They’ve just announced this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize:
I’m thrilled at this news. Not only is Lydia Davis one of my favorite writers, she is also a short story writer and a supreme translator (in fact, the only thing I have reviewed here from her is her translation of Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (here); we’ve even done a podcast on it (here)). Click here for the official press release.
A deserving winner, indeed, from a very good list of finalists. I’d have been happy with almost any of them winning, truth be told, but I’m feeling particularly happy that it went to Davis. Davis is not the first short story writer that the Man Booker International Prize has chosen to honor. In 2009, the award went to another of my favorite writers, Alice Munro.
Stepping back, it’s worth pausing a moment to look at the five winners of the Man Booker International Prize
- 2005: Ismail Kadare
- 2007: Chinua Achebe
- 2009: Alice Munro
- 2011: Philip Roth
- 2013: Lydia Davis
Four of these winners write in English (the last four, in fact). The last three have all been from North America. They happen to be three of my favorite authors, so I have no problems with them winning this award — truly. Also it would undermine the integrity of the award if judges decided it would be inappropriate to award, say, Lydia Davis because of those who’ve already won the award. They should be judging their finalists and choosing the one they think deserves the prize in that particular year. And, of course, these authors are all different from the other. Just because Lydia Davis and Alice Munro both write short stories does not mean they write in nearly the same vein. Just because Lydia Davis and Philip Roth are both from the United States does not mean there are any other similarities.
Still, this international prize has not felt particularly international, and, while I don’t think we can use that to criticize the prize or the judges, I do think it shows the difficulties inherent in putting together an award like this. Perhaps the best way we readers can use this prize is to consider Davis a worthy winner and seek out work from all of the finalists.
Leandro Sarmatz’s “The Count” (“O Conde”; tr. from the Portuguese by Peter Bush) is the ninth story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This relatively short piece (only five pages) centers around Emil Fleischer, a Yiddish actor from Czernowitz, before and after World War II. He is known as the Count due to his specialty performance: Count Dracula. When the story begins, he has just been released from a concentration camp in Poland. We are told that he survived the experience, at least in part, because he fed on a dream of going to America, an example of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl’s psychotherapeutic method.
Indeed, the Count, though “he suffered privations nobody can ever anticipate,” recognizes that he’s passed over that terrible time better off than most: “Besides, he seemed to have an iron constitution. There was a touch of magic in surviving all that.” Prior to being placed in the concentration camp, he survived a couple of certain-death situations because of his acting skills and his knowledge of German. And now, released, things seem to be moving in the right direction. He’s had a few comfortable nights, finally, with plenty to eat, and he’s decided to visit Czernowitz one last time — “before it was swallowed up by the death machine” — and then head to America to realize the dream that kept him alive.
It’s an interesting story about being caught up in the trappings of history and about the ironies of fate. In fact, the irony is so pronounced it might feel a bit cheap. In other words, if you don’t like O’Henry, this story may not do much for you. I’m afraid it didn’t do much for me.
Long out of print in the United States, Astragal (L’Astragale, 1965; tr. from the French by Patsy Southgate, 1967) came to New Directions in a wonderful way. One day Barbara Epler, publisher and president of New Directions, was talking to Patti Smith about favorite authors when Smith brought up Albertine Sarrazin. Epler admitted she had never heard of Sarrazin. Obviously, when she did sit down to read it Astragal made an impact as New Directions has brought back to us this fantastic book by this tragic author.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
I can’t imagine how this book must have felt when it was published back in 1965. What was more shocking, its autobiographical content — Sarrazin wrote it in when she was 19 while in prison — or the detailed, immediate style by which that content is conveyed?
The story opens up with sudden action: “The sky had lifted at least thirty feet.” Anne, a young woman who has been in prison for some time, has just jumped from the thirty-foot wall of her prison. She doesn’t know it quite yet, but in the process she has nearly destroyed her ankle — her astragal, something that will soon become a symbol of her never-ending captivity imposed by a seemingly never-ending list of captors.
