Wednesday, March 17, 2010

what the world will look like when all the water leaves us by Laura van den Berg

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Uswhat the world will look like when all the water leaves us by Laura van den Berg
2009, 205 pages

what the world will look like when all the water leaves us is a book of short stories by Laura van den Berg. The stories are set in locations ranging from Boston to the Congo, from Paris to Madagascar. In eight stories, van den Berg's heroines deal with loss, disappointment, and other obstacles.

Despite the fact that this was a book of short stories, van den Berg quickly establishes her characters and their worlds in each. For example, in the opening paragraph of goodbye my loveds, I was amazed at how quickly she established an atmosphere and character, immediately making me interested in the story:
My brother entered my room at dawn. He wanted to show me the hole outside our building. I got out of bed and he drug me through the blue-black light of our basement apartment. He was twelve, although most people thought he was younger. I didn't tell him I was already awake, lying on my back and gazing at the ceiling, trying hard to return to sleep until my alarm sounded, trying hard to be normal. (p34)
Laura van den Berg is a fantastic writer. Several times when reading this I paused to reread something and savor her writing. Her writing is lyrical and natural, and I loved the way she uses images to convey the emotional state of the characters. Take this example (the narrator has lost her parents and has become the sole caretaker of her brother):
One section of the store consisted entirely of antique maps. I liked to find maps of the places my parents had been and study the geography, imagining them crossing the blue lines of the Kalambo River in Tanzania or climbing the brown peaks of Mount Abu in India. The phone rang. I ignored it at first, then realized it might be my brother and answered. It was Denver, calling to tell me the hole in the street was actually a tunnel that led to the other side of the world. (p41)
All of the stories in this collection are incredibly touching. When I finished the first short story in the book, where we must be, I was really touched and had to put the book down and let it sink in before reading any more. In most of the stories, van den Berg's heroines are coping with some form of loss, and van den Berg does an amazing job of portraying the emotions of her characters yet ending each story on a hopeful note. It's been a few days since I finished reading this, and most of the stories still stick out to me individually.

I will say that, reading this book exclusively over the course of a week, the stories began to feel repetitive midway through. I think that be my own fault though - perhaps my mistake is attempting to read all the short stories in a row. Do you all tend to read a book of short stories exclusively all at once, or intersperse it with other things? As a newcomer to short story collections, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend it for van den Berg's writing and characters. It has definitely served as a great reintroduction to short fiction for me!


  1. I'm not a big fan of short stories though of course I've read some very good ones. I love long novels where I really get to know the characters. Somehow that is almost impossible in a short story. I think it does help to intersperse it with another book. Your review sounds interesting. I've never heard of this writer.

  2. This sounds like a great short story collection, and I like the author's writing style from the passages you included.

    I tend to read short story collections all at once, even though I know I shouldn't. It makes it obvious when stories have the same tone or theme. At least that was my experience with the last story collection I read last year.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  3. This sounds wonderful! I've never thought of reading a whole collection of short stories, but your review desperately makes me want to!

    from Une Parole

  4. I rarely read short stories, but this sounds intriguing. Your writing is beautiful, Dana. I always look forward to reading your reviews.

  5. I like the sound of this one! When I read a collection of short stories, I try (sometimes successfully) to space them out a bit. That lets me spend a little more time thinking about each one.

  6. i have never been a fan of short stories so i put this book back down when i picked it up at the library although i LOVED the title. I was hoping to read some reviews and then go back for my friday library day and pick it back up. I do like the quotes you've included but I'm just not sure i'm sold on the book enough to really give it a go. i'm still much more of a give me a 500 page book and leave me alone for a day and i'm happy....did the stories really resonate with you enough? was there enough there?

  7. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but this one does sound interesting. It's a great review and I love your blog!

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  9. I am short story convert - I used to hate them but now I find myself impressed by how an author can tell such a complete story with real characters in a short format.

    Thanks for reviewing this one - I will have to check it out!

  10. I am kinda of picky about short story collections, so I'm still not sure about this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  12. thsi sounds very good, its great when the writing is that good that you need to just take a minute to absorb it. When I read short stories, I do tend to read them all one after the other.