Can't and Won't

Can't and Won't

Book - 2014 | First edition.
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Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of "Bloomington" reads, "Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in "A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates," a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert's correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author's own dreams, or the dreams of friends. What does not vary throughout Can't and Won't, Lydia Davis's fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.
Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780374118587
Branch Call Number: DAVIS
Characteristics: 289 pages ; 22 cm
Alternative Title: Cannot and will not


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Dec 30, 2015

Brilliant. Short, sardonic, insightful and so very human.

Dec 27, 2014

Terrible - just could not see the craft in these "short stories". Did not finish.

Sep 11, 2014

Meh. I read this a few weeks ago, and cannot recall anything particularly memorable about this book. Sure, there was an interesting turn of phrase now and then, and few pieces were mildly amusing. However, too many seemed pointless, and the segments that were supposedly from a dream? Huh? Anybody can record a dream, it's what you take from it afterwards that counts, so they, too, seemed pointless, and made the book come across as somewhat self indulgent, like publishing bits of a personal journal. Because the book consists of segments, some less than half a page long, it can be handy for when you only have a few minutes at a go to do some reading, and you aren't too fussy about what that reading material is. But there are lots of magazines, not to mention other books, that are useful for that too, and that you can get more out of.

Aug 26, 2014

Do you like short stories? I mean, really short stories. Like ones that are two sentences long. For example: "All these years I thought I'd had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D." Now whether you find that deceptively brilliant or merely irritating will determine what you think about Lydia Davis's most recent collection. She's been compared to Flaubert, Proust, (both of whom she's translated) and Kafka, but she' s more like Beckett with a better sense of humor or a less dirty Bukowski. Like Bukowski in his poetry, she can make a story out of the commonplace and ever day. She's widely acclaimed, so I may well be missing something, but I could not get into this at all, as it was largely free from all the good qualities I associate with writing. Reads quickly though. PS-She originally wanted to call it "Can't Stop and Won't Stop," but was told by her publishers that it sounded too "hip-hop-ish."

Jun 25, 2014

I probably shouldn't have read this book immediately after reading the Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. Davis' clipped style of writing reminded me too much of the way some of the brain damaged people spoke. Not to say her little vignettes weren't interesting and cute, but when I got to the section entitled "Cows" I had to quit the book.

ksoles Jun 22, 2014

If Alice Munro can express the pain, loneliness and anguish of a lifetime in 30 stunning pages, Lydia Davis can do the same in a few sentences. Indeed, no one writes like Davis; her ability to compress intense, significant details into an impossibly crisp style puts her prose in a class of its own.

In her new collection, "Can't and Won't," Davis creates stories from next to nothing. Sometimes only conveying a single observation, she excises all superfluous details and leaves only a kernel of completeness. A seemingly minor detail, an apparently casual conversation or a studied, minute thing can become a story with brevity providing the finishing touch rather than leaving the reader hankering for the unsaid. "Bloomington," for example, reads in its entirety: “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”

Some stories read like aphorisms, some like parables. Some originate from dreams, most transform the banal into the miraculous. Humourously, Davis also employs the genre of the complaint letter, pouring discomfort and anxiety into a non-personal entity. The stories, "Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer" and "Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company" exemplify a fun and unique style.

In her notes, Davis explains that thirteen of her stories were “formed from material found in letters written by Gustave Flaubert during the period he was working on Madame Bovary.” Finally, her most moving story also takes up the most real estate: "The Seals" tells a poignant tale about the continental drift between parents and children, brothers and sisters. Another writer would have written a whole novel on the subject; Lydia Davis says it all in a matter of few pages.

Jun 05, 2014

Sharp, observant, funny, poignant. I can read it on a bus. I will read it after dinner.

BCD2013 May 06, 2014

NYPL Staff Pick
Besides being an award-winning translator of Flaubert and Proust, Davis is also an award-winning short story writer (2013 Man Booker International Prize). Although many of the stories in her latest collection are less than a page long, her trenchant insights into human nature keep them from being "too postmodern." Do you have 30 seconds? Then what have you got to lose? Give Davis a try!

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