Luckily for Anne, she is still able to drag herself on the “soles of [her] kneecaps] to the nearby highway, where she is eventually found by Julien, a man who says he will help. She trusts Julien, knowing that he, like her, has been a prisoner:
There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day.
Julien takes her to his mother’s house, a place with kind children, something Anne never knew since her own childhood had been so cruel. Though she puts up a fight, Anne knows that “Julien was calling me back to man,” and she longs for his visits. His visits are rare, though, because he himself is in trouble with the police and is technically not supposed to be at his mother’s home.
But, in some ways, Anne’s freedom is worse than prison. Due to her ankle, she cannot leave her bed — or, her rectangle, as she calls it. Sometimes the pain is so terrible she just wants to end it all, even if it means going back to prison. At other times — sometimes just a few lines later — she finds the will to defy, to get a few inches closer to freedom. If they take her back, at least she will be a bit farther away when they catch up to her.
There are also true moments of peace, almost an idyll, as the young man and woman stick together under cover (the reference to Jean-Luc Godard is absolutely fitting, and I don’t mind saying that the whole time I had Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in mind; Pierrot le Fou also hit the world in 1965):
And Julien pulls the bidet, by its iron legs, out from under the sink. We flick our cigarettes into it: We are saved, we have all the time in the world; hot stagnating time, time which passes minute by minute, quietly, calmly, whispering.
These moments of peace also had me thinking of a film: the fantastic treehouse that Kit and Holly take refuge in while they run from the law in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, from 1973. (Bonnie and Clyde was made into a film in 1967.)
Much of this is autobiographical. While it is not necessary to know Sarrazin’s story to enjoy Astragal, I found it deepened its impact on me. Likewise, Patti Smith’s own personal introduction to the book ushered me into the personal realm, a realm that wants to trust but cannot because trust has never paid off. With trust, there is always the possibility you will be betrayed and capture; but without trust, one is never free — if freedom is a possibility at all.
The winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was just announced.
- The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker; tr from the Dutch by David Colmer (in the U.S. this book was published as Ten White Geese)
Exciting news! I haven’t read The Detour (or Ten White Geese) yet, but Bakker’s The Twin is one of those great books that I think about often (my review here). I look forward to reading this winner.
Also, Andrés Neuman received a special citation for Traveler of the Century (my review here).
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Steven Millhauser’s “Thirteen Wives” was originally published in the May 27, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Steven Millhauser’s “Thirteen wives” is a mix of fiction, fantasy, advice, and memoir, and it’s magnificent. In thirteen parts, ostensibly told by a man with thirteen wives, the story weaves a vision of being a husband in a union that is as various as the weather and as real, all told in a voice that is funny and touching by turns.
In this particular spring, with its terrible storms and human havoc, Millhauser’s affection for life and wife is moving. These thirteen wives might be a wish; they might be an amalgam of wives he’s had; they might be his one wife all wrapped up in thirteen ribbons. I like to think they are a way of talking about one wife, because I can imagine one woman being so multiple, one marriage being so various. In fact, in the first story, Millhauser hints that these thirteen women are one woman when he says:
Unhappy that I’ve had such thoughts, and uncertain what to do, I seek out the one person who’s sure to understand; when I seize her in my arms and look into her eyes, I see the same melancholy, the same longing for something unknown; and as I burst into a dark, uneasy laugh, I hear, all over the room, like the cries of many animals, the sound of her own troubling laughter.
That he hears the cries of many animals in his wife’s laughter prepares us to think of each of the thirteen wives as facets of one person. If I had a son getting married this spring, I’d give him this story. I love the description Millhauser makes of the wife who makes of her marriage two people who are partners in love, each one making the other the other’s favorite breakfast. Each possible “wife” is different from the last: one is devoted, one is cranky, one is a dream of a handy-woman, and some are impossible, like the artist and the woman who sleeps with a sword in the bed to protect her vow of . . . what? The fellow telling us the story wonders if it is that she wants him to “love her fiercely enough to smash through arbitrary prohibition.” And then there is the mysterious ninth wife, the one from whom he hears “a dim whirring,” she being the one who stares past him.
