Eclectic characters struggle with fluctuating careers and relationships in this collection of short stories.
When an unemployed English teacher in “Content Moderator” is desperate for work, an old high school friend has a job for her. But evaluating disturbing online images and videos that people have reported may be more than the unnamed narrator can handle. Seemingly innocuous individuals in Wright’s (Table Manners, 2017) powerful book often find themselves in arduous circumstances. In “Lean into the Mic,” for example, Amanda has been performing amateur stand-up comedy for two years. But the perpetually anxious woman isolates herself from others, compounding her already precarious marriage. Similarly, Angela, the titular, self-professed “Major Prude,” is nonplussed when her wilder friend Carla and her roommate/stepbrother, Liam, hook up. But the aftermath may threaten her relationships with both. These profound tales typically showcase resilient characters. Chrissie, in “Uncle Harris,” faces off against her estranged father’s brother, who she believes is plotting to take away her younger siblings. In the title story, a mandatory work event (a “talk” on dealing with negativity) is an opportunity for a woman to come to terms with her brother’s recent fatal overdose. The author fills the pages with indelible prose and wry humor: Emily of “The Emilies” believes certain friendships are “as dutiful and potentially pointless as washing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher.” Nevertheless, even the more comedic tales don’t forgo character insight. “Love Lasts Forever but a Tattoo Lasts Longer” features a decidedly unromantic wedding—near a prison visitation room with a priest who smells of hot dogs. But the bride may prefer that her new husband stay in jail (“I’ll know where he is every second”). The final work, “Them,” is the collection’s highlight. In it, Kate is shocked to learn that her lesbian best friend, Taylor, now identifies as genderqueer and goes by the pronoun they. The absorbing story earnestly examines both Kate and Taylor, as the two must decide how this change will impact their lifelong friendship.
Potent, unforgettable tales and razor-sharp writing.
A short story collection recounts significant episodes in a young Michigan woman’s life.
In this book, which won the 2016 Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, Aitken (Writing/Univ. of Minnesota) gathers both new and previously published short stories into a singular anthology. The work centers on one character: Mary, a spirited writer and artist born in 1960s Detroit. Although each piece can stand entirely on its own, together these brief glimpses weave a rich tapestry of a life, incorporating themes of family and romance, work and destitution, inspiration and addiction, determination and loss. Even the simplest moments have a sense of gravitas and quiet beauty; for example, while remembering picking raspberries with her grandfather, Mary comments, “As with the seasons before, I had only to look his way and consider how his pale, steady hand coaxed the berries away from their inevitable fall.” Indeed, Mary’s complexity as a protagonist will make it easy for readers to forget the work’s fictional nature. Whether she’s struggling to find fulfillment in a career or attempting to navigate a romantic landscape full of bittersweet choices, her emotions resonate with aching familiarity. What makes her exceptional is the strength that she demonstrates in the face of adversity, including a partner who’s addicted to heroin, a family member succumbing to cancer, and her sobering realization, as a child, of the abductions and murders that plague the streets of her city. Aitken doesn’t shy away from difficult topics in these snapshots; instead, she thrusts them boldly into view: “When you reached Brooklyn via Detroit, you had other stories, ones of yearning, of forging ahead, of seizing and tasting every drop you had left. You fought, with everything, to live.” Overall, the author delivers these stories with poetic grace, resulting in a book that will linger in the reader’s mind long after the final page.
A moving work that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the human condition.
Appel’s (The Cynic in Extremis: Poems, 2018, etc.) short story collection offers portraits of people experiencing new revelations.
