by Lorrie Moore

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Lorrie Moore, who built an enviable  reputation as a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, attracting students who worshipped her abilities to connect with and inspire them, has moved on to become Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, a title I’m betting she finds just a tad grandiose. Moore is known for her wit, often corrosive, and wisdom, hard-earned. She has won many awards for her fiction, including the Irish Times International Prize for Literature, a Lannan Foundation fellowship, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for her achievement in the short story. Her most recent novel is A Gate at the Stairs and she also is the author of  “Like Life,” “Self-Help,” “Birds of America, “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and  “Anagrams.” 

What is this book about?

It’s a collection of eight stories, mordantly funny but also darker in tone than some of her previous work. If this collection has a theme, it is the difficult process of letting love go, or maybe that should be letting go of love. The first story, “Debarking,” set against the revving up of the Iraq war, gives us a sweetly dorky, newly divorced guy who becomes entangled with a gorgeous but increasingly disturbed (and disturbing) woman whose relationship with her spoiled-beyond-redemption teenage son will skeeve you out, even as you find yourself laughing out loud. “Foes” involves the 9/11 catastrophe. “The Juniper Tree” is a compelling ghost story. “Wings” is a riff on the famous Henry James tale, “Wings of the Dove.”  Moore’s “Referential” is her version of a famous Nabokov story, “Signs and Symbols.” But don’t be alarmed: Moore is not cribbing here: she makes these stories her own. In sum, this collection, her first in 15 years, is both vintage and new, as Moore continues to hone her brilliant, singular voice.

Why you’ll like it:

I’m in the process of reading “Bark” now, and on the basis of “Debarked,” “Paper Losses” and “The Juniper Tree,” I can tell you that she had me from page one. Moore employs a wit that can slash, but also enlighten. She gets how complex, and even murderous, relationships both good and bad can be. She uses language like a whip: pity those upon whom the lash falls. Some reviews have carped that this book is a bit too dark for them. I say it’s like almost-bitter chocolate: delicious and addictive.

Here is what Moore told The New York Times about writing:

“Now that she is done with the collection, Ms. Moore said, she is thinking about another novel, one “weirder” than her last. She pointed out that the difference between the two forms is that stories need to be written, or at least mapped out, in a single sitting, while, with a novel, “you can just go in and write a paragraph and then go away.” She continued, “This is why some people think the novel is the perfect form for the busy single working mom.”

On the other hand, she said, novel writing is a “form of insanity” that forces a writer to keep endless company with characters she has made up. “How a novel finishes,” she added, “is there’s a moment when you know it has problems, and you don’t know how to fix them. That’s when you’re done.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2014 review by Sara Nelson says: “Here’s a reason Lorrie Moore is so beloved by her baby boomer brethren: she’s smart, she’s funny, her eye is even sharper than her tongue. In Bark, her latest collection of stories, all those qualities are well on display. “He had never been involved with the mentally ill before,” she writes of her mid-life anti-hero in the (sort-of) title story, “Debarking.” “[B]ut he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good looking.” Acerbic? Check. Knowing? Check. Says out loud on the page what we less talented, less observant mere mortals wish we could form so well in thought? Check. Check. Check. The only reason not to read these seven stories is that, perhaps, they’re just too accurate and perceptive about the way we live now–but then, why would you ever want to read stories that were anything else?”

Says Booklist in a starred review: “Moore’s first collection of short stories, the uncommonly perceptive and energetically articulate Birds of America (1998), established her prominent place in the renaissance of the American short story that made itself heard with great innovation in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, she has alternated between story collections and novels, and now a new compilation of stories will add support to the widely held opinion that the short form is her true forte. Her talent is best exhibited in the collection’s longest stories (each around 40 pages); her comfort with that length is indicated by her careful avoidance of overplotting, which, of course, dulls the effect of an expansive short story, and by not allowing the stories to seem like the outlines of novels that never got developed. These two examples of her proficiency shine: “Debarking” is about a divorced man who enters the dating scene only to experience complications with the is-she-crazy woman he starts dating and also within himself, as intimacy seems the natural antidote to “global craziness”; “Wings” concerns husband-and-wife musicians whose dreams haven’t panned out. A major ingredient of Moore’s tales of troubled lives is an abiding humor, which serves to protect her characters, in all their frailties, from grating on the reader as too pathetic.”

