Robert Cialdini
Somewhere between a business book, pop psychology, and self-help, about the different ways to persuade people to do what you want them to. Light, and not always reliable, but interesting.

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany
Two essays, one about going to porn cinemas for sex, the other about the ways people interact with people from their social class and other classes, a much more abstract take on the same material.


Safety Biscuits
Oct 21, 2010

John D'Agata's What Happens There is about Levi Presley, a kid in Las Vegas who jumped from the Stratosphere Hotel. It's about the suicide rate in Las Vegas, how inadequate the suicide prevention is there, the writer's intuition of a sadness behind the glitz, and, finally, Presley's last day: staying late at a party, maybe smoking weed, losing a Tae Kwon Do tournament, arguing with his parents, and going to the tower. Several years after being commissioned by Harper's, the original essay was published in an annotated version as The Lifespan of a Fact, with a credit to Jim Fingal. You might want to read the essay before you read on.

Harper's rejected the essay because of factual inaccuracies; The Believer picked it up a couple of years later, and Jim Fingal was the intern assigned to fact-check it. The Lifespan of a Fact is D'Agata's original essay (not quite the same as the final version), with commentary surrounding a few lines of essay per page. Fingal checks facts and notes things D'Agata made up, bent, or simplified for the essay – there’s plenty of these, some minor, some impossible to verify, some pretty big – and D’Agata defends himself. Occasionally they argue.

The book is billed as a meditation on the relationship between “truth” and “accuracy”, conveying D’Agata’s vision of the slippery nature of existence and the fictionality of fact. It’s not awfully good at this, though, because while Fingal is nitpicking, D’Agata’s defences are mostly pretty weak. He’ll argue that something sounds better, when the difference is tiny, and some of his assertions make him sound like an idiot. Having green eyes makes you more likely to kill yourself? No word in Latin for suicide? Not only is that wrong, but the next page describes sixth-century cardinals voting to outlaw suicide… Sometimes he calls things acclaimed and then admits he’s the one who did it, or makes contradictory arguments. At one point he defends using a Geocities website as a source for a weird legend about the origin of Tae Kwon Do. A lot of the time his defence is that he wants to present his view of things, which wasn’t great in 2003 but has aged, er, poorly. “Las Vegas is messed up” is one thing; what if his feeling was “weed makes you kill yourself”, or Tae Kwon Do does, or that Presley’s parents were to blame?

And what’s the point of using facts if you don’t care if they’re accurate? D'Agata says he doesn't call his work non-fiction, by the way.

It’s not that great an essay either, I think. It’s not that well written and rather clichéd and exploitative in the way it uses D’Agata’s and Presley’s real lives.

There seems to be another layer to the book. The discussions seem rather stylised, and the pair are happy to publish the book together and offer joint thanks to their editor. How fictionalised is this layer of the book? I’m not sure, but if I’m right, it’s a better argument for bending the truth than most of what D’Agata says.

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