I highly recommend the new book “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis”- but my recommendation comes with one minor reservation. I know that sounds a little ambiguous…but if you can’t stand a lot of little fables about animals, the ecology, cremation, boorish intellectuals, old people, aging, elaborate descriptions of weather, or vegetarian cooking, Ms. Davis’s whimsical style probably isn’t for you. It is, however, for me.
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"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" is a seven-hundred and thirty-three page collection of all four books of her uniquely original stories: Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Jackson Is Indignant (2001), and Varieties of Disturbance (2007).
She is a writer’s writer. Ms. Davis unapologetically features story after story of style over substance – contemplation over plot – messenger over the message. Her short fiction tends to remind one of the works of experimental writers such as Donald Barthelme, Russell Edson, and Richard Brautigan - but Ms. Davis defiantly shuns the label “I haven’t met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term,” claims the author in an interview in the Boston Globe. “I prefer the idea of being adventurous, exploring forms.”
Ms. Davis sites the short stories of Samuel Beckett as a major influence. “I came to Beckett very early on,” she states in an interview in The Believer magazine, “and was startled by his pared-down style. As I practiced writing (in my early twenties), I actively studied his way of putting sentences together. I copied out favorite sentences of his. What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humor that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language.”
I have no qualms about comparing Ms. Davis’s intricacy and attention to the detail to that of the elaborate art work of M.C. Escher. Some of her stories are as surprising as sunset in the morning. Of course, not every story in this collection lives up to this particular level of craftsmanship…but so many do, the point is hardly worth haggling about. Ms. Davis also offers a refreshingly interesting feminist perspective to many diffuse and amusing subjects.
There are almost 200 stories to choose from in this collection: some as lengthy as twenty pages and some as short as twenty words (I did the arithmetic…the average Lydia Davis story is 3.66 pages). In fact, there are so many interesting little stories here that, if you don’t happen to enjoy the particular story you’re reading at the moment, simply turn the page and start another one.
I also discovered that “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” makes great lunch time reading. Having half an hour for lunch, I tend to take about fifteen minutes to eat and then (if I’m lucky) read for a little while. Ms. Davis’s stories are tailor-made for this sort of leisure-time activity.
"Lydia Davis," according to the book’s dust-cover biography, "is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which was finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacAuthur Fellowship and was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust."
Born in 1947, Ms. Davis has been married twice and has a couple of sons. Her parents were famous and she teaches creative writing for a living.