“Moore is not only a brilliant noticer.  She is also brilliant at noticing those things that ‘one was supposed not to notice,’ namely our seemingly limitless cruelty, apathy, and violence…The initial surprise of Moore’s effervescent, jarring stories ultimately yields to a response that, far from mystification, is its mirror opposite: enlightenment,” writes Nathaniel Rich for The Atlantic.

“…Moore didn’t invent the breed, but she may be the chief contemporary chronicler of those whose dread makes them unable to turn off the laugh machine.  It’s commonplace to call Moore ‘funny,’ but that’s not quite right.  P. G. Wodehouse is funny.  Moore is an anatomist of funny…In a world according to Moore—the ‘planet of the apings,’ as one character thinks of it—who could ask for more?” says David Gates in the New York Times Book Review.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “There are eight stories in Moore’s latest collection, and, like her previous work (Birds of America), these stories are laugh-out-loud funny, as well as full of pithy commentary on contemporary life and politics. In much of Moore’s earlier fiction, the protagonists are young girls or mothers of small children. Here, they are divorcées. They have teenagers. They’ve variously tried and failed at dating, holding down jobs, being kind, or being sane. Perhaps that accounts for the ever-present sting of sadness in the book: relationships don’t fare well (with one slightly desperate exception), and the sly wisdom of Moore’s meditations on time will get under your skin like a splinter. “Referential,” a wry updating of Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” is a fascinating look at what happens when the mind of one writer collides with the mind of another. In the final story, “Thank You For Having Me,” the narrator stops her teenager daughter’s onslaught of scorn by undressing, mortifying her into silence. Moore’s final note is one of hope and even love—not the romantic kind, but the kind that sees the whole world, flaws and all, and embraces it anyway.”

Kirkus Reviews, in another starred review, says:  “One of the best short story writers in America resumes her remarkable balancing act with a collection that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same paragraph. With the announced retirement and Nobel coronation of Alice Munro, Moore (Birds of America, 1998, etc.) seems peerless in her command of tone and her virtuosity in writing stories that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. There’s nothing particularly “difficult” about her fiction–except for the incisive reflections of the difficulties, complexities and absurdities of life–nothing academic or postmodern in her approach (except perhaps for the deus ex machina motorcycle gang that inadvertently crashes the unusual wedding in the astonishing closing story, “Thank You for Having Me”). And there is no title story, though the two longest (and two of the best) stories suggest the dual reference of the word “bark,” to a tree or a dog. In the opening “Debarking,” a man in the aftermath of a painful divorce becomes involved with an attractive woman who is plainly crazy–and perhaps the craziness is part of the attraction? “Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane,” he ruminates. “Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people.” He is a man with a protective bark, and one whose ex-wife accused him of “being hard on people–‘You bark at them.’ ” In “Wings,” a singer involved with a musician who may be crazy, or just deceitful or manipulative, befriends an older man, who responds to the adage “his bark is worse than his bite” with: “I don’t know why people always say that. No bark is worse than a bite. A bite is always worse.” Every one of these stories has a flesh-tearing bite to it, though all but one (“Referential”) are also fiendishly funny. In stories both dark and wry, Moore wields a scalpel with surgical precision.”

Says Slate: “Moore’s tart, punny voice is identifiable from story to story, but her subjects and her style have evolved substantially over the nearly 30 years since her first collection, Self-Help (made up mostly of stories she wrote in the MFA program at Cornell). The reader-friendly forms and transparent structure of her earlier stories has given way to denser, more adventurous storytelling. Where once her stories were light breezes—albeit ones that would occasionally blow up into gales—now they are complex weather systems: swirling, variable, dangerous, and difficult to anticipate more than 36 hours in advance.”

When is it available?

“Bark” can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

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