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Can't and Won't

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Here is a new collection of short stories from the writer Rick Moody has called “the best prose stylist in America.”

Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of “Bloomington” reads, “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.” Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in “A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates,” a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert’s correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author’s own dreams, or the dreams of friends.

What does not vary throughout Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis’s fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.

289 pages, Hardcover

First published November 1, 2014

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About the author

Lydia Davis

353 books1,244 followers
Lydia Davis, acclaimed fiction writer and translator, is famous in literary circles for her extremely brief and brilliantly inventive short stories. In fall 2003 she received one of 25 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” awards. In granting the award the MacArthur Foundation praised Davis’s work for showing “how language itself can entertain, how all that what one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader’s interest. . . . Davis grants readers a glimpse of life’s previously invisible details, revealing new sources of philosophical insights and beauty.” In 2013 She was the winner of the Man Booker International prize.

Davis’s recent collection, “Varieties of Disturbance” (May 2007), was featured on the front cover of the “Los Angeles Times Book Review” and garnered a starred review from “Publishers Weekly.” Her “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant” (2001) was praised by “Elle” magazine for its “Highly intelligent, wildly entertaining stories, bound by visionary, philosophical, comic prose—part Gertrude Stein, part Simone Weil, and pure Lydia Davis.”

Davis is also a celebrated translator of French literature into English. The French government named her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters for her fiction and her distinguished translations of works by Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Jean Jouve, Michel Butor and others.

Davis recently published a new translation (the first in more than 80 years) of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, “Swann’s Way” (2003), the first volume of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” A story of childhood and sexual jealousy set in fin de siecle France, “Swann’s Way” is widely regarded as one of the most important literary works of the 20th century.

The “Sunday Telegraph” (London) called the new translation “A triumph [that] will bring this inexhaustible artwork to new audiences throughout the English-speaking world.” Writing for the “Irish Times,” Frank Wynne said, “What soars in this new version is the simplicity of language and fidelity to the cambers of Proust’s prose… Davis’ translation is magnificent, precise.”

Davis’s previous works include “Almost No Memory” (stories, 1997), “The End of the Story” (novel, 1995), “Break It Down” (stories, 1986), “Story and Other Stories” (1983), and “The Thirteenth Woman” (stories, 1976).

Grace Paley wrote of “Almost No Memory” that Lydia Davis is the kind of writer who “makes you say, ‘Oh, at last!’—brains, language, energy, a playfulness with form, and what appears to be a generous nature.” The collection was chosen as one of the “25 Favorite Books of 1997” by the “Voice Literary Supplement” and one of the “100 Best Books of 1997” by the “Los Angeles Times.”

Davis first received serious critical attention for her collection of stories, “Break It Down,” which was selected as a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. The book’s positive critical reception helped Davis win a prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award in 1988.

She is the daughter of Robert Gorham Davis and Hope Hale Davis. From 1974 to 1978 Davis was married to Paul Auster, with whom she has a son, Daniel Auster. Davis is currently married to painter Alan Cote, with whom she has a son, Theo Cote. She is a professor of creative writing at University at Albany, SUNY.
Davis is considered hugely influential by a generation of writers including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, who once wrote that she "blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction."

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5 stars
1,079 (21%)
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1,368 (27%)
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206 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 695 reviews
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
963 reviews6,809 followers
March 23, 2015
A ‘story’ is much more than a plot, and the marvelous Lydia Davis is a master at examining the pliability of the concept of ‘story’. Can’t and Won’t, the most recent collection by Davis, takes a slightly more somber atmosphere than previous collections while exquisitely elevating everyday occurrences to extract the literary elements that exist all around us. These stories range from a mere dozen words or a dozen sentences to a dozen pages, each packed with equal amounts of power and insight. Many of the stories involved are seemingly casual events or observations, such as a woman watching another woman fill out crosswords, mistaking a ‘thank-you’ as directed at you instead of another person or the humorous grammatical mistakes in a note from the paperboy, simple single events that manage to deliver a ‘story’ without needing a progression of plot or character growth. Davis orchestrates deceptively simple stories that work like a thought-prompt, delivering an idea shorn of context that the reader’s brain can’t help but take and run with to examine the story that must be at hand; like a coloring book, Davis’ stories are the outlines that our imagination can’t wait to fill with creative color.

She knows she is in Chicago.
But she does not yet realize that she is in Illinois.

