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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories

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In his second collection, Carver establishes his reputation as one of the most celebrated short-story writers in American literature—a haunting meditation on love, loss, and companionship, and finding one’s way through the dark.

159 pages, Paperback

First published April 20, 1981

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About the author

Raymond Carver

351 books4,410 followers
Carver was born into a poverty-stricken family at the tail-end of the Depression. He married at 19, started a series of menial jobs and his own career of 'full-time drinking as a serious pursuit', a career that would eventually kill him. Constantly struggling to support his wife and family, Carver enrolled in a writing programme under author John Gardner in 1958. He saw this opportunity as a turning point.

Rejecting the more experimental fiction of the 60s and 70s, he pioneered a precisionist realism reinventing the American short story during the eighties, heading the line of so-called 'dirty realists' or 'K-mart realists'. Set in trailer parks and shopping malls, they are stories of banal lives that turn on a seemingly insignificant detail. Carver writes with meticulous economy, suddenly bringing a life into focus in a similar way to the paintings of Edward Hopper. As well as being a master of the short story, he was an accomplished poet publishing several highly acclaimed volumes.

After the 'line of demarcation' in Carver's life - 2 June 1977, the day he stopped drinking - his stories become increasingly more redemptive and expansive. Alcohol had eventually shattered his health, his work and his family - his first marriage effectively ending in 1978. He finally married his long-term parter Tess Gallagher (they met ten years earlier at a writers' conference in Dallas) in Reno, Nevada, less than two months before he eventually lost his fight with cancer.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,873 reviews
Profile Image for KFed.
43 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2009
I'll announce the cliche of my loving this book before you beat me to it.

I'm an overeducated, mock-contemplative early-twenty-something with a penchant for strong male voices (despite my feminist leanings) and a distaste for anything too sentimental. I was raised in the tradition of "Show, Don't Tell" and hold this closer than even my favorite teddy (whose name is Atticus.) My middle name is "Minimalism." My other middle name is "Ooh, that sounds pretty."

With that out of the way, yes, of course I loved this volume, and probably for the reasons you'd expect.

Raymond Carver's name should be in lights. Everyone who likes this book is going to tell you that one of Carver's strengths is his knack for understatement. I'm guessing what they're getting at is Carver's ability to keep all the mechanics of his stories imperceptible beneath the surface, with maybe a few out-of-character exceptions (the alcohol device in the title story being one). There's also the fact that Carver seems to accomplish things in the span of one page that so many authors would kill many more trees (and possibly small children, and maybe even a puppy or two) to achieve; see the opening page of "Tell The Women We're Going" to see what I mean. How many authors can convincingly sum up the entire personal history of two characters in only one paragraph?

Beneath the tightness of each story there seems to be a distinctive pulse. Not the rhythm of the language. Rather, the kind of pure life energy that all artistic works strive for (or at least they should.) When stories took turns ("for the worst" is implicit), what startled me more than each outcome was often the fact that I was so moved by them each. It's because of this pulse that characters who existed for only 3 or 4 pages still seemed to walk off the page and become real. And that's probably what will make these stories linger in my memory.

People often seem to speak of "Raymond Carver's America" when they're trying to grasp these stories. I don't know what that means, or if Raymond Carver's America is anything like mine. Whatever it is, it's tortured and beautiful. And I like it.
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,226 followers
January 16, 2015
A collection of slice-of-life short stories that mostly go nowhere and end ambiguously, and for some damn reason I loved them.

Carver gets mileage out of yard sales, photographers offering their services, accidental death, a night of bingo, doing things and doing nothing, talking yet saying nothing.

As a reader, I was frustrated when some of the stories went nowhere. I expected and hoped for big conclusions, finality, and instead I got dudes driving away from confrontations holding ashtrays. But then there would be subtle moments of human nature revealed, true revelations of our unnecessarily complicated lives, that would make me catch my breath.

I read this over 20 years ago and I'm afraid some of the particulars of the collection escape me. However, what I'll not soon forget is the quiet desperation Carver made me feel for everyday people whose lives had derailed. I was in college and full of life. Middle-aged regret is not something kids of that age tend to fully understand, yet Carver made me feel that horrid indecision, that deep-seated pain. These are emotions worth enduring for the price of reading this beautiful prose.
Profile Image for Ilse.
456 reviews2,955 followers
March 19, 2019

Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.

Capturing bliss in one word, crystallising tenderness and love at once into a precious gift and a delicate act of remembrance, Hummingbird, the affectionate poem closing this collection, charmed me in its endearing simplicity and ended up as my favourite - reading this short poem magically transporting to the moment of receiving and later cherishing of a letter or a postcard dear, the one you keep close to you and take with you until it is ragged, almost perished, the words barely discernible anymore, a four-leaf clover in your heart for the rest of your days.

Before fortuitously coming across this bilingual chrestomathy of 17 poems in the local library – a selection from Carver’s All of Us: The Collected Poems, which is a compilation of his 5 poetry collections - I only knew and read Raymond Carver as a short-story writer. A few of these poems strike as miniature stories, vernacular in tone, narrative and direct in style, the nightly atmosphere and a certain rawness at times reminding me of some of the songs by Tom Waits, hanging out in a bar like in the long opening poem You Don't Know What Love Is (an evening with Charles Bukowski), or at the ramshackle party of booze and despair in Union Street: San Francisco, Summer 1975.


All poems are love poems, Carver’s narrator observes in his poem For Semra,With Martial Vigor and obviously not all but most poems in this collection consider love. The simple pleasures of love. The sweet comfort of holding hands giving strength to endure time consuming us (Through the Boughs). The delight of watching the beloved dancing a minuet (The Minuet), or the reminiscence of that enchantment emanating from the eye of the painter who has lost his muse and wife (Bonnard’s Nudes). Hips, thighs and loosened hair celebrating in the dark sensuality of liberty (This Word Love). The traces on a lip left after a wild night(Yesterday). The bittersweetness of longing and hope, the pain of losing love (Still Looking Out of Number One), of loss and grief, of missing, of transience, evoking tenderness and melancholy without threading onto mawkish ground, conjuring up a quiet night where a couple unobtrusively breaths together closing the day in the intimacy of their home (The Best Time of the Day), or seizing the simple joy and warm thoughts when coming home where the one you love welcomes you (Waiting):

It’s not that house. It’s
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia,
and marigold grow. It’s
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing the sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all this time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?”

Honest and powerful, minimalistic and suggestive, reading this tiny collection struck up a delightful acquaintance with Carver’s poetry.
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,425 reviews3,383 followers
April 1, 2023
The world is a hierarchical structure… It is a pyramid…
The serfs never had it good. But I guess even the knights were vassals to someone. Isn’t that the way it worked? But then everyone is always a vassal to someone.

Little men have their own little vices: drunkenness, unfaithfulness, spitefulness… And little men have their own little handicaps: stupidity, silliness, incompetence…
It might seem a little man is capable to have just a little tragedy but to every little man his tragedy is biggest in the world.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is moody and it goes like the blues – sad and hopeless…
‘I just want to say one more thing.’ But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

Sometimes a thought is lost and never found.
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,637 followers
January 18, 2021
4.5 stars

“This is awful. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me or to anyone else in the world.”

