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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

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From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today. For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today. For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times. In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.


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From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today. For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today. For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times. In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.

30 review for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Marchpane

    A book that achieves exactly what it sets out to, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is essentially a writing class in book form. Your instructor is George Saunders, and while his personality shines through, please note that this book could not be further from the experience of reading Saunders’ fiction. For a start, a good chunk of this book is not by Saunders at all, but a bunch of dead Russians. Seven short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol to be precise and no, you can’t skip the home A book that achieves exactly what it sets out to, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is essentially a writing class in book form. Your instructor is George Saunders, and while his personality shines through, please note that this book could not be further from the experience of reading Saunders’ fiction. For a start, a good chunk of this book is not by Saunders at all, but a bunch of dead Russians. Seven short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol to be precise and no, you can’t skip the homework. I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t always enjoy the homework, but Saunders’ breakdown and analysis of the stories more than made up for that. And while this is specifically a class about the short story form, and specifically about these Russian authors, the insights provided here apply to any kind of fiction. Forgoing lofty academic concepts, Saunders focuses on just the important stuff: What makes a story work? What makes it good? What makes a reader want to keep reading? What makes the reading experience satisfying (and what doesn’t)? It’s both a practical approach for aspiring writers, and a fascinating exercise for readers who like to think about what they read (hello Goodreads friends!). Take George’s class and come out of it cleverer than you were before.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cheri

    If you’ve never had the pleasure of taking a course in creative writing from George Saunders, this is your chance to take advantage of what he has to share without spending a semester in Syracuse, New York. This time of year, especially, it makes sense to opt out of the chillier weather and sit in on some of the lessons, virtually, as Saunders’ shares with his Syracuse students, in a master class on the Russian short story. He includes two stories by Tolstoy: Master and Man and Alyosha the Pot, t If you’ve never had the pleasure of taking a course in creative writing from George Saunders, this is your chance to take advantage of what he has to share without spending a semester in Syracuse, New York. This time of year, especially, it makes sense to opt out of the chillier weather and sit in on some of the lessons, virtually, as Saunders’ shares with his Syracuse students, in a master class on the Russian short story. He includes two stories by Tolstoy: Master and Man and Alyosha the Pot, three stories by Anton Chekhov: In the Cart, The Darling and Gooseberries, one by Ivan Turgenev: The Singers and one by Nikolai Gogol: The Nose. Each story includes Saunders thoughts, musings on these stories, which are, for the most part, quiet, domestic, and apolitical...resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture... The resistance in the stories is quiet...and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind. Following each story, are his Afterthoughts. His enthusiasm sharing this is palpable, and more than a bit contagious. Those unfamiliar with these authors and or Russian literature needn’t feel overwhelmed, Saunders breaks it all down, sharing his thoughts and showing what makes a story worth reading with undisguised joy. I enjoyed reading the stories themselves, but even more than that, I enjoyed reading Saunders break it all down and share his thoughts on what makes each story work, and how variations from the story would alter it. His love of teaching really made this an absolute joy to read. Published: 12 Jan 2021 Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House Publishing Group - Random House