Davis’ stories invite the reader to participate, to find the ‘story’ that shouts in silence from each page. Consider the above story about Chicago. I can’t help but imagine a woman on the Amtrak train—the method of transportation I tend to take into Chicago several times a year—being so excited to look up from her book and see the Chicago skyline for the first time. Moments later, perhaps when breaching the street level from the station and seeing cars whizzing by, she sees the license plates and the different features of a commonly seen object makes her realize ‘this isn’t Michigan, this is Illinois.’ This is the magic Davis works: my mind has created a story, even if mundane, in which her words are a scene, as if our minds waltzed together across the stage of her pages. One story is a list of single-line obituaries and the mind can’t help but wonder what sort of people they were to have the entirety of their lives summed up as so, while another is the scribbling of someone onto a notepad while bored on the phone. Another aspect of her genius is that it takes mundane scenes in their immediacy and views them as if they are the climactic moments of a great novel. In her words, we are all literary characters in the novel of Life, and her style makes us always living in the moment, always highlighted in immediacy as if it were a spotlight.

Under all this dirt
the floor is really very clean.

Davis takes literary theory and form and plays with them like children's toys. A particular favorite, Reversible Story, involves taking an expository paragraph and reversing the order of descriptions. It the first, moving from a concrete mixer for the neighbors wine cellar to the last line ‘their taste in clothes and furniture is strictly lower middle class’, the neighbors seem wealthy through the emphasis on their wine tastes and collection, their low class clothing seeming tacked on. When the order is reversed, the neighbors seem like poor and tacky, senselessly adding a wine cellar to their house. Davis’ examines how easily an author can toy with our perceptions to extract the most from a scene or character. Another story is a list of things the narrator would or would not read from their back-list of magazines, creating a wonderfully abstract angle into the character’s intellect through a listing of their reaction to various articles. Davis finds fun and unique ways of telling a story, from complaint letters to mash-ups of letters from Flaubert (during Davis’ time researching him and translating Madame Bovary) or even dream sequences told to Davis by friends (one of my favorite lines in the book comes from a dream sequence: ‘The sun is very low in the sky now. Its light must be filling the caves by the sea.’) I find the sections labeled ‘dreams’ interesting. I almost wish she hadn’t labeled them as such as I was instantly less inclined to examine them thinking ‘oh this is just a dream’ to explain away any nuance. This is likely my fault as a reader and brings up a discussion on how labels can be damning. Possibly. This is only a minor complaint.

The Language of the Telephone Company
The trouble you reported recently is now working properly.

The stories in Can’t and Won’t transcend form and labels to create unique and perfectly polished gems of fiction and sheer creativity. Everyday life is elevated to the impression of high action and epic proportions and even the most acute of observations and minute details bear the weight of endless literary investigation. Davis has struck gold once again in her inimitable style and the result is breathless brilliance.

This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip—I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.
Profile Image for Rick.
1,003 reviews9 followers
October 12, 2014
ANSWER: "Can't and Won't"
QUESTION: Will I read another book of "stories" by Lydia Davis?
Profile Image for Mala.
158 reviews184 followers
May 28, 2016

3 stars. My first LD– didn't really leave the best impression. It's the kind of book that gets published on the strength of a writer's already solid reputation.

A mixed bag– lots of meh, some pretty impressive stories, esp. those translated/expanded upon from Flaubert.
Her prose is sharp & shines in stories like The Dog Hair, & the Reversible Story, but the voice that comes across in Eating Fish Alone, & The dreadful Mucamas, is highly annoying, almost anal...
What passes here for *Stories* are basically writing exercises, observations, mood pieces, prose haiku kind of thing. Most of the stories seem to be coming from her own life, for example, Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer, forms part of a correspondence that Davis had with the company of Green Giant brand of frozen products, hence those readers, who care about the authorial voice, will be very put off by the uptight, at times whiny voice alternating with the supercilious "look at me, ain't I a genius," kind of vibe here.

A typical example of both writerly excellence & readerly bafflement would be the story The Cows: now, in Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino describes the underside of a gecko as seen from the room of the titular character's upper window & in a couple of brisk paragraphs, makes it seem like the amazing mystery of Creation. Here, Ms. Davis, is clearly delighting in the writerly process but it seems like a challenge set for creative writing students– Here, you have to write on a couple of donkeys doing the things donkeys usually do- now give it your best shot! Something like that.

Here's a sample:

And it just goes on! After this, I don't want to read about cows anymore.
But mercifully most of the stories here are two lines, one paragraph affairs so can easily be finished.
I got a couple of her other books & as I'm an open-minded reader; I'll give her a second chance.

Still, this book has one redeeming quality– it'll give hope to all those students scribbling their life away in all those creative writing courses that, they can write on & abt anything & everything– the quotidian has never been captured in all its yawn-inducing variety as done here.
Don't wait for grand, heroic themes guys; anything goes!