I’m not so sure that now was a ‘good’ time for me to read these joyless, if not downright disturbing, stories. To be honest, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to wallow in such darkness. I may have pulled the above quote from "Gazebo", one of the seventeen shorts in this collection, but it pretty well sums up how I felt when I turned the last page. The paradox here, however, lies in the fact that I loved nearly every single story. I’m not sure what that says about me, because by nature I don’t enjoy feeling gloomy. There’s something about Raymond Carver’s writing, in its frankness and economical prose, which knocked me completely off balance.

“The two kids were very much in love. On top of this they had great ambitions. They were always talking about the things they were going to do and the places they were going to go.”

While reading this, I was also watching a young, first love disintegrate into fragments. I remember as a child, my grandmother always used to say “Ain’t love grand.” I found the lyrics to some old song from the 1920s, and I’m pretty certain this is the version she echoed. I used to believe her when she uttered those words. Well, it turns out love is a lot more complicated than “Just wait until you strike it, there’s really nothing like it.” It doesn’t necessarily get any easier with practice and experience either. Raymond Carver knew this. For the most part, his characters lead difficult lives. Lives torn apart by alcoholism, violence, infidelity, disease, and mere drudgery. How did these men and women plunge to such depths? Did the alcoholism precede the unhappiness or vice versa? Did boredom pave the way to infidelity? We don’t always know how they got there, but we certainly see the damaging aftermath of such destruction.

These stories are short, to the point, and jolting. The dialogue is precise and authentic. People talk just like this! I swear I was sitting at that table along with those two couples throughout the titular story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I’m bracing myself for the next Carver I pull off my shelf.

“… it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,357 reviews11.8k followers
March 28, 2022

This collection part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries series includes seventeen vintage Raymond Carver, including Viewfinder - An abandoned husband chucks stone as he is photographed up on his roof by a door-to-door salesman/photographer who had hooks instead of hands; A Serous Talk - An ex-husband expresses his rage when his ex-wife takes a telephone call in the bedroom by cutting the telephone line in the kitchen; One More Thing – A husband, wife and daughter accuse one another of being nuts. To share a larger helping of what a reader will find in the pages of this book of early Raymond Carver short-shorts, here’s a bit of detail on the title story alone with my sidebar comments:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Symposium: Two couples, Mel and Terri, Laura and the narrator, Nick by name, sit around Mel’s kitchen table one evening drinking gin when the topic of conversation turns to love. Sidebar: Echoes of Plato’s Symposium and, of course, the meaning of symposium is a drinking party. However this is 20th century Carver county America, so the object of love remains always women for men and men for women – not even close to seeing the opposite sex as the first step on the ladder leading to a more generalized universal love of philosophic wisdom.

Dionysius, One: Terri lived with Ed before she lived with Mel. Terri tells how Ed loved her so much he tried to killer her, dragging her around the living room by her ankles, while repeating, “I love you, I love you, you bitch’. Thus, the four launch into a debate about Ed’s madness and passion being true love. Sidebar: Ed embodies the ancient Greeks myth of Dionysius, the frenzied, drunk intensity of unbridled passion gone wild.

Dionysius, Two: Mel relates how Ed would call him up on the phone to threaten his life and once actually tried to kill him. Mel had to buy a gun for protection (completely out of character, he admits – he’s a cardiologist, for God sake!) and he and Terri lived like fugitives. Terri, in turn, says how when she left him, Ed drank rat poison causing serious facial deformities. Sidebar: Raymond Carver noted how a little menace is good for the temperature, good for a short story. Very true, Ray! Since Mel and Terri were personally so threatened by Ed, the whole tone of the discussion on love takes a much more serious turn.

Dionysius, Three: Ed shot himself in the mouth but he didn’t die – he was taken to the hospital where at one point Mel actually saw him. “His head swelled up to twice the size of a normal head. I’d never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again.” When Ed was in his hospital room dying with his much swollen head, Terri sat in the chair next to him, counter to Mel’s wishes, right up to Ed’s last breath. Sidebar: As these two women and two men drink their gin, Terri’s compassion for Ed is the sole example given in the story where love transcends physical attraction for any of them.

True Love: Laura comments how she and Nick know what true love is, as they touch knees and Nick makes a big production of kissing Laura’s hand. Terri tells them they are still on their honeymoon, even after being together for nearly two years, but just wait. As an afterthought, Terri tells them how she is just kidding about that "just wait." Sidebar: Like hell Terri is kidding; she knows from experience that at some point the honeymoon ends, but Laura and Nick are in honeymoon mode now, which is the pinnacle of love for each one of these four, thus her jealousy.

Probing Question: Mel waxes philosophical when he acknowledges how he loved his first wife very much but now he hates her guts. Same thing with Terri in her love for Ed, same thing for both Laura and Nick since they both were married previously. What happened to that love? And if anything tragic happened to any of them, their partner would find someone else to love. Sidebar: Good question. Why is such a powerful, all consuming emotion for one person alive within us for a time then it either dies or turns to an equally negative emotion? Even when it comes to something that doesn’t change, like music, the type of music we love changes over time. Why is this?

DOA: Mel relates a story of love that really impressed him, a story where a drunk teenage driver at high speed slammed into the car of a seventy-year-old husband and wife. The kid was DOA but the husband and wife were at his hospital in traction, bandaged head to foot, in the same hospital room and the husband tells him though a mouth-hole in his bandaged head that what really depresses him isn’t the accident or being injured or the pain but the fact that he can’t turn his head and see his wife through his eye-holes.

The White Knight and His Kids: Mel says how he wants to be like those medieval knights in their armor where nothing can hurt them. Then, tipsy with gin, Mel wants to speak with his kids. Terri cautions him that his Marjorie (Mel’s ex) might answer the phone. Mel becomes extremely angry and upset, tells everyone how Marjorie is bankrupting him, how she doesn’t marry her goddam boyfriend since she wants to still continue to collection money from him. Knowing Marjorie is allergic to bees, Mel swears he will show up at Marjorie’s front door wearing the white suit of a beekeeper and let loose a hive of bees to kill her. Sidebar: Echoes of Ed and the spirit of Dionysius as Mel is possessed with the mad desire for destruction and killing.

Silence: All four fall silent, sensing how Dionysius isn’t all that far away – it is only a matter of what can set us off. The story ends with Nick’s reflection: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

Raymond Carver, master of the short story
Profile Image for Guille.
757 reviews1,548 followers
April 6, 2018
A estas alturas, escribir acerca de un libro de Carver (o de Carver-Lish, como parece ser este en realidad) es algo más que complicado si uno quiere parecer original; serlo es del todo imposible.

Tan imposible como no utilizar al comentar palabras o expresiones del tipo realismo sucio, desconcierto, silencios, como una cuchilla, soledad, frío, puñetazo en el estómago, lo indecible, inquietud, hechos cotidianos, violencia, relaciones de pareja, incomprensión, alcoholismo, sueño americano, crudeza, Chejov, sin concesiones, desolación, sórdido, perfección, seco, sin adjetivos, fuerza, minimalismo, familia, autenticidad, extrañeza, esperanza, desesperanza, contradicción, ruptura, hastío, directo al hígado, infidelidad, laconismo, sugestivos, desorientados, ocultar, sin sensiblería, recuerdos de momentos felices, infelicidad, deseo de recobrar aquellos momentos felices, infelicidad...

