Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Like You'd Understand, Anyway

            Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a petty title and, in a petty mood, I gladly picked it off the shelf. I recognized Jim Shepard’s name from his standout short story in The Best American Short Stories 2013. I still wish it was Shepherd, but I’ll allow it.

            Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a collection of 11 short stories that each draw from a deep well of strained familial relations, namely brother-to-brother. Naturally, Shepard dedicated the book to his real-life brother. The first story follows a man who feels semi-responsible for an accident that results in his brothers’ deaths. When he asks one, “‘Was I ever the brother you hoped I would be?’” I wonder whom Shepard is speaking to (Shepard, 23).  The context of his inspiration creates an atmosphere of intimacy, like I’m reading a diary or sitting at their family dinner table watching them argue over who gets to sit next to dad.

            A word to the wise: Shepard is a poetic craftsman of words, but his stories are designed to bring about discomfort. One story literally says, “All day, every day, I’m sad” (Shepard, 30). Furthermore, he moves and grooves alllll over the map. His characters span a wide range of centuries and nationalities, and most of his stories clearly required factual research (like the Chernobyl disaster and exploration of the Great Australian Desert). One story features a high school football player who is haunted by the disappearance of his father, such that it undermines his playing. Another follows a couple of Nazis who go on a deadly, classified mission for the abominable snowman. Another trails a husband, plagued by an early childhood trauma, who gets a vasectomy without his wife knowing. Another highlights an executioner during the French Revolution tasked with the guillotining of the King and Queen, despite his wife’s reservations. You know, happy stuff! Most of his stories don’t provide a definitive end for the reader, but such is life.

            I stand by my first impression of Shepard, in which he stopped me in my tracks and forced me to recall his name in a bookstore one and a half years after my encounter. Also, the pages of his short story collection are cool! They’re *deckle edged*, which is a term I just learned by Googling! Like You’d Understand, Anyway receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

            Like short stories as much as me? Check out my past reviews of other short stories: Men Without Women, In the Valley of the Kings, Interpreter of Maladies, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers.

*Shepard, Jim. Like You’d Understand, Anyway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Rules of Civility

            Why do we like The Great Gatsby? Fabulous lifestyles are alluring and enviable; when the fabulous people fall from grace, we dig the drama and feel better about our position in society. The whole spectacle is a performance that entertains us either way. Amor Towles’ bestselling novel, Rules of Civility* has the Gatsby-flash with a less theatrical comedown.

            The main character, Katy Kontent, happens upon a young NYC socialite and proceeds to gallivant with the greats yet maintain her humble beginnings. She’s a likeable protagonist, unlike her best friend, Eve, who is hella flaky and steals the spotlight a little too much.

            The novel is fast-paced, as expected for a book set in New York City in the 1930s. It has a bit of a hard-boiled detective novel feel, where everyone gets blasted on fancy cocktails and no one loses their acuity. I was going to say "gets blasted on old-fashioneds" but the plural of that really throws me off. Anyway, women get drunk and then say charming things like, “Slurring is the cursive of speech” when they start to slur their words (Towles, 92).

            Overall, Rules of Civility is a “delight”, in the sense that it is a pleasurable, easy read, albeit not a realistic plot. It tells readers that New York City can spin you into a whirlwind of whimsical majesty, which – call me cynical—is sometimes true but mostly not. Similar to detective novels I've reviewed in the past (The Long Goodbye), I like the quick-witted dialogue and I relish in a character’s journey that’s too good to be true, like only fiction is capable of inciting. Rules of Civility receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Towles, Amor. Rules of Civility. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.