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1. [profile] drawgirl is here. WOOT. Bring on the Mexican martinis.

2. New Janet Frame story--posthumous of course--in the New Yorker. It's incredible.

3. Muppet Show soundtrack on repeat in my vehicle.

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Reviewing collections of short stories always strikes me as a profoundly unfair way to approach the form. 99% of the time, short stories are organically complete unto themselves, not designed to be read as a segment of a collection. I always find it hard to review or discuss a collection as a book in its own right.

That disclaimer out of the way, short story collections are the marketable media we've cultivated to get short fiction writers out there in the world. So review I shall.

A.M. Homes is infinitely more suited to the short form than the long form. Her terse, caustic wit, paired with her amazing capacity for empathy can sustain short work. In long work she invariably succumbs to the contrasting poles of Sentimentality or Scorn (compare the overly sweet Jack to the mean-spirited Music for Torching), and you're left with very little either way. She's first and foremost a humorist; her best work pairs the absurd with the sad, the ridiculous with the lonely. Her adults invariably behave and speak like children, and in this flattened out and almost cartoonish moral landscape, Homes is free to explore the naked desires and confusions of the contemporary setting.

Things You Should Know
is a collection that has upped the stakes from Homes' previous work; the author seems to have turned her gaze towards questions of identity in a world of landslides (figurative and literal). Whether we peer through a shapeshifting coyote's eyes at a Californian teenager dieting herself to oblivion, or follow Nancy Reagan on the tightrope between anonymity and celebrity while dealing with her husband's illness, Homes explores the liminal spaces of selfhood. The best of the stories here are restrained and unadorned, leaving the reader room to negotiate the moral and ethical obstacles established everywhere we go.

There are a few stories here that feel like toss-offs (especially compared to the really outstanding stories nestled right next to them). Again, here's that problem I refer to above; the collection as a whole feels uneven, but some of the individual stories are quite brilliant.

I'm a style junkie, and Homes' deliberate spareness gives me little to revel in from a prose standpoint. That said, in the stripped-down texture of her writing, other elements of her work shine: mind and eye are more important than tongue here. At their best, these stories are hilarious, heartbreaking, and amazingly clever.
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Children are Civilians Too is a collection of Heinrich Böll's earliest short stories, set either during or after the second World War. On the back of my copy is a quote from Joseph Heller: “ Böll combines mammoth intelligence with a literary outlook that is masterful and unique.” The quote itself is bland, but the connection between Heller and Böll is an interesting one. More than anything, what links the two men is a profound understanding of not just the horror and misery of war, but of its fundamental absurdities.

Böll is at his best when detailing the struggles of civilians after the war is over. There's a lyrical simplicity to the best of these stories that steers away from the obvious pain and pathos available at every turn when describing a people ravaged by war. Rather,  Böll steps away from that pathos and towards the simple fact of making-do that occupies his characters. Amongst the strongest in the collection is “The Man With the Knives,” about a man whose friend makes a living during a knife show: “Perhaps one of them, just one, will go home and not forget me. 'That man with the knife, for Christ's sake, he wasn't scared, and I'm scared all the time, for Christ's sake,' maybe that's what he'll say because they're all scared, all the time. They trail their fear behind them like a heavy shadow, and it makes me happy if they can forget about it and laugh a little.” And of course, by the end of the story, the protagonist is in the show, knives flying at his head: without fear for just one moment. In another story a man takes a job counting people crossing a bridge, for the statisticians, but he sabotages his numbers by refusing to count a beautiful young woman every day, a tiny rebellion against numbers and commodification. And in the story “Black Sheep,” a man fulfills his destiny as a useless slacker, one of the few people in the family not bent to mindless productivity.  Everywhere amongst people with dreary, painful jobs and lives, there are tiny moments of beauty, strength, and humanity.

Other stories describe soldiers killing boredom with drunken meanderings, men dying in ditches and tiny shacks, men tucked away in prison camps. One incredible story, “Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We...” depicts a man brought to a high school that's been converted to a wartime surgery, and too late recognizing it as the high school he departed only months earlier as the doctors remove his leg.

By and large the stories are beautiful, and felt timely, given the constant news of a far-off war we don't always see the fall-out of. There are a few places where  Böll's careful tone slips towards the sentimental, particularly in a few of the war stories; that said, erring on the side of pathos over detachment feels the right literary choice in a book about eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds losing their lives to the hubris and foolishness of their elders. To anyone interested in an intellectual and yet touching account of man at war, I certainly recommend this particular book.
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Deborah Eisenberg was one of the writers I tried most fervently to emulate when I was younger. When I was eighteen I read an article in Harpers' by Francine Prose, about the set of expectations readers bring to female writers of fiction. Prose mentioned a number of contemporary women who write savage, intelligent, complex fiction (as opposed to the aching domestic novels that Prose claims many people think of when the phrase "woman writer" enters a conversation). Two of those writers, Mary Gaitskill and Deborah Eisenberg, have been incredibly important to me over the years in different ways.

