George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
Raven Leilani, Luster
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Tony Medino, I Am Alfonso Jones
Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Madhur Anand, This Red Line Goes Straight To Your Heart
George Saunders, A Swim In A Pond in the Rain
Holy shit. This book is great.
Saunders analyzes six stories written by four Russians: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. It is a process he has undertaken for many years while teaching an undergraduate class at Syracuse University called “The 19th Century Russian Short Story in Translation.” For me, the experience of reading the book felt a lot like being in one of those rare lectures that is both engaging and unforgettable. As in his own fiction, Saunders’ writing is conversational, funny, sharp, and wise. It’s an absolute joy.
I happened to be reading A Swim In a Pond in the Rain just as I was preparing a short story unit to teach to my Gr. 12 English class and even though I did not use any of the Russian stories included in Saunders’ book, I certainly did use his many approaches to understanding the craft of short story writing and analysis in my own teaching. What a treat it was for me, as a teacher, to read what is essentially a breakdown of how teaching literature is done. What we hope for in English classrooms (I assume everywhere) is to provide a meaningful experience with literature that leads readers to a new understanding of something - themselves, the world, the art of storytelling. When it works, when students are genuinely engaging with a text in a critical and thoughtful way, the effect is deeply satisfying. Saunders knows this, acknowledging in his introduction that “some of the best moments of my life, the moments during which I’ve really felt myself offering something of value to the world, have been spent teaching that Russian class.”
Saunders addresses each story individually, reproducing it and then sharing his thoughts afterward. In the case of the first story, Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” he reproduces one page at a time, following up each page with a series of questions and observations on the progress of the story. This is both a frustrating and effective approach to the process. By considering what has happened at the end of each page, and then evaluating whether we wish to keep reading and why, Saunders builds an analysis of the story’s effectiveness in terms of form and content. Saunders’ work through “In The Cart” establishes a series of premises on which to judge the remaining five.
Appearing about halfway through the book, Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” offers one of the most gripping and visceral descriptions of navigating a snowstorm that I have ever encountered. A servant, Nikita, is travelling with his wealthy employer, Vasily Andreevich, on the day after St. Nicholas day, in order to arrange the purchase of a tract of land in a neighbouring community. It is imperative that they travel that night, Andreevich insists, or he will lose out on the purchase. Andreevich at first intends to go alone, but his wife, worried about the travel conditions, refuses to allow it, suggesting that Nikita go along with him. Nikita, recognizing the unreasonableness of the request, but also the value of his relationship with his employer, gets the horses ready and sets out on the journey with Andreevich.
One of the key elements of successful storytelling is the ability of the narrative to continue to build suspense for the reader, raising the stakes incrementally until we are unable to stop reading. In Tolstoy’s story, what this looks like is Nikita and Andreevich finding themselves lost in the same whiteout conditions, over and over again. After accidentally circling back to a small town they’ve already passed, the two stop for help, receive it, and are offered a warm place to stay the night. But still Andreevich insists they press on. It becomes clear to the reader that they are likely to die in the snowstorm, and we question why Andreevich is so stubbornly committed to his plan. What Tolstoy needs us to see is how power and wealth have created a kind of invulnerability in him, which stands out in contrast to Nikita’s resignation to the fact that they will not make it through the night. Tolstoy shows that his characters’ differing social classes define their attitudes towards their own lives. But rather than allowing the story to play out as we’ve been led to believe it will, Andreevich experiences an epiphany that so transforms his character we are left with an outcome that is both surprising and satisfying. It’s genuinely unforgettable.
While I’ve always believed in the greatness of Russian fiction (dudes! So bleak!) I can’t say I have really plumbed the depths of it. Nor have I really wanted to, if only because the heaviness of those Dostoevsky and Solzhenitzyn tomes leave an indelible mark. Being able to observe as Saunders grapples with these stories, factoring in the authors’ biographies, his students’ reactions to the tales, and his own biases in encountering them over and over again has given me a renewed interest. Not just in reading, but in talking about these amazing writers. His analysis is rich, hilarious and insightful and I came out of reading this book feeling not just wiser, but grateful for the chance to learn from one of the masters. And four Russians.
