The Art of the Short Story: 16 New Collections Reveal the Best of a Flourishing Genre

Not just fun but full of smart ideas; well-observed, unexpected writing for fans and more; top-notch, in-your-face work from the priceless Millet; excellent reading for those who value meditative, beautiful storytelling; not all these stories startle, but Sachdeva is a writer to watch; a heartfelt and well-crafted work

redstarBonnaffons, Amy. The Wrong Heaven: Stories. Little, Brown. Jul. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9780316516211. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316516204. F

DEBUT At once goofy, poignant, and edged with the fantastic, the stories in ­Bonnaffons’s debut collection initially surprise, then turn into one long, delicious rush—you just have to get into the author’s frame of mind. For class, a floundering grade-school teacher buys two cheap plastic statues—an Electric Jesus and a Flashing Virgin—that when plugged in come alive and finally become overbearing. (“Said Mary,…‘You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.’ ‘Possibly,’ said Jesus.”) A newly engaged lawyer hangs out at JoyfulSongTime, obsessively singing along to a song she cannot get out of her head and finally collapsing crying in the booth. A woman exhaustively queries a doctor about becoming a horse via a newly discovered procedure, finally finding “alert acceptance.” Cancer-afflicted Doris obliges friend Katie by cutting her hair, but sobbing Katie won’t let Doris cut her own. Throughout, Bonnaffons shows us absurdity and carefully managed pain. VERDICT Not just fun but full of smart ideas; as the woman-become-horse observes, “Would you rather transform your Core, or your entire being?”

Braverman, Kate. A Good Day for Seppuku: Short Stories. City Lights. Feb. 2018. 192p. ISBN 9780872867215. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780872867222. F

In these rich and energetic stories, the ever-illuminating Braverman (The Incantation of Frida K.) proves herself again by exploring the lives of characters young and old, female and male, as they struggle through upheaval emblematic of today’s rending social fabric. A 13-year-old who regularly wings her way between her high-inspiring, materialistic California mother and her laconic, back-to-the-land father in the Alleghenies realizes that she must choose between the two once she starts high school. A woman denied tenure seeks comfort from her flamboyant mother, who leads an “unscripted life” south of the border yet needs as much rescuing as her daughter. A conscientious high school teacher hides a secret: she’s searching for her daughter, a heroin addict and prostitute. And a doctor about to retire, stunned to learn that he won’t be getting a plaque in the lobby of the hospital he founded, returns home to find his wife packing to leave. VERDICT Sparkling work for smart readers.

Brinkley, Jamel. A Lucky Man: Stories. Graywolf. May 2018. 264p. ISBN 9781555978051. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781555979959. F

DEBUT Brinkley’s first collection portrays young African American men struggling with fathers, brothers, and friends, present or absent. What impresses first is the length and strength, the sheer weightiness of each detailed and meditative story. Brinkley doesn’t flick off moments but shows how each contains multitudes. In “No More Than a Bubble,” ostensibly about two friends picking up girls at a party, the narrator says, “Sometimes I feel all I’d have to offer, other than questions, are my memories of that time in Brooklyn.” As he recalls his father’s effort to teach him about happiness, he can’t enjoy the sex he’s having because he’s trying to manage the situation; later, he recognizes the sudden rupture with his friend as something repeated throughout his life. Elsewhere, a boy who thinks of himself as a robot—the better to block his feelings—endures a troublesome trip to the suburbs, and a teenager striving for manhood is caught between his desire for a wild night out and his concern for a damaged younger brother he sometimes scorns. VERDICT Fully developed stories that readers will savor.

redstarCooper, Paige. Zolitude: Stories. Biblioasis. Apr. 2018. 248p. ISBN 9781771962179. pap. $14.95. F

DEBUT In the title story of this spikily surreal debut collection, one of the characters declares, “Neuroscientists have concluded that love and fear are the only two physiologically measurable emotions,” and those emotions radiate throughout these vivid, complex stories, though fear seems to predominate. Acting as go-between for Simona, who intuits that her lover intends to kill her, the narrator of “Zolitude” meets the troublesome Lars at a wine bar (where “daylight shows up to eat its lunch over our desks, then leaves”) and finally absorbs the sense of unease. Popov, a police officer who once patrolled the mountains on a huge black gelding with claws for hooves, recalls courting his wife at a time when anarchists were rioting. Another fierce, birdlike creature punishes men for their sins as the book bus woman tries to save one of them. In yet another story, a man hoping to visit an ancient temple is blocked by a creature with “mean little forearms” and eventually encounters scenes of ongoing war (“POWs eating their own bowels in tiger cages”). VERDICT Not for the fainthearted or lovers of straightforward plot, but brilliant for anyone preferring heightened reading.

