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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get This Book
I just spent some great time reading Tim Horvath's collection, UNDERSTORIES. I haven't done one of my entirely unorthodox book review-thingies on my blog in a while, and I wish I had the time to devote myself to convincing you to give this one your full attention.

So, here's a moment. Allow me to emphasize that it needs attention. I needed to read it carefully,...
Published on July 29, 2012 by Jennifer Spiegel

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars Weird little tales
Brief and surreal, these tiny stories (some are only three or four pages long) vary from a deep study of human character to speculative tales of different types of cities. My favorite was ‘Circulation’, about a man on his death bed and what his son does for him- it’s one of the longest stories and there is time to build up the thousand and one nights...
Published 1 month ago by Laurie A. Brown


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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get This Book, July 29, 2012
By 
Jennifer Spiegel (Phoenix, AZ United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Understories (Paperback)
I just spent some great time reading Tim Horvath's collection, UNDERSTORIES. I haven't done one of my entirely unorthodox book review-thingies on my blog in a while, and I wish I had the time to devote myself to convincing you to give this one your full attention.

So, here's a moment. Allow me to emphasize that it needs attention. I needed to read it carefully, attentively. First, Horvath knows how to write one kick-arse sentence after another. These are sentences to read aloud, to get the feeling of them rolling off your tongue; they're complicated but well-executed from beginning to end. That's just his sentence structure. Second, and I think everyone is saying this, the stories are so imaginative/inventive/fantastical/dystopian, etc. The city with films projected everywhere got me the most, until I read about how people inexplicably blew up into smithereens during tense conversations, with only a trace of mint in the air suggesting impending violence. Wow. Third, Horvath's prose is smart. I like smart fiction. I'm just impressed by philosophical astuteness in fiction. Fourth, if I were teaching my dream one-year-long fiction seminar, I'd like to end with Matt Bell's first book, and this one. I don't write like this at all. I don't do this stuff, but I know this: it's important. It speaks of the role of fiction, the development of literature. There. Get this book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Discipline of Shadows, November 5, 2012
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This review is from: Understories (Paperback)
Tim Horvath's story "The Conversations" documents the worldwide fear and unease that follows an outbreak of literally explosive dialogues. These disagreements, trivial and profound, about everything from anime to parenting to "roommates who left their shit everywhere," turn lethal on a dime, blowing their speakers to smithereens and turning their surroundings to a "panic of smeared colors." As a result, courts approve the use of pocket black boxes so that governments can record and play back Conversations, hoping to identify and forestall future verbal calamities.

"Part of what made it so difficult to detect the Conversations," Horvath writes, "was their pristine logic, their lavishness with detail, the intricacy with which it felt like someone had put them together." This uneasy statement could, in a slightly altered world, be made about Horvath's Understories themselves--stories that converse with other books and with each other, stories that delight and challenge and never feel safe.

Horvath is interested in the ways the everyday and unplanned can stumble into the visionary, and vice versa. It's no mistake that the book begins in "The Lobby," which warns us in playful legalese against any attempt to depict "the astonishing visual properties of the lobby of this building." The unnamed guide also, however, recommends a neighborhood bar and finally draws our attention to the "heart-rendingly simple doors." In an era when most books seem content to pursue narrow, genre-specific goals, it's a pleasure to discover a writer equally at home in the macro- and microcosmic, the speculative sweep and the mooring detail. It's one thing to imagine a completely elastic city, as Horvath does in "Urban Planning: Case Study #4" -- another to imagine the writer of this city's travel brochure in the tub, "running the razor over her legs long after they are smooth, relishing the friction and pain, envying the hard, glinting edge."

