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voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin November 11, 2013 - 3:09am

Puppy by George Saunders

Ready, Steady, Discuss....

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HoboWriterDK from Upstate, New York is reading White Teeth, by Zadie Smith November 11, 2013 - 7:55pm

Amazing story. One of the best Saunders that has written, I think. 

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 12, 2013 - 1:32pm

absolutley love this story. it was the first of his that i read. the duality of perspective, both sides of the coin, and the mother's love, the ending, just kills me every time. might be my favorite of his work. i also love that saunders is kind of quirky, the video game, WTF? bread slicer or whatever it is? so funny. 

i'll also say check out "Victory Lap" and "Sea Oak" amongst others. but this story makes my list of top ten stories ever.

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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions November 15, 2013 - 8:26am

I'll preface this by saying I'm a huge Saunders fan--first read Sea Oak in either BASS or O'Henry forever ago and have gifted his books often--but I really don't like this story, which is a shame, because I think it has the potential to be among his best. So I'm very curious to hear exactly how people are reacting to these characters. I could well be harboring some biases.

I feel like Marie vs Callie is worked: we're set up to hate Marie and love Callie. Marie scolds her son for using "like," Callie fantasizes about buying Hooked on Phonics. Marie thinks her mind is amazing, Callie wonders how hers works. Marie's prayer: "Thank you, Lord, she thought as the Lexus flew...You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around" is an ironic counterpoint to the tragic beauty of Callie's real life. Marie's kid tries to hit her and Callie's blows her a kiss, which should technically reverse our sympathies, except that we agree with the kids: Marie is grating/insufferable, all our sympathies lie with Callie, and it just doesn't ring true to me.

But..you mention "two sides of the coin," there's just enough room in this story for the reader to say Marie is the better mother. The kid runs against the chain: this is not technically a safe/good parenting solution, though we can't help believing it's for the best. "...one really shouldn't possess something if one wasn't up to properly caring for it."--is this parenting advice or inhuman, crass evaluation? There's a spare tire on the goddamn kitchen table and four turds on the counter...but this just doesn't compare to Marie's charge of "white trash," in my opinion.

For me there's a sneering aspect to the story, which I've seen Saunders address in an interview as well (I'll look for it: he edited this story on the New Yorker's advice).

I too love the descriptions of the video game. For me Saunders is kind like a collision of Donald Bartheleme and Raymond Carver, the surreal quirkiness, but always entrenched in the land of the working class poor. My love of Saunders is kind of rooted in the dignity he provides his lowest, most beleagured characters, and I kind of feel he's denied Marie her dignity for the sake of this story.

So what do you all think? Whose side are you on? Who do you sympathise with? Who's the better mother? Or am I just thinking of the story the wrong way, asking the wrong questions altogether? The more I read the story, the more conflicted I feel.

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 15, 2013 - 9:29am

for me i think it's all shades of gray, yeah? neither mother is the devil, and neither mother is a saint, either. i think saunders wants us to see the faults in the "ideal" mother and the "love" in the struggling mother. BUT, i've always sided with Callie. it's HEARTBREAKING to get to the end of that story, to struggle with the dog chain and the squalor, the choices she has made, but she does it out of love. maybe the WAY she treats her son isn't perfect, but he's happy, not getting hurt, and if he ran across the highway and got killed, what then? i think what KILLS me is the ending, the final lines, because as delusional as she is, it's true. 


Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?


She did

Love is confusing, messy, and complicated. In some ways, she is just doing the best she can to save her son, to keep him alive, until the day he "mellows out" and can control himself. As a parent, sure I struggle with the picture we're seeing here, that's what makes it compelling, what makes is slippery, yeah? Where do we draw the line, what is abuse and what is love, what is damaging and what is preserving? Tricky. 

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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions November 15, 2013 - 7:01pm

Well said Richard, and I agree completely. The ending in particular is one of the best in recent memory--achingly beautiful. Callie is easily one of my favorite Saunders characters.

The faults I find in the story are definitely very reader-subjective and impossible to substantiate.

Basically I think every reader will love Callie and dislike Marie, which is fine (there are likeable and unlikeable characters in every story), EXCEPT that I feel the author also loves Callie and dislikes Marie, which causes a problem in fiction--he has made our minds up for us.

It's a slippery thing for me to try and isolate, but my feelings from the very start are against Marie, but it's not so much about who she is or the actions she takes, but it's in the author's tone or style, a kind of default setting in the story that turns me against her. I feel like we are positioned to try and laugh WITH Callie, but laugh AT Marie.

