“The Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays and Poetry,” edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley, Introduction by George Saunders, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 371 pages, $27
When “The Collected Stories of Grace Paley” was published in 1994, many who had admired them extravagantly for decades as they emerged slowly thought that it would be the one utterly essential Grace Paley book to have.
But editor Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter knew better. Bowen says he became increasingly aware that the most ardent and enlightened partisans of one of the late century’s greatest writers “knew Grace Paley through one or another aspect of her work” but few “knew her through the full range of stories, poems, involvements and essays.” As magnificent a book as “The Collected Stories” was--and remains--there was almost another Paley life entirely to be considered, as a political and feminist activist that continually drew the devotion of many who might have little sense of the stories. And that life can be found in the essays. In the poems, you find a personal expression that is something else again.
So here is one of the great books of 2017 -- the “Grace Paley Reader” Bowen and Nora Paley envisioned to embody fully one of the greatest literary and political lives of her time. What George Saunders says in his introduction to the book (it is, alone, worth the price, as one era’s extravagantly admired “writer’s writer” is enraptured by another from the immediately preceding era) is inarguable: “In Paley, you hear America singing, yes, but also: bellyaching, kvetching, teasing, advocating, disarming, politicizing, explaining the states of their bodies, assessing friends, lovers and their children with both clinical distance and aching love.” It’s a “universe” he says and it’s “incapable of a dull sentence.”
Find, for instance, the essay “Of Poetry and Women of the World,” whose generic title seems to promise one thing but delivers another in an arresting and magnificent autobiographical fragement about gender and writing. And then on to justice and all the things she’s done to “add to the balance of human experience.” Which now, in this overdue and necessary book, can be perceived in their unity and precious singularity.