The conventional thing to say would be that Horvath is both ambitious and soulful. But I think he's more than that. He's a great realist of a life that consists of more than facts, action, emotion, and gesture, and he treats the shadowier parts of life with the rigor and tenderness they deserve. "Circulation," one of the collection's longer stories, diagrams this movement into fabulism. A Director of Circulation at a midwestern library is caring for his ailing father, a self-published author who'd dreamt of a grand project called The Atlas of the Voyages of Things but produced only one slim volume, Spelos, an ode to caves. Copies of this book now rest unloved on the shelves of his son's libraries. In his father's last days, the son becomes Scheherezade, regaling his father with stories about the travels of Spelos through the hands of fictional library patrons. It is the kindest illusion he could foster for his father: a conversation both real and imagined, a readership.

At the end of the story the narrator visits a cave, its interior beautifully compared to "the ominous pictures of peridontal disease that hang on dentists' walls," which leaves an afterimage that will linger throughout the collection. The trenchant "Discipline of Shadows" imagines an academic department of umbrology (the study of shadows) sundered by infighting. Marginalized at the university, the narrator broods on Plato's Allegory of the Cave. "My feelings about Book Seven of Plato's Republic are likely slightly more virulent than the average umbrologist's," he says, going on to drunkenly challenge his protege to a thought experiment in which he has the chance to murder Plato prior to the writing of Book Seven. It's a funny moment that also displays Horvath's own imaginative discipline, his ability to tease out the lesser implications of his fabulist ideas.

"The City in the Light of Moths" takes place in the metropolis of Palomoa, where movies flicker on every available surface to a rapt audience. The citizens of Palomoa also sport cinematic tattoos. When the projectionist protagonist Wes shows his girlfriend his tattoo, "the bison posed against the wall of the cave, holding preternaturally still ... worthy of the Lascaux artist him or herself," we begin to see how the caves link across the collection, how thoroughly Horvath has plumbed the thought, the cave being both the site of the first known human artistic activity and Plato's den of duped spectators, mistaking their movie for reality.

We're back to the dangers of depiction we'd been warned about in the book's first story. (The Second Commandment casts its shadow over this exuberantly imaginative book.) However far you delve into Understories, you'll find evidence of intricate design. As the umbrologist says of the mold on his shoes, "it is nearly impossible to resist finding a pattern there." The shadows will be rich, the conversations will echo. Obviously this is just one way to spelunk through this deep and thrilling work.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most inventive and yet humanistic collections I've read, September 25, 2012
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I really enjoyed Understories- it's a must-read collection by one of the most talented writers out there. I'd read Horvath's earlier novella, Circulation, and found it humorous, sad, and very witty. I'd been looking forward to this collection and was not disappointed. The stories within are brimming with creativity and there's a humanism in each of them that helps you to understand a little more about the human condition. Take for example a story that I loved, a shorter one in the collection called, "The Gendarmes." The premise is the narrator finds a group of people playing baseball on his roof. This piqued my interest, but as it turns out, it gets even more interesting. These gendarmes are actually teaching animals about extinction and survival tactics. It's a tight story that lingered long on after the initial reading. There's stories about a department of shadows, a talking box, a brilliant portrayal of Heidegger, and even the original novella of Circulation which I loved so much. Definitely one to to pick up! You will not be able to put it down!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightfully surreal, best left for a quiet contemplative environment in which it can be completely and fully appreciated, July 16, 2013
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This book came to be via the Kindle Buffet as I was browsing about for something to read on vacation. Since I actually paid $1.99 for this book for a change, I'm exceptionally motivated to be honest about it.

Generally I like to frame my reviews as positives, negatives and summary. Occasionally, I come upon a book that breaks this mold because I can't find an appropriate comment for some section. In this case I can't really find anything negative to say about this book. The author is an obvious talent. He can craft sentences into the most twistedly entertaining prose I've seen in a long time. His talent for coining words baffles the dictionary and forces the reader to stop and think about what they're reading. Horvath's verbiage is high art.

As accompaniment, his content is delightfully surreal. Through all his stories there is a common thread of "What in the ...?" that pleases in the same way that Dali's melted clocks, though nonsensical on the surface, display a deeper and more significant undercurrent of importance.

