One last thing about Tobias Wolff, in the American cover above.
Our Story Begins, New and Selected Stories by Tobias Wolff | | Booktopia
What a moustache. I have long thought that we are diminished by the lack of beards and snazzy taches on the faces of our literary greats. It is a fact that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville, Dickens, the list never ends, from the days of candle sticks and quills, it is a fact that their work was in some way enhanced by their manly hirsuteness, and the demise of the writer with beard or coiffed moustache is a small tragedy in some ways.
I long for the day when it returns; the tache gives me another reason to buy and read this work of Mr Wolff. Of course Proust is the high mark of the literary moustache. I think that the modernist break with the beard was part of their reaction against all that came before, and the beard represented all that was false and decayed in the old forms of European literature.
Our Story Begins
In Tobias I see resemblances to the WG Sebald tache too, the last truly great writer to use clippers on the upper lip. An excellent point, Paul, well made. I struggle to think of British writers who can match that sort of furniture. Interestingly, his unstructured beard seems to reflect the looseness of his fiction. Jacobson is sometimes described — mainly by me, and not terribly accurately either — as the British Philip Roth.
I read books exactly the way you do — which means I, like you, am an infrequent short story reader Lahiri is definitely an exception for me.
And having said nice things about Alice Munro earlier — and I do agree with the critics that she is an excellent writer — I too have difficulty engaging with her work. Oddly, his writing does seem to be both too gestural and too emphatic all at once. But Wolff certainly writes wonderful prose. I think Richard Ford included it in a recent collection of best American short stories of the twentieth century or something like that.
And a shit library. If bookermt is dropping in on this site, and I suspect he is, surely he can find a way to get Sam a copy of Unaccustomed Earth. I like the anticipation! The young Philip Roth needed a moustache. The aging, balding Philip Roth would look quite silly with one. Check out the Library of America website and follow the covers of their volumes in sequence for a study in receding hairlines.
Roth is just fine the way he is now, unless he acquires a toupe. Sam: Go to Amazon.
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Just as in the book above, it is far more subtle, far more indicative of the content and all in all far better. I must admit from my monitoring of the Man Booker this summer, it appears that publishers in the U. I shall have to ponder that, Sam. I translate that into the description of character as well. You can illuminate character by a similar kind of sidelong glance that you can use to illuminate that moonlit night. You know: the mixing-of-drinks, the-crossing-of-rooms, the-lighting-of-cigarettes.
What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular. Kevin, this comment is already too long, so I will have to wait another time to disagree with you in principle about US v UK book covers … though of course, not in this case anyway! Some are better in one place, some in the other — there is no trend. But your point about the pleasures of his stories being primarily on the surface of the page is an astute one style over content, if we were being crude. My only complaint about this book—besides agreeing with you about the cover design—is that I felt Wolff deserves a big fat book containing ALL the stories, like that wonderfully generous William Trevor collection of some pages, odd stories, containing the complete contents of seven story collections.
With that Trevor book and a big Wolff collection, you could last a long, happy time abandoned on a deserted island. John — Bloomsbury have very kindly sent me a copy of this and I was really interested to read your take on it. This was picked up and this book hit my doorstep and now that I have read your thoughts, I am looking forward to taking the plunge soon. JRSM: Yes and no. Elaine, I hope you like it — I think if anyone can win over a short-story denier, Wolff can. But I will keep an eye on your blog to see what you think, and you can of course share any thoughts here too.
Just one of those lucky picks, I guess. Anyway, it was most certainly a lucky draw. Thanks for your comment, Hans. In any event it was a fine choice you made in the first place. Sperm in a centrifuge eh! Where to start here…?
Our Story Begins: New And Selected Stories
Well, how about with Munro, before we move on to a few of the others mentioned in the above missives…. I recently read some Munro stories, and I found her to be an excellent writer with very little to say. What she had to say was poignant, perspicacious, economic and affecting. But to bring in anoter writer mentioned — her stories seemed bereft of the heft of a Carver, for example, as though she was training an obsessive, finely-honed scrutiny upon too narrow a concern. I mean, you can create something pretty snazzy with an etch-a-sketch, but why not try a canvas, or at least get the pencil and pad out?
