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The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis Hardcover – September 29, 2009

4 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

Critics unanimously praised this extraordinary (and extraordinarily hefty) collection, in which Davis masterly taps into myriad emotions—from melancholy to hilarity, empathy, and apathy. Each voice is unique; each story is equally difficult to categorize. Many of the stories lack basic names, dates, and places and are disconcerting in their brevity. Are they short stories? Flash fiction? Fables? Davis steadfastly refuses to adhere to any kind of prescribed formula, with stunning and original results. Whatever label readers decide to attach to her work, critics agreed that Davis is one of American literature's best-kept secrets.


“Among the true originals of contemporary American short fiction.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Davis is a magician of self-consciousness. Few writers now working make the words on the page matter more.”  —JONATHAN FRANZEN

“All who know [Davis’s] work probably remember their first time reading it . . . Blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction.” —DAVE EGGERS, McSweeney’s

“Sharp, deft, ironic, understated, and consistently surprising.” —JOYCE CAROL OATES

“The best prose stylist in America.” —RICK MOODY
"A body of work probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom. I suspect that 'The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis' will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions." — James Wood, The New Yorker
"This welcome collection of Lydia Davis’s short fiction, which gathers stories from four previously published volumes, reveals that her obsessions have remained fairly consistent over the past 30 years: frustrated love, the entanglements of language, the writer engaged in the act of writing. But even when Davis traverses familiar territory, her masterful sentence style and peculiar perceptiveness make each work unmistakably distinct. Davis is known for her ability to pack big themes into a tight space; many stories here are less than a page, and some consist of only one sentence. The longer pieces frequently find her narrators making much out of the seemingly meager. In “The Bone,” which first appeared in the collection Break It Down, a woman describes in detached detail the night a fishbone was caught in her now ex-husband’s throat. In “The Mice” a narrator feels rejected by the mice that will not come into her kitchen, “as they come into the kitchens of [her] neighbors.”--Kimberly King Parsons, Time Out New York
"Lydia Davis is one of the best writers in America, a fact that has been kept under wraps by her specialization in short fiction rather than the novel and her discomfort with the idea of one event following another in some sensible pattern, an expectation she frequently plays with, as a kitten will with your fingers. Watch out for those teeth and claws. With the publication of this big book, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Davis might well receive the kind of notice she's long been due. She is the funniest writer I know; the unique pleasure of her wit resides in its being both mordant and beautifully sorrowful (her short piece "Selfish" begins, "The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don't mind so much because you yourself are all right," and you can see the regrets that birthed the sentence, even while it cracks you up). Like many great writers of short pieces she is able to convert everyday experience into a light comic drama—cooking for her husband in "Meat, My Husband" or the task of writing in "What Was Interesting"—that builds toward a piercing moment of reality. Some of Davis's stories are only one or two sentences long and many don't exceed two pages, which is good, because seeing them all together in this 700-page volume and surviving the power of the longer ones, you realize you're lucky to be getting out of the book psychically intact—or almost intact. She's that good."--Vince Passaro, O, The Oprah Magazine
"What to do with all the empty white space that drifts over the 733 pages and nearly 200 fictions of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? Make origami, maybe. Like Don DeLillo, who drafted Underworld at the pace of one paragraph per sheet of paper—the technique, he once explained, evolved out of "a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations"—Lydia Davis is as much sculptor as writer. "I put that word on the page,/but he added the apostrophe," reads the entirety of one recent story, "Collaboration With Fly." Another, "My Mother's Reaction to My Travel Plans," doesn't even stretch onto a second line: "Gainsville! It's too bad your cousin is dead!'"--Zach Baron, Village Voice
"No one writes a story like Lydia Davis. In the years since she began publishing her lyrical, extremely short fiction, she has quietly become one of the most impactful influences on American writers, even if they don’t know it. That’s largely because she makes economy seem so easy. You could read several of her stories into a friend’s voicemail box before you were cut off (and you should). You could fit one of her stories in this column. Some you could write on your palm."--Jonathan Messinger, Time Out Chicago
"Lydia Davis is the master of a literary form largely of her own invention. Her publisher calls what she writes fiction - and her short prose pieces do have characters, settings and sometimes a plot, however minuscule - while haughtier literary types might think of it as a kind of fleshy prose poetry or designate it "flash fiction." The classically minded and fantasy fans might characterize it as updated fable. Whatever you call them, Davis' little writings are mostly in prose and often less than a page long. They are also unceasingly surprising, deeply empathic, sharply witty, often laugh-out-loud funny and really, really good."--Craig Morgan Teicher, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"This volume contains the stories from four collections: "Break It Down" (1986), "Almost No Memory" (1997), "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" (2001) and "Varieties of Disturbance" (2007). They are shocking. Be prepared for a level of self-consciousness (remember, Beckett). Be prepared for narrators with disorienting levels of discomfort (remember, Kafka). Be prepared for moments of beauty that are sharp and merciless (remember, Proust)."--Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (September 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374270600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374270605
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.5 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #375,385 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
733 pages is an awful lot of Lydia Davis. When this book arrived I thought, will I ever want to read Lydia Davis again, when I'm done with this book?

