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Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2013: George Saunders' first short-story collection in six years, Tenth of December is as profound and moving as it is entertaining. Saunders' wonderful ability to portray a character's inner monologue--the secret voices, the little fantasies, the inside jokes, the spots of sadness--might be his greatest talent as a writer. But he is also expert at parceling out details to hook the reader and nudge the story in whatever direction he wants it to go. While these stories are generally more straightforward than we’re used to seeing from this author, the turns they take are constantly surprising. Saunders is an American original, a writer gifted at expressing the irony and absurdity all around us and inside us, but his ultimate goal is to show us something deeper: Our lives are composed of genuine experiences that deserve to be taken seriously. --Chris Schluep
*Starred Review* Saunders, a self-identified disciple of Twain and Vonnegut, is hailed for the topsy-turvy, gouging satire in his three previous, keenly inventive short story collections. In the fourth, he dials the bizarreness down a notch to tune into the fantasies of his beleaguered characters, ambushing readers with waves of intense, unforeseen emotion. Saunders drills down to secret aquifers of anger beneath ordinary family life as he portrays parents anxious to defang their children but also to be better, more loving parents than their own. The title story is an absolute heart-wringer, as a pudgy, misfit boy on an imaginary mission meets up with a dying man on a frozen pond. In “Victory Lap,” a young-teen ballerina is princess-happy until calamity strikes, an emergency that liberates her tyrannized neighbor, Kyle, “the palest kid in all the land.” In “Home,” family friction and financial crises combine with the trauma of a court-martialed Iraq War veteran, to whom foe and ally alike murmur inanely, “Thank you for your service.” Saunders doesn’t neglect his gift for surreal situations. There are the inmates subjected to sadistic neurological drug experiments in “Escape from Spiderhead” and the living lawn ornaments in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” These are unpredictable, stealthily funny, and complexly affecting stories of ludicrousness, fear, and rescue. --Donna Seaman
George Saunders's political novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil was published by Riverhead Trade Paperbacks in September 2005. He is also the author of Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, both New York Times Notable Books, and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a New York Times children's bestseller. In 2000, The New Yorker named him one of the "Best Writers Under 40." He writes regularly for The New Yorker and Harper's, as well as Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He won a National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2004 and his work is included in Best American Short Stories 2005. He teaches at Syracuse University.
Update: One story that was left out of this collection, "Fox 8: A Story," has been released as a Kindle Single. It's brilliant - very funny, but also touching.
George Saunders is my favorite writer, so this review is biased. An Amazon reviewer said these stories left him/her feeling disturbed and uncomfortable. That is exactly what I enjoy about them. I think that means that the writer is reaching the reader, and that something is being said in the stories.
Saunders' stories are great because they are in tune with the experience of living today. I find them very entertaining, but also cathartic, because they bring expression to things that I feel and experience but that few are able to express.
Flannery O'Connor wrote "The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience." Great writing can be as affecting as experience, which can be uncomfortable and disturbing.
Sometimes morbid, sometimes zany, often touching, and always original, the stories collected in Tenth of December are written in a light, conversational style -- typically the kind of conversation you'd have with someone who is a little dim -- that conceals their deeper meaning. Many of the characters are like the parents or children you're glad you never had.
My favorite story, "Victory Lap," begins in the mind of Alison, a fifteen-year-old girl whose internal commentary on Eleanor Roosevelt, her ethics teacher's husband's affair, her own ignorance, and the dorkiness of Kyle Boot is, to use Alison's favorite word, awesome. The story then shifts to the scattered mind of Kyle Boot (favorite word: "gar"), whose chance of pleasing his anal-retentive father is nil and whose thoughts are filled with imaginative curses that he would never dare say out loud. When Kyle sees a man trying to kidnap Alison, he must choose between intervening and finishing his chores. The story develops a new layer of oddness when we enter the mind of the kidnapper. The ending is surprisingly sweet as humor and horror give way to karma.
The title story is another standout. Robin is a pale, blubberish boy who invents his own martial arts system (Deadly Forearms) to fight the Nethers. Eber, old and rail-thin, no longer seems real to himself. Both Robin and Eber constantly engage in imagined conversations. When Robin spots Eber (thinking he may be a Nether) walking around a frozen pond, Robin makes it his heroic mission to deliver Eber's coat to him without realizing why Eber left the coat behind. The story is a bittersweet combination of humor and sorrow and inspiration.Read more ›
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I found it interesting that this book places the only two somewhat upbeat stories in the collection at the beginning and the end, as if the editor thought that doing this might help to disguise the unremitting darkness of the stories that make up most of the book. I'm afraid the effect is more along the lines of a gloom sandwich, in which the relatively upbeat slices of bread do little to mask the depressive filling.
Of course, my reaction is largely a matter of personal taste. I think George Saunders is a remarkable writer and a true artist, but for me, there's just too much darkness and ugliness in this collection to stomach.
Some notes on selected stories:
"Victory Lap" is the opening story, and therefor one of the two fairly upbeat pieces I mentioned. It indulges in an engaging playfulness with language (as do most of the stories in this collection, to some extent), but apart from that I found it a story with unrealistic characters in an unrealistic situation that comes to an unrealistic conclusion.
"Puppies" extends that playfulness with language into the realm of just-plain-hard-to-read. I was reminded of a recent quote from Booker Prize judge Peter Strothard, stating that literary works of art "have to offer a degree of resistance." This story offers resistance in spades, and in return for chewing through that resistance you get one of the most gruelingly dark stories I've ever read. In this story and a few others, it feels to me that Saunders is approaching outright sadism toward his characters.
"Escape from Spiderhead" is another example of this.Read more ›
'Tenth of December' a short story collection by George Saunders, is, in a word, amazing! Very dark ironic humor, a unique and interesting style, and a collection of great short stories. I'm embarrassed that I have never heard of Mr. Saunders before, but I intend to rectify that mistake shortly, i'll be seeking out more of his work. I recommend very highly, with the one caveat that some of this material is pretty dark, so if you are not somehow who enjoys dark satire, than this may be a tough read. But for anyone else, what are you waiting for!!