I am so touched by the wife who is ill and her husband’s care of her, but also touched by his sense of all the women who interest him who will never be his wife, and I am touched by the twelfth wife, the one who “is the sum of all that did not happen between us.” That paragraph is masterful, coming as it does after the brisk, efficient wife who can repair anything. No, the twelfth wife is a “negative,” she is the tender moments that might have been, the moments they, or he, or she, lacked the energy to create. Wryly, he says, “All lovers envy us.” Envy that could-have-been life.
I notice that Millhauser leaves aside money, children, religion and politics, the grit in every marriage. I’m just as glad he did. It’s spring. The lilacs are in bloom, and it’s fitting to honor the season and marriage itself with hopefulness, even bittersweet hopefulness, given that these wives have a tendency to be both driven and self-absorbed. No wonder he thinks several times of what might have been — things never shared that could have been, women seen who might have been, in other circumstances, known. He wonders if the story will “prove useful to others.” I leave that question to the rest of you, though.
He makes me wonder, however, if in the one husband I do have, are there actually thirteen? If I tried to tell that tale, for the fun of it, I would only hope I could be so gentle as Millhauser as I wove my tale. That tone is hard to sustain, by turns wry, revealing, funny, desperately honest, and forgiving. Well. That’s what I was searching for: that there is a treasuring voice here. In these hard times, that voice is a tonic.
As I read this, I had many of the same thoughts as Betsy: are these thirteen wives really just the various aspects of his one wife? And, oh, how nicely he conveys his affection for each and every one, even those who might be more trying — indeed, he needs those as much as he needs the ones who are solicitous to his needs in the extreme.
When he begins talking about each wife, the narrator says:
Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives. Whether this solution to the difficult problem of marriage is one that will prove useful to others, or whether my approach will add nothing to the sum of human knowledge, is not for me to say. I say only that, speaking strictly for myself, there could have been no other way.
He then begins to tell us about each of his wives, and in the process we remember something we already knew: Millhauser is our premier Romantic. His ability to capture the emotional yearning in poetic and exhaustive descriptions is unrivaled these days.
Each wife is very different from the others. His first is his equal in all things, so much so that if he trips she falls. They are there 100% for each other, both giving and accepting at all times:
Another time, when things weren’t going well with me, I woke in the night and feared she might be suicidally depressed; when I rushed into the hall, I nearly collided with her, hurrying toward me with her arms held wide and a look of rescue in her eyes.
This description of his first wive has many surprises (as I said, here and elsewhere, Millhauser keeps digging when most of us would stop), as do the descriptions of the remaining twelve wives. His second wife is the supreme comforter; he goes to her when “I am feeling hopeless about my life, when my hands hang from my sleeves, when, catching sight of myself in a plate-glass window, I turn violently away, but not before I turn violently away.” When he is in “a more robust mood” he goes to his third wife, “who never spoils me.” His love for his fourth wife is perfect, which causes him some concern, fearing that this will make him take it for granted. He admits he desires some imperfection:
Why should I sometimes dream of complaining bitterly, shouting at the top of my voice, accusing her of ruining my life? Why should I long to provoke, in the clear eyes of my fourth wife, the first shadow of disappointment and pain?
He and his eighth wife sleep with a sword between them. “If I love her, I must not touch her; to do so would be to violate a vow that she herself exacted.” In this section, Millhauser’s narrator examines the nature of love and passion; the consummation is only an inch away, an inch that immeasurably increases his desire for her. Is this a test to see if he really loves her? Certainly, but how does he pass it? If he violates the vow, won’t he be showing that he cares nothing for the vow, wants her only physically? And what if the vow is a pretext set up to test just how much he does want her; if he really wants her, he will break the vow. It’s a conundrum he cannot break, so he knows things will stay this way between them — unless by accepting they will stay this way he lets down his guard and breaks the vow. Such are the ever-deepening circles of Millhauser.
