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Book review: ‘The New Kings of Nonfiction’

Andrew Fersch
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
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Ira Glass is a radio show host by profession, not a writer. His radio show, “This American Life,” is the radio equivalent of a well-written TV show. As such, it’s hard to figure out why exactly he would be qualified to decide who the “kings” of nonfiction are these days. His shows are true tales on a variety of subjects (babysitting, camp, drugs, phone companies and more), and they range from wildly entertaining to mildly annoying. His popularity on NPR and his talent at choosing and sharing stories for his radio show have clearly afforded him opportunities to release things such as this collection of nonfiction stories, whether or not he is the most logical person to choose.

On “This American Life,” Glass relies on others to share what makes his show so beloved ” great stories. With his show, and with “The New Kings,” it is clear that Glass is not flawless in his choice of stories (and with this collection, his timeliness comes into question as well, since some stories were released more than 15 years ago).

Of the 14 stories in this 464-page collection, there are a handful which truly shine as clear examples of “the best storytelling of this golden age of nonfiction,” which the book jacket claims. Beginning with Michael Lewis’ tale of teenage stock manipulator Jonathan Lebed in “Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Stories,” Glass manages to pull in reader with an amazing tale about the absurdity of America’s stock market. The story, which details a boy in his early teens who manages to make nearly a million dollars by manipulating the stock market, is both humorous and shocking in its absurdity. But any story of a 14-year-old who manages to swindle money, much in the same fashion that professional investors do, only to be punished for it, would be.

“Among the Thugs,” by Bill Buford, and “Tales of the Tyrant,” by Mark Bowden, are similarly interesting stories. Buford’s take on English football hooligans is a great first-person narrative of his trip to Italy with a large group of Manchester United supporters. The lack of any real moral and purpose in his story can be overlooked because he manages to keep it interesting and engaging. Bowden takes on Saddam’s life (pre-Iraq War) and, in a series of short, not particularly connected stories, manages to paint a picture of Saddam as being a fairly insane and intricate man (nothing new there). Yet he adds very little other than a few interesting facts that weren’t previously known about the tyrant. In both cases, the stories are enjoyable enough, yet the reader comes away from it hoping that there was a little more focus, a little more purpose in the writing.

With writers such as Chuck Klosterman (“Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy”) and Jack Hitt (“Toxic Dreams: A California Town Finds Meaning”), the stories chosen are not particularly enthralling. Hitt’s writing far surpasses Klosterman’s, yet it still doesn’t have enough substance to make it truly worthwhile.

In the case of Malcolm Gladwell (“Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”) and Lawrence Weschler (“Shapinsky’s Karma”), and especially Coco Henson Scales’ abomination, “The Hostess Diaries,” it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the pieces and finding them to be decent nonfiction writing, let alone a celebrated radio journalist such as Glass. The stories are boring, sluggish, and, in Scales’ case, just plain obnoxious.

It is Lee Sandlin’s account of people’s perceptions of war in “Losing the War,” and Dan Savage’s terrifically humorous account of his foray as a gay sex-advice columnist in the Republican Party in “My Republican Journey,” that should be used as benchmarks for truly excellent nonfiction writing. Interesting topics, intelligent delivery, and at least some sort of underlying theme, if not a purpose, are what sets these pieces apart from the others and makes me second guess my questioning of Glass’ credentials.

Glass is an above-average radio show host for people who enjoy his style of storytelling, and if one enjoys NPR more often than not, chances are this book would be a great investment. In reality, there are only a few writers in here who could be considered true “kings,” and this collection only scratches the surface of what they are capable of doing. Chances are if Glass decides to publish another collection of stories, I will return with the hope of discovering at least a few more writers out there, like Dan Savage, who warrant reading.


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