When I look for holiday reading, I don’t go for so-called easy beach reads like so many bookshops and newspaper supplements seem to recommend. I either like a big novel with big characters that keep your interest without having to work too hard (this is why I recommended Questions of Travel for a long plane trip or beach holiday here). Or if I’m staying home but trying to take it easy, like I was this Easter weekend, I think short story collections are a great holiday choice. The writing is still strong, but in smaller, more digestible chunks. You can put the book down for hours or even days at a time and not have to retrace characters, plot or pace. You can simply dip in and out as and when it suits you. Tenth of December was recommended to me by a number of people late last year and a long weekend seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive into it.
George Saunders is known for his short stories. This makes him in many ways a more polished short story writer than novelists who use them to hone their craft or take a break from the longer form. Saunders’ stories in this collection are perfectly rounded: there is strong characterisation with interesting plots and strong technique. I often find that short story collections are used by novelists as a pre-cursor to their future projects, so you see a focus on character development or on exploring plot: rarely is the right balance found. But that was not an issue here.
Saunders’ stories in this collection focus on suburban American life. They depict a sort of everyday dystopia that seem likely and familiar, while at the same time depressing and foreign. Like ‘Sticks’, where a suburban father dresses an abandoned metal pole in their front yard according to the holiday or occasion. But the satire in Tenth of December is balanced with equal parts warmth and sadness. Saunders shows genuine affection for his characters. In ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ a somewhat awkward, clunky father records his family’s daily life in a black book purchased from OfficeMax. The diary begins as a grandiose gesture to both the writer and a future generation of readers:
“Please know I was a person like you, I too breathed air and tensed legs while trying to sleep and, when writing with pencil, sometimes brought pencil to nose to smell.”
But the diary quickly moves into a touching and heartfelt record of family life. On the way home from a school friend’s extravagant birthday party, this exchange between mother and daughter was particularly moving:
“Lilly: I can’t wait till my party. My party is two weeks, right?
Pam: What do you want to do for your party, sweetie?
Long silence in car.
Lilly, finally, sadly: Oh, I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.”
There are some beautiful moments like these throughout the collection, but in the end, Tenth of December didn’t blow me away. It’s not a book that I’ll keep thinking about, wondering about particular scenes and characters. But it kept me entertained, it was enjoyable and it served the purpose of being a great holiday read. If I had been looking for a substantial book with challenges to push me as a reader, it would have failed. But as a collection of enjoyable, well crafted stories that felt like a holiday in itself, it was perfect.
Long weekends at home are also perfect for baking. Since cutting out wheat a few years ago, one of the few remaining challenges are finding gluten free hot cross buns at Easter time. For the most part I prefer to cut out gluten free replacements: if I can’t have the real thing, then it’s probably not meant to be. But my nostalgia for spicy, fruit filled hot cross buns gets me every year. I’ve had a terrible time finding a decent version at usual outlets so this year, after seeing this recipe posted on Broadsheet Melbourne, I decided to try making them myself. This is an incredibly easy recipe to put together, no matter what type of flour you choice to use: there’s no proofing, no kneading and the whole lot is baked together in one slab and cut later, rather than rolling out individual buns. But either the bakery here use an enormous tray, or a much deeper baking tray than mine, because this recipe made a lot of hot cross buns. As in I found myself with 46 hot cross buns. It’s a good thing they’re delicious, because my freezer is stocked. But despite a slightly stressful cooking process of baking batch after batch, it was all worth it when curling up on a windy, grey afternoon with a pot of tea, a toasted hot cross bun with jam, and the final few stories in Tenth of December, feeling completely relaxed after four days away from work.
Here’s a great interview with George Saunders from the podcast Longform, who provide links to great pieces written for a range of US publications. They also have an ongoing podcast series interviewing writers. It’s a great place to explore the world of reading and ideas and to read interesting new writers.