I Hold a Wolf by the Ears


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Pub Date 28 Jul 2020 | Archive Date 15 Dec 2020


ONE OF TIME'S 10 BEST FICTION BOOKS OF 2020. Longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize. Named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, Bustle, Good Housekeeping, the New York Public Library, Library Journal, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, and Tor.com

"As enchanting as fairy tales, as mysterious as dreams, these exquisitely composed fictions are as urgent and original as any being written today.” —Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend, winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction

An urgent and unsettling collection of women on the verge from Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, Laura van den Berg’s first story collection since her prizewinning book The Isle of Youth, draws readers into a world of wholly original, sideways ghost stories that linger in the mouth and the mind. Both timeless and urgent, these eleven stories confront misogyny, violence, and the impossible economics of America with van den Berg’s trademark spiky humor and surreal eye. Moving from the peculiarities of Florida to liminal spaces of travel in Mexico City, Sicily, and Iceland, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is uncannily attuned to our current moment, and to the fears we reveal to no one but ourselves.

In “Lizards,” a man mutes his wife’s anxieties by giving her a LaCroix-like seltzer laced with sedatives. In the title story, a woman poses as her more successful sister during a botched Italian holiday, a choice that brings about strange and destructive consequences, while in “Karolina,” a woman discovers her prickly ex-sister-in-law in the aftermath of an earthquake and is forced to face the truth about her violent brother.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears presents a collection of women on the verge, trying to grasp what’s left of life: grieving, divorced, and hyperaware, searching, vulnerable, and unhinged, they exist in a world that deviates from our own only when you look too closely. With remarkable control and transcendent talent, van den Berg dissolves, in the words of the narrator of “Slumberland,” “that border between magic and annihilation,” and further establishes herself as a defining fiction writer of our time.

ONE OF TIME'S 10 BEST FICTION BOOKS OF 2020. Longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize. Named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, Bustle, Good Housekeeping, the New York Public Library, Library Journal, Lit...

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Featured Reviews

I enjoyed the author’s 2015 novel, Find Me, but was less enchanted by last year’s The Third Hotel. I requested these stories to give her writing another go. Interestingly, I found it a mixed bag with some writings falling into the suspenseful and taut writing akin to Find Me and others with less cohesion like The Third Hotel. I didn’t really enjoy the whole collection or find it overall satisfying, but there were a few gems in the mix.

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When it comes to dark, twisted writing, Laura van den Berg is clearly a master: This book is disturbing and funny, surreal and all-too-real, fearless and terrifying. In eleven short stories, the author illuminates the female experience, highlighting certain aspects and phenomena by giving the texts a surreal edge. While the storylines are often slightly meandering (hello, The Third Hotel), the texts are not build in a traditional manner; rather, they are structured around pivotal incidents and observations that make up the core of the individual stories, and everything else that is happening is grouped around this core. Many themes and motifs appear again and again throughout the whole collection, like doppelgängers, running away/fleeing, killers and their victims, death and loss, toxic masculinity, overpowering natural forces (earthquake, volcano etc.), animals, and family, especially siblings. The book opens with the sentence: "I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died" - and such well-placed, gripping sentences are an important element of van den Berg's narrative strategy. In the stories, we meet (among others) a woman who, after an earthquake, runs into her beloved brother's ex-wife and learns to accept that he was a perpetrator of domestic violence; there's a young actress who starts a business by offering to impersonate deceased wives for their widowers; a wife is secretly drugged by her husband; a female illustrator paints a surreal ballet troupe comprised of animals behind her furniture (you just have to love this idea!); and a couple confronts the losses of the past while watching their daughter die. Van den Berg takes her readers to all kinds of places, from Florida to Sicily, Spain, Mexico City, as well as - two of my favorite places in the world that generally do not feature enough in literature - to Minneapolis and Reykjavik. But unlike in Lauren Groff's Florida, for example, the sense of place is not defining for the scenes depicted; rather, the characters are caught up in themselves and roam (often foreign) places, drifting through spaces and psychological states, trying to balance inside and outside world. I have great admiration for van den Berg's daring poetic concept and her sensibilities for all things strange and weird: She never relies on pure effects (unlike The Dominant Animal: Stories, which is marketed similarly and can't compete at all), there is always subtlety and more than one smart thought buried behind under unsettling ideas. Still, I have to admit that I tend to struggle with meandering textual structures and prefer more stringent compositions - but this is not what van den Berg is intending to do here, and I won't hold my personal taste against her. Maybe it would also have been better to not read the whole thing in two days - the stories need more room to breathe, but I am not one to ration books over longer periods of time. Van den Berg is one of the most interesting writers around, and while I'm probably not her ideal reader, I absolutely recommend checking out her texts.

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