In these sympathetic but subversive stories, Mormons have their faith tested in ways both subtle and severe.
Most of the characters in Townsend’s latest take on the less-holy side of Latter-day sainthood are devout Mormons coping with realities—and unrealities—that cast their religious strictures in an unsettling light. At the more lurid end of the spectrum, a family finds that their LDS lifestyle uniquely equips them to survive a zombie apocalypse; a reporter hypes the exploits of a masked crime fighter dressed in Mormon Temple robes; a bride is struck down at the altar by a mysterious serial killer; and a straight-laced man has a thrilling sadomasochistic encounter in a dentist’s chair. Other tales feature quieter but still nerve-wracking intrusions: a husband loses his wife to an auto accident and reflects on the forbidden desires roiling their relationship; a family breadwinner struggling with bills risks divine retribution by cutting back on his tithing; the contrast between his boring existence and fantasies of heaven makes a middle-aged man long for death. The pre-eminent documenter of alternative Mormon lifestyles, Townsend (The Mormon Victorian Society, 2013, etc.) continues exploring the tension between religious belonging and repression; his characters are steeped in the highly organized, tightknit social life and elaborate rituals and theology of the church, but they chafe against its constraints on expression and sexuality. His normally understated critique of Mormon sexism, homophobia and reaction occasionally grows strident: In one schematic tale, a terrorist bombing prods a right-wing Mormon into patly repudiating his conservative principles, while in the title story, a woman’s questioning of church doctrine—“Wasn’t sugarcoating Church history just a way of making it more palatable?”—slips into soapboxing. Still, Townsend has a deep understanding of his characters, and his limpid prose, dry humor and well-grounded (occasionally magical) realism make their spiritual conundrums both compelling and entertaining.
Another of Townsend’s critical but affectionate and absorbing tours of Mormon discontent.
In this collection of literary fiction, winner of the 2012 Hudson Prize, seven short stories explore secrets, lies and trust.
Appel (Phoning Home: Essays, 2014, etc.) populates his stories with mostly ordinary people. But his characters, whether a truck driver or a professional folklorist, teenage or elderly, male or female, all tend to come up against a longing for trustworthiness. The title story begins with the knockout line: “Nothing sells tombstones like a Girl Scout in uniform”—a mild piece of deception (Natalie, the narrator, is 13 and was never a Girl Scout) that hints at more complicated ones to follow. Over several visits, Natalie’s father flirts with an old love, Delia Braithwaite, who’s dying, while ostensibly selling her a headstone. When she finally says, “I trust you, Gordon,” he trembles, as if suppressing a scream: “My father’s tone shifted slowly from intimate to false intimate—the voice he used to clinch the bargain with his other customers.” In these stories, trust can create distance as well as closeness, as can the truth. In “Choose Your Own Genetics,” a lesson on blood typingdiscloses some unsettling news; even more unsettling is how the narrator’s respected father, a geneticist, uses his superior knowledge to bully the teacher. Greta, the lonely, widowed central character in “Ad Valorem,” decides to ignore what she knows to be true since she longs to trust. Part of trusting yourself is knowing your limits, or as the truck-driver narrator of “Hazardous Cargoes” puts it: “You’ve got to know your load. And you’ve got to know how far to carry it.” Appel approaches his characters with compassion and an understanding of human frailty. In “The Extinction of Fairy Tales,” another lonely character realizes when her lawn-care man stops showing up that she doesn’t even know his last name, and she owes him a debt of gratitude: “She wanted to tell people that he was the man who’d buried her dog, but that sounded absolutely nutty out-of-context. There was the problem with human relationships—you could never really explain them.” Luckily for readers, Appel can.
Life undermines the pursuit of success and status in these rich, bewildering stories.
True to the title, the heroes of Morris’ first volume of fiction try to figure out the conundrums of love, career and family at every stage of the white male life cycle: A wiseass teenager stages a gross prank to catch the eye of a pretty cheerleader; a newly minted lawyer discovers that laziness and disaffection are no bar to advancement at his firm; an old man tries to forge a new connection to his dementia-stricken wife with the help of a pint-sized pianist. Most of the protagonists are professionals living in New York or LA who have their comfortable-to-affluent middle-aged lives shaken up by subtle instabilities. A rich producer shares a secret tragedy with a Mexican repairman; an investment banker is baffled by the technological universe he is supposed to have mastered; a funeral takes an Ivy League grad back to his working-class Irish Catholic roots; a hack attorney relaxes by posing as a crazy homeless man; and in the bleakly comic title story, a man reluctantly chaperoning his son’s fifth-grade class on a Virginia field trip has his own callowness contrasted with the august figures of American history. Morris, an entertainment lawyer, producer and journalist, knows his characters and their worlds like the back of his hand. He endows them with both a sharply etched particularity and an iconic heft: “Jim Mulligan stood in boxers and a T-shirt in the refrigerator light, beer bottle in hand, in the same spot as countless American men before and since, at once living the whiteness and watching it, a picture within a picture, hoping for a miracle snack.” His wonderfully evocative prose finds a world in tiny details of gesture and setting, in the casually arrogant stirring of coffee or the drab décor of a hotel room “conceived in mediocrity.” The result is a cleareyed, finely wrought and mordantly funny take on a modern predicament by a new writer with loads of talent.