Georgiou, Elena. The Immigrant’s Refrigerator. GenPop. Feb. 2018. 190p. ISBN 9780998512648. pap. $16. F

DEBUT A Lambda Literary Award–winning poet, Georgiou portrays immigrants to America, both legal and illegal, in heartfelt, no-nonsense prose. The opening story, “Gazpacho,” features a man in a Mexican border town who provides soup for boys heading to America by train (“el tren de la muerte”)—or being forced to return. For money, he drives a hearse, frequently repatriating children’s bodies from America—257 so far; “each time, …a small country turns to dust inside me.” In another piece, white employees at a confectionary find that listening to news about police shootings “with a dark-skinned man—a refugee!—in their midst had made their hands clumsier,” and an MFA student from Northern Ireland who works for a gay escort service can’t be friends “with anyone who had not known troops standing on the corner of the same road as the house in which they were born.” It’s indeed brutally hard to imagine that kind of experience, but Georgiou brings it closer. VERDICT A keen, sobering work; ten percent of profits will go to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Center.

Groff, Lauren. Florida. Riverhead. Jun. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781594634512. $27; ebk. ISBN 970698405141. F

A frank, rambunctious, generous writer, Groff thought big in her much-heralded novel Fates and Furies. Here, in spot-on language, she effectively provides slice-of-life reading, capturing the scents and sounds of her newly adopted state, Florida. Her portraits aren’t of sand, surf, and sunshine; instead, she shows us houses that “rot and droop” in the humidity, the “devilish reek of snakes” at swamp’s edge, and an “old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub” where a panther lurks. But these portraits aren’t unaffectionate, and the characters can be satisfyingly tough, though Groff’s alter ego in several stories is still getting her bearings. In the opening story, she walks nightly in her transitional neighborhood, seeing few people but keeping herself from becoming a yowling mom. The standout “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” traces a Florida boy’s life from his rough upbringing, his mother’s stealing him away to safety, his father’s grabbing him back, and his adulthood in the family home, when he confronts the ghost of his let-down father, then joyously greets his wife. VERDICT Well-observed, unexpected writing for fans and more. [See Prepub Alert, 12/11/17.]

redstarJohnson, Charles. Night Hawks: Stories. Scribner. May 2018. 192p. ISBN 9781501184383. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781501184406. F

In “The Cynic,” an early story in this arresting collection from National Book Award winner Johnson (Middle Passage), a disgruntled Plato, unable to communicate his vision of abstraction to mocking students, notices the full moon and is “ambushed by its sensuous, singular, and savage beauty.” Readers encounter that beauty throughout as Johnson finds his clear way to experience, showing his characters stepping back to understand the world, then rushing to embrace it. A Japanese priest presiding over his own private sanctuary, who learns from a visiting African American scholar that he’s been “locked in a cycle of emotion (his own)” and decides to reach out and create a congregation, an escaped slave returning to rescue others acknowledging that “he had known happiness and freedom” as he runs madly, leading a soulcatcher away from his quarry—these are the indelible moments that show Johnson to be a master of the short form. VERDICT Highly recommended.

Loskutoff, Maxim. Come West and See: Stories. Norton. May 2018. 208p. ISBN 9780393635584. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393635591. F

DEBUT In this fresh first collection from Nelson Algren winner ­Loskutoff, refugees from civilization gather in the Northwest and sometimes violently resist intrusion. First, though, an opening story unfolding in 1890s Montana territory sets the mood; a trapper falls in love with a bear, reluctantly heads into town for female company when she hibernates, and succumbs to vicious jealousy when he returns to find she has a cub. In the present day, a desperate woman forces her boyfriend to drive her across state lines to find a vet who will treat her injured coyote, abandoning man for animal when they arrive. A fellow from Montana takes his wife to her family’s cabin in Michigan, where a frightening encounter makes him realize that “the safety I dreamt of bringing Kimia, and our daughter, was only that: a dream.” In the final story, another couple arrives from “traitor country” shot full of arrows even as federal soldiers gather across the mountains. ­VERDICT The stories don’t always connect as much as one is led to expect, but the writing is sure-footed and the disquieting sense of a world upended successfully delivered.

