July 2013

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, etc. (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2013).

Sedaris - Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls
It is possible that I just have a warped sense of humor. Or it is possible that David Sedaris is a very funny guy. Whichever is the case, or perhaps if both are the case, the latest collection of short fiction from his pen kept me laughing from the beginning to the end of the book. There is plenty of irony and cynicism as well as some just fun recalling of the silliness of life in general. When it comes to telling a story, David Sedaris has not only an eye (or is that ear) for detail, but the power to discern which details are the most entertaining.

I received an autographed copy for my birthday this year. My family knows a bit about my sense of humor and what I like, I guess. Anyway, I intended to save it for our vacation, but I picked it up in the midst of a very busy week and soon was reading several essays each day. Even during a week of 12-hour days, the book was quickly finished.

I can’ wait to see what he writes next.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009)

Ford - Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
I don’t get around to reading many of the books that show up on the New York Times Bestseller List. I figure that if everyone else is reading the books, they don’t need my reading to be successful and I like to develop my own quirks about my reading. So it took about 4 years for me to get around to reading this little volume that had been sifting around our house since Susan read it. It isn’t a bad book.

It isn’t a great novel, either.

It tells an important story about a chapter in American History that is often glossed over or left untold. The injustices perpetrated upon our own citizens in the name of security in the Second World War have definitely been under reported. The lack of general public awareness of these injustices have allowed injustices to be perpetrated in more modern times, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 9-11 attacks. Unfortunately, a novel may not be the best way to tell the story.

In the end this book simply pushes the story too far. By the end of the book there are just too many improbable connections and reconnections to make the story unbelievable. I know that it takes a suspension of reality to read any novel, but we just aren’t sold that there can be an interim love and that the feelings would not change through all of the circumstances of the story. Had the final reunion not been included the story might have seemed more real. Because the story does not seem real, it undersells the real message about the injustices of our country that are a part of our real history.

That’s too bad. In the end, the book is a bit of a disappointment.

There is a Country

Nyuol Lueth Tong, ed., There is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan, (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2013)

Tong - There is a Country
This slim volume is an anthology of delightful stories from a place that has occupied the news and my imagination for some time. Part of the coming of age of a new country, I suppose, is the discovery of what might be unique about its literature. But a country with so many languages and such a varied history has trouble even finding a language for its voice. English is as good as any other - perhaps better because a larger percentage of the population speaks the language that is a holdover from its colonial past. There is a similarity to the stories, and yet each is unique with twists and turns that one might not expect from non-African writers.

Is there something unique about South Sudan that distinguishes it from the rest of Africa in terms of short fiction? I’m not sure I have discerned the answer to that question. What is clear from reading the volume is that there is talent in the new nation and that the talent should be nurtured and shared. This bonus volume from McSweeney’s is a much-appreciated contribution to that project.

Coming into the Country

John McPhee, Coming into the Country (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976).

McPhee - Coming Into the Country
Now that I am a confirmed John McPhee fan, I have been putting off reading his book about Alaska until I felt that I had earned a little treat. The book is much bigger than a little treat. It contains three books in one: Book I - At the Northern Treeline - The Encircled River; Book II - In Urban Alaska - What They Were Hunting For; and Book III - In the Bush - Coming into the Country. What a rich treat! John McPhee does such a good job of character development that the reader is convinced that we have known the characters for many years. I savored the descriptions of places almost as much as I did the descriptions of people. The book is a genuine joy for those who aspire to visit Alaska and who have entertained fantasies of living in the north country.

The book was worth the wait and a joy to read from start to finish.

McSweeney's 43

Charles Baxter, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, T.C. Boyle, Noor Elashi, Catherine Lacy, William Wheeler, McSweeney’s 43 (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2013)

Baxter - McSweeneys 43
It probably isn’t quite fair to list a literary magazine as a book, but McSweeney’s is becoming so unconventional in the publication of its quarterly magazine, that each volume truly does look like a book. And each is a treasure of short stories that simply are not available from other sources. I remember when the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker brought first rate short fiction to our homes every month. Those journals still publish a trickle of short stories, but to get the latest from new writers, there is no contemporary equal to McSweeney’s. I’ve become addicted to the publication and look forward to each quarter’s offerings.

This quarter was no disappointment. The rich variety of stories offered a bit of something for everyone. It is always a joy to reach the end of a book wishing that there is more and that is how I felt when I finished the first volume.

And there is more! There was a bonus volume of new sotries from South Sudan. I’ll write more about that later.