Y como no se me ocurre otra cosa, me limitaré a deciros que fue la película Birdman la que me ha traído estos cuentos de nuevo a la mente; mi reciente afición por la relectura y la cantidad de años que hace que los leí lo que me ha hecho volver a ellos; mi pésima memoria la que me ha permitido maravillarme virginalmente al releerlos; y la edad y la carga de lecturas que ya arrastro las que han intensificado aquel placer que ya experimenté con estos desnudos, terribles, sinceros y extraordinarios relatos.

Era imposible.
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,619 followers
May 31, 2019
He makes it look so easy. He almost makes it look too easy in this short story collection, as though there isn't much here aside from spare language and even sparer "plot".

But there is. The stories are deceptively small, but there's a depth of authenticity to these shrapnel blasts. In each of these stories, which explore the transience of love and the various ways we damage or destroy it completely, there is a hard, dark centre.

* 'I Could See the Smallest Things' has a woman thinking of slugs as she looks at her husband in the middle of the night, a new vision of their marriage coming to light.
* 'So Much Water So Close to Home' is a story of men on a camping trip who come across a woman's dead body. The way they deal with it disturbs their women and everyone who knows them.
* 'Tell the Women We're Going' tells how a senseless violence erupts from men who feel trapped in their suburban families.
* 'Popular Mechanics', a story of the acrimonious split of a couple's assets, made me throw the book down as though it was a deadly snake. The visual it gave me was too much to linger on.
* 'Everything Stuck to Him' is about the pressures of early parenthood, a look back at a difficult but sweet time when a relationship still had tenderness.

The other stories are also memorable, with the themes of infidelity and alcohol glugging through their veins. They aren't uplifting, that is certain. But there's a truth here, a humanity, a shared pain, that make them worth reading.

As I mentioned before, these stories are deceptive. They are understated, and certainly underwritten. The power of Carver's writing comes afterwards, in sickening waves, when you realise the implications of what it is you just read.

Apparently this particular collection is heavily edited. After his death, Carver's widow fought to have his original, unedited stories published, under the title Beginners. I haven't read those longer versions, but I will say that these terse, clipped shots to the heart worked very well for me.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
January 20, 2023
“What do any of us really know about love? It seems to me we're just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don't doubt it. I love Terri and Terri loves me, and you guys love each other too. You know the kind of love I'm talking about now. Physical love, that impulse that drives you to someone special, as well as love of the other person's being, his or her essence, as it were. Carnal love and, well, call it sentimental love, the day-to-day caring about the other person. But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did, I know I did.”

I have read this volume several times, and this time listened to it. So it’s very important to me. In a former life I got an MFA in short fiction, in the eighties, and at that time the premier living short story writer, or certainly the most stylistically influential, was Carver. He himself, a minimalist, would seem to have been himself influenced by Ernest Hemingway. And maybe noir fiction: Very simple, straightforward prose. Carver was particularly a working class fiction writer, an alcoholic writing about booze and the effect of booze:

“Drinking’s funny. When I look back on it, all of our important decisions have been figured out when we were drinking. Even when we talked about having to cut back on drinking, we’d be sitting at the kitchen table or out at the picnic table with a six-pack or whiskey.”

and people on the edge of serious collapse:

“We opened our eyes and turned in bed to take a good look at each other. We both knew it then. We'd reached the end of something, and the thing was to find out where new to start.”

Grace Paley wrote a story collection entitled Enormous Changes Happening at the Last Minute, but this is Carver, and the changes for him are cataclysmic. Booze, divorce, but also with stripped down language:

“All this, all of this love we're talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory. Am I wrong? Am I way off base? Because I want you to set me straight if you think I'm wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don't know anything, and I'm the first one to admit it.”

“There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I'd like to know. I wish someone could tell me.”

Devastating. Clueless. Lost. Drunk. Sad.

And elegant: “The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from.”

Besides the title story, I love many stories, including

“Why Don’t We Dance?” about a guy going through a divorce who takes all of the furniture from his house and leaves it on the front lawn arranged just as it looked inside the house. A young loving couple sees it, assumes it is a yard sale, she sits on the bed, and then the guy comes home with booze and suggests the couple dance, right there on the street.

“Why don’t you kids dance? he decided to say, and then said it. "Why don’t you dance?”

Surreal, devastatingly sad and sadly hilarious.

“Viewfinder”: “A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.“

"The Bath”: On his birthday, young Scotty is walking to school when he is hit by a car and knocked unconscious. "The Bath" is a predecessor of "A Small, Good Thing," one of Carver's most famous stories, which was published in Cathedral. It is much shorter than "A Small, Good Thing" and ends on an ambiguous note as Scotty's mother goes home from the hospital to take a bath, which is where this version of the story gets its name.

“So Much Water Close to Home”: At breakfast, Claire learns her husband Stuart and his three buddies had found the body of a girl washed up on the river shore upon arriving in the afternoon for their yearly camping trip. Instead of reporting the body to the police right away, the four enjoy their vacation fishing, eating, and drinking whisky as they sit by the fire, ignoring the body still in the water downstream a bit. When Stuart talks to Claire this leads to a reconsideration of their relationship.

This collection is stunning, but it is also threadbare minimalist, and as I understand it highly influenced by Carver’s editor and teacher Gordon Lish. These are great stories, as is, though later collections have fuller, uncut versions. But yes, read this wonderful collection!
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,295 followers
April 27, 2023
În genul scurt, Raymond Carver (1938 - 1988) rămîne, probabil, cel mai influent prozator american. Știu, în România, povestirile nu se vînd prea bine, chiar dacă cel care le-a scris se numește Borges, se numește Cortazar, se numește Carver, se numește Bolaño. Și e păcat.

Raymond Carver a impus un stil și o modă. A compus o proză laconică, fragmentară, din care lipsesc toate conjuncțiile „cauzale” (pentru că, fiindcă, deoarece, întrucît etc.), ceea ce o face de-a dreptul enigmatică. Autorul trece peste explicații și nu-l lasă nici pe narator să se destăinuie pînă la capăt. Povestitorul este, de obicei, un individ simplu și aproximativ educat. Mai este și instinctiv (ca la Faulkner). Nu-l duce capul la definiții riguroase, la generalități filosofice, la explicații fine. Nici măcar cînd discută despre iubire.

„Iubirea era atunci cînd Ed mă tîra pe jos și mă dădea cu capul de podea; iubirea era atunci cînd mă făcea tîrfă”, mărturisește în extaz o doamnă (Teresa) după cîteva păhărele de alcool.

Povestitorii lui Carver vorbesc cu un haz nespus, fără să-și dea seama de umorul lor instantaneu, nepremeditat. Singurul care este conștient de acest rezultat este autorul. Dar el nu face nici un comentariu.

