Tenth of December

By George Saunders

(Random House, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Last January, without waiting to see what else might be published in 2013, the New York Times called George Saunders’ new short story collection “the best book you’ll read this year.” And not to be outdone, Salon.com recently named Saunders one of the sexiest men of 2013. But, you may ask, who is he?

Saunders somehow morphed from being a a technical writer and geophysical engineer to being a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, winner of multiple writing awards, a visiting writer at Wesleyan University, a recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation  “genius grant” and possessor of an inimitable authorial voice in short stories, essays and books for kids. His work has been praised to the skies and reviewers this year were close to unanimous in saying “Tenth of December” was his best work yet.

Here’s what Saunders has said about his roots in science: “…any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”

Based on his wondrous writing, I’d sure like to see those dresses.

What is this book about?

Many, many things. This collection of 10 exquisitely crafted short stories veers from the real – a geeky loner of a kid emotionally rescues a suicidal man; an emotionally wounded veteran returns to his mother’s house but finds it no longer home – to the brain-twistingly surreal – a striving middle-class family yearns for the latest in lawn ornaments: live young women strung together by a wire through their brains; a research subject is tormented with drugs whose very names highlight Saunders’ verbal dexterity: Vivistif for creating lust, Verbaluce for spurring eloquence and Darkenfloxx for creating despair.

To describe their plots in detail would give toio much of  the stories away yet fail to fully explain them. It’s not so much what Saunders writes about, but how and why. If some of them seem familiar to some readers, that’s because they have appeared in that premiere showcase for American fiction: The New Yorker.

Why you’ll like it:

Saunders can be wickedly funny and challengingly weird, but underneath the verbal pyrotechnics is a writer with strong ideas about the need for tenderness and  goodness and the ever-increasing absurdity of our world. As Salon.com put it: “It also doesn’t hurt that he seems like a genuinely nice guy.”

There is less of his brilliant mockery of corporate-speak here (but see those drug names!), and more probing into the human condition and its baffling quirks. Saunders is hard to write about – his style is unique, though he is often compared favorably to such other masters as Barthelme, Vonnegut and Twain. But he is easy to read, even when you are not quite sure where he is taking you. Do yourself a favor: let this geophysicist-turned-storyteller guide you deep into the center of his world.  And if you enjoy this book, do not miss his “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (1996), “ Pastoralia” (2000) and  “In Persuasion Nation “(2006).

What others are saying:

Says  the Amazon Best Books of the Month review for January 2013: “George Saunders’ first short-story collection in six years, Tenth of December is as profound and moving as it is entertaining. Saunders’ wonderful ability to portray a character’s inner monologue–the secret voices, the little fantasies, the inside jokes, the spots of sadness–might be his greatest talent as a writer. But he is also expert at parceling out details to hook the reader and nudge the story in whatever direction he wants it to go. While these stories are generally more straightforward than we’re used to seeing from this author, the turns they take are constantly surprising. Saunders is an American original, a writer gifted at expressing the irony and absurdity all around us and inside us, but his ultimate goal is to show us something deeper: Our lives are composed of genuine experiences that deserve to be taken seriously.

Says The New York Times:  In “Tenth of December,” his fourth and best collection, readers will encounter an abduction, a rape, a chemically induced suicide, the suppressed rage of a milquetoast or two, a veteran’s post-­traumatic impulse to burn down his mother’s house — all of it buffeted by gusts of such merriment and tender regard and daffy good cheer that you realize only in retrospect how dark these morality tales really are. . . Fans of Saunders’s three earlier collections . . will immediately recognize the gonzo ventriloquism that gives his work such comic energy. By tapping into the running interior monologues of his hopeful, fragile characters, Saunders creates a signature voice that’s simultaneously baroque and demotic — a trick he pulls off by recognizing just how florid our ordinary thoughts can be, how grandiose and delusional and self-­serving….. Saunders hears America singing, and he knows it’s ridiculous, and he loves it all.”

The Boston Globe says:  “George Saunders captures the fragmented rhythms, disjointed sensory input, and wildly absurd realities of the 21st century experience like no other writer. He is satiric without being sarcastic, ironic yet compassionate. He mocks the bizarre institutional structures we’ve created — mindless bureaucracies, stale theme parks (in his 1996 first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’’), immoral goals promoted in rah-rah corporate technotalk, without being contemptuous of his characters. His prose mimics how we think, with abrupt starts and stops, the interior flow of perception interrupted continuously by digital cues and exterior shocks that require immediate analysis.”

“Since the publication of George Saunders’ 1996 debut story collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, journalists and scholars have been trying to figure out how to describe his writing. Nobody has come very close. The short story writer and novelist has been repeatedly called “original,” which is true as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Saunders blends elements of science fiction, horror and humor writing into his trademark brand of literary fiction…. But with his new short story collection, Tenth of December, Saunders proves he’s a master of a genre few people have associated with him: realism. That’s not to say he has abandoned the bizarre, dystopian type of fiction that made him one of the country’s most well-regarded authors; that’s all still there. But in his new book, his defiant quirkiness is tempered with a dark sobriety and a sense that the world we live in is often more surreal and savage than any satire could be. Tenth of December isn’t just the author’s most unexpected work yet; it’s also his best….. It would be tempting to believe that Saunders’ fiction portrays society the way a fun-house mirror does, reflecting images that look familiar but are, finally, exaggerated and unreal. Tenth of December suggests that’s not the case — that what we assumed was a nightmare is, in fact, our new reality. It also proves that Saunders is one of America’s best writers of fiction, and that his stories are as weird, scary and devastating as America itself,” says NPR.org.

In a starred review, Booklist says:  “Saunders, a self-identified disciple of Twain and Vonnegut, is hailed for the topsy-turvy, gouging satire in his three previous, keenly inventive short story collections. In the fourth, he dials the bizarreness down a notch to tune into the fantasies of his beleaguered characters, ambushing readers with waves of intense, unforeseen emotion. Saunders drills down to secret aquifers of anger beneath ordinary family life as he portrays parents anxious to defang their children but also to be better, more loving parents than their own. The title story is an absolute heart-wringer, as a pudgy, misfit boy on an imaginary mission meets up with a dying man on a frozen pond. In “Victory Lap,” a young-teen ballerina is princess-happy until calamity strikes, an emergency that liberates her tyrannized neighbor, Kyle, “the palest kid in all the land.” In “Home,” family friction and financial crises combine with the trauma of a court-martialed Iraq War veteran, to whom foe and ally alike murmur inanely, “Thank you for your service.” Saunders doesn’t neglect his gift for surreal situations. There are the inmates subjected to sadistic neurological drug experiments in “Escape from Spiderhead” and the living lawn ornaments in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” These are unpredictable, stealthily funny, and complexly affecting stories of ludicrousness, fear, and rescue. “

When is it available?

“Tenth of December” is on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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