Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: "The Bigness of the World: Stories" by Lori Ostlund

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for making it available!

About 20 years ago, I adamantly refused to read short stories, saying that I didn't want to invest a great deal of emotion or effort in getting hooked on a story that would end not long after it began. And even though I read some classic short stories in my youth, I didn't necessarily think I was missing much by boycotting this literary form.

But then I picked up one of the Best American Short Stories collections in the late 1990s, and found myself marveling at the artistry, emotion, characterization, plot, and imagery these writers packed into a small number of pages. I haven't looked back, and count myself tremendously privileged to have read short stories that have taken my breath away. Authors like Thom Jones, David Schickler, Robin Black, Nathan Englander, Alice Munro, Alethea Black, Amy Bloom, and Jacob Appel have taken residence in my head and my heart.

I can now add Lori Ostlund to that list of authors who have dazzled me with their literary gifts. Her debut collection, The Bigness of the World, which won the Flannery O'Connor Prize, will be re-released early next year, and I hope that she finds a multitude of fans like me, because her talent is definitely evident in these stories, which deal with seemingly ordinary men, women, and children confronting the unexpected.

Here is an example of how she captures thoughts and emotions:
"Is it possible, Noreen wonders, to locate the exact moment that fear (or hate or love) takes shape? And is there ever a way to convey that feeling to another person, to describe the memory of it so perfectly that it is like performing a transplant, your heart beating frantically in the body of that other person?"
Some of my favorite stories in this collection included: "Talking Fowl with My Father," which chronicled the strained relationship of a woman and her elderly father, both of whom have very different ideas about what constitutes a life well lived; "Idyllic Little Bali," about a group of American tourists who come together while on vacation, not realizing the emotional turmoil one of them is dealing with; "The Day You Were Born," which tells of a young girl caught between her mother and her father, who suffers from mental illness; "All Boy," about a young boy who is dealing with how he differs from his peers in the midst of his parents' marital woes; "Upon Completion of Baldness," which tells of a couple of teachers whose relationship hits a rough patch when one of them shaves their head; and the magnificent title story, about two siblings and their unique relationship with their one-of-a-kind babysitter.

Ostlund's stories are set everywhere from Minnesota to Malaysia, but their themes are universal. And while many deal with gay and lesbian characters, their sexuality doesn't define them or the stories; it's just another plot point to consider in many cases. These are beautifully written, emotionally evocative stories which will move you, make you think, make you chuckle, and perhaps help you realize your life may not be so chaotic or problematic after all.

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