  3. 4 out of 5

    Katia N

    Reading this book I was acutely aware that I was not the main audience for it. It is written as a result of the course Saunders is teaching for many years to the aspiring young writers as a part of MFA program. I am just a reader. And, if I would want to write a story (unlikely), I would definitely stay away from any formal advice on the matter. Saunders, and presumably the majority of his students do not speak Russian. So they read these stories in translation. I am a native Russian speaker so Reading this book I was acutely aware that I was not the main audience for it. It is written as a result of the course Saunders is teaching for many years to the aspiring young writers as a part of MFA program. I am just a reader. And, if I would want to write a story (unlikely), I would definitely stay away from any formal advice on the matter. Saunders, and presumably the majority of his students do not speak Russian. So they read these stories in translation. I am a native Russian speaker so I can read the original. But I like Saunders’s previous work. And when the one of my wonderful friends here (Hi, Vesna!:-) has nudged me towards reading this book with her, I did not hesitate. The book has amused me. At the end, it was a very unusual, but fruitful reading experience, though I disagreed with quite a few interpretations of the individual stories. And I ended up writing the longest review ever (sorry for that)! It made me think again about many issues such as the process of translation, the value of professional creative writing programs (MFA) and what is that thing that makes a story special. The book consists of 3 main parts. Saunders would start with the story. It would be followed by the essay of its closed reading. In the essay, Saunders would underscore the angles of the story which would show some technique or observation useful for an inspiring writer. Then, Saunders would comment in a separate short chapters -“afterthoughts” about his own process of writing. The comments would be inspired by the story in one way or another. I’ve enjoyed the most when Saunders was talking about himself. Here, the book was becoming alive. His sincere desire to show how he does his craft was evident. Also his thoughts about human nature, ageing, the meaning of life were interesting and fresh. I struggled more with his analysis, and respectively with his attempt to teach how to write creative fiction based upon those stories. But I admired his passion and love for Russian literature throughout. The review did not fit into the box. So I've split it in two parts. The first part is the comments on some individual stories. And the second part is my reflections on professionalisation of writing through MFA degrees. This part is in the first comment's box. Individual stories Saunders has picked 7 individual stories for his book. He looks at 3 stories by Chekhov, 2 by Tolstoy; Gogol and Turgenev have a story each. I’ve read only 3 of the stories before. It was amusing to see the reactions of a writer from a very different linguistic tradition. Especially, he could only read these stories in translation. Sometimes, it has affected his interpretations. In the case of “The Darling”, the English version got him quite derailed from the original in my opinion. However, it was a fascinating and enjoyable experience to accompany him on his reading journey compare my notes with his. Singers by Turgenev This story is a part of ‘Sketches of a hunter”. It is sketchy indeed and very descriptive. Turgenev spends the bigger part of it painting with words his numerous characters for them only to meet once in a village pub to enjoy a signing competition. I thought the story was dull unless you are interested in the anthropology and the ways of the entertainment between the Russian lower classes circa mid 19th century. But Saunders used it rather successfully to show that a writer cannot totally define his style. And even if Turgenev would want to write like someone else, he would very likely come back to write like Turgenev: ie put a lot of descriptions even if he does not need them for his plot. And if he, Saunders, once wanted to write like Hemingway, it did not work until one day he tried to write like Saunders. And it was liberating. That was the lesson. But in terms of Turgenev, there are much better stories to read and enjoy. In his short stories, he is brilliant in creating complex portraits of romantic love. Asya and Faust are good, for example, if someone wants to taste how deep Turgenev could go beyond the sketches. Tolstoy I do not have much to say about the Tolstoy’s stories. I thought Saunders analysis was quite profound. This is his thought about the first one: “Master and Man,” we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and decisions we have made, or might have to make someday, in our actual lives.” But the stories he has chosen did not moved me deeply enough to make a wider comment. It is a well known fact that Tolstoy idealised peasants. In the last story, “Alesha the Pot”, he talks about a young lad who subdued his personality to the desires of his superiors. Saunders grapples with this character and tries to find the complexity and double meanings. Also it is the story when Saunders brings some Russian speakers to help him with translation. Well, in terms of the complexity, the only complex thing in that character is his natural simplicity. He is as simple as any part of nature. And he is closer to the natural world than to any modern Western person. The Darling by Chekhov (view spoiler)[This is a relatively famous story. Even Tolstoy has devoted an essay to it in his days. The main heroine is a woman called Olga (or more softer - Olenka). The story is about her ability of fully merging herself with her love interest. She can only imagine her existence while she is a part of the whole with someone else. And, when she loses this person she feels totally empty, unable to find any sense in her life. She sees herself as a mirror for her love, the organic extension of the person she loves. It is as if her soul imbeds the soul of her partner. In Russian original she is called “Dushechka” which could be literally translated as a “little soul.” And there is not a notch of any egoistic motive in her. I think we all intuitively sense what she feels. Anyone who has ever loved knows how the part of one’s identity inevitably surrenders. It might be a natural process, it might be a series of compromises or a scandal. But the bottom line when we are not alone, we share our essence with someone else. We become a bit alike. Often in a relationship, one person sacrifices more than another. But it is not necessary even an acknowledged sacrifice. It just happens. Olenka is an extreme of this process. She talks only about the topics valued by her love interest. She does it in a way how he would talk about it. She thinks like him and she cannot do otherwise. It is a little tragedy for her. But Chekhov being Chekhov introduces some comic undertones. After the premature end of two marriages and one romantic liaison, Olenka goes through a crisis and cannot see her future. But then the fate brings a school boy under her wing, the son of her ex-lover. And Olenka uses all the power of her devotion on this boy. The end is a bit open to interpretation. Did she found the power of motherly love? Is it temporary? She was always slightly over the top. Can the boy give her respite from feeling empty for a long time? This is the story. Now, I think this is an example when the nuance in translation (or the lack of it) has played its role in Saunders’s interpretation of the story. First, the title “Darling” is not ideal. Even ‘The Soulmate” would be better by playing on the Russian relationship between ‘Dushechka” (the original title) and dusha (the soul). But that is just the beginning. The cornerstone is the relationship between Olenka and the boy. Boy is 11 year old. She wakes him for school, makes sure he does his work, worries about him like a real mum. The boy being boy is a bit sloppy and stroppy. He does not like her seeing him off to school and shows it. That might create an impression that he feels overwhelmed by her love and attention. But in Russian it is very slight undertone. He behaves like any real son would behave in this age. She behaves like many good mothers would; she puts him to bed, she checks on him sleeping. The last sentence of the story she overhears him saying in his sleep in English version: ‘I’ll give it to you! Scram! No fighting!’ On the basis of this ending and one more phrase before that, Saunders seems to be reevaluating the whole story. He judges the phrase in a Freudian way that it was addressed by the boy to Olenka. He is not alone in this either. He quotes Eudora Welty who says: “The last words of the story are the child’s and a protest”. Respectively, Saunders raises the point of indignation calling Olenka “oppressive” and “vampirically feeding upon whomever she designated as her beloved”. He goes on and concludes: “By the end of the story, we feel that her tendency to become that which she loves is innate, a fixed trait of her character that has manifested, naturally, on a series of love objects.” Earlier, but I think after forming his judgement about the ending he goes on mocking her for trying to identify the cat as her love interest. But the cat in the story is actually a female, which is not obvious in English. And such an identification seems to be far fetched and simply fantastical. Olenka does not fall in love with cats. When I’ve read all of this, I thought something very wrong. Based upon my Russian reading, Olenka came across as the kind, slightly unfortunate and absolutely selfless person. I went back and check the ending. In Russian the boy says: Я тебе! Пошел вон! Не дерись! As well - 3 sentences. Literally it translates: Я тебе! - I - to you! (In a sense I would get you or I would hit you). Пошел вон! - Get lost addressed to a male. The verb ending in Russian is very clear. It is get lost, man. Not get lost, woman. It cannot be unless the boy is not Russian and speak in some weird dialect! Не дерись! - It is an imperative verb form. One can translate it: “Do not fight!” But it would be better: “Do not squabble” or “Do not bicker” in a sense like the boys do in a school yard. It is crystal clear to me that the boy is having a school yard fight in his dream. It is nothing whatsoever to do with poor Olenka. It is really a pity that one sentence so much derailed the story for the English audience. It is so even if it has made the story more interesting for the interpretation on vampiristic and egoistic transformation of love. But those things are not there I am afraid. (hide spoiler)] Nose In my opinion, Gogol stands out with his unique ability to create distinctive voices in his prose and in his anticipation of the 20s century absurdism. “Nose” is the story for example about the disappearance of a nose from the face of a low level St Petersburg’s official. One can find traces of Gogol in Kafka or Okutagawa. Saunders analysis is quite entertaining. He talks a lot about how Gogol creates a distinctive narrative voice for the story. But I was surprised he calls the genre of Gogol stories a “skaz”. Skaz in a traditional Russian meaning is a story based upon a rural legend or a fairy tale which is often being retold orally. It is soft of an epic tale. Leskov, the another Russian writer of the 19th century is famous for using the element of skaz in his short stories. One could say Gogol used some element of this in his “Mirgorod” stories. But here, in St Petersburg stories, it is hardly a skaz in the definition known to me. Gogol indeed uses unreliable narrator and he is excellent in it. Maybe the term “skaz” was redefined somehow in the Western Canon. I do not know. But I certainly would classify Gogol as early absurdist rather than a “skaz” writer. Gooseberries This is the one of my favourite Chekov’s stories. So I am quite passionate about it. In its core is a monologue of Ivan, the one of the characters on the possibility of happiness. Among other things Ivan is saying: ‘It is obvious the happy person feels this way only because the unhappy ones carry their burden in silence, and without this silence the happiness would be impossible.”. He continues that it should be someone with a little hammer standing behind and knocking to remind the happy people about this fact. He also appeals to his friends to do good and acknowledges that he is not able of doing it properly which keeps him awake at night. At the same time, Ivan gives the title to the Saunders’s book. He swims in a river under rain and he truly enjoys the moment. He is totally radiant and amazingly full of life. It seems to me that Saunders thinks that Ivan is a bit of a hypocrite on the basis that he enjoys his swim and is content while preaching the impossibility of happiness. Saunders also picks up the detail of a stinking pipe left by Ivan that disturbs the sleep of his friend. On this basis, he think Ivan is somewhat “narcissistic”. 
 I am simplifying a bit his argument, but this interpretation made me smile. No Russian I know would assign the stink from the pipe to any egoistic impulses of Ivan. In fact, no Russian would find this detail so significant in terms of Ivan/s character. ‘Swimming in the pond”, is more complicated though. It is not about happiness for Ivan and it is definitely not about being content in spite of believing that it is no-one should be happy. No. It is about feeling alive. As simple as that. It is about knowing that life is full of tragedy, but feeling that a person cannot do much but live in full swing. “There is no strengths to continue living, but in any case one needs to live and one really wants to live!” - says Ivan later. He is a contradictory character. But he is not a hypocrite. He does not allow himself being happy in spite of what he says. He just lives. That is why he is in the pond under rain.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to attend a Saunders masterclass on"Gooseberries" - he was an unforgettably good lecturer, and conjured a warmth in the room that I recall happily, often. I've seen him talk a couple of times since, and both times radically amazed me, though slightly less so than the "Gooseberries" lecture. There is something about those sparking experiences, perhaps, that led to me feeling a slight disconnect from this charming, smart writerly analysis of stories by To I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to attend a Saunders masterclass on"Gooseberries" - he was an unforgettably good lecturer, and conjured a warmth in the room that I recall happily, often. I've seen him talk a couple of times since, and both times radically amazed me, though slightly less so than the "Gooseberries" lecture. There is something about those sparking experiences, perhaps, that led to me feeling a slight disconnect from this charming, smart writerly analysis of stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev, which are provided, and which make for wonderful reading. The Saunders analytic style, so quippy and likable, somehow works perfectly out loud, and slightly less so on the page - but here comes a second confession: I think people who have taken an MFA, or a college writing class, may find less here, just because many of the reveals will be familiar to them. As a peek behind the veil, it could very well be fascinating; for a dweller behind the veil, the revelations are in the stories themselves.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Spencer Orey

