“A revelatory compendium….readers are likely to come away with a deepened understanding of—and even awe at—Hemingway’s vast talent.” Read the Publishers Weekly review
“An enjoyable exploration of how Hemingway’s influence on American literature continues to be significant….A valuable take on a canonical writer, highlighting how good work stands the test of time.” Read the Kirkus review
For more about One True Sentence: Writers & Readers on Hemingway’s Art go here.
The New York Times recently reported on author Stephen King’s online effort to rescue the Portland Press Herald‘s book reviews section.
King, alerted to the Press Herald’s decision to remove book reviews from its annual budget by Joshua Bodwell of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, leveraged his large Twitter audience to supply the paper with much-needed new subscribers. King and Bodwell stressed the importance of robust local press coverage for authors who rely on these outlets to connect audiences with their work.
As the series’ editor, he developed an especially close bond to Dubus’ remarkable work. “Twenty years ago,” he writes, “I got lucky and stumbled upon Dubus’s masterful short stories. To have the opportunity to work so closely with his writing, and help introduce it to more readers, has been one of the most truly humbling gifts of my life.”
Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing. With his inventive short stories, Davies is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, and in the most delightful way. Each story features a uniquely eccentric character, yet somehow the thirteen fit seamlessly together as a whole.
Each story has a plot completely distinct from the rest: “Forkhead Box” tells of an executioner who breeds mice in his spare time. “Sad White People” gives us Chris and Chris, who are in love but meet a tragic end. “The Sinces” simply and perfectly captures the aftermath of an ended relationship. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” in a very meta fashion, takes aim at Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction writing advice and asks what exactly it means to write fiction. Davies’s work examines many aspects of human life and work, prompting a reader to look a little more closely at themselves and their own day-to-day life—that which may seem ordinary or mundane may not be at all.
Not only is his subject matter intriguing, Davies continues to surprise with the distinct structure of his stories. While many are typical—as much as one could label Davies’s work as typical—prose, many take on a more interesting form: that of a list, a letter, or some other kind of internal monologue. “Ten Letters” is formatted as of a father writing to his children. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is one long sentence that was once offered up for a book jacket blurb. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” is formatted, as the title would suggest, in a series of answered riddles to chronicle a day in the life of May, who works as a dominatrix. All different, and all compelling.
What really ties Davies’s stories together is his unwavering quick wit and careful mastery of language. Throughout The Knack of Doing the pace is measured and the tone is comfortably light even when the content gets a little dismal. Davies does not take himself too seriously, and that’s the key to why his writing is so effective. The stories in The Knack of Doing are a little bit strange, but that is what makes them so captivating: they’re all believable, and it’s as if as if I’m reading about the quirky neighbor across the hall. Davies’s fiction manages to blur the line between real and imaginary.
Davies writes to capture human consciousness and does so beautifully. He has created snapshots of the serious and the lighthearted, asked questions both mundane and profound, and left us with a work of art to endure.
Intern Hannah asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know
Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor is a comprehensive field-guide for the art of comparison that any English-speaking reader or writer can learn from and employ. This is a handy compendium, first organized by source type, including nature, architecture, animals, and myth, and then through countless examples taken from the classics. Farnsworth illustrates just how each of those metaphors is utilized for distinct purposes—for caricature, to make an abstract idea visible, to make a complicated idea simple.
Ward Farnsworth himself is the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and holds the John Jeffers Research Chair in Law. His previous title, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoricwas a bestseller in its field and became the definitive guide to the use of rhetoric.
As someone who appreciates the study of language, I found the book incredibly fascinating and fun. Just as its predecessor, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, was, Metaphor is thorough and exhaustive in its examples, allowing its readers to fully comprehend the art of comparison. I decided to ask Farnsworth a few questions about how he arrived at creating this metaphoric epitome.
Your books explore rhetoric and metaphor, which are old-fashioned topics. Why those subjects, and why now?
