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Varieties of Disturbance: Stories Paperback – May 15, 2007

3.5 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Davis's spare, always surprising short fiction was most recently collected in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. In this introspective, more sober culling, Davis touches on favorite themes (mothers, dogs, flies and husbands) and encapsulates, as in "Insomnia," everyday life's absurdist binds: "My body aches so—It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me." Davis is a noted translator (Swann's Way), and a kind of passion—and bemused suffering—for points of rhetoric produces a delicate beauty in "Grammar Questions" ("Now, during his time of dying, can I say, 'This is where he lives'?") and "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," written to their hospitalized classmate. The longest selection, "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality," examines the long lives of two elderly women, one white, one black, in terms of background, employment, pets and conversational manner. Most moving may be "Burning Family Members," which can be read as a response to the Iraq War: " 'They' burned her thousands of miles away from here. The 'they' that are starving him here are different." Davis's work defies categorization and possesses a moving, austere elegance. (May)
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From The New Yorker

Davis’s whimsical, seemingly eventless fictions, with their looping motifs and love of obliquity, fall somewhere between prose poetry and Venn diagrams. In her new collection, Kafka agonizes over the menu for a dinner date ("One man fights at Marathon, the other in the kitchen"), and death is approached as a grammatical problem ("Is he, once he is dead, still ‘he’?"). While some stories follow a nominal plot—two academics strolling through Oxford is as wild as it gets—others are not even a sentence long. ("Index Entry" reads, in its entirety, "Christian, I’m not a.") Strung together, they gain momentum as tiny epics of paranoia and ennui, each a snapshot of "a moment of madness during which the people could not bear the frustration of their lives."
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 219 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (May 15, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374281734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374281731
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #351,172 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Anyone glancing through this book who thinks "well, gee, I could just write a bunch of one-line stories or prose poems and be as smart as Lydia Davis" will find, if they actually attempt this project, that only Lydia Davis is as smart as Lydia Davis. Whether you read at random or in sequence, you will find your assumptions about fiction, story, and point-of-view seriously and subtly challenged by every piece in this collection. The shorter (as short as one line or indeed sentence fragments) pieces challenge the reader to interrogate the ample blank space for context and, of course, find none. On every page, the stylish ways Davis violates narrative conventions of form and substance just whets the craving for more of her relentlessly sharp, witty, varied prose. How can stories ostensibly structured as an anthropological or linguistic studies (or even a mess of notes) give us such heart-breaking insight into the vivid lives of characters who, in terms of the 'story,' are not even characters at all, but merely subjects? How can a non-story (two conference goers idly sharing a pleasant mental and physical ramble through history and literature) where nothing happens, nothing changes, and nothing is achieved inform us, so startlingly, about what a story actually *is*? Thank goodness people are still writing books that demand a reader actually exert the mental activity to *read*, and not just glance over words on a page.
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Lydia Davis has earned accolades from many of our more jaded critics for the originality of her experimental fiction, particularly for her "very short stories." I'll be honest: while I can see the appeal for some readers, especially for those who complain about the alleged sameness of modern literary fiction, most of her prose isn't to my taste. My problem with Davis's type of "experimental" fiction is that, several months having passed since I finished reading this collection, I can recall very little of it other than the banal preciousness of a few selections and the Gertrude Stein-like repetitiveness of its curlicued passages. Although a few of the pieces might resemble Robert Walser's modernist feuilletons in their meandering detail, they lack his Thoreauvian attention to landscape and atmosphere.

The selection I remember most is "The Walk," and it's one of the few stories to let slip anything approaching emotion: resentment, sadness, and perhaps a little resignation. There is a story behind this story; it is a "fictional" response to Andre Aciman's review throttling Davis's translation of "Swann's Way": "Gone not just the style," he had written in his review, "but the voice, which is the temper, the attitude, the inflection of style." (I, by the way, don't quite agree with Aciman here: I found her translation both faithful to the text and enchanting in tone.) In her story, she imagines--or re-imagines--an encounter with her critic at a conference on translation; "He felt that she kept too close to the original text" is her acerbic summary. She closes the piece with her solitude after everyone has left, "disappointed that some of the other participants had not stayed on afterward for a least a little while.
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Format: Paperback
Short stories? You call these short stories?

Well, it doesn't really matter what you label them....They are fun,
they are innovative, they zing your mind.
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Format: Paperback
Evidently some readers were disappointed in this collection because it in no way fits the standard story form. I loved it. I laughed out loud in places, while other parts were terribly sad and moving. Ms. Davis accomplishes a lot in as little as one line, and nothing longer than a few pages. As one reads this collection, and her other work, which I snatched up greedily upon finishing Varieties of Disturbance, the interior life of a fascinating woman comes edging nervously, reluctantly into the open.

I won't lie, there is some mental effort involved. I am not a snob, I enjoy thrillers and other page-turners. There is no action in these stories, just a lot of tension and humor. But when you are inclined to read something that is spare yet runs very deep, you could hardly do better than Lydia Davis. Varieties of Disturbance is sort of breaking in in the middle, but that is how I did it, quite by accident, and I wasn't put off.
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I had never heard of Lydia Davis until the recent spate of articles heralding the publication of her new book. I bought this inexpensive used paperback to see what it was all about. Now I know. I probably will not be buying the expensive new edition.
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By Anna Delson on January 27, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Don't lose patience--keep going. This is a very interesting book; I keep going back to it.
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