Book review: “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders

Two thumbs up for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders. Writing.

With the exception of two or three SFF authors, I don’t enjoy reading short stories, which means I don’t write them with any confidence, either. I am always suspicious that they are merely vignettes rather than stories. This, Saunders’ book on analyzing and writing short fiction, helped conclusively solve my problems. Had it been about short stories in general I would surely have skipped it, but the Russians! I felt I was already ahead; I read a lot of Russian literature a few years back, including all of the authors featured in A Swim, even if not these specific stories. If nothing else, I figured I might come to understand why everyone thought Chekhov was the bee’s knees. I do see now (though I still don’t enjoy him) but I got so much more out of A Swim than I had hoped. I don’t think it would be wise for me to try to tell you what parts of it I found most interesting, because you would certainly like other parts; there’s a lot to contemplate. Let me simply say, this is the one book I would give any writer of short stories. Saunders is a brilliant, generous, kind guide and even when I sometimes disagreed with him I enjoyed his company on the page. After reading this book (or was it before I even finished?) I spent a night up until 4am writing a short story I’m very proud of. If that’s not the sign of a successful book about writing, I don’t know what is.

Over the course of these eleven pages, the blank mind with which you began has been filled with a new friend, Marya, who, if my experience is any indication, will stay with you forever. And next time you hear someone described as “lonely,” you may, because of your experience with Marya, find yourself more inclined to think of that person tenderly, even though you haven’t met her yet.

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