    This was exactly the book about how to write and think about short stories that I'd been looking for, like the MFA class I've always wished I could take. There's a mix of classic Russian stories, commentary that helped me think about what about the stories is working and how, and larger thoughts on writing fiction that always felt generous and helpful without getting pushy. That's a tough balance, and this book nailed it. I listened to the audiobook and was pleasantly surprised. The author reads h This was exactly the book about how to write and think about short stories that I'd been looking for, like the MFA class I've always wished I could take. There's a mix of classic Russian stories, commentary that helped me think about what about the stories is working and how, and larger thoughts on writing fiction that always felt generous and helpful without getting pushy. That's a tough balance, and this book nailed it. I listened to the audiobook and was pleasantly surprised. The author reads his essays with an easy, listenable voice, like being in a good class. For me, there was something truly special about hearing smart inspirational advice in the writer's own voice. As for the stories, famous actors read those and do a great job. It's a great combination. This is one of the very few writing books that I've finished feeling like I learned a lot but also inspired to write on my own terms. I'll be listening again and again.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of: (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art (where we were before we read it and where we were after) and (2) getting better at articulating that response. What I stress to my students is how empowering this process is. The world is full of people with agendas, trying to A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of: (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art (where we were before we read it and where we were after) and (2) getting better at articulating that response. What I stress to my students is how empowering this process is. The world is full of people with agendas, trying to persuade us to act on their behalf (spend on their behalf, fight and die on their behalf, oppress others on their behalf). But inside us is what Hemingway called a “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” How do we know something is shit? We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. And that part of the mind is the one reading and writing refine into sharpness. Apparently, in addition to writing some of my favourite long and short fiction, George Saunders is an Assistant Professor in Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program, and one of the classes he teaches to the MFA students is on the Russian short story. Reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is like sitting in on this class as Saunders dissects seven of his favourite (or, at any rate, illustrative of some point) 19th century stories from Russian authors (three from Chekhov, two from Tolstoy, one each from Gogol and Turgenev), and not only does he explain the methods behind the writing of such precisely-constructed stories, but Saunders also illustrates how to read and recognise the craft in them. The tone is knowledgeable but casual — Saunders invites his students and readers to disagree with him (to employ their own “shit detectors” and trust their own tastes) — and I ended this book feeling both educated and entertained; it receives my highest recommendation. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.) We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs — or doesn’t — in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though beyond language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way. If I had one complaint it would be about the formatting of the analysis of the first story, Anton Chekhov’s In the Cart: For this story only (and Saunders does warn that he’ll be treating the first story uniquely, but I didn’t pick up on his meaning at the time), Saunders shares the story one or two pages at a time and then asks questions about what, as readers or writers, we assume will happen next or how we feel about the latest development or what we think Chekhov intends for us to learn. This process would certainly help writing students to understand the mechanics of the story and its construction, but it didn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience and I was happy to discover that each of the ensuing stories is included in full before Saunders begins to analyse them (this seems a peevish complaint but I’m including it merely as a warning for anyone else who may be turned off at that point; do carry on.) But to the good: Saunders has studied and taught these stories for decades, in various translations, and knows them intimately. His analyses include historical and biographical information that bring Russia and these authors to life, and by including details about his own life and writing process, Saunders invites us into the mysteries through which art is created — showing how it's done and why it matters. Again, while specific information (on how to write a sentence, for instance, and how to then revise it into a better sentence) seems essential learning for his writing students, Saunders makes it also feel like essential information for those of us who simply want to read and appreciate well-written fiction. And as someone who hasn’t read a lot of Russian short fiction — and also as someone who doesn’t feel like I always understood what I did read — this book entertainingly filled voids in my education of which I was only vaguely aware. I closed this book feeling enriched; enlarged. To get to a few specifics, Saunders discusses the Russian trope of “the Holy Fool” and debates whether Leo Tolstoy was employing it in Alyosha the Pot (or whether, as a devout Christian, Tolstoy was unironically writing about a character who perfectly displays Christian virtues; the genius of the story being in that unconscious debate in the reader’s mind). Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose was one of the stories included here that I had read before — without really understanding — and I appreciated Saunders’ discussion of the Russian literary technique of skaz that Gogol was employing: Every soul is vast and wants to express itself fully. If it’s denied an adequate instrument (and we’re all denied that, at birth, some more than others), out`comes...poetry, ie., truth forced out through a restricted opening. That’s all poetry is, really: something odd, coming out. Normal speech, overflowed. A failed attempt to do justice to the world. The poet proves that language is inadequate by throwing herself at the fence of language and being bound by it. Poetry is the resultant bulging of the fence. Gogol’s contribution was to perform this throwing of himself against the fence in the part of town where the little men live, the sputtering, inarticulate men whose language can’t rise to the occasions but who still feel everything the big men (articulate, educated, at ease) feel. Saunders explains the ambivalent appeal of Ivan Turgenev’s journalistic approach to short fiction (Henry James was a fan; Nabakov, not so much), and concludes of The Singers: I’m moved by this clumsy work of art that seems to want to make the case that art may be clumsy if only it moves us. I’ve sometimes wondered if this effect was intentional: a sort of apologia from Turgenev for his own lack of craft. If we are moved, Turgenev has, via this story that claims that emotional power is the highest aim of art and can be obtained even in the face of clumsy craft, demonstrated that very thing. Which would be, you know — pretty great craft. I appreciated that Saunders mentioned that Master and Man was Tolstoy’s effort, twenty years later, to make something more artful out of his experience of getting lost in a storm than his initial effort in The Snowstorm (which I then needed to find and read; also adding Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain — to learn how a story’s action can be urgently propelled a paragraph at a time — and revisiting Saunders’ own Victory Lap — to experience how a story’s action can go in directions that surprise even its author; I do love a book that leads me to do further reading off the page.) There are many versions of you, in you. To which one am I speaking, when I write? The best one. The one most like my best one. Those two best versions of us, in a moment of reading, exit our usual selves and, at a location created by mutual respect, become one. That’s a pretty hopeful model of human interaction: two people, mutually respectful, leaning in, one speaking so as to compel, the other listening, willing to be charmed. That, a person can work with. I highlighted far more passages in this book than I could reasonably share — there are so many directions this review could have taken — but this last one hit me personally: My very favourite books have always compelled me to say that they “charmed” me and I have to pay respect to an author who understands that, as a reader, I approach every book with this willingness to be charmed; that my least favourite reads are those that — through sloppy, illogical, lazy writing — make me feel disrespected instead. I love that Saunders’ approach to teaching is to highlight this imperative; that’s where art gets made. Trying to stay perfectly honest, let’s go ahead and ask, diagnostically: What is it, exactly, that fiction does? Well, that’s the question we’ve been asking all along, as we’ve been watching our minds read these Russian stories. We’ve been comparing the pre-reading state of our minds to the post-reading state. And that’s what fiction does: it causes an incremental change in the state of a mind. That’s it. But, you know — it really does it. The change is finite but real. And that’s not nothing. It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing. So, that’s what it’s all about: Through the analysis of seven short stories from 19th century Russian authors (also included are two more from Chekhov: The Darling and Gooseberries), Saunders explains how to write, how to read, and why both matter — and that’s not nothing. I loved every bit of this.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    [4+] More Professor Saunders, more! Saunders heightened my appreciation and understanding of each of the 7 stories (by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol) contained within this volume. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is geared towards writers but is perfect for readers who wish to look deeper. Saunders' commentary is NOT "literary criticism" but is everything literary criticism should be - readable, witty, useful and very enjoyable. How wonderful it would be to have a selection of other classic s [4+] More Professor Saunders, more! Saunders heightened my appreciation and understanding of each of the 7 stories (by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol) contained within this volume. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is geared towards writers but is perfect for readers who wish to look deeper. Saunders' commentary is NOT "literary criticism" but is everything literary criticism should be - readable, witty, useful and very enjoyable. How wonderful it would be to have a selection of other classic stories with Saunders' conversational analysis. I am craving more... (I listened to the audiobook, very well narrated, but also referred to the print copy)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Chris Via

