Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Ron Carlson Writes a Story


In college, there’s a whole culture of buying, selling, and trading new and used books. In fact, there are some professors who assign books with no binding just to decrease the cost of the book (and in turn, increase the cost by not having a used copy to be found.) So, as I jump back into blogging, I’ve decided to take on a new genre in nonfiction — the book on writing — and the used college textbook.

Used college books are terrible examples of bargain book hunting. Sure, if you’re shopping online it’s one thing, but at UC Irvine the bookstore themselves sold books in new and used form. I was a lazy online shopper, so I often succumbed to the yellow USED labeling that knocked down book prices by a few dollars. On the bright side, while being an English major meant purchasing about ten books every ten weeks, the books were usually novels, short stories, or could easily be used with older editions. Unlike science, math, or any practical degree.

Every writing student at UC Irvine has to read one book: Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Largely, because Ron Carlson directs the graduate program and it ties in nicely to the writing pedagogy of the school.

In One Sentence: …Ron Carlson writes a story.

Favorite Line: “The single largest advantage a veteran writer has over the beginner is this tolerance for not knowing.” – p. 15

Review: I was fortunate enough at Irvine to take a few classes with Ron Carlson. Being in the room with a writer is infinitely more rewarding to learning their process than anything they could write. Perhaps ironic given the profession. There was one day when he talked about writing the book. A student interjected that everyone had been required to read it. Carlson asked, “what’d you think? Was it a useful?” The student paused, smiled, and Carlson laughed himself. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” He acknowledged the question that learning about writing through reading about writing is sort of a moot strategy. You have to write. You have to write and write and write. Ron Carlson Writes a Story is about a writer learning about writing as he writes — to tell the reader exactly what he needs to know. Stop reading. Start writing. I’d recommend this book for pieces of writing inspiration, but as far as seeing deeply into a writing process I’d put Stephen King’s On Writing on a higher pedestal if only for the intimacy into King’s commitment and personal struggles. Carlson never goes too deeply into his own life as a writer, except to say that he’s having fun on the page. Maybe that’s all he needs to say on the subject. A useful book, but not required of every writer.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Ron Carlson almost wrote a story.

Now, Read Ron Carlson:


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In Cold Blood

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If there was ever a staple in the true crime genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would be it. Well deserved, too. This book was in a college town’s Goodwill, which was lucky not just for it’s $1.99 price tag but also for the pages of notes and highlights I found while I read. My mother saw me pick out the book and nearly shuddered, “I don’t know why’d you want to read that. It’s scary.”

Her reaction made it more enticing. It was one of the few books I’ve bought on a bargain hunt that I immediately started reading when I got home. And is it any wonder? It’s tense, literary, undoubtedly spellbinding as advertised on the cover. After I finished, I wondered how Capote accomplished so much. All based in fact, but how much is true? Plus, the interesting part of this story is not really why did two strangers senselessly murder a family “in cold blood” — but actually what made the writer investigate this story? How did it change him afterward? 

In One Sentence: Two young criminals murder a family for no reason in a quiet Kansas town.

Favorite Line: “At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them — four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople,theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again — those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.” — p. 5

Review: From beginning to end, the details and prose of this piece are on point. Capote set the bar high with the idea of the non-fiction novel. Sure, there are the ever-present questions of credibility of scene and place but the story behind the creation of this book says enough as to Capote’s dedication to showing as complete an image as possible. (He spent years taking notes and doing interviews alongside writer-friend Harper Lee. Then again — he may have also been set on writing the masterpiece of his life.) Perhaps dramatic, perhaps clouded by his own biases, but it’s important nonetheless. The climax is in the full description of the gory details as opposed to the mystery behind the murderer as in the whodunit narrative. The reader knows how it’s going to end immediately. It’s still interesting and there’s more I want to find out. In an odd way, the only “truth” that is completely left out is the writer. Capote made himself a part of this case when he investigated the murder and got to know the culprits, Perry and Dick. Yet, he’s absent. There are long conversations and monologues taken from different people involved, but not a word on who they were talking to. I’m not sure it’s a problem, but it’s an interesting decision for a non-fiction writer trying to remain objective (and ultimately created it’s own mythology around the place of the writer as depicted in the film version, Capote.) Anyway, unless you are morally opposed to reading about violence, stop what you are doing and read this book.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: No one in Holcomb, Kansas spoke to Truman Capote.

The Influence of Short-Story Technique:

Truman Capote got his start writing short stories and credits the medium for allowing him to learn the art of control over story-telling. I loved this idea he explored in a Paris Review interview:

CAPOTE: … Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

INTERVIEWER: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

CAPOTE: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.

