Love This Thing
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
First Line: “In the aftermath of an athletic humiliation on an unprecedented scale–a loss to a tortoise in a footrace so staggering that, his tormenters teased, it would not only live on in the record books, but would transcend sport itself, and be taught to children around the world in textbooks and bedtime stories for centuries; that hundreds of years from now, children who had never heard of a ‘tortoise’ would learn that it was basically a fancy type of turtle from hearing about this very race–the hare retreated, understandably, into a substantial period of depression and self-doubt.”
Yes, this really is Novak’s opening line. “What a delightful sentence,” I said, arriving at the period. This guy is pitch-perfect. Seriously. I can’t remember having ever read something with sentences so snappy and smart. Like–every sentence.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised, though. Novak does scripts. He understands realistic dialogue. Still, I felt a sort of awe while reading this collection. I don’t really think I had expectations, but I sure was impressed. He does slice-of-life in the best way with stories that are fun, light, and refreshing. Since they don’t ask to be taken seriously, we readers don’t have to grope around for lofty “meanings.” They digest quickly; and I was entertained. (Coming from over-analytical me–that’s high praise!)
Novak’s humor really shines throughout the collection. Certain stories are followed by “discussion questions.” Although these prompts are relevant to the story at hand, they also function as the punch line. In other stories, the protagonists are celebrities. We follow Johnny Depp on a motorcycle in Hollywood, and join author John Grisham at his breakfast table in Virginia. It’s a clever spin to use cameo roles in writing.
My favorite stories include a young man trying to reunite with his grandmother in heaven, a secret discussions on the exact properties of dark matter, and a middle school kid learning about his parentage from a box of cereal. Novak’s content has a great range, and I see potential for him to break in to children’s literature. I’m thinking something similar to the world of Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories. Read Novak’s “‘Rithmetic” to get a better idea.
Then read them all! This collection is a winner.
Bottom Line: Buy the book and enjoy reading it over a week, then loan it to all the cool people you know and plan a time to meet en masse for those discussion questions.
Fantastical Stories Transform Dull Weekend
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
First Line: “In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or ‘first flowering fruit,’ the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli.”
I discovered Karen Russell in 2010 when I chose St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, her first story collection, to read and review for a creative writing class. The title hooked me immediately, and her experimental, dream-worlds do not disappoint.
I want to liken her writing style to that eerie darkness of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. She’ll occasionally play with magical, physical transformations of her characters, and her tone–I don’t quite know how to put it, other than ‘psychologically-spooky!’
This collection begins with a love story centuries old. Two vampires have retired in Italy, where they quench their thirst with lemons. Next we’re launched to a Japanese dystopia in which a metamorphous tonic turns young women into silkworm hybrids. (There’s the Kafka for you!) She also gives us U.S. presidents reincarnated into horses (hilarious), and a somber look at PTSD when a tattooed veteran collects his gratis massages at Dedos Mágicos.
My only critique here is that the final story fell a little flat for me. I wish the collection ended with more oomph, but by no means will that dismiss it from my bookshelf!
Bottom Line: Russell is unique and unexpected and budding creative writers can find wonderful tips from her experimental style.
Hang Wallpaper the Hemming-way and More!
The Household Tips of the Great Writers by Mark Crick
First Line: “I sipped on my whisky sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin.”
Once again, the book cover enticed me. But what really sealed the deal for this library borrow was the title. Instructional fiction? With my favorite writers? Cooking and home repairs and yard work as dozens of mini-stories? Why didn’t I ever think of this! Crick is a genius.
The premise of the book is essentially a writing exercise. In each episode, Crick molds his writing style to mimic that of one of the great writers. He starts with the spirit of Raymond Chandler and pairs him with an entrée of lamb and dill sauce. The result is a guy throwing an evening meal together while waiting for some elusive blonde to show up. Two quick pages of first-person narration describing the process of how to cook lamb ending in classic Chandler style: “The blond hadn’t showed. She was smarter than I thought. I went outside to poison myself, with cigarettes and whisky.”
Naturally, I was drawn to the writers with whom I’m most familiar. Jane Austenian women had a discussion of suitable marriage matches while experimenting with eggs and tarragon in the kitchen. The John Steinbeck tone yielded the tale of a destitute young woman fixing risotto with dried mushrooms–humor to the literature lover!
“Painting a Room” completely mirrors the situations of Haruki Murakami’s protagonist in Norwegian Wood and the finale poem “How to Prune the Rose” reads as if it were freshly torn from a Pablo Neruda collection. The pastiches on the playwrights are equally impressive.
The layers to this compilation (the three parts were initially published independently) are profoundly entertaining. It’s study of literary styles–a joke book on the great writer’s ticks and trademarks. It’s a recipe collection and a reference guide for your next weekend project. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Bottom Line: For the perfect gift to a literature-lover, buy this book.