Profile Image for Kristen.
339 reviews41 followers
May 27, 2014
You know how sometimes you come on here, and look at the reviews other readers have left, and thought, "Well, okay, I guess I'll keep going"? Then you finish and find yourself wondering how the book has so many 4 and 5 star reviews. That's where I am right now.

I don't mind the occasional super-short short story; that's fine. In fact, my favorite of this entire book was just that; entitled "Housekeeping Observation", the entire story is this, "Under all this dirt/the floor is really very clean." Which, frankly, anyone who's ever had to clean has probably had a thought like that. And that's the only reason this book is getting two stars, because I was feeling generous due to that above sentence. But there were some stories that were just lists. Some of which, sadly, were more interesting than the longer stories.
Profile Image for Sara Roberts.
10 reviews
September 5, 2014
I'm calling a case of the Emperor has no clothes. I am amazed at the number of 4 and 5 star reviews of this, people calling it "brilliant"?! 20-something pages of descriptions of cows walking and standing. 5 pages of lines from obituaries. The interminable Letter to the Foundation. I forced myself to slog through this, thinking it had to get better or that at some point a light bulb would go on and I'd "get it", but I don't think there's anything to get. I have never read Lydia Davis before but I've heard of her and gathered that this book is meant to be Great Literature. Maybe some of her work is, and I'm willing to try something else, but I've written shopping lists more interesting than the stories in this book.
Profile Image for Uroš Đurković.
622 reviews140 followers
July 30, 2020
Kratka proza nakon koje se drukčije čita.

Prošao sam kroz sve faze – od ravnodušnosti i čak blagog nerviranja do potpunog oduševljenja.
Faze su bile vidljive i u neuravnoteženom toku čitanja – iako me je uvek čudilo kako zbirke priča čitam mnogo duže nego romane, jasno mi je što je to tako. U velikim celinama možeš da se razbaškariš, svet ti postepeno postaje poznat, a njegova pravila jasna. Sa kratkim pričama druga je „priča” – kao kad odeš na more, pokvasiš se i odmah izađeš. I onda se to ponavlja, a telo nikako da se navikne na sredinu.
Pritom, u kratkim (i superkratkim) pričama, narativna ekonomija je potpuno drugačija. Roman u svojoj raspričanosti, za razliku od kratke priče, dozvoljava prazan hod, koji, da se razuememo, zna da mi bude često blizak. Tako obožavam meandriranja, digresije, esejizaciju, a suvo, sveznajuće (i „neutralno”) pripovedanje nije mi privlačno. Jer, kad shvatite i da u nedostatku radnje sve vrvi od događaja i mogućnosti, radnja vam postaje kao da šećerite kolač. „Ne mogu i neću” je odgovor na sveprisutni diktat radnje i konvencija. Ali poetika Lidije Dejvis nije buntovna, avangardna i postmoderna, još manje rušilačka – ona elegantno pokazuje kako strategije pripovedanja nisu iscrpljene. Istovremeno, uspeva nešto zaista neobično – da u veoma kratkim formama odbrani autonomiju proze u odnosu na poeziju. Kad god se povede neka priča o kratkim proznim formama, dogodi se poređenje sa poezijom, pre svega zato što su kratke prozne forme zapravo često neprepoznate kao samostalne. Ovo ne znači, naravno, da u prozi Lidije Dejvis ne postoji poezije, ali ona nije preovlađujuća, niti treba da bude.

Za razliku od kratke priče za koju je potrebna posebna volja, pažnja i ritam, roman često računa na nepažnju čitaoca, čak i kada se čini da nije tako. Ipak, na kraju se računa celina doživljaja – rezonantna moć dela u nečijoj svesti – prelivanje sveta dela u svet čitaoca. Nešto pretekne, nešto ne dobacuje, a nešto, jednostavno, izlapi. Mnogo je razgaziranih priča, a još više zaboravljanja.