Terrible metaphor but anyway. I enjoy it more when writers try and slip out of their comfort zone; when such attempts are made and the writer develops, as Carver did with Cathedral, as William Trevor did, as others have, it can be thrilling. Incapable, I imagine, of anything as concisely brilliant as Wolff, he is more a kind of logorrhoeic, compulsively insightful wag that has never failed to entertain.
My only experience of Munro I may be repeating myself is a collection of her stories I read about ten years ago called The Progress of Love. I think the danger of reading any book of short stories one after the other is that they can run together. Yes, her stories are largely set in south-western Ontario, but they detail the individual lives of ordinary people. Her characters live largely hum-drum rural lives and do have a superficial similarity, but their personalities, regrets and dreams are all very different.
You have identified the problem with reading books of stories — I tried to avoid this by reading Our Story Begins over a period of about three months, limiting myself to a few stories a week. The difficulty I suppose for any writer with a distinctive tone or milieu is that their stories will seem similar, at least to the non-fan — just as songs by an artist with a distinctive voice will run into one another.
I have an old-fashioned affinity for writers who lived an actual life before they hit campus, whether as writing students or writing teachers, and now try to capture what they saw without being precious about it. Great craft, big heart. You are commenting using your WordPress.
You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account. But we also recognize that slip in logic, that moment of racial intolerance, as a consequence of his already mounting frustration and frantic search for a misguided justice. And while Wolff lets his character's flaws speak for themselves, he rarely lets his characters off the hook. They often falter or inflict their failings on others, sometimes tragically.
Many of the stories force inactive characters into agency.
The boy in "The Liar" has, to this point, lied without reason, without thinking. But, by stories end, his lies, in which family members are often dead, are a choice, a faulty way to push back at his world. In other stories, like the oft-anthologize "Bullet in the Brain", we see how the characters got to their current, bitter situations. And in that story, and a few others such as "Hunters in the Snow", where big violent events do happen, the reader can see Wolff's talents most clearly.
He rarely lets the blood and gunshots amp him up, he never gets carried away with the action. Wolff's control is his greatest asset, using the violence to sustain tension so that, while we read of two hunters eating pancakes and confessing their insecurities, we don't find it sweet, we find it cruel. It is tense because there is a third hunter, bleeding in a truck outside in the cold night. The guy eating pancakes shot him. We know this because Wolff told us, and doesn't feel the need to repeat himself.
He doesn't rub our faces in the blood, because he knows that the way the two hunters ignore their hurt friend is gristlier than any bullet wound.
The new stories are similarly effective, giving us a new collection of unmoored and beaten down characters. Published together, though, they show why Wolff doesn't have a new collection coming out. They feel disconnected from each other and, since they fail to work together, they all seem slight in comparison to his previous output.
His previous three collections, and the selected stories here, work well together to create their own, mosaic world of loss and regret.
But though they aren't cohesive, new stories like the aching "That Room" or the tense "A Mature Student" shine as bright as any of Wolff's other work. These characters are inactive and self-pitying and unable to get out of their own way. In the hands of a lesser author, they'd be flat and ineffectual or, worse, indistinguishable from characters you've already read. But Wolff's keen eye for the right phrase, the perfect detail, his ability to represent these characters in all their flawed honesty, make these stories brilliantly his own.
These stories -- Wolff's work in general -- have a reflex test quality. You know they going to strike you, you know how they're going to strike, and still they hit you, with a careful swing, and you can't help but react. Not all entries in Best American Comics will down easy. Some might be undercooked. Some left too long on the fire. But the strongest will satisfy for a long time. Amazon's eight-episode animation, Un done is a poignant reflection on grief, loss, mental illness, and heritage. That is, if you don't own them by now. Inspired in part by young activist Greta Thunberg, thousands of people participated in the Climate Strike march in New York, with many other events around the world.
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