32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
I've had a subscription to The Paris Review for longer than I've been married. Back when I got my first few issues, my beard was barely there and sometimes I'd let the fuzz grow out for a few weeks. Now I shave every day because two thirds of my beard is white. Why have I subscribed to this magazine for close to 40 years? There's one reason: its former and original editor, George Plimpton. He had unique taste for an editor of a literary magazine. He tended to stay away from the pretentious and precious and he wasn't afraid to include a story or poem that would make you laugh out loud. As a writer and reader, I'm of the "please don't tell me your tsuris because I have enough of my own" school. There certainly were stories and poems in George Plimpton's Paris Review that were full of self pity. But I could easily avoid them. Almost every issue had something memorable. For over 40 years, Plimpton ruled over The Paris Review with a deft touch. This volume is essentially an homage to what undoubtedly is George Plimpton's most significant and enduring creation.
In Object Lessons, some well known writers are each invited to pick one story from The Paris Review's past. I've read almost all the stories contained here before. It was fun to read quite a few of them again. My one quibble is that the writers have tended to dwell on the more depressing stories The Paris Review has published. With one exception, they've forgotten the humor. I don't get that bias. For many years, there was actually an annual humor prize associated with the magazine that came with a significant chunk of cash. Early and wonderful stories of TC Boyle, David Foster Wallace, and Rick Moody published in The Paris Review aren't found in this volume. These are omissions that aren't fatal, certainly, and there's much to admire in the stories chosen.
Mr. Plimpton has been gone for almost a decade, and predictably The Paris Review floundered more than a bit for several years after he died. But it has gotten back most of its mojo as of late. It's trying to be a little hipper and edgier and unfortunately, its content is also a tad more depressing on average. But every once in a while, a story with verve, humor and intelligence will appear. When I read those stories, I know The Paris Review still serves a unique and valuable purpose.
If you're a fan of the contemporary short story, this volume will likely please you with the caveat that most of the voices are strongly male. Also, if you're the type of reader who sticks to bestsellers, I'd stay away; these stories almost all avoid the tropes that mainstream readers find necessary and comforting. The short introductions to the stories are hit and miss things. For my money, I'd just skip them and stick to the stories themselves.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The title of this anthology says a bit more than it means to. OBJECT LESSONS has an attractive concept: twenty contemporary writers pick their favorite stories from the archive of THE PARIS REVIEW and, in the words of the editors' note, "describe the key to its success as a work of fiction" in an introductory comment. This approach, the justification for the subtitle's mention of the art of the short story, will, the editors hope, make the anthology "useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique." And it is-- but no more so than any other largely excellent anthology would be.
Perhaps the problem is that the writers were asked to pick favorite stories. Writing with a truly intelligent critical eye about things one loves is difficult. Or perhaps it's the space available; the longest of the introductions is about three pages, which doesn't leave room for much specific insight. Whatever the reason, these mini-essays don't reveal much about "keys to success" or "the art of the short story" that readers of such an anthology couldn't work out on their own. They're more enthusiastic than analytic, with piles of superlatives about general, easily-observed features. Of course the situation doesn't call for term papers, but the success or failure of any short story is a complicated question, and virtue often rests in small, easy to miss things. A few writers do offer appropriately close readings, but even then they focus on broad variations in diction and similar comparatively simple points. (One of Dave Eggers' observations on James Salter's "Bangkok" would be quite powerful, except that it rests on a literal misreading of the text.) The introductions are well-written, affectionate, often poetic, not incisive about technique.