This is high Romanticism, complete with a fevered wife the narrator is already mourning, kissing her in hopes he’ll catch the same fever. There’s even a wife who is a “negative woman,” meaning “she is the sum of all that did not happen between us.”
Remarkably, Millhauser uses these Romantic tropes to fresh and tender effect. We are convinced that the narrator loves each and every one of these wives, or each and every one of these aspects in his single wife, including all of the potentialities that have yet to be fulfilled and may never be fulfilled.
Laura Erber’s “That Wind Blowing Through the Plaza” (“Aquele vento na praça”; tr. from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin) is the eighth story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Besides being a writer, Laura Erber is also a visual artist, and this ambitious story, filled with representations and doubles, in part deals with the purpose — or, rather, problem — of art and its ability to represent reality and come to mean something, the difference (maybe) between fetish and genuine desire.
This story takes place shortly after the death of the famous Romanian visual artist Paul Neagu, who died in 2004. Neagu liked to play around on the boundary between life and art, going so far as to invent names of other artists and assuming their identities. Our narrator, a visual artist also, has assumed the name Philip Honeysuckle, which was one of the fictitious members of the Generative Art Group created by Neagu in 1972. We don’t know the narrator’s true name, and most art critics wouldn’t care.
The Tate commissions Honeysuckle to go to Bucharest to purchase some of Neagu’s censored works for a display in London. He reinforces in the first paragraph that he went to Bucharest only to collection this work, but somewhere along the way he is waylaid: “I went to Bucharest for Neagu’s boxes, I met Martina and returned with old Stefan’s things.”
Martina and Stefan Ptyx, daughter and father, perhaps have a box of Neagu’s work, but when our narrator meets them he stops caring much about Neagu. First, Martina is an enigma. He loves the smell of her hair and knows she casts a spell on all those around her. Second, Stefan himself turns out to be old and not all there. He now spends his days writing out, word for word, the complete works of Balzac. The person who gave Stefan the works of Balzac? Barthes. That is Roland Barthes, who analyzed Balzac’s “Sarrasine” line by line in his famous S/Z, a landmark work that is located more or less on the line between structuralism and post-structuralism, or, in other words, a transition from the idea that meaning is derived from larger structures to the idea that everything is simply too unstable and complex and, therefore, deriving meaning is impossible.
So how does that fit in here? I find it interesting that the story is about a quest to collection some art but is entitled “That Wind Blowing Through the Plaza,” a physical sensation that is not derived from art — except, of course, it is here since we are merely reading these words. The title tears us away from a reading that focuses simply on Honeysuckle’s encounter with the Ptyx. It suggests that inside this small story is larger world. Yet, within this story is a very small world, the Ptyx’s world. Martina watches over her father, purposefully avoiding the larger world, not even interested in tending their garden; meanwhile, old man Ptyx “has no apparent ambitions besides the alienating pleasure of manually copying the printed words of his favorite author.” Honeysuckle finds this “a far more powerful sight” than any performance art he’s every witnessed.
And perhaps the Ptyx family actually is just putting on a show:
Perhaps this was an elaborate drama put on especially for idiot visitors like me. Perhaps those boxes weren’t even Neagu’s, perhaps the old man wasn’t hurt or sick, perhaps that wasn’t the house where they lived, perhaps they weren’t even father and daughter, perhaps they weren’t even named Martina and Stefan. What kind of name was Ptyx? It was too poetic a surname to be real.
What does all of this mean? Honeysuckle, relieved, doesn’t know.
Not art, not travel, not Pythia at Delphi, not the constancy of mourning, not scandalous visions, not divine manifestations, not mobile wealth or heavy metals, not true genius, not the calculation of pleasure, not the mortal child sucking a lollipop next to me, none of it made up a web of significance. Nothing guaranteed that life was more than a collection of fake men and copied novels.
