Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

Driven to Tears


I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black (Broadway, $14.00, 240 pages)

“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.”

Consider a formula for producing a promising new writer: the courage of Jane Mendelsohn and Emily St. John Mandel; the calm and precise voice of Maile Meloy; the microscopic focus of Joan Didion; and the world-weary irony of Roald Dahl.   This just about sums up what you get with Alethea Black, the author of this new collection of short stories; a collection that stands up well alongside Meloy’s Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It.

Meloy wrote about people who wanted more than they were offered in their life’s current circumstances.   Black writes about people who are at the end of the dock, ready to jump into the water.   They’re not sure that a change is going to improve their life – they only know that life cannot continue the way it is.   Her stories take us to the point where each character is about to experience a major change.   We’re never quite sure as to whether the change is for the better, as her characters have disdained the need to look before they leap.   In a sense, she writes about people who have been driven to tears and near madness, either by their past imperfect actions or sheer inertia.   Now, they’re going to improve their lives even if its kills them.

Black writes on a very human scale, without exaggeration; however, as with Dahl, her stories are sometimes symbolic of both larger and smaller things.   And, as with Dahl’s short stories, there’s often a sense of unreality just off-stage – as if we’re going to be surprised by something unexpected any second now.

The weaknesses in this compilation might best be explained by analogy.   If it were a record album, this reviewer would state that the songs were placed in imperfect order.   And the weakest song (story) was selected for the title.   Instead of, I Knew You’d Be Lovely – a tale about a young woman who attempts to select the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend, and comes up with something extremely unexpected – a better selection would have been the second of the thirteen tracks (stories) which was earlier published in Narrative magazine, The Only Way Out is Through.   (On a bookshelf, The Only Way Out is Through would sit well next to Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.   Case closed.)

“Law school had been the classic intellectual sanctuary from certain practical considerations.   Then it had ended, and he’d needed to make a living.   So here he was.”

Despite a few minor issues, I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.   If Ms. Black has a fault it is that her coiled strength is never fully let loose…  There’s a sense of structure that’s a bit too quiet and organized (and intellectually proper) from this Harvard-educated writer who quite likely has the ability to “roar like forest fire” when she’s ready.   Perhaps she’ll roar when she releases her debut novel.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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How It Ended

This is a collection of twenty-six short stories written by Jay McInerney over twenty-six years, from 1982 to 2008.   Sad to say, I simply do not understand the quality differences in his writing.

This grouping starts off with the brilliant drug-induced piece, “It’s Six A.M. – Do You Know Where You Are?” which became the base for the well-known novel and screenplay Bright Lights, Big City.   Unfortunately, the other stories that follow dim by comparison.

“Smoke” is a Roald Dahl-ish piece in which nothing is as it seems.   “Invisible Fences” is a crude sex tale that might have been written for a men’s magazine twenty to forty years ago.   “The Madonna of Turkey Season,” about a family’s travails made worse by holiday gatherings, reads like Joan Didion but without her charm or cool, laser-like, focus.   Except for “It’s Six A.M.” we never, in fact, feel the presence of a human narrator.  

Based on his reputation and/or press clippings, McInerney is the next great American writer; a fact that is not easy to see in these twenty-six tales.   Rather, How it Ended reads quite like a career-spanning collection of the music of the Doors, complete with a brilliant start, weak middle, and middling finish.

Knopf, $25.95, 331 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.How it ended 2

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