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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 September 2010
'The Collected Stories' contains all the stories from the separate volumes 'Break It Down' (1986), 'Almost No Memory' (1997), 'Samuel Johnson Is Indignant' (2001) and 'Varieties of Disturbance' (2007) - nearly two hundred stories in all. Almost all of them are rather short, and some take the form of a single sentence or short paragraph: a form that more closely resembles the aphorism than the short story as traditionally conceived.

Lydia Davis has become known in some spheres mainly for these extreme condensations, but to suggest that they are typical of the texts collected here would be a serious distortion. Davis can work perfectly well at much greater length - she is the author of a highly regarded novel - and the ultra-short pieces here are in the end as typical or atypical as the handful of conventionally longer pieces ('Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality' runs to nearly 50 pages, but is by far the longest story here: only a small number exceed a dozen pages). More genuinely characteristic are texts of two to three pages: still very short, but for a writer concerned with economy of means and concision of expression, surprisingly ample spaces in which to delineate character or explore an idea.

Davis is sometimes cited as a leading American postmodernist writer, but in her case the term 'postmodernist' seems more than usually inadequate. Certainly one can see the influence of Beckett, Kafka, and Proust (whom Davis has translated); and there are stylistic similarities to Donald Barthelme and Walter Abish. But Davis, whose parents were both writers and who has a parallel career as an academic, editor and translator, is a more domestic and autobiographical writer than this literariness might suggest, though she shares the characteristic postmodernist preoccupation with textuality and suspicion of traditional means of narration. There is less of the conscious brilliance of her male counterparts - though her intelligence is everywhere apparent - and more thoughtful exploration of emotional states, more detailed examination of the way in which existential unease and complication emerge from the circumstances of mundane life - the ageing of parents, the raising of children, the negotiation of adult relationships, the struggle with work tasks.

This might seem to imply that Davis is a 'writer's writer' - a masterly technician admired by her peers but unappealing to a larger readership ('The Collected Stories' predictably features cover quotes from flavours-of-the-month Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and Rick Moody, perhaps to counteract this impression). In fact, I found that the main danger in reading 'The Collected Stories' was that they are almost too readable. Their modest length and absence of conspicuous surface difficulty are deceiving. It is all too easy to gobble these stories up like sweets only to find odd details returning to trouble the mind, along with the impulse to go back and look again. The stylistic and emotional range of the stories is wider than might at first appear, though inevitably certain characteristic themes do emerge. Like Beckett and Kafka, Davis also possesses a dry sense of humour that may go unnoticed by the unwary. Her work rewards a slower reading, and is perfect for digesting in small bites.

Lydia Davis was once married to Paul Auster, an American postmodernist who currently enjoys a much higher writerly profile. To my mind, Davis is his superior. I would urge anyone interested in contemporary American literary writing to make her acquaintance.
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on 9 May 2010
Every bad review I've ever read has involved a litany of statements such as 'this is not a short story!', 'this doesn't do what a book is supposed to do!'! What is a book 'supposed' to do? Instruct and delight? Have a beginning, middle and end? Welcome to the 21st (and 20th!) century.

So yes, her stories are 'tedious, obsessive ramblings pointlessly replay the mundane' -- that's the point, and that's why they're so good. Davis very well knows what a story is, what a book is 'supposed' --traditionally-- to do: she's translated Proust. What these stories 'do' is problematise the idea of literary form and in doing so present a complete internal portrait. By 'replaying' the mundane, Davis creates art. Of course repetition -- both of the mundane and as a formal device -- highlights and interrogates what it repeats. Davis fits human emotion into the emotionless: complaint letters, 'Letter to a Funeral Parlor', academic studies, 'We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters From a Class of Fourth-Graders' and 'Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality', lists, and other 'mundane' forms. Her stories are linguistically mathematical, many exploring the permuatations of reaction, experience, and situations: 'When he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband'; or ways of being, creation of the self or selves: 'Shall I know the classics, like K.? Shall I write letters by hand, like B.? Shall I write 'Dearest Both,' like C.?'

