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Two from the New Yorker and two re-reads

First, two recent stories from The New Yorker:

"Naima" by Hisham Matar (Jan. 24, 2011): talekyn's recent review made me eager to read this story, and I was not disappointed. The story is a delicate exploration of the relationships between a young boy, his parents, and their maid. These relationships are, of course, more complicated than they first seem, and Matar does a wonderful job of subtly teasing out those complications without ever making things too explicit. I was really impressed by Matar's beautiful descriptive writing and attention to tiny, fleeting details. Despite its sober tone, the story is flecked with lovely sensual details like the taste of ripe berries, and the disappearing twist of steam above a cup of hot milk. Beautiful work.

"Axis" by Alice Munro (Jan. 31, 2011): 'Deft' is the best word I can think of to describe Alice Munro's short fiction. Her hand always seems so sure as she brings characters to life, floats back and forth between past and present, and imbues her stories with a richness that other writers (myself included) can only dream of. This story is not as long as others of hers that I've read, and does not feel quite as fully developed as those in her masterful collection Runaway, but it is still a virtuoso piece. The story is centered around two female friends, Grace and Avie, and the boyfriends they meet at university. Munro uses her four characters to explore the way the same event can weigh differently on different lives: light as a feather and easily brushed off for some, but leaving a permanent mark on others. Munro takes her characteristic long view here; although the story is fairly short, it spans fifty years in the characters' lives. This is both a compelling story and a display of impressive technical skill.

I'm currently teaching a fiction-writing class for high school seniors, so lately I've been re-reading the stories that I'm assigning to my students. I don't know whether I'll post reviews of all of these, but here are a few for now:

"Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor (from The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor): Several years ago, I went to an exhibition of Early Netherlandish painting at the Met. I wandered through room after room of religious paintings by little-known artists from the 16th century, some good but many not very interesting to me. Then I rounded a corner into the last room of the show, and saw Bruegel's famous painting, "The Harvesters". It glowed on the wall with a liveliness that none of the other art had--a perfect illustration of the fact that there are reasons why some works become classics while others fade into obscurity. This story is like that; every time I read I'm reminded of exactly why this story is famous. O'Connor is at the height of her powers here, filling her story with strange and unlikeable people, surprising changes in direction, and a perfectly calibrated shocking ending. There is much that is profound about this story, and nothing that is obvious.

"Spikes" by Michael Chabon (from Werewolves in Their Youth): I loved this story the first time I read it, but it lost some power for me on the re-read. There's a tenderness to the story, the characterization is well done, and there are several nice details, but it's too sentimental. And Chabon ends with a "coming full circle" moment that feels a little too neat and tidy. I think he's better as a novelist than a short-story writer. My students liked this better than I did.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
talekyn
Feb. 26th, 2011 04:18 am (UTC)
Glad we agree on "Naima." The Munro story has been here with me on this business trip, but I was so engrossed with Octavia Butler's novel FLEDGLING that I didn't break the magazines out at all.

I can honestly say I do not remember ever reading anything by Flannery O'Connor. We must have in high school, or in one of my college lit courses, but nothing is coming to mind. I'll have to rectify that.

And WEREWOLVES is sitting on my shelf with a whole pile of other unread Chabon fiction. I need to get around to that one of these days as well!

So much to read ....
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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