    Video review: https://youtu.be/eC7HNhAxsJY Video review: https://youtu.be/eC7HNhAxsJY

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ken

    In teaching circles, the word "lecture" has a bad name. Many would call it well-deserved -- often those who sat in huge lecture halls at college listening to professors drone on (vs. talk). It could happen in more intimate settings, too, as in a small class of 20 boxed off in a room looking remarkably like high school classrooms (only with a few tendrils of ivy curling in from the bricks outside the window). Reading "Professor" Saunders' thoughts on seven Russian short stories, and what they mean In teaching circles, the word "lecture" has a bad name. Many would call it well-deserved -- often those who sat in huge lecture halls at college listening to professors drone on (vs. talk). It could happen in more intimate settings, too, as in a small class of 20 boxed off in a room looking remarkably like high school classrooms (only with a few tendrils of ivy curling in from the bricks outside the window). Reading "Professor" Saunders' thoughts on seven Russian short stories, and what they mean to writers leaning into that trying genre today, reminds me of the importance of qualifying things. Yes, lecturing is, overall, bad educational practice, but sometimes that bromide doesn't hold water. What if, for instance, the lecturer is incredibly knowledgeable? What if, to complement that, he is engaging and personable, too? And while we have our Literary Fairy Godmother around (I see her feeling taxed and eyeing the exits), what if he is humorous (of all things) at times as well? I'm sorry to disagree with common knowledge regarding educators who talk on and on, but in this case I'll happily listen to a lecturer every time. Or, to be more specific, I'll read a Syracuse writing course's lecturer's book cover to cover. What review would be good without a few caveats up front? All seven stories Saunders uses are from the Golden Age of Russian Literature in the 19th century. There are three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. If you don't care for the Russkies or, specifically, those Chekhovian wonders where "nothing" seems to happen (but does so eloquently), you might not like this book. Also, if you have no interest in writing, you might not think it's a big deal. But that caveat is questionable, really, because there is such a thin line between the interests of a writer and the interests of a reader. Thus, Saunders' analysis of "how it's built" or "how the story works" could as easily fascinate a student of reading as a student of writing. So, yes. Guilty as charged. The book hits my sweet spots as a fan of Russian literature, as a fan of writing, and as a fan of good senses of humor. Others might get bogged down in certain stories or be tempted to skip over them (and if so, why bother?). Or maybe they don't care about literary criticism (it's a free country, they say). Or maybe they're just not fans of George Saunders ever since he dragged poor Lincoln into the damn Bardo (which we had to look up to discover "in some schools of Buddhism, bardo, antarābhava, or chūu is an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth.") That's Wikipedia for Purgatory in the Eastern Hemisphere. Be this as it may, I'm giving my personal response here: Fun to read. Fun to mark up. Fun to read something that encourages a revisiting of the Russkies (or maybe a visiting for the first time of Saunders' short story collections). As is true with lecturing, long books like this can be off-putting at first, but cordial given time and patience. My advice? If you're going to read it, you owe this book both. Nota Bene: Saunders considers Chekhov's best short stories to be the three in this book ("In the Cart," "The Darling," and "Gooseberries") as well as "The Lady with the Pet Dog," "In the Ravine," "Enemies," "About Love," and "The Bishop."

  10. 4 out of 5

    Connie G

    Writer George Saunders has been teaching creative writing for years, including a course about 19th Century Russian short story writers. Reading this book feels like attending a mini college class with the professor you wish you had as a teacher. Saunders is enthusiastic, warm, and humorous with a conversational tone. The book consists of the texts of seven short stories, discussions of techniques used by the Russian writers, and an afterthought about how it relates to Saunders' own writing. The s Writer George Saunders has been teaching creative writing for years, including a course about 19th Century Russian short story writers. Reading this book feels like attending a mini college class with the professor you wish you had as a teacher. Saunders is enthusiastic, warm, and humorous with a conversational tone. The book consists of the texts of seven short stories, discussions of techniques used by the Russian writers, and an afterthought about how it relates to Saunders' own writing. The seven stories are "In the Cart," "The Darling," and "Gooseberries" by Anton Chekhov; "Master and Man" and "Alyosha the Pot" by Leo Tolstoy; "The Singers" by Ivan Turgenev; and "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol. Saunders also discusses issues with translation from Russian to English. He shows how ambiguous endings keep us wondering, and sometimes have different meanings depending on the translator. Gogol used lots of plays on words in his writing, but we miss some of his humor because it doesn't come through when the words are translated. My favorite story was Tolstoy's "Master and Man" where characters make repetitive bad choices, and that makes the story work. In several stories Saunders shows how a writer keeps escalating the action to keep the reader's interest. "A Swim in the Pond in the Rain" can be enjoyed by both writers and readers to make their interactions with short stories more meaningful.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Vesna

