Sunday, May 30, 2010

Story Cycles

Reading Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN a few months ago, kicked off a run of other story cycles (WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT and OLIVE KITTERIDGE and THE IMPERFECTIONISTS). I read lots of short stories (especially when someone bestows their back copies of The New Yorker on me), and lots of novels. This roll of reading has offered a happy blend of the two, after a fall and winter with too many disappointing reads. (I was so excited about Lethem's CHRONIC CITY that I bought it in hardcover, and finished only the first few chapters; Mary Karr's LIT, which I also bought in hardcover? I'm a huge Karr fan, but this one is preachy and pedantic. She found God and got sober. HALF-BROKE HORSES by Jeanette Walls is not nearly as compelling as her stellar debut, THE GLASS CASTLE.) Anyhoo, the linked stories got me thinking that some of my all-time favorite books have been story cycles (or linked short stories or novel-in-stories or whatever you want to call them). Two that come immediately to mind are Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING, which I first read in maybe 10th or 11th grade (thanks, Paul O'Rourke), and got me thinking about point of view for the first time, and Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Since I'm on a bender here, I'd welcome other reading (or rereading) suggestions.


I absolutely loved the conceit. Shea, who reads dictionaries for fun, read the entire twenty-one volume Oxford English Dictionary in one year, clocking ten hours a day of squinting at fine print. He read it, he says, "so you don't have to." In twenty-six chapters, he describes the process, and selects his favorite words for each letter of the alphabet. His commentary on the project, on language, on humanity and on himself is as acerbic as leaky battery fluid, brilliant and laugh aloud funny. The word entries are fascinating, as is the look into Shea's uber-bibliophilia. But the majority of this book is a lexicon, and I admit to skimming some of the entries. Not everyone likes reading dictionaries, as passionate as we may be about words.


A novel in stories about the expats who put out a once somewhat venerable, now dying English language newspaper in Rome. Nicely crafted, lots of fun, good writing, fun, quirky characters. Liked a lot, but didn't adore. I wonder if this is because I've read several really stellar story cycles recently. Would nevertheless recommend this as an appetizing summer read.


While teaching MAUS, Art Spiegelman's brilliant graphic memoir about his father's experiences in the Holocaust, I had this idea that I should reread Frankl, which I hadn't read in many years. I still found Part One, in which Frankl documents his time in the camps, an achingly humanizing account. I still found Part Two, Frankl's theory of Logotherapy, something I felt compelled to slog through in tribute to the author. That said, this book is essential reading, though Frankl is a better idea man than writer. I find Primo Levi's THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED the most eloquent and potent work on this subject.


I read this one a few months ago and forgot to add it to this blog. Stellar! These linked stories are a paean to the edgy New York of the 70s (in which I came of age). Keen, unusual structure that works perfectly for the material, graceful characterizations, compelling story lines, caffeinated pace.

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

A short story cycle about the inhabitants of a small town on the Maine coast, linked around the sharp, irascible Olive Kitteridge, a retired 7th grade Math teacher in the town. I loved this book. Strout does passion, caprice, idiosyncrasy and need among people of a certain age with humanity and poignancy. Her writing is lyrical, lucid and very funny.

DIAMOND RUBY by Joseph Wallace

My old high school chum wrote this page-turner with characters I cared about, and ideas that matter deeply. Rollicking fun, too. A love song to baseball, old New York and brother(sister)hood. It's a terrific read for teens and adults.

TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Ann Patchett

I frequently recommend Lucy Grealy's poignant memoir, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE, to my 8th grade students (and other readers, both adult and teen). Grealy--charismatic, talented, troubled--committed suicide in 2002. Patchett was her roommate in grad school and her best friend until Grealy's death. In TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Patchett tells Grealy's story, and the story of their friendship. For all Patchett's success as a novelist, she seems to feel that Grealy was the more talented writer. This lovely book dispells that notion. I've also enjoyed several of Patchett's novels.