In summary, well worth the investment of a few dollars. While the purchase should not be questioned, however, the environment of consumption should be carefully considered. This is not one to be read while the kids play frantically in a maelstrom of manic energy. Understories is best left for a quiet contemplative environment in which it can be completely and fully appreciated. Give this one some space in your brain and you shall not be disappointed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vividly Imagined Stories, July 1, 2013
This review is from: Understories (Paperback)
Understories is Tim Horvath's first short story collection, and it is a mightily fun one to read.

This collection contains eight "Urban Planning" case studies, most of which are roughly three pages long; six miscellaneous stories; and seven longer pieces in the 20-to-35-page range.

The "Urban Planning" stories were fascinating to read. In each of these stories, we pay a brief visit to a different completely fantastical city. There's one city with elastic streets and sidewalks, where newcomers unused to the movement are sent flailing and sprawling. In another city, residents tune out the thousands of overwhelming sensations they are bombarded with each day to focus on a single sense and thus preserve their sanity. A third city is in denial that it is a city; inhabitants call the skyline "the tree line", the sidewalks "the arroyos," and the skyscrapers "mountains." Yet another city has a culture revolving completely around food, where clothing boutiques serve to help people coordinate their dress to their meals and where chefs are at the top of the social ladder. Each of these glimmering urban environments are vividly imagined and pulsing with life.

Very different from these surreal, delirious case studies are the longer stories, which include "Circulation" and the collection's title story, "The Understory". These pieces are more realistic, exploring themes such as human relationships, identity, and loss. Although less fantastical than the "Urban Studies" stories, they contain the same quirkiness and humor; we meet a professor who teaches umbrology, or the study of shadow; a divorcee who takes his young daughter to a Chuck-E-Cheese-like place that he calls Runaroundandscreamalot!; and a botanist who befriends Martin Heidegger before the Holocaust. The quieter, more contemplative tone of these stories provides a refreshing intermission from the relentless energy of some of the shorter pieces.

My one complaint with this collection is its lack of cohesion. I really enjoyed most of the stories, but they didn't all fit together as a whole. The "Urban Planning" case studies work together nicely, each of them giving the reader a glimpse into a different fascinating, skewed city. These shimmering portraits of impossible urban environments mesh nicely with some of the other surreal, whimsical stories but are slightly at odds with the longer, more realistic pieces. I appreciated both the frenetic energy of the shorter stories and the clear, contemplative atmosphere of the lengthier pieces, but placing both styles side-by-side felt a bit discordant.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. The writing is in turns vibrant and imaginative, eloquent and thoughtful, and lush and whimsical. I'm looking forward to reading more of Horvath's work in the future!

I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review on Books Speak Volumes, a book blog.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books of 2012, January 18, 2013
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This review is from: Understories (Paperback)
Tim Horvath has an amazing imagination. He can take his work in academe (as a writing teacher) and turn it into a story about a dying department of umbrology, the study of shadows, complete with all the political scheming for promotion and infighting about ancient scholars (Galileo or Socrates?) you might expect in such a story. But then he can also imbue it with poetry when describing a lunar eclipse, or with whimsy, as in relating his experiences watching shadows on a ski slope, or even the nature of love ("she told me once she preferred rainy days because on them I looked at her more directly"). The entirety of "The Discipline of Shadows" is so strange, and yet so familiar, that it can induce vertigo.

Understories, Horvath's first collection, is full of such dizzying tales. In "The Gendarmes," for instance, a man discovers that a baseball game is in progress on his roof. They use a special ball to play, one that can't come into contact with chlorophyll without danger of explosion. The owner of the house shimmies up to the roof, discovering that it's covered with artificial turf, and joins the game, because really, what else would you do when you discover a baseball game on your roof? Things get stranger from there.

The title story, "The Understory," is an alternate history tale in which a professor of botany remembers his early adulthood years exploring a forest -- the Schwarzwald -- with a philosopher teaching at the same university, Martin Heidegger. The botanist, a Jew, escaped to America before Hitler did his worst, but he has never fully relinquished his feelings of fellowship with Heidegger. Years after the war, Heidegger attempts to explain his "brush" with Nazism in a magazine interview, though he does not apologize or express regret for his entanglement with the regime. The botanist, now an old man almost unable to walk through his own piece of forest in Florida, reflects on his early relationship with this man who fundamentally betrayed him. It is a thoughtful elegy on friendship and history, quiet and elegant.