In these eight poignant, insightful tales, award-winning author Appel—a physician, attorney, and bioethicist—continues to address many preoccupations that he’s explored in earlier works. One of his most prominent themes is the human tendency to alter the truth—often less to gain an advantage than to experience the sheer joy of invention. In the title story, Carlo, a VA hospital nurse, notes that he’s long been “fascinated by schemes and hoaxes”; when a patient goes missing (“We were short one lunatic”), he hatches a coverup plan, which he embroiders beyond necessity: “fabricating Dunham’s data—and pulling it off so effortlessly—was about as much fun as anything I’d done in years.” Several characters in other stories come to understand that human connection, like creativity, is a mysterious thing that can lead to unlikely attachments. In “Grappling,” Oriana Bingham, a wealthy young woman, insists on marrying Jeb Moran, a “gator grappler”who risked his life to save hers when she was 11; “A girl dreams that a man will put his life on the line for her,” she explains. Oriana stays loyal to Jeb, even though he’s crude, abusive, and drinks, but rejects Arthur Dobbins, a much more suitable man. Other stories similarly describe a loved one’s mystifying preference for someone unworthy. Illness, criminality, and broken lives or dreams appear in “Dyads,” “Embers,” and “Live Shells.” The hope of rescue, or at least comfort, underlies these tales, but the author shows how hope can only go so far in the face of sorrow, death, and bad decisions. Still, the stories are never morbid, as the author effectively balances them with humor and sharp observations about characters and settings. Some pieces have a surreal tinge, but generally, they hew closer to realism than Appel’s previous work.
Mordant, humorous stories that display a fine understanding of the human condition.
A collection of linked short stories about a cut-rate carnival show traveling through the American South during the early 20th century.
In 1910, patent medicine salesman Earl Beasley launches a “Traveling Amusements” show, and his first “human attractions” are people whom he’d been unable to cure with his concoctions. Earl’s sons, Stan, Tom, and Earl Jr., take over in 1912, and they continue the family business with ruthless hucksterism, amassing a collection of people whom they market under such names as “Flipper Boy,” “Hammer Toe,” and “Lizard Man.” Each has a unique, poignant story, rooted in social segregation and a desire for autonomy and connection. Julian Henry, the aforementioned “Lizard” person, is embittered by both his father’s revulsion and his mother’s adulation. Tiny Laveaux, billed as the “World’s Smallest Woman,” escapes the tawdry reality of her daily exposure to the gawking public via transcendent sex with the armless “Hammer Toe.” Beulah Divine, the “World’s Largest Woman,” who’s perpetually forced to remain heavy by the profit-hungry Beasleys, endures a barrage of mocking taunts by cherishing a private secret—her real name. Cheever, an African American roustabout, ran away from his difficult life as a sharecropper only to find that the carnival is just another type of bondage. Seligman’s (A Pocket Book of Prompts, 2015, etc.) episodic narrative hangs on themes of loneliness, suffering, and the ascendance of human kindness. Although the setting might give rise to fears of stereotyping or sensationalism, each character emerges as a complex person who’s part of an unconventional but still familiar community. Seligman’s prose is vivid and captivating, as when she describes Julian’s first encounter with Tiny: “her eyes darting every which way until they landed on him like great splats of rain.” Her portrayal of a society teetering between the past and the future is subtle, and although many of the characters’ stories are sad, there are recurring moments of gentleness.
A riveting fictional meditation on the persistent drive to find acceptance and connection.
Africans and Westerners wrestle with sickness, culture clash, and the turmoil of decolonization in these richly imagined stories.
Barnes (Jane Among Friends, 2017, etc.), who worked for the Peace Corps in Africa, sets his tales in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and other newly independent West African countries in the early 1960s as expatriates, villagers, bureaucrats, and beggars cope with the ferment of change. In “Getting to Bo,” an American builder has to choose between his efforts to keep his construction project on schedule and the pressing needs of a sick diamond miner. “The Legend of Death’s Staircase” follows an affluent expat couple, whose tidy marriage is shadowed by a tropical disease, as they’re drawn to the sinister remains of a slave market. Other tales feature a newly minted Nigerian official who takes over a government credit union from a British administrator, setting off a nerve-wracking turf battle among bureaucrats and politicians; a beggar afflicted with leprosy who struggles to get food in a world where every man’s hand is turned against him; and a villager that takes advantage of a missionary’s generosity by reselling malaria pills on the black market, leading to a crisis of betrayal and redemption. And in the title story, a beautiful young woman gets a mysterious illness, causing the Westerners around her—a priest, a doctor, a Canadian wanderer—to evaluate their relationships with her and their attitudes toward African culture. Barnes’ atmospheric yarns feel like a Graham Greene novel with aid workers instead of spies. He writes evocative descriptions of landscapes and village scenes peopled with a Shakespearean cast, from chiefs drenched in carefully calculated dignity to half-dead panhandlers to African and Western strivers tangled in bonds of mutual need and hostility, all illuminated by Barnes’ ability to fill a single sentence with a world of social and psychological nuance. (“Mrs. Flint wept harder; not the way his woman would weep, but as if she would rather burst than emit any sound,” an African man observes of a distraught white woman.) The result is a fine panorama of a complex, exotic yet startlingly familiar place.
