20 for 2012: Short Story Collections

As lovers of short fiction already know, we’re smack-dab in the middle of National Short Story Month. Those who were unaware of this calendar distinction were probably off celebrating May as National Asparagus Month, National High Blood Pressure Month, or National Correct Posture Month (and if you think I’ve made any of those up, I challenge you to Google me wrong). In honor of Short Story Month, I thought I’d make a list of collections coming out in 2012—and a few you can already find in bookstores—which I’m most looking forward to reading.

But first, a short sermon….

I’ve always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends–good friends, well-read, intelligent, reasonable friends–who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, “Oh, I don’t do short stories.” It’s said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, “I don’t do meat.” When I come back with, “Why not?” the answers are always vague and insubstantial. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don’t like short stories. I suspect they’re afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school. Quite possibly involving nuns, rulers, and knuckles.

It’s true that the short story is the most commonly assigned form of literature deployed by high school English teachers. They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re….short. For every To Kill a Mockingbird there are five “Hills Like White Elephants” in the classroom. It makes me wonder if we’re ruining future short-story enthusiasts at the age when they’re less capable of finding the subtleties and nuances of stories than they are in easier-to-grasp novels.By their nature, short stories compress language to its densest gem-like state (second only to poetry); novels sprawl and emphasize plot and are generally more accessible to younger readers. I could be wrong, but I think the average 15-year-old would rather read The Catcher in the Rye than “Young Goodman Brown.”

On the other hand, maybe a quick sip of fiction is perfectly suited for the harried, hurried pace of the modern teenager. Some fiction can be easily digested between tweets or during commercial breaks.  Okay, that’s being unfairly reductive—teens are smarter and better than that—but I think you catch my drift. Short fiction should be increasingly more attractive to the social media generation, and not marginalized by publishers and bookstores.

Where is this tangent leading? How did I get here? Oh yeah, short-story haters. A puzzling demographic of our literary society. I suspect they’ve already stopped reading this post, so I can say whatever I want about them. They’re stuffy, waddle around with a stick in their asses, and are so rigid in their routines and tastes that they’d never try eating at anything exotic as a Persian restaurant that served goat kebabs. There, I’ve said it. I feel better.

Enough soapbox and on to my picks for Short Story Month…


Together We Can Bury It
by Kathy Fish: For nearly a decade, Fish has been quietly, patiently writing short stories in small-circulation literary journals and various corners of the internet (I first came across her work on Fictionaut.com), and now she has brought many of those pieces together in one book.  Here you’ll find characters caught “in the midst of separation, divorce, widowhood, and desperation” (according to the jacket copy).  Fish’s images are startling and precise—like the couple who is watching a foreign film which has a soundtrack which “is exactly the sound of an accordion squeezing the life out of a kitten.”

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret:  Like Fish, Keret specializes in flash fiction.  In general, short-short stories are often too enigmatic to emotionally engage the reader.  I mean, how do you reduce a universe of meaning to something smaller than the size of a breadbox? Etgar Keret makes it look easy.  His stories are odd, jarring juxtapositions which can spin off into magical realism at the drop of a single word.  But they’re also thrilling and wholly satisfying.  The first line of the first story in this book begins with a pistol-wielding man giving an order to the narrator, “Tell me a story.”  And so, Keret the writer gladly complies.

The Shape of the Final Dog by Hampton Fancher:  Best known as one of the screenwriters for Blade Runner, Fancher makes his debut with this collection of stories about people (and animals) who live on the edge of reality. Here’s how the publisher’s jacket copy describes some of the stories: “in ‘Narrowing the Divide,’ an escaped lab rat winds up in a philosophical conversation with a man whose wife sleeps in the next room; in ‘Cargo,’ a failed actor is reincarnated as a garden snail and avenges himself with a Hollywood producer’s wife; and in ‘The Black Weasel,’ a washed-up bartender finds an unlikely traveling partner in a slow-witted drifter with a suspicious bankroll.”  Skimming the first paragraphs of some of these stories, I was struck by an off-kilter tone reminiscent of Kafka or Borges. The publisher compares Fancher to Jim Shepard and Charles D’Ambrosio, “with a touch of Flannery O’Connor’s mordant wit.” Either way, I’m chasing after this one like it was a replicant on the run.

Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen:  Upon the publication of his novel Witz, Cohen earned critical comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, and the spirits of both those writers also seem to hover over this quartet of stories coming from Graywolf Press in August. These are tales of internet addiction, viral blogs which reveal embarrassing habits, architecture, porn, and, in one instance, “a frustrated pharmaceutical copywriter.”

