Saturday, April 16, 2005

15. Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

edited by David Sedaris

There’s just something about reading a really good short story. I didn’t used to know what that thing was and I avoided short story collections thusly, but then I read some good ones and I began to understand. I’d say David Sedaris probably makes my list of favorite living authors (I know he must makes lots of people’s lists, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t good) so the opportunity to read the favorite stories of a favorite author…well, that’s just like chocolate cake with a molten, dark chocolate center, topped with chocolate sauce. And a cup of coffee to wash it all down. Which is to say, damned good.

I’d read two of the seventeen stories before – Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” and Dorothy Parker’s “Song of the Shirt, 1941” – and was familiar with a number of the other authors. Flannery O’Connor and Lorrie Moore I’ve known and while I hadn’t read this particular story before, I know the magic Alice Munro can conduct with words. The stories are funny, as with Jincey Willett’s “The Best of Betty,” in which we are witness to the sarcastic decline of a domestic advice columnist; poignant, as with Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” in which a young girl is torn between her upper-class family’s party and the lower-class tragedy that’s occurred next door; and breathtaking, as Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” describes everything a dying man doesn’t remember in his last moments.

One of the reasons Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules is so effective as a story collection is what Sedaris writes in his introduction. As he decided he wanted to be well read, and later to be a writer, Sedaris turned to other writers to help him in his pursuit. After college, when I was no longer forced to read and beginning to regain pleasure in reading, I had the same thought. To be well read. To use these readings to better myself as a writer. Through that I discovered many of the writers I love today, David Sedaris to be included among them. Most importantly, Sedaris cements his relationship with his fellow writers by maintaining that he is first and foremost a reader and that he will always be affected by a story that takes him out of his place and leaves him feeling somewhat jarred when he’s finished. It was through anthologies that he found many of his favorite writers and, as if returning the favor, he writes that he hopes this anthology will introduce its readers to a wealth of authors whose greater works deserve to be known. As a reader, and as a writer, I can’t think of a better way to give back.

And when you finish these stories, you’ll set the book down, push back in your chair just a little bit, let the sound of the words swirl in your brain and their shape curve on your lips. You’ll feel full, but you’ll know you’ll soon be hungry for more.

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