Svesna ovoga, Lidija Dejvis, kao briljantan čitalac i izvrstan prevodilac (Prust, Flober, Blanšo!) uspeva da u mnogim pričama nadiđe domete čitavih romana. I to uspeva inovativnom formom koja nikad nije sama sebi svrha, kao i zagrcnutim narativima, intrigantnim i duhovitim u svojim nagoveštajima. Lidija Dejvis zapisuje trenutke iz svakodnevice, (svoje i tuđe) snove, zapise o prevođenju (Flober) & prevozu (avioni i vozovi), imejlove (mahom prigovaračke i ispovedne), ali i najrazličitije spiskove, među kojima su čak i nizovi umrlica, a tu su čak i priče-o-pričama i jezička igra – zapis načinjen na papiru tokom telefoniranja. Uspelost zbirke oslikava se u tome da je više od skupa svojih delova – celine se međusobno prožimaju, a zbirka ima dobar raspored materijala. (Takođe, iako je (para)žanrovska slika zbirke izuzetno bogata, teško je da može da se nađe jedna odrednica koja bi bila nesvodiva, kao flash fiction.)
Književna građa, naravno, po sebi ne znači ništa – možemo imati izuzetno zanimljiv material i neuverljivo delo, ali superiornost Lidije Dejvis očito je u tome što ona uspeva da iskristališe izuzetan trenutak – kao u izuzetnoj priči o kutiji čokoladica, ili u priči u kojoj navodi kakve zvukove izazivaju predmeti u njenom domaćinstvu. Poznati pripovedni tok koji podrazumeva sukob, kulminaciju i rasplet, pobeđen je. Međutim, poneki fragmenti iz života koji deluju potpuno efemerno, poput razmišljanja o tome koje vrste riba treba jesti, kukanja na nemarnost čistačica, veterinarskog izveštaja o mački, posmatranja pokreta krava ili razmišljanja o poklonima, otvorilo mi je nešto retko, nešto raskošno životno. Ne radi se tu o plemenitosti, čak ni srećnom prkosu, već o nepokolobljivosti priče, koja će se izmigoljiti svim nametnutostima, dajući jedan intenzivniji, produbljeniji, svežiji pogled na svet. Priče su svuda, a Lidija Dejvis uspeva da nas načini do-pričavaocima – končići njenih priča upleli su se i u moje svakodnevne, nenapisane, (mikro)narative. Domunđavaju se.

Priče su svuda, a ovo je previše, makar i za najkraći uvod na svetu o zaista vrednoj zbirci.
Samo ću reći da su interpretativne mogućnosti za ovu knjigu nesvakidašnje i da uopšte nemamo ime za ono što Lidija Dejvis radi. Nije to ni post-postmodenizam ni tzv. „nova iskrenost”, ali obuhvata teme koje se pripisuju ovim konceptima.

I jedan zanimljiv detalj – u jednoj priči spisku, pripovedačica nabraja šta bi volela, a šta ne da čita u književnom časopisu. Kao jedna od stavki ističe se – „prevodi sa srpskog jezika”.

Dve superkatke za kraj:


Koliko mali treba da bude proctor da bi se u njega sabila reč odluka: toliki da može da se smesti u mozak bubamare dok ona, pred mojim očima, donosi odluku.


Ispod sve ove prljavštine
pod je zapravo čist.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,114 followers
June 6, 2014
More LD equals a triple chocolate and fudge surprise minus the week-long sickness and hours straining at stool. This is another characteristic assemblage of micro-stories and longer mental peregrinations, narrated in that gentle intellectual register. Among the longer pieces: ‘The Landing’ evokes the terror of turbulence on a routine passenger flight, ‘The Dreadful Mucamas’ is a surreal and satirical tale of misbehaving Mexican servants, ‘The Cows’ details the complex movements and behaviours of random bovines, ‘The Seals’ is a deep meditation on the loss of Davis’s sister and parents, and ‘Letter to the Foundation’ is a matter-of-fact account of the downside to receiving Genius Grants. These longer stories are excellent except Davis’s voice can be flat and less charming over five or six pages. Among the shorter pieces: ‘Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer’ laments the misrepresentation of peas on the packaging, ‘The Bad Novel’ sums up that Stockholm effect of hated tomes, ‘Brief Incident’ and ‘Reversible Story’ are playful Oulipian numbers, ‘Men’ reminds us there are men in the world, and ‘The Language of the Telephone Company’ is hilarious: “The trouble you reported recently is now working properly.” Also included are ‘dream’ stories and stories adapted from Flaubert’s letters, lending this collection a pleasant quirk alongside the LD originals.
Profile Image for C.S. Mize.
10 reviews3 followers
May 4, 2020
Simply put, the writing is just not good, and the pieces individually and collectively are dull, bland, and without taste. This book is like a burnt biscuit for me. No amount of jam sweetened it up; in fact the more fluff, the more I felt burned.

Obviously, I really hated this book. I found it wordy and tiresome. I rarely say I hate a book. However, I read A LOT so it has to happen sometimes I guess. Being a pretty fast reader, I see no reason after I buy a book to not finish it- I kind of made this a rule for myself years ago. Meaning, I buy it- I must then finish it. Usually, I thank myself for this rule because I get something (albeit sometimes a very small something) affective (or affecting) out of it.

This time, I'm not so happy about my rule.