They are beautiful and practical. Most of what most of us hope to achieve depends on words; we need them to persuade others or even just hold their attention. Yet we usually spend little time really thinking about how to use words well. Those who care about language do have some resources, but they mostly consist of books on style that explain how to avoid vices and mistakes. The study of rhetoric, as I conceive it, is a little different. It is the analysis of what makes speech and writing successful. When words strike us with their beauty and power, it is not a random event or accident. Memorable writing usually has properties and follows patterns that we can learn to hear if we read and listen carefully. Then we can turn what we’ve learned to our own ends.
Your books focus on examples that are usually a hundred years old or more. Why?
We have more to learn from them. Our own times and culture are teaching us how to write and speak every hour, for better or for worse. If we want to use words in ways better than our own cultural average, we do well to learn what we can from writers at other times and places.
To say it more directly, writers one or two or three hundred years ago understood some things about language that do not come as naturally to us. We may not want to write as they did, or may not be able to do it, but they can teach our ears things that our own times cannot—about rhythm, repetition, surprise, and other rhetorical principles. Older examples have another advantage as well when we come to the study of metaphor. Writers used to know more than their modern counterparts typically do about many great sources of figurative comparison: the animal kingdom, for instance, or nature, or mythology. We can learn not only from how they arranged their words but from how they thought.
Which writers of the past have the most to teach us now?
From Lincoln we can learn a lot about writing, and also about how to learn about writing. He was the most gifted writer in the history of American public life. He gained that distinction by spending a great deal of time with the King James Bible and with Shakespeare. Those sources taught him much about how to write, as can be heard in his letters and speeches. But he didn’t imitate. He immersed himself in the sounds of those writings and absorbed them. Their influence appeared naturally and happily in his own work, though he wrote in a manner that fit his times, not like a man of the early 17th century. Now we can read Lincoln in the same way that he read Shakespeare—not to write exactly as he did, which would sound strange even if we could do it, but to learn what he has to teach. Lincoln probably was not conscious of much that he knew about the sound of writing, and we may not be conscious of all that we gain by listening to him. We learn as musicians sometimes learn, by educating the ear.
If you had to create a metaphor to explain your writing process, what would it be?
Laboring in a vineyard.
Do you find any overlap between the study of law and the study of rhetoric or metaphor?
The lawyer’s job is to achieve consequences with words. That is why the most influential figures in our legal culture have usually been the most gifted rhetorically as well. The most influential legal thinker of the 20th century, for example, was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It’s no coincidence that he was also the most literate and talented writer in the legal profession of his times, and the most gifted with metaphor. So a school of law should function in part as a school of rhetoric, and I hope to help that project along in a small way.
Not boast, but our intern, Allie, also wrote on A Million Windows, and we daresay it is every bit worth reading as Mr. McNamara’s review in the NYT.
“The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million.” – Henry James, preface to The Portrait of a Lady
Gerald Murnane, one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, delves into the subject of fiction writing in his latest work, A Million Windows. His thoughts are organized into 34 unnamed and unnumbered chapters populated by memory fragments and “image-persons,” including dark-haired women and girls, sunlight reflecting on a windowpane like “spots of golden oil,” and a house with “two, or perhaps three, storeys” in the midst of some grassland. This house, which is intermittently described in great detail but never viewed as a whole, provides the primary touchstone for the other images and narrative fragments in the novel, which form concentric circles around the house and one another by promise of connection with the larger structure. The resulting patterns that they form are dazzling and overwhelming in their complexity, expanding through both time and space.
If we envision the temporal dimension of the novel as a horizontal timeline, as we often casually do when we refer to the past as being behind us and the future as being ahead of us, Murnane reminds us that there is an additional vertical component to consider in the form of levels of narration. He simultaneously locates certain narratives in the minds of the “image-persons,” the minds of the authors writing about such persons, and his own mind as he traverses the ever-present and the distant past. These shifts in focus produce a deliberately destabilizing effect for the reader, but do not muddle Murnane’s conception of the true nature and purpose of fiction, precisely because his meaning swells in the space of “faint lines” between his images. He finds meaning and connectedness to be synonymous:
What others might have called meaning he called connectedness, and he trusted that he would one day see (revelation being for him always a visual matter) among the multitudes of details that he thought of as his life or as his experience faint lines seeming to link what he had never previously thought of as being linked and the emergence of a rudimentary pattern, which word had always been one of his favorites.
