New To WTP Blog: Indie Book Reviews and a Look at Indie Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Book Review Editor
Portland, OR: Tin House Books, July 12, 2016 ($19.95 cloth hardcover; 168 pages) ISBN 978-1-941040-35-5
Author: Joy Williams
The highly respected writing of Joy Williams includes four novels, four prior short-story collections, a book of essays, and a history and guide to the Florida Keys in its tenth edition. Her first novel received a nomination for the 1974 National Book Award, her most recent novel was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and her essay collection was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. A 1975 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction, Williams has neither a webpage nor a Twitter account.
Publisher: Tin House Books
Tin House Books in Portland, Oregon, is an outgrowth of Tin House, an award-winning literary magazine that started in 1999. Tin House Books began as an imprint with Bloomsbury in 2002, and in 2005 launched as an independent press publishing a dozen books per year distributed by W. W. Norton. Manuscript submissions in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction are accepted only from agents. Tin House also puts on an annual Summer Writers Workshop at Reed College in Portland.
Diane Chonette, Tin House art director, did the interior design of Ninety-Nine Stories of God. The title first appeared as a 2013 ebook from Byliner in a Kindle edition (no longer available). The cover image is a print by German artist Michael Sowa.
God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”~William Shakespeare, Hamlet
These fictional vignettes by Joy Williams slice life into minimal bites that penetrate one’s conscience. Story lengths vary, ranging from two lines to three pages. Darkness resides next to light.
Day in and day out, Williams plays Hide & Seek with God. Adept at animating Him in contemporary society, she puts the Lord in disguise. He lines up to get a shingles shot. He prepares to race a pink Wagoneer in a demolition derby. He’s shocked at the water quality while drinking a glass. He adopts a young tortoise but balks at going to Home Depot to equip the little guy’s burrow.
Several fables evolve into brilliant allegories. “The Lord liked to hang with the animals,” Williams writes. Here He is in a den with a pack of wolves. Then He’s living in a cave with a bat colony.
Recognizable names mix with Everyman & Everywoman. It’s a heady concoction: nursing homes and elite private clubs, mango margaritas, Dostoyevsky and temporal lobe epilepsy, wrong instructions for the Heimlich Maneuver, brothers William and Henry James, possible suffocation by a rose, Ted Kaczynski’s portable Smith Corona, DNA analysis in the O. J. Simpson trial, and a macabre Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Some have the quality of “fillers” in newspapers: “Stray Dog Saves Abandoned Newborn, Takes Home to Puppy Litter.”
Williams can turn a phrase that stops me in my tracks, such as “twisting arteries of memory.” Occasional sentences did as well: “The calendar on the wall was not of that year” and “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”
She distills the subtitle from her nonfiction book Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals into inventive gems of imagination here on similar themes. Occasionally, I thought of Anne Lamott.
The tactile nature of Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a plus. The cover’s linen texture feels good in the hand and the 8” x 5” size is a pleasure to hold.
At the end, a Maine psychic considers a universal question: “What’s going to happen after I’m dead?” It hearkens back to a question Williams posed at the beginning of her novel The Quick and the Dead: “What is the difference between being not yet born and having lived, being now dead?” As Hamlet described it: “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Williams comes close to answering herself in “Naked Mind,” Story No. 49: “We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know, descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing.”
While reading this delightfully incongruous, ridiculously sardonic, acerbically droll book, I veered between feeling my heart lurch in tender sadness and laughing out loud—occasionally both at once. Joy Williams is sharply perceptive in Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
Tankard is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher in Austin, Texas. She is the former production editor of Contemporary Psychology book review journal. Her book reviews have been published widely, including in The Kansas City Star, Austin American-Statesman, Florida Times-Journal Magazine, and online in River Teeth, Women’s Memoirs, Draft No. 4, and 100 Memoirs.
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