I think he gets the shades of grey perfect with Callie, but never effectively gets the black and white to mix with Marie. The hint of childhood trauma just doesn't feel organic to me, and I feel it's impossible to sympathise with her, even when she continually does the right thing. (Calling childhood protective services is a great example: we hate her for it, even though it's the real-world right thing to do, given the information she has).

I don't mean to imply it's a VS story: it's not a choice between Callie and Marie--which makes it more perplexing to me. Why not allow us to sympahise with Marie as well? Why sway the reader against her so hard? Wouldn't the story be stronger if we left feeling a deep empathy for both participants?

Again, this a very subjective reading by me, and others might feel more sympathetic to Marie. I just left the story feeling like I hated Marie, but I felt like I was manipulated into hating her by the author, more than by the choices she makes (if this makes any sense at all--I half expect George Saunders to pop into this thread and call me a nimrod).

Random line that cracked me up: The husband's reaction when the iguana bites his finger, "Ho Ho! I see you have an opinion on the matter!"


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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions November 15, 2013 - 7:20pm

And just to reiterate, it's weird to me because it's really the opposite of what Saunders does best. I wrote in another thread that I could imagine him winning a Nobel the way his career is moving and his stories growing. He has a way of imbuing the most desperate, wrung-out, fallen through the cracks characters with a deep dignity, a kind of expansive humanism. I mentioned Carver's working class interests: Saunders is kind of the service industry hero.

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 16, 2013 - 6:15pm

agree. he's a modern-day Carver/Cheever, but he always has a bit of the WEIRD mixed in, which i really like. maybe as far as the vs. argument, it's more of a head/heart story. like you said, if any of us ran across this in the real world we'd probably call CPS, but no parent is perfect, and the logistics of what she does, it still may save the kid's life. our head says ABUSE our heart says PROTECTED. it's a weird sensation, my heart breaking over the love that Callie has, the suffering and darkness she has seen and endured, paired with the entitled attitude of Marie, who is really doing "the right thing." so much gray, as you said, so little black and white. and i think that's what makes this story special, that we CAN feel BOTH things, both WAYS.

curious, if you had to pick a SECOND storoy by Saunders as a favorite, what would it be and why?

i'm torn between "Victory Lap" and "Sea Oak" and maybe "Al Roosten"

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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions November 18, 2013 - 7:08am

Maybe we should rename this thread "Has George Saunders' Puppy Ever Helped You Get Laid?" to drive a little more traffic through... 

"Sea Oak" was the first Saunders story I read and has remained a favorite, but I was actully pretty blown away by "Tenth of December"--I think it's one of the 'largest' short stories I've ever read. Pretty simple back and forth construction, suspense build, stakes raising, but the amount of life he manages to pack into it blew me away--I think it achieved a near novelesque effect. The first time I read it I set it down, then picked it up and read it again. William Gay's "The Paperhanger" I think has a similar feeling of size to it. When I remember both of those stories, it feels more like a novel than a simple 20 page story. 

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voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin November 18, 2013 - 2:02pm

Hey, I am going to comment on this tomorrow. I've just been caught up in a lot of stuff lately and not had time. I read it last week, I enjoyed it. First thing I've read by Saunders.

To be continued... :)

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 19, 2013 - 8:09am

"The Paperhanger" is one of my favorites. I actually don't have the collection, TOD, and haven't read that story, but I need to. 

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voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin November 19, 2013 - 10:01am

First thing that hit me when I read this was that first paragraph, all the repetition of the brilliance of the autumnal sun. Kind of threw me. I thought: If this was put up in the workshop people would be drawing lines all through it saying: too much repetition! Funny thing is, on second and further reads it works perfectly as the erratic train of thought head space that Marie inhabits.

As for Marie versus Callie...well not really versus but, you know. Callie wins it for me. Not that Marie isn't without sympathy, but oh that final paragraph, the emotion. Nail in coffin decission. Which is quite a achievement in itself, I mean, Saunders just had this character leave a puppy for dead.

I really enjoyed the little quirky bit here, the games: Nobel Baker and Bra Stuffer (what that is I can only imagine!!)

Anyone here understand the cornfield/haunted house connection? I see I corn field I think: creepy, children of the corn, murder, death, sickle and sythe, but not haunted house.

Yeah, great story. I have more to add, but just not enough time at the moment :)


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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions November 20, 2013 - 2:51am

Em: in my opinion the cornfield/haunted house is just a bit of story-craft. There's an excellent Charles Baxter essay called Rhyming Action, and I think this is an example of the fictional device he describes.

