This short story collection from a beloved British author, published in the U.K. in 1995 but only now receiving a U.S. release, glimmers like found treasure—or a mirage.
The princess in this insightful, imaginative, and wryly clever collection’s title story, “The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism,” may or may not be imprisoned in the circular tower room in which she lives in solitude, spending her time (of which she has no sense) placidly reading books on her bed, generally unaware of and remarkably incurious about the world outside, which she can glimpse from her small window. It is only after one soldier and then another turn up to pierce and fragment the innocent solitude of her existence—bringing food, a mirror, and a calendar, to satisfy their own pleasure—that she comes to perceive time and disappointment, to see herself as they do and consequently to disappear. Among the ideas percolating in this quirky, disquieting fairy tale is the way a sense of loss can attend the moment of being found. Readers just discovering Diski (In Gratitude, 2016, etc.), who died from cancer in 2016, through the dozen stories in this collection may perceive this acutely—the searing sense of finding her funny, flinty voice just as it has disappeared. Yet for Diski devotees existing and new, the far-ranging work the author has left behind here is something to savor. In “Shit and Gold,” she offers a bold and naughty reimagining of “Rumpelstiltskin” in which the upwardly mobile miller’s daughter takes action to create a far more fulfilling fate for herself and the strangely named fellow with the helpful ability to spin straw into precious metal. (The miller’s daughter, it so happens, has her talents, too.) In “Housewife,” she steams things up with the story of two people swept up in, but not away by, a ravenous extramarital affair. In “Bath Time,” she brings us a woman in determined pursuit of the perfect bath. Yes, only that. But in Diski’s able hands the modest plot yields riches, shedding glinty light on dreams deferred, pleasures denied, the way we can, if we are single-minded enough, take the straw of everyday life and turn it into gold.
Regal, raunchy, revealing—the stories in this collection leave a lasting impression.
Nigeria serves as a prism refracting the myriad experiences of both former and current inhabitants.
In two different stories in Arimah’s debut collection, characters have the supernatural ability to drain emotions from other people, for good or for ill. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” a Nigerian woman participates in a tradition of making children out of inanimate materials and having them blessed by older women in hopes that they will become real. But these blessings come at a price—in her case, "Mama" blesses the child in exchange for the protagonist's own joy, “siphoned a bit, just a dab…a little bit of her life for her child’s life.” In the title story, figures known as Mathematicians are able to use precise algorithms and equations to relieve negative emotions from customers who can afford it. This power over feelings is as good a metaphor as any for storytelling. And Arimah has skill in abundance: the stories here are solid and impeccably crafted and strike at the heart of the most complicated of human relationships. Against a backdrop of grief for dead parents or angst over a lover, Arimah uses Nigeria as her muse. The characters exist in relation to a Nigeria of the past—the ghost of the Nigerian civil war, especially, looms over many of the stories—as well as present-day Nigeria, either as citizens or expats. Arimah even imagines a future Nigeria in which it has become the “Biafra-Britannia Alliance” in a massive geopolitical shift resulting from devastating climate change. This speculative turn joins everything from fabulism to folk tale as Arimah confidently tests out all the tools in her kit while also managing to create a wholly cohesive and original collection.
Machado’s debut collection brings together eight stories that showcase her fluency in the bizarre, magical, and sharply frightening depths of the imagination.
Each of the stories in this collection has, at its center, a strange and surprising idea that communicates, in a shockingly visceral way, the experience of living inside a woman's body. In “The Husband Stitch,” Machado turns the well-known horror story about a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck inside out, transforming the worn childhood nightmare into a blistering exploration of female desire and the insidious entitlement that society claims over the female body. “Especially Heinous” turns 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit into a disorienting, lonely, and oddly hopeful crime procedural crammed with ghosts and doppelgängers. “Difficult at Parties” depicts a woman trying to recover from a sexual assault. She watches porn in the hope that it will help her reconnect with her boyfriend and discovers that she can somehow hear the thoughts of the actors on the screen. Women fade out of their physical bodies and get incorporated into prom dresses. They get gastric bypass surgery, suffer epidemics, have children, go to artist residencies. They have a lot of sex. The fierceness and abundance of sex and desire in these stories, the way emotion is inextricably connected with the concerns of the body, makes even the most outlandish imaginings strangely familiar. Machado writes with furious grace. She plays with form and expectation in ways that are both funny and elegant but never obscure. “If you are reading this story out loud,” one story suggests, “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb.” With Machado’s skill, this feels not like a quirk or a flourish but like a perfectly appropriate direction.
