Home

Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.

Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.

An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.

In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”

These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.

In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.

One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.

There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.

So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.

*Best-selling author Richard Russo and Man Booker winner Penelope Lively are both publishing story collections in May: Trajectory by Russo and The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Lively.

Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.

Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)

Ordinary Grace by William Kent KruegerBest Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.

The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.

William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.

The Wicked Girls by Alex MarwoodBest Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood

I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.

Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”

What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.

Best Short Story

Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.

Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.

 

Redeployment by Phil KlayI want to begin with a scene from one of the 12 stories in Phil Klay’s debut to illustrate the collection’s impact when communicating what it’s like to be a soldier and a U.S. Marine. Klay, a Dartmouth graduate, is a former U.S. Marine who served in the Iraq conflict, and so we know his imagined storytelling draws from personal exposure and perhaps experience. All the narrators in Redeployment speak to us in the first person. They are U.S. Marines predominantly in Iraq but also Afghanistan. In this one scene from the title story, Sergeant Price has just returned to civilian life. His wife takes him shopping in the city.

What he sees are windows. Everywhere. People walking past them “like it’s no big deal.” The last time he walked down a city street, it was in Fallujah with heavily armed fellow Marines methodically scanning rooftops and windows for anything out-of-place because in the city “there’s a million places they can kill you from.” In the safe American city, our narrator startles several times, checking for his weapon, but it’s not there. Everything inside him is wired for high alert. His wife gives him clothes to try on in American Eagle Outfitters, and once inside the dressing room, Sgt. Price doesn’t want to come out. In this brief scene, the pressure on a returning soldier to calibrate extremes seizes us with piercing clarity.

In the shortest story, Klay fills the narrative with military acronyms without defining them and so immerses us in the lingo. The technique is powerful, telling less a story than putting us inside the military atmosphere: “EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.”

These U.S. Marines we spend time with in Redeployment wrestle with the honor and thrill of being war heroes and the guilt of their actions. They don’t want people back home to thank them or say they respect them or act like some caring person. They yearn for women but cannot connect to them beyond sexual need. And once out of the war, they live a discrepancy between us and them that’s stressfully noble and heart-rending. One veteran, pressed to tell stories, fabricates details and spins them according to what he thinks the civilian listeners want to hear, until one time he tells the truth, and he never tells another story again.

Klay digs deeply, honestly and convincingly into the inner lives of his men, using a range of narrators — from a solider in psychological operations to one in mortuary affairs; from an artillery gunner to an adjutant; from a military chaplain to a foreign service officer. What they all have in common is  experience in a place that lives and breathes daily violence and defies civilian comprehension, including the dissonant concept of killing that equates to a good day’s work. In one story, soldiers dance naked on a rooftop to incite insurgents to open fire, creating an opportunity for the Marines to fire back and inflate their kill stats.

Redeployment falls under the category of essential storytelling that takes us away from this world and then puts us back in it with a firmer grip on our perception of the Marine combat experience. It’s impressive, enduring fictional truth that’s so effective we know, with our deepest feelings, what lies behind the military chaplain’s statement when he says, “Most Marines are good kids. Really good kids. But it’s like they say, this is a morally bruising battlefield.”

 

Reading Tessa Hadley

March 8, 2013

Married Love_Tessa HadleyReviewers describe the author Tessa Hadley as being “a meticulous stylist” (National Public Radio); “clear-sighted” (The Guardian); and “a close observer of her characters’ inner worlds” (New York Times Book Review). The consistency of these descriptions (“Hadley’s craft is expertly honed…” Irish Times) told me here is an author I need to experience. In other words, she’s too important to overlook.

Naturally, when I picked up her new collection of short stories, Married Love, I expected to be stunned with the power literature can deliver, but by the third story, I was underwhelmed. What was I missing? I didn’t experience her widely praised precise style and acute perception. I didn’t find myself surprised by exceptional storytelling. But I also didn’t doubt it existed — one can’t be the expert with all types of books and writing — yet I couldn’t believe I’d be so far out of the loop. I put the book down.

Weeks later, looking for a story to read in a limited time slot, I picked it up again and began reading “The Trojan Prince,” the fourth story. I figured I’d chug through it, but then it happened. I was reading as if on a different level, caught up in Hadley’s precise illustration of how we chose adventure over the ordinary, experiencing this common desire with a kind of “aha!” discovery as a boy becomes friends with his more wealthy cousin and another distant relative. And then, her language — it had begun to sing for me — “The two girls pet James and tease him as if he were a pretty, comical doll.”

