Under the Radar: Short Fiction 2017

Short fiction has been on my mind a lot this year, both reading it and writing it. Many years ago, my minor as an undergraduate at the University of Washington was creative writing. Over the years, the time I have dedicated to this art has dwindled. This year I decided to reconnect with writing and take a short fiction workshop at the Hugo House in Seattle. It was an inspiring class and I had the opportunity to complete writing exercises, readings and a new piece of short fiction. I was reminded of why I enjoy short stories so much: the accessibility; the compactness that often contains something so profound; and the ability to finish reading something from start to finish in one sitting.

2017 brought us many powerful collections of short fiction and some common themes. Many of these collections are by women; some collections are Gothic and macabre, teetering on horror; some are strictly realistic and one or two will make you smile, if not laugh. So in no particular order, I present you with some of the most excellent short fiction collections of 2017 along with some of my own ramblings.

her bodycompaintvenerationfunny

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s stories start off based in realities most women are familiar with: a marriage, a shopping mall, an inventory of what appears to be past relationships. Machado deftly twists these realities and suddenly you are in a world that you might only dream of and often these dreams turn into nightmares. The stories feature a variety of women: one with a permanent green ribbon tied around her neck and the husband who wants to untie it, women suffering from a disease in which they slowly fade away, and one woman who watches those around her die of a terrible plague.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

One of my all time favorite novels is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, so I was excited to learn of his most recent collection of short stories. The first story in his collection is called Complainers and spans the life of a friendship between two women, Della and Carol. The story is a commentary on the lives of Della and Carol and the emotional neglect that has been shown by their husbands and sons. Eugenides has an astute vision of the human psyche and human nature.

The Veneration of Monsters by Suzanne Burns

Suzanne Burns creates incredible atmosphere in her stories about our modern day lives, but they are not stark depictions of everyday reality. Instead, there is a lovelorn vampire, a man who is a mere figment of a woman’s imagination, and a woman who is so consumed with attracting a vicious predator that she becomes one.  The stories definitely have a Gothic edge to them, but there is humor too.

Funny Girl edited by Betsy Bird

If you need to laugh out loud, then pick up this book and read it or better yet, read it out loud to a kid. This is a children’s collection of hilarious stories written by various children’s authors including some of my favorites: Cece Bell, Raina Telgemeier, Rita Williams-Garcia and Shannon Hale. My eight year old daughter devoured it and she said I must write about the story Over and Out by Lisa Graff. The story is about a younger sister and an older sister, an older sister who has hit her teen years. The story involves walkie talkies, a pink bra (that belongs to the teenager) that falls in the toilet (while the younger sister is going to the bathroom) and the arduous task of cleaning a now soiled pink bra.

difficultbecauseanythingthings

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is well known for her collection of essays, Bad Feminist and her memoir, Hunger. If you have enjoyed either of these books, then I highly recommend reading her short fiction as well. Each exquisite story in this collection features a diverse cross-section of strong women who have endured all that life has brought to them. Some have experienced unimaginable childhood trauma, others have lost children, and some are in terrible marriages while others are in loving relationships.

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy, edited by Ameriie

This Young Adult collection is comprised of 13 different fairy tales and myths, mostly told from the villains point of view. The stories are written by a talented cast of Young Adult authors that include Nicola Yoon, Marissa Meyer and Adam Silvera. The interesting part of this collection is that each story is paired with a booktuber’s (passionate readers who upload videos of themselves to Youtube discussing books) commentary.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is well known for her novels that include Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton. She writes masterfully about family dynamics and the constant struggle of finding out who we are. My favorite story in the collection is called Sister. It chronicles the return of the adult Lucy Barton (from My Name is Lucy Barton) to the home where she grew up. She has not seen her brother and sister for seventeen years and the pain that exists between them is palpable. As difficult as many of these stories are, there is warmth and some hope at the end of each one.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

This collection of short stories is Mariana Enriquez’s English-language debut. Each story takes place in Argentina and is a commentary on both Argentina’s past and present. There is nothing light about the stories and sometimes the darkness verges on horror. The subjects range from three girlfriends who revel in self-destruction and another is about women who start setting themselves on fire in protest of the pervasive misogyny and abuse inflicted by men.

What to Read for a Readathon

24 in 48 readathon

This is exactly as heavy as it looks! TBR stands for To Be Read and mine is varied and mostly fun fluff. The dots on my sweater and all the writing was done in the Litsy app, which is like Instagram and GoodReads had an adorable baby that’s impossible to put down.

Even if you’ve never heard the term before in your entire life, you can probably infer what a readathon actually is. It’s a glorious time where you pledge to read for a certain amount of time on a particular day or days. Participants are encouraged to take to their social media streams to share what they’re reading, favorite quotes, beverages they’re consuming to help get them through any reading slumps, etc. I’ll be participating in the 24 in 48 Readathon this weekend, which just means that in the 48 hours of Saturday & Sunday I will read for 24 of them. I can break it up however I like, and break it up I shall.

While it’s true I’ve never participated in a readathon before, I have researched enough to (hopefully) know what I’m doing. The key to everything, I’m told, is to have a variety of reading material at hand so if I start to get burnt out on one format I can switch it up and give myself a second wind. With that in mind, I present to you some stellar examples of each preferred readathon format.

Graphic Novels
You already know about my love of comics and graphic novels. As I reported last month I had a giant stack of single issue comic books at home that I just hadn’t gotten around to reading. I’m happy to say I have plowed through most of them, but some of the larger story arcs and single release graphic novels remain. Nimona is on the very top of the list, partially due to Alan’s recommendation last year and also since it was a National Book Award finalist. It’s by Noelle Stevenson, one of the creators of Lumberjanes (I love Lumberjanes!). Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt gets into foodie culture with witty observations and hilarious illustrations. I’ll probably use the graphic novels as a segue from one book to another, though due to having a pretty hefty backlog of some Marvel comics I might read a whole series run in one go. We shall see!

Poetry
I recently learned that poetry doesn’t have to be boring. Yes, I know I sound like a 12 year old but thanks to an education that forced me to find obscure (and often manufactured) meaning in poems I pretty much have avoided them as an adult. All of that changed when I read Milk and Honey which is written and illustrated by Rupi Kaur. This extremely personal collection of autobiographical poems takes you deep into Rupi’s soul as she rips her heart out and lays it bare for all to read. There’s love, loss, family, heartache, sex, and what it means to be a woman. If you’re looking for something lighter, try Quarter Life Poetry: Poems for the Young, Broke, and Hangry by Samantha Jayne. While these poems also seem to burst forth from the poet’s life, there’s a decidedly different tone. Colorfully illustrated, these funny and irreverent poems will resonate with adults young & not-so-young.

Essays
I recently discovered the book that changed my reading life. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by local author Lindy West turned my world upside down. You see, much like poetry, I had the gigantic misconception that feminist works had to be dry, dull, or just not written well. Shrill changed it all for me and led me down the road to Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay. I had mistakenly assumed that Bad Feminist would be a book entirely about feminism. It’s more like a look at life — feminism included — through someone else’s eyes. I just checked out The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley. It promises to combine the two biggest parts of me — nerd and feminist — and I can’t hardly wait to dive in. Plus, there’s a dinosaur on the cover. I can’t pass up a good dino! I’ve also got all of Mary Roach’s back catalog that I purchased when she was in town in April. She autographed them all, and I felt guilty telling her I’d never read her books. However, I did immediately follow that up with how excited I was to read them and now is the perfect opportunity.

mary roach and the ellisons

My husband and I got to chat with bestselling author Mary Roach when she visited Everett in April as part of EPL’s Ways to Read. Did you get to meet her, too? Our library is the best!

Short Stories
A few months back I had the (surprise) pleasure of reading and falling in love with Warlock Holmes by G.S. Denning. While I knew it was going to be a crazy retelling of Sherlock Holmes with magic and beasts, I didn’t realize (although I should) that it would be more of a collection of short stories, just like the original Sherlock Holmes books were. You can read a story, move to another book, and come back to Warlock Holmes and read the next story. You can pretty much read them in any order you want after the first story that sets up the world. I have also checked out Chainmail Bikini: the Anthology of Women Gamers. It’s in graphic novel format but it’s truly short, autobiographical stories of girl geeks I can’t wait to read.

Novellas
I confess I had forgotten that I owned Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. It came in one of those literary subscription boxes and I didn’t know what I had. Someone just told me it’s about a bookmobile, which, hello wheelhouse! I usually don’t go for novellas because I tend to want more when I’m finished: more characterization, more plot, more everything. However, I’ve been told this one is perfect the way it is and so I will go into it with that in mind.

Bookshots
If you’ve been following us on social media and/or been to a grocery store in the last few months you’ve heard about and/or seen Bookshots. Bookshots are the newest James Patterson creations that are taking the reading world by storm. Bookshots’ aim is to change people’s minds and habits by convincing them that their excuse, “I’m too busy to read an entire book!” isn’t true at all. These books are short and I would consider them novellas. Multiple Bookshots titles are published each month so there’s always a variety to choose from. Be sure to check out the Quick Picks collections when you’re at the library as most of the Bookshots titles are going into that wonderful grab-and-go, no-holds-allowed collection.