My emulations were pretty feeble, honestly. This is because Eisenberg writes some of the most complicated short stories I have ever read. They're long, they're densely layered, and plot typically fades into the background of something more nuanced. One of the blurbs on the back of her newest book, Twilight of the Superheroes, says this: "Ms. Eisenberg writes big, risky, quick but thickly textured fiction that has the energy, breadth, and social imagination we associate with large seriocomic novels." A pompous way to say it, but it's true. Her short fiction is as ambitious, as rich, as, say, Franzen's Corrections or Moody's Ice Storm. In my opinion, this is absolutely no exaggeration.

Her stories don't work the same way most short stories do; for one thing they're incredibly long, some almost sixty pages. This means you can't consider the story a flirtation, a brief affair. Most short stories are appealing because you can read them in a sitting, while waiting for the bus or on a lunch break or what have you. You really have to clear your schedule for Eisenberg's (and it's worth it). There's never some easy to swallow "epiphany" at the end; the fiction is much more interested in experience than some kind of moral lesson or unveiling or pat bow-tied ending. The stories in Twilight of the Superheroes come from different angles: one charts the internal territory of a man whose love for his schizophrenic sister contorts his feelings about family in general. In another, a group of young New Yorkers are about to lose their sublet (an extravagent penthouse that, only a few years earlier, became an image of hell looming directly over the Twin Towers). The story explores the diminishments of maturity, the struggle of youth meeting a world that doesn't match expectations. In "Window," a young woman recalls her intense relationship with a gun-peddler who lived in a cabin, both the intense glittering highs of their relationship, and the brutal culmination.

Describing the subject matter seems to deny her work justice. At heart, what works in an Eisenberg story is the way the internal world collides with the external. It's sometimes funny and sometimes horrible and sometimes very sad. Innocents are abroad in her stories, and not-so-innocents as well. We don't watch her characters or follow them so much as sink directly into them, like it or not.

She's a hard damn person to do a brief critique on. If you're a fan of Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, or Jennifer Egan, some of the same things that I love in all those writers are things I love here. But then too there's something just intensely specific about Eisenberg, some idiosyncracy that's hard to touch upon but that makes her fiction incandescent.


Nov. 16th, 2006 08:43 am
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Oh, Ladies of Grace Adieu...you had me at Susanna Clarke, you really did. You didn't have to throw in Charles Vess to make me love you.

But I'm glad you did. 

Is it weird that I want to hug a book?
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Recently, [livejournal.com profile] te_amo_azul introduced me to the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. A few weeks ago I finished reading her collection of short work, Soulstorm. Frequently I find with translations of literature from cultures not my own, the process of reading is much slower for me—it’s not that the work isn’t good so much as that I’m trying to make synaptic leaps across things that don’t translate well or cultural disparities that I then have to process. 

the rest of the review... )
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Reason #576 you wish you lived in Portland (or are glad you live in Portland): Powells readings.

Tonight we went and heard Kelly Link. She read a new-ish piece about an undead girlfriend. I was glad [profile] hplovescats went, since when I think "undead girlfriend" I think "my boyfriend." Link was either a much more serious person than I expected, or a much shyer person than I expected--it could have been either one (just compared to, like, Aimee Bender, who writes oddball stuff and is kind of an oddball herself, Link seemed pretty sober). The crowd was pretty small, but it's a Friday and people were probably thinking bars more than bookstores. Well, people that aren't huge nerds.

A person can be an asshole and still be a good writer; I don't worry too much about a writer being a nice person, I worry about them being a good writer. That said, it's always an absolute blessing to encounter a writer who is kind. One test for this is how well they stand up to the book signing and the questions. I stood in line for a while with my books, and overheard a number of conversations. One girl, tripping over her own tongue with awkwardness, blurted that she wanted to write "just like" Link. In front of me was an overly made-up teenaged girl who could barely speak for shyness when she handed over her copy of Magic for Beginners. Link, for her part, responded to everyone with absolute generosity. Quiet words of encouragement. And when she smiled at the teenager in front of me, it was with about a million beautiful watts.

She was also incredibly secure about her own work, which I really liked. By that I mean she knows what she wants to write, and she writes it. There is zero angst about "what kind of stories" she writes, about genre and about all that nonsense. I raised my hand during Q&A to inquire what she reads, and she mentioned primarily YA books (M.T. Anderson and Holly Black) and also a set of straight fantasy books by Naomi Novik. It surprised me not to hear any of the other "kitchen sink magical realists" on the list--but it was kind of neat that she mentioned all these writers who might get missed by a mainstream audience.

Anyway, I mentioned to her that it amused me that reviewers call her whimsical and charming, because while I don't disagree with them I also find her to be one of the only writers to consistently scare the living shit out of me. "Stone Animals" was one of the most terrifying stories I ever read. She seemed to get a big kick out of that.

Now I would like to go to sleep, but Mr. Lovescats seems to be having some serious sleep apnea business going on tonight, because his snores are like Chinese water torture and it's making me crazy. So instead I'm here, typing this up, watching a Pixies concert on PBS.

The Pixies. On PBS. Does this mean I'm old?


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