But enough about the introductions. The stories themselves are more than enough to make OBJECT LESSONS worth reading for students of contemporary and recent literary fiction. Ranging in date from 1955 to 2010, they're varied in length, style, and setting, though eccentric characters, surreal turns, and jagged, disorienting styles abound. The anthology opens, for example, with Joy Williams' "Dimmer," a story so bleak and so disturbing in its imagery that it wouldn't be out of place in a horror anthology, and ends with Dallas Wiebe's "Night Flight to Stockholm," a satire on literary success and its very physical price that takes an unexpected lyrical turn. But the anthology also offers demonstrations of the power of more traditional prose and plot, as in the earliest story, Evan S. Connell's "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge," a quietly devastating, sympathetic reflection on middle-class convention and repression that grew into Connell's famous novel, or Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," a fifty-page story with as much insight into politics, education, and ambition as many novels, topped off by what may be the best example of refined, unexpectedly revealing narration since THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. This enthusiastic list of stories could be greatly prolonged, but as has been noted, enthusiasm has its limits. A few stories didn't dazzle this reader as much as they did the authors who chose them-- "Bangkok" is so stripped down it verges on pointlessness, and Thomas Glynn's "Except for the Sickness I'm Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That." demonstrates the perils of the eccentric, the surreal, and the jagged by offering more oddness than genius. But all twenty stories have something to offer the reader interested in craft. They are, indeed, object lessons, and those who want to study them can learn more from them than any introduction could reveal, for the virtues of a great short story are infinite.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
"Object Lessons" is an anthology of 20 short stories from the archives of "the Paris Review." Each was selected by a contemporary author ("masters of the genre") who provides a brief introduction. Most selections are between 10 and 20 pages in length, with a couple exceptions on either end. They were written as long ago as 1955 (the magazine was founded in 1953) and as recently as 2010, with each intervening decade also represented. The styles range from standard narratives to absurdist surrealism.
Any reader expecting insightful analysis in the introductions will be disappointed. The tone is more gushing fan-boy than critical examination, the substance dominated more by empty, giddy compliments than practical "lessons". They resemble jacket blurbs more than meaningful commentary. When confronted with such overdone effusive praise, the tendency is to respond in one of two extremes: either conform (blindly accept their "expert" opinions as fact) or rebel (approach the works critically as a counterbalance). Of course, neither approach is fair to the stories themselves. The other practical problem with the introductions is that they often contain spoilers. I would suggest reading the stories first and then backtracking to the introductions.
This anthology is presented as "an indispensable resource for writers, students, and anyone else who wants to understand fiction from a writer's point of view." It claims to answer the question, "What does it take to write a great short story?" But it isn't the former and doesn't do the latter. Looking past its lofty claims, it's just a diverse collection of short stories linked by their publication in the same literary periodical. It can be judged on that criterion alone.
So how good are the stories? Opinions will inevitably vary according to the reader's taste, but of the 20 stories, I only liked five ("The Palace Thief" - a glimpse into tenuous relationships and the evolution of a prestigious prep school, "Night Flight to Stockholm" - a humorous consideration of a writer for whom the proverbial giving of an arm and a leg takes on a literal meaning, "Lying Presences" - a strangely compelling sci-fi tinged horror tale set within the context of a fraternal relationship, "Dinner at the Bank of England" - a hodgepodge of philosophical rumination, and "City Boy" - an absurd take on an affair gone wrong). I thought a minimum of four were terrible and I was ambivalent about the rest - no way enriched by the experience. When only a quarter of its stories are successful, it's difficult to recommend the book.
Another noteworthy fact is that the advanced reader copy, which is said to be an uncorrected proof, was littered with typos . Hopefully the book is thoroughly proofed and edited prior to final publication. Readers bothered by frequent typos may well wish to preview the book before purchasing. The back cover also claims there are 21 stories; one more than is actually included.
It's difficult to avoid the suspicion that this publication is more about promoting "the Paris Review" than the genre anthologized. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, good luck to them. But their marketing is borderline disingenuous and not a little self-congratulatory. And then there's the product itself, featuring flawed introductions and a questionable selection of stories.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2012
I've read a few of this type of short story collection: authors select and introduce stories that made an impression on them. I discovered the writer Donald Barthelme in a similarly-styled collection, You've Got to Read This. I evaluate these collections based on how much I enjoyed both the introductions and the stories.