Was it just this story? I paged back to the second story, “A Mouthful of Cut Glass,” and saw Hadley’s talent again now, as not before, the unique discernment. Here it pierces how we discount our roots when we leave home as university students, but then fall back into our childhood mentality when we return home. “The past’s important,” a character says in another story, “The Godchildren,” and we come to understand Hadley is pressing this point — no matter how much we disassociate from family relations, the impact they have on us remains.

Some switch flipped and turned me on to Hadley’s fine storytelling, and it stayed on ’til the end of the collection. I marveled at how she unravels the small burdens that stamp our lives  and how I could experience them with fresh understanding. Yes, the fiction of Tessa Hadley is not to be missed. Even so, not everyone will enjoy Married Love. The stories may be too uneventful in plot, too subtle in conclusion, and yet, therein is their power. If you want to see life in its pinpricks of light, I recommend the collection and suggest you start with “The Trojan Prince.”

Tessa Hadley is the author of four novels: Accidents in the Home, Everything Will Be All Right, The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Married Love is her second collection of short stories. Her previous collection is Sunstroke.

Every year, the University of Georgia Press awards two Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction prizes to outstanding short story collections. The Press inaugurated the award in 1983 “to encourage gifted emerging writers by bringing their work to a national readership.” The winners receive a cash prize and also publication by University of Georgia Press, which announced the 2012 winners this week. It’s a previous winner, though, that’s had my attention.

In 2008, Andrew Porter won the award for The Theory of Light and Matter. His collection was mentioned to me during a recent discussion with a book club in an aside by a member. She told me her son, Brian Strause, had recommended she read Porter’s prize-winning book. (Brian Strause is the author of the widely praised novel Maybe a Miracle.) I read Porter’s short stories, and now I’m recommending the collection to you — some six degrees of separation going on here in the world of book recommendations.

A seductive quality of Porter’s 10 stories is the engaging first person voice. Its warmth and confessional tone feels like we’re listening to a good friend who wonders out loud to us about past family situations involving, in one story, the narrator’s distant father trying and failing to live up to a “genius” label attached to him early in life; and, in another, the narrator’s mother, whom he caught in an intimate moment with another woman while her husband is away.

Each story in the collection delves into ordinary suburban life and grabs us with believable and relatable emotions of desire, hope, guilt, yearning and confusion. Porter’s characters are good people – his compassion for them brings us closer to them, as does the way they happen to misjudge and disappoint each other, many because they fail to speak up when something is wrong.

Here’s a brief summary of three of the stories:

  • In “Azul,” a childless couple relates to the exchange student in their home as a friend. Their failure to discipline and set limits reflects their middle-aged regrets and leads to an accident.
  • In “River Dog,” the narrator remembers a high school party during which he believes his brother assaulted a classmate and to this day wonders about what happened. He begins, “It is easy now, after everything that has happened to my brother, to say I didn’t hate him. But I can still remember how it used to humiliate me when the rumors about him spread through my high school.”
  • In “Departure,” the sixteen-year-old narrator looks back to the summer “over ten years ago” when he and a friend gawked at Amish kids hanging out at a diner and casually dated the Amish girls with whom they could never get close.

My favorite is the title story for the way Porter brings a familiar theme to life and wrings out our hearts in the process. It is the only story narrated by a female voice, that of Heather, who falls in love with her college physics professor but leaves him to marry a boy she’s been dating, who graduates and becomes a doctor. Porter elegantly illustrates the situation of being in love versus making a better choice for marriage, and it brought to mind C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Che Fece … Il Gran Rifiuto” about the right ‘no’ that drags a person down all his life.

A word about short story collections: they don’t get near the consideration they deserve these days from publishers or readers. There used to be a time in the 20th century when this literary form was so popular and in-demand authors made a good living publishing them in magazines alone. The article “Publish or Perish: The Short Story” by Paul Vidich in the Millions states: “There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.”

Another article to consider about this short literary form, “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” in The Guardian brings to our attention masters of the short story through the ages. And a good reading list for short story collections can be found on the website of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This year’s winner is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter made the longlist of that award in 2009.