În „Pungi”, un părinte cu mari întrebări etice încearcă să-i explice fiului cum a căzut în păcat fără să vrea. Ceasul rău! Povestește întîmplarea după cum urmează:

„Ei, și nu peste mult timp rîde scurt de ceva ce spusesem. Ceva ce putea fi interpretat eventual în două feluri. Apoi [femeia] mă întreabă dacă o știu pe-aia cu vînzătorul ambulant de pantofi care-i face o vizită unei văduve. Rîdem amîndoi, după care îi spun una un pic mai deocheată. La care ea rîde de se strică și-și aprinde încă o țigară. Apoi, se-ntîmplă că dintr-una-n alta, mã-nțelegi. Am sărutat-o, ce mai. I-am așezat capul pe spătarul canapelei și am sărutat-o și numai ce-i simt limba strecurîndu-se în gura mea. Înțelegi ce zic? Poți să o duci așa și să respecți toate regulile, apoi deodată nu mai contează nimic. Pur și simplu dă ghinionul peste tine, știi? Dar totul a durat foarte puțin. Iar după aia, ea zice: `Probabil mă crezi curvă sau așa ceva` și pleacă. Eram atît de agitat, știi? Am aranjat canapeaua și-am întors pernele. Am împăturit toate ziarele și am spălat pînă și ceștile din care am băut. Am curățat și ibricul în care făcusem cafeaua. Și-n tot timpul ăsta mã gîndeam cum o să dau ochii cu maică-ta. Mi-era frică” (pp.53-54).

Capodopera acestui volum este, recunosc, povestirea „Atît de multă apă atît de aproape de casă”. Cîțiva tipi găsesc o fată înecată într-un rîu, dar continuă să bea și să pescuiască într-o deplină indiferență două zile la rînd și abia cînd trebuie să se întoarcă acasă anunță poliția. Devin, firește, principalii suspecți. Soțiile vor să-i părăsească. Au noroc însă și vinovatul e prins. Femeile, ca de obicei, se răzgîndesc.

În încheiere, aș mai adăuga un „dacă”. Dacă aș fi foarte tînăr și aș avea de gînd să scriu proză, mi-aș cumpăra negreșit volumul lui Carver și l-aș citi în mod repetat cu creionul în mînă. De la nici un alt prozator nu poți învăța mai mult cu privire la conciziune și la așezarea epitetului potrivit lîngă substantivul potrivit. Ceea ce, se cuvine să recunoașteți, nu-i puțin lucru.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,052 reviews578 followers
May 12, 2023
I first became interested in this book when I read Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Any book that can inspire Murakami to steal (most of) the line must be worth reading. Mustn’t it? Well I thought so, though it took me some time to get around to this collection of 17 short stories. The cover of the Vintage Classics version I read is sparse and the blurb gave nothing away. Ah well, in for a penny…

Originally published in 1981, the prose is lean and the general mood somewhat disturbing as Carver explores the nature of life and love. As I worked my way through the collection the stories seemed to increase in length and complexity. Many of the characters were not easy to like - many were alcoholics and adulterers – but there was a compelling darkness and variation that seemed to draw me, urgently, from one story to the next.

Mid-way through I came across a scene I recognised, I’d seen it before in a film I'd much enjoyed: Short Cuts directed by Alan Atman, in 1993. In looking back at the film I discovered that Altman had based it on a group of Carver’s short stories. About Carver, he says:

His stories are all occurrences, all about things that just happen to people and cause their lives to take a turn. Maybe the bottom falls out. Maybe they have a near-miss with disaster. Maybe they just have to go on, knowing things they don't really want to know about one another.

And this seems to be the essence of it. Life’s miseries are not sugar coated here. The stories are uniformly melancholy. But overriding this is the feeling that as long as life includes the precious opportunity for us all to experience love then maybe it’s all worthwhile.

I did enjoy some stories more than others, with the title piece probably being the most memorable, but overall I’d say it’s well worth setting aside a short amount of time to experience this powerful collection.
Profile Image for Garima.
113 reviews1,774 followers
May 4, 2015

Milan Kundera in his short story collection Laughable Loves, talks about the inevitable absurdity that revolves around the highly misunderstood feeling of Love that begins with innocent stargazing but later tempt numerous meteors to destroy the vulnerable abode of lovers. Promises are ditched, mushy definitions are torn apart and even when other things remain equal or unequal; he/she still loves me just doesn’t matter anymore. What remains is this filthy carcass of emotions that some people tag along wherever they go while some bury it in the most unwholesome style in the graveyard of their hearts. A laughable business and some compelling stories, which underwhelmed me initially but after reading Carver’s What we Talk about when we talk about Love, I reconsidered my reaction towards Kundera’s book and now I can appreciate it a lot more by reason of few hazy intersection points I perceived between these two works.

I thought we’d be like that too when we got old enough. Dignified. And in a place. And people would come to our door.

In an instant, the surefooted destiny stumbles and a suffocating despair assumes a confident stance because when we talk, we often fail to communicate effectively and rely a little too much on the unsaid. Carver succeeds with this book because of the negligible distance he has maintained with the reality that defies the lofty motifs of life and explores the silent frustration of clueless mortals. The characters appear to be the uninspired architects of some amorphous structure that demonstrates their clumsy choices and in their attempts to justify the same, they toss around rhetorical questions and alternate opinions without any didactic purpose.

Every story implies a different concern rather than a direct reference to love that renders uniqueness to this collection, which elevates manifold by Carver’s minimalist prose. He often indulges a little too much with the privileges of ambiguity but it’s hardly a flaw in the light of wit and ingenuity that makes one come back to meet people who prolong their last goodbyes while taking every last thing they think belongs to their individual self or to feel compassion towards the young couple who had some other plans rather than becoming young parents.

...it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we're talking about when we talk about love.

Continuing from just another day to a deserted afternoon and crawling slowly towards an imminent night, these stories happen everywhere as the result of some unnatural disorder that human beings were able to conceive so it’s better to think and feel a little before we talk and listen.
Profile Image for Shimaa Mokhtar.
180 reviews13 followers
February 3, 2019
مجموعة قصص يفترض أنها عاطفية، تبدأ بشكل جيد ثم تنتهي نهايات سيئة تفقد القصة مغزاها .. لم تعجبني ولم أخرج منها بقصة مفضلة
Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews878 followers
January 22, 2012
"Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you’re going to do a good job with it."

Indeed. If one wanted to distill the stories within this collection down to a pithy, inverted, Hallmark-style aphorism, this would be a top contender.

(Click For Review Soundtrack: "Little Person")

Drinking and smoking and talking: these are the true main characters of Carver’s world (and make no mistake: he’s summoned and crafted a distinctive world). Okay, we can quibble and refer to this trifecta more aptly as the true plot devices perhaps. In any case, these things, whatever we want to call them here, are not merely a thread uniting the stories, but a thick multi-braided rope, the sort one of Carver’s blue collar archetypes might use to drag a freshly felled (by hand) oak through the snow, or, more likely, to break their fall while snapping their neck in a final, irredeemable act, right after polishing off a fifth of cheap bourbon.

Basically, the character’s names and jobs seem to matter less than the brand of booze they're downing, or the sort of receptacle they extinguish their cigarettes in.

At the same time, though these things seem to stand out, the characters do not feel like mere vessels for Carver’s words. They somehow mysteriously manage to be sympathetic, despicable, objects of pity, curiosity, and so on. But basically everyone is miserable in one way or another. Carver’s characters cause the ol’ chestnut that "Misery loves company" to take on a new and energized tone and hue. That shit really comes alive and drunkenly tap dances upon the page.