Even the shorter pieces lacked beauty and originality in my opinion. So, so, so many of the longer stories were either irrelevant or should have been small vignettes or a poem. I found myself picking out two or three sentences on several pages of the longer pieces that could have stood alone without the other paragraphs. And I do not even mind a little wordiness or stream of consciousness if it is at least intriguing, but this was not. The imagery fell flat over and over again, and the diction was pathetic.

I found the beginning better than the end. I just became sad though as the book progressed because her voice was somewhat witty and fun in the beginning, and then it just got heavy, but without depth. Just like wordiness, I don't mind heavy. However, heavy, long, and over-written is a hard combination, and I would NOT recommend wasting your time reading this book.

So there is my opinion of Can't and Won't. Take it or leave it, fellow Goodreaders.

(Sad face and a wave.)
Profile Image for Cheryl.
329 reviews272 followers
August 11, 2016
Some of this reminds me of My Struggle: Book One. Sort of like Knausgaard crossed with Steven Wright. She has a better sense of humor than Karl Ove though.

The stories challenge you to consider what is a story. They don’t always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are not poetry. They are playing, playful sometimes.

Some are just pithy observations. This might be overstating it in some cases. Just observations then. Waiting to take on whatever significance the reader chooses. Like the art I saw in the Tate a couple of years ago — it was a simple mirror. As clever as you want it to be.

Her little notebook is wrapped in an elastic band, easily retrievable from her purse. Then she can record the inside of her mind.
Or her dreams.
Or escape routes from the latest passage of Flaubert that she is translating.

These feel like I am reading her workbook, her kernels of inspiration. Sometimes they’re not even that, they’re just a documentation stream done in the hopes that a nugget will shine through.

We are held hostage by the expectation that something will show up. Lydia and Karl are holding us hostage.

“I had never before thought so clearly about all the scenes that took place when I wasn’t there to witness them. And then, I had a stranger and less pleasant thought: not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn’t have to exist.” This is a startling observation, to be reminded again how very small and inconsequential one is. It is disquieting.

She taught my daughter and me the meaning of schwa, as in “Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa”. This is the whole story: “Cat, gray tabby, calm, watches large, black ant.  Man, rapt, stands staring at cat and ant.  Ant advances along path.  Ant halts, baffled.  Ant back-tracks fast—straight at cat.  Cat, alarmed, backs away.  Man, standing, staring, laughs.  Ant changes path again.  Cat, calm again, watches again.” Every word contains the letter ‘a’, except the title.
Schwa is a word. When I read out the definition of schwa, my daughter said, “Aah!”. I wonder if that completes some sort of transaction between writer and reader.

I prefer this to the murder mystery I was reading yesterday. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen in this book. Every page is a surprise.

“Housekeeping Observation. Under all this dirt the floor is really very clean.” She reads my mind.
“How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through my Back Issues of the TLS”. She reads my mind again.

“The Language of Things in the House” makes me wonder if I were a bowl, what would I say.

I think this collection, written by an author famous for brevity, could have done with a bit more selective editing. “Please spare me your imagination. I’m so tired of your vivid imagination, let someone else enjoy it.”

The title story is the cover story. Literally. It is on the cover of some editions.
“I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.”

There are not [aren't] a lot of contractions.

I don’t think she is lazy.
Profile Image for Tosh.
Author 13 books660 followers
May 17, 2014
After reading this collection of short stories by Lydia Davis, the only single word that comes to my mind is "perfect." Her observations on various aspects of life are extremely funny or moving - or sometimes both. A lot of people comment on the length of her stories, but I think that is really not that important. She is sort of like a boxer who knows when to strike and when to walk away. Her prose writing is beautifully sculptured, and one marvel not only in her skill in putting words together to give such memorable images, but I get such a profound feeling as well. For instance, whenever she writes animals, it affects me deeply, which is odd, because normally I don't get any feelings from animal literature whatsoever. But her two stories here "The Rooster" and "Cows" is so sad, but not in that blah-blah feeling when one reads such narratives. "Can't and Won't" is one of my favorite books. iF you write, I think it is essential to pick this up, so you can study her style, her method, but also to acknowledge her originality and just to be able to enjoy a writer who is taking you to a place, that one normally doesn't go to. Also strangely enough, I much prefer this book than her Collected Stories. All the pieces here work as a unit. There is no weakness, and it moves effortlessly from one tale to another. Yeah, a great book.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,749 reviews1,266 followers
July 13, 2016

This is the first I've read of Lydia Davis. Immediately, the first microstory, "A Story of Stolen Salamis," reminded me of Thomas Bernhard's collection "The Voice Imitator," also microstories. It was a pale imitation. "Two Undertakers," one of the better stories, was also reminiscent of Bernhard. (Roland Barthes watches two undertakers have a bite to eat while on the job. Barthes' deceased mother waits outside in one of the hearses.) And it's difficult not to think of Bernhard when reading "Ödön von Horváth Out Walking," if only because of the setting in the Bavarian Alps.

