Books about war--and particularly short story collections about war--always suffer in my mind because t"We are part of a long tradition of suffering."
Books about war--and particularly short story collections about war--always suffer in my mind because they inevitably get compared to what I believe is the greatest war collection of all time: The Things They Carried. It is to Phil Klay's enormous credit that much of Redeployment stands ground with that classic.
In fact, at times the first half of Redeployment was like a hybrid of The Things They Carried and the other greatest war novel of all time, Catch 22. This is particularly true in the story "Money as a Weapons System," which fuses the visceral punch of TTTC with Joseph Heller's absurdist take-down of military bureaucracy. Klay, who won the National Book Award for this (his debut publication), proves remarkably adept at balancing gallows humor and sucker-punch dramatic moments.
What I really liked about Redeployment was the way Klay explores many different avenues of the Iraq war to give a full view of its implications. Not all of his characters are on the front lines. We also have vets returning home and struggling to adapt to civilian life, men on the front lines, men who made decisions, and men who worked behind the scenes. The only perspective missing--and this is not insignificant--is a female one. Far too often story collections essentially tell the same story over and over again; Klay's broader scope is far more effective in engaging with his subject matter.
If the collection loses some of its visceral momentum in the second half, ultimately it feels like a modest complaint. The stories are still towering and powerful. My one real complaint (again, a modest one) is that two stories, "Psychological Operations" and "War Stories," feel a touch more forced than the rest. In "Psychological Operations" Klay has an Egyptian-American veteran engaging in a conversation with a recently converted Muslim girl, in which he desperately wants to share his story with her. The problem is that in order to make this happen, Klay has to work harder than he does in the other, more natural stories. It takes some contrivance to get them together, and I'm not sure the story's ending feels natural, either. "War Stories" has the same problem: the set-up feels forced in order to put its main character in a specific situation that will make him feel a certain way and reflect on the war.
Still, even with these minor complaints, Redeployment is a staggering achievement, reflecting all the complexities of war and the soldiers who engage in it without once pandering or becoming preachy. It is also remarkably unbiased in terms of politics.
"You can't know what's in another person's heart."
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlati"You can't know what's in another person's heart."
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlative Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies. It's amazing how easily he slips back into the form after a long absence, not to mention how well he utilizes every page--whether it's a short story or a full novel. Characters go through an entire arc in several pages. They're standard-issue screw-ups, which is Perrotta's specialty, but it's impossible not to feel for them and root for them, even as they make some awful mistakes. In a truly remarkable feat, these characters frequently come to a realization, accept what they have done, begin to rationalize their behavior, and retreat back into denial all on the same page, and it feels completely organic.
"This is what I know: people's hopes go on forever."
I'm going to be blunt here: if This is How You Lose Her isn't already on your reading list, add it"This is what I know: people's hopes go on forever."
I'm going to be blunt here: if This is How You Lose Her isn't already on your reading list, add it. Immediately. Mark my words, it will be appearing on numerous top ten lists for 2012--which is exactly where it belongs.
This is How You Lose Her is luminous. Tremendous. Basically, if you can think of a positive affirmation that ends in '-ous,' it applies. In it, Junot Díaz returns to the short story form of his first book, Drown, spinning tales of love and (mostly) loss in a transcendent style that lays bare the longing, the hope, and the weaknesses of the human heart. And it's funny, too.
I first discovered Junot Díaz when The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was released back in 2007. I was astounded. It was fantastic, and Díaz was so different from any other writer out there. His voice, his characters ... to say that they're like a breath of fresh air is like saying that a glass of water might be nice after a jaunt through the desert. It's not that there aren't any other good writers out there (Hilary Mantel and Jennifer Egan come to mind), it's that Díaz is capturing a point of view that is criminally under-represented in fiction--and he's doing it with panache. Yes, authors like Jhumpa Lahiri have tackled the immigrant experience, and well, but these are not the emotionally repressed, Ivy League-educated denizens of a Lahiri story. These are fiery inner city residents who live and love and curse and screw up with astonishing ferocity and frequency.
Fans of Oscar will be glad to know that Yunior--a young Dominican man born in the DR but raised in New Jersey (perhaps a stand-in for Díaz himself)--is back, framing all but one of the stories in this collection. Through the course of these nine stories we meet Yunior's family, profoundly experience the pain of losing his brother to cancer, and learn about his hopes and dreams even as he hopelessly screws them all up. The chronology of Yunior's life doesn't always add up (in one story his brother Rafa is still alive when Yunior is 17, in another Rafa dies much earlier, for example), but it doesn't matter much. Each story is almost dreamlike anyway, so you just go along for the ride and enjoy. Just like you can't help but love Yunior despite his foibles. Haven't we all, at some point in our lives, not wanted to be a bad guy even as we've actively screwed things up?