But unlike many 'experimental writers', Davis' prose is accessible. Perhaps this is what frustrates her critics: the extreme accessibility, repetitive language, simple vocabulary. And, unlike many serious, avant-garde works, Lydia Davis is incredibly funny. The clinical, distanced prose is taken to it's extreme only to be transformed in to absurd, deadpan hilarity: 'it occurred to her very suddenly that it might not have been him at all, it might have been the dog, and worse, if it had been the dog, he might think it had been her.'

Can a single sentence tell a story? Lydia Davis is not the only one to do this. One of Hemingway's most famous stories is 6 words long ('For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.') Criticism based on literary tradition, which itself was once radical, is a transparent justification for personal distaste and a weak critical summation. Oh no, the reviewer cries, this does not subscribe to historically prescribed generic conventions!

A book, unfortunately, is not an electronic device with an inherent pragmatic value that either works or doesn't. It is not a hair dryer or an alarm clock. To approach a text with such a viewpoint is to set oneself up for disappointment.

Whatever one thinks about Lydia Davis' short stories, let us not stoop to a kind of ridiculous literary eugenics by saying that her words aren't worth the 'time, money and paper' they were printed on or that even one of her lines 'takes up too much space'. Such a violent reaction to her work perhaps exonerates it of the previous reviewer's charges: doesn't all great literature provoke extreme responses? Whatever moves someone to suggest that her publishers should actually be sued surely comes from somewhere deep within the bowels of literary response...I suppose only time and a few genius grants will tell.
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This is a lovely book, nice and thick (733 pages of text), and with countless short pieces which you can dip and out of. For while many of the stories are a few pages long, quite a few of them are just a paragraph or two, or even just a few lines, expressing depth with concision as with a Japanese Haiku.

The stories cover a vast range of subjects and it would be impossible to even begin to categorise them. A few samples might cover short portraits of a relationship, jury service, motorcycling, journeys, music and just about anything else you'd like to think of - its probably somewhere in there. The stories all share a rather quirky outlook on life which challenges the customary way of looking at things.

As I read this collection, I realised that you have to read several at a time in order to appreciate Lydia's unique view on life. She has the ability to look at things from a new angle so that her readers suddenly see the strangeness of things they usually take for granted.

All Lydia's stories stimulate reflection in oen way or another. They can't be taken at face value, but have to be reflected on. The blanks have to be filled in. And yet, despite the brevity of many of the stories, they are not poetry. They are precise, elegant pieces, each of which has at least a tiny narrative flow to them which qualifies them as stories and nothing more pretentious.

I am pleased to have this book on my bedside table and will dip in and out of it for some time to come. It would make a great gift for any reader as I'm sure anyone would find something of interest in it.
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Reading Lydia Davis is always a treat, and she has to be the most original short story writer alive, no one else at present can seem to match her. This book of collected stories contains the collections Break It Down, Almost No Memory, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and Varieties Of Disturbance, and so you can see this book is chock-full of tales.

If you have read Lydia Davis before then you will know what to expect, but for those who are coming to her work for the first time then a little explanation is needed. Davis writes normal length short stories, but others can only be a paragraph long, even just a line, which is one of the reasons she is so original, arguably the last person to give such succinct pieces was H H Munro (Saki). None of her stories are conventional type beginning, middle and end, but are more based around events, that in themselves may be mundane, but which concern us as they are things that happen in our lives.

Whether she is writing about ageing, an argument or just worrying about things, these stories all draw you in, even when she writes a story that is seemingly a research paper on two people who are old. Taking in such things that can happen to any of us, from forgetfulness to health this whole book is well worth reading. One of my favourite stories though has to be Passing Wind. A woman invites a man to her home, but when a fart is let out the woman starts thinking about whether it was her dog, or the man, and if it wasn’t the man will he think it was her. Something quite mundane as I am sure you will agree, but as we follow the woman’s thought processes, this becomes really funny. It is also this unpredictability that makes her tales so intriguing, as you never really know if something will be serious, or lead to something more humorous.