She looks at a cornfield and thinks of a haunted house: it's a quirky, senseless observation, a function of her character/voice, and the reader can't really make sense of it, and promptly forgets about it. Then much of the story takes place in Callie's house, which for Marie feels like a real house of horrors. Finally at the end, Callie is forced into the corn to the kill the puppy, thus the cornfield becomes a literal house of horrors that she will feel haunted by.

So there are three echoes of this haunted house/house in the corn/cornfield as haunted house working through the story, none tied directly to the other, so perhaps it has a more subtle, subconscious effect on the reader, building in power.

The Baxter essay is from Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. My copy's in the states and haven't read that essay in years, but basically I remember it as this kind of echo of images and after images working through fiction. In my mind it's kind of a more modern, more natural, more effective cousin of symbolism.

I seriously doubt Saunders would explain it this way, or intended it this way, but it's the kind of thing that comes out through revision, as things are coaxed in a direction that feels right to the author and right for the story.

As for the "brilliance" of the fields, yeah Saunders seems to begin all of his stories with Voice (and they can be right at the edge of annoying). He allows the character to kind of warm up, and we get into their brain, then he lets them describe their own situation, so we see their world through their own whacky eyes. He does it in "Sea Oak" but keeps it very short and tight. In "Tenth of December" he takes it a little too far, and I was on the verge of being turned off by the kid's voice, but the story kicked in and took off just in time.

But it's worth studying technique-wise as he's really the master of writing in 3rd person POV with the closeness of a 1st person narrator. "Tenth of December" is a great example as he gets the best of both worlds, uses 3rd so can get inside two characters, but reads like 1st.



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voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin November 20, 2013 - 3:11am

Matt ~ yeah, I see it now. The full circle between horror and the corn. I love learning things like that, hidden means, symbolism and generally the way people work. Thanks for that :)

I will have to check out some of his other stories, any recommendations?

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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions November 20, 2013 - 3:45am

"Sea Oak" and "Tenth of December" are my two favorites, and both online here:


"Escape from Spiderhead" is another recent favorite. I liked both of his older collections, Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, but I haven't read them in years and all my books are back in the states so can't reference them.

I also think he gives some of the best interviews I've ever read or seen. He never really gets directly into craft, but he speaks deeply about his own process and there's always some great take away tips for writers.


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Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons November 20, 2013 - 3:19pm

This is my first Saunders story. I have his latest book and plan to read it soon. I've been so caught up reading Raymond Carver and Ron 'Rash lately. I have devored everything by them. Now I'm on to George Saunders.  I felt for both mothers, Marie at first and Callie after the ending. I think if a news crew showed up at Callie's house, but didnt' read the story through to the end,  she would be arrested. Goes to show there is always more than meets the eye. I have to admit at first i was thrown off by the "ho ho's." I didnt' think that is something anyone would say. It didnt' seem real. But i let that go and got on with the rest of the story. I did have to back-track a bit to figure out sometimes if he was talking about Marie or Callie. Perhaps that is just me gettign used to analyzing short stories. When I finished the story, I was delighted to be able to come to this chat and read what you all thought about it. I needed to hear what others said. Please keep doing these story posts. I will try to read quicker and be in at the start. 

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 20, 2013 - 4:44pm

@cove - eally enjoy Carver and i love Rash. did you read CHEMISTRY or something newer. i wrote a whole paper on Ron's hooks.

@matt - great analysis. that's what makes Saunders so special, i think. not sure if all of that imagery and them is on purpose, but either way, it shows what a genius he is. i love his quirks, too.

anybody else read "Victory Lap" holy crap, that was in TNY and i couldn't believe the language he got away with in it. i was kind of shocked, and really resepcted TNY for running it.

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Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons November 20, 2013 - 8:18pm

Richard, I red Nothing Gold Can Stay, short stories that were amazing. I think that is his latest. Then I read Burning Bright, another short story collection. I need to get Chemistry. I am now halfway through Serena, a novel that is so good I can't even describe it, except to say that Serena and Mr. Pemberton are Scarlett and Rhett on steroids in 1925. Would love to hear what you said about Rash in your paper.  I'm so thrilled i found this author. Carver is classically awesome. I just read a non fiction about his relationship with his editor that was great. Why are so many great writers so disfunctional for much of their lives, though? 


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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 20, 2013 - 9:00pm

if his collection isn't in this year's top 10, it will really have been an extraordinary year for books.  --- Maureen Corrigan @NPR

Really? It'd be extraordinary for a year in which hundreds (more like thousands) of books are published to contain a mere ten better(?) than his collection?

Not trying to troll on Saunders, (he's a good writer,) but his press coverage is sort of emblematic of the disconnect between mass media and the "reality" of everyday goings-on.

