George Saunders guides the reader through seven classic Russian short stories he’s been teaching for twenty years as a professor in the prestigious Syracuse University graduate MFA creative writing program. Paired with stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, these essays are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times. Saunders approaches each of these 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. For the process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is as much a craft as it is a quality of openness and a willingness to see the world through new eyes.
Judith Schalansky is a wholly original writer whose books articulate perfectly what she wishes to say. Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic. As a child of the former East Germany, it’s not surprising that the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work should be ‘loss’ and its aftermath, but what is extraordinary is the thoroughly engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling.