I don’t set out intentionally to read short stories. Really. As I look through reviews and hear of books, I simply write down the titles that seem interesting. When I revisit that list later, though, it becomes painfully obvious that I’ve got a short story addiction. I’m sure it reveals some kind of character flaw, a lack of focus perhaps or maybe an inability to commit. Luckily for me denial is a favorite response to problems. So I’m afraid society will have to pry that copy of Winesburg, Ohio out of my cold dead hands.
If you share my affliction, or simply feel like trying something new, here a few superb recent collections.
We Live in Water by Jess Walter
This is the first collection of short stories from Walter, who has recently become well known for the novel Beautiful Ruins, but let’s hope it is not his last. Each story has a strong sense of place, Spokane for the most part, and the empathy Walter displays for his down-and-out characters is matched only by his ability to bring out the humor in everyday situations. Particular standouts include “Virgo” (the tale of a newspaper editor who makes the horoscope section way too personal), “Wheelbarrow Kings” (detailing a misguied attempt to cash in a big screen TV for drug money), and “Don’t Eat Cat” (a dystopian view of a future Seattle that wants to mainstream drug addicted zombies).
A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzo
Absurdity abounds in this surreal collection of brief stories. Be prepared for a man in a nursing home who decides to take up cross dressing (“Mr. Beneset”), and a woman who methodically tries to rid herself of every memory she has every had (“Saturday”). Interspersed are more meditative stream of consciousness pieces such as “I’m Looking Out of the Window” in which the title accurately describes all of the action. If you can, briefly, abandon your sense of reality this collection is well worth the effort and might lead you to see the world in a different light.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu
I know, I know… this title states it is “A Novel”. But it is really a series of connected short stories, in my view, so I’m going to stretch a point. Each story, or chapter if you must, is a different episode from the lives of three young women who grew up together and were conscripted into the Israeli army. While the stories are connected, there is no linear sense of progression. Instead each serves as a vivid description of a time and place, be it a dusty checkpoint in the middle of nowhere with a group of protestors literally demanding to be tear-gassed, or a Tel Aviv sandwich shop which promises to make a sandwich any way the customer demands. Tying everything together is a direct and effective use of language which brings every scene to life.
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa is one of my favorite authors and is a prolific writer. Sadly many of her works are not translated into English. Imagine my delight then, when I found out, thanks Spot-Lit, that a collection had just been translated. Revenge is a series of stories that are connected but often in ways that seem oblique at first. I hesitate to describe the plots of the various stories. Let’s just say her language is sparse but very affecting and the overall impact is a quiet foreboding that is ultimately toxic. This may not sound like a compliment but trust me, it is. Here is an example, from the story “Afternoon at the Bakery”, for you to get a feel for her writing:
The kitchen was as neatly arranged as the shop. Bowls, knives, mixers, pastry bags, sifters—everything needed for the work of the day was right where it should be. The dish-towels were clean and dry, the floor spotless. And in the middle of it stood the girl, her sadness perfectly at home in the tidy kitchen. I could hear nothing, not a word, not a sound. Her hair swayed slightly with her sobs. She was looking down at the counter, her body leaning against the oven. Her right hand clutched a napkin. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but her misery was clear from the clench of her jaw, the pallor of her neck, and the tense grip of her fingers on the telephone.
The reason she was crying didn’t matter to me. Perhaps there was no reason at all. Her tears had that sort of purity.
So there you go: Several short story collections from which you have nothing to fear. Well, be advised, they may be habit forming.