Raven Leilani, Luster
I am not embarrassed to say that this year I will turn fifty. Most of the time it doesn’t bug me, to be that old. But one of the experiences of getting, let’s say wiser, is that I find myself reading texts written by much younger writers like Raven Leilani and can’t help but feel the width of the generation gap between us. Edie, the narrator of this story isn’t just twenty-three, but is twenty-three in a way that I never was, in a way that I will never be or know. And there’s nothing bad about that experience, except for the fact that it reminds me how that I am definitely almost fifty the whole time I’m reading.
In the novel’s opening, main character Edie, who is Black, is on a first date with a fortyish white guy who is in an open marriage. They have engaged in deep conversation online, including what the kids call “sexting” (haha), so the date is a bit of a formality. And yet, it contains the hallmarks of any first date - gaps in conversation, general awkwardness, a feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of the night. Certainly Edie seems ambiguous about her feelings for Eric, or, perhaps more accurately, doesn’t actually like him all that much. Yet she continues to see him. As an aside, I thought for sure his “open marriage” was going to be revealed as a story he told her to ensure she didn’t feel bad about sleeping with a married man. As it turns out though, not only is Edie not the kind of person who would feel bad about sleeping with someone who’s married, Eric’s marriage really is open. Or, more accurately, his wife has given him permission to sleep around, which, if you ask me, is a different thing altogether. The point is, he doesn't deceive Edie or his wife.
Through the first third of the book we watch helplessly as Edie’s life, already dicey, spirals into chaos. She loses her job as a result of general negligence, but it doesn’t help that she has slept with almost every one of her coworkers. Evicted from her apartment and facing homelessness and destitution, Edie moves in with Eric, his wife Rebecca and their adopted Black daughter Akila.
It is perhaps more reflective of my personality than age to say that at this point in the book I might have been shouting the following at Edie in my head: WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU DO THAT???? And by “that”, I mean everything. Be bad at her job. Fail to save money. Never plan ahead. Finally, why ON EARTH would she become a live-in mistress / charity case in the home of a middle aged white guy she doesn't even really like that much?
The answer, of course, is that Edie genuinely has no other options. Her parents are dead and she has alienated every one of her friends and colleagues. Truly there is no one else to help. Despite the madness of Edie’s new living situation, her navigation of the shared space with Rebecca and Akila is fascinating, and well worth me getting over my own failure to imagine such a catastrophic outcome.
The enigmatic Rebecca turns out to be an utter badass. She works as a coroner and blows off steam by attending metal concerts. Specifically metal concert mosh pits, where she is tossed about and stomped on just as we assume she used to be in the 90s. Eventually Rebecca begins to take care of Edie, leaving her money or art supplies. Edie’s relationship with Rebecca becomes more influential than the one she shares with Eric, and I think this is because Rebecca’s arm’s length support of Edie allows her the freedom to not worry about her immediate survival, and instead focus on building her own sense of self. Neither Rebecca nor Edie is especially warm and fuzzy, but it is lovely to observe their quiet support of one another emerge, while Eric becomes less and less relevant to them.
Edie also forms a hard-won bond with the pre-teen Akila, who, like Edie herself, lacks role models for how to live as a Black woman in white suburbia. Leilani resists the urge to create an instant rapport between them based on the fact that they are both Black, instead showing how patient and tender Edie must be to gain Akila’s trust. Ultimately, her commitment to Akila becomes another reason for Edie to build her own integrity.
Like so many stories before it, this is the tale of a young woman’s journey to understanding herself. It is also way more than that: a comment on capitalism’s ability to keep obstacles in the path of young people of colour, a treatise on race in America, an exploration of the creation of art as a way of building the self. Edie is an unforgettable character, and her story is essential reading. Even if you’re a fogey like me.
