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Varieties of Disturbance
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Varieties of Disturbance

by Lydia Davis

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Lydia Davis has been called "one of the quiet giants in the world of American fiction" (Los Angeles Times), "an American virtuoso of the short story form" (Salon), an innovator who attempts "to remake the model of the modern short story" (The New York Times Book Review). Her admirers include Grace Paley, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith; as


Lydia Davis has been called "one of the quiet giants in the world of American fiction" (Los Angeles Times), "an American virtuoso of the short story form" (Salon), an innovator who attempts "to remake the model of the modern short story" (The New York Times Book Review). Her admirers include Grace Paley, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith; as Time magazine observed, her stories are "moving . . . and somehow inevitable, as if she has written what we were all on the verge of thinking."

In Varieties of Disturbance, her fourth collection, Davis extends her reach as never before in stories that take every form from sociological studies to concise poems. Her subjects include the five senses, fourth-graders, good taste, and tropical storms. She offers a reinterpretation of insomnia and re-creates the ordeals of Kafka in the kitchen. She questions the lengths to which one should go to save the life of a caterpillar, proposes a clear account of the sexual act, rides the bus, probes the limits of marital fidelity, and unlocks the secret to a long and happy life.

No two of these fictions are alike. And yet in each, Davis rearranges our view of the world by looking beyond our preconceptions to a bizarre truth, a source of delight and surprise.

Varieties of Disturbance is a 2007 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Davis's spare, always surprising short fiction was most recently collected in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. In this introspective, more sober culling, Davis touches on favorite themes (mothers, dogs, flies and husbands) and encapsulates, as in "Insomnia," everyday life's absurdist binds: "My body aches so-It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me." Davis is a noted translator (Swann's Way), and a kind of passion-and bemused suffering-for points of rhetoric produces a delicate beauty in "Grammar Questions" ("Now, during his time of dying, can I say, "This is where he lives'?") and "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," written to their hospitalized classmate. The longest selection, "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality," examines the long lives of two elderly women, one white, one black, in terms of background, employment, pets and conversational manner. Most moving may be "Burning Family Members," which can be read as a response to the Iraq War: " "They' burned her thousands of miles away from here. The "they' that are starving him here are different." Davis's work defies categorization and possesses a moving, austere elegance. (May) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant), a novelist, translator, poet, and, most notably, author of short fiction, defies conventionality with her stories; some are as brief as a single sentence, while others are told in poetry. The writing is pithy and sparse, and there is often more left unsaid than there is written. "The Hand" is complete as follows: "Beyond the hand holding this book that I'm reading, I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus-my extra hand." The story "Jane and the Cane," about an elderly mother who cannot find her cane with the dog head, is one paragraph, and the rhythm of the text is strangely evocative of a children's story, a sort of geriatric Dick and Jane reader. A challenging book, with frequent jumps in voice, story, and style, this is not to be read through but rather sipped like a dry, wry martini. This collection will appeal to a limited audience where Davis's other works are appreciated.
—Caroline M. Hallsworth