And herein lies the magic of Carver for me--how does he do it? I say "magic" in both in the colloquial, metaphorical sense of "pleasant," "enchanting," and so on—and also, more so, in the sense of literal magic tricks. How does he do it? You see this famously spare narrative before you, you see the extremely narrow range of subject matter (drunk, sad, average people, being drunk and sad and average) repeating to the point that stories easily begin to merge into one another, you see the distinct lack of purple prose, the bluntness of it all, and yet you’re being affected in a tremendous way by it all, to the point that it becomes oddly difficult to explain. Affected in a way that you feel you shouldn’t be, given the way your descriptions of the work look on paper.

Perhaps the problem is that every way in which I’d like to describe the depth of these stories simply comes off as an unspeakably repetitive cliché that almost makes me shudder.

Another thought that crossed my mind is that it almost feels wrong, like morally incorrect, to try and put some new, clever, summarizing spin on these stories (and the superior collection Cathedral, which left me more or less wordless in my "review"). To try and wax analytic with such raw slices of life does indeed seem to miss some Point that may or may not be hovering about.

But I ultimately feel that it’s also not a grave sin to do so, or to want to do so, rather it’s a reflection of the desire found in each and every story of Carver’s--to find some company, for our misery and otherwise. To exchange pieces of ourselves while we can. I’ll just have to save it for a night with You, seated at a table, with a large ashtray and a long line of adult beverages trailing behind us.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
485 reviews808 followers
June 11, 2016
If I had a teacher in high school who assigned Raymond Carver, I would've gone bananas for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a 1981 collection of seventeen stories published in literary journals in the '70s or early '80s. After being required to read Orwell and the goddam Canterbury Tales, reading So Much Water So Close to Home--where men on a fishing trip discover a woman's body in the river and wait until the end of their weekend to report it--would've been like ducking a bullet fired from a gun. It would've left an indelible impression on my teenage mind, caught between a Doors phase and a Pubic Enemy phase. Today, not so much.

Exploring Carver's fiction for the first time at the age of forty-three, I feel that in many ways I'm over this. Like listening to someone coming out of AA with their raw stories, epiphanies and apologies, I'm happy they're exorcising their demons, but I can only tolerate point blank despair for so long. I was, is and will always be a big fan of Short Cuts, the bold 1993 film adaptation in which filmmaker Robert Altman relocated the Carververse to contemporary Los Angeles and whose script drew in part from four of the stories in this collection. While the spiritual root canal on screen was numbed by the humor and humanity of its cast, in printed form, these tales are bleak.

My favorite stories were:

I Could See the Smallest Things (Missouri Review, 1980). In which a woman named Nancy wakes on the night of a full moon at the sound of her backyard gate opening. Her husband Cliff passed out, she puts on her robe to investigate and finds their neighbor Sam Lawton, formerly a friend of her husband's, out exterminating the slugs that feed on his rose bushes.

Sacks (Perspective, 1974). In which book salesman Les Palmer visits with his recently divorced father during a layover in Sacramento. Unable to unburden himself to anyone else, the father relates to the son in detail how he ended up breaking his marriage vows with his mother. This idea made its way into a scene between Jack Lemmon and Bruce Davison in Short Cuts.

The Bath (Columbia, 1981). In which an unnamed mother and father stand vigil beside their young son at the hospital after he's hit by a car and slips into a coma. Canceling their son's birthday party and ignoring the cake they'd ordered, they draw the wrath of the alcoholic baker. Andie MacDowell & Bruce Davison played the parents and Lyle Lovett the baker in Short Cuts.

So Much Water Close To Home (Spectrum, 1975). In which Claire is shaken by the behavior of her husband Stuart, who despite discovering a woman's body on a weekend fishing and drinking trip with his buddies, waited until they were on their way home to contact the police. This act, which seemed reasonable to Stuart, gives Claire no choice but to look at her husband in a new light. Anne Archer and Fred Ward played the couple in Short Cuts.

Everything Stuck To Him (Chariton Review, 1975). In which an unnamed couple on holiday in Milan revisit their past when she asks him to tell her what it was like when they were young. The man recounts the time their infant daughter came down with an illness and he had to choose between a fishing trip or staying home with his family.

While I was able to race through these micro stories in less time than it would take me to duck from combat gunfire, providing some of the same sheer joy and terror, they didn't cast the same spell they would've had I discovered Raymond Carver in high school. As an adult, I've met enough addicts--recovered or otherwise--to know how miserable they make their lives and those closest to them. I don't need that behavior illustrated to me anymore. That said, the effect of reading Carver was palpable. This material got into my bones. There's a closing time quality to these tales that I can only imagine is like a barfly staring into an empty bottle at 2 a.m. like he was staring into an abyss.

In 2009, two decades after Raymond Carver's death, his widow Tess Gallagher helped editors William Stull and Maureen Carroll restore all seventeen of these stories to their original length in a collection titled Beginners . By their accounting, Carver's editor Gordon Lish had excised up to 70% of Carver's text, which indicates that readers and academics have come to appraise Carver's speeding bullet style and bleak vision after only reading 30% of his work. I plan on purchasing a copy of his edition and will review it at some future time. As for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it gets an incomplete grade.
Profile Image for Sawsan.
1,001 reviews
May 4, 2021
حين نتحدث عن الحب.. نتحدث عن تقلباته ونهاياته الحزينة والموجعة أحيانا
مجموعة قصصية للكاتب والشاعر الأمريكي ريموند كارفر نُشرت عام 1981
تحكي أحداث الحياة ومساراتها المتغيرة وتعقيدات النفس البشرية
مشاهد نتتبع فيها ثقل الواقع في علاقات انسانية مختلفة
والشخصيات يغلُب عليها الانكسار والشعور بالخسارة
أحوال الفقد, الحنين, الوحدة, الاعتياد, الخيانة
قصص متفاوتة وسرد بتفاصيل محدودة وبدون نهايات واضحة
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews671 followers
June 12, 2019
This collection of short stories offers brief glimpses into the darker side of human nature, with some things acted upon, others left to fester in the mind.  Snippets of life, what truly lies within one's heart and the capacity to act on it.  We become privy to conversations not meant for our ears, and witness a tug of war that left me stunned.  I always appreciate an author who is confident enough in his work to allow the reader to come to his own conclusions.  That's what happens here.
Profile Image for Nada Elshabrawy.
Author 2 books8,183 followers
April 20, 2020
استطعت سماع قلبي يخفق. استطعت سماع قلوب الجميع. استطعت سماع الضجيج الانساني الذي كنا نحدثه هناك، دون ان يتحرك أحد منّا، ولا حتى عندما أظلمت الغرفة.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,377 reviews2,254 followers
October 31, 2017
Raymond Carver is simply one of the best post-war American writers, simply because he keeps everything within, simple, crisp and clear. He honed his writing craft to such a degree here that this collection may well be his best work. Focusing on lonely men and women who talk, drink, go fishing and play cards to pass the time of day. Told in a minimalist style with a razor-sharp sense of how people get along in a contemporary America using dialogue that reads like an absolute dream. There's still something cerebral rather than emotional about the stories, but this alienation is part of Carver's package. If you want to see beautiful craftsmanship and feel in the mood to take a wry and
sometimes sad trip through the lives of average Americans with stories of failed promise or everyday accident then this is for you. Short-story telling at it's grandest.
Profile Image for emma.
1,825 reviews48.4k followers
January 6, 2019
having an "i can only finish books that are 150 pages long and it STILL takes me an excessive amount of time" kind of week.

or month.

or year.

or lifetime.

Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,844 followers
December 14, 2009
My fucking head hurts. I should be writing my thesis, but the math part of crunching the data is hurting my head. It shouldn't though. It should be easy math. I'm dumber than I used to be. Instead I'll procrastinate, and share a review I wrote 6 years ago for another website that I haven't written a single thing on in just about 6 years. All date references should have six years added to them.

After reading MFSO's review I wanted to make some comment about a line that I really like in the first story of this book. Instead of going to find the book, and type out the line, I just found this old review that mentions this line.

The old review

About five years ago I read a couple of Raymond Carver on the recommendation of a friend. I hated the books. At the time I thought what was so great about very short stories where all the characters seemed to chain smoke constantly, drink hard liquor and watch their lives fall into dissolution around them. I ended up selling one of the books to a used shop for a dollar and kept the other one only because I loved the title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

A couple of months ago I had an allergic reaction to the excessive verbosity of writers like Rick Moody. This reaction coupled with an interest as a struggling writer to see how one can write effectively and minimally I pulled out Raymond Carver again and sat him on my to be read pile of books. This time when I read Raymond Carver I didn’t get hung up on the repetitive drinking and smoking but focused on the writing itself and saw the simple genius in these pages.

Take this example from beginning of the title story of the collection:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.

On a quick reading this might not seem like much. In the story this is about as much space that Carver gives to the general background of the characters and setting. Looking at the passage though every single word is packed with meaning hidden behind the simplicity of the words. Carver never uses big words, he writes with everyday language. The language of people who go to work everyday, have pitiful lives, find solace in a stiff drink after work and are more likely to watch a sitcom then ever pick up a book. Going back to the passage I picked (sorry if this is starting to sound like a school paper), look at the line (my favorite in this passage), "We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else." In saying nothing really this line illuminates to me a transient loneliness that places a fleeting solidarity in the afternoon drinking. (2009 interjection: holy shit was that pretentious) In the verb tenses Carver chooses he places this one moment in time as one that may never be again. I shouldn’t belabor the point though.

The stories are filled with Carver being able to choose a short phrase or sentence that can capture the entire mood of a scene.

The themes that Carver chooses are slightly limited. In this collection there are mostly stories about loneliness. The loneliness of married people, the ways that the disappointments in life eventually catch up and leave an emptiness, and the hopelessness of a life that needs to just be lived even after the thrill of living is gone (yeah, just like John Cougar Mellencamp). In these stories of hopelessness are the small moments of tenderness that make life worth going on for, and it’s these moments that the collection a bittersweet feeling without any syrupy sentimentality.

Raymond Carver was a master. He singularly created a body of work removed from anything else in American Literature. It’s possible to compare him the Hemingway, except that the comparison falls away once you move away from the simple language both authors use with razor sharp precision. The closest writer Carver reminds me of is a stripped down version of the Russian Short Story master Anton Chekhov.

Profile Image for Pedro.
191 reviews402 followers
March 24, 2020
A week after I finished this wonderful short story collection and I honestly can’t write a few words that could do it justice. I tried several times and the only thing that comes to mind is the nightmare we’re all currently living.

Never ever in my life did I expect to see the things I’ve seen for the last two weeks.
At first I thought this was only the media doing what they do best; alarming people. But I was wrong (or I didn’t want to believe I could be right) and a couple of days later I was literally in the “eye of the storm” watching people behaving like the world was about to end and the thing they needed the most during the apocalypse was toilet roll!

After a couple more days watching this madness on the front line I started to feel (more) scared, not of the virus itself but of people. I couldn’t, still can’t and don’t think I will ever understand what’s going on on people’s minds. Everywhere I looked, all I could see was people behaving in the exact opposite way of what I thought (and still think) was the right thing to do at the moment; carry on living a “normal” life. But I know (I really get it now) that of course it’s a lot easier to live a “normal” life when someone lives the way I do: work, home, read, think, go out for some fresh air, read a bit more and go to bed and to think a bit more before falling asleep. I now understand that I’ve actually been training all my life to self isolate from all this madness. I don’t like this. I like silence. I like to be on my own. I like nature. I like books, words and stories and the thing I like and admire the most is people like Mr Carver: people with a keen eye for human nature.
Profile Image for Laysee.
498 reviews233 followers
January 11, 2019
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a collection of seventeen very short but potent stories that reveal the raw and ragged face of love. No, love is not a many splendored thing, as Frank Sinatra would have us believe. Carver tells us that love is fragile. All the stories speak of love that has lost its shine. It is a despairing view of love and sobering, especially because Carver steered away from sentimentality or exaggeration.

Several stories talk about love blighted by drunkenness and/or infidelity or love that is simply worn out by the realities of marriage. Carver himself was once an alcoholic and wrote convincingly about the wreckage it caused. In ‘Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit’, the narrator and his wife both attend AA. The wife has an affair with Ross, a fellow AA member who has nothing to recommend him. He has a limp from a gunshot wound his wife gave him and he now has a younger lover on the side. What’s in it for her, you wonder. Of Ross, the narrator said, ‘He was in his mid-thirties when he went under. Lost his job and took up the bottle. I used to make fun of him when I had a chance. But I don’t make fun of him anymore.’ The narrator may have lost his wife but he has not lost his ability to empathize with a man similarly scarred by alcohol.

Infidelity looms large in several stories. In ‘Gazebo’, a couple managed a hotel together. The guy has an ongoing affair with a cleaning maid his wife has hired. He persists in his infidelity while simultaneously claiming his wife to be his one true love. How wearisome. In ‘Sacks’, a middle-aged man sits at a bar and confesses to his son an extramarital affair with a saleswoman who comes to his house with a sack for his wife while she is out. In the bar, as a silent refrain to this man’s confession, a woman is observed flirting with two men. The father seems genuinely sorry when he told his son, “I liked to have died over it.” This regret is expressed by the philandering man in ‘Gazebo’, yet nothing really changes.

The realities of day-to-day living, such as responsibility, ill health and other personal crisis threaten the fabric of a marriage and wear it thin. In ‘Bath’, a mother orders a birthday cake for her son but he meets with an accident, and she ends up sitting in the hospital with her husband (both frightened and worn out) waiting for their son to wake up. In ‘After the Denim’, a couple goes to play cards in a community club and catches a young couple (both dressed in denim) cheating at cards. The man is livid at their dishonesty but the evening is not ruined until his wife finds out later in the toilet that their hope of having a child is dashed again as she is spotting. Typically, in Carver’s stories about seasoned wedded folks, their challenges are set against the carefree and light-hearted air of younger courting couples (e.g., in ‘Why Don’t You Dance’ where a young couple is seen buying a bed and TV at a yard sale of a man whose marriage has ended.) In “After The Denim’, one cannot help but wonder if the denim-clad couple knew what awaits them after all that physical touching and cheating at cards is over.

The strongest story in this collection is the titular tale in which two couples sit over gin and tonic and debate what love is. With Carver, one must pay attention to the way he sets the background in which his stories happen. We are told that ‘The afternoon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity.’ The conversation starts out well but gets more difficult when Terry, one of the women, mentions a lover who has tried to kill her and even beaten her up. She is adamant that this is love. Her husband (Mel) is vociferously adamant that this cannot be love. Questions are tossed into the air: How long does love last? Is love only as long as a memory? Carver dimmed the lights as this debate dragged on wearily. The narrator has this to say, : ‘Maybe we were a little drunk by then. I know it was hard keeping things in focus. The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from...’ When the story ends, the room has gone completely dark.

