Friday, February 7, 2014

Isle Of Youth - Stories

In preparation for my spring-term fiction workshop I read Laura Van Den Berg's The Isle of Youth. She's leading the class and I always like to read my instructors beforehand. It's a sometimes scary prospect. I find myself wondering, what if I hate it? Or, what if I like it too much and their style creeps into my own work? These are the dangers writing students face--pretty good problems to have, if you're fortunate enough to choose your own. The payoff is an understanding of the writer's concerns and knowledge of where they're coming from, both of which are very helpful in digesting feedback, and a good foundation for dialogue between teacher and student. Of course, I do find it a little odd whenever an instructor assigns their own work, which seems to suggest, you better like it... or else!

Perilous danger aside, I found these stories to make up a great and cohesive collection, setting up shop at a strange intersection between Munro, Chandler, and Murakami. Natalie Serber, who some of you might see around the shop now and then, wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Wonder and mystery are recurring motifs. The women here are one step ahead of disaster or one step behind it, and either way they are eager to discover what’s next . . . Van den Berg, in this wonderful collection, never lets us turn away." This is 100% on the money.

In my favorite story in the collection, "Opa-Locka," two sisters start working as private detectives, trailing a man whose wife thinks he's cheating on him, boilerplate detective stuff but from there things take a odd, and then grim, turn. The Isle of Youth features, among other things, relationships that have faltered, mysteries gone unsolved, and in the end, magic that has been exposed for what it is: a cheap parlor trick to distract you while your pocket is picked, which is something we've all encountered in one form or another, a part of what it means to grow older.

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