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The Kiss


Sometimes I find memoirs more captivating than fiction. It’s not just a matter of truth is stranger than fiction, it also has a lot to do with voice. It’s my favorite part of writing — and reading! — to get a new perspective from a unique voice. Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss stood out to me on the Goodwill shelves because it was 1) a first hand account of a consensual incestuous relationship that didn’t involve Mackenzie Phillips and 2) a paperback book selling for $5.99?! Isn’t that a little steep, Goodwill?

I bought it. I read it. And even now that it’s over, I’m fascinated at the writer’s ability to find her voice and not be afraid of the consequences.

In One Sentence: Young woman develops a sexual relationship with her once absent father.

Favorite Line: “‘You know,’ [my mother] says, pointing, ‘this isn’t about you. It’s about me.’… She means the love my father possesses, the trembling hands and hot eyes. All of what  she has notices and is frightened by. So inappropriate, so immoderate. So abnormal to love me so completely: that’s what I hear her say. What I hear is that not only does my mother not love or admire me, but she will find a way to reinterpret my father’s love to make it all her own.” – p. 98

Review: Harrison takes on the task of telling us all about the skeletons in her closet and she succeeds not only in delivering a masterful writing style, but also feeling totally authentic. Overall, a strong, compelling voice. It jumps around slightly through time but keeps a consistent emotional arc that works wells to drive the reader forward. And, it’s a quick read. Besides the strangeness of the subject matter, the way prose is broken into short vignettes somehow makes it hard to put down. There is one hiccup about the story that would be more of a critical note in fiction, but in memoir really has no way to change. You get the feeling that Harrison had some agency to change the situation sooner than she actually did. Then again, since so much of writing memoir is about the power of hindsight, I got the feeling she realized that as well once she got the words to paper.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Harrison’s parents had never divorced. Seriously.

Artwork that Stole the Title:

Or maybe Harrison stole the title. Matches the theme of the story, depending on how or if you interpret art.


The Kiss by Gustav Klimt



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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


I’d like to introduce a new tenet into bargain book hunting — the borrowed book. No, not from a library. Borrowed books from friends, relatives, or even colleagues are great finds not only for the added recommendation of a book, but also for the excitement of being able to talk with someone about a book after you finish it (well, if you finish it.) Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was lent to me by my aunt and shared with others in my family.

The best books to borrow — or on the other hand, to lend — are those that invite discussion on complicated issues. Skloot’s nonfiction book is at once a biography, mystery, and exploration of many ethical questions surrounding scientific research and ownership. Is science truly an endeavor to better mankind or has it become too profit driven? I’m not sure. Maybe both.

In One Sentence: Writer seeks to discover the true story behind the first immortal HeLa cells.

Favorite Line: “I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.” – p. 238

Review: It’s books like these that make you realize how important writers are. Rebecca Skloot tells the story not only of Henrietta Lacks as a poor black woman in the 1950s getting her cells reproduced and sold without her knowledge, but also follows the story of the cells themselves as they become involved in the development of vaccines, cancer research, and more. I’ll be honest, science is not my favorite topic but somehow Skloot is able to take advantage of narrative structure and pacing to deliver the tension that has really come about with the Lacks family as well as the contamination of cells in the science community. Truly well balanced prose. I also loved the point of view of this story. Unlike Capote’s infamous In Cold Blood, Skloot places herself in the story. She shared what inspired her to pursue these questions and included her struggles to gain the trust of the Lacks family. The writing really got me thinking about my own beliefs related to scientific research and how those ideas change constantly. I recommend this book mostly because I need more people to talk about it with!

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: The Lacks family never responded to the author’s calls.

“Borrowing” from Rebecca Skloot: On her website, there’s a page devoted to “What Rebecca’s Reading.” I explored and found very interesting science articles in the similar vein of exploring things otherwise less often explored. Topics include why doctors don’t die like the rest of us, experiments gone wrong, the ethos of Twitter/ Facebook, and takes on meta-nonfiction. Check it out:


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House Rules


Whenever I’m feeling slightly stressed or anxiety-prone, I stop by a Goodwill for a quick hit of book buying. At Goodwill, there will be a two copies of New Moon, some Grisham book, and if you’re lucky a slightly torn up hard cover Harry Potter. Once in awhile, if I am careful and read through each title and paragraph description, I’ll find something I never knew existed.

House Rules by Rachel Sontag interested me immediately as a memoir on the premise of emotional abuse from her parents rather than the more radical, probable, and comprehensible physical abuse. Not only that, but the author’s description toted an MFA from the New School. I was in the process for applying to grad schools (not on the east coast, really, but in the general sense) and thought it was worth looking into how her background influenced her writing.