As readers, we may not be satisfied thinking this story was little “more than a collection of fake men and copied novels,” that “none of it made up a web of significance.” But of course the object of the story is to see if it even can add up to anything more. With the large and small worlds contained in this small story, we get the sense that it can — at least, it feels like it can.
Tahmima Anam’s “Anwar Gets Everything” is the third story in Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This piece is an extract from Anam’s forthcoming novel, Shipbreakers, the third in a trilogy she began with A Golden Age (2008) and The Good Muslim (2011). I have seen these books, but I haven’t read them. After reading this extract, though, despite the fact that in some ways it is relatively simple and even predictable, I feel a desire to get caught up.
I did a bit of looking and see that A Golden Age takes place in Bangladesh in the early 1970s, during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Good Muslim appears to move things forward about a decade. I don’t know the exact dates of “Anwar Gets Everything,” but since we are with a group of migrant workers building skyscrapers in Dubai, I’d put us some time after 1990; probably sometime in the early twenty-first century, since the narrator has been in Dubai for nine years when the story begins.
Our narrator is one of the migrant workers, building and cleaning skyscrapers, under the watch of a brutal foreman who docks their meager meals from their meager pay. We get a sense of his brutality from the beginning lines, when the narrator tells us that the foreman likes to send the new guys up the skyscraper:
Some of them have never climbed higher than a tree in their village. Back home the place is flat, flat. I’m here nine years, I know what’s what, so I tell them, don’t look, don’t look. Hold the torch in one hand, like this, and keep your eye on one screw at a time. From here to here, I show them, holding my fingers apart an inch, maybe an inch and a half. Your eyes will see this much, no more. Understand?
It’s a great first paragraph, introducing the terror of being up high on swaying platform, but it also introduces a kind of philosophy of life. Not only does the narrator tell the new guys not to look down when they’re up in the air fifty storeys or more, but he also tells them not to look the foreman in the face. Really, just take one day at a time; don’t let other things in life distract you or you’ll fall. Or, perhaps, you’ll realize you’ve already fallen. At nights the narrator is haunted by the two women he left behind, one whom he loved and one whom he married.
This particular story, though, revolves around a new Pahari kid who shows up perhaps a bit too proud. He looks the foreman in the face and doesn’t mind it when the foreman sends him to the top of a skyscraper:
Worst of all, Pahari kid got hauled up to the top of Bride and nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. He swung like a monkey and laughed his way through the shift. Turns out those tribals like floating on top of buildings, hitched up so the whole world is spread below them.
You can see where this story is heading from pretty early on, and it’s a bit heavy-handed, but that didn’t lessen the impact for me much, particularly since the final, brief section, despite a major shift in perspective, takes us right back the to the themes of the beginning: don’t look. Just keep your eyes on exactly what’s in front of you.
Like Kamila Shamsie’s “Vipers,” “Anwar Gets Everything” is an exemplary extract, exciting and fulfilling on its own while pointing us to the rest of the author’s work.
One of my favorite books is Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel (here) (if you haven’t read that wonderful book about loneliness and love, you should correct that immediately). I was ecstatic, then, when I saw that Melville House was publishing, as part of their Neversink Library, a collaboration between Bioy Casares and his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (Los Que Aman, Odian, 1946 ; tr. from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine & Jessica Ernst Powell, 2013).
Review copy courtesy of Melville House.
The story begins gravely, as Doctor Huberto Huberman prepares to tell us about a murder at the hotel Bosque del Mar:
The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly.
Proud Doctor Huberman takes himself very seriously, in stark contrast to the book itself, which is a lot of fun.
Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is a classic English murder mystery set in a seaside hotel. When the book opens, Doctor Huberman says he went to the hotel to work on a screen adaptation of Petronius’s Satyricon. It’s nearly night, he’s studying his beloved Petronius by the window, and he comes across a paragraph that demands reality in fiction. Yes, Doctor Huberman agrees:
When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality?
But, before he knows it, the lovely Mary Gutiérrez is dead, apparently of strychnine poisoning, and Doctor Huberman himself begins to fill the role of the classic third-party detective, stating for all to to hear: “The dilemma is clear: suicide or murder.”