You’ll notice most of the books I’m writing about aren’t featured in my readathon TBR photo above. That’s because I’ve already read them and wrote this just for you, to encourage you to sign up and join the reading fun. A few people have told me that they really want to participate but are pretty sure there’s no way they can fit 24 solid hours of reading into their weekend. That’s totally okay! The whole point is to schedule some reading time into an otherwise hectic life and maybe connect with some other readers along the way. You can follow along with me if you like. I’m on Twitter & Instagram as bildungsromans and on Litsy as Carol. Ready? Set? Readathon!

Short Story Debuts

There is nothing like that crisp new fiction smell. A debut author finally getting their words into print is always exciting. Sure there is always the possibility that the new author’s style and tone might not translate into great reading for you, but taking a chance is half the fun.  A great way to minimize the risk of getting a dud is to check out debut short story collections. Short stories are (surprise, surprise) brief so it takes less time to find out if one is not to your taste. Also, there is no harm in simply skipping one story in a collection if it isn’t working for you. If you are up to the challenge, here are three debut short story collections that are definitely worth your limited reading time.

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink

dogrunmoonAll of the tales in this great collection have a strong sense of place, the American West (Montana and Wyoming for the most part), and a quirky sense of humor. Most of the hardscrabble characters have seen better days, but they continue to play the cards life has dealt them in determined and unique ways. Standout stories include: “One More Last Stand” which follows a Little Bighorn reenactor, playing Custer of course, whose marriage is slowly falling apart. “Exotics” the story of a teacher in Montana who takes a summer job working at a cattle ranch in Texas to get away from it all. The best of the bunch “Dog Run Moon” opens with an early morning chase scene involving a nude construction worker, the dog he ‘liberated’, and the vengeful owner on his ATV.

inheriteddisordersInherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

The stories in this collection all share the same topic: the ‘special relationship’ between fathers and sons. Normally I would avoid this type of collection like the plague, worrying that the stories would be schmaltzy and filled with Hallmark card-worthy resolutions, but this book breaks the mold. The stories are all pleasingly short, from a few pages to a paragraph, and are basically hilarious parables. The tone is hard to describe so why not just enjoy this fine example:

Dead Language
Linguists last year were overjoyed to discover two living speakers, a father and son, of a Finnic language long believed to be extinct. The father lived in North Karelia, the son in South Karelia. Both agreed to be flown to Helsinki to have a conversation observed and recorded by a consortium of eighty linguists in the hope of preserving the language. But the conversation was so stilted, so perfunctory, so silence-ridden and self-conscious that afterward the eighty linguists declared the language, for all intents and purposes, extinct. This is said to be the first time a language has ever been declared extinct while there are still people alive who speak it.

If nothing else, you now have the perfect gift for Father’s day.

The Brink by Austin Bunn

thebrinkThe stories in this collection vary widely in topic, setting, and character with the author clearly not afraid to take a chance and experiment. The good news is that the stories do not feel like creative writing exercises. Instead Bunn is a master at capturing a moment in time, no matter how fantastic, and conveying the feeling of it convincingly. And oh what moments in time they are. “How to Win an Unwinnable War” follows a teenager who enthusiastically volunteers to take a summer course on thermonuclear war to get away from being at home and watching his parents’ marriage fall apart. “Griefer” tells the tale of an online role-playing game as is it is about to be shut down, through the eyes of a devotee who can’t seem to let go. “Ledge” finds the crew of a 15th century Spanish galleon discovering the actual end of the earth, and the disturbing fact of what lies over that edge.

So there you have it. Three brand spankin’ new short story collections. Now get out there and read.

Dark Dreams Bought and Sold

bazaarofbaddreamsI’m not overly fond of short stories any more (which is weird because all I ever do is write short stories that usually end up as long as a three-hour Uncle Morty War Story in which Morty gets his World Wars mixed up and tells you he shot the Archduke Ferdinand) but when Stephen King comes out with a new book of short stories, I eat them up. His newest collection is titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Throughout most of his writing life, King has set his novels and stories in Maine. Over the last few years he’s begun setting them in places like Florida. Reading them kind of feels like mom and dad sold your childhood home and moved away while you were at college. The stories are still good but they don’t feel like…home.