    For over 20 years, Saunders has been teaching in the MFA program at Syracuse University, especially on how to write a short story by learning from the masters or, rather, from what we believe went into their craftsmanship. In this book, Saunders samples 7 out of ca. 40 stories from the Russian masters he and his students discuss throughout the semester, distilling the most important elements in his approach to short story writing. If anyone is interested in what other stories he includes in his For over 20 years, Saunders has been teaching in the MFA program at Syracuse University, especially on how to write a short story by learning from the masters or, rather, from what we believe went into their craftsmanship. In this book, Saunders samples 7 out of ca. 40 stories from the Russian masters he and his students discuss throughout the semester, distilling the most important elements in his approach to short story writing. If anyone is interested in what other stories he includes in his seminar, here is his syllabus: https://longreads.com/george-saunders/syllabus/ What guided him to select these 7 stories is that they are “eminently teachable.” “The stories I’ve chosen aren’t meant to represent a diverse cast of Russian writers (just Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol) or even necessarily the best stories by these writers.” So the first heads-up to future readers is not to expect this to be a collection of “best” or “favorite” Russian classic stories, accompanied by a “how-to-read/interpret” commentary. All the same, it’s not an MFA textbook (though highly useful for those who would like to attend or teach in MFA programs), because it’s also intended for a general reader and Saunders skillfully makes his teaching adaptable into the discussion about many aspects in reading this literary form. I must say that some of the “writing technique processes” he illustrates in these stories were revelatory for me as a reader and made the story more interesting than what I felt about it in my initial reaction (Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” would be prime examples). At other times, the commentary sometimes felt a bit tedious in technical details, reminding us that it’s foremost a workshop primer on the process of writing. But Saunders’ whimsical and conversational style, compassionate personality, and brilliant mind shone through those parts as well, making them lively even for those who do not aspire to write in this form. One of the common traits of all the selected stories is their ambiguity in presenting either a character or plot. It allowed for a great range of interpretations and, while mine were not always the same as those by Saunders, I found his approach and angles fascinating. Sometimes I had an entirely different take on the story because I brought in my own experience and inclinations. I, for example, very much disagreed that Turgenev’s “The Singers” was about the contrast between the manipulative pragmatism of technical proficiency and raw emotional expressions. Turgenev spent a good part of his life in the household of Pauline Viardot, one of the greatest opera singers at the time, and her husband. His description of the singing contest in a provincial inn was brilliant and quite learned in contrasting the Kunst vs. Stimme approach to singing, emotional/character expressiveness (art) vs. beautiful sound (voice), a well-known debate to this day among opera lovers. What I appreciated is how Turgenev showed that the passion for vocal art is universal and that these two schools of thought about vocalism can be instinctively felt by anyone, including the impoverished peasants in the remote and isolated lands. And my take on the two boys ending the story is consequently radically different from Saunders' view. Still, there is sufficient ambivalence in Turgenev’s construction of the story to be open to his approach as perfectly valid too. There is one exception, though, when the validity of interpretation can be questioned because it’s based on the utterly inadequate translation of one of the crucial sentences in the story. This is what happened with Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Had it not been for a GR friend Katia, who alerted us that the last line missed on an important expression that is quite clear in Russian but misleading and hinting the opposite meaning in translation, I would have interpreted the main character in the same way as Saunders did. Katia’s review is an indispensable companion to this book for correcting some of the most critical translation blunders and also for those interested in a skeptical view on MFA programs while still appreciating Saunders’ efforts. I looked at several other translations, from Garnett to the leading translators in the 1960s such as Magarshack and Dunnigan, and the much-hyped translating couple today, Pevear & Volokhonsky, and all of them failed to do it right (!). I am not sure if all elements in Saunders’ interpretation would have to be radically revised, but his understanding of Olenka’s love as ultimately suffocating for others would stand on very thin grounds. This is not Saunders’ fault by any means but rather indicates how translations can sometimes grossly diverge from the original, fundamentally changing its meaning. It is to Saunders’ credit and his innate intelligence that, despite all, he sensed that something would not be quite right in abandoning the warm feelings about Olenka (“the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment.”) He acknowledges that translations often lose on the music and nuances. Nonetheless, as he points out, “even in English, shorn of those delights, they have worlds to teach us.” And if that’s the only way we can read foreign literature, short of learning just about every language in which the originals we’d love to read were written, it’s still better than not reading them at all. Some may have caveats about MFA programs which have generated much controversies and debates (both pros and cons), there is certainly a caveat about a few translating blunders, which fortunately were not many except for one critical example, but I have absolutely no caveat about the brilliance of Saunders as a writer, teacher, and human being with an enormous intellect, irresistible humor, and compassionate heart. There is so much here that teaches us about the art of the short story form, the marvel of the Russian literary tradition (and Saunders' unquestionable love for it), as well as about living with a genuinely generous heart and open mind. All of it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    As I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I found I am taking a class on the Russian short story, a class on how to write, a class on close reading; a class on the meaning of life. I am in the hands of a master. George Saunders has been teaching a class at Syracuse University about the Russian short story, and this book, this very unique book, is his class. He shares seven classic Russian short stories by four different Russian authors: In the Cart by Anton Chekhov; The Singers by Ivan Turgenev; T As I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I found I am taking a class on the Russian short story, a class on how to write, a class on close reading; a class on the meaning of life. I am in the hands of a master. George Saunders has been teaching a class at Syracuse University about the Russian short story, and this book, this very unique book, is his class. He shares seven classic Russian short stories by four different Russian authors: In the Cart by Anton Chekhov; The Singers by Ivan Turgenev; The Darling by Anton Chekhov; Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy; The Nose by Nikolai Gogol; Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov; and Alyosha the Pot by Leo Tolstoy. Saunders begins by sharing a page of the first story, In the Cart, and then commenting upon it, sharing a page, commenting, and so on. Does that sound tedious? Yes, it sounds like it would be tedious, banal, tiresome, irksome, but, no, it's the complete opposite of that. Instead, you cannot wait to read on and see what else Saunders has to say. I come away from this book delighted with having had this time spent with close reading of this brilliant text, shared with a magnificent mind that is Saunders. I wish Saunders would move in next door and join our local book club and teach seniors at our local junior college. Would you do that, Mr. Saunders? Please? I marked lots of passages of text that I want to save and reflect upon. Here a few of these: "The basic drill I'm proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you've just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it's valid." Wow. Imagine that. What confidence he has in us as readers. How delightfully refreshing. "Over the last ten years I've had a chance to give readings and talks all over the world and meet thousands of dedicated readers. Their passion for literature (evident in their questions from the floor, our talks at the signing table, the conversations I've had with book clubs) has convinced me that there's a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world---a web of people who've put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting." I had to include that quote. A lovely little pat on all of our reader backs. Thank you, George Saunders. 'Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring a series of painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing for a compliment: "But what do you like about the story?" I whined. There was a long pause at the other end. And Bill said this: "Well, I read a line. And I like it...enough to read the next."' Brilliant, isn't it? A wonderful way to evaluate a text. And how about this, for writers: 'We're always asking, of a work we're reading (even if it's one of our own): "Is it a story yet?" That's the moment we're seeking as we write. We're revising and revising until we write the text up, so to speak, and it produces that "now it's a story" feeling.' Another for writers: 'If you gather ten writers in a room, ranging from the great to the bad, and ask them to put together a list of the prime virtues of fiction, you won't get much disagreement. It turns out, there is such a list of prime virtues, one we've been casually compiling as we've worked our way through these Russian stories: Be specific and efficient. Use a lot of details. Always be escalating. Show, don't tell. And so on....But anyone can google "how to hit a curveball" and be informed that a hitter must "identify the spin" and "hit the bad ones but let the good ones go by" and so on, and we can all be happing about that on our way to the batting cage, but once we get there, we'll find that, nevertheless, some of us can hit a curveball and some of us can't.' A little more, for writers: "The difference between a great writer and a good one (or a good one and a bad one) is in the quality of the instantaneous decisions she makes as she works. A line pops into her head. She deletes a phrase. She cuts this section....We can reduce all of writing to this: we read a line, have a reaction to it, trust (accept) that reaction, and do something in response, instantaneously, by intuition. That's it. Over and over." And for those of us who do little more than share our thoughts about the writing of others: '"There is something essential ridiculous about critics, anyway," said Randal Jarrell, a pretty good critic himself. "What is good is good without our saying so, and beneath all our majesty we know this."' (And the next is a few parts that I took away that completely meshes with my views of the meaning of life. You can skip these if you wish. Saunders isn't sharing these for any didactic reasons. I am, however.) '"I have decided to stick with love," Martin Luther King, Jr. said. "Hate is too great a burden to bear."' '...Tolstoy wrote, "If once we admit---be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case---that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds...Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances...If you feel no love, sit still. Occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men...Only let yourself deal with a man without love...and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself."' (End of lecture) Writing advice: '"The secret of boring people," Chekhov said, "lies in telling them everything."' Caution in attributing too much credit to literature: "These stories we've just read were written during an incredible seventy-year artistic renaissance in Russia...that was followed by one of the bloodiest, most irrational periods in human history....So, the artistic bounty of this period wasn't enough to avert that disaster....whatever fiction does to or for us, it's not simple." "And let's be even more honest: those of us who read and write do it because we love it and because doing it makes us feel more alive and we would likely keep doing it even if it could be demonstrated that its overall net effect was zero, and I, for one, have a feeling that I would keep doing it even if it could be demonstrated that its overall net effect was negative." Well. There's that. Takes me aback. But true, nevertheless. George Saunders offers a list of all the ways we are, as we acknowledge, changed at least in the short run: "I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind...I find myself liking the world more....I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won't be...." He has many more ways listed, and they are all lovely, what he calls 'an enviable state to be in, if only for a few minutes."