A superb literary gallery of men who can’t understand why life has given them what they want.
The quiet plains of the North Country serve as a perfect backdrop for Parsons’ moving debut, a collection of short stories whose characters often live deeply solitary, if not always lonely, lives.
In the introductory story, “Hezekiah Number Three,” a young Bangladeshi-American tries to escape the confines of his small-town South Dakota upbringing by going to MIT for college, only to return when his family falls apart. While the reasons for Naseem Sayem’s alienation might be readily attributed to his being the only “caramel-skinned Bangladeshi” in school, Parsons expertly shows how loneliness isn’t only a product of racial tension. In “Beginning With Minneapolis,” for example, Evie Lund Baker finds her marriage to a wheat farmer stifling enough to move to the big city, leaving her husband, Waylon Baker, to tend to the wheat by himself. But Evie is haunted by a sense of disillusionment even in Minneapolis, where she has stretched an interim job “like pie dough across the last eight years.” Now, she “question[s] if she would ever slice through to what was cooking underneath.” Elsewhere, the narrator in the title story, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, attends school at the University of Minnesota so he can get a “clean break in a place where I didn’t own a wisp of history.” But, as the saying goes, you can run but you can’t hide. History chisels these characters’ lives to such an extent that they often become strangers to themselves, having arrived at a station they never envisioned and can’t easily recognize. “Touch is silent,” says a character in “The Sense of Touch.” “And silence is the only way to contemplate infinite things.” The glorious prairie landscape serves to amplify this silence, the starkness a crisp metaphor for the characters’ myriad disappointments. Black Hills National Forest, the endless prairie, even snow-bound Minneapolis—each is a perfect setting for these achingly beautiful stories. Not all Parsons’ characters face existential questions, though; many are just fine moving along with a steely resolve.
Insightful stories that illuminate the fine line between solitude and loneliness and the limited choices open to people who straddle that divide.
Russell Taylor’s (Will Dolores Come to Tea?, 2010, etc.) latest collection of short stories explores mourning, love, loss and the struggle for meaningful connection.
Prolific writer Russell Taylor provides a careful, articulate study of intimate, desolate and occasionally terrifying human experiences. “The Contract” retells, in prose, Pushkin’s classic Russian poem “Eugene Onegin” from the perspectives of Onegin’s spurned lover, Tatiana, and her eventual husband, Prince Nicolaevich. The central characters in “Les Amants,” “Charlotte” and “Belated” are widows anguished by grief and anxious to rekindle a human bond, with very different results. Depression and madness related to the struggle to comprehend existence feature vividly in “The Meaning,” “Supporting Roles” and “The Inquest,” among others, with outcomes similarly varied and often unexpected. The desire for connection is explored in “Carter,” in which a woman endeavors to bond with her autistic son. A glimmer of hope can be seen in “The Life She Chose,” in which a young woman suddenly finds herself with personal and financial freedom. Equally auspiciously, the married couple in “Passed Over in Silence” finds an extremely unconventional yet mutually rewarding solution to their sexless relationship. Nature is a powerful presence in many of the stories, which are often imbued with a sense of spirituality and healing. Themes are revisited, though in these elegiac stories, there’s no feeling of repetition. Many readers will be mesmerized by the haunting, poetic writing. However, some may find themselves dispirited due to the few respites from melancholy, or they may struggle with Russell Taylor’s inclusion of different languages, as in “Belated,” where significant passages are in French. However, careful readers will savor this exceptional collection of tales, and those who’ve never read Russell Taylor might next seek out the rest of her considerable body of work.
Pensive and luminous despite its dolor, a resonant collection that deftly contemplates the existential.
An uncommonly clearsighted collection of short fiction.
Though journalist Anderson is a first-time author, her sensitive and startlingly perceptive debut proves she’s on her way to being a master. With the grace of an adept eavesdropper, these 17 short stories slip quietly into the heartbreaks, disappointments and hopes of people living in Maine’s western valleys. Haunted by their choices and responsibilities, Anderson’s characters are working people—bartenders and welders, bakers and jewelry makers, hunters and taxidermists—all in search of meaning. In plainspoken but richly detailed prose, she captures the claustrophobia of small-town life, and in each story, her protagonists seem caught in the moment just before epiphany, looking through windows into what else might be possible. By rooting herself in objects and description, Anderson manages to navigate this interior landscape without veering too far into the sentimental. Of a character visiting a former home where her ex-husband still lives with his new wife, Anderson writes: “When Jeanine sits the groan of the springs is familiar. On one of the pillows is a long brown hair, Diane’s. Jeanine picks the strand up and studies it—no split end—then drops it.” In these small moments, Anderson’s gifts of attention and emotional precision are on shining display. Though the stories here all share a particular world and mood, Anderson also reveals impressive range: Her characters—of different genders, ages and dispositions—each have a distinct voice, and she writes confidently in first-, second- and third-person points of view. Though a few of her flash fiction pieces, such as “Dance Recital for the Men of the American Legion in April,” stand out, some of the shortest stories in the collection can feel anemic, if evocative. Still, Anderson excels at first lines—“Until Nina met Luke, it never occurred to her that people would have sex on a painting”—and there’s not a single story readers will be tempted to skip.
A triumphant, probing debut that promises both literary and mass appeal.