Maureen's Reviews > The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
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Sep 11, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: 2011, short-stories
Read from June 19 to September 11, 2011

Lydia Davis is certainly different, and i can't say i'd read anything quite like this (except in terms of brevity) up until this collection. i can't say i adored it though, or even that i really liked most of what was here. four story collections are combined: Break it down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007), and i want to say as a new reader of hers, i probably did her a disservice by reading her in this fashion, in a complete collection, as the stories she writes would be more palatable if i had an Lydia Davis rss feed and was prescribed just one a day. Reading over some reviews when i was about halfway through break it down made it clear to me I didn't stand a chance of appreciating any of her work by plowing through a collection like this, so i stopped reading it for a while, and then came back to it, chipping away at the collection bit by bit. once i did, i'm afraid i didn't enjoy these stories much more than i did initially. while some of it is really poetic and lovely, a lot of it reminded me of algebraic math problems in cadence and structure, or circular, spiral, repetitive constructions like this:

If she had a husband, she would sit out on the lawn with her husband. She hoped she would have a husband by then, Or still have one. She had once had a husband, and she wasn't surprised she had once had one, didn't have one now, and hoped to have one later in life.
- from "What an Old Woman Will Wear", Break it Down

Henry encounters Jack on the street and asks how his weekend with Laura was. Jack says he hasn't spoken to Laura in at least a month. Henry is angry. He thinks Ellen has been lying to him about Laura. Ellen says she has been telling the truth: Laura told her over the phone that Jack was coming for the weekend to her house up there in the country. Henry is still angry, but now he is angry because he thinks Laura was lying to Ellen when she told her Jack was coming up for the weekend. At this point, with embarrassment, Ellen realizes her mistake: more than one Jack is involved here. Laura said only that Jack was coming to visit her for the weekend, and it was not the Jack that Ellen and Henry know but the Jack that only Ellen knows, and only slightly, who was about to arrive at Laura's house in the country.
-from "Jack in the Country", Almost No Memory

i really didn't like the stories like this, and there were a lot of them -- they seem to recur through all of the collections, and i've taken to calling them in my head "typical Lydia Davis". As i glance through the TOC, i find it difficult to remember individual stories by their names, but there are some i really liked, like "The House Plans", "The Cedar Trees", "Mr. Knockly", in the two early collections. i liked "The Furnace" a lot in the third collection but i was most taken by stories in the last collection, Varieties of Disturbance, "Kafka Cooks Dinner" "Television", "Mrs. D and her maids", and especially the experimental beckett echo "Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho".

i'm giving it three stars** for the selection of stories i liked, and the fact that i'm aware of what a good writer she is, even when i really don't like what she's doing. all of these stories are impeccably crafted, and i'm grateful for her innovation. i'm glad i read Lydia Davis but i think i am done with her, unless somebody shoots me that rss feed.

**okay, i actually can't stick with the three stars because i just really didn't like so many of the other stories. SO MANY. so two stars, as i probably really liked ten percent of the stories here.
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Reading Progress

09/08/2011 page 650
89.0% "with the stories in varieties of disturbance she has finally begun to interest me... and it only took 500+ pages!" 4 comments

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Kerry (new) - added it

Kerry I bought this recently on recommendation from our Patrick. I've read a few of the stories so far and they are tremendous!


message 2: by Kerry (new) - added it

Kerry Did you order or do you have this very edition? I love it! It feels great in your hands with good heft yet a soft feel to the cover and pages. It's just a really lovely edition.


Maureen i did order that edition! it came yesterday and you are so right -- the cover is a great tactile experience. i had reservations about the deckle edge of the paper -- but we'll see if they're borne out when i get reading. :)


message 4: by Kerry (new) - added it

Kerry I understand your reservations, but so far the pages haven't bothered me. Granted, I've only read a handful of stories. I think you'll be fine though.


message 5: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer it is a nifty little book! i'm on my 4th story. :)


Maureen Jennifer wrote: "it is a nifty little book! i'm on my 4th story. :)"

i actually stopped reading it a little while ago -- i was finding that the stories are very much the same, and they were all blurring into one another after a while. i looked at some reviews, and some suggested it wasn't really a good idea to try to read it straight through, but to dip in and out when you felt the need. i think my expectations were too high. i like small stories but i think these might be a little too mundane for me. of course, i'm still in the first collected section "breaking through", so maybe i'll like some of the other ones more. :)


message 7: by Kerry (new) - added it

Kerry I like that idea very much Mo. I only read the first few stories until I had to set it aside to read other things. It might be nice to dip in and out at random. You could use a pencil to make a small tick mark on the ones you read so you don't reread them until you've read them all at least once!


message 8: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer the first 2 really held my attention. paranoia seemed to be the theme. maybe i'll skip to some other sections and give a report! :)


message 9: by Slowrabbit (new)

Slowrabbit even as a fan- i find this collection daunting (though, as i've said elsewhere ...i think it's a beautiful object) and i would imagine it a tricky starting point for anyone who has never read her work. i'm impressed that you trudged right through it. with breaks, of course. even with her original books- i tended to really take my time... a couple stories here and there- i'd go back to my favorites. pass around and share some with others and then move ahead. samuel johnson is indignant may be the only one i read straight thru- but even that wasn't on my first pass. i still haven't tried her novel.
-not sure that you meant it as a compliment, but i like your comparison to "algebraic math problems"-


Maureen marcel! if you have this book already by all means DO DIP sporadically in: really, ideally, the publisher should look into the rss feed. one before bed? a handful a week? that would seem to do it much more justice. i don't know if you need to lag for months, and i'd argue that if you do, maybe you don't like her all that much more than i do, in the grand scheme of things. :)

slowrabbit, i think i do sort of compliment her ability to pull off the algebraic math problem when i say they're impeccably crafted. i think she's a very careful and deliberate writer -- i'd put her on the two inches of ivory list. and i think that's what i'm not crazy about her: it's completely a matter of taste, not talent. ultimately, i think i just do not admire the rhythm of her prose. i want a samba, and she's giving me a waltz, you see? so there's that. and then's there's the subject matter. it's not a surprise that one of my favourites is "The Cedar Trees" because it ranks up there with one of the most whimsical of the bunch. and i tended to like her quirky experiments (like the stories that read like sociological surveys, for example), that's the stuff i really dig (mostly found in that last collection) when she just plays in her expertly crafted experiments and doesn't do typical lydia davis. her stories about being married or wanting to be married, or having a baby, or getting old, that stuff, just isn't for me -- even if it's wise. i don't know, i keep seeing people saying it's humourous, and again, i have no sense of humour so i didn't find the book really funny at all. :)

i thought about what you said about how you read her, and it makes perfect sense, and obviously informed my recommendation to marcel. but i think that's also another strike against her for me: i so rarely read anything that i don't barrel through. i find it difficult not to read quickly. :)

all that blathering of mine aside, i really do see why other people like her. but it seems so calculated in the end. i want to feel the fire. it may just be too WASP-y for me, when all is said and done. :)


message 11: by Kathy (new) - rated it 1 star

Kathy Maureen I loved that you posted some really ridiculous passages from some of her stories. I thought she was just full of herself and totally overdone. My college-aged daughter laughed out loud when I read the one you posted from "What an Old Woman Will Wear"! Thanks for giving me supporting evidence for my opinion.


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