Many dismiss King as a horror hack churning out stories about monsters under the bed or clowns terrorizing children but they have it all wrong. Sure, in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams he writes about monsters like in the story “Mile 81” where a car (with hints of his novel Christine thrown in) eats people at a rest stop. King also writes about weird happenings like in the story “UR” where a man decides to bite the bullet and buy a Kindle. This was when Kindles first came out and there were a couple features on them that were ‘experimental.’ He finds out just what that means when he orders nonfiction books about historical events that never happened-in this version of the universe.

But King also writes about everyday life as shown in these stories from his latest collection:

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”: after a man lunches with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, they get into a road rage incident that has unforeseen consequences.

“Morality”: What does a financially strapped married couple do to get out from under the weight of debt and job loss? The unthinkable becomes possible.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”: A couple of octogenarian poets rekindle an old love during a picnic while a van full of kids and two down on their luck women barrel down a freeway.

“Premium Harmony”: The love is gone from this married couple and the wife’s damn dog is still in the back seat.

kingDo you want some straight up old school King terror? Try these shorties in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:

“Bad Little Kid”: Dennis the Menace has nothing on this supernatural punk, but can anybody else see him?

“Afterlife”: A man is dying from cancer. Is it the end or just another beginning?

“The Little Green God of Agony”: In 1999 Stephen King was run over by a van while out for his daily walk. He should have died. Instead, this story (along with many novels and stories) came out about a man who claims he can take physical pain from people and make it his own.

I sat up way late into the night reading this book. See, that’s the beauty of a Stephen King short story: you read the first few pages and think ‘Where the hell is he going to go with this?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know, man.  I just don’t know.’ He’s a wildcard. Wildcard!

Out with the Old, In with the New

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new tends to be a time of reflection and planning for the future. A byproduct of all this activity is the creation of many, many, book lists: the two major types are of the ‘best of 2014’ and ‘books to look out for in 2015’ variety. Now, if you are a person who sees the glass as half full, this is great since you have lots of titles to choose from. If you are a half empty type, however, you look at all those lists and wonder when you will get a chance to look through them. And if you are a half empty person with a touch of paranoia, you will convince yourself that there are great titles in there that you will miss since you will never get to read every list (Hello, Richard).

Whatever your place on the end of year list spectrum, you may be intrigued by five of the titles that I have come across. While I didn’t plan it this way, all of the titles are short story collections. Clearly I have a type. Some of the books the library currently owns and others have been ordered and should be coming in soon.

Hhoneydewoneydew by Edith Pearlman

Garnering laudatory reviews from many outlets (The New York Times, L.A. Times), Pearlman is considered a master of the short story and her previous collection, Binocular Vision, garnered a National Book Critics Circle Award. If awards don’t impress you, how about this from the Publisher’s Weekly review: ‘Pearlman offers this affecting collection that periscopes into small lives, expanding them with stunning subtlety’. Intriguing no?

Hall of Shallofsmallmammalsmall Mammals by Thomas Pierce

First of all, this book has a title and cover that is hard to resist. Secondly, the book is receiving positive press (NPR, Kirkus Reviews) and is the author’s first collection of short stories. I’ve always found debut fiction to be more daring and creative and I’m hoping that will be the case with this collection.  The Publisher’s Weekly review states that each story ‘takes a mundane experience and adds an element of the extra weird.’ Extra weird is hard to resist.

otherlanguageThe Other Language by Francesa Marciano

I found this collection of stories intriguing because it fits into my weakness for literary tourism.  Reading how other cultures view the world, especially through fiction, is always a pleasure and these stories promise to be from an Italian perspective. The book has also acquired several positive reviews (New York Times, Kirkus,) which might help to sway you.

bridgeBridge by Robert Thomas

This one admittedly does sound a bit experimental, but in a good way. This work consists of 56 brief linked stories that try to delve into the mind of a single protagonist as she goes about her life. There is a nice summary of reviews on the author’s webpage. He usually writes poetry which I think is a plus with a work trying to get into the mind of a single character. As a bonus this collection of stories takes place in San Francisco.

manMan v. Nature by Diane Cook

This was another collection with a title that demanded my attention from a debut author. As the title implies the stories promise to center around the rather antagonistic relationship between humanity and the universe. As the New York Times review tells it:

It’s a meaningful moment in the story, and it also lays bare one of the fundamental concerns of Cook’s work: We’re constantly fighting a battle against a force larger than we are, and we’re probably going to lose.

I am so there.

I hope you enjoyed my highly subjective distillation of all the ‘end of year’ and ‘titles to look out for’ lists. Have I missed anything? You bet.