It’s a funny line that says nothing that is not obvious, but it has that tone; if we were watching a movie, the camera would linger for a moment of gravity before cutting away to another scene. The man who claims to want “reality” begins to treat this murder a classic piece of literature, casting himself as the rational, intelligent member of the group condescending to assist:
I had a melancholy premonition. I thought of my promised vacation, my literary endeavors. I murmured, “Farewell, Petronius,” and delved into the room of the tragedy.
As a conventional mystery, it works quite well, even if this aspect is not the book’s strength. There are several suspects, and the plot twists and turns as we get closer to yet another seemingly false lead. Each guest at the hotel seems to have some reason for committing the crime and some means of ensuring they get away with it. It’ a playful, self-conscious approach to the genre, gracious, respectful, and sarcastic.
For me, the real strength and the source of the greatest fun is the characterization of Huberman, our narrator who hesitates to show himself as anything other than the magnanimous, albeit inconvenienced, hero. There is really only one moment when he begins to admit he was scared and stressed: during much of the book, a sandstorm rages outside, and Huberman gets lost in it at one point, completely unsure where he is or what he knows. He quickly recovers, though, and, despite making what appears to be a blunder later, says:
I will always register my defeats and my victories with equanimity. May nobody call me an ureliable narrator.
My error — if this can be called an error — does not offend me. An ignorant person wouldn’t have committed it. I am a literato, a reader, and as often happens with men of my class, I confused reality with a book.
He got sucked in. Despite his warnings early on, he cannot help but be invigorated by the chase, thinking all along that the mystery would be solvable because, hey, real life is actually less complicated than a mystery plot.
All of this leads to the book’s final line, probably the only line in the book that reminded me tonally of The Invention of Morel. I don’t want to put it here. It may spoil the book, but besides that, it’s a line that’s worth all the build-up. It’s the true mystery.
Last week I reviewed Gregory Spatz’ excellent new collection of short stories, Half as Happy (here). I have had the pleasure of corresponding briefly with Mr. Spatz since then, and we were discussing his favorite short stories. I asked if we could post his list here with some of his thoughts. Thanks for putting this together, Mr. Spatz.
Thirteen Favorite Stories:
Why thirteen? Because it’s a lucky number, actually . . . and it’s three more than ten. Ten gets too much attention. Top ten this, top ten that.
I have my biases, of course. I like big, capacious stories that spread out with an unconventional shape but never lose focus. And the emotional highs and lows.
In no particular order:
1. “The Displaced Person,” Flannery O’Connor: Of the many O’Connor stories worthy of inclusion on any list, I chose this one because, in addition to featuring all of her usual scathing comedy about the foolishness of societal norms, and about the avarice, hubris, stupidity, and misbegotten religious righteousness of so many humans, the story features an actual flesh-and-blood Christ figure in the character of the displaced person himself — something O’Connor doesn’t usually do. To me, that inclusion kicks the story into a higher gear, emotionally, and allows her to give us possibly the most fully worked out picture of her ideals for grace and salvation (with an assist from the ubiquitous peacocks). It’s also astonishing, all these years later, to see how little has changed in the benighted opinions of xenophobes from the more backwards corners of our great nation.
2. “A Painful Case,” James Joyce: What makes this story stand out from the many stories of Joyces’s that I love, is the main character’s level of self-awareness. That he is able to see himself and to understand his emotional/intellectual paralysis in the final moments of the story, and with the same kind of “scrupulous meanness” Joyce so famously used to depict all of his characters in Dubliners, gives this story an extra fullness and poignancy that I find especially moving.
3. “Carried Away,” Alice Munro: As with O’Connor, there are many stories from Munro worthy of inclusion on any favorite list. I chose this one because it has so many of her hallmark elements — stretches of epistolary narration, gruesome death, surprise match-making, huge time scope, multiple viewpoint-characters — and ends with one of the most serenely haunting and logic-defying scenes of transcendence I’ve ever encountered. As many times as I’ve read it, I can’t understand that ending, and I can’t be unmoved by it. It’s a miraculous thing.