A superb collection full of color and subtle explorations of character.
Racism and homophobia are among the eerie phenomena haunting these tense stories.
In this debut collection, Hayslett’s characters, most of them black, brown, and/or queer, have their personal problems complicated by their outsider status, by ominous politics, and by occasional eruptions of madness and the macabre. In “2016,” a black lesbian copes with her sister’s troubled pregnancy, her father’s cancer diagnosis, and an increasingly crazy presidential campaign while a ghostly skull that only she can see gradually materializes over her face when she looks in the mirror. In “Money Men,” an Atlanta prostitute who passes the time watching cable news while servicing her clients becomes obsessed with the Arab Spring revolutions she sees on TV. In the Twilight Zone–ish “Super Rush,” a 35-year-old gay man begins an affair with a 19-year-old version of himself whom he encounters at a bathhouse; in “Denial Twist,” a gay man’s affair with a flamboyant drag queen is derailed by homophobic violence; and in “A Step Toward Evolution,” a Native American gay man who feels slighted by white gay men who use and discard him initiates a germ-warfare campaign. And in the disturbing “Come Clean,” two black children observe the bizarre changes in their mother after she is sexually assaulted by a white man and fear she is turning into a vampire. Hayslett paints this world in matter-of-fact realism that’s trimmed with deadpan humor and knocked only slightly off-kilter by incursions of the paranormal, conveying it all in brisk, evocative, grungily lyrical prose. “When your husband finally tells you he’s fucking Celia Washington, your ears fill with room-tone…it’s the first time in six months he’s not grinning like a two-dollar-idiot, and your vision crisps so sharp you can see every scraggly outline of lint on his jacket, and his breath feels like ten thousand wet pellets splashing your face as he says I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry,” growls the narrator of “Hope It Felt Good” as a wronged wife begins a bizarre metamorphosis. The author keeps the identity politics pervasive yet unobtrusive as his characters fight a twilight struggle against a world bent on erasing their realities.
A gripping collection of yarns in which social disadvantages take on monstrous shapes.
Sixteen tales span about 1,000 years as a New England town emerges, becomes an art colony and tourist destination, and faces a dark age.
This collection returns to Murphy’s (Assumption City, 2012) fictional community of Egg Rock on Massachusetts’ North Shore. In an elegiac tone that brings to mind Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, the tales follow characters as they make important decisions and show the ramifications of their actions. The book opens with Vikings arriving at a “magical” paradise—the future Egg Rock. The stories then sail on to address the town’s early-1800s ice trade with the Caribbean; the impact of prejudice on Boston’s Irish community during a cholera epidemic; New England’s abolition and pacifist movements before the Civil War; the dangers of 1880s lighthouse-keeping; mental health care in the early 20th century; U-boat spying during World War II; the agony of veterans following various wars; and the rise of feminism. The book breaks the narrative flow with a compelling literary experiment, as “John’s Peril I” and “John’s Peril II” offer different outcomes for the same character. It’s reminiscent of author Jack Finney’s twig-in-a-stream concept in Time and Again (1970), showing how small occurrences bump into one another to alter history. Indeed, the idea of cause and effect forms a strong undercurrent in this collection—one that results in intriguing effects. In “Shore Leave,” for example, a lighthouse keeper’s wife teaches her son, Ben, everything she knows about the heavens (“She made sure Ben saw moonrises and moonsets and the morning and evening stars”), and, by doing so, she inadvertently sets in motion Ben’s undoing in “Bottoms Up.” Readers may wish that the author provided a map of the many characters in these tales, but they’ll still find it fun to track their connections.