It is frightening to contemplate that love has the potential to turn violent and hurt those in its path. In ‘A Serious Talk’ where a marriage has broken down beyond repair, a man visits his wife and children on Christmas Day and almost sets the house on fire. In ‘Popular Mechanics’, a man who is leaving his wife gets into a fierce tussle with her for their baby with dire consequences. Meanwhile, there is dirty snow melting down the window pane with the darkness outside mirroring the darkness in the bedroom and in their lives.

Read Carver. These stories are tautly written and pack a punch. What is love truly? The collage of love presented here is not a pretty one. One thing about its nature seems clear. Love requires nurture and careful tending, failing which it will languish and die.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,118 reviews3,967 followers
May 24, 2023
A collection of short stories first published in 1981, but feeling a couple of decades older. They are heavily edited versions of Beginners, which I reviewed HERE). Comparing the two versions of these stories demonstrates that Stephen King's assertion that "The editor is always right" is not necessarily true. See my review of On Writing, HERE).

Each is a vivid glimpse of people at a troubling time in their lives. One of the early ones contains the line "Booze takes a lot of effort if you're going to do a good job with it" and one expects that to sum up the collection, but they're more varied than that. Most concern recent or imminent loss, whether a partner, child, friend or home. Often matters are exacerbated by problems with drink and fidelity. There are few really likeable characters; more references to fishing than might be expected; misogynistic aspects and not much humour, yet they were fascinating to read.

A few stories are positively disturbing (e.g. a brutal and pointless murder), but there are insights and questions too. Where does love go when it dies? How do you come to terms with the violation of the sanctity of your home? Can there be love if there is also violence? How does a functional family fall apart? Some of the characters are keen to explore these matters overtly ("There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out" and "We'd reached the end of something, and the thing was to find out where new to start"), but others are victims of circumstance or just go, unthinkingly, with the flow.

They are very short, and some were included in Robert Altman's 1993 film, Short Cuts, including The Bath (starting with a boy's birthday cake) and Tell the Women (the grisly one).

I've written a full review of the original, longer version of The Bath, called A Small, Good Thing, HERE.

Overall, I'd rate them 3.5*, but I'm feeling generous, and Carver is revered, so I rounded up.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,688 followers
January 19, 2019
“Drinking’s funny. When I look back on it, all of our important decisions have been figured out when we were drinking. Even when we talked about having to cut back on drinking, we’d be sitting at the kitchen table or out at the picnic table with a six-pack or whiskey.”
― Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

A series of 17 short stories averaging about 6-8 pages each looking at a different facet of love, its loss and gin. I may have put one star too many on some of these and accidentally left of a star when I should have actually included it it on several. I'm not sure. I know at the end of reading this collection Carver's stories haunted me for a week. They are sharp, small, devastating, and just when you feel like you are used to the pull and gravity of one story, he drops it and starts another (leaving the last one stuck in your throat). I'm not sure if the minimalist feel owes more to Carver or his editor Gordon Lish. I remember reading somewhere that the tug-of-war over the length of some of these pieces was intense. Later, Carver's wife republished most of these stories in the the origial "directors cut" collection called Beginners. Think of this collection as middle-class white folks, drinking, and f-ing up relationships.

1 "Why Don't You Dance?" - ★★★★
2 "Viewfinder" - ★★★
3 "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit"- ★★★★
4 "Gazebo" - ★★★★★
5 "I Could See the Smallest Things" - ★★★★★
6 "Sacks" - ★★★★★
7 "The Bath" - ★★★★
8 "Tell the Women We're Going" - ★★★★★
9 "After the Denim" - ★★★★★
10 "So Much Water So Close to Home" - ★★★★
11 "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off" - ★★★★★
12 "A Serious Talk" - ★★★★★
13 "The Calm" - ★★★★
14 "Little Things" - ★★★★
15 "Everything Stuck to Him" - ★★★★
16 "One More Thing" - ★★★★★
17 "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" - ★★★★★
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books781 followers
July 31, 2019
Except for the title story, I found these stories tiresome. By the time I got to the title story (which I’ve read before) in its penultimate spot, I was beyond tired of all the drinking the characters did; and because of that, I liked the title story a bit less than when I read it in isolation, though I agree it’s his masterpiece.

I wasn’t interested in most of the characters and I disliked the deadpan lines that concluded most of the stories, apparently the doing of Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor at the time. But I can’t blame Gordon Lish for my dislike, as I took a detour to read the later “Cathedral” and liked it only marginally better than most of these. Blaming Lish also doesn’t take into account the multitude of Carver fans who prefer the Lish-edited versions.

I can only conclude I don’t enjoy Carver for the same reasons I don’t care for Hemingway. Bare bones leave me cold.
Profile Image for Carlo Mascellani.
Author 17 books260 followers
July 25, 2021
Primo incontro con Carver, unanimemente considerato uno dei migliori scrittori statunitensi di racconti. Difficile contraddire una simile affermazione. Con incredibile talento, Carver riesce a condensare, in una manciata di pagine, tutta la complessità della vita, il suo essere fuorviante, la sua capacità di condurre l'uomo dove non avrebbe mai creduto di potersi recare o dove non aveva previsto di farlo. Memorabili le sue chiuse: quelle poche frasi che sembrano spiegare storie di per sé assai comuni e riassumerne il senso in un fluire di contraddizioni, sconcerto e sorpresa.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,654 followers
June 9, 2015
I picked up this collection of Raymond Carver stories after watching the movie "Birdman," which features a play based on the title story.

When I finished reading it, I was both impressed at Carver's brisk dialogue and wishing there had been more. He sketches scenes well, dances around a topic, reaches for an emotional peak, and then closes.

Like most short stories, it's a marvel of efficiency. But I still wish there had been more heft.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,890 reviews1,920 followers
February 28, 2021
I don't know about you, but I've never really seen the fuss around Carver's writing...yes, I get the "unique, outsider" stuff that's been plastered on him, but I spent years reading outsiders' work when I was an agent and, with that deep pool of experience to draw on, I think the only reason you're seeing this review at all is Gordon Lish.

He latched onto something in Carver's writing. He polished that something. But he polished it into something it never was before, and this is incontrovertible because Carver's widow Tess Gallagher didn't much like what Lish did and undid it. Here's a whole Wikipedia article about it. Also the plot gets summarized, a task I don't want to do myself.

The specific story I'll refer to is the title one, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Originally titled Beginners (read the full, unedited story here, behind The New Yorker's paywall; you can have three free reads a month, and this one's worth burning one for), the story is a four-person Decameron of lower-class life, a series of sad, slatternly people narrating the dead ends of dead people. A modern name for that is grit lit, or use the older group noun "noir" that intellectuals in the 1940s slapped on similar stories (especially their movies) to shake the last drop of piss off them. Fancy labels make all things better, establish their Worthiness for Inclusion; it's why there are fads and rediscoveries.