In One Sentence: A girl growing up is chastised for growing up.

Favorite Line: “It came out almost shyly. And I thought he’d come to a stop, realizing he was killing a certain part of me, and I thought that Mom was going to blow the whistle, declare that we’d gone too far. But Dad looked up from the carpet, into my eyes, and said, ‘I mean that, Rachel. I really do. I wish you were never born. I really, really do.'” – p. 158

Review: This is essentially a coming of age story. This story works wonderfully on the level of laying out the context and instances of emotional abuse through clear, matter-of-fact style. The greatest moments of any memoir is when the author takes time to reflect on their own involvement and growth in the piece, and Sontag succeeds in keeping those moments genuine and well-placed. While her father comes across as controlling (a patriarch on a power trip), the betrayal she feels from her mother, her family, her friends is more heartbreaking. This book brings up a great question about writing non-fiction: how do you write your story without hurting the people you love? Someone once told me in a workshop something they had heard from someone else, and has likely travelled from writer to writer since. You are allowed to write your story, because it’s yours. If people get upset, they can write their version, but don’t let it stop you. This book is a must-read, unless you’ve had more serious life problems where this might come off as first world problems (see: Anne Frank).

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: Adults did not act so openly like children.

In Other News: In a strange turn of events, after the book was published the parents decided to “set things right” and created a website posting their story along with an abundance of notes, recordings, and odd poetry. In another example of I-think-you-just-proved-my-point, enjoy:

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A Girl’s Life Online


I have a weakness for Lifetime movies and Young Adult novels in the way that I also crave fast food. I know they won’t be the best quality, the most satisfying, or necessarily make me a better person – but they will hit the spot. Katherine Tarbox’s autobiography A Girl’s Life Online or was one of those finds I knew would be a quick and interesting read, especially for someone like myself who grew up in the age of internet predator fear. This is another $1.00 Book Off find, but from the non-fiction aisle.

In One Sentence: A thirteen year old girl meets a man online, who turns out to not be who he says he is.

Favorite Line: “I can’t tell you what all thirteen-year-old girls are like, but I can tell you what I was like.” – p. 1

Review: The book tells the story of Katie’s developing relationship with the man online, “Mark”, from their first online conversation to the results of Mark’s court trial. The book succeeds in not only exploring Katie’s own changing feelings for Mark, as trust is built and destroyed, but also in how Katie is able to see her own accountability in the events. Ultimately, the online relationship not only causes friction with her family, but also her swim team, her community, and even with how Katie sees herself. I think this is an important cautionary story for teens and would recommend it, especially for young people or students that may not enjoy reading. It’s definitely a page-turner.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Katie was never on the swim team and did a less competitive/traveling sport. Like badminton.

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genuis


Libraries are still the most cost efficient place to find a good book – and not just with a library card. It was a Saturday afternoon, at a Southern California library used book cart that I picked out Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for only ten cents.

I’ll be honest – I have seen this book before, and avoided it. I had read essays by Dave Eggers and have always been turned off by the style. He writes experimentally, which I usually appreciate, but overall has always come off a touch too contrived – somehow inauthentic. That afternoon, I was in the mood for non-fiction (or creative non-fiction, in this case) and felt maybe I could give Eggers another chance. Plus, I had ten cents.

In One Sentence: A memoir about a college graduate who must raise his younger brother in the Bay Area after the tragic death of both of their parents.

Favorite Line: “We are waiting for everything to finally stop working – the organs and systems, one by one, throwing up their hands – the jig is up, says the endocrine; I did what I could, says the stomach, or what’s left of it; We’ll get him next time, adds the heart, with a friendly punch to the shoulder.” – p. 17

Review: This is a polarizing read – you either love it or you hate it. And so, that is how this review will feel. There were sections of the book I love and could not put down, other parts that I hated and sludged through. I found the first section of appendixes unreadable; just a show without much substance. Once I got into the actual book, I found the first half incredibly fresh and enjoyable. Eggers opens up about the experience of losing his parents and the struggles of taking on a new life in California. Growing up in the Bay Area, I recognized the cities and places he lived. His story is more about the emotional experience than recording the actual events -which I found to show the authenticity I had been craving from Eggers but failed to find in his essays. I related to parts of his story and found his mix of both fiction and non-fiction created a unique reading experience. However, the second half of the book lost my attention as it seemed to show more distance — discussing philosophy or characters speaking for the sake of an idea and not in their truest form. I do think this is a book that should be read, and I admired many passages of writing, but overall would not necessarily recommend it for every reader.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: The story was told from beginning to end, without so much added fluff. I mean, sixty pages of an interview conversation that NEVER HAPPENED?!


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