4. “Pet Milk,” Stuart Dybek: I love the swirling shape of this story, and how that shape mimics the story’s central image or metaphor — the movement of pet milk through coffee. By spinning sideways and backwards through time, making associative leaps to break its own narrative framework, the story presents us with a moment in time as sweetly condensed and elusive as the taste of pet milk (or of nostalgia) itself.
5. “Lull,” Kelly Link: Every time I read this story I feel turned inside out by its virtuosic inventiveness and crazy handling of time. Backwards narrations featuring none other than Lucifer, and an army of green-skinned women named Susan . . . this is unlike any other story I’ve read.
6. “Last Night,” James Salter: Written with the same detached, scrupulous meanness Joyce used in his stories, “Last Night” builds from the kind of scene most of us shy away from writing — the kind that’s so difficult to do without tipping into melodrama: a husband assisting in his dying wife’s medically induced suicide. And then . . . the story goes where you’d never anticipate. A perfect example of Henry James’s maxim about narrative tension and the need to keep turning the screw ever tighter on the reader.
7. “How To Be a Writer,” Lorrie Moore: One of the funniest and most truthful things about writing ever written.
8. “The Pretty Girl,” Andre Dubus: This story embodies many of the things that I admire in Dubus’s work, particularly his ability to write physical action from so deeply within his characters’ hearts and minds you forget there’s a story in your hands. The prose is dense, crystalline; long lines with a staccato beat. But most of all I admire Dubus’s ability to impart a sense of moral outrage in story action without ever trivializing a thing. I don’t know of another writer who can quite as convincingly and compellingly make you feel the need for and rightness of homicide.
9. “Honey Pie,” Haruki Murakami: I love this story for its inventiveness and heart. In condensed form, it touches on so many of the most enviable aspects of Murakami’s craft and style — the long line of romantic tension, the playful magical elements, hints of meta-fiction, light, uncluttered vivid descriptions, and an ending full of longing that lifts and breaks your heart at the same time. An unabashedly sweet story, as the title suggests, that somehow manages never to feel too sweet. As many times as I’ve read it, I can’t finish it without a knot in my throat.
10. “A Small Good Thing,” Raymond Carver: Among the many brilliant things in this big, heartbreaking story, most brilliant of all to me is Carver’s refusal to fill in any history or back story for the main characters. It’s such a great move because it prevents the reader from making any of the usual causal linkages between the tragic death of the boy and past actions or misdeeds for him or his parents — it disconnects us from any foothold in meaning, pattern or fate, (all the usual ways of making “sense” of tragedy in fiction), leaving us purely face-to-face with loss. No one “earns” what they get. There’s no lesson, no reason. Only loss. And perseverance in the face of loss. Another one I can’t finish without a knot in my throat.
11. “Ecorche: The Flayed Man,” Melissa Pritchard: There’s something so natural in the way this braided historic narrative of multiple parts and viewpoints comes across, the reader can easily forget how ambitious and innovative it is. Vivid, concise, searing, smart and utterly itself. I’m tempted to say something about zombie precursors, but the story is so much better than that.
12. “Break it Down,” Lydia Davis: For me, there’s a kind of release into hilarity that results from the tension between Davis’s deadpan style and the tortuous self-awareness and over thinking her characters are given to. It’s incredibly satisfying. The only writer who gets to me in quite the same way is Franz Kafka. Speaking of . . .
13. “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka: Literary perfection. Of course, Gregor gets all the attention for his famously fantastic transformation into a giant bug, but his is possibly the least important transformation in the story. Who can ever forget the image of that apple thrown at him by his father and stuck in his bug-body carapace, there to fester until he dies? It’s not about Gregor or his transformation after all . . . it’s about his family’s epic self-centeredness coming into its own.