I didn't find much [from the book jacket] "bracing candor". In fact, mostly the opposite. The subject of the book seems to be Davis's literary persona, and whoever the real Davis is, she's hiding behind that. (Not that this is a legitimate complaint; after all, this is fiction.) Maybe self-deprecation was meant by candor, rather than actual truth-telling. One small, but irksome, example of a lack of candor was in the story "The Letter to the Foundation," one of two normal-length stories. Davis/the narrator has just won a large grant (presumably the MacArthur Fellows Award) and is describing, years later, what winning the award was like. Far into the story, she writes, "Soon after the new year, I met with a tax advisor, and he gave me some bad news. A large part of the grant would go to paying taxes - on the grant!" First, for anyone of adult age, living in a developed country, why would this be "news?" Does the narrator have no idea how our tax system works? Does she think the monetary award was not income? Second, why is there an exclamation point after "on the grant" - on what other thing would the taxes be levied? What's the point of this fake astonishment? (And my distaste for the weaseling in some of the stories was arrived at independently, before I read the claim that the book displayed "bracing candor.")

Nor was the supposed "humor" to my taste. It was more an omnipresent archness, a narrator who is, or is pretending to be, roguish, mischievous. The complaint letters to companies whose products have let her down in some way are the best examples of this. Again I have to contrast the supposed "humor" here to Bernhard's comedy, which genuinely works. Maybe it works better because Bernhard is going for lunacy while Davis is mostly staying on the plane of the real (although there are lots of brief dreams, her own and others', interspersed here). "Men" is a story where she does achieve real comedy, probably because it is absurdist ("There are also men in the world. Sometimes we forget, and think there are only women"...).
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,111 reviews1,412 followers
October 5, 2014
I found this book perplexing. I liked the longer stories, such as "The Seals," which I found very moving, and "The Letter to the Foundation," which I thought shed some real light on human nature. The shorter ones I had a harder time with. I definitely enjoyed some of them, such as the one where she wrote to a frozen-vegetable company to tell them the photo of frozen peas on their packages needed to be a more vibrant green, or the one where she said that she enjoyed ordering fish at restaurants and then explained some of the various issues associated with that. I found these stories relaxing--they were simply written and dealt with simple problems, but tried to impose order in a way that appealed to me. But I kept trying to imagine an MFA student turning in a letter to a frozen pea company, an explanation of their experiences ordering fish in a restaurant, or a brief account of their dream from the previous night to their professor in completion of an assignment. The professor would likely note that the writing was pretty good, but then tell them to try a little harder. So why does Lydia Davis no longer need to try a little harder? She writes well, definitely, but not that well. Is it just that she's now a well-respected writer, so anything she does is automatically deemed good? I honestly don't quite get it. If anyone can explain it to me in a way that doesn't imply I'm just an idiot for not getting it, I would appreciate it. I was genuinely entertained by this book--except for most of the recountings of dreams and the "stories from Flaubert," which I could have done without--but I may have reached my limit for this sort of thing. I understand Lydia Davis has a collected volume of short stories that's about three times the length of this one, but I cannot imagine reading that many pages of this, and I definitely can't imagine reading a novel written in her style, so this may be my first and last experience with Lydia Davis. But I'm not sure.
Profile Image for Toni.
150 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2014
I really, really loved her Collected Stories, when they came out a few years back, but this one ... meh. Not sure whether she's just not on her A-game here, or it's me that's changed. Have I lost my appetite for super-arty literature? (And if so, is that a good or bad thing?) Or, was she being waaaayyyy too self-indulgent & self-involved here? I mean, 30% of the "stories" (as they were) in this book are essentially straight from her dream journal (literally, annotated "dream"). And is it not a truth as old as time that NO ONE CARES about anyone else's dreams?

At any rate, credit is credit is due: I love this woman's translations. But if you're a Lydia Davis newbie, and thinking of checking her out, definitely start with the collected stories.
Profile Image for Dragan.
93 reviews18 followers
October 7, 2020
Stekao sam dojam da je Lydia jedna jaako naporna žena, a opet tako draga i mila.
Takve su i ove priče. Ima tu svega! Baš kao i životu. Suma summarum petica ko kuća.
Profile Image for Lisa Lingrell.
311 reviews36 followers
June 24, 2014
As Lydia Davis wrote;

The Bad Novel
This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip - I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.