redstarMillet, Lydia. Fight No More: Stories. Norton. Jun. 2018. 176p. ISBN 9780393635485. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393635485. F

Showing a high-end California house to a man she assumes to be an African dictator, brisk, self-contained real estate agent Nina is shaken when the man plunges into the pool and must be revived by paramedics. She learns that he’s actually a musician, with his presumed bodyguards his band members, and in the course of this wise and witty new collection—Millet’s first since the Pulitzer Prize finalist Love in Infant Monkeys—she connects with one of the musicians, though her love is slammed by tragedy. Connection is the key throughout, as these stories interlock like the veins in a leaf. For instance, we keep meeting troubled teen Jem, who slyly disrupts Nina’s showing of his divorced mother’s house and gets abused teen Lexie, whom he’s met via cybersex, a babysitting job with his father and stepmother. Jem grows over these pages, genuinely helping Lexie and his sharp-witted if ailing gram, no slouch herself. Meanwhile, Nina contends with a client who thinks she has dwarves in the attic. VERDICT Top-notch, in-your-face work from the priceless Millet. [See Prepub Alert, 12/11/17.]

O’Connor, Scott. A Perfect Universe: Ten Stories . Scout: Gallery. Feb. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9781507204054. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781507204061. F

A perfect universe? Not in this sometimes wry, sometimes cutting story collection from O’Connor (Half World), set in a somewhat threadbare California. Buried under debris after an earthquake, a musician hears a woman reading off names and screams in response, even as the mayor insists that no one is left alive and orders the bulldozers forward. Afterward, spiraling downward, he seeks out his savior, who obliges him by repeating, “You hold on. We’re going to get you out of there.” At a coffee shop, an obnoxious businesswoman on a cell phone annoys the put-upon server and a patron awaiting a script meeting when gunshot fragments the window and an armed teenager brings the violence inside. Two lesbians, joyous at having won the right to marry, now find their relationship crumbling. And a bicycle thief, troubled by the kidnapping of a child, must ride all the way to New York to let his image go. VERDICT Entertaining stories accessible to all.

redstarOates, Joyce Carol. Beautiful Days: Stories. Ecco: HarperCollins. Feb. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780062795786. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062795809. F

With her usual acute grasp of human psychology, the prolific, multi-award-winning Oates delivers a hefty volume of short stories in three parts. Pieces in the first section mostly explore lacerating relationships that are broken or breaking. A married man tires of the daring and dazzling honesty he and his younger lover, also married, once shared; as he returns later, when she has cancer, she shouts him down. A man plots to implicate a woman who loves him in his death, and elsewhere, a couple for whom marriage “is an affable not-quite-hearing” bend but perhaps don’t break under the strain of a daughter’s death. The second section features identity confusion, with a white woman convinced that the black nurse easing her pain is the hostile student she once tried to help, and a professor who is intrigued by a staring woman learns that she thought he was deceased. In the final section, a young woman worships the reckless “master” who controls her and an African student unprepared for an American university education is deprived of his visa and subjected to horrific indignities. VERDICT ­ Perceptive, un­missable work. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]

O’Neill, Joseph. Good Trouble: Stories. Pantheon. Jun. 2018. 176p. ISBN 9781524747350. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781524747367. F

In his typically sharp, smart language, the author of the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Netherland shows us characters undone by contemporary life, not grandly but in the small, essential ways that define our culture. When poet Mark McCain receives a request from another, younger poet to sign a “poetition”—a petition cum poem asking President Barack Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, he’s outraged at the misunderstanding of what poetry really is and, in the story’s brief, reflective passages, explains its meaning before vowing “Never give in”—to philistinism of every stripe. A professor who cannot find a way to persuade an oblivious former student to cease his yearly visits finds the problem finally solving itself, even as he and his wife entertain each other with titles for memoirs of the fancy life they haven’t led. Deserted by an in-second-childhood husband who says she’s not passionate and a tetchy son who’s banned her from his own family for being too distant—she was trying not to intrude on a conjugal fight—fiftyish Breda makes tentative steps toward liberating herself. ­VERDICT Absorbing reading sophisticates will love. [See Prepub Alert, 12/11/17.]