Windeye by Brian Evenson: Evenson is a writer who has been humming like a quiet menace in the literary horror genre for years, earning fans and critical acclaim for his thoughtful, twisted fiction.  He’s been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and the winner of the International Horror Guild Award, and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel. His new collection from Coffee House Press spans a range of time from feudal to post-apocalyptic and features, among other things, a murderous horse and a transplanted car with a mind of its own. Bolt the doors and wrap yourself in a blanket to ward off the chill of these stories.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman: Walk into a bookstore these days and you’ll be surrounded by dozens of well-meaning “pet memoirs” (both those penned by the owners and, coming soon, one “written” by Uggie, the star of this year’s Oscar-winning The Artist).  But I doubt any of them have the impact of Bergman’s stories about the intersections and interactions between humans, animals, and nature. The author is married to a veterinarian and is surrounded by “a menagerie of animals” on their Vermont farm, so she drew inspiration from scenes outside her window. But the fiction goes deeper than feel-good pet tales—these are stories that always seek the broader human experience in their resolutions.

No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders: Like Bergman, Sanders also writes of human-animal encounters….but at a decidedly odder angle. A grieving mother makes a lion out of bedsheets, a lizard’s owners try desperately to keep him alive, and an angler and a halibut engage in an Old Man and the Sea-ish tug-of-war for survival. The zoo in Sanders’ collection also includes bears, deer, horses, octopi, and—as we see at the start of “Opinion of Person”—a frisky feline: “The cat was into the curtains; his goddamn claws were pricking and popping. Even from the bed, Julie could see the new little starholes he was making in the cloth. The fabric swung as Rory’s shadow twitched, high up between the sheers and drapes where he was hanging.  Julie waited for him to fall. ‘You’ll die, you dumb animal,’ she said.”

The Greatest Show by Michael Downs:  This collection of linked stories recounts, in part, the haunting tragedy of the Hartford, Connecticut circus fire of 1944. I’m attracted not only to the story (which was told so well in Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire) but also to Downs’ writing. Like this from the story “Ania”:  “At that moment, a flash of orange appeared on the other side of the big top, then rose up the wall of the tent. Ania thought it must be part of the performance, it seemed such a miraculous thing. But the crowd fell quiet, and then a thunder rumbled from all around and someone yelled ‘Fire!’ and the thunder exploded, flames charging up and across the billowing roof of the tent, people rushing from the bleachers, knocking chairs underfoot. A trapeze artist jumped from his platform, and Ania watched him twist through air to the sudden ground.”  The Greatest Show spans five decades of the city haunted by the tragedy of the fire. As the publisher’s synopsis says, it raises “questions about wounds and healing, memory and forgetting, and about the human capacity for kindness–with all its futility and power–in the midst of great loss.”

Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross:  I was sucked into Cross’ collection by the opening of his first story, “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean,” in which a boy deals with the death of his father and abandonment by his brother through a savage playground beating: “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone. He approached him, telling him that he’d found a dead dog decomposing in a far corner of the school’s courtyard.”  That scene ends with the victim’s screams which sound “like a car peeling out, like the high-pitched squeal of rubber on asphalt.” Here’s a taste of what you’ll get in the rest of Cross’ collection: a young man confronts his own troubled history when asked to hire on his girlfriend’s strung-out brother in an attempt to keep him out of prison; a teenage babysitter works through a scorching-hot summer afternoon that will prove to alter her life forever; a grieving widower finds comfort in the unlikeliest of places, a recently-built casino; an itinerant farm worker visits the same former lover in South Dakota year after year while following the Harvest north; two friends search for excuses and fail to claim responsibility for their own decisions after one loses his father, and the other’s house burns to the ground; and a taxidermist falls in love with the ex-wife of his high school bully and tries to convince her to marry him despite her son who seems to share his father’s bullying mentality.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz:  A collection of new short stories from Diaz is as much cause for celebration as news of a new book from Alice Munro (see below). I loved his splashy debut, Drown, and like many of you, I was sucked completely into The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So, I’ve got a dozen calendar reminders set for the release of this new collection of short stories in September. The publisher’s synopsis is short on specifics and long on gauzy, vague summation, but it does promise an exploration of love: “the heat of new passion, the recklessness with which we betray what we most treasure, and the torture we go through—‘the begging, the crawling over glass, the crying’—to try to mend what we’ve broken beyond repair.” This will be one of the biggest short story collections of the year and I doubt it will disappoint.

Dear Life by Alice Munro:  The prolific Munro releases a fresh collection once every three or four years and Dear Life—set for a November release—is right on schedule after 2009’s Too Much Happiness. Once again, she’ll be taking us to the interior lives of men and women living in her particular universe: countryside and towns around Lake Huron. We will learn much about the human condition and, for those of us who are writers, we will be paralyzed with awe at her unmatchable craft. I’ll join the chorus of those calling Munro our North American Chekhov.

Aerogrammes by Tania James: Here’s another collection that’s been building buzz lately. James’ short stories are set in locales as varied as London, Sierra Leone, and the American Midwest and there’s a restless, rootless nature permeating the pages. This is how the publisher summarizes some of the plots: In “Lion and Panther in London,” a turn-of-the-century Indian wrestler arrives in London desperate to prove himself champion of the world, only to find the city mysteriously absent of challengers. In “Light & Luminous,” a gifted dance instructor falls victim to her own vanity when a student competition allows her a final encore. In “The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor,” a young man obsessively studies his father’s handwriting in hopes of making sense of his death. And in the marvelous “What to Do with Henry,” a white woman from Ohio takes in the illegitimate child her husband left behind in Sierra Leone, as well as an orphaned chimpanzee who comes to anchor this strange new family. Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, praises Aerogrammes by saying, “I would recommend this collection to anyone looking for proof that the short story is joyfully, promiscuously, thrillingly alive.”

Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin: Talk about an overachiever!  This June, Ohlin will see two books published simultaneously—the novel Inside and this collection of short stories. At his blog Three Guys One Book, Jason Rice had an early review of the title story in Signs and Wonders, writing, “There are no magic tricks in this story, it just rolls out like a fine carpet, and perfectly fitting the room Ohlin has constructed.” In these 16 stories, Ohlin rolls out a cast of characters who are frail, flawed, cracked. We meet jilted lovers, divorcees, privileged college students brought low, and a happy couple whose inability to conceive causes the wife to seduce a teenage boy—in order to save the marriage, of course.

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins: Drawing early comparisons to the work of Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, and Annie Proulx, Watkins’ stories are set mainly in the arid stretches of Nevada and populated by down-on-their-luck hermits, prostitutes and (one suspects) gamblers. A friend of mine who has read an advance copy of Battleborn wrote to tell me why she fell hard for this book: “From the epigraph (Stephen Crane’s ‘In the desert/I saw a creature, naked, bestial,/Who, squatting upon the ground,/Held his heart in his hands,/And ate of it…’) to the final story ‘Graceland,’ we are in a blast furnace, the American desert west, blazing sun, lots of empty, little hope. People die (lots of people die), people make terrible horrible mistakes, people can’t connect, people are very, very lonely. And yet, the collection feels somehow hopeful. Just as a green shoot in the middle of the desert seems miraculous, so, too, tiny acts of kindness or tenderness become revelatory in these stories.”  I can’t wait to read this one for myself. As they say, “You had me at Cormac.”

Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu:  The author already dazzled critics and readers with How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and now he looks like he’s up to some similar meta-fictional tricks in this collection of stories about, among other things, zombies showing up at a big-box store during (what else?) the graveyard shift and a company that outsources grief (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.”). Fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams need to add this one to their shopping list.

The Pretty Girl by Debra Spark: I’ll admit I’m drawn to the cover image on this collection, but based on Spark’s reputation as a brilliant writer, I’m sure I’ll be wholly satisfied by what’s inside as well. The novella and six stories in Spark’s fourth work of fiction revolve around artists and their sometimes unsettling deceptions. The settings take us from New York’s Lower East Side to Victorian London to Paris and Switzerland. The publisher assures us that “readers who love magical realism, illusions, Jewish literature, and art, will be captivated by Spark’s wonderfully textured The Pretty Girl.”

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber: This one looks like another great ride—with the kind of stomach-clenching joy you feel on the wildest of rollercoasters. I’ll just go straight to the publisher’s blurb to give you an idea of why I’m looking forward to this one: “Mothers and daughters ride the familial tide of joy, regret, loathing, and love in these stories of resilient and flawed women. In a battle between a teenage daughter and her mother, wheat bread and plain yogurt become weapons. An aimless college student, married to her much older professor, sneaks cigarettes while caring for their newborn son. On the eve of her husband’s fiftieth birthday, a pilfered fifth of rum, an unexpected tattoo, and rogue teenagers leave a woman questioning her place. And in a suite of stories, we follow capricious, ambitious single mother Ruby and her cautious, steadfast daughter Nora through their tumultuous life—stray men, stray cats, and psychedelic drugs—in 1970s California.”

Stray Decorum by George Singleton: If anyone is worthy to pick up the fallen baton from the great Southern writers we lost this year (Lewis Nordan, William Gay, and Harry Crews), it’s Singleton. In Singleton’s previous collection Why Dogs Chase Cars, he describes the town of Forty-Five, South Carolina thusly: “a town best known for its ‘Widest Main Street in the World!’ and ‘Second Largest Population of Albino Squirrels!’” It’s a place with “a gene pool so shallow that it wouldn’t take a Dr. Scholl’s insert to keep one’s soles dry.” His characters are oddball, frank in their desires and proclivities, and will never give your laughter muscles a rest. Dzanc Books is releasing this new collection of Singleton’s short fiction this Fall. Autumn couldn’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got my emergency ration of Depends at the ready just in case there are any, you know, “accidents” while I’m working my way through Singleton’s hilarious stories. I’ll gladly risk the humiliation.

Hot Pink by Adam Levin: After the gargantuan, 1,026-page novel The Instructions, Levin turns his attention to the short form. The Millions reports: “From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia.”

And, as always, I’m looking forward to the annual Best American Short Stories anthology.  This year’s edition is guest edited by Tom Perrotta and will, no doubt, feature a lion’s share of stories from The New Yorker.  If they weren’t so consistently good, you’d probably hear me complaining.  But BASS never fails to remind me that sometimes the best fiction comes in the smallest packages.

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