Díaz continues to be in top form on every page. I actually ended up reading this collection three times: the first time slowly, to savor every sentence; the second time with an almost manic determination to relive the experience; then I actually went back a third time, armed with a pen to write down my favorite lines on an index card (I ended up needing two of them, despite my ridiculously tiny handwriting). There's so much that is funny and profound, and often at the same time. Describing the Dominican Republic, Yunior remembers mosquitoes that "hum like they're about to inherit the earth." Then he recalls a lost love whose posterior "seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans." On family: "My mom wasn't the effusive type anyway, had one of those event-horizon personalities--s___ just fell into her and you never really knew how she felt about it." On family legacy (destiny?): "Maybe if you were someone else you'd have the discipline to duck the whole thing, but you are your father's son and your brother's brother."
I recommended the hell out of Oscar Wao when it first came out and I'll be doing the same for this book (it's times like these I really miss working in a bookstore). This one would probably be easier to sell, too. Oscar was never exactly a book club type of book, I guess, and most women I know who read it were a little confused. This is How You Lose Her should be a lot more accessible for all audiences.
I wasn't kidding when I said that you should put this at the top of your reading list. So what are you waiting for?
"Life offers more mysteries than there's time to solve. I fancy myself a thinking man, but I haven't solved a single one." Let's begin with the obvious"Life offers more mysteries than there's time to solve. I fancy myself a thinking man, but I haven't solved a single one." Let's begin with the obvious and say that Joseph Epstein is a great writer. I knew this from several essays I had read, and I was interested to see how his writing would translate to fiction. The answer seems to be that his writing's form remains impeccable, but his narratives are disappointingly lifeless to a degree. This is a harsh criticism on my part, and perhaps lifeless is far too strong a word. It's just that even though I enjoyed Epstein's observations I never really felt engaged by his characters or the situations they find themselves in.
Those characters are pretty uniformly intellectual people--academics who have devoted their lives, in varying degrees, to literary pursuits, with varying degrees of success. This is where Epstein's stories shine: capturing the vanities, disappointments, and confusions of academics. The burning shame and envy of the ambitious academic whose talent is vastly inferior to his or her drive. The bewildering ways in which academic smarts can be so wildly different from street smarts. The ways that intellectual drive can alienate you or leave you disconnected from other parts of the world. The fierce competition, the jealousies, the loyalties, etc. Epstein turns through all of the various topics relating to his theme with the ease of a man who has seen them all, alternately condemning and praising the various ways of academics. He seems to love his "high-IQ misfits, blessed with dazzling minds or imaginations but unequipped to take life straight on," but he never fails to see them for who they really are. One group might be derided for lacking "perspective, discrimination, distance, above all moral judgment," and so on. But they always have a quiet dignity. They are noble, working for recognition and respect instead of money. Take the character in one story who "occasionally published poetry in magazines with more contributors than subscribers." Her dogged perseverance is admirable, even if her inability to let her daughter set her own goals in life is decidedly not.
Epstein also has a sharp wit that comes out a little too infrequently for my taste. In one story a character describes his neighbor's daughter by noting that "boys seemed to take no interest in her, and in their crude adolescent way no doubt referred to her (I hoped only behind her back) as a dog or a pig," blissfully unaware that the "crude adolescent" remark was actually his own invention. It's a biting, amusing, and remarkably subtle dig on Epstein's part, and I just wish that there had been more moments like that. Because those moments really let you into the story and interact with the characters (even if it is only to pass judgment), and by and large I found the stories to be impenetrable. The only story I felt engaged in was "Casualty," the second entry in the collection, about one professor's lengthy relationship with an alcoholic colleague. That leaves a whopping thirteen tales that I felt estranged from, which I don't think I need to tell you isn't exactly the best reading experience in the world.
Still, Epstein's writing is superlative. Personally, I think it's better suited for essays. I think I'll continue to read him in that form instead (Snobbery: The American Version is a must read). ...more
“This was love for us, or the best that love could do.” Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a short story collection that truly lives up to it “This was love for us, or the best that love could do.” Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a short story collection that truly lives up to its title. The happenings that populate its pages are bleak indeed, its characters a who’s who of damaged lives and bad decisions. And while parts of it can be a touch too Grand Guignol it is remarkable how Wells Tower manages to make most of it profound and affecting rather than irksome.
It starts with some fine turns of phrase that make depression into something witty (“My hangover was calamitous,” “for quite a while, we’d been nothing but an argument looking for different ways to happen,” etc.). The crosses these characters bear have weight, but they feel less burdensome under Towers’ deft guidance. But what really makes this collection poignant is its author’s ability to empathize with his sad sack subjects – one can almost feel that he has affection for their unique abilities to make messes of their lives, and when he writes about their failures it is with a knowing wink to the reader. It is almost as though Tower takes pride in giving lives of desperation (both quiet and explosively loud) a spotlight – a chance to shine for one brief moment and be understood.
The element of too-muchness does ultimately keep Everything Ravaged from being a great collection, but it remains a very readable work from someone who is definitely a talent to watch. I for one am intrigued to see what he comes up with next....more
The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry reflect characters who are profoundly vexed, but not in a profound way. I Unmitigated, Unreadable Despair
The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry reflect characters who are profoundly vexed, but not in a profound way. It seems that Ms. Gaitskill has contrived both them and their situations with the simple goal of shocking her reader. The stories are visceral, yes, but they lack substance, and the fact that Gaitskill herself seems to harbor nothing but disdain for her characters makes it impossible for the reader to feel anything for them either. That’s all that there is to this collection – a shame, because Gaitskill does seem like a talented writer, albeit one whose brain I would never want to pick over coffee. By the halfway point I began questioning the point in slogging through the rest of the collection, and when I was about seventy-five percent through I gave up. This is not something that I typically do. Yet I have no regrets.
I had decided to read this collection because I was interested in reading Gaitskill’s novel Veronica. Emphasis on was. Instead, I’ll be looking for a writer with a touch of empathy, whose goal is not to shock and appall for no purpose other than the joy of having shocked and appalled.
Bizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikinBizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikingly similar to our own, but where impossibly strange things are dangerously possible. A lonely, ignored woman literally vanishes into thin air after preparing a cup of tea one night. In the titular story, a group of teenagers experiment with laughter as a potentially deadly new drug whose high they cannot resist. A miniaturist becomes obsessed with creating invisible, pristine pieces of art. A tower rises higher and higher into the sky until it finally pierces Heaven itself. A historical society courts controversy by obsessively recording the details of the present (or, as they refer to it, the New Past). In each installment Millhauser skirts the line between fantastic and mundane, sane and insane, to create a collection rich in depth and profundity.
“A book is a dream machine. Its purpose is to take you out of the world.” If this was indeed Millhauser’s intent, he succeeded with aplomb. Each story is grounded in the real world’s sensibilities, but Millhauser’s wild imagination and prose style weave in just the right amount of oddness. I can see that for some, his quirks and outlandish twists could be seen as irksome, but I found myself enthralled with every story and each new take on his themes.
“For we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearances.”
If the stories in the collection’s last segment, “Heretical Histories,” are a touch weaker than the rest, they still stand head and shoulders above the majority of other offerings in the fiction section this year. The stories in Dangerous Laughter are a towering achievement, and Millhauser pulls them off with panache – making this very likely the best new book of 2008.
Also recommended: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Garden of Last Days, and Purple America. ...more
“That was the trouble with Wyoming; everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.”
When it comes to description, Annie Proulx “That was the trouble with Wyoming; everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.”
When it comes to description, Annie Proulx is undoubtedly one of the best and most unique writers out there. With her blunt, unsparing prose, a fierce intellect and a coal black sense of humor, Proulx can paint a vivid and stark portrait of American life, and nowhere is this on better display than in her Wyoming Stories, where the hardscrabble existences of her characters go hand in hand with the bleak words used to describe them. Here’s how she introduces one of her characters in “Them Old Cowboy Songs”: “Archie had a face as smooth as a skinned aspen, his lips barely incised on the surface as though scratched in with a knife.” There’s a paragraph from “The Half-Skinned Steer” in Close Range , the first installment of the Wyoming series, which still gives me the chills years after I first read it.
Proulx’s descriptive power is, primarily, what keeps me coming back to the Wyoming stories, even though neither of the sequels has been able to match the power of Close Range (which also has the distinction of birthing “Brokeback Mountain,” the story the movie was based on). To tell the truth, each installment pales in comparison to the one that preceded it. Proulx has a fascination for fantasy elements that pop up in her stories that doesn’t entirely suit her style (at least not when she’s writing about the devil, who puts in a whopping two appearances in Fine Just the Way it is ). “The Sagebrush Kid,” about a man-eating, giant-size sage plant, captures something of a Twilight Zone vibe that makes it work, and still almost the entire middle section of this collection is taken up with the weakest form of Proulx’s writing. Compare this to only one out-there story in Bad Dirt , and hardly any in Close Range.
The bookends of Fine Just the Way it is are where it truly shines, and sure enough those stories are the ones that play to the intention of the Wyoming stories the best: slice-of-life vignettes that capture the essence of the hard living in such a violent, unpredictable location and the tough breed of human that it takes to live there. “Family Man” opens the collection by spotlighting Ray Forkenbrock, closing out his life in a retirement home and wondering just where the honor in his existence has gone, if there ever was any. Proulx closes it with “Tits-up in a Ditch” (which just might be the best name of a short story ever, although the meaning behind the title makes you feel bad for the immature giggle it gives you when you first catch sight of it), about naïve young Dakotah Lister, who enlists in the army and gets sent to Iraq after a failed marriage leaves her with no job prospects and no way to pay for the son her soon-to-be-ex husband left her with. While there are some winning moments in between, it is these stories that are the real winners in this collection. Aside from the fantasy element that bogs down at least three of the stories, “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl” feels like a research project more than a story (indeed, Proulx pauses to explain that the impetus of the story was the discovery of an ancient fire-pit on her property and the research into Indian buffalo hunting that followed).
All in all, this is an uneven collection for Proulx, a supremely talented writer who may have been looking to shake things up a touch in her third visit to the Wyoming territory.