In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post on A.A. Milne’s The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh (here). That post was in response to KevinfromCanada’s “Creating a Reading Legacy” (here). There Kevin says:
Any serious reader knows that one of the most important factors in creating a literate adult is to read to a child. And then to move on to introducing books to the child. And to keep that process going.
I have three young sons. Carter is six, Holland is four, and Calvin is just over a year-and-a-half. We try to read to our children all the time. Kevin’s post isn’t just about reading to children, though; it is also about gifting beautiful books that call out to be read, that demand to be a cherished physical object, passed down through the generations.
So, with this post, I wish to start a new series on this blog, a series devoted to reading and reviewing children’s books, particularly those we might consider heirloom quality, both because the story is timeless and the book itself is beautiful to behold. What better place to start than with The New York Review of Books Children’s Collection, a series of children’s books dedicated to bringing back into print sturdy, beautiful editions of books that should never have gone out of print.
Today marks their release of Palmer Brown’s Hickory (1978). I’m not embarrassed to say this: when I finished reading the book to my boys and it washed over me, I started to cry. Such power from a book about a mouse and a grasshopper.
Review copy courtesy of New York Review of Books Children’s Collection.
The basic story is simple — Hickory, the eldest son of a family of mice who lives in a grandfather clock, decides to move out to the fields where he meets a grasshopper named Hope — but so ellegantly presented. It’s first lines contain the ghost that will haunt us in the end:
Halfway up the stairs of an old farmhouse, on the broad landing, stood a tall grandfather clock, ticking time away. Its face had painted on it a sad-eyed moon which moved with the days of the month. Partway down the front of the walnut case there was a round glass window, so that you could watch the brass pendulum swing and see it tick. And, because there was a hole near one of the feet at the back of the clock, in the bottom there lived a family of mice.
This is where Hickory lives with his parents, his brother Dickory, and his sister Dock. It’s a peaceful home, filled with love, yet, over wonderfully illustrated pages of hi-jinks and an encounter with some field-mice, we come to see that Hickory is restless. One night he is telling stories (we already know he’s going to leave his home in the clock), and we know that his adventure story will come to an end. It’s as if his family does too, and so their comments illuminate this book:
Hickory’s brother said, “It is not fair to begin a story without knowing the end.”
His sister said, “Anyone can guess the ending.”
His mother said, “I do not want to hear it if the ending is sad.”
His father said, “All stories have their endings in their beginnings, if you know where to look.”
This story progresses slowly, a bit like the time and seasons in times of peace and refleciton. It’s nearly half-way through, in fact, when Hickory meets a friend in the field, a grasshopper named Hope, whom Hickory calls Hop for short. Palmer Brown describes the plants and colors as the year begins to speed through, and Hickory begins a quest to save Hop from the impending frost.
I tell you, I thought I knew how this story was going to end – Brown doesn’t keep it secret and, indeed, as father mouse says, it’s there in the first lines — but it doesn’t quite end the way I expected. Rather, it all comes together to become a beautiful rendering of friendship, hope, and the beautiful yet tragic passage of time that left me incapable of speaking.
Carter and Holland picked up on the peace and friendship, and I could see them, two who have experienced the seasons’ turning only a few times, getting a feel for the rhythm of time. I also believe, though, that they understood the book better than any of us realize. Holland in particular seemed more pensive and reverent when we finished, and he has been very protective of Hop in the weeks since we finished the book, as if he also knows that that is the best way to live.
I’ll let them tell you a bit:
What is this story about?
Carter: A mouse. Nothing really happens to the mouse.
Holland: He gets his toes pinched by a booby trap for mice!
What is your favorite thing about the book?
Carter: The beginning where he goes outside.
Holland: Hop. She’s a grasshopper.
What will happen to Hop if the frost comes?
Holland: She would get killed.
Carter: She will die.
So what did they do?
Holland: Find a place to get warm.
Where was that?
Holland [with big eyes]: Nowhere.
Should people read this book?
Carter: Yes. It helped me feel good.
Holland: Yes. Because it’s fun. Every part.