The Old Vacuum Cleaner Keeps Dying on Her
The old vacuum cleaner keeps dying on her
over and over
until at last the cleaning woman
scares it by yelling:


The Husband-Seekers
Flocks of women attempt to land on an island, seeking husbands from a tribe of very beautiful young men. They blow across the sea like cotton buds or seeding wild plants, and when rejected they pile up offshore in a floating bank of woolly white.

I write, Can't and won't read this - painful and stumped on how this won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize? These short stories are so short I'm missing the point - obviously.

And just to recap;

How I Know What I Like
(Six Versions)

She likes it. She is like me. Therefore, I might like it.

She is like me. She likes the things I like. So I might like it.

I like it. I show it to her. She likes it. She is like me. Therefore, I might really like it.

I think I like it. I show it her. She likes it. She is like me. Therefore, I might really like it.

I think I like it. I show it to her. (She is like me. She likes the things I like.) She likes it. So I might really like it.

I like it. I show it to her. She likes it. (She says the other one is "just plain awful.") She is like me. She likes the things I like. So I might really like it.

Which proves that Lydia Davis and I are not alike, as I didn't much care for this, though plenty of people would disagree with me......
Profile Image for SeirenAthena.
78 reviews4 followers
January 9, 2022
Look. Lydia Davis is, without a doubt, a masterful writer and storyteller. Her collaboration with the reader with perhaps just a gentle nudge—handing us the blueprints to, in turn, conceptualize a meaningful story; providing us with the deliverance from masses of language and structure with terse simplicity—is as sly as it is clever. However, a great deal of the longer stories that were included in the collection lost their luster within a few pages and just grew tedious, sometimes nearing an almost unbearable degree. In my eyes, her skill lies in the artfully uninvolved creator and the reader assembling and perhaps even altering her puzzle with a cognizance that combs through the ingredients of rather (intentionally) ‘flat’ language. I liked this quite a bit when it was separated into short bits; but when it was drawn out, the flatness gorged itself on content and bloated into more of a burden than it was a liberating and fascinating force. Otherwise, this was great, but the longer stories were dull to me.
Profile Image for Banu Yıldıran Genç.
Author 1 book780 followers
January 4, 2018
üç yıldız ve dört yıldız arasında kaldım çünkü bazı öyküler beş yıldızlıkken bazıları daha kötüydü. ama şunu anladım ki çok sevdiğim bir tarz değil kısa kısa öykü. bazıları çok şiirsel, evet, ne güzel ama her aklına geldiğini yazmış gibi duran öyküler de var çokça, belki de ben anlamıyorumdur o kadar, bilemedim.
kitapta en çok beğendiklerim yine 3-5 sayfalık uzun öyküler oldu ki benim edebiyat konusunda hafif tutucu bir tarafım var, yeniye çok alışamıyorum. yeni öykü tarzından miranda july bana daha çok hitap etmişti mesela.
ama bazı öykülerde hakikaten her sözcüğü özenle, yerli yerinde, düşünerek yazdığını hissediyorsunuz davis'in. birçok öyküde ayrıntılar göz alıcı.
kitapta günde 5-10 öykü okunuyor, sonra ara vermek gerekiyor ama bu kez de bütünlüğü bozuluyor çünkü kitapta tekrarlayan motiflerin olduğu öyküler var, yani aslında araya başka bir şey sokmadan bitirmek lazım.
şikayet mektuplarındaki mizaha bayıldım ama dediğim gibi benim tarzım değil pek.
Profile Image for Abby.
1,449 reviews178 followers
May 12, 2014
"Oh, we writers may think we invent too much — but reality is worse every time!"

LYDIA DAVIS! She could not be more perfect. This collection is weird and brilliant and funny and surprising. It utterly delighted me in every way; her style got embedded in my brain. Upon finishing this collection, I felt like I was actually thinking and reasoning and observing my daily activities in a Lydia Davis-esque way. Which I am more than OK with. Highly recommended to anyone with eyes.
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,493 reviews378 followers
November 28, 2015
Lydia Davis is as brilliant as always. I can't figure out what she does. It starts out seeming simplistic but it gains power as you keep reading. Now I can't get the stories out of my head (even one that is literally 3 lines long). She's an addiction (like her heroine in "A Small Story about a Small Box of Chocolates"-one of my favorite).

I have to go start re-reading.
Profile Image for Sentimental Surrealist.
294 reviews48 followers
December 3, 2016
So here's the deal: Lydia Davis writes stories where nothing fucking happens, right? People complain about shades of green on food packaging, hear words in the noises their appliances make (I love that story because that happens to me all the goddamn time, and sometimes my mind hears passages of instrumental music as repeated words, mantra that don't make a lot of sense if you will, like how when I was nine years old I decided a piece of music from Pokemon: Blue contained the words "this is... THE STAKES..." over and over again), watch cows lead their lives, and in the process overthink all and everything. Some may ask "how do these pieces have any merit beyond novelty?" or "wait, where even is novelty, wouldn't this be dull enough to afflict even the living with some form of rigor mortis?" I'm very much hit-or-miss with what you might call the literature of the mundane myself, and on the surface, Lydia Davis looks like she rules this genre.

