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Varieties of Disturbance: Stories Paperback – May 15, 2007
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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
Daviss 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 plottwo academics strolling through Oxford is as wild as it getsothers are not even a sentence long. ("Index Entry" reads, in its entirety, "Christian, Im 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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Top customer reviews
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First, Lydia Davis’ sparse yet artistic style is right up my alley as a reader. She writes with passion utilizing lyrical brilliance to accent her fluid, cerebral type of storytelling.
Davis explores the everyday mindset of characters and circumstances in which all of us can relate. The stories all show how human interactions that happen every day can squeeze the life out of us, or for others, provide a sort of relief as they pass the disturbance on to another to dwell with the anxiety of that moment.
My feeling is that works like "Jane and the Cane" could be broken up in verse and would serve the same outcome as it did as a short-short. The language is very precise and compact, and Davis distributes every rhythmic beat with precision.
On the storytelling side, Davis invites the reader to be a participant in many stories. As readers, our minds fill in the gaps and answer the unwritten questions that arise from the prose. As an example, short-short stories like “Idea for a Documentary Film,” leave the reader with a comical visual, while “ Lonely,” allows us to fill in the gaps of time in between the young woman’s personal interactions.
Some of the best in this collection, like the title story, “Varieties of Disturbances,” use a stream of consciousness style. The opening sentence, which I’m sure would have been marked as a run-on sentence in tenth grade, was brilliant and almost could have ended there in all its happy ambiguity. The rest of the story was also excellent and befitting of the title. Davis writes lyrically and satirically at times and her variety of brilliance branches out to serve the rest of the collection of everyday personal disturbances.
I loved the inventive intelligence that resides in the simplicity of the collection. Lydia Davis has many talents: lyricism, on-beat repetition, and compact precision that leads the reader to an understanding not written.
What a remarkable talent!
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." The reader unaware of this parochial controversy, however, will probably be at a loss to tease out the strands of the story.
Some of the other longer pieces do rise to the level of parody. "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality" is a satirical look at an academic case study of two women. It begins by describing the two subjects and how they've lived notably long lives, but a third women, omitted from the "final" draft of the study yet refuting its conclusions, keeps showing up in the text, butting in uninvited in italics. It's actually rather clever and witty, although it goes on a bit too long. Similar, but more successful, is "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," which masks as a painstaking sociological analysis of the content and "letter-writing skills" of its imagined subjects. The story's real "character" is, of course, neither the group of children nor the collection of letters but the obsessive and clownish windbag who would write such twaddle in the first place.
Davis includes a scattering of "stories" that take up a few lines on an otherwise empty page. In a recent interview she has asserted that her single-passage stories were a reaction to translating the notoriously long sentences of Proust: "it made me want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke." The problem, of course, is that the results too often belie her intention, and some of these items don't even rise to the level of a joke. Thus, we have the single line of "Mother's Reaction to My Travel Plans": "Gainsville! It's too bad your cousin is dead!" (What is the "point" here? That her mother speaks in typos?) Similarly, "Insomnia," which reads, in its entirety, "My body aches so-- / It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me." An old and dull children's riddle doesn't gain in import typeset in a nice font and surrounded with an excess of white space. Similar groundbreaking profundity can be found spending a few moments on Twitter.
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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Well, it doesn't really matter what you label them....They are fun,
they are innovative, they zing your mind.