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List price: $16.95 (that's 30% off!)
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Leslie Norris's collected stories are a sort of bittersweet beauty very much in the Joycean tradition (think especially of "Dubliners"). They begin with some sort of pivotal moment at which confusion either enters into or peaks in the protagonist's young life, and they end with an epiphany that seems sweetly to keep the bitter at bay, but knows that the respite is at best only temporary.
Also a poet (see his "Collected Poems" as well), like fellow Welshman Thomas, Norris's language is simple but fresh, and sumptuous when necessary, a prose tone perfectly in step with the state of his protagonists. Often (if not always), they are young boys on the brink of a knowledge that will disillusion them and send them closer to the concerns of adulthood.
In "Sliding," an accident during an afternoon of sliding across a frozen pond upsets a group of boys, their first initiation into the idea of impermanence. In "Kingfisher," a boy, who has just been with his father to visit his dying grandmother, sees in the garden the dead body of a bird that he and his father had only that morning watched together; in a moment of suddenly adult consciousness, he takes it upon himself to conceal the bad news of mortality from his father. In "Shaving," one of my faves from the collection, an athlete in the full strength of youth returns triumphant from the rugby field to shave his ailing father, who, in the full fading of disease, is too weak to shave himself.
This volume collects Norris's previous two (unfortunately long out-of-print) books, "Sliding" and "The Girl from Cardigan," putting them together with a few new stories in book form for the first time.
Norris excels at awakening emotion, but is subtle enough and careful enough not to hit you over the head with the hammer of sentimentality. If you appreciate and enjoy fiction that looks at those moments that we all know, where we begin to feel ourselves a part of the knowledge that life ends up teaching everyone sooner or later, then this book is a terrific buy.
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"...Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages,
Nor for the towering dead,
With their nightingales and psalms,
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages,
Nor heed my craft or art."
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First, a caveat. Be sure you understand when reading Babel's short stories that you are not reading his autobiography or journal. He did in fact listen to our creative writing teachers; he wrote what he knew. He knew the Russian revolution. He knew the Cossacks. He knew war. He knew living inside and outside the pale. His world jumps off the page because he lived it first.
The stories contain autobiographical material, actively mixed with the yeast of fiction. Use this aspect of his writing to chase rabbits. Follow up this book with his biography or find out more about the Russian revolution. Both of those topics will make more sense after reading his collected stories.
As a writer, I stand in awe of Babel's stingy use of words. Some scenes are so hugely horrible that I would have been tempted to throw in appropriate adverbs and adjectives in an attempt to convince you, my reader, just how hugely horrible it really was. Babel simply tells the story, and you gasp when you are done, horrified when you peak through the keyhole (and I would have blasted a hole in the wall).
When you read Babel, you must be willing to go at the stories with an open mind, not expecting him to flatten the Commies, defend the Jews, or paint the picture the way you want him to. He will not do that, no matter how many times you try to make it so. You will hear no overtones of right or wrong, get no definitive answers about the people on either side of the Russian revolution.
For that, I am most grateful to Isaac Babel. Nothing about our world can be easily distilled into sharp black and white. His stories give us the real world in astounding color.
This book is a necessary read for anyone that wants to learn how to write poetically without being florid, compress pages of description into a few words. This compression is one of the reasons that the stories stay in mind long after they've been read. Buy the book - or get the other edition in a used book store, so you don't have to look at that awful picture.
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