Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund (GRADE: B)

I just finished The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund a couple of days ago.  It is a Flannery O'Conner Award for Short Fiction, a very prestigious award for short story writers.  My feelings are mixed about this book.  Essentially, the writing is excellent; she is a master of writing short fiction.  But many of the short stories didn't resonate with me, partially because the stories are more character driven than plot driven and, in a lot of ways, her worldview is really different than my own.

It is hard to write a review of this book/collection of short stories in a coherent manner.  If I may, I would like to just give a few random thoughts:

1.  Ostlund is a brilliant writer.  She uses words like a painter uses a brush.
2.  Some of the characters were teachers.  Her insights about education and students were provocative and the education aspect of her stories did resonate with me.  I especially like her passing comment on how the main character did not know when teachers became the keepers of students' self-esteem.
3.  Some of the stories were just bizarre like The Children Beneath the Seat.  I just couldn't get over the image of vomit rolling on the floor of the bus as the children were positioned on the floor under the seat.
4.  Minnesota was mentioned often and many of the characters came from Minnesota, but the stories were seldom set there.
5.  The story, The Bigness of the World, was set apart from the others, both in flavor and writing.  I thought this story was outstanding and very accessible.  In my opinion, this story by itself is worth the cost of the book.  I have seldom read a character as rich as Ilsa Maria Lumpkin, the nanny in this story.
6.  I really liked the quirky idiosyncrasies that she gave each character.  And the idiosyncrasies are, not only well thought out, but memorable.  She was very good at character development.  

Overall, Ostlund is a brilliant writer.  Most of the stories didn't resonate with me as I was reading them; it was only in discussion with a friend, after I had finished the book, that I realized the writing was outstanding.  The stories are on the melancholic side (but, then again, most modern short stories are).  I grade this book a B, (an A for the writing but a C for the stories being engaging to me--but of course, that has more to do with me as a reader than her as a writer--averaging to a B).

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