Tony Medino, I Am Alfonso Jones
This is a sweet and sad graphic novel about a black high school student who cannot wait to play the role of Hamlet in his school’s performance of the classic play. He also has a crush on his good friend Danetta, and hopes to soon share how he feels about her.
While buying his first suit (to be worn to the party that will celebrate his father’s release from prison), an off-duty police officer mistakes the hanger Alfonso is holding for a gun, and shoots the young man.
Alfonso wakes up in the afterlife, which is a train inhabited by other Black victims of police shootings. As he acclimates to his new reality, Alfonso tells the story of his life leading up to the moment it ended, and his tale is interspersed with the stories of his fellow travellers.
As you know, I’m a lover of the graphic novel, and this is a powerfully readable book. I found the art a bit sketchy and dense, which is not my favourite style. But the story itself, along with the book’s foreword written by Bryan Stevenson, are essential reading.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
I’ve only read two other books by Kasuo Ishiguro, and their elevator pitches are not what I would call great. “Clones created to keep more important folks alive have rich inner lives,” (Never Let Me Go) Or, “Edwardian butler reflects on his lifelong profession, which is about to become extinct.” (Remains of the Day) But those titles are two of the most memorable books I’ve ever read. And what I’ve learned is to trust the writer I know more than the summary offered by pre-release book reviews. Because honestly, Klara and the Sun, a novel narrated by an A.F. (short for “Artificial Friend” but I defy you not to think “as fuck” every time you see this- thanks internet) does not exactly sound like something I would like. I know how magical Ishiguro’s writing is, so I just ignored any trepidation I had about futurism and A.I. and dove right in. I recommend it - the diving in and also the book.
When we first meet Klara, she is one of many AFs being sold in a shop in the future version of an unnamed city. She is human-esque, but, crucially, not human, so her perspective is defined by the limits of her ability to judge the events and people around her. However, her narration is so quiet, so lovely, and so acutely observational, that it is easy to forget that she’s not actually alive. She seems able to ‘read’ people based on their actions (as observed through the storefront window while she is on display) or their conversations with each other.
The purpose of AFs like Klara is to be companions for human children. Eventually, while on display in the shop window, Klara is spied by Josie, who is entranced and promises to come back to the shop with her mother and take Klara home.
As Klara becomes a part of Josie’s family, we are given more information about the world they live in. Josie’s parents are divorced, and she lives with her mom and a housekeeper. Josie is often unwell, and we understand that her illness is a result of having been “lifted,” a common medical process designed to alter children’s genes in order to maximize their intellectual potential.
Klara’s unusual capacity for empathy, commented on by both the manager of the store and Josie herself, sets her apart from other AFs. It is also what makes her a great narrator. The distance between her observations of peoples’ actions and our understanding of what they are creates a sustained irony that never gets old. The society that Josie lives in is clearly fucked up. Her mother seems constantly to waver between feelings of guilt for having chosen the “lifting” procedure that caused Josie’s illness, and pride over her daughter’s genius. The fact that Josie’s older sister died as a result of the same procedure adds a sinister glare to the mother’s actions.
Josie’s good friend and neighbour Rick has not been lifted, and despite how close they are, this basic difference between them creates problems. Through their relationship Ishiguro is able to explore the class distinctions that afflict our own world as much as the world of the book. Rick is pitied by adults and bullied by Josie’s lifted friends. While he remains healthy and vital, he is not given access to the level of education and opportunity of his lifted peers. He faces an adulthood of unvalued and menial work, regardless of his naturally occurring engineering skills. Like Klara, Rick is incredibly loyal to Josie, and his friendship is one of the most compelling relationships in the book.
Among all the other great things about this book, what remains is Ishiguro’s ability to expose the messy and unpredictable ‘realness’ of life through the gaze of an artificial human. Klara’s other-ness offers a window to understanding what might be difficult to see close up.
Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Didion is one of the world’s greatest essayists. She is exacting in her judgment and also in her choice of diction, creating a rare and astute view of the world as she sees it. This collection is perhaps slightly uneven, but I chalk that up to the fact that they span her sixty year writing career and, like all of us, over time she got better at what she does.