An exceptional and pungently inventive first book.
Eleven stories of misshapen families and broken friendships disturb and unsettle.
Fridlund follows History of Wolves (2017), her marvelous and preternaturally accomplished first novel, with a collection of jarring and polished short fiction. The craft is evident in the perfect titles and the observational acuity of the sentences. In a story called “One You Run From, the Other You Fight,” a childless woman trespasses into a boy’s room: “Teenage boys always unnerved her, with their dramatic bodies and bad skin, their needy flirtation. They couldn’t decide if they wanted to be liked or hated.” In quick phrases, Fridlund’s characters are vividly embodied, such as Lora, 34, “with her lavish red nails, fingering the dry skin on her elbows.” The narrator of this story, “Here, Still,” begins with the ambiguous “I do not like her much, Lora, my best friend.” Neither will the reader. Fridlund writes about lives that feel, to their owners, “fundamentally unreal and insubstantial.” In “Marco Polo,” a young man describes his marriage slipping away like the child’s game. He ends his tale by donning his ex’s earplugs and mask for sleep, “faceless, pitiless, and perfect.” The only narrator with much agency is Katie, who remembers being an alpha girl of 14. She begins that summer reading vampire stories and ends it sexually mounting a boy her age who tells her “No, wait” in the unnerving title story, “Catapult.” It captures Katie’s intelligence and heedless insistence on launching from childhood. This is darker, thornier terrain than Mattie Furston navigated in History of Wolves, but the geography is similar: the Upper Midwest, the Iron Range, existentially lonely rural and suburban outposts. Each story mixes its humans with other mammals—rabbits, mice, bears, and especially dogs. Fridlund insists on functions primal and rude. She likes the color yellow for teeth and toenails, linoleum, rabbit fur, and toothpicks. Her stories evoke Flannery O’Connor's masterly way with grotesquery but deviate in Fridlund’s contempt for faith.
Bracing, often brilliant stories deliver a shock to the routine narratives we tell.
Elegant, often elegiac sketches by Syrian-born writer Alomar, now a resident of Chicago.
“He was born with a silver knife in his mouth. And he was its first victim.” Thus, in its entirety, one of Alomar’s short stories, this one with the simple title “The Knife.” Others stretch out to a page, a few others a little more than that, but all are masterpieces of compression, presented with the generally unironic matter-of-factness of a fable that, no matter how improbable the circumstances, behaves perfectly well according to its own logic: that knife could be literal just as easily as metaphorical, considering the violence and mayhem of the world. The title story is a sly allegory about the human desire for—well, for better circumstances than most of us enjoy, anyway, the teeth of the comb standing for aspirations that, even when fulfilled, do not go unpunished. Occasionally Alomar goes full-tilt for the classical fable, letting animals and sometimes even plants stand in for human beings; when humans and the natural world meet, it is seldom to our credit, as when an ear of wheat beholds a throng of human ears on heads that “were bent before their tyrant leader” and mistakes their posture for a boon. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed; in one fable worthy of Kafka, a writer is made to sit on his pen in torture, and his blood turns blue in the bargain. “He became prominent…and slowly came to his senses,” Alomar writes, leaving us to guess whether the writer became complicit in the regime that afflicted him or came to his senses in some other way, pleasant or horrific.
Swamps and streams, lightning and dogs all play a part in these beguiling, suggestive fables. The stories are of perfect length, but one wishes the book went on for much longer.
Well-off, well-intentioned people find their just-so lives upended, often in curious ways, in this first collection of short stories by Eugenides (The Marriage Plot, 2011, etc.).
Two of the stories here are close cousins to Eugenides' novels: “Air Mail” features Mitchell, the lovelorn spiritual seeker in The Marriage Plot, battling a case of dysentery in Thailand, while “The Oracular Vulva” concerns a researcher studying the same intersexual characteristics that stoked the plot of Middlesex (2002). But neither of those stories reads like a lesser dry run for a more serious work, and the collection throughout is marked by a rich wit, an eye for detail, and a sense of the absurd. The plots often involve relationships hitting the skids, as in “Early Music,” in which a couple watches their artistic ambitions crash into the brick wall of fiscal responsibility, or “Find the Bad Guy,” about a green-card marriage gone awry. (The contents of the narrator’s pockets tell a pathetic tale in itself: “loose change, 5-Hour Energy bottle, and an Ashley Madison ad torn from some magazine.”) Eugenides enjoys putting his characters into odd predicaments: “Baster” centers on a woman pursuing a pregnancy via the title’s kitchen gadget, while the writer who narrates “Great Experiment” contemplates defrauding his wealthy but stingy employer, using de Tocqueville’s writings as a rationalization. But Eugenides never holds up his characters for outright mockery, and the two fine new stories that bookend the collection gracefully navigate darker territory: “Complainers” is narrated by a woman confronting her longtime friend’s dementia, and “Fresh Complaint” turns on a young Indian-American woman’s provocative scheme to escape an arranged marriage. We humans are well-meaning folk, Eugenides means to say, but life tends to force us into bad behavior.
