Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 2011

edited by Geraldine Brooks (book) and Heidi Pitlor (series)
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

This book presents 20 stories originally published in US or Canadian periodicals between January 2010 and January 2011, culled from 120 by author Geraldine Brooks. After a foreword and an introduction, by the series editor and the book editor respectively, in which they both discussed the "sameness" of short stories, I knew I was in for a unique collection.

Like any collection, there were some that I hated and some that I loved. Most I liked, in some form or another. Mostly, I admire the form of the short story and how an author can say so much in so little space where every word counts and not an image is wasted. So while I never rate a collection highly if I rate it at all (because I wouldn't read the whole collection from cover to cover again), I really enjoy the time spent dipping into these collections. (After all, even if I really hated a story, I've discovered an author to stay away from!)

Of the stories that stood out to me, I enjoyed "Property" by Elizabeth McCracken, which was bittersweet but the first story I really connected to, and "Phantoms" by Stephen Millhauser, which was deliciously creepy without being horror. Honorable mention goes to "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks about a town that decides to hibernate, and which just begs for discussion - I asked by English major brother to read it because I wanted to see what he came away with. But my absolute favorite of the collection was "To the Measures Fall" by Richard Powers. Its format is really unique, using second person and questions at the end of each section that are reminiscent of English tests. This could have distracted me from the story itself, except for the premise: you discover a used book that eventually becomes part of your life, even though its meaning and your responses change over time. I could relate so well that it doesn't matter that the "you" in story is quite a bit older than me and has a life ultimately different from mine. That experience is one I can understand.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Passion for Books

edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan
New York : Times Books, c1999.

The subtitle summarizes this collection better than I can: "A book lover's treasury of stories, essays, humor, lore, and lists on collecting, reading, borrowing, lending, caring for, and appreciating books." The only things in this collection left out in the subtitle are comics and quotes on books and reading.

Do you love to read? Do you love books just for the feel of them, for their presence in your home? Then this sort of collection, a book about books, is likely the type of read you'd be drawn to whether I had anything good to say about it or not. Fortunately, I found it to be a lot of fun dipping into this collection, whether reading for a prolonged period of time or trying to fit an essay into my lunch break.

I especially enjoyed "Lending Books" by Anatole Broyard, "Pillow Books" by Clifton Fadiman," "Invasion of the Book Envelopes" by John Updike, and "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?" by Robert Benchley. On the whole, the essays on collecting interested me less than others - but then, I'd be surprised if such a collection met my individual reading tastes precisely. This is the sort of book I would enjoy owning so I could simply read a selection of my choosing whenever I wanted and leave the rest behind. (Oh, let's be honest, what I'd really love to is to have a hundred such books and select my own favorites for compilation!) Recommended to all who would immediately identify themselves as Readers, and even more so to collectors.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Screwtape Letters

by C.S. Lewis
New York: HarperCollins, 2001 (orig. pub. 1943).

Screwtape, an old demon, writes letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood, who is on assignment tempting a young man with the ultimate goal of bringing his soul to Hell.

This has long been one of my favorites of Lewis' works, and a friend's recent read of it for a class prompted me to pick it up and reread it along with her. To my surprise, I found that though I've owned a copy for over a year, I have not reread it in the last six years or so (when I started tracking my reading). As a result, it didn't have the same sort of immediate familiarity of a yearly reread; it was more a gradual recognition as I read a letter and thought, "Oh yeah, I remember that now!" I had a lot of fun revisiting the book: it's at once humorous and hard-hitting, even convicting. The essay at the end, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" was, if not entirely new, one I had forgotten entirely. In it, he talks about the way in which the idea of "democracy" can be twisted in education, and I was really amazed at how prescient some of Lewis' predictions were.

I've been debating whether or not I would recommend it to someone who didn't share Lewis' faith, and ultimately I would say, if the conceit interests you, then go ahead and try it, but I think that like his apologetic works it would really interest and have the greatest impact on those who already agreed with a Christian worldview.