If you are looking for something that will interest and amuse you then this book could be just the thing you are looking for.
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on 28 November 2010
A hugely entertaining collection of stories which touch on almost every human experience from the most poignant to the most absurd. The writing is stylish, every word has its place, nothing is superfluous - Davis avoids adjectives as much as possible, along with descriptions of place. This can be disconcerting at first but, slowly, you are drawn into this new world that turns out to be the everyday one but seen in new ways. A single consciousness emerges that is loving, humourous, intelligent and original. Davis experiments with genre and there are some splendidly creepy gothic tales here.....I loved this book and, for once, unlike the new Franzen published around the same time as 'Collected Stories',the critics' praise is deserved.
0Comment|9 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
Reading Lydia Davis is always a treat, and she has to be the most original short story writer alive, no one else at present can seem to match her. This book of collected stories contains the collections Break It Down, Almost No Memory, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and Varieties Of Disturbance, and so you can see this book is chock-full of tales.

If you have read Lydia Davis before then you will know what to expect, but for those who are coming to her work for the first time then a little explanation is needed. Davis writes normal length short stories, but others can only be a paragraph long, even just a line, which is one of the reasons she is so original, arguably the last person to give such succinct pieces was H H Munro (Saki). None of her stories are conventional type beginning, middle and end, but are more based around events, that in themselves may be mundane, but which concern us as they are things that happen in our lives.

Whether she is writing about ageing, an argument or just worrying about things, these stories all draw you in, even when she writes a story that is seemingly a research paper on two people who are old. Taking in such things that can happen to any of us, from forgetfulness to health this whole book is well worth reading. One of my favourite stories though has to be Passing Wind. A woman invites a man to her home, but when a fart is let out the woman starts thinking about whether it was her dog, or the man, and if it wasn’t the man will he think it was her. Something quite mundane as I am sure you will agree, but as we follow the woman’s thought processes, this becomes really funny. It is also this unpredictability that makes her tales so intriguing, as you never really know if something will be serious, or lead to something more humorous.

If you are looking for something that will interest and amuse you then this book could be just the thing you are looking for.
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on 15 July 2013
I love literature, am a big fan of books, and learned Lydia Davis when she won the Man Booker International Prize. The critics gave a few examples of her short stories and I was immediately won for her style: the example of "a thing" that happens, probably you can fill pages with it, and Lydia just get's it together in a few lines: something happened, for a moment there was chaos and panic, but then the people came back to reality. Something like that, with more words, but every word is necesarry, no word to much, no word missing, everything exact as it should be. The perfection !!!!! Incredible. Read her stories.
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on 13 August 2014
Amazing how vitriolic the one-star reviews have been so far! This book delighted me-and I can only imagine it will gain in popularity.The stories,some of which are no more than poems or thoughts or meditations are all about human consciousness and the drama is usually in the depth of the feelings experienced rather than what happens.You can dip in and out of the book depending on how much time you have available to read-and get a fair idea of her style in a short time.
She claims to have been greatly influenced by Kafka-but is he ever this funny? Don't be put off by hearing that she is a writer's writer or 'experimental' as she is not at all hard to read or understand.
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on 28 September 2013
Lydia Davies short stories are a combination of poetic prose and observational insights. Her pieces range from two lines to several pages. They are written with precision, words carefully chosen to express so much more than is on the page. Her use of punctuation is remarkable for adding another layer of expression. Her work is clever and invigorating, deep and thought provoking.
This is a perfect book to dip in and out of and to return to over and over again.
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on 18 June 2013
Lydia Davis has a unique set of styles. Repetition plays a large part in her writings and indeed repetition plays a large part in her writings. One-liners, tomes, one-pagers, paragraphs and sentences all pass as stories. The incredible thing is that it works and is a very powerful tool when applied by such a talented writer. If you do nothing else this year, buy this collection and throw away your prejudices and preferences, then just read.
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