What an extraordinary collection of short stories — This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon is narrated in the first person by Margaret Mackenzie from a perch of wisdom and reflection. These 14 linked, fictional stories start with her childhood in the 1950s (“That’s a Fact”) and end with her sister Eileen struggling to get Margaret into a supportive care facility (“Final Dispositions”). The approach to us as readers is intimate, with Margaret revealing her life humbly and openly, freewheeling comedic wise-cracks for levity. It gives this enticing collection an air of confessional authenticity.

I feel I want to go on and on about this narrator Margaret. She had such a mesmerizing draw on me, speaking from a center of yearning that’s neither overwrought nor oversimplified, rather perfectly articulated. Hers is the kind of narrative voice you don’t forget, telling life stories that feel as close as your own.  Perhaps that’s because they capture how we all yearn for possibilities we can’t seem to touch, and when they pass us by, as they eventually do, we can’t seem to reason our way through them. “I am forever trying to make life offer reasons,” Margaret says.

That statement comes in a story about a book club, which Margaret describes as a chance for her group of friends to get together and talk about themselves. This night, they talk about themselves and World War II. “Another night it might be ourselves and recycling.” As with all the stories in this distinctive collection, author Linda McCullough Moore uses Margaret’s wonderment to veer into meaningful spaces beyond the main plot. In this story, she tackles the complexities of God’s existence in the face of war’s horrors and a scorn toward religion versus a need for salvation.

In other stories, Margaret runs into her ex-husband at Boston’s Logan Airport; walks out on her boring job; dates loser men she’s met online; works as a waitress; visits a childhood friend who’s now a Catholic priest, yet once was a frank Baptist; and takes her stroke paralyzed mother to her childhood home. They are filled with questions about life, death and God in Margaret’s search for meaning and purpose, such as when Margaret returns to her hometown late in middle age and thinks, “…it occurs to me I have somehow misplaced thirty years…and realize I can account for maybe half my life.” During a family Thanksgiving, she thinks:

“You don’t know anything is happening while it is going on. You can stop the clock a hundred times a day, but when you wake up the next morning, it will still be 7:45 and there will be an odd tapping on the roof, and you’ll be late before you’ve even gotten out of bed.”

This Thanksgiving story epitomizes the bizarre in family holidays. Margaret’s family visits an ancient aunt at a nursing home on Turkey Day and breaks into singing and dancing of “Hava Nagila” in the visitors’ room. They also go to the cemetery to visit family gravesites, and a nephew mistakenly takes pictures of Macintosh tombstones, instead of their family, Mackenzie. On the way home from the cemetery, Margaret’s niece insists she take a spontaneous right turn because the road will take them closer to the moon.

These are warm, inviting stories that portray a thoughtful connection to life with emotional truth-seeking. And Margaret is unforgettable, ultimately encouraging us to live the meaning of the Hebrew song “Hava Nagila”: Let us rejoice and be glad.

I was leaving my Pilates class with a friend the other day when she asked if I’d recommend the book I was carrying. I said, “Listen to this,” and began reading to her. That’s not usually how I’d respond to that question, but the seductive narrative voice in Ben Loory’s amazing story collection is so bewitching it calls to be spoken. And so there we were, both captivated by “The Swimming Pool,” drawn in by that voice, waiting to see where it would take us.  

The 40 stories in Loory’s debut detour delightfully from traditional character development and dramatic narrative.  Averaging a mere five to six pages, they’re written in paragraph chunks that tell odd yet stunning, fable-like tales. In “The Swimming Pool,” for example, a man believes he sees a shark in a public swimming pool.  No one else sees it, and he’s not even sure it’s there. He returns at night and sees not just a shark, but an ominous monster covering the entire bottom of the pool, staring at him with black, unblinking eyes. Frenzied with terror, the man legally gets the pool closed for good, but he feels no triumph the day the water is drained, realizing he gave power to his fear and set the monster free.

The stories begin with mundane situations stated in the first two or three lines, and then Loory flips reality on its head with a fantastic element, like a shark in a public swimming pool. In other stories, a man walks through the woods and sees Bigfoot; a dishwasher finds an invisible crown in his rinse water; and a family is having dinner when a statue of a pig on its haunches materializes in the middle of the table.  Some of the stories feature talking animals (my favorite is when a duck falls in love with a rock) and all of them feature the peculiar (a stalking hat, a TV with a mind of its own).

