By Geo Ong
Here are two collections of short fiction (and one collection of short nonfiction) with a strong sense of place, with themes reflective of its environment. Reading these is probably the closest you’ll get to the places and the times they cover – you know, short of a time-travelling airplane. Bon voyage!
If it weren’t for spending an inordinate amount of time perusing the New Directions catalogue, I probably would never have heard of Nina Berberova. After reading Billancourt Tales, I frankly don’t understand why she isn’t well known. She was a Russian writer who emigrated to Paris in the 1920s, where she did most of her writing. This short story collection centres around the Russian emigres in Billancourt, a suburb of Paris. The stories themselves are quiet but not minimalistic, emotional but not overly sentimental. In a word, they are masterful.
Chilean writer Francisco Coloane combines traditional ‘Wild West’ conventions with the largely unknown area of Tierra del Fuego, the bottommost tip of Chile. Instead of cowboys, we have gauchos, pirates, and revolutionaries. But the themes of greed, pride, honour, camaraderie, and violence are all present, even at the Chilean edge of the world.
I want to be Fran Lebowitz. I want to live in New York, wake up at two in the afternoon, smoke a pack of cigarettes before breakfast, walk to the tavern on the corner for lunch, have dinner with a writer friend whom I know I’m better than, and then proving it to my typewriter until four in the morning. Okay, so maybe I don’t want to be Fran Lebowitz. But I do want to be her friend (the one she feels she’s better than). But since our friendship won’t happen until I get to New York, I’ll gladly settle for reading her. Fran Lebowitz is the quintessential New York writer: witty, snarky, and definitely not afraid of her own opinions. She most likely had a blast being the subject of Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary Public Speaking, where we get to know a truly entertaining mind, always funny and capable of being shatteringly profound every now and then. Though not lacking in coldness and cynicism, the writing of Fran Lebowitz contains just the right amount that I find myself agreeing with it all.