Then again, I don't read many contemporary books, so maybe he really is not only good but that much better than the rest of the people writing.

Yet I feel I am right in my skepticism. If someone were to issue me the challenge to find ten better books published in 2013, I believe I could do it. I haven't read them, but I believe they're out there, and if I had a couple years to weed through all the books published in the year 2013, I'd make good. But neither I nor Maureen Corrigan have the requisite time in which to undertake this task; and we must all therefore bow in solemnity to the wisdom supposed by her statement, or cancel it from memory altogether.

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Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons November 20, 2013 - 9:43pm

Well, I agree some what JYH, but Saunders latest collection did strike a cord in the world.  I had not read him before, but was so excited that a short story collection could sell so well.   Short stories are usually a hard sell to the public when they are up against  commercial  fiction and sweeping novels. Let's face it, not many people    read literary fiction, much less short stories. We are lucky to be among friends who appreciate the written word. When Saunders book hit, I was thrilled. I don't know if it will make the top ten, but it depends whose top 10. NewYork Times, yes maybe. USA TOday, probably not. Makes me feel better though that people are reading him. I say we go with this and let the short story writer get his glory, even if there are 10 better books published. His book kind of heralds our craft. 

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voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin November 21, 2013 - 6:01am

Just read Sea Oak​. So good. It completely took a left turn and went where I wasn't expecting :)

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 21, 2013 - 8:29am

@Cove --- Yeah, the increased attention for stories is a good thing, I think. Unless the attention they get is consistently hyperbolic and illogical, in which case people who're actually thinking about what they hear might get turned off. This wouldn't make them dislike short stories on the whole, perhaps, but they might grow to dislike whatever people are calling "mainstream". So I was moaning more about book reviewers and coverage, not Saunders or his writing. [Which was off-topic, so apologies to anybody annoyed by that.]

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 21, 2013 - 2:10pm

i took that to mean it was one of the top ten COLLECTIONS of the year. there are SO many wonderful stories in this book. i don't know if it's the top ten for BOOKS, but i'd say, YEAH, for sure, top ten for collections. one of the best of the year. i read so many of these stories on their own over the years, in THE NEW YORKER and other places. but he's not for everyone. he really pushed TNY to publish some edgy stuff, i think. 

there IS a vote going on over at GOODREADS for best book of the year, and TENTH OF DECEMBER made the finals, which i think is ten books.

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 21, 2013 - 6:30pm

Generally, I like Saunders. CivilWarLand's title story was a favorite of my recent reading. I've started Puppy twice and can't get through it. Maybe it's the font.

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 21, 2013 - 9:46pm

lol...the beginning is weird, i'll give you that. it get better, you really have to stick with it.

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Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick November 25, 2013 - 9:09pm

As an ESL not living in an English-speaking country, I had a hard time understanding the subtleties and found myself reading it for the second time. (much better).

I guess I imagined the characters differently, too. I thought Roberts was an old man, partly because he said (Ho HO!), in a calm but amused way. (or a bit surprised?) By the way, what's with Josh asking for Bra Stuffer?(effeminate tendency for a boy child?)

After my first read, I wanted to answer the top post about which mother is better by siding with Marie, who had a rough childhood (the scene of her mother entertaining a ditchdigger, the vigil outside in the cold), but is being affable and supportive, if not to the point of spoiling it, to her kids. But after the second read, I understand the love of Callie better. So, Callie's a winner here. I guess the crankshaft and car tire, which made the impression is Jimmy's fault, probably. Both of the parent's, but more Jimmy's.

Marie was maybe a bit carried off with her enthusiastic and smug imaginations, and having this condescending attitude when (anthropolgically?) inspecting Callie's home.

But I wonder what was meant at this paragraph. 

And it was a nice pup, but Marie was not going to contribute to a situation like this in even the smallest way.

Overall, it's a great story. It's been a while since I read a story with a modern realistic setting like this.



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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions January 4, 2014 - 8:13pm

I wrote earlier that Saunders gives the best interviews for aspiring writers to read. Another great one now at Salon:


I've never seen him give writing advice--"you should do this but not this"--but he speaks so precisely and intimately about his own work and process that I'm constantly scribbling notes. I think I've learned more about writing from Saunders interviews than any other source.

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DP March 9, 2014 - 4:27pm

Need serious help on this story. Is it about Callie learning how to love people for who they are?

Usually short stories show a character trying to overcome some sort of hurdle ... and at the end, they have changed in a very specific way.

With the short story, "Puppy," I'm struggling to figure out who the protagonist is and how she changed.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.