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The New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Into the black box: Author George Saunders wants to change your thinking.

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Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014 5:00 am

IT’S NOT AN EXAGGERATION. Enter any of the stories in author George Saunders’ latest collection — Tenth of December, published by Random House — and you’ll come out the other side changed. That’s exactly what Saunders wants. The tales are at once engaging, entertaining, and sometimes emotionally exhausting. Though not preachy, they bring you to a place where the connection you make with his characters, even the repulsive ones, opens your heart, if only a crack. Hope is found even in the face of evil. In the book’s opening story, “Victory Lap,” a boy from a regimented, duty-bound family witnesses the abduction of a neighbor girl and must decide between what he was taught to do in cases of emergency and what he knows might save the girl’s life. In “Escape From Spiderland,” human trials of mood- and mental-ability-enhancing drugs present one of the subjects with a terrible choice. In the book’s title story, a boy who escapes his awkward life through heroic fantasies crosses paths with a man bent on suicide. The resolutions of the stories aren’t quite what the reader expects. But their effect is undeniable.

Since the release of his first collection in 1996, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders has been celebrated as a fresh, satirical voice with an honest and unerring way of steering readers’ emotions. A glowing profile in The New York Times by its Sunday magazine deputy editor Joel Lovell — who appears with Saunders at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Feb. 12 — describes him as a genius, someone “you might peg … as the superfriendly host of a woodworking show on daytime public access.” Lovell’s opinion of the writer has only strengthened since he worked on the story. “Well, I really think George is just a remarkable human being, in addition to being a freaky genius,” he told Pasatiempo in an email. “He’s just one of those rare people around whom you want to be your best and most generous and honest self. And that quality as a person comes out in the writing in all sorts of ways — the intense empathy on display, the outrageous humor, the delight he clearly takes as a writer in being entertaining, trusting that the serious stuff — big questions about morality and death and responsibility to fellow human beings and etc. — will mean more to a reader when it arrives in these surprising and pleasing packages.” Saunders, who says the two became friends as the Times piece was written, seemed to prove the point, telling Pasa that “Joel is a fantastically nice guy, far nicer than I am. He’s a person who’s always thinking how to be more present and generous with people. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that story at all until we did the first interview and I saw who he was.”

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