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A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN

IN WHICH FOUR RUSSIANS GIVE A MASTER CLASS ON WRITING, READING, AND LIFE

A master of contemporary fiction joyously assesses some of the best of the 19th century.

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The renowned author delivers a master class on the Russian short story and on the timeless value of fiction.

Though Saunders is known mainly as an inventive, award-winning writer—of novels, short stories, cultural criticism—he has also taught creative writing at Syracuse since 1997. “Some of the best moments of my life…have been spent teaching that Russian class,” he writes. This is the book version of that class, illuminating seven stories by the masters: three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Turgenev and Gogol. All stories are included in full, and readers need not be familiar with Russian literature to find this plan richly rewarding. Opening with Chekhov’s “The Cart,” Saunders shows just how closely we’ll be reading—a page or two of the original text at a time followed by multiple pages of commentary. The author seeks to answer “the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?” As he shows throughout this thrilling literary lesson, the answer has little to do with conventional notions of theme and plot; it’s more about energy, efficiency, intentionality, and other “details of internal dynamics.” Saunders explains how what might seem like flaws often work in the story’s favor and how we love some stories even more because of—rather than in spite of—those flaws. Saunders is always careful not to confuse the internal workings of a story with authorial intent. Once we become accustomed to reading like he reads, we proceed through the stories with great joy, anticipating even further delights with his explications to follow. “The resistance in the stories,” he writes, “is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.”

A master of contemporary fiction joyously assesses some of the best of the 19th century.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984856-02-9

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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A WEALTH OF PIGEONS

A CARTOON COLLECTION

A virtuoso performance and an ode to an undervalued medium created by two talented artists.

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The veteran actor, comedian, and banjo player teams up with the acclaimed illustrator to create a unique book of cartoons that communicates their personalities.

Martin, also a prolific author, has always been intrigued by the cartoons strewn throughout the pages of the New Yorker. So when he was presented with the opportunity to work with Bliss, who has been a staff cartoonist at the magazine since 1997, he seized the moment. “The idea of a one-panel image with or without a caption mystified me,” he writes. “I felt like, yeah, sometimes I’m funny, but there are these other weird freaks who are actually funny.” Once the duo agreed to work together, they established their creative process, which consisted of working forward and backward: “Forwards was me conceiving of several cartoon images and captions, and Harry would select his favorites; backwards was Harry sending me sketched or fully drawn cartoons for dialogue or banners.” Sometimes, he writes, “the perfect joke occurs two seconds before deadline.” There are several cartoons depicting this method, including a humorous multipanel piece highlighting their first meeting called “They Meet,” in which Martin thinks to himself, “He’ll never be able to translate my delicate and finely honed droll notions.” In the next panel, Bliss thinks, “I’m sure he won’t understand that the comic art form is way more subtle than his blunt-force humor.” The team collaborated for a year and created 150 cartoons featuring an array of topics, “from dogs and cats to outer space and art museums.” A witty creation of a bovine family sitting down to a gourmet meal and one of Dumbo getting his comeuppance highlight the duo’s comedic talent. What also makes this project successful is the team’s keen understanding of human behavior as viewed through their unconventional comedic minds.

A virtuoso performance and an ode to an undervalued medium created by two talented artists.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-26289-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Celadon Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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CALYPSO

Sedaris at his darkest—and his best.

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In which the veteran humorist enters middle age with fine snark but some trepidation as well.

Mortality is weighing on Sedaris (Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, 2017, etc.), much of it his own, professional narcissist that he is. Watching an elderly man have a bowel accident on a plane, he dreaded the day when he would be the target of teenagers’ jokes “as they raise their phones to take my picture from behind.” A skin tumor troubled him, but so did the doctor who told him he couldn’t keep it once it was removed. “But it’s my tumor,” he insisted. “I made it.” (Eventually, he found a semitrained doctor to remove and give him the lipoma, which he proceeded to feed to a turtle.) The deaths of others are much on the author’s mind as well: He contemplates the suicide of his sister Tiffany, his alcoholic mother’s death, and his cantankerous father’s erratic behavior. His contemplation of his mother’s drinking—and his family’s denial of it—makes for some of the most poignant writing in the book: The sound of her putting ice in a rocks glass increasingly sounded “like a trigger being cocked.” Despite the gloom, however, frivolity still abides in the Sedaris clan. His summer home on the Carolina coast, which he dubbed the Sea Section, overspills with irreverent bantering between him and his siblings as his long-suffering partner, Hugh, looks on. Sedaris hasn’t lost his capacity for bemused observations of the people he encounters. For example, cashiers who say “have a blessed day” make him feel “like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne.” But bad news has sharpened the author’s humor, and this book is defined by a persistent, engaging bafflement over how seriously or unseriously to take life when it’s increasingly filled with Trump and funerals.

Sedaris at his darkest—and his best.

Pub Date: May 29, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-39238-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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