Two quickies

by Jess

I’ve been reading like mad lately, and I’ve a ton of things to tell you, but I’m going to start with two quick collections, B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories and Lou Beach’s 420 Characters: Stories.

Novak, of The Office fame, had already captured my heart (and the hearts of my kids) with his children’s book The Book With No Pictures, so I knew he was funny, but I was not prepared for One More Thing. It’s not just funny, it’s smart-funny. He reminds me very much of George Saunders (a similarity also noted by NY Times reviewer Teddy Wayne in his very good write-up of the collection). The book even has a hilarious trailer! Can I just say, even as someone who always prefers the book to the movie, that I am so happy that book trailers are now a thing?

Novak turns the story on its head in many of these pieces. Some are simply vignettes, such as the two-line microfiction entitled “The Walk to School on the Day After Labor Day,” which reads, in its entirety:

I was sad that summer was over.

But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.

I fell in love immediately with the first piece, called “The Rematch,” wherein the hare finally persuades the tortoise to do a rematch of their famous race. We read:

Never, in the history of competition–athletic or otherwise, human or otherwise, mythical or otherwise–has anyone ever kicked anyone’s ass by the order of magnitude that the hare kicked the ass of that goddamn fucking tortoise that afternoon.

There are too many other great standouts to name them all. And I loved how some of the stories referenced other stories in the collection. They are funny and fun and refreshing, and they show a great heart and keen insight. I loved it. I disagree with the NY Times review in that I don’t think any of the stories ought to have been excised; it’s perfect as it stands.

Lou Beach’s work began as a series of Facebook status updates. The stories are astounding in their range, and they are interspersed with Beach’s own original collages, which are creepy as hell. Here are a couple of samples.

While I was away you managed to rust all my tools. How is that possible? Did you dip them in the bathtub like tool fondue? I do not understand. You deny everything but cannot explain the rusted brad puller, pliers, awl, and bucksaw in our bed. “Maybe someone was playing a joke,” you say, then add: “A wet hammer is still a hammer.”

“Geronimo!” I leap from the trestle high above the river, imagine myself parachuting into occupied France during WWII and meeting up with Marie, beautiful dark-haired fighter of la Resistance. We kill some Krauts together, then hide out in the hayloft of a barn. I draw her to me, kiss her neck, her full red lips, unbutton her tight white blouse, and hit the cold water. “Sacrebleu!” I scream. “Sacre fuckin’ bleu!”

The schoolgirls marched through the snow, melted it with their youth, heads haloed in heat. They felt secure in their green coats, silver crosses hanging from white necks. He stood behind a tree and pared his fingernails with a buck knife, wondered if the clippings would root in the soil beneath the snow and burst forth in spring as fingers that would clutch the ankles of those who strayed from the path.

Beach got a very friendly review from the NY Times, as well. I saw a little Denis Johnson in him, although the reviewer also notes quite a few other similarities with authors I don’t know. Some of Beach’s stories are pastoral, some are like mini thrillers, and others have a fun surreal twist. Oddly enough, just as in Novak’s collection, there are self-referencing stories here and some recurring characters. It’s a great little book to sit down with on a sunny afternoon in the shade of a screened porch which enjoying an IPA and salted Virginia peanuts.

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