  13. 4 out of 5

    W.D. Clarke

    I could "listen" to George Saunders "lecture" me about literature all day. He's a hero of mine, and so a book such as this one is tailor-made for a reader like me. And, honestly, I often found his analyses of these classic Russian stories more interesting than some of the stories themselves. Or, rather, the incredible closeness of his attention to them makes them more interesting than my all-too-cursory first-reading ever could—what Saunders showed me is just how lame-arsed a reader I can be. Fo I could "listen" to George Saunders "lecture" me about literature all day. He's a hero of mine, and so a book such as this one is tailor-made for a reader like me. And, honestly, I often found his analyses of these classic Russian stories more interesting than some of the stories themselves. Or, rather, the incredible closeness of his attention to them makes them more interesting than my all-too-cursory first-reading ever could—what Saunders showed me is just how lame-arsed a reader I can be. For he does just the opposite of what many students feel teachers and professors do when they perform an analysis (or a "close reading") of a text: rather than "kill it", or "kill the enjoyment" of the work, he brings it to life, perhaps makes it even better than the author himself intended. Or so this reader felt, anyway. That said, I do wonder why the seven stories he chose were by Russian, male, 19th century writers (though I do get it that the period was the heyday of the short story form there). I think I would have actually preferred to see how he would have handled seven stories from different time periods, written with different types of readers in mind. Or seven stories from the past few decades (post-postmodernism or whatever). Or seven of his own stories (though he's too humble for that). But, though I eagerly await (or would commission) those other volumes, I nitpick here. I don't know of any other writer who has written a book such as this one, in which we learn to read the stories as if having written them—not so much in the somewhat grandiose (yet banal) sense of "How to Write" (plot, character development, blahblahblah), but in a humbler, yet more inspired (and inspiring) sense of following the writer line by line as he explores a previously-uncreated world in the dark, armed with only the flashlight of his patience and care for how a line of text feels and sounds—with what "creativity" in fiction actually looks like in practice, in other words. Really, though, you should just read KatiaN's review, peeps: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Claire Fuller

    What I loved most about this, is how Saunders' voice came through in the anecdotes, the analysis of the Russian stories, and his writing advice. I've seen and heard him talk a number of times (although not in real life), and his gentle manner and clear style is very evident. Most ideas for how to write a short story - as he says towards the end - were confirmations for me, rather than any startling new insights, but that was okay. What maybe lost it a star was that the weighting of story analysi What I loved most about this, is how Saunders' voice came through in the anecdotes, the analysis of the Russian stories, and his writing advice. I've seen and heard him talk a number of times (although not in real life), and his gentle manner and clear style is very evident. Most ideas for how to write a short story - as he says towards the end - were confirmations for me, rather than any startling new insights, but that was okay. What maybe lost it a star was that the weighting of story analysis v. how to apply that to our own writing was too heavy. There were a couple of stories that I found I just couldn't relate to my own writing at all - I'm looking at The Nose in particular - and so I found the subsequent discussion of these stories less interesting. I'll still read everything Saunders writes in the future though.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lucas

    You probably couldn't ask for a better teacher of writing than George Saunders. He's largely considered the modern master of the short story and his prose is at once gorgeous and experimental. He won the Booker Prize with his first novel in 2017. His collection Tenth of December is astonishingly well-crafted. He's also a teacher at the distinguished Syracuse MFA program. This is definitely a book to look out for. You probably couldn't ask for a better teacher of writing than George Saunders. He's largely considered the modern master of the short story and his prose is at once gorgeous and experimental. He won the Booker Prize with his first novel in 2017. His collection Tenth of December is astonishingly well-crafted. He's also a teacher at the distinguished Syracuse MFA program. This is definitely a book to look out for.

  16. 4 out of 5

    marta

    The author of this novel presents us with these three facts about him in the beginning: ‣grew up in Chicago ‣becomes an engineer ‣loves Russian literature I could place these facts in the "about me" section of my GR profile and there would be no lie. I was internally screaming and fangirling to find a book that was written by someone like me, for me. Isn't that the best feeling in the world? A book that speaks to you as if it had your own voice. 5 million stars / 5 These random tidbits aside, this nov The author of this novel presents us with these three facts about him in the beginning: ‣grew up in Chicago ‣becomes an engineer ‣loves Russian literature I could place these facts in the "about me" section of my GR profile and there would be no lie. I was internally screaming and fangirling to find a book that was written by someone like me, for me. Isn't that the best feeling in the world? A book that speaks to you as if it had your own voice. 5 million stars / 5 These random tidbits aside, this novel is for writers and readers. Trust me when I say you do not have to be a huge fan of Russian literature to enjoy this book. If you have been wondering how to be a better reader, this book is for you. If you are in a writer's block and want different techniques for writing, this book has three exercises to get those creative juices flowing. I thought I was only going to be reading a critique of 7 Russian short stories, but there is so much more depth and personality in this novel. The short stories that the author goes over (and they are included in the novel) are: ‣"In the Cart" by Anton Chekhov ‣"The Singers" by Ivan Turgenev ‣"The Darling" by Anton Chekhov ‣Master and Man ‣The Nose ‣Gooseberries ‣Alyosha the Pot Following each short story there is a discussion in which the author addresses one of the biggest lessons he took away from each short story about how to write. There's also additional afterthoughts sometimes. The feeling this book evokes is familiarity and calm in a classroom about a subject you are passionate about. No longer do you need to be worried or stressed about participating/taking notes/preparing for an exam; all you are doing is listening and enjoying. From the very first page to the last I felt like an eager student, learning for the sake of learning. I want to thank you for allowing me to guide you rather bossily through these stories, for letting me show you how I read them, why I love them. I've tried to be as clear and persuasive as possible, telling you what you should be noticing, pointing out certain technical features, offering my best explanation of why "we" were moved in this place or that, and so on. Thank you, George Saunders. I expected a collection of Russian literature stories with some analysis, but instead I received a re-awakening in how to best interpret what I read from now on. I am so saddened that I have to return my copy to the library because this is a book I can find myself going back to.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    I'm happy I read (listened to this). I felt like I grew as a reader. I only took one English course in University so it was fun to in effect take a master class with George Saunders exploring these Russian short story classics. If you are a serious reader, it is a worthwhile book to pick up. I'm happy I read (listened to this). I felt like I grew as a reader. I only took one English course in University so it was fun to in effect take a master class with George Saunders exploring these Russian short story classics. If you are a serious reader, it is a worthwhile book to pick up.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    This might be my all-time favorite book on craft. It's just so generous and gentle, so easy to get your arms around George Saunders' ideas of what makes good writing. This book will ACTUALLY convince you it's okay to write a sh*tty first draft, and why, and will take away any lingering sense of shame you might have around "bad" writing (which is just writing that hasn't yet been revised to express the fullness and specificity of your writer self! Thank you, George!). My personal writing approach, This might be my all-time favorite book on craft. It's just so generous and gentle, so easy to get your arms around George Saunders' ideas of what makes good writing. This book will ACTUALLY convince you it's okay to write a sh*tty first draft, and why, and will take away any lingering sense of shame you might have around "bad" writing (which is just writing that hasn't yet been revised to express the fullness and specificity of your writer self! Thank you, George!). My personal writing approach, which I've suspected might be a little low-rent, is to say, "You know what would be cool?" and go from there, continually trying to figure out what I, personally, think would be "cool." (I know, I know, I'm an old dork.) Seeing Saunders confirm (in smarter, more illuminating words!) that he basically approaches his work the same way really made me happy. Maybe one day I, too, will stumble into writing Lincoln in the Bardo! (Just kidding.) Reading short stories with George Saunders over my shoulder helping me to appreciate and unpack them is now the only way I want to read short stories? Dammit.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kiran Bhat

