Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain - George Saunders (First Pass)


 I mentioned a few days ago that I've gotten back into the habit of juggling seven books at a time in an attempt to keep any one or two of them from unnecessarily going stale on me. I'm relieved that that is still working well, but a little irritated to find my rotation through the books more controlled by library due dates than by anything else. I know it's my fault for requesting so many books at the same time, but it's causing me at times to neglect the books from my own shelves that are already in progress.

And now a new wrinkle to contend with. I came across short story writer George Saunders's new book (can't recall what first brought it to my attention) and immediately put it on my library hold list because I am a big fan of the man's stories. I fully expected this to be the author's new collection of short fiction, but it turns out to be something else entirely. The title of the book certainly sounds like a fiction title: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, but I never noticed that there was a subtitle. And what a subtitle it is: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Even with that, the book's content is still a bit of a head-scratcher, so let me tell you a bit more. In addition to being a very gifted author, George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, and what he has done here is to boil down one of his classes into a single volume in which seven short stories written by four Russian masters of the genre are read, discussed, and deconstructed in an attempt to teach his students how it is all done. So we get seven stories, seven essays regarding the stories, and seven short "Afterthoughts" following the essays. 

According to the book jacket, Saunders intends the book "for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it's more relevant than ever in these turbulent times." And, having now worked my way through two of the stories and two of the essays,  I'm finding that it delivers exactly as promised. But now, the squeeze is on because A Swim in a Pond in the Rain seems to be a lot more popular with the reading crowd in Harris County, Texas, than the librarians here anticipated it would be. That means not nearly enough copies to meet reader demand, and only a single two-week window to finish it before it needs to be carried back to the library. 

I don't know about you guys, but nonfiction reading is always slower going for me than reading a novel or a short story - in particular for a book like this one that requires careful consideration and reflection upon what I've just read before I can move on to the next chapter. So a slight change to my March reading plan is in order - and it's probably only the first of others to come.

At some point, I will be reviewing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, so I hope I haven't just told you more about it than you ever wanted to know.  Keep in mind that the book was published on January 21, 2021, and that it has already been reviewed on Amazon 385 times, with 80% of the ratings coming in at five stars. That kind of response to a book like this one does my heart good; it gives me hope that the dumbing down of America is not yet a done deal. 

10 comments:

  1. Sam, I wonder why it is so popular in Harris County Texas? Any ideas? The author's name seems familiar to me so off to see what else he has written.

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    1. I suppose his name is what catches the eye. He's been a National Book Award finalist and even won the Man Booker Prize in the UK once. The books seems to be doing pretty well everywhere now.

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  2. It depends on the non-fiction. Some of it - people moving to another country and settling in - I whizz through very quickly. But I'm currently reading The Making of the British Landscape by Nicholas Crane (TV Geographer and lover of maps) and it is dense, informative and fascinating. I think it will probably take me a couple of months to read. LOL *But* I'm doing what you do and reading other things alongside, I couldn't read that exclusively.

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    1. Nonfiction just demands more attention, I think, and I find that trying to read it too quickly is self-defeating. I have to let the author dictate the pace because it's still about style and "density" of the page and prose.

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  3. Well, it seems the book caught the attention of readers! I usually read nonfiction a little slower, but I also tend to "pause" nonfiction for more thought before returning. In between some nonfiction books and essays, I often read quick fiction. Some good nonfiction, however, can read almost like a novel. Lopate's Golden Age of American Essay is a slow burner, and I'm reading fiction in between digesting essays.

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  4. You're right about the differences. I find that it really is still about style when it comes to my reading pace. Some nonfiction writers just pack so much into the average page that it feels like I've read three pages for every one I do read. Others have a real knack for making complicated subjects much more accessible.

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  5. Too many library books is always the reason I don't get any of the books from my own shelves read...or not as many as I want. For me, the library and all it's books is a siren song I just can't seem to resist. Good luck with all your book juggling!

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    1. This week, I'll officially reach a crisis point when it comes to a choice of ignoring or recognizing actual due dates. I turned one in today...and picked up another that had been on hold since mid-November. And, of course, the new one is a high-demand title I can only keep for two weeks. :-)

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  6. George Saunders has been a local celebrity to the central New York community (our previous home) for years. I'd heard this new book was basically one of his classes and am intrigued. Nonfiction is much slower reading for me, too, so it would be tough to borrow from the library.

    Glad your book rotation seems to be working well. I generally try to stick to two at a time (one fiction, one nonfiction) but sometimes a third manages to work its way in. Seven boggles my mind, lol!

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    1. It's definitely slower, but Saunders is such a good writer that even is nonfiction flows smoothly enough to make it a pleasure. I'm still on the third story of the seven because other things distracted me for a couple of days, but I'm definitely enjoying the book.

      Seven just means my eyes are bigger than my brain. :-)

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