Review: True Stories, Well Told – from the first 20 years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, edited by Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher

Review by Jules Barrueco

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cover-true-stories-well-told-creative-nonfictionAs the editors point out at the start of this book, “creative nonfiction is tremendously flexible…. There aren’t many rules around here.” The collection that followed held true to those words; the stories were diverse, unique, occasionally exceptional, and at times, wholly lacking in anything I could connect with. The qualities that make for a varied and interesting genre can also, unfortunately, make for an uneven anthology, albeit one with some treasures scattered throughout.

True Stories, Well Told – from the first 20 years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, edited by Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher (In Fact Books, 2014), contains 20 previously published works plus one from Gutkind, its founder and editor. The editors purport that the book, assembled from essays spanning the course of the magazine’s two-decade history, contains “the very best of the best – the stories that have stuck with us and that we’ve been unable to forget.” Although I have since forgotten many, a handful made a lasting impression.

“The Wishbone,” by Harrison Scott Key, is undoubtedly the most humorous piece in the book, during which the author recalls his one and only day of athletic superstardom. Never mind that he, a high schooler, did so by impersonating a much younger boy while “fold[ing] up children like bad origami” on his father’s peewee football team.

In “The Heart,” Jerald Walker wrote of his brother’s broken marriage, which ended with a heroin high (wife) and a severed thumb (husband). “Sometimes,” Walker wrote, “when we spoke of it in his absence, we offered the kind of pop analyses one would find on a daytime talk show, using phrases like ‘low self-esteem’ and ‘nurturing complex,’ and then, exhausted by the futility of this exercise, I’d simply hope for her to overdose and die.” That sentence – beautiful, perverse and distinctly honest – stood out unlike any I have read.

And when 22-year-old Meredith Hall stood up her travel companion in Amsterdam and began an international walk alone through Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon that lasted at least 11 months, I found the “very best of the best” that Gutkind had promised. When she stole food to survive another day, I shared her hunger; when she drank another woman’s breast milk, I experienced her thirst. When she curled up in the frigid night, I shivered with her; when she slept with an aspirin dissolving on her gums, my teeth ached with hers; when she sold her malnourished blood for $3, I felt her desperation.

“Rachel at Work: Enclosed, a Mother’s Report” by Jane Bernstein, “Mrs. Kelly” by Paul Austin, and “Scrambled Eggs” by Marilyn A. Gelman, burrowed into my brain and my heart, and will not soon be forgotten.

Despite the inclusion of some magnificent work, however, the book as a whole did not engage me throughout and only occasionally engendered a genuine connection. Simply stated, the stories were not all for me. But in a genre defined by its diversity and lack of rules, how could they all appeal to any one of us?

Notably, an author’s note containing insight or updates followed many pieces. They were an unusual and often enjoyable addition to the collection.

The book concluded with Gutkind’s lengthy retrospective, an unexpected high note. It reads as though Gutkind sat down at his computer, began drafting a casual email to a friend, and 53 pages later, hit send and went to bed. The informal, conversational style felt intimate and, despite its length, informed and engaged and made me root for Gutkind and his underdog genre, even though I know how the story ends – with a commendable 20 years of Creative Nonfiction magazine; many true stories, well told; and some that are even remarkable.


Rating: 3/5 stars

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