From IQ84 to 11/22/63 it seems that heavyweight fiction has become the dominant species lately. Much like the lumbering dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous, their size and formidable presence seem to ensure endless days at the top of literary food chain. But if you look beyond the bulk, you will see that the highly adaptable and diminutive short story has also had some striking successes lately.
Without planning to, I’ve ended up reading a lot of short story collections this year. I like to think I am drawn to the craft and skill it takes to write a compelling and memorable tale in a limited number of pages. In all likelihood though, it is probably my short attention span. In any case, here are four recent collections that you will find well worth your reading time.
Orientation: And Other Stories by Daniel Orozco.
Written over many years, this collection is a haunting mix of odd and darkly humorous situations and characters. How odd you ask? In “Officers Weep”, the love between two reluctant police officers is revealed via a police blotter report. “Shakers” follows the path of a California earthquake, primarily from the earthquakes perspective. The best of the bunch is “Orientation” where the reader is led around an office by an omniscient supervisor who introduces you to everyone’s darkest secrets.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
If you don’t care for odd and alienated, how about connected and full of rage? Schappells’ stories are loosely intertwined, via a series of mothers and daughters, and the contents are definitely under pressure. The writing is witty, direct and brutal. If you have cherished or sentimental notions about motherhood, children, dating, marriage, and (gulp) men this book is probably not for you. If you want a refreshingly honest and effective set of short stories, it is.
Burning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash
While the stories in this collection all vary in time period, from the Civil War to the present day, the setting of hardscrabble Appalachia is ever-present. Rash writes with an effective and economical style that highlights his characters attempts to accept, deny, or rebel against their environment. “Into the Gorge”, a tale of a man harvesting ginseng on state land that used to be his family’s, is particularly impressive.
After the Apocalypse: Stories by Maureen F. McHugh
It is hard to resist the end of the world. After the Apocalypse has it all. Plagues, drought, economic collapse, dirty bombs and, wait for it, zombies are all imagined causes for the beginning of the end. McHugh isn’t as concerned about the cause, however, as she is about the individuals who endure. Each story is unique and the characters are complex and richly drawn. The reader is left to confront the oddly disquieting fact that life goes on even after “the end”.
If the idea of taking on yet another 900+ page novel gives you pause, consider a short story collection. Your tired eyes will thank you and you just might be reading the next step in literary evolution.
A relief to find short stories after all the five pound megabooks! Thanks. Also try several of Ben Katchor’s graphic shorts and comic strips as relief. My current favorite of Ben’s is CHEAP NOVELTIES: the pleasures of urban decay with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.