I do think this book is pretty wonderful in a lot of ways. I also thinking it’s a solution in search of a problem in some ways, or maybe a great idea struggling for an audience. The premise here is that George Saunders, along with being a writer, is an MFA professor who teaches creative writing. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class in college, you are usually treated to someone who clearly sees fiction (or poetry, or nonfiction) from a much different perspective from many of your other literature professors. One thing that I didn’t always experience in literature classes was someone expressing joy in reading. I don’t mean someone using their position as a professor to give me their opinion on a piece of writing, though that happens plenty, but joy in response to the assigned readings. The joy we get from George Saunders has only happened for me in creative writing classes, because the stories you read for those classes (not counting your own, or your classmates’) are representative of quality in a particular way. So you might read something that really delves into character or point of view and is just a masterly version of it. In a literature class, the texts are often tools. Here they’re a little of both. Also the reason someone becomes a writer versus a scholar speak to that.
So anyway, the premise: Saunders gives your seven stories from Russian writers (in pretty good translations) and walks you through careful readings of each or activities to look at the readings. Mostly it’s you do the assigned readings first and then get commentary, but in one, he gives you commentary in-between each page to show you some things about active reading. The stories are great, the commentary is great, and it’s a wonderful set of lessons throughout.
You just have to decide if you’re down or not. I was ready to hang it up after “Master and Man,” which is a dreary story, but there we’re two more to go. Maybe that means I should’ve paused, but I was so close.