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Forty Stories (Penguin Classics)
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2000
During Barthelme's lifetime, I think many readers thought that his work would permanently alter the short story form. He achieved such powerful effects; his stories were so funny, so moving, so original and offbeat, and yet so deceptively simple and effortless-seeming. I certainly expected that other writers would come along and produce similar stories, since he had shown how it should be done, and we would be innundated with Barthelme-like fiction. But I don't think that's really happened. There have been imitators, of course, but they've been mostly embarrassingly flat, replacing the master's edgy brilliance with silly incoherence. Barthelme defies all imitators; his stories continue to stand as one-of-a-kind monuments, written in a truly singular voice by a truly singular talent, to urban life in the late 20th century. Read them. I particularly love "The Genius," with its poignant and yet absurd portrait of the world's most brilliant man, and "At the Tolstoy Museum," with its hilarious drawings of the great author's supposedly gargantuan coat, etc. It's funny because it's (somehow) true, like all of his work. "40 Stories" is the best introduction to Barthelme, so if you don't know him, this is the place to start.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2001
This collection has many great short stories within it. Often, within this book, Barthelme shows himself to be an extremely creative and insightful writer. "Jaws" is a good example of this. Basically, it's a story about how people deal with their dissatisfaction in relationship; how lovers cope with significant others' inevitable inability to meet all their (the lovers') expectations. It follows a workers at a local A & P while he mediates the relationship of two customers (who are married to each other). He acts as a sort of counciler in their marriage. The interaction between the couple is extremely humorous, and yet very sad (as, I suppose, dysfunction can often be). It's an excellent piece of work, and it deals with a common theme throughout this collection: The dissatisfaction of couples in long-lasting relationships. "Chablis," "The Genius," and "Paul Klee..." are also all excellent short stories. They exhibit Barthelme's ability to be humorous and yet still get at an interesting/serious point (that is, not lose himself in zaniness).
After such praise, however, I must admit that this collection isn't without flaw. Out of the forty stories that are included in this book, I felt that about ten of them could have been pruned away. These stories (for example, "On the Deck," and "Blue Beard") seemed unfulfilled, and worse, overwritten. These, perhaps could have used a little more focus on content rather than style. It's true with almost any collection of short stories that not all of them are good, enjoyable, or interesting (that is, not all of them will catch your imagination). However, with this book there seemed to be quite a few of those. So despite the fact that many of the stories in this collection are great, I'm only giving it three stars.
I would recomend this to anyone in search of a humorous, challenging read. I would also, recomend this to someone who is interested in cutting edge, stylized short stories (after all 25-30 of them in this collection are very good). Many of the short stories in this collection are written in an unusual manner. For instance, "The Bodygaurd" is compose almost entirely of questions. I'm also of the opinion that those of you who like both Kurt Vonnegut jr. and Thomas Pynchon would find this collection interesting.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 1999
I agree with every word of the previous review, but think we shouldn't overlook Barthelme's cutting wit. His style of often sarcastic and edgy humour is possibly the most intellectually stimulating out there. It's one thing to be creative, but to not only purvey a state of mind-expansion in your reader but make him/her smile or laugh while doing so deserves kudos. "The Baby" and "Porcupines" are perhaps his finest examples in this regard... brilliant. My dinky little review doesn't quite do this man justice, just pick this book up for starters then graduate to the slightly more challenging "60 Stories" when the hooks are planted.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 1999
Bartheleme's work energizes creativity. It is playful in a way that beat writers never achieved. By letting images and thoughts run loose, he inspires creativity in the mind of readers. You do not need to take creative writing classes to learn how to write-you simply have to let your stories come out of what your imagination wants to say. This is the enlightenment that Bartheleme inspires. And reading this collection will vastly improve anyone's writing. It's complex, but never difficult and its effects are always surprising. He was as original and inspiring to writing as Jimmy Hendrix was to music. You will like this book.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Donald Barthelme is one of the very few masters of the short short story. The only others that come to mind are Saki, Borges, and Franz Kakfa. Few of the stories in this collection extend past three pages. All are marked by the same virtues evident throughout the collection: surreality, inventiveness, enormous humor, a sensitivity to our collective culture. Some have commented on the collection being uneven. Perhaps. But the stories are quite diverse, and I suspect that what some find uneven is actually their diversity, some of them appealing more to one's particular bias more than others.
This is a great collection for shaking up your perception, for making you reconceptualize the short story form. Anyone liking these stories should go on to try some Saki (the author, not the beverage). Although not as surreal as Barthelme, his stories are just as short, just as funny, and just as delightful.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2005
As an aspiring writer, these stories by Barthelme give me hope that experimental literature still thrives in this sound byte-, laugh track-, talking head-prompted, fast-paced MTV culture of ours. For the most part, the stories take a level of patients foreign to the average reader, but are so creative, so clever, so breathtaking (to sound cliché)--and let's not forget: short (most average 6ish pages)--and so on that before you even have a chance to let one story sink in, you're already well into the next. Which, I might add, is a good thing. The stories challenge but, unlike contemporaries who mimic Barthelme's style, are not challenging in such a way as to detract or distract. They stick with you long after you've read them and, like Eggers says in his introduction, it's hard for someone who writes to make it through a page without being struck by an idea of their own. Inspiring stuff.
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on June 14, 2014
I find Barthelme to be funny, witty, and surprising which to me equals entertainment. Be warned, though, this is that beyond post-modern almost gonzo fiction stuff that some may find confusing or downright ridiculous. You either dig it or you don't, so read a sample first.
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Donald Barthelme, Forty Stories
Penguin, 1989
introduction by Dave Eggers (2005)

Short fiction is capable of drastically more than we use it for. Donald Barthelme is proof of the fact. It’s like that cliche about the brain, that we only use ten percent of it. If you’re new to Barthelme, I suggest starting with Sixty Stories. All of his stories are mad and wildly inventive, but there’s something to be said for proceeding chronologically.

For me, enjoying Barthelme meant using strategies I learned while reading poetry. Some stories will grab you from the first line (“Never open that door, Bluebeard told me, and I, who knew his history, nodded.”), others may remain doggedly opaque. Persist, a little, and if you become frustrated, try another.

How I would love to have a group of misfit friends who knew this book and talked about what they had discovered and loved, as well as what they did not yet understand. Along with the stories I loved (“Lightning”, “The Genius”, “Paul Klee”, “The Temptation of St. Anthony”) and those I found impenetrable (“Construction”, for example) there was at least one story I adored AND did not understand: “Great Days”.

Barthelme’s stories are like any of the great questions of life -- you have to be patient with your own un-knowing. The stories are tremendous fun and fuel -- even when you are dizzy, even when you have no clue how it is all being done.
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on April 6, 2014
All I can bear is to listen to Erik Satie in the early afternoon. Bartheleme has ruined everything. Best read "Rock Springs" by Richard Ford.
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on July 26, 2014
Utter nonsense or great literature? You ask yourself this while reading. It's like when someone glues a bottle cap to a wall and says it's art and charges $200,000.00 for it. In THIS case, it IS great art and I have found myself reading this book over and over and over through the years.
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