Kirkus Reviews
More dauntingly opaque but often brilliant snippets and meditations from MacArthur recipient Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, 2001, etc.). Davis, an esteemed translator from French, writes in the tradition of the French postmodernists and surrealists. (She's translated Blanchot and Leiris.) The 56 stories in this volume include short prose poems ("The Fly," "Head, Heart") and chilling one-liners ("Suddenly Afraid," "Mother's Reaction to My Travel Plans"). Two of the longer pieces adopt the dispassionate protocols of case studies. "We Miss You" exhaustively deconstructs get-well letters written by '50s-era fourth graders to a classmate hospitalized after being hit by a car. "Helen and Vi, a Study in Health and Vitality" analyzes how the workaday routines and altruism of two elderly women have contributed to their healthy longevity. (Contrast the intermittent, italicized foibles of narcissist Hope, age 100.) Many of the stories not overtly labeled studies are structured as such, with topical captions, such as "Mrs. D. and Her Maids," possibly about Davis's writer-mother. Parents, particularly aged parents, are a preoccupation: Davis has clearly done her time in the halls of eldercare. Her narrators are cynical and reluctant but "good-enough" caregivers. In "What You Learn About the Baby," a mother catalogs in excruciating detail just how her infant dominates and disrupts her life. The laconic "Burning Family Members" bears hard-eyed, shell-shocked witness to a father's death. Unabashedly autobiographical, like many of the stories, is "The Walk," a defense of Davis's translation of Proust's Swann's Way (2003) vs. the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation, and "Cape Cod Diary," in which a writervicariously travels America with a nameless French historian (presumably de Tocqueville, also translated by Davis). Her impersonal, bloodless tone, plain prose style and tendency to summarize rather than dramatize can have a distancing effect; but Davis' ability to parse hopelessly snarled human interactions (as in the title story) astounds. An initially off-putting collection that gradually becomes habit-forming.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)

Read an Excerpt

Varieties of Disturbance

By Lydia Davis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2007 Lydia Davis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-28173-1

Chapter One

A Man from Her Past

I think Mother is flirting with a man from her past who is not Father. I say to myself: Mother ought not to have improper relations with this man "Franz"! "Franz" is a European. I say she should not see this man improperly while Father is away! But I am confusing an old reality with a new reality: Father will not be returning home. He will be staying on at Vernon Hall. As for Mother, she is ninety-four years old. How can there be improper relations with a woman of ninety-four? Yet my confusion must be this: though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.

Dog and Me

An ant can look up at you, too, and even threaten you with its arms. Of course, my dog does not know I am human, he sees me as dog, though I do not leap up at a fence. I am a strong dog. But I do not leave my mouth hanging open when I walk along. Even on a hot day, I do not leave my tongue hanging out. But I bark at him: "No! No!"


I don't know if I can remain friends with her. I've thought and thought about it-she'll never know how much. I gave it one last try. I called her, after a year. But I didn't like the way the conversation went. The problem is that she is not very enlightened. Or I should say, she is not enlightened enough for me. She is nearly fifty years old and no more enlightened, as far as I can see, than when I first knew her twenty years ago, when we talked mainly about men. I did not mind how unenlightened she was then, maybe because I was not so enlightened myself. I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it's not very enlightened to say that. But I want to say it, so I am willing to postpone being more enlightened myself so that I can still say a thing like that about a friend.

The Good Taste Contest

The husband and wife were competing in a Good Taste Contest judged by a jury of their peers, men and women of good taste, including a fabric designer, a rare-book dealer, a pastry cook, and a librarian. The wife was judged to have better taste in furniture, especially antique furniture. The husband was judged to have overall poor taste in lighting fixtures, tableware, and glassware. The wife was judged to have indifferent taste in window treatments, but the husband and wife both were judged to have good taste in floor coverings, bed linen, bath linen, large appliances, and small appliances. The husband was felt to have good taste in carpets, but only fair taste in upholstery fabrics. The husband was felt to have very good taste in both food and alcoholic beverages, while the wife had inconsistently good to poor taste in food. The husband had better taste in clothes than the wife though inconsistent taste in perfumes and colognes. While both husband and wife were judged to have no more than fair taste in garden design, they were judged to have good taste in number and variety of evergreens. The husband was felt to have excellent taste in roses but poor taste in bulbs. The wife was felt to have better taste in bulbs and generally good taste in shade plantings with the exception of hostas. The husband's taste was felt to be good in garden furniture but only fair in ornamental planters. The wife's taste was judged consistently poor in garden statuary. After a brief discussion, the judges gave the decision to the husband for his higher overall points score.

Collaboration with Fly

I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe.


Excerpted from Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis Copyright © 2007 by Lydia Davis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lydia Davis's story collections include the Village Voice favorite Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and Almost No Memory, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. She is the acclaimed translator of the new Swann's Way. She received a 2003 MacArthur fellowship.

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