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

A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN

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

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: N/A

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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A slender, highly satisfying collection.

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LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN

A dozen pieces of nonfiction from the acclaimed novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter.

In an appreciative introduction, New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als praises Didion as “a carver of words in the granite of the specific.” Stylistic precision (“Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” she writes) and the “energy and shimmer” of her prose are fully evident in this volume of previously uncollected pieces, written from 1968 to 2000. Although Didion portrays herself as a diffident, unconfident writer as a college student, she learned “a kind of ease with words” when working at Vogue, where she was assigned to write punchy, concise copy. The experience, she recalls, was “not unlike training with the Rockettes.” Several pieces were originally published in magazines, and two were introductions: one, to a volume of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe; another, to a memoir by director—and Didion’s friend—Tony Richardson. All reveal the author’s shrewd, acerbic critical eye. In “Getting Serenity,” she reports on a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous, where, she notes sardonically, one woman “adapted her mode of public address from analgesic commercials.” William Randolph Hearst’s “phantasmagoric barony,” San Simeon, “seemed to confirm the boundless promise of the place we lived,” but, she decided, was best admired from afar, like a fairy-tale castle, “floating fantastically.” Didion’s rejection from Stanford elicited an essay about college as consumption, and her skewering of consumption and artifice recur as themes—for example, in her observation of the ways women stage themselves for portrait photographs. Several particularly revealing essays focus on writing: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” she famously admitted, a statement often misattributed to others. Writing, for her, is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.” As these pieces show, it’s also an accomplished act of seduction.

A slender, highly satisfying collection.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-31848-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2020

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Fans of Seinfeld will eat this up, and aspiring comics will want to study how he shapes his seemingly effortless humor.

IS THIS ANYTHING?

“All comedians are slightly amazed when anything works.” So writes Seinfeld in this pleasing collection of sketches from across his four-decade career.

Known for his wry, observational humor, Seinfeld has largely avoided profanity and dirty jokes and has kept politics out of the equation. Like other schooled jokesters, perhaps most famously Bob Hope, he keeps a huge library of gags stockpiled, ever fearful of that day when the jokes will run out or the emcee will call you back for another set. “For the most part, it was the people who killed themselves to keep coming up with great new material who were able to keep rising through the many levels,” he recounts of his initiation into the New York stand-up scene. Not all his early material played well. The first piece in this collection, laid out sentence by sentence as if for a teleprompter, is a bit about being left-handed, which comes with negative baggage: “Two left feet. / Left-handed compliment. / Bad ideas are always ‘out of left field.’ / What are we having for dinner? / Leftovers.” He gets better, and quickly, as when he muses on the tininess of airplane bathrooms: “And a little slot for used razor blades. Who is shaving on the plane? And shaving so much, they’re using up razor blades. Is the Wolfman flying in there?” For the most part, the author’s style is built on absurdities: “Why does water ruin leather? / Aren’t cows outside a lot of the time?” It’s also affable, with rare exceptions, as when, taking on a mob boss persona, he threatens a child with breaking the youngster’s Play-Doh creations: “Nothing wrong with sending your child a little Sicilian message once in a while.” One wishes there were more craft notes among the gags, but the ones that are there are both inspiring and gnomic: “Stand-up is about a brief, fleeting moment of human connection.”

Fans of Seinfeld will eat this up, and aspiring comics will want to study how he shapes his seemingly effortless humor.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982112-69-1

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2020

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