THE ISLE OF YOUTH, LAURA VAN DEN BERG (Book Preview)

Though the faithful readers of The Buzz About know us primarily as an arena wherein we rave (and occasionally rant) about the latest records we’ve encountered, I’m trying something a bit different. I think it’s a fair assumption that many of you listeners and lovers and makers of music out there are also equally passionate about books. Novels, memoirs, poetry, short stories—I imagine so many of you have bookshelves as overcrowded and threatening to capsize as mine. So after receiving (ever so luckily) an advanced copy of Laura van den Berg’s forthcoming collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, I felt compelled to sing the book’s praises here, in the hopes that you’ll pre-order this fantastic collection this instant, or else eagerly anticipate its release in November.


I first came across Laura van den Berg’s writing by way of the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection, which featured, several years ago, her terrific story “Where We Must Be,” which remains one of my favorite stories—tender, clever, funny, and confident. Soon after, van den Berg released her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. The title is a mouthful—which does not even remotely bother this Fiona Apple megafan—and it should be: that collection is packed front to back with stellar prose, masterfully-created characters, and a style all her own. Stories with hearts as big as the ones collected in her debut can’t be contained by a title any briefer.


It was my great privilege, then, to get my hands on The Isle of Youth, and after reading the collection twice over—I’ve read some stories three or four times at this point; LvdB’s stories are so worth studying—I’m in awe of how much Laura van den Berg has raised the bar in the four years since her first book. Each and every story is a gem, and that’s such a rarity when it comes to the short story collections. Even with my favorite collections from writers I love like Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, and Ann Beattie, you’re bound to find a dud here and there. I think this goes for most of my favorite albums, too. So it’s a testament to Laura’s brilliance to say that each and every story in this book is mandatory reading.


Throughout my first read and my subsequent revisits, I was reminded of a line from Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) that I keep tacked above my desk. It’s from an interview she did the year after she got sober, and in discussing her various addictions, she says, “Everybody needs to get out of somewhere. Lots of people don’t.” I think this is a sentiment shared by so many of the narrators in The Isle of Youth, a collection that orbits themes of escape and disappearance; vanishings and materializations. Be they literal escapes—like the missing father in “Opa-Locka” and the mother-daughter magic duo in “The Greatest Escape”—or figurative, the characters in this book all need to get out somewhere. And, per Chan Marshall’s observation, a lot of them don’t. There are places and positions that these characters find inescapable, and what van den Berg does with that frustrated stagnancy is often what’s most moving about the stories. There even comes a character, in the title story, who says, so painfully, so honestly, “I just wanted to get out of my life.”


This is why Laura van den Berg is as revered as she is, and why I know this book will only bring her more praise and acclaim, all of it so hard-earned and so deserved. Due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 5th, and available for pre-order now.

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