redstarRamspeck, Doug. The Owl That Carries Us Away. BkMk: Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City. Apr. 2018. 184p. ISBN 9781943491131. pap. $15.95. F

DEBUT That Ramspeck is a prize-winning poet shows in this accomplished collection, winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for First Fiction: the language is grittily lyrical and each story in the moment. In one piece, the narrator says, “I see that my sons are wild creatures, feral boys in the backyard,” and that beneath-the-surface sense of nasty brutishness surfaces throughout. A boy relentlessly pursued by a bullying older brother nearly drowns him, then wishes he had; “his brother will be lying in wait, will never forget this.” A young woman is delighted with her new husband yet finds his presence, his very body, intrusive. And in the particularly affecting opening story, a boy who treasures a possum skull, a great sense of comfort to him with his father ill and his life lonely, is devastated when it’s destroyed by a would-be friend. Memory matters, too; a man finds his wife’s clothes “dangling their remembrance around him,” while the father watching his sons is defined by the moment long ago when his brother drowned. ­VERDICT ­Excellent reading for those who value meditative, beautiful storytelling.

Sachdeva, Anjali. All the Names They Used for God: Stories. Spiegel & Grau. Feb. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9780399593000. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780525508670. F

DEBUT In the best stories in this smooth collection, individuals longing for something better face adversity and keep moving. An albino girl in the American West loses her parents, marries a charming drifter who loves her but decides to continue his travels, then teeters at the edge of a chasm, with people below calling, and falls “into their waiting arms.” An ambitious young man leaves Denmark to “find a place where he could live with abandon,” is horribly injured in a factory blast and sullenly accepts dependence on his young daughter, yet travels with her and her mentor to excavate ruins in Egypt. Two young African women kidnapped as teenagers by Muslim extremists return home, having learned to get what they want. Indeed, adversity can teach you things; a man determined to be new at the dating game has a disastrous camping experience (the nutty woman whose invitation he accepted has disappeared) and decides he was happier with his old self. VERDICT Not all these stories startle, but Sachdeva is a writer to watch.

redstarTrevor, William. Last Stories. Viking. May 2018. 224p. ISNB 9780525558101. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780525558118. F

Two workmen realize that the worn-out relative/housekeeper of the crippled man who hired them is hiding his boss’s death (the better to keep receiving his pension). A man learns that the rumpled woman found dead in an alley was once the polished, desperately striving widow who tried to win him. A cartographer returns to the Yorkshire farm where he once tutored a lovely girl, now a grown woman with whom he falls in love. Throughout these final stories from the masterly Trevor (The Story of Lucy Gault), limpid and clearly defined as dewdrops on a branch, we see characters dealing with the past and moving forward—or not. Not surprisingly, there’s an autumnal air throughout: the housekeeper “had once known what she wanted, but she wasn’t so sure about that anymore,” while the cartographer realizes that you can’t escape what’s done (“the damaged do not politely go away”), and a woman betrayed by a friend recalls a time when “friendship was the better thing.” Yet this is hard-won wisdom, not sorrow. VERDICT Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 11/6/17.]

Young, C. Dale. The Affliction: A Novel in Stories. Four Way. Mar. 2018. 154p. ISBN 9781945588068. pap. $17.95. F

DEBUT Full-time physician Young has won numerous fellowships for his poetry, compiled most recently in 2016’s The Halo. Here he turns to fiction, demonstrating the easy grace that defines his verse. (He has published short stories but offers a book-length work for the first time.) Capturing a community, these linked stories open with “The Affliction,” which details Javier Castillo’s astonishing ability to disappear and reappear at will. It seems like such a gift—he “could travel around the world like air itself”—but to the story’s narrator, it starts becoming tiresome. And of course being invisible, like so many people in marginalized communities, is as disquieting as being among the “disappeared” of Latin American history. Elsewhere, Rosa hears a terrible prediction from the fortune teller; Old Cassie, once a nun, inherits a great estate and terrorizes her neighbors; and Leenck, who bandaged an injured leg too tightly, nearly has it amputated but is freed by a swift machete stroke from his standoffish father. ­VERDICT A heartfelt and well-crafted work.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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