Well, not a book report: rather, a small volume of short stories. Five stories, to be exact, and from one author.
I like short stories. They fit my attention span. Good novels, like -- say -- the best of them, The Brothers Karamazov, have to become a chore in the best meaning of the term. A novel like that is something that emerges from a life review, while sorting photographs into piles of years, and then you remark, "Oh my, that's the decade I read Dostoevsky ... gee, I suppose I must get back to him by now."
So far, my favorite short story writers include Flannery O'Connor (of course). Also Mark Twain (although he can get surprisingly creepy -- I'm thinking especially of "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger": he is not the happy cornpone sotwitted southern gentleman that stars in TV Land (even a horrible Star Trek TNG episode -- a real McCoy of an emetic, that one). And Jorge Luis Borges. Yes. Everyone of a certain temperament should read "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."
I would mention, were it not so expected from dull repetition on my part, the little volume Tree and Leaf that contains the great essay "On Fairy Stories," and one of my all-time favorite stories, "Leaf by Niggle." One of these days, I'd like to do a series of retreat-type presentations, out in the woods, on this story, seeing as it is a pretty artifice of myth, beauty, goodness and eternity. But I won't since my wont is mentioning that environmentalist tree-hugger and monarchian-anarchist probably overmuch.
So I will mention another monarchian-anarchist. Probably less genial or convivial. But certainly of a piece with a lot of other authors.
The volume I am thinking of is The Devil and Pierre Gernet, by the inimitable David Bentley Hart.
As you would expect, his wordsmithery justifies the continued publication of the OED. I could just see Hemingway sniffing at DBH the way he did at Faulkner: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
And too, the autobiographical note sort of glowers in the subtext -- I wouldn't even try to prise it out if I were you, seeing as it is layered over with ironic self-deprecation, amongst other types of Empsonian ambiguity (especially the fifth and seventh types).
But I will say, without reservation, that the stories are beautiful. And tragic. And comic. And of the "problem play" sort of unsettled inconclusiveness that sets off Shakespeare's Measure for Measure -- very much like an unresolved seventh chord.
Take, for example, this paragraph, whose poignance will linger for more than a day for you:
Otherwise I knew, from early on, that mine was a strange and intelligent child who took the world into himself at a somewhat different angle than did children cast in a more ordinary mold. When he was five or six, it was evident to me that he was unable quite to absorb the social grammar of other children, or of anyone else; he could not quite "read" the emotions of others, or even his own emotions. All his responses seemed either too extreme or too mild. And then there was the delightful -- but also slightly uncanny -- absence of any impulse towards malice in him, and his consequent inability to anticipate or understand malice in others. He always expected -- joyously expected -- kindness, and could become easily distraught when he belatedly realized that another child wished to mock or provoke him, and was utterly defenseless against the pain and perplexity it could suddenly wake in him; and yet he remained unable to respond in kind. Of himself, after all, he was so boundlessly prepared to be happy, and so innocently ready for everyone else to be happy along with him. (from "A Voice from the Emerald World," p96)
None of these five stories are "potboilers" or pageturners. Not much in the way of plot or excitement. Some reviewers have wondered whether there was enough character development. I think there is more development of character, rather, in the most important character in any narrative -- and that is the reader himself, who allies himself with the narrator. At this elevated point of view, the postmodern Hart rightly sets the critical path of becoming in the mind of the beholder.
I am surprised, pleasantly, by this little volume. Buy it, despite your uncertainties.