MICHELE NORRIS, host:
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You never forget your favorite mentor, the one whose words could raise your spirits or could make you feel terrible. For Sarah Braunstein, that mentor was a teacher who helped her hone her writing skills, sometimes through harsh criticism.
Now, Braunstein is a writer herself, and she recommends a book by her former teacher. It's for our series, You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love.
Ms. SARAH BRAUNSTEIN (Author, "The Sweet Relief of Missing Children"): In 2000, I was a 23-year-old fledgling writer. I had no idea how to write a story but wanted to do nothing else.
For one semester, Joy Williams, whose short story collection "Taking Care" I'd long admired, was my teacher in a writing workshop. With cutting precision and candor, she tore into our drafts.
It was not an easy experience, but it was an electric one. I felt seen by her critiques: They were brisk, ego-less and exactly right. One letter concluded: It seems I have criticized all your methods of telling this story; indeed, I believe they're all errant. And her occasional praise felt like none I'd ever received: miraculous. Fiction, she told us, must be cold, cold, cold. I left that class shivering with excitement. I never saw her again.
Soon after, Williams published her fourth novel, "The Quick and the Dead." This cold, cold, cold book creates exhilarating heat. Williams examines the strangest and ugliest parts of her characters.
The book follows a ragtag bunch, including three motherless daughters, a taxidermist and the 8-year-old girl he reveres. There's a mood of absurdity, anarchy, looming destruction, hyper-real horror and comedy. As the characters connect and disconnect, as they yell at and negotiate with one another, a spellbinding world comes into focus. The dialogue always crackles. Here's orphaned teenage Alice and adult Sherwin sitting together at a restaurant.
You ever notice that I got a glass eye? Sherwin asked.
No, Alice said.
Pretty interesting, huh?
No, Alice said. You don't have a glass eye. Both of them move.
That's because it's on a coral fragment. There's a real piece of coral back there that the muscles are attached to, so it can swing around a little bit. A little piece of coral from America's only living reef tract off Marathon, Florida.
You can't take coral in the Florida Keys, Alice said. It's a crime. A felony.
A felony, Sherwin said.
A misdemeanor, then. It should be a felony.
My god, she'd deprive me of an eye.
The whole book is like this: brisk, funny, uncanny. We get a sense of something truly alive between, not merely inside, the characters. Though Williams spares her characters no pain, the overall effect is deeply compassionate. To gaze as she does, to strip away layers of socialization, to show us the bizarreness beneath, we need a brilliant and detached guide. This is us, Williams seems to say. These are our subterranean selves. The pleasures and pains of this book are vast. I refused to look away, even when I wanted to.
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NORRIS: That was Sarah Braunstein, author of the book "The Sweet Relief of Missing Children." You can read this and other recommendations at our website, npr.org. And to discuss books with other NPR listeners, join the NPR Facebook community. Search for NPR Books and click on like.
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