    In this collection of essays, Saunders walks the reader through the Russian writers whom he has been most influenced by. Using a colloquial, almost narrative style, Saunders shares a sample of a story, then deconstructs what makes it work. What is on full display is not only Saunders’ love for the classics he has chosen, but his general literary chops. The essays are so acccessibly written that have the readability of a novel, and Saunders voice is so present that it really feels like he is in f In this collection of essays, Saunders walks the reader through the Russian writers whom he has been most influenced by. Using a colloquial, almost narrative style, Saunders shares a sample of a story, then deconstructs what makes it work. What is on full display is not only Saunders’ love for the classics he has chosen, but his general literary chops. The essays are so acccessibly written that have the readability of a novel, and Saunders voice is so present that it really feels like he is in front of you, teaching you the way he would his actual students. A fun and highly recommended read for those who want another angle on a canon that most aspiring writers must master.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    If Goodreads added the ability to add a sixth star to books, this would be among the first I'd upgrade. Who among us hasn't fantasized about applying to get an MFA at Syracuse and study the art of the short story with George Saunders? This book is as close to that as most of us (certainly, me) are going to get. The book is structurally inventive, replicating the feeling of a seminar-style close reading of several Nineteenth Century stories by Russian authors with a focus on technically appreciat If Goodreads added the ability to add a sixth star to books, this would be among the first I'd upgrade. Who among us hasn't fantasized about applying to get an MFA at Syracuse and study the art of the short story with George Saunders? This book is as close to that as most of us (certainly, me) are going to get. The book is structurally inventive, replicating the feeling of a seminar-style close reading of several Nineteenth Century stories by Russian authors with a focus on technically appreciating how they work. Saunders weaves in his characteristically oddball, earnest observations on the craft that generated each of these stories. But the book is more than that, and ends up being a rumination on what fiction can do to our minds and our hearts, and how. An immensely satisfying read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jason Furman

    Maybe the best book about how to read--and understanding how author's write--that I have ever read. This is a short version of a writing course George Saunders have given for two decades that takes students (or in this case the reader) through the mechanics of seven Russian short stories. The first one is the most thrilling as Saunders prints one page at a time of Anton Chekhov's "In the Cart" interspersed with his commentary. The commentary is on how the story works, why Chekhov chooses a certa Maybe the best book about how to read--and understanding how author's write--that I have ever read. This is a short version of a writing course George Saunders have given for two decades that takes students (or in this case the reader) through the mechanics of seven Russian short stories. The first one is the most thrilling as Saunders prints one page at a time of Anton Chekhov's "In the Cart" interspersed with his commentary. The commentary is on how the story works, why Chekhov chooses a certain person, how it gets you to expect something, how it surprises or confirms those expectations, etc. At each point he gets you stop and think about what you've read, why you've read it, and what might be coming next. This type of active reading is then expected of you in the next six stories where his commentary follows. The commentary does not read like literary criticism. Instead he takes you through paragraphs of Tolstoy, shows how they have a high ratio of facts to judgment/analysis, shows how Tolstoy shifts from a character's words to their thoughts which differ from their words to their conversation partner's thoughts and words and does all of that within the space of two pages. I particularly loved his reading of Tolstoy's "Master and Man", Chekhov's "In the Cart" and Gogol's "The Nose." I found his reading of "Alyosha the Pot" to be thought provoking because it went against my own reading of it as valorizing the submission of peasants in this world because they will be rewarded in the next. The only one that fell short for me (as he reports it did for many of his students as well" was Turgenev's "The Singers." One small note: Saunders does not seem to include the best translations of many/most/all of the stories, possibly just reprinting the ones he was able to for some sort of licensing reasons. For some of them I (re-)read them in different translations rather than stick with the ones in the book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    I've taken several literature courses through the year, but never one just centering on the short story. Now I have and though of course there is no feedback I do actually feel like I've taken a class on deconstructing a short story. The first story the author chooses is, In the cart, by Chekhov. This is the only story out if seven he takes us through page by page. His thoughts on reading, and he does teach this class in person, and what and why the author uses the words he does. What do they mea I've taken several literature courses through the year, but never one just centering on the short story. Now I have and though of course there is no feedback I do actually feel like I've taken a class on deconstructing a short story. The first story the author chooses is, In the cart, by Chekhov. This is the only story out if seven he takes us through page by page. His thoughts on reading, and he does teach this class in person, and what and why the author uses the words he does. What do they mean, why is this or that scene included? What makes a short story? So we also learn about what it takes to write a successful short. The other stories are by Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev and another by Chekhov, all able story tellers. I'm looking forward to my next book on short stories. Will be a good test to see if I learned anything. I think I have but we'll see.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lissa

    I like my fiction meaty, long, full of characters that I feel like I know inside and out, with a setting that feels like home which is why the short story format has never really spoken to me. Apparently, I just have never had George Saunders explain in full detail exactly why short stories are so tautly and expertly written. This book includes seven short stories by Russian authors such as Chekhov and Tolstoy and then a lesson taught by a master himself going through the short story and its nua I like my fiction meaty, long, full of characters that I feel like I know inside and out, with a setting that feels like home which is why the short story format has never really spoken to me. Apparently, I just have never had George Saunders explain in full detail exactly why short stories are so tautly and expertly written. This book includes seven short stories by Russian authors such as Chekhov and Tolstoy and then a lesson taught by a master himself going through the short story and its nuances. I broke this up to read one story and its analysis a day which is what I would recommend. Not only did I gain an appreciation of the form, but I also really enjoyed the majority of these stories. I received a digital ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Truman32

    It is inconceivable to me how George Saunders can get away with spilling all his writing secrets. Does McDonald’s give away the recipe for their “special sauce? Does Outback educate their diners on how to make a Bloomin Onion at home? Does Drakkar Noir tell you what combination of smells one needs to smear all over themselves to make themselves irresistible to women everywhere? Of course not, they want to stay in business. I can only imagine the caterwauling trembling wreck of Mr. Saunders’s age It is inconceivable to me how George Saunders can get away with spilling all his writing secrets. Does McDonald’s give away the recipe for their “special sauce? Does Outback educate their diners on how to make a Bloomin Onion at home? Does Drakkar Noir tell you what combination of smells one needs to smear all over themselves to make themselves irresistible to women everywhere? Of course not, they want to stay in business. I can only imagine the caterwauling trembling wreck of Mr. Saunders’s agent as he thinks of all those dollars floating away. Soon everyone will be winning O. Henry Awards and Guggenheim Fellowships. Right now I am cleaning off the mantel above my fireplace to display the slightly ostentatious Booker Prize statue I will soon be winning now I know Ole George’s writing secrets. With his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders pretty much publishes the MFA class on writing that he has taught at Syracuse for over twenty years. In other words, we are going back to college, baby! Now it has been a while since I had last stepped foot on a campus so I felt I needed to prepare for this book. I started by drinking a bucket of watery domestic beer in a dank dark room, I followed this up by eating an entire pizza by myself at 3 in the morning. I tried to move into a nearby dorm but they were oddly unreceptive to this and I had to leave before the police arrived. And alas, the Summer I was planning traveling abroad through Europe seems to be falling through as every time I mention it to my dear wife steam shoots out of both her ears and her face turns an alarming shade of red. So I decided to just drink another bucket of watery domestic beer and crack open this book. It was going to be an all-nighter! Using short story examples from his dear Friends: Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol (a rowdy group if I have ever seen one –no doubt pledges of the Delta Tau Chi House) Saunders dissects what works in these stories and how this applies to writers who want to create similar art themselves, or readers interested in discovering what makes a successful short story so great. To be honest, I had never read any of these Russian authors before. I’ll admit it. I was intimidated, not unlike that time Cindy Crawford hit on me at my neighborhood bar. Once I extracted my earlobe from her teeth I ran away and I hid in the coat check room underneath an immense puffer jacket until she left. But these stories were surprisingly accessible. They were nowhere near as scary as I thought they would be (nor as scary as Miss Crawford’s probing tongue). Actually they were quit enjoyable. Saunders’s insights into what makes them work and why they are considered great pieces of art were also interesting—and often very funny. Reading a short story can be like solving a puzzle.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Scott Stelter

