Monday, May 13, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Earlier this year, listening to episodes of the New York Times Book Review Podcast, I kept hearing that short stories were back in vogue. New collections, such as Astray by Emma Donoghue, were getting excellent reviews, and Tenth of December by George Saunders was at the top of the fiction hardcover bestseller list. It was good news for short story readers.

Analysts speculate that digital reading is supporting a short story renaissance. Novellas are doing well, too, as some digital readers buy short forms for their readers. Of course, short stories never actually went away. I find they have more inventive plots, quirky ideas, and quick, intense characterizations. I always seem to read 5 or 6 collections a year, as well as my usual fare of nonfiction.

So, I was primed for Tenth of December when my request was filled. Knowing others are still waiting, I moved it to the head of the list and enjoyed several days with stories that reminds me of works by Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

If there is a running theme in Tenth of December, it is the issue of control and lack of control. "Victory Lap" and "Sticks" have parents whose rule of the household is obsessive. Mood and behavior altering drugs are involved in controlling convicts and employees in "Escape from Spiderhead" and "My Chivalric Fiasco." In "Home" the central character and his parents seem to lack self-control.

I think the strangest of the lot is"The Semplica Girl Diaries." It would be a great choice for a short story discussion group. I'd love to hear whether readers believe it a fair criticism of our consumer culture living without regard to ethics. Maybe that is not what it is about it. I don't want to spoil the mystery of the story by saying too much.

I would also like to learn what readers think of the title story, the last piece in the collection. It seems totally different from the rest of the book, more of a straight drama and less about ideas. Still, it is a compelling piece of a collection that as a whole is a good omen for future reading. We should never worry about the habit of reading when there are books like Tenth of December.

Saunders, George. Tenth of December: Stories. Random House, 2013. 251p. ISBN 9780812993806.

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