I was most taken with the "Urban Planning" stories, some only a few pages in length, others full-fledged stories, that are scattered throughout the book. These stories remind me of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams in their exploration of an imaginary conceit. Invisible Cities dealt with imaginary cities in existence at the time of Marco Polo, which he describes to an Asian ruler; Lightman's novel envisions places where time, gravity and other laws of physics behave entirely differently than they do in our world; and Horvath speaks of cities that could be in today's world. In one of these cities, a mayor decides that the citizens should never again be "plagued" by rain, and so creates an intricate webbing of awnings to be deployed whenever the skies open up. In another, streets and sidewalks are elastic in nature, jiggling like gelatin underfoot. Another city is populated exclusively by chefs and those who partake of their feasts, and no one ever speaks of anything but food. The longest of these excursions into cities that do not exist is "The City in the Light of Moths," in which movies are the raison d'etre of the entire population. These stories are triumphs of the imagination.

I spent months reading Understories, the way one will hoard a favorite food, eating only a bite or two at a time, to make it last. I reread as I read, finding new oddities and delights each time I flipped through the pages. This book was one of the best of 2012. I can hardly wait to see what Horvath will come up with next.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating collection of stories from unconventional point-of-view, September 7, 2013
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Fascinating collection of stories from a very unconventional storytelling mind. At once firmly set in the real world and the surreal world, the author introduces the reader to worlds where: conversations become Conversations and people literally explode; society is rife with cineaddicts continually seeking that next film fix; a library book shares its journey through time and hands; words mean everything and nothing. Horvath's stories are filled with compelling characters and fascinating ideas.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Underreview, July 15, 2013
This review is from: Understories (Paperback)
Horvath is at his best when he develops characters to their fullest, in The Understory, The Discipline of the Shadows, and The City in the Light of Moths. By creating a series of environments that are mono-dimensional or uni-focused, he pulls off a classic story-telling trick, which is to minimized the environment or its theme, to cast heightened emphasis on the plot, characters and their situations. The City in the Light of Moths, may be my favorite work, since the story-space is surreal and dreamlike, and there is so much Platonic metaphor at play, the stage-y-ness of the world, 'projections' of identity, and the constant dichotomies of the Real vs. the yearning. In that story, he builds a counter-culture group into the community, which is just a clever stroke of writing, since it captures the antithetical components of a community (death drive, pure yearning). The beginning of the story entails a projectionist whose film reel snaps, and it's a great trick, since it's a tacit signal that there has been some sort of break with the normative rules, and we are entering an environment with new rules (a Twilight Zonish signal), and it also signifies Reflection, or a break in the symbolic order and establishment of a new signifier or order. Thus, what Horvath is telling us, however startling, is that there must be some kind of break or discord, if we are to gain empowerment over our experience and lives.There's some great writing here when the stories are balanced between conceptual play and a story line, though his stories that are too compact sometimes have a esoteric feel. Horvath's first novel is in the works, and a long form story should be the moment when he is at his best.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inventive, September 1, 2012
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Superb writing. Inventive story telling. Horvath weaves great story telling with a powerful display of understanding the architecture of the human mind. I love fiction, but I so rarely read it these days because the literary world is so mired in plaintive, from the podium, character obsessed "stories". If you like stories that develop characters wonderfully without sacrificing plot and inventiveness, Understories is a great pick. There's no telling where each story will lead.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucky for the New Hampshire Institute of Art, August 8, 2012
By 
Rebecca Ronstadt (Gilmanton, NH, US) - See all my reviews
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Tim Horvath will be teaching at the New Hampshire Institute of Art this Fall. His book demonstrates that writing really IS an art form.
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Understories
Understories by Tim Horvath (Paperback - May 1, 2012)
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