White Walls: Collected Stories (New York Review Books Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Helen Oyeyemi

Well, at the very beginning of this year I read White Walls: The Collected Stories of Tatyana Tolstaya, translated by Antonina Bouis and Jamey Gambrell and populated by people straying in and out of the improbable as they accommodate lack and loss. Little moments kept delighting me: a man dreams he’s shielding loaves of precious bread from hungry neighbors, and finds that in his dream he’s able to make a successful protective gesture by bending his arm in a way that’s physically impossible in waking life. Elsewhere in Tolstaya-world two women discuss the discovery of a foul-tempered talking head in a suitcase, and there’s lots more where that came from.

The next book I loved was Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, narrated by Doris, a good time girl just trying to get through the 1930s in Berlin, whose indescribable voice (unless anyone thinks of a word that meshes keen perception and naiveté?) made me think she’d have a lot to say to another dangerously candid sophisticate: Anita Loos’s Lorelei Lee, protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Unlike the Loos books, Artifical Silk Girl is only sporadically comic; Keun’s particular art is in recounting traumatic episodes without bitterness, which is possible to do well if the narrator remains laconically detached – yet she evaded this approach and somehow keeps her narrator (and thus the reader) present in the moment. Other wielders of this skill that I’ve read this year are Cookie Mueller (Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black) and Merce Rodoreda (In Diamond Square, translated by Peter Bush) – Cookie’s is, amazingly, a memoir, a series of short ruminations on things that happened to her and her friends, often just as a result of going out onto the street “looking for something new,” whether in sixties San Francisco or Europe in the nineteen eighties. Natalia, the heroine of In Diamond Square tells of her life in Spanish Civil War era Barcelona with a ferocious sensitivity that made me laugh (she gets so angry when a stranger on the street refers to her as “tasty.” As if she were a bowl of soup!) but eventually that same level of susceptibility to her circumstances made me weep and shiver over her. Another book that caused me to have a great many feelings was Robert Walser’s The Tanners, translated by Susan Bernofsky, with an excellent introduction by Sebald. I also did a bit of thinking this year; a stand out book in that department is Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing, wherein I found histories of tigers and rhinoceroses, an account of the life an obscure mystic friar in seventeenth century Italy, stories about stories and much else that I’m still mulling over. Finally, a book I think of as Pure Enjoyment 2013: Troubled Daughters and Twisted Wives, Sarah Weinman’s anthology of lesser known domestic suspense stories, each one a mini film-noir unfolding across pages. I’ll tell you my favorite ones then you tell me yours: Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa Please Come Home,” Vera Caspary’s “Sugar and Spice,” Margaret Millar’s “The People Across the Canyon” and Celia Fremlin’s “A Case of Maximum Need”…

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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A Year in Reading: Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff’s fiction has appeared in journals including The Atlantic Monthly and Ploughshares and the most recent editions of the Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, will be out in February.This year I fell in love with the New York Review of Books Classics series, which reissues books that are either out-of-print or wildly underappreciated. Among the best were Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, John Williams’s Stoner, and Tatyana Tolstaya’s White Walls and The Slynx – a Gogol-esque dystopian tale. But the absolute sockdolager was Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, which I read slowly and breathlessly – and when I finished I was furious that nobody had ever told me about Gallant and all her staggering talent before now.From other sources, I loved Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep – electrifying, human – as well as Junot Diaz’s The The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. On a long car trip, I listened to an audiobook of Huckleberry Finn – the reader’s voice was the opposite of my internal reading voice, and it became a whole new book to me, layered atop the old book I knew so well.Also, because I moved full-time to Florida, my father-in-law lent me a copy of this strange old essay collection called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King, which is supposed to explain/lampoon the south to northerners (the cover: a tiny blonde in a Confederate flag with a mint julep in hand). Yikes. It’s cringe-inducing, but makes me laugh, and I often find myself reading it when I should probably be reading other things.More from A Year in Reading 2007

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