Book Review: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain


So, I finally pulled this book off my TBR pile. I have to say I was a little nervous to start this, as I've read so many good things about it that I was afraid I might be let down by actually reading it. But I'm happy to report that instead I found it to be well worth the wait.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a book about writing - specifically about writing short fiction stories. George Saunders, author of many short stories himself, as well as the Man Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo, has for 20 years taught a writing class built around the short stories of iconic Russian authors, as part of the MFA program at Syracuse University. He uses that classroom experience to bring us this book, a literary "master class" on what makes stories work.

In the book are seven short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol. Following each story is an essay from Saunders giving us his interpretation, along with story writing ideas and techniques that he sees at work in the stories as an aid to helping aspiring writers to think about their own approach to the craft. In  these essays he's trying to convey how these classic stories "work".

Following each of Saunders' essays is another section he calls "Afterthoughts". In these sections Saunders takes some of the techniques and ideas highlighted in his essay and gives us a more direct discussion about how he thinks about and uses them in his own writing. 

What's great about these essays and afterthoughts are not just the lessons that Saunders conveys, but how he does it. He doesn't talk down to us in bombastic professor speak. This is not a textbook. His writing style is sprinkled with quips and self-deprecating asides that put your mind at ease so that those lessons slide right into your brain. I found myself eagerly taking notes as I read.

I do think that I am squarely in the target audience for this book. I am someone who aspires to write. But this book works for aspiring readers too, if I can put it that way. What I mean is that Saunders pulls so much meaning out of these stories that I feel like I've been challenged to be a better reader, and have been armed with the tools to be one too. 

It's not that Saunders' interpretation of each of these stories is the "correct" interpretation, and that he's found the "best way" to be a reader. Rather, it's about connection. 

One of the points that Saunders emphasizes in the book is that stories provide connection between the author and the reader, and that each of us who experiences the story brings something to it. What a Chekhov short story means to Saunders may differ from what it means to you or I, but each experience is legitimate. What Saunders offers readers is a peak behind the curtain at the author and the tools of the craft that you as a reader can use to illuminate meaning in bits of a story you may have otherwise glossed over. 

The title of the book, by the way, comes from a scene in "Gooseberries", one of the Chekhov stories covered in the book. 

I'm very glad I read this book, and I recommend it for all aspiring writers and readers out there who haven't yet picked it up. An enthusiastic Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain links:

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