Book 31: Tenth of December by George Saunders
Book 32: The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Book 33: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Three story collections; two of recent note.
On its front page, The New York Times Magazine proclaims George Saunders' Tenth of December "the best book you will read this year."
Hyperbole, perhaps, but than again maybe not. This is a wonderful collection brimming with stories that are quirky, provocative, humorous and deeply humane.
My favorite is the title story, Tenth of December, a tender story in which a fat little boy with an overactive imagination sets out to save a man determined to take his own life. In a bit of turnabout, it's the little boy who needs rescued.
And yet in the very act of being rescued he becomes the rescuer as a man confronting his own mortality grasps the value of small kindnesses and the richness of life.
This is a story that is better -- richer -- with each reading.
Saunders' stories, which can approach the bizarre, are like no other story collection I can recall. Prospective readers may view that as a warning or an invitation, or a little of both.
Ann Beattie's The New Yorker Stories is a fat collection of short stories that appeared in the pages of The New Yorker between April, 1974, and November, 2006.
Beattie is a commanding writer and these stories -- very much in the vein of Alice Munro or William Trevor -- are stunningly good. Beattie's ability to reveal a depth and clarity of emotional insight from a brief scene or passing encounter is unmatched.
In only a few brief pages, from some modest moment in a person's life, Beattie delivers something powerful and true and incredibly more vast than the canvass upon which she works.
It saddens me, somewhat, but I like Karen Russell much more than her writing.
As an individual, I find her funny and bright and warm. For me, those qualities are not found in her writing.
I approached Vampires in the Lemon Grove much as I approached George Saunder's Tenth of December. I knew the stories here would be very different from what anyone else was writing -- eerie, disconcerting, strange.
I found those ingredients, but what I didn't find were stories that tapped some deeper vein of understanding or insight. I truly struggled, at times, to understand what Russell, the writer, was trying to achieve.
I will applaud, with enthusiasm, her story, Proving Up. Here, in this story set on the Nebraska plains, she she skillfully takes a story in the most unexpected direction and displays a deft hand at evoking horror from the quotidian.