I was a student in one of those MFA Creative Writing programs no one can disparage enough. In the late 90s they were pretty much workshops for the creation of Lydia Davis imitations. A few of these, too, read like Lydia Davis imitations. Occasionally I feel like the target of a confidence trick, like, would it all seem so profound, if the spine didn't say 'Farrar, Straus and Giroux'?

And yet -- I would read ten more volumes of Lydia Davis, each the size of this one. Her stories are a very special and quiet kind of music, which make me listen to everything differently. The stories work because Lydia Davis somehow smuggles me into a slightly different consciousness, the one next door, the one I sense when I've had one strong cup of coffee too many, and feel the meaning of life is slowly being revealed to me, in the form of a code contained in the very most minor events of my life.

Lydia Davis inspires a very special kind of attention, like a day spent in silence. This book is a good chance to be entirely caught up in that familiar and strange light.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was pointed to this book by the most glowing review I have ever read in the New Yorker. The gist was that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that over the course of four collections of stories, a very full character is painted. I would agree with that. These stories feel very autobiographical, some, especially for their brevity feel like they capture an event that has just occurred - almost impressionistic. At the end, we have a very good feeling for a character, whether this is Lydia or not, is sort of moot. That's a pretty significant literary achievement.

Here's the problem. This isn't the world's shortest book. I think what is actually the case is that the fourth collection is really a great book and that LD has significantly grown as a writer into probably a major writer. That isn't really evident in the first two collections, and while reading them gives you further depth of attachment to the character, I'm not sure it's time optimally spent. I've got Faulkner's Collected and Borges Collected stories sitting on the shelf ignored while I pass them over for a very enthusiastically reviewed orange tome. Ok, that's not a particularly fair comparison, but hey, it's what happened.

There are great moments in each of the collections, but those moments are very close together in the final collection. How Shall I Mourn Them is heartbreaking, and a good example of how appropriate a literary experiment is to grieving. There is so little comforting at the moment of when pain feels so particular and personal in recognizing how common rending grief is. The uniqueness of an experiment seems absolutely right. Barthelme's The Dead Father has something of the same feeling.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lydia Davis's stories are like nobody else's. They are odd and original, with every word accounted for and considered. Some stories are two sentences long and one story is 40 pages long. Each story lands in your brain with a heap of questions: Who is this somewhat removed yet pushy narrator? What is the narrator not telling us? And how are those negative spaces of what's not being told us shaping our vision of what's happening on the page? How is the seemingly objective narrator shaping our vision in distinct ways? How can a story two sentences long feel so complete? Or a story 40 pages long seem so incomplete and yet right at the same time? Sometimes there is a brutal, intellectual clarity at work. She pins down those tiny, almost imperceptible exchanges in a marriage or parenthood like a scientist pinning down a butterfly to examine every dot and flicker. If you think clarity of language and the mystery of life are at odds, this volume will prove you wrong. Take in small doses - a story or two before bed - and let your brain work through the magic of Lydia Davis's stories as you sleep. You'll wake up more awake for having done so - although sometimes these stories are so cerebral that you become almost painfully conscious of just how alone in your own mind you actually are.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read her novel which reminded me of 'The Unconsoled' - but the short stories are more like internal conversations.... too many of them. I propable won't finish the book. I pick it up on occasion and read a few - but can't say I get much out of it. She can definitely write well...but this is sort of stream-of-consciousness contemporary writing and doesn't really grab me. Interesting, but not compelling.
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Format: Hardcover
I first heard about her about two years ago when I read an interview in Poets & Writers; what I found most interesting was the way she loved to experiment with the form. Any aspiring writer would do well to study and enjoy this book, but anyone would love it because she is SO funny! Some of the stories are SHORT indeed, while others are much longer. My favorite so far is Sketches in the Life of Vassilly, but I have about 600 more pages to go which makes me GLAD I am just now discovering her!!!!!!!!!

I also love her crazy, obsessed female characters - they let me know that I am not the only headcase dealing with my relationships. LOL I can't say it enough, read and study, laugh and learn...the meaning of these stories is up to you but their impact will be stunning to anyone who picks it up!! What a lovely hardcover - don't wait for the paperback! You will read it a hundred times over before THAT comes out.
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