Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Effect of Living Backwards (Heidi Julavits)

I first heard of Heidi Julavits when I read her short story "Marry the One Who Gets There First" in Best American Short Stories 1999. It was my favorite story in the volume because it was so different from the others (e.g., one moment I remember from the story is when a character bakes shredded pieces of love letters into the wedding cake--love letters written by the groom that were NOT for the bride).

In The Effect of Living Backwards, the story takes place after the "Big Terrible" (otherwise known as 9/11) and is crazy over-the-top, which I think you would need to make it be if your book is focused on a plane hijacking after the Big Terrible and you want much of it to be funny. It follows two sisters (raised by an entomologist father and a population control activist mother) and their very complicated lives through a very complicated plot. The book reminds me of George Saunders' work, where he puts ordinary people in surreal circumstances or pushes the edge of reality. Julavits' writing is great and the story is very funny at times, but there are moments where things got a little too psychological for me (the book is very, very psychological).

There are many great moments in the book, and while my immediate reaction once I finished reading was a little closer to "okay" than "wow," I'm now feeling like it is definitely worth the read.

Other good books: George Saunders' work is great. I don't read very many short stories anymore, but I'd read his any day. People talk with ghosts, work in fake Civil War lands, and it's all very funny.

Next book up: Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in American and American in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni

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