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I read once, and sadly I can’t remember or figure out where, that the early 80s was the golden age of short stories by women, a brief moment where they were what was up in literature. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, which came out in 1983, and Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel, which came out in 1985, were cited as examples. These two books are, of course, among my favorites and these two women are, of course, as good as it gets. So how lucky do I feel to be able to add to this very short list of witty, pithy, practically perfect writers one more: Stephanie Vaughn. Her collection Sweet Talk first was published in 1978. For me, it clearly inhabits the same funny-sad, true world as Self-Help and Reasons to Live.
It is comprised of ten stories, at least four of which are linked. (I say at least four because there is subtle crossover between some of the other less obviously linked stories). Of these four stories, I’d heard two before on the New Yorker podcast, the last story in the collection, “Dog Heaven,” read by Tobias Wolff and the first story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” read by Tea Obreht. These two stories, along with a third, “Kid MacArthur,” are my favorites in the book, and now, three of my favorite stories ever. Read the rest of this entry »
I added The Cosmopolitans to my wish list after seeing Nadia Kalman read an excerpt at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I’d never heard of her or the book, but liked the wedding scene she chose for the reading–I was enticed.
The book is divided into sections, which are in turn divided into very short chapters of a page or three. Each section starts with a small diagram of a family tree. Occupying the top two rectangles are the parents, Osip and Stalina Molochnik, Russian emigres to Stamford, CT. A diamond is attached to Stalina via an arrow, and is labeled “The Russian Soul.” Floating next to Osip is his brother Lev. The Molochnik’s three daughters–Milla, Yana and Katya–are on the tier below them. As the story progresses, other characters are added to and removed from the tree–foreign exchange students, boyfriends, husbands, children. In the end, the Russian Soul (which, is embodied by a mystical handkerchief) is transferred from Stalina to another character (I won’t ruin for you who).
Lev’s very short, metaphorical chapters, which tend to start each section, are in the first person. Other chapters in the third, and are given to parents, daughters, mothers-in-law, that exchange student turned husband. Because these segments are so brief and change voices so frequently, I never fell into a rhythm with the book. Yet, I appreciated this structure because staying too long with any of these characters isn’t something I would have wanted to do. None of them are particularly likable, though some are sympathetic. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve written before on Jonathan Franzen. I didn’t care for The Corrections, which we read in my narrative writing class in advance of his appearance at Vassar (circa the Oprah controversy), a reading he did as a favor to his friend, a professor at the school. I was appalled by his performance, for which he was awkward, ill-prepared and clearly contemptuous. We all were, to the point where, in order to reestablish a productive learning environment, we were banned from mentioning Franzen in class. Privately, though, I stewed for years.
But, here’s the thing. I still loved Freedom.
Why? Because a writer and a writer’s work are separate. The work has its own life and should be taken on its own merits. Read the rest of this entry »