Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Bobcat and Other Stories

It seems almost silly to review Bobcat, because so many other people already have. Publishers Weekly. OprahThe New York Times, and then again in the Sunday Book Review (!). But I'm going to review it anyway, because the experience of reading this collection made me feel changed - as if I suddenly understood the world in a new and deeper way. Also, Bekki teaches at UNCW, and I think she's a delightful and smart person on top of being an amazing writer, which is always a plus.   

Bobcat is a collection of seven short stories. They're all told in first person narrative, by different people (mostly women, mostly connected to academia in some way). The writing is sharp, intellectual, and really, really funny, but in a nicely understated way, which means you get the joke on page 6 somewhere on page 9. Story collections are usually built around a loose theme, and Bobcat's appears to be the idea of change, or transformation. In each story, we meet characters at a crossroads, when something totally ordinary is about to change their lives in irrevocable ways. Which sounds like a cop-out, because all fiction is essentially about change, but what sets these stories apart is how deftly they illuminate things about our own lives - things that, most days, we'd rather ignore. Each story forces the reader - in my experience, anyway - to examine life more closely than is comfortable.

As a reader, I found this kind of enlightenment on every page - from the opening story (my favorite), about a dinner party where one of the guests discusses her memoir about losing her arm to a bobcat, while the other guests doubt the veracity of the tale; to a student and her professor at war over an obviously plagiarized paper; to all the ways we come close to love and then lose it at the last second. After I finished the last story, "Settlers," I sat on my couch for ten minutes, racked with the kind of sobs that rattle your chest and force you to gasp for breath, as if all the air had gone out of the room when you closed the book. Yeah. It was that good. 

As a writer, I found another kind of enlightenment in the book. As soon as I finished it, I decided to try rewriting my book in first person, instead of third. A pretty massive overhaul, but Lee uses the form so masterfully that I had to see if I could even come close. (So far, first person has helped me get much closer to my main character - even if I end up switching back to third, the exercise will have been worth it.) Another thing I loved was the language, which every single review has mentioned, and how could they not? Here is the most amazing thing about writing: we all have the same tools, which is basically a dictionary full of words. Some people use the words to make sentences. Some people use them to make art. I feel like I should quote some lines here, but they work best in context, and anyway, I'd end up typing out the whole book and that would make for a very long review. 

Bobcat is definitely the best short story collection I've read in recent years, the best book I've read in 2013, and one of my top five books of the last five years. Highly recommended (in case that wasn't clear). If you've read it, which story did you like best? My top three are "Bobcat," "Fialta," and "Settlers."

Bobcat: recommended by MFA students everywhere.