While the fantastic elements and twists of logic make these stories delectable cupcakes for the intellect, they aren’t all rosy hued. Indeed, they may be fun, but Loory menacingly parades before us our obsessions and vulnerabilities, exploring such topics as the fear of death, the price of fame, the follies of romance and the influence of violence, among others. But no matter the topic, they all enthrall and surprise — some more so than others — and cause many pauses for thought. You can’t read one or two stories and then put the book down. Oh just one more became my habit, reading this unique, new book.

I’ve been gravitating to short story collections these first months of 2011, more than usual. A few weeks ago I read Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (excellent). Next, I have Michael Kardos’ debut collection One Last Good Time on my reading table. I’m more eager to read it than the novels sitting next to it. Perhaps this is a reaction to the doorstopper novel I’m still trying to finish, which by the way has turned into a best-seller since I started it. Well, it involves witches and vampires, so no surprise. I tend to lose my patience with the living dead and so ditched them to read Siobhan Fallon’s debut story collection about army wives. It was an enjoyable respite.

Fallon knows her material from first-hand experience. She’s an army wife whose husband was deployed to Iraq for two tours of duty. She now lives in the Middle East with her soldier husband but previously lived at Fort Hood during the deployments. The Texas army base is the central setting for her stories, a world of 40,000 soldier families living in varying types of housing units under the rules of the base. In an author’s note, Fallon says grass must be mowed before it reaches a certain height. 

She allows the base environment to color her stories with just enough detail to illustrate the effect of interminable waiting that comes with being married to a deployed solider. Some wives in the eight stories handle the long, gray nothingness between departure and return stoically; some walk away without warning, ripping from their husbands the emotional anchor they depend on. And then there’s the soldier who’s retained at Fort Hood because his wife is battling cancer. It creates tension his wife cannot share with the other wives. Fallon writes, “John being home made her different from everyone else in a way that even the cancer did not.” 

What makes these stories so engaging is they claim neither good nor bad spouses, including the soldier who cheats on his wife in Iraq and the wife who hands her wounded husband separation papers the day after he returns. All the men and women are likeable in this collection because they are ordinary and without malice. It’s one of the many ways these stories are special – they exact overarching compassion and grip us not with blame or an emotional, gut-wrenching twist, rather with a reality revealed.

Richard Bausch published a new collection of short stories this month. He’s recognized among the best when it comes to this form, and I’m a long-time fan.

My favorite story in his new book is “Trophy.” It concerns four co-workers and their boss who golf together one foggy Sunday morning. The boss is always down on his luck, including the recent IRS take-over of his car dealership, where they all work. “And through it all,” one co-worker says, “he was interested in how we were doing.” 

That co-worker taps the boss’s golf ball into the cup on the 16th green. He blackmails another co-worker to go along with him in pretending the boss hit a hole in one. From then on, the boss’s luck turns around. “Trophy” is my favorite because it so powerfully captures the sudden, difficult and hard-to-control impulse to lie in order to do good.

The collection’s other stories are similarly deep in meaning and populated by characters flinching at the rough edges of their relationships. They take place for the most part in Tennessee and Virginia, and they are written with sagacious insight concerning themes of fear and trust, individual identity within marriage and bravery in the face of loss. While they are not depressing stories, they disturb the premise that we can rest assured in our loved ones.

In the story “Son and Heir,” the son of a prominent college president and wife is expelled from three universities and drifts through jobs and relationships. He lives in defiance of his parents’ expectations and their phony life. Eventually, his father cuts him off financially and says, “‘You’re going to want to blame somebody or something. It’s human nature. When life comes down on you, you’ll want to point at something.’” He also says, “‘I want you to know, I’m not taking the blame for you.’”

If not our husbands, wives, parents, friends or children, then who can we be assured of? Bausch plays with that question in the last story, “Sixty-five Million Years.” The main character is a priest bored by his duties and the pettiness of his parishioners’ troubles. One day, a very knowledgeable teen-aged boy enters the confession box and states that dinosaurs lived for millions of years and human existence compared to that is only a fraction of a second. “‘What was God thinking?’” he asks.

I’m not an avid short-story reader, but I was drawn to read this collection daily until it was finished. Even the book’s enticing jacket design, thick paper and Janson typeface — noted at the back of the book to be “of the influential sturdy Dutch types” – conspired to make me want to keep this book in hand.

%d bloggers like this: