I came to know of him through a stunner of a lecture he gave at Warren Wilson on complex moments in fiction, in wh...moreRobert Boswell kinda snuck up on me.
I came to know of him through a stunner of a lecture he gave at Warren Wilson on complex moments in fiction, in which he proved he could not only tell a story, but perform it as well. I picked up his book of essays on writing, The Half-Known World, and was beyond impressed at the light he shed on various tricky craft elements – The Half-Known World has become one of my go-to reference texts. All of this, combined with the fact that he’s one of the powerhouse professors at my MFA program, has set me on a mission to read everything he’s written.
Starting with Living to Be 100.
The mechanics of Rain and The Products of Love both begin in familiar places. I thought I could anticipate how those stories would turn out, and I was wrong, on both counts. I’d read Living to Be a Hundred in Best American Short Stories 1989. The pseudo-love triangle that features in story, again, did not end up like I expected. Another thing became clear to me with this one: Boswell can twist a story with a single sentence.
There are some surprising moments of tenderness in The Earth’s Crown, in which a married, but lonely shop keeper finds love and friendship with a woman who comes to a small town to carry her surrogate pregnancy to term.
And then there’s that story.
You know that story, the story that you read it and think, “Whatever else comes in this collection, this story was worth reading the whole thing”? Glissando is that story. It's one of those stories that satisfies me, so completely.
Boswell’s work is steadily realist, very naturalist, yet always surprising, and engaging. He does his business quietly, subtly, yet solidly.
I've become a Shepard 'shipper, really. He's just so, so good.
Many of my favorites from Batting Against Castro are reprinted here: Piano Starts Here,...moreI've become a Shepard 'shipper, really. He's just so, so good.
Many of my favorites from Batting Against Castro are reprinted here: Piano Starts Here, Messiah, Runway, Krakatau, Spending the Night the Poor. But there are lots of newer, wonderful stories included.
I find Shepard most compelling when he's way deep up inside the dysfunctional family. The Gun Lobby, in which a husband is taken hostage by his arms aficionado wife, is a winner from beginning to end. I also really enjoyed The Mortality of Parents, and Glut Your Soul on My Accursed Ugliness.
In a collection as eclectic as this, it's probably normal that not every story will float everyone's boat. I'm less keen on the, to my reading, more "researched" stories, like the one about John Ashcroft. (The boldest exception is Love and Hydrogen, a story about two male lovers aboard the Hindenburg. It was the first Jim Shepard story I ever read, in Best American Short Stories 2002.)
I read all the stories anyway. It's exciting, watching Shepard's depth of feel widen and sharpen into what it will become with Like You'd Understand Anyway.
Jim Shepard is a smart, smart man, and a fantastic writer. One of the best. Go see him read.(less)
It would be a good Discovery Channel special, doctors opening up Jim Shepard's head and poking around in his mammoth, fact-filled brain.
Jim Shepard po...moreIt would be a good Discovery Channel special, doctors opening up Jim Shepard's head and poking around in his mammoth, fact-filled brain.
Jim Shepard possesses a blistering intelligence, and in Batting Against Castro, his earliest collection of short stories, many of the obsessions he revisits in later stories are present - classic horror movies, natural disasters, sports, familial (especially fraternal) tension, angry boys in huge emotional trouble. He doesn't quite make the stratospheric leap that he achieves later with Like You'd Understand Anyway and You Think That's Bad, but with this collection he takes a big ole running jump.
Shepard is the king of voice, the undisputed champion of testosterone-fueled sports bluster. "Batting Against Castro" is one of my favorite short stories in which I understand very little (I know zilch about baseball), but still, I feel every emotional high point he hits in this story. "Messiah" more than presages "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak" from a later collection. But the protagonist of "Piano Starts Here," a man in love, has little of Shepard's typical masculine bravado, and evolutionally feels somewhat early-Shepard. Ditto for the young boy in "Eustace" and the emotionally-withholding main character of "Runway."
Other stories feel like wonderful experiments. "Atomic Tourism" is equal parts suburban holiday malaise and speculative disaster fiction. I'm always impressed with his female characters, including the teenage female protagonist of "Spending the Night with the Poor." One can only imagine how much reading Shepard did to make "Nosferatu" and "Krakatau" fly. In those stories Shepard flexes that research muscle that gets used so much in his later work. This dude knows A LOT about classic horror movies and natural disasters. What might be surprising is the emotional resonance he's able to wring from the characters set in actual historical events.
Many of the stories in Batting Against Castro are reprinted in Love and Hydrogen, but this collection is still more than shelf-worthy.
Whenever you can, go listen to Jim Shepard read. He is a pitch-perfect performer whom everyone should experience at least once.(less)
When I read Gary Lutz I feel like someone is hacking away minute slices of my brain with a cold, stainless steel chisel.
The stories in Divorcer are lo...moreWhen I read Gary Lutz I feel like someone is hacking away minute slices of my brain with a cold, stainless steel chisel.
The stories in Divorcer are longer than the ones in Stories in the Worst Way. I found myself taking frequent breaks from section to section. Lutz doesn't give a shit about the canon, clearly, which is refreshing. He just swings through the dense jungle of his stories on his sentence ropes. He's entirely unexpected. And quite rude, in an admirable way.
Reading him changes me, and that's what good fiction is supposed to do. (less)
Gary Lutz is like my best bad boyfriend - Compelling as hell, he sweeps in like a tornado and rearranges my molecules and exits suddenly, leaving me f...moreGary Lutz is like my best bad boyfriend - Compelling as hell, he sweeps in like a tornado and rearranges my molecules and exits suddenly, leaving me feeling all tingly and wrong.
He is, as others say here, a master of sentences. A sentence-slinger on the Barry Hannah spectrum. I often read a sentence or two and have to turn away from the page, to digest what I've just read, for ten minutes, or for a whole day. Some of these stories are only four or five sentences on a page. They still eat like a meal.
His characters are all modern-day unhappy. They - divorced, unemployed, drifting - do things and they feel things. Sometimes narrative gets lost in the word-by-word. But you know what? It doesn't even matter.
He's an artist, Gary Lutz, on his own gorgeous, fractured, sentence trip.
If you know Jim Shepard's work, you'll know the extent to which this story both true-to-form and a departure for him.
Present are the extraordinary det...moreIf you know Jim Shepard's work, you'll know the extent to which this story both true-to-form and a departure for him.
Present are the extraordinary details that characterize his work; he researched the hell out of this setting, probably, as is his wont. Radical, perhaps, is the female protagonist - a farmer's wife in a harsh, unforgiving environment. The story, told in a series of diary entries, has a tenderness that's revealed only gradually.
Jim Shepard can do anything on the page, I'm coming to believe. He's quickly edging toward "Living Master" status, in my personal book.(less)
I put Joanna Scott in the same universe as Steven Millhauser - their default authorial voices are often encyclopedic and authoritative. They often use...moreI put Joanna Scott in the same universe as Steven Millhauser - their default authorial voices are often encyclopedic and authoritative. They often use historical settings, or they set their stories in other, alternative presents.
Dorothea Dix: Samaritan is the standout in this collection for me. The wheel in this story turns imperceptibly, and yet, by the end, you're in a very different place from where you started.
Let me say this first: Miranda July is a compelling writer. I often *have* to finish her stories when I s...moreI have a strange relationship with this book.
Let me say this first: Miranda July is a compelling writer. I often *have* to finish her stories when I start them. That's worth something. That's worth a heck of a lot, maybe.
I read the stories in this book and I feel...empty. Soulless. Or maybe I feel her characters are. No one is empty and soulless, right? They don't know themselves. And they're not trying. Why should they try?
It's weird. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say.
From a craft standpoint, Miranda July is someone I feel I must study. She draws me through her stories effortlessly, and I want to know how she does that.
But, I'm glad I don't live in her vision of the world. For me, her universe might be a little too cold and blank.(less)