The element of elusiveness or obscurity is essential. Murnane accords a deep respect to fictional personages because they capture the moods and patterns that shadow us throughout our lives, and thus cannot be predictably contained. He compels authors to realize that this lack of control can be advantageous, empowering them to “learn from [their] own subject matter…in somewhat the same way that [their] readers are presumed to learn from [their] writing.” It is no coincidence that so many works of fiction are semi-autobiographical. Murnane imagines that fictional personages exist even when writers are not reporting the details of their lives, and we can never expect what sense, memory, or experience will alert us to their existence. Considering the relationship between meaning and connectedness, it is unsurprising that “the details of what we call our lives go sometimes to form patterns of meaning not unlike those to be found in our preferred sort of fiction.”
Murnane despises evasiveness when it comes to writers “using expressions such as beautifully written or moving or powerful in order to hide their ignorance of the craft of fiction,” though A Million Windows is all of these things. It testifies that the “real world,” or the “visible world” as Murnane calls it, is overrated. Many authors and narrators exhaust themselves attempting to describe the visible world with complete accuracy, while A Million Windows is comfortable with the uncertainty of visualizing abstractions in great detail. The feelings that this process evokes and the persistent hints of underlying connectedness are various, vibrant, and sincere. In his review of the novel in Music & Literature, Will Heyward writes that Murnane “dissects his writing and his memory in the way a Christian doctor might have a human corpse centuries ago: earnestly, hopelessly, in search of the soul.” The absence of a specific map or diagram may be unsettling to consider at first, but it ultimately opens both the visible and the invisible worlds to the possibility of something infinite and grand.
Our wonderful intern of last semester, Danielle Schwertner, took some time out of her busy schedule to review one of our new book releases: The Knack of Doing, by Jeremy Davies, which is a collection of short stories. You can read his interview with The Paris Review here, and you can read an excerpt from The Knack of Doing in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, here. And now, her review:
Short stories are tough to conquer. Authors have the daunting tasks of capturing their readers’ attentions quickly while simultaneously instigating emotions . . . all in the span of twenty pages or less. Short stories are tough to conquer.
Jeremy Davies is a conqueror.
The Knack of Doing is thirteen stories that made me laugh, contemplate everything I’ve ever thought, and remember why I fell in love with short fiction so many years ago. Davies’s ability to create and deconstruct characters through riddles and sentences that only begin with “since” is nothing short of inspiring—perfect examples of a truly talented writer.
The entirety of The Knack of Doing is a testament to Davies’s story-telling. No matter how carefully his stories are read, one might never really (without question, hesitation, or further evaluation) be sure of what Davies is doing. And that’s what makes his writing wonderful. What fun is a story if you’re given all the answers? What fun is a story if you’re not allowed to wo(a)nder? Davies sends his readers on an adventure . . . a strange, sometimes grotesque, always intriguing adventure. An adventure into a world where spiders, sheets of glass, and sentences become characters just as important as the humans who live amongst them.
Every one of Davies’s stories is admirable and thrilling to read, but there are two that, in my case at least, evoke multiple hushed gasps, widened eyes, and creased eyebrows. “Henrietta the Spider” and “Sad White People” give an intimate view into the dirtier and more complicated aspects of human lives—aspects we see in the mirror everyday and maybe even feel in our hearts. Though we may recognize these aspects, reading them in words that are not our own, but which echo so clearly what we can’t say, is what brings them to life and to our attention. Through Davies’s words we are better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves at last.
Most of us do not deal so warmly with spiders, date people with the same name as our own, execute or track people for a living, or inspect so acutely the advice of Kurt Vonnegut as do those The Knack of Doing introduces. And yet, amid Davies’s stories about these fascinatingly obscure subjects, we might just find ourselves better able to laugh at, love, and, maybe, understand ourselves a bit better.
Throughout thirteen stories, Davies invites us, his dutiful readers, into a world of weird that, at once, seems both peculiarly unfamiliar and delightfully cozy. He invites us into a world of reality coated lightly in fiction. He invites us, in a sense, home.