    This book reaffirmed why reading is so important and meaningful. Did feel like a class in the sense that some of this was interesting and engaging, whereas some was not.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    This book is unlike any book-about-books that I have read. Since George Saunders focused so much on writing concisely, I am actually nervous about writing my review. But I will press on. In his writing class at Syracuse, Mr. Saunders analyzes short stories, breaks them down for multiple purposes and brings these stories to life for his students who write their own short stories. In this book, he teaches his class of Russian short stories in a readable, fun, fascinating way for both writers and r This book is unlike any book-about-books that I have read. Since George Saunders focused so much on writing concisely, I am actually nervous about writing my review. But I will press on. In his writing class at Syracuse, Mr. Saunders analyzes short stories, breaks them down for multiple purposes and brings these stories to life for his students who write their own short stories. In this book, he teaches his class of Russian short stories in a readable, fun, fascinating way for both writers and readers. He features three stories by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, one by Ivan Turenev and one by Nikolai Gogol. George focuses on the sixth story "Gooseberries" by Anton Chekhov, which gives us the title of his book about the swim in a pond in the rain. (When you read this chapter in the book, the title will make sense to you. If you have read "Gooseberries," you may already know what the title means.) I want to focus on "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol. I had never read this or any of the other six stories before, but I know that without George's explanation, this story would have flattened me. A nose comes off a government official's face, shows up in a loaf of bread, and walks around town (and rides in a carriage). All this happens while the nose's owner is frantically trying to find his nose, bumping up against bureaucracy as he struggles. Many, many questions popped into my head while I was reading this story and I was anxious to have George explain it. Most importantly to me, my new favorite professor summarized Gogol's writing and George's view of it, as follows: Gogol is sometimes referred to as an absurdist, his work is meant to communicate that we live in a world without meaning. But to me, Gogol is a supreme realist, looking past the way things seem to how they really are. George explained further how Gogol's story could be applied to address how people in Germany, who were not Nazis, managed to come to terms with the new normal of the 1930s and '40s and went along with what was happening. I found this chapter particularly interesting because I don't think I would have understood any of it without George's assistance. (I also began to apply Gogol's perspective on life to our own interesting times, but I digress.) George hooked me in the beginning when he noted that he wrote this book for the dedicated readers out there who have a passion for literature. (Yay!) I was right there in the side car next to him when he analyzed "In the Cart" by Anton Chekhov in the first chapter. Our assignment was to read a page of the short story, then read three pages of George's explanations of what we just read until we reached the end of the story. Fun! (I think I could have read the whole book that way, but it probably would have gotten too gimmicky.) I stayed in the side car with George through each story and on through the writing exercises at the end. I loved every minute of it. I recommend this book to writers working on their craft and to readers who love books. I am already a fan of short stories, but some stories haven't made complete sense to me. I am hoping that George's explanations will stay with me as I work through the anthology of short stories that I started earlier this year. I need to reread The Tenth of December, George Saunders' collection of short stories. I feel like I could read this book again continuously and learn new things every time. I can't give it anything less than five stars.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laura Edwards

    Interesting. I enjoyed the humor George Saunders injects into his narrative. I think I would have enjoyed taking one of his classes. He also seems open-minded and would welcome discussing dissenting viewpoints (i.e. he's not a know-it-all or one of those professors who thinks their word is law). Good for him. Even when I did not agree with his take on one of the stories, it was interesting to consider his POV. And even if the academic portions at the end of each story isn't to your liking, you c Interesting. I enjoyed the humor George Saunders injects into his narrative. I think I would have enjoyed taking one of his classes. He also seems open-minded and would welcome discussing dissenting viewpoints (i.e. he's not a know-it-all or one of those professors who thinks their word is law). Good for him. Even when I did not agree with his take on one of the stories, it was interesting to consider his POV. And even if the academic portions at the end of each story isn't to your liking, you can skip them and still enjoy reading seven wonderful short stories.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kasa Cotugno

    Here is George Saunders giving a taste of what it is like to attend his masterclass in writing the fictional short form with examples from some of his favorite stories by Russian writers, of course, featuring more than one by Chekov. The stories were chosen not necessarily because they are considered to be best, but because each holds a special meaning for Prof. Saunders and is an example of technique. A benefit of this time during quarantine is availability of zoom interviews that would be impo Here is George Saunders giving a taste of what it is like to attend his masterclass in writing the fictional short form with examples from some of his favorite stories by Russian writers, of course, featuring more than one by Chekov. The stories were chosen not necessarily because they are considered to be best, but because each holds a special meaning for Prof. Saunders and is an example of technique. A benefit of this time during quarantine is availability of zoom interviews that would be impossible otherwise, and seeing Prof. Saunders together with Tobias Wolfe was a treat itself. I did see them together in San Francisco two years ago, during a Word for Word evening, and did hear some of their history together at that time, but seeing them last week together in which they discussed that history as well as this book was polish on the apple. The audio version featured, as did the audio of Lincoln in the Bardo, several A-list actors who read the stories, but the class in the form of narration was Prof. Saunders himself. He dissects each story, in one case page by page, but also speaks of the importance of fiction in the world and the effect it can have on a reader. This will definitely be worth a second read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Edney

    Every page captivated me

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jo Ladzinski

    Read a NetGalley eARC This is my first foray into nineteenth century Russian short stories and Saunders’ experience teaching them page-by-page shines through this craft book that is also a specific craft study. Saunders selected works by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol to explore how these stories work and the connections between readers and authors. What really stuck out to me about this collection was the subjectivity of the analysis and the dispersal of advice. Saunders makes it abundantl Read a NetGalley eARC This is my first foray into nineteenth century Russian short stories and Saunders’ experience teaching them page-by-page shines through this craft book that is also a specific craft study. Saunders selected works by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol to explore how these stories work and the connections between readers and authors. What really stuck out to me about this collection was the subjectivity of the analysis and the dispersal of advice. Saunders makes it abundantly clear that the reader is allowed to get out of this work what they will. Disagreement with his impressions is encouraged throughout, and he even used the page space to refer to his own evolving relationship with these works. The balance between analysis of each story and more zoomed-out writing advice and Saunders’ own insights play well together, and it kept me engaged from start to finish. There are definitely bits that I am taking with me as far as the exercises go, and some of the adages of what makes great writing work. A recommended read for people who learn by example (like yours truly).

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