Book of the Week: Man V. Nature – Diane Cook

I love this collection. And when I love a story collection, the name of George Saunders usually pops up early in the discussion. Saunders’ stories seem to me distinctly original–at once familiar and deeply weird, violent and deeply compassionate, even funny and horrible—all at once. (Readers who cast their net more broadly will perhaps point to writers like Calvino and Borges in this category, too.) I can only guess but it seems that younger writers like Karen Russell, Ethan Rutherford, Wells Tower, Aimee Bender and Diane Cook must have found some inspiration and liberation in Saunders.

It’s a tricky school to belong to. Imitators of that surreal, fabulist landscape read like the pale imitations they are. The writers who manage to own their own unique space in it are each one of a kind. Not exactly as rare as hen’s teeth–but few and far between.

Cook honed her sensibility by working for seven years as a producer and contributor on This American Life and had several pieces on the show. Of this collection, This American Life host Ira Glass, says, “What I like most about these stories is that many of them are dispatches from the end of the world, and it turns out to be a surprisingly familiar place.”

What are the stories about? I could tell you, but like traveling, the experience doesn’t really make sense till you get there and look around. Editor Terry Karten sums up the neighborhood this way: “Cook explores the anxieties of modern life through the lens of the natural world. Our fears of apocalypse, weather catastrophe, danger, loss, and loneliness are embodied in the experiences of characters we relate to.”

Many booksellers are fans of this collection so it’s no surprise that it’s an Indie Next Pick. The Huffington Post included Man V. Nature in its “Best Books of the Fall” preview; it’s set to be reviewed in the NYTBR, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon; and Harper’s just ran her story “Bounty” in the August 2014 edition.

“Cook’s potent and unnerving stories depict ghastly battles between humans and the brute forces of nature… Adept at a stark spookiness in the vein of Shirley Jackson and William Golding, Cook also summons up a lonely weirdness like that of Aimee Bender and George Saunders…. Cook writes assuredly of archetypal terror and even more insightfully of hunger–for food, friendship, love, and, above all, survival. A canny, refined, and reverberating debut.”

12 mercilessly in-your-face stories…Cook’s sharply honed prose packs an intellectual yet disturbing wallop.”

“The characters in Cook’s debut story collection inhabit isolated worlds….where unwanted boys take to a deserted forest and live out a Lord of the Flies–style tragedy. There’s also an intense fear of the outside world lurking throughout….. ‘Marrying Up’ finds a woman constantly remarrying after her husbands are murdered by groups of riotous thugs occupying the outdoors. And ‘The Mast Year’ chronicles the life of a young woman who, after a string of good fortune, becomes a talisman for the less privileged that arrive at her front door, hoping her luck will rub off. Quirkiness abounds, with several fairy-tale tropes thrown in for good measure…Some stories jump off the page, others falter, yet all are oddly charming.”
 Publishers Weekly

Cook has a keen eye for dredging up our deepest fears in these surreal stories. From child abduction to global warming her characters face the unthinkable with remarkable aplomb and surprising results. Cook is a true original and it’s impossible to guess just which way her stories will turn, but you can trust that most of the time it will be the right way.”
— Arsen Kashkashian, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

“Unusual.  Dark.  Well-written.  Compelling.  Thought provoking.  Each of Diane Cook’s twelve stories in this collection takes a unique look at a twisted supposition:  What if the ocean continued to rise?  What if the end of the world came while you were at work in a high-rise?  What if too much success meant you had to open your home and support well-wishers for a year? I was entertained by these stories, I was impressed by them.”
  Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Man V. Nature: Stories (9780062333100) by Diane Cook. $25.99 hardcover. 10/7/14 on sale.

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