2014: My Year in Short Stories

Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover imageEvery year I like to set some reading goals for myself; it’s about the closest thing I come to making New Year’s resolutions. This year I set out to read 75 books (I just barely made it!), start reading graphic novels, and start reading short story collections. I managed to do all three, and have compiled a list of my favorite short reads (graphic novel or otherwise).

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. This haunting collection of short stories was probably my favorite surprise of 2014. I picked up the audio book because I was drawn to the cover. The stories in this collection range from science fiction to supernatural storytelling, almost always with a bittersweet, romantic undertone. I think fans of Neil Gaiman’s brand of writing would enjoy this book.

The Buddha in the Attic cover imageThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. It might be a stretch to call this book a collection of short stories – it doesn’t unfold in the same way you’d expect such a collection to. Instead, it’s more of a mosaic of ‘micro stories,’ with each chapter piecing together the rapid-fire memories of countless women to create a picture of what it was like for Japanese mail-order brides to arrive in America, try to fit in, and live their lives. It was a wonderful listen as an audio book, but I’m sure it would be just as powerful if you were reading it on your own.

Saga, volume 1 cover image

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Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples. This was one of the first graphic novels I’d ever read, and I took to it very quickly. Staples’s artistic style was lush and dramatic. It added a lot of visual interest to an already action-packed story of escape and forbidden love. The plot is a satisfying mix of fantasy and science fiction for readers whose tastes happen to straddle that line, as mine tend to.

 

Your Perfect Match

For some, short story collections can be a hard sell. Some readers want a specific beginning, middle, and end (preferably with a twist) to their works of fiction. Others want the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting to page 300 and still having a ways to the end. A short story is, well, short and really can’t deliver in either of these areas. Don’t give up on the form though. As a matchmaker might say, maybe you just haven’t met the right kind of short story. Perhaps it is a matter of shared interests. In order to help you find the right collection, here are four new works coupled with personality traits. It’s time to take the plunge.

If you like: different perspectives, economic downturns, Sherwood Anderson, drinking Guinness

spinningheartThe Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is for you. While dubbed a novel, this work is actually a collection of interconnected short stories that reflect the thoughts and experiences of several members of a small Irish village. Each story is from a different villager’s perspective, but they all reflect the recent impact of the financial crisis that began in 2008 and the social conditions it brought about. This is hardly a political work though and is much more concerned with individuals and how they survive. Since the reader is privy to the characters innermost thoughts, each external event has multiple meanings depending on perspective. If you are a fan of the book Winesburg, Ohio you will really like this one.

If you like: complicated women, the desire to escape, family (kind of), oppressive Florida sunshine

isleofyouthThe Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura Van den Berg could be the one. Though the settings can be exotic (Patagonia, Antarctica, Paris, several in the hazy heat of Florida) the characters in these stories are all dealing with a sense of detachment from the ‘norm’. A failing relationship, be it with family, a partner, or societal expectations, serves as the catalyst for an attempt at self-examination. The author also adds a great neo-noir feel, especially in the stories set in Florida, which adds to the atmosphere. The story titled Opa-locka, with a sister detective team working for a former Opera singer who suspects her husband of infidelity, is a real stand out and was recently chosen as one of the O. Henry Prize short story winners.

If you like: violent modern fables, an extremely dark sense of humor, unreliable narrators, explosions

corpseexhibitionThe Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hasan Balasim might just be the ticket. The grim, brutal, and often darkly funny stories in this collection are all products of wartime Iraq. Don’t expect to find a political or historical angle, however. Instead you get a series of fantastical and surreal tales ranging from a middle manager at a terrorist guild using artistic merit as the bar for success (The Corpse Exhibition) to a radio game show with traumatized contestants competing to tell the most horrific tale (The Song of the Goats). What comes through in all of these stories is the intense desire to tell a tale. It might be true, it might not, but the ability to tell it to another is of the utmost importance.

If you like: brevity, a straightforward style, disturbing undertones, Havarti cheese

karatechopKarate Chop: Stories by Dorthe Nors is your kind of book. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly mundane tone and setting. Underneath the surface of these very brief stories, lies some really intriguing yet disturbing stuff. The author can take an everyday activity (a walk in the park, searching the Internet) and expose the complex thoughts and emotions involved simply by examining the event closely. The author’s combination of economical prose and the short length of the stories themselves leads to a streamlined and ultimately pleasing effect. This is the first book translated into English by this Danish author and hopefully not the last.

Hopefully you have found a collection or two that has piqued your interest. No need for a long-term commitment. These are short stories after all.