Here I am writing about books of short stories fully aware most readers will by habit click to delete the post. I realize it’s not me. Short story collections aren’t popular choices. They don’t provide a novel’s page-turning engagement, which most readers crave. Instead, and why they shouldn’t be overlooked, they bring us gorgeous and sometimes shock moments of insight, emotion, inspiration, awareness, and for some stories, the unforgettable, such as William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily and John Cheever’s The Swimmer, which is why they became classics.
In my late 20s, I went through a short-story phase reading new writers in literary journals and also classic authors in anthologies and collected works. I was commuting by train to my job at that time, and the 40-minute ride fit the page count. So, too, did my lunch hours. During that phase, I learned the power of well-imagined stories that would linger through a morning or afternoon. The characters and their fates and motivations would return to me during a boring conference-room meeting or a mind-numbing presentation, the significance and message of their actions hitting home as my thoughts wandered.
I didn’t plan to pick up these three collections. Books sometimes come to us when we need them, and I believe that’s what happened here, no commute involved, rather a stay-at-home new normal that called for an hour of reading to break up the house-bound routines. Three collections read in less than one month. That’s a rare occurrence for me, and a sign of our unusual times and of three good books.
I love the cover of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, and its paperback production, a sweet 7 ½” x 4 ¾” size and soft touch to the pages; it feels like a precious gift when you hold the book. Published this month by the West Virginia University Press, Philyaw’s debut captivates, as she takes us into the emotional sanctums of black women and girls struggling with the moral conflict of church dictates versus their sexual desires. At the heart of these stories is unflappable dignity and their grounded sense of self-worth. Their voices and outlook hook and preoccupy with a seductive, uncommon draw.
In one story, two middle-aged best friends celebrate New Year’s Eve together. One still hopes for the life the two always imagined for themselves, together with husbands, kids, and teaching jobs, while the other wishes her friend could see that the emotional and physical love they share right now is enough, and not wrong. In another, a daughter must keep her mother’s affair with the married minister a secret while the daughter tutors the minister’s son, learning what it means to be taken advantage of. In another, a misfit teenage girl lusts after the minister’s wife while her grandmother frets, believing the girl is lost to the Lord. The girl says:
Today at church, Ol Rev was talking about how you have to be saved and give up the sinful pleasures of the flesh if you want to get to heaven. Seem like saved folks don’t like to do anything but talk about being saved, complain about sin, and go to church. And church be boring as hell, so I just watch Sweet Sadie and think about her sexy body and her secret past.
Kirkus Reviews nailed it when they described the book in the blurb that’s on the front cover: “Tender, fierce, proudly Black, and beautiful.” I couldn’t say it any better.
Hideo Yokoyama won me as a reader with his best-selling novel Six Four. It sold one million copies in Japan within the first week of its publication, so I had my eye on it, although its mammoth page count made me hesitate. When an advanced U.S. reading copy arrived (this was 2016), I decided to invest the time and quickly found myself immersed in Yokoyama’s precise, absorbing storytelling, which is why I snapped up a first edition of his next, English-translated book, Prefecture D, released 2019 in the U.K. The Mysterious Bookshop was selling the U.K. copies, signed. Now the book, a collection of four novellas, is being published this fall in the U.S.
I’m not sure why I let the collection sit on my reading table for so long, except for that “timing” concept mentioned above. It’s been the best read for me this past week. Once again, Yokoyama captured me with his signature focus on Japanese police politics, bureaucracy, and culture while solving a crime. Personnel director Shinji Futawatari and the procedures for officer promotions connect the four stories, driving police men and women to manipulate facts and go against policy to save face and manage their ambitions. Two stories involve crimes of career advancement, one patriarchal advantage/abuse over women officers, and the final story a power play. Each is a fascinating puzzle and character analysis.
I don’t like magical realism or fantasy, and yet I compulsively read these eleven strange stories. Published in July, the collection’s absurd events explore themes of love, loss, and identity with female protagonists who don’t know what they want, or who trust a bit too much. In the title story, a woman finds herself abandoned by her twin sister in a walled medieval village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that’s strangely disassociated from normal behavior. There’s a car race on the steep mountain roads that have no guardrails, and firemen ignite surrounding fields because they only get paid if there are fires. In another story, a woman’s mad husband climbs a tree and disappears forever into its branches.
The atmospheric strangeness links the stories and for each puts something familiar through a contorted lens that causes us to give it a renewed second thought. In one story, a grief freelancer makes money helping husbands grieve by impersonating their dead wives for one last date. It’s an odd, brilliant take on the gig economy. In another, a woman accepts a friend’s invitation for an adventure, an invitation anyone would think of normal by its casual suggestion, but it crosses a boundary and challenges what we would’ve done, illustrating everyday loneliness. The stories all create lingering after-thoughts, but the one that got to me most was “Karolina,” in which a woman on a trip to Mexico runs into her estranged ex-sister-in-law, now living homeless. Upon befriending the ex, she realizes how she failed her in the past. It’s the most conventional and moving story in this collection that flirts with the weird.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is an idiom that means “To be in a difficult situation from which it is as dangerous to extricate oneself as it is to remain in it.” (via The Free Dictionary) In the title story, that’s at play, with the woman stuck in the walled medieval village, but it’s also at play in the other stories, where decisions to be made walk a line of uncomfortable consequences on either side of it. Each also involves bewitching drama and an alluring narrative voice that speaks so confidently, I couldn’t let go.