But if you read Carver's letters to Lish (again, the paywall applies, but I'm less sure it's worth burning a free read for this), I think you'll see how much Carver was replaced by equal or greater quantities of Lish. Editors do, always, leave their own DNA in a writer's work. It's part of a collaborative process that, at its best, makes the read that much better for the reader, and the writer that much better for the outsider's loving attention. But this, from Lish to Carver in 1982, after the fallout from this collection's contentious birth soured things:
I’m aware that we’ve agreed that I will try to keep my editing of the stories {in Where I'm Calling From} as slight as I deem possible, that you do not want me to do the extensive work I did on the first two collections. So be it, Ray. What you see in this sample is that minimum: to do less than this, would be, in my judgment, to expose you too greatly.

EXPOSE YOU is telling, isn't it; you're flawed, you're talentless, but *I* am here to protect you from the consequences! I'm also more than a little offended on Carver's behalf that Lish "deems" his work to be the minimum to make the lumpen oddities presentable, an attitude I think Lish telegraphs quite clearly by using the verb "to deem":
deem (v.)
Old English deman "to judge, decide on consideration, condemn;, think, judge, hold as an opinion," from Proto-Germanic *domjanan (source also of Old Frisian dema "to judge," Old Saxon adomian, Middle Dutch doemen, Old Norse dma, Old High German tuomen, Gothic domjan "to deem, judge"), denominative of *domaz, from PIE root *dhe- "to set, put" (compare doom). Related: Deemed; deeming. Originally "to pronounce judgment" as well as "to form an opinion." Compare Old English, Middle English deemer "a judge." The two judges of the Isle of Man were called deemsters in 17c., a title formerly common throughout England and Scotland and preserved in the surname Dempster.

(This from the Online Etymological Dictionary, whose Chrome extension I use with great frequency and frequent delight.)

I borrowed my library's Kindle edition of this book, my own 1980s paperback having vanished decades ago. I read the Lished version; I read Carver's original; I can't say I liked one better than the other because I wasn't enamored of either. They're not bad. But I came away thinking "...and why was this work deemed (!) so marvelous as to deserve to be gefilted (gefilte fish (n.)
1892, gefüllte Fisch, not a species but a loaf made from various kinds of ground fish and other ingredients; the first word is Yiddish, from German gefüllte "stuffed," from füllen "to fill"
if you're innocent of Jewish ancestors) into this allegedly superior work presented by Lish?"

Why bother? There is so very much work out there, quite a lot of it starting out better than Lish ended up making this collection, that one could more profitably spend one's time reading! Works by QUILTBAG authors, works by Black authors, Asian and Asian-American authors, Spanish-speaking or Arabic-speaking or Serbian-speaking authors...all so much more trenchant or squalid, if that is your kink; yet here's this nice-enough collection (I re-read this one story, it's widely critically hailed as the chef d'ouevre, and it is the only one I remembered the first thing about, so you "you're wrong, I think it's wonderful" commenters are deprived of the usual favorite opening line) sucking up money and attention forty years on and for no particularly compelling reason that I can see. There are books whose titles are plays on this collection's title! It's that well known, it's some kind of cultural touchstone.

Try this: Imagine a lesbian had written these stories. Do you still think this would be a venerated cultural artifact? Much more likely it'd be a forgotten typescript in some poor, beleaguered agent's archives.
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Author 21 books46 followers
December 2, 2013

I’ve read five stories so far in this book of short stories and I want to write what I’m thinking long before I’ve reached the end of the book, so this is like a pre-review; my first impressions that may or may not change after I’ve read the whole thing, but so far, the impression that the first story gave me has persisted through the next four stories.

This book is by an author I’d never heard of but it came highly recommended to me and after a little looking around online I saw that the author is revered as one of America’s greats; a master story-teller. Being a writer of short stories myself, naturally I was interested in reading a master I had previously not known about.

I had pretty high expectations. I’d even been saving the book somewhat like a treat. I have many books to read and I’m usually reading at least one in print and one in digital concurrently. I bought this one in print and each time I’d finish a print book I’d think of starting this one, but I’d put it off for a better time when I could really enjoy it. The time seemed right on this 4-day, holiday weekend.

I read the first story, looking forward to seeing the author’s brilliance. It started off like just about any story and then it went on a few pages and then it was done and I just went, “Huh?” I didn’t even get how that was a story. I read the next one and it was the same. Here’s a person, and they do something and they say some things and The End. By the third story, I got to where when I reached the end of a page on the right-hand side of the book, I realized that I didn’t know if the story was over or not. There was no way to know if it was going to continue on the next page because that’s how the stories are.

Think of that. You can’t tell before turning the page whether the story has reached the end, or if there’s more to it before it’s suddenly and disjointedly over. I started thinking about the Acknowledgements and how the author said he’d received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That made me think of Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano with his Piss-Christ “art.” I started to wonder if Carver is just some semi-talented rebel favorite of the left who is celebrated because he blatantly goes outside the norm. He doesn’t have to actually do anything brilliant as long as he defies expectations and conventions.

I also wonder if I’m just not sophisticated enough to get his brilliance, as if I’m standing in a museum looking at a painting like Whistler’s Mother and going, “Huh? What’s so great about this? I don’t get it.”

It also reminds me of something I read once about a professor of music who analyzed The Beatle’s music and described all of the brilliant and sophisticated things they had done and he went into great technical detail describing their advanced musical genius. John Lennon read the book and said something about not even understanding what the guy was talking about. They had just written songs – that’s all.


Okay, I finished the book, hating the author more and more as I read each story. Each time I finished another non-sensical story without a point, I kept thinking of all the rave reviews and how this guy is the “master” storyteller.

I’ll give him credit for being able to really bring you into a scene and create realistic dialogue, but shouldn’t a story be more than just that? I would think any good writer must be able to do those things as requirements – but he has to go beyond that and maybe even have a point to the story. It’s not sufficient to just take a camera and zoom in on two people in the world and give us some minutes of hearing them discuss some dysfunctional aspect of their lives and then zoom out again.

I was also extremely annoyed with his speech attributions, telling one entire story with the narrator saying things like: “I’m going outside,” she goes. I go, “Why?” “Because it’s warmer out there,” she goes. She goes, “I won’t be long.”

And in two of the stores he used no quotation marks at all, and in one of those, a person IN the story was telling a story to another character. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to understand what the hell I was reading. Was that dialogue?? I’d get to the end of some of these “stories” and want to tell the author, F*** you!

I wondered if this guy said to his best friend, “Watch this. I’m going to write another piece of shit story and everyone is gonna fawn all over it and drool as they praise my brilliance. hee hee.”
I also thought of how his writing could be compared to a painting. Imagine if someone painted a toilet. And the critics raved about what a master painting it was. I (and maybe you) would look at it and say, “It’s a freakin’ toilet. What’s so amazing?”

“Look at the handle! It’s like the last person who flushed the toilet had an oily thumb and you can see the whorls of their thumbprint on the chrome. It’s magnificent! And my god, just look at the shitstains! You can practically smell them. It’s pure genius!”

Well now you should have an idea of what you’re in for if you read Carver. Maybe you’ll see his writing the way my friend who recommended this book to me does and you’ll love it. The guy has talent. There’s no denying it. I’m just not sure if he ever knew what to do with it. One of my thoughts of him was, “A government-subsidized wannabe Salinger.”

My final thought is, if I knew my worst enemy was a compulsive reader and was going to end up stranded on an island for the rest of his life with nothing to read, I'd like to fly over and drop this book on the island.

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