February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Short Work

Neither of the books reviewed below looks much like a traditional short story collection. Eileen Gunn’s Questionable Practices includes stories as short as one page long, a poem, and a “steam-punk quartet” of stories. Novak’s collection, meanwhile, mocks the whole concept of a “short story collection”, calling itself, in the subtitle,  “Stories and Other Stories”. And like Gunn, Novak has a knack for knowing when to end a story – many of his stories are merely a page or two long, but when he needs more space, he’s happy to stretch out as well.

Both of these books are also “humorous”, though what that means in each case is vastly different. Gunn’s idea of a funny joke starts with elves killing your parents, while Novak’s starts at a support group for transgender people. Fortunately for me, I find both of these authors hilarious, as well as terrific prose stylists. Bet on Novak–with his Sedaris-like observations, and Office-pedigree–to make more of a splash with teen readers. But definitely give Gunn’s book to teens with the right sensibility.

Then again, short stories and humor – I’ve discussed them both before, and all the usual caveats apply.

GUNN, Eileen. Questionable Practices. 208p. Small Beer. Mar. 2014. Tr $16. ISBN 9781618730756. LC 2013047730.

questionable practices 188x300 Short WorkThis quirky story collection begins with a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a Sasquatch—the man sees the Sasquatch as a beautiful woman; the woman sees the Sasquatch as a beautiful man; they all sleep together; and all three plus the woman’s mother end up on Maury arguing over paternity. And it only gets stranger (though never funnier) from there. Later stories feature Kirk and Spock slash-fic, semi-parodical steampunk, several sets of evil elves, and an incredibly moving account of a veteran’s failed attempts to reintegrate into society. Aside from the veteran’s story (the last in the collection), the overwhelming mood is darkly comic science fiction—like a strange blend of Terry Gilliam and Margo Lanagan. Teen fans of either or both of those geniuses would do well to turn to Gunn for a similarly unique ride. Her prose is vividly off-kilter, her plots memorable and usually hilarious, and her characters recognizable even when they are tropes. And even though nothing is quite what it seems in these stories, the author’s firm grip on dream logic makes everything feel meaningful, even when it doesn’t quite make sense.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

NOVAK, B. J. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. 288p. Knopf. Feb. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780385351836.

one more thing 203x300 Short WorkNovak’s subtitle slyly and appropriately questions his book’s status as a “story collection.” Less than stories, these are sketches, extended jokes, and essays. The modus operandi here is to take a commonplace idea or phrase and push it to its comedic extreme. “If I had a nickel for every time I spilled a cup of coffee” becomes a mathematical examination of how much money you could actually make at five cents per spilled cup (not much). “Life is a roller coaster” yields a literal roller coaster being test-marketed to mixed reviews. John Grisham’s novels are all titled “The [something]”–what if he published a book actually called “The Something”? And so on. This could get tiresome quickly but Novak, who honed his comedic chops as a writer and performer on The Office, deftly avoids any feeling of repetition, first by casting his net for jokes far and wide, and, more importantly, with an incredible sense of pace. Just when the brief vignettes seem about to overwhelm the collection, he will inject a longer story with real characters and sometimes even a bit of pathos. This book is perfect for fans of Novak’s work on The Office, readers of humorists like David Sedaris, or for teens just looking for a comedy collection to browse. The “discussion questions” are not to be missed.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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