Early pieces, like the one where she reflects on not being accepted into her first choice college, read as snooty, privileged and self centred. Later on, when she writes about the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, or the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, her insights go beyond her own responses into the very profound and human associations those artists were able to make through their work, connecting with regular folks despite their creative singularity.
What I most admire about Didion is that she never tries to remove herself and her own experiences from her subject matter. And while this isn’t always a successful gambit, it is a consistent one. She holds herself as accountable to intellect, humanity and, well, life, as she does her subjects. It’s fascinating and well worth your time to read this retrospective collection.
Madhur Anand, This Red Line Goes Straight To Your Heart
When I picked up this book I had no idea that Anand is a local poet and professor of ecology and environmental science at the University of Guelph. It’s not exactly relevant to the story’s arc, but I enjoyed knowing that she and I might some day meet (perhaps I’ll bump into her at the market, or at the Bookshelf) and I’ll get to tell her how awesome this book is.
The book is cleanly divided in half, and once you have finished the first half, the tale of Anand’s parents, you physically flip it over to start the second half, Anand’s own memoir. It’s a clever way to delineate both the shared and separate nature of the stories. They are distinct from one another, but also connected.
The story begins like this: “In 1947, a line is drawn across the state of Punjab. The man who draws it imagines an organic, undulating curve, like a river. What cannot be seen is how it changes course every year. If a river cuts the left bank, it deposits silt on the right. And vice versa. Everything in nature at first seems straightforward, but closer inspection reveals something sinuous and, ultimately, crooked.”
Anand’s parents alternately narrate the chapters of that first section. Each has a clear voice and personality. Her mother Nirmal, whose family is displaced by Partition, begins by speaking of all that is left behind: “We leave the sound of my father approaching the house after work...the intricate stonework of the necklaces my father brought us back from his trips to Kashmir, my favourite comb…” Meanwhile, Mohand, Anand’s father, growing up “on the right side of the line when it is drawn” is afflicted by polio in childhood. No one notices until he begins learning to walk and must accommodate a limp acquired by the disease. Badly treated by his father, Mohand turned to academics, specifically mathematics, as a way of defining his future. Nirmal, no less an academic, refused to marry anyone who also did not value education. This is how (and why) their partnership was arranged. Three weeks after the marriage, Mohand Anand immigrated to Canada, landing first in Montreal and eventually taking a teaching job outside of Thunder Bay before Nirmal joins him and they begin their life together.
The stories of Anand’s parents contain an arresting eye for detail. Both are narrated in the first person, which adds to their immediacy, but also makes me consider what it must have been like for Anand to so thoroughly inhabit her parents’ lives.
When you flip the book over, though, and begin Anand’s own story, the shift is jarring. This is not a straightforward historical tale, so much as a poet’s view of a life lived in the shadow of her parents’ immigrant experience. It is honest, unflinching, and gorgeous. Bridging the two stories are pages containing reproductions of important familial historical documents: a teaching degree, a diploma from a sewing school, a contract with a school board. And as artful as the telling of the story is, these reproductions ground us in the veracity of the events of the book.
Anand is constantly preoccupied with the division of things; as a scientist she explores how rare asymmetry is in the natural world, and as a poet she transforms ideas into lines and verses of text, creating divisions, building in blank space to emphasize key images. The tension between art and science defines her history and also her contemporary life, and it’s a gorgeous experience to read the tension, to experience it, first through her parents’ eyes and then through her own.
The red line of the title appears in several different contexts. Notably, it is an arbitrary line on a map dividing a single country into two. It is also part of a haunting anecdote Anand tells about a teacher colleague who is about to ignore what looks like a minor scrape on the inside of her forearm. “This red line will go straight to your heart,” the school’s Vice Principal tells her. At the hospital a nurse determines it is salmonella poisoning from the classroom’s pet turtle, which, left untreated, would certainly have killed her. Life is like that, Anand seems to be telling us, potentially devastating, usually random, but sometimes very, very lucky in a way that cannot be predicted or explained.