And yet Lydia Davis has unbelievable insight into how the human mind works, and this is what makes her literature fascinating. These flashes of consciousness, which from my perspective don't fit neatly into any of our established categories, recreate the world of small things to reflect the consciousness and subconsciousness of her characters, whose inner conflicts are dragged kicking and screaming to these piece's surfaces by things as small and simple as boxes of chocolates; our everyday objects are not the locus of the character's conflicts so much as distractions from them or scapegoats for them, and of course it all fails and of course the conflicts fall in on themselves and of course the characters end the stories plunged into yet more doubt, as though they have just begun to look into just what's going on inside their heads. Which is an excellent Husker Du song, but also, and far more relevantly, an excellent source for a far more unsettling experience than any slasher could muster. That this is one of her weaker collections - the dream-diary entries get a little diffuse for my liking - just speaks to how fucking great of a writer Lydia Davis is, to her power to shake us by the shoulders and transmit the so-called mundane world into something almost too horrifying to bear.
Profile Image for Gabriela Ventura.
294 reviews107 followers
March 5, 2018
Vocês já experimentaram usar um binóculo pelo outro lado? Qualquer imagem à nossa frente surge nítida, mas miniaturizada. Para mim, os melhores textos da Lydia Davis tem o efeito binóculo-ao-contrário. São pequenas cenas reconhecíveis (uma mulher que gosta de almoçar peixe em restaurantes, vacas pastando no campo para além da janela, listas mentais, cartas escritas para as mais diversas instituições) mas que, ainda assim, parecem estar distantes de nós e da realidade tangível. Há algo de irreal na hiperrealidade de Davis, nas dissecações do maquinário mental de suas personagens, na estranheza que a narração ou a própria natureza das histórias nos provoca.

A mesma estranheza de usar um binóculo pelo outro lado.
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews812 followers
October 8, 2019
I'm glad Lydia Davis does her thing. I'm unsure we need 280+ pages of it, and I'm starting to get a bit suspicious of people who talk about how she's the best thing since sliced bread. I'm starting to suspect that her work will be seen, in hindsight, as peak MFA writing. But also like reading a blog back when people still wrote blogs.
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,637 followers
June 23, 2014
Rating a teacher's books is silly, but then again so is not giving this five stars.
Profile Image for Bara.
76 reviews4 followers
October 23, 2020
Stil ne tako los.
Izuzetno naporna pripovjedacica.
Profile Image for Lulufrances.
773 reviews76 followers
February 20, 2018
Can't and won't recommend Can't and Won't, pretty relieved my library had this and I didn't spend money on it as planned after seeing it mentioned on Durga Chew-Bose's book's blurb.
It's me not you may apply in this case.
Didn't like the choppy writing which seemed like straight from an English textbook for learners of the language, and also didn't like the pointless, pointe-less stories; bar a few exceptions and a few nice sentences.
HATED READING ABOUT COWS FOR PAAAAGES AND AAAAAGES, nearly as much as I rolled my eyes at the recounts of dreams. (So boring, to me.)
I think I understand what other people might enjoy about Lydia Davis but her writing just isn't for me and I don't want to pick up anything else by her neccessarily.
Profile Image for Janet Berkman.
405 reviews32 followers
May 17, 2014
Well, wow.

First of all, I can't believe that I've never read any of her work before.

This collection is what I imagine a writer's diary to be like: the stories range from a line or two to 25 pages. Each start on a new page. Some are dreams. Some are (translated) excerpts from Flaubert. Letters. Snippets of conversation. Davis elevates the mundane to philosophical pondering, and brings down the self-important.

I want to read more.

And start a writer's diary.
Profile Image for Iletrado.
68 reviews4 followers
July 21, 2016
Sueños, juegos de palabras, pruebas, estudios, anotaciones, ideas, cartas ficticias, dudas... Hay relatos en este libro absolutamente magistrales, como 'Las focas', y textos que son puro divertimento, una especie de comentarios y observaciones de la vida cotidiana. Davis se fija en esos detalles que, a priori, no despiertan interés alguno y logra que nos sorprenda en más de una ocasión.
Profile Image for Viki.
584 reviews
March 14, 2015
Can't and won't finish this book! Gave it 70 pages but moving on....too many books, too little time.
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