I recently finished reading Mark Salzman's True Notebooks, which Barbara E loaned me at Xmastime. Salzman is a bestselling author who, in 1997, decided to start teaching a writing workshop at Juvenile Hall in LA; this book recounts his experiences in that workshop. It's not a Great Book, but has some good stuff in it, and it was relevant to the Creative Nonfiction stuff I was thinking about.
I spent a lot of the book wondering how accurate his rendition of the kids' dialogue was. At the end there's an Author's Note that I wish he'd put at the beginning:
This is a work of nonfiction, but not of journalism. I did not use a tape recorder or take notes during my visits to Central. The dialogue in this book has been re-created from memory. Naysayers in the sciences—and, sad to say, even in the humanities—insist that human memory is unreliable. Hard evidence supports this claim but I can cite dozens of personal anecdotes to refute it, and anyway it is a bleak view so I say pshaw.
The examples of student writing reproduced here are unaltered except for the spelling and punctuation corrections I suggested during class. Where alternate spellings, grammar, and so on were used deliberately, I left them alone.
Some names have been changed, but most haven't.
I suspect he's being a little disingenuous about how much he changed the student writing; for example, he keeps some misspellings that I doubt were intentional, presumably to make it sound/look more authentic, not to mention using certain misspellings in dialogue to indicate dialect. And some of the things the kids said sounded a little too earnest to me, a little too much like what a liberal writing teacher would want to hear them say. But still, I was pleased to see the note, and found the book overall interesting.
Meanwhile, I was also reading the other book Barbara and Joe gave me, this one as a gift: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. It's excellent, a superb first-person portrayal of a relatively high-functioning autistic kid in the UK; the narrative voice is so compelling that I kept finding myself sliding into it while writing email. Which is to say I would get more (a) pedantic, (b) unfocused (specifically, not good at determining which things are relevant and which aren't), (c) oriented toward ordering things into neat categories and boxes, and/or (d) full of comparisons between minds and machines. Although I am somewhat prone to all of those things normally, of course.
There were too many good lines in the book for me to begin to track them; I decided early on not to bother marking them. The only one I did mark is fairly atypical for the book, but I did like the image: "I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty."
By page 4, the author had already collected enough author points to carry me through the book. I thought to myself, The only thing missing from this book is footnotes. And then, lo!, on page 5 there was a footnote.
By halfway through, I felt that the book had only one flaw: a weird mishandling of the Marilyn Vos Savant/Monty Hall problem. (See also the rec.puzzles Monty Hall solution.) For about fifteen years, I've been remembering the story as another example of Marilyn Vos Savant having made a dumb mistake; but in Curious Incident, it says she was right and all the Ph.D.s who wrote to her were wrong. So when I finished the book, baffled by Haddon's lapse on this subject, I went and looked this stuff up, and discovered that I've been wrong all these years; Ms. Vos Savant was right, and the book's handling of the issue is fine, and the thing I thought was a flaw wasn't.
One odd thing about the book is that nowhere in the entire book (including front and back covers and blurbs) does it mention the word autism, except in the about-the-author paragraph (which is oddly located on a sort of inside-cover page that appears after several pages of blurbs, which meant I didn't see it 'til just now), where it notes: "As a young man, Haddon worked with autistic individuals." Makes me wonder what readers think of the book if they don't know anything about autism. Or if they don't know any geeks; a lot of high-functioning autistic traits are very familiar (albeit in less extreme form) to people who work in the computer industry.
The other published fiction I've been reading lately is Eileen Gunn's new collection Stable Strategies and Others, which I'm quite liking so far. (Also, earlier this week it appeared on the final ballot for the Philip K. Dick Award, along with books by several other cool authors.) I'd read about half the stories in their original publications, but haven't seen most of them in many years, and it's worth renewing the acquaintance. I'll probably say more about this when I finish the book.
Oh—while I'm talking about books, I'll toss in another plug for the fine folks at Night Shade Books. I mentioned a couple weeks back that they had sent me the copy I'd preordered of the new Iain M. Banks short-story collection, The State of the Art; what I didn't mention was that they accidentally included two other books that I had previously ordered, which they had already sent me copies of. I dropped them a note asking how I should go about returning those two, and Jason wrote back to say I could keep them. I plan to repay his generosity by giving the books to people as gifts; with luck, the excellent writing and superb production values (I can't get over how good their books look) will cause the recipient to go buy lots more Night Shade books.