After reading Against Interpretation, these stories are as cerebral and absent of symbolic content as I expected. Sontag plays with form rather than creating complex plots laden with meanings, and there isn’t an extensive amount of descriptive detail. Nearly all the stories are written from some kind of ﬁrst person perspective, though not in the traditional narrative sense in which it enables a feeling that the reader is somehow inside that character’s mind, privy to any passing thought. In “Old Complaints Revisited,” the narrator admits to purposefully obfuscating their identity:
But I don’t want to go into too much detail. I’m afraid of your losing the sense of my problem as a general one.
That’s why I have...more
There are many unbelievable things in this epistolary novel inspired by Maria Semple’s move from LA to Seattle, but maybe the biggest is that average people would write such long, detailed emails — and, at times, faxes? Semple found Seattle’s crunchy, sustainable culture hard to stomach at ﬁrst, which is how the book begins with a report card from a private school where the grades are all phrased around “excellence” so as not to erode any kids’ self-esteem. These digs at West Coast liberalism can be fairly entertaining, but it makes it a bit harder to develop much connection to the characters through the “satire of privilege.”
The family at the center of the book includes the stunningly brilliant child Bee,...more
If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak. I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former, rejecting the political claims repeatedly made by the so-called left for a poetry radical only in its unpopularity.
It’s clear early on that either the insuﬀerably narcissistic poet that centers this story...more
I hadn’t thought about Ruth Ozeki much in the many years since I read My Year of Meats. A Tale for the Time Being has some comparable elements, including multiple points of view and semi-parallel story lines as well as similarities to Ozeki’s life and identity. Though this one takes it a bit further with a main character named Ruth who lives with her husband Oliver on an island in British Columbia, apparently similar to the one Ozeki lives in when she’s not in New York City.
Ruth is struggling to work on a memoir about her mother’s long illness and death when she discovers a lunchbox washed up on the shore containing several mysterious things, including a diary...more
I remember hearing about Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead years ago, probably when it was published in 2004, and it’s probably still on some misplaced reading list somewhere. But it wasn’t until friends were recently appreciating Housekeeping, her ﬁrst, so eﬀusively that I was reminded.
The western mountain town Fingerbone is almost a character on its own with its glacial lake that has claimed both the grandfather (through a “spectacular train wreck”) and the mother (who succeeded in driving oﬀ a cliﬀ into it on her second attempt) of two sisters. They remain in the family house being raised by a progression of family members, eventually settling into an uneasy life with their aunt Sylvie, a drifter at heart. The...more
Katherine Anne Porter
I stole this book for my own reading list from the responses to a friend’s request for book suggestions not too long ago. While trying to determine what to read and skimming through my list, I browsed some synopses and reviews of Pale Horse, Pale Rider and found this comment: “Katherine Anne Porter is a woman who spent a great deal of time fretting over semicolons” — the deciding factor in adding this to my library queue.
Porter considered these three stories short novels, but I feel they are more like long shorts — a subtle diﬀerence. It’s hard to tell if they are ordered by ascending caliber or if they are all equally good and they build on each other. I feel like...more
After no Pulitzer Prize for ﬁction was awarded last year, people who care about such things worried that it could happen again. Instead this novel set in North Korea was recognized for 2013, one of a few awards it’s garnered so far. Initially I wasn’t too intrigued by the reviews, but I guess I was swayed by the accolades.
The ﬁrst part of the book is the biography of a citizen named Jun Do (which is purposefully similar to that appellation for people lacking known identities) and is a pretty straightforward narrative of his life, and that life is mostly him being coerced into various acts against his will while trying to maintain some semblance of idealism. I think...more
It’s hard not to think of Benh Zeitlin’s beautiful ﬁlm Beasts of the Southern Wild while reading this book that is also centered around an impoverished bayou community bracing for an approaching hurricane. The heroines also have similar ﬁerceness nestled in vulnerability and struggle with the absence of their mothers but the presence of wounded fathers.
But Salvage the Bones is speciﬁcally set around Hurricane Katrina, and Esch is both older and less isolated with a troop of brothers. She has a reputation for sleeping with any boy who comes on to her, and at the beginning of the story, she discovers she is pregnant. The parallel between her noticing the changes in her body as news of...more
Partway into this collection, Teri tweeted a link to this comment thread on a Hairpin advice post, prompting a brief discussion of Díaz and how autobiographical his work might be. Since I haven’t read much about him as a person before, I wasn’t aware that his character Yunior, who is the centerpiece of this collection of stories, is really quite similar to him, making much of his ﬁction pretty true-to-life. That awareness made some of the stories more uncomfortable to read than others, notably those that are primarily about Yunior’s womanizing tendencies. One could read these potentially misogynistic moments as highlighting the struggles of Latino masculinity, yet there’s a line between deconstructive exploration and stubborn gloriﬁcation that shifts...more
I always feel I should like George Saunders more than I do; when The New York Times emphatically declared this “the best book you’ll read this year,” I thought perhaps these would be the stories that would teach me to love him. The ﬂaw in this thinking being that I read several of them when they ran in The New Yorker. I plodded through “Escape from Spiderhead” both times I read it.
What I ﬁnd tough about Saunders is the hopelessness of his dystopian satire. I see the humor, I appreciate the spareness of his prose, but emotionally his stories just bum me out. There are too many characters trying so pointlessly to be better people — ”pointlessly” because in...more