In her first story collection since her acclaimed Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg offers 11 uncanny tales about women confronting misogyny, violence, the impossible economics of America, and their own slippery selves.
The terrain of Van den Berg’s difficult, beautiful and urgent new book, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, is an ecosystem of weird and stirring places you’ll want to revisit, reconsider, maybe even take shelter in. It’s easy to get going, because Van den Berg is such a master of setups ... Possessing some of Karen Russell’s spookiness and Otessa Moshfegh’s penchant for unsettling observations about the way we live now—personally incisive but alive with a kind of ambient political intelligence—Van den Berg feels like the writer we not only want but maybe need right now ... There is range here, particularly in characters and relationships: single people, mothers and daughters, loners, but also people engaged in the long dance of marriage ... Van den Berg is so consistently smart and kind, bracingly honest, keen about mental illness and crushing about everything from aging to evil that you might not be deluded in hoping that the usual order of literary fame could be reversed: that an author with respectable acclaim for her novels might earn wider recognition for a sneakily brilliant collection of stories.
Exquisite. It took a decade of writing book reviews to get here, but here we are — I've used 'exquisite.' The stories in Laura van den Berg's I Hold a Wolf by the Ears are exquisite. They're tiny, uncanny morsels about broken women and mysterious things that possess a literary umami that falls somewhere between horror, literary fiction, mystery, drama, and social critique. They deal with death and loss, with isolation and falling in love with the wrong person. They are unsettling and bizarre, coming at you from weird angles to hit you in unexpected ways like the well-trained fists of a professional boxer ... Varying in length and tone, the tales in I Hold a Wolf by the Ears share a sense of urgency and sadness that helps the collection cohere. The urgency comes from the frenetic pace, the economy of language that makes every line feel necessary and meaningful. And when I say sadness, I mean it ... If urgency and sadness are the main elements here, then strangeness is the glue Van den Berg uses to bond them together ... Despite the strength of these elements, the stories in I Hold a Wolf by the Ears do much more than scare, unsettle, entertain, and, in a way, hurt. The writing here gets at the core of the human experience and forces you to look at the darkness therein. We are flawed and we suffer, and Van den Berg shines when writing about those things. Her words cut to the bone, completely devoid of any cushioning that would make the experience less harsh. She knows you've loved the wrong person. She knows you still fear the dark. She knows death can be awful for those left behind. She knows you think you're not as awful as some other people ... Van den Berg's writing gets under your skin and stays there, making you wonder why you feel uneasy, why you believe ghosts can be photographed and people can climb up tress and vanish forever...Her words are poetry ... Yes, these stories will hurt you like a skilled boxer, but they'll make you realize you're a bit of a masochist if Van den Berg's the one hurting you.
... includes a few smart touches of metafiction, as the teacher of stories comments on the one she’s telling. On top of that—check out those verbs! 'Wept' and 'eavesdropped' throw off fresh glimmers, given the spin van den Berg puts on them ... A similar richness of reading pleasures brims in every one of these 11 tales ... offers the greatest distillation of [van den Ber's] talents to date. To pick a best story is beyond me; now I favor 'Volcano House,' now 'Karolina,' and now the closer, also the title piece ... The voice is just part of the excitement, with its pyrotechnic verbs ... Eye-popping description, however, is far from the only form of liveliness in these narratives ... magic often flits around the edges of Hold a Wolf, yet I count only two stories which entail something truly surreal.