In the Editors Note, The Paris Review calls itself a "laboratory for new fiction," and the stories tend toward the experimental, for better or worse. I enjoyed most of the stories, however, and more than a few made an impression on me, including stories by Lydia Davis, Steven Millhauser, Leonard Michaels, Bernard Cooper, Mary Beth Hughes, and James Salter.
The longest story, Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," was one of the most readable. It impressed me with its historical sweep - I got a sense of the character's entire life in the space of 20-30 minutes.
The introductions were mostly excellent, though with a couple that were too analytical for my taste. There were some particularly perceptive introductions by Daniel Orozco, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Means, and Aleksandar Hemon that helped elucidate both the stories and writing in general.
In all, a great book that may lead you to discover new writers.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The Paris Review is a highly regarded quarterly literary magazine. Started in 1953 by George Plimpton, The Review is well known for publishing the work of contemporary authors, both established and emerging. Each spring The Review awards prizes to distinguished authors published during the previous year. Examples of recipients are: John Ashbery, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Barney Rosset, William Styron, Philip Roth and James Salter. Many of the authors of the Paris Review have received the National Book Award and other prestigious honors. Realizing the importance of The Paris Review, I decided it would be "good for me" to read "Object Lessons."
For me, reading "Object Lessons" was like visiting a museum of modern art. I look at the work of famous artists like Jackson Pollack and wonder why it is great art and, more important, why is it art?
I know that the twenty authors selecting and presenting the short stories in this anthology are all preeminent in their fields and the stories represent important work published in The Paris Review. However, most of the introductions and many of the stories left me questioning what I was missing. In fact, I almost gave up after reading Jorge Luis Borge's "Funes the Memorious." Others, like "Several Garlic Tales," by Donald Barthelme and "Dimmer," by Joy Williams, just left me cold.
Most of the introductions did not shed much light on the craft or the reasons for the selection. Yet, I forged on and was rewarded by several very enjoyable, well-written short stories, including "The Palace Thief," by Ethan Canin; "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge," by Evan S. Connell and "Night Flight to Stockholm," by Dallas Wiebe. The last story is truly amazing - shocking, horrible and amazing.
"Object Lessons," is a mixed bag. Many of the stories made me appreciate the shortness of a short story, but some were quite satisfying and delicious experiences. In my view, like art, it's personal.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Object Lessons is a good short story collection. The idea of having other authors introduce each selection is useful, although the introductions rarely get beyond some of the tried and true mantras of literary criticism. My favorite stories were by Ethan Canin and Guy Davenport. Canin's "The Palace Thief" is the longest story in the book, virtually a novella. It is brilliantly observed and written, in a sort of old masters style. Indeed, one of the benefits of an anthology like this is that it introduces you to a lot of authors you might otherwise not come in contact with. A few of the stories are disappointing, even one by such a well known author as Donald Barthelme. Some of the stories, including Barthelme's, are frankly experimental in style and sometimes end up just being plain irritating. Nevertheless, the overall standard of the anthology is pretty good, and its best is very good indeed. I would recommend it to fans of The Paris Review or to those who want something a little off the beaten track.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Twenty masters of the short story introduce stories by their elders and peers, chosen from the archives of The Paris Review. The watchword is variety. "Since its founding in 1953," the editors write, "The Paris Review has been a laboratory for new fiction. [...] We think every good story writes its own rules and solves problems of its own devising." The present collection is not intended as an instruction manual; it demonstrates (and how!) rather than prescribes. "We hope these object lessons will remind [readers] how varied the form can be, how vital it remains, and how much pleasure it can give."
Pleasure, yes. I have seldom enjoyed an anthology so much. We do have some old masters here: a quintessential Ray Carver, "Why Don't You Dance?"; a set of surreal fragments, "Several Garlic Tales," by Donald Barthelme; an amazing Borges, "Funes the Memorious," light and profound at the same time. There are some gems from writers I didn't know: "City Boy," Leonard Michaels' near-surreal view of sex across the class divide; Mary Robison's sensitive study of bereavement in "Likely Lake; and possibly my favorite, Stephen Millhauser's "Flying Carpets," a childhood summer recalled in sensory detail through the playful use of magical realism. Two writers appear twice each: Lydia Davis introduces a wonderfully oddball story by Jane Bowles, and then is chosen by someone else for her "Ten Stories from Flaubert," somewhat in the manner of Julian Barnes, only more provocatively fragmented. And Norman Rush introduces Guy Davenport's "Dinner at the Bank of England," an apparently straightforward table conversation that lingers disturbingly in the mind, only to appear with one of his own stories immediately after: "Lying Presences," a delightful comedy with paranormal overtones.
The introductions, frankly, vary in quality. The reader must make up his own mind within a few lines whether to continue reading there and then, or to wait until after finishing the story; all of them, though, are worth reading at some point. Lydia Davis is superb on Jane Bowles, but her thoughtful essay is almost as long as the story itself, and should be read as an afterthought; likewise David Means writing about the Carver. Ali Smith, though, says just enough and no more to set the reader up for Davis' own story. Jonathan Lethem deftly places a heavily wrought piece by Thomas Glynn in the context of both mid-century literature and Abstract Expressionist painting, but did not especially endear me to the story itself. Daniel Orozco, on the other hand, is not only the perfect introduction to the Millhauser (and undoubtedly one of the reasons why I liked it so much), but a perfect complement to it in its own right; looking back after reading both, I could hardly remember which of the marvelous phrases came from the story and which from the introduction; both were superb.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2012
This book contains a lot of good short stories, many of which are very experimental and/or post-modern by such writers as Joy Williams (Dinner), Craig Nova (Another Drunk Gambler), Leonard Michaels (City Boy), Jane Bowles (Emmy Moore's Journal), James Salter (Bangkok), Denis Johnson (Car Crash While Hitchhiking), etc. These stories are really good and, indeed, among the best to appear in The Paris Review.
Then, each story is commented upon by contemporary writers. For example, Ann Beattie comments on Another Drunk Gambler, while Dave Eggers comments upon Bangkok, Jeffery Eugenides on Car Crash, etc.
I found many, if not most, of the commentary sections to be self-consciously erudite. Many of the commentators seemed more interested in showing off how smart they were and how much they know about literary theory than writing an interesting response to the story. This was sadly disappointing. I had already read many of the stories presented and got this book for the commentary.
If you haven't read many of the short stories, then it's an excellent buy.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Twenty contemporary writers comment on as many short stories. (There are 20 stories in my Advance Reader's Copy -- the publishers may plan to add one more before this book goes to print, since the cover claims 21.)
I found most of these stories to be fairly demanding, forcing me to be a "poetically minded" reader, "flickering" my "soul across the text." (Credit David Means.)
My favorites were Mary Robison's "Likely Lake," Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance," Bernard Cooper's "Old Birds," Jane Bowles' "Emmy Moore's Journal," Guy Davenport's "Dinner at the Bank of England," "Pelican Song" by Mary-Beth Hughes, "Ten Stories from Flaubert" by Lydia Davis, "Another Drunk Gambler" by Craig Nova, and "Lying Presences" by Norman Rush.
I liked the rest of the stories to one degree or another, with the exception of two, and one of those was written by Borges who is considered to be one of the greatest story-tellers of all time! I find his choice of words obscure and his meanings obscure and his Latin even more obscure. (Although, when I looked up the meaning behind "ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum" I liked it, agreed with it, and was enriched by it: "So that, nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words.")
Most of the commentary was interesting. I like getting another point of view and I learned a new thing or two about the writer's craft, about "the narrative voice," "creating absurd characters," "conflating registers of time and tone."
So, I think that some readers will get a lot out of this anthology -- depending on what they themselves bring to each story, (each work of "high art,") and I also think that writers might find the stories and commmentary broadening and instructive.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2012
I received this book yesterday and began reading it last night. The selection of short stories and the commentaries on them appear to be interesting and thought provoking, but everywhere I turn in this anthology there are typos -- two in the first two pages, and more throughout. In my view, there's just no excuse for this sort of sloppiness.