Sprightly or serious, Eugenides consistently writes about complex lives with depth and compassion.
A parade of eccentric women retreat into fantasy as they attempt to cure their loneliness.
There's a moment in this collection’s second story, “Selfie,” that tells readers much of what they need to know about the book. Violet is in her early 30s and runs a blog for goths. She decides, in an effort to up her readership, to live blog her attempts to summon a vampire lover from the local graveyard. And it works: while she's doing gravestone rubbings in the middle of the night, her undead boyfriend-to-be flits over and compliments her technique. Violet replies, “Thank you…I played with Fashion Plates as a child.” Like so many of the antiheroines Burns (Love Songs for Las Vegas, 2014, etc.) has created, Violet is an oddball, living largely inside her own imagination but desperate for approval, attention, and love. Violet's efforts to gain this love—like those of the other protagonists here—make for writing that is at once darkly funny and tenderly empathetic. In “Unwound,” Lara is inspired by a horror story about a woman whose head will fall off if her neck ribbon is removed, until she carries her playacting too far. In “Best of Show,” the wife of the world’s smallest man contemplates an affair. And in the book’s longest story, “The Unfortunate Act of Falling,” Joan, an upper-middle-class housewife, has a surprising reaction to the death of a local boy and becomes obsessed with its effect on her suburban town. Although many of Burns’ stories have similar arcs, there is such delight in the oddity of the details and the wit and precision of the writing that they each retain their sharpness.
Burns is an unmissable heir to writers of the peculiar, from Shirley Jackson to Roald Dahl.
These short stories are works of dark, dark magic that skitter between worlds both recognizable and wholly new.
Fans of Hunt's work (Mr. Splitfoot, 2016, etc.) will revel in her first story collection, which marries her signature flare for the fantastic with keen observation and sharp prose. In “Beast,” a woman transforms into a deer each night and frets about how her newfound wild side will affect her marriage. The strip mall sadness of rural Pennsylvania pushes the grown siblings in “Cortés the Killer” to make a series of terrible decisions. A woman moves to Florida to escape memories of a miscarriage, but they come flooding back during a hurricane in “The House Began to Pitch.” And, in “Love Machine,” a lonely FBI agent botches a mission in order to consummate his love for a killer robot. Even when things get strange, Hunt pins language to the page with such precision that you’ll never doubt her for a moment. Not even when, in “All Hands,” 13 teenage girls get pregnant in an homage to the Founding Fathers—then steal a moment between classes to “[lift] off the ground” like “floating balloons...full of grace.” Hunt also has a knack for writing about the particular sadness and anxiety of middle-aged women in suburban and rural America, whether precipitated by motherhood, marriage, or loneliness. As one narrator remarks in “Love Story,” “while no one wants to hear about middle-aged female sexual desire, I don’t care anymore what no one thinks.” Thankfully, Hunt is more than good enough to make you care.
Grab your comforter and a flashlight for this tour de force collection from one of our most inventive storytellers.
A versatile, illustrious author brings out his first short-fiction buffet for sampling, and the results are provocatively varied in taste and texture; sometimes piquant, other times zesty.
It’s not every contemporary fiction collection that includes one story featuring Abraham Lincoln and another (somewhat) unrelated story involving a young mixed-race orphan wandering Civil War battlefields insisting he is President Lincoln’s son. But when the imagination at work here is as well-traveled as McBride’s, such juxtapositions are easily understood—and widely anticipated. Celebrated for his bestselling family memoir, The Color of Water (1996), and his National Book Award–winning antebellum picaresque novel, The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride exhibits his formidable storytelling chops in an array of voices and settings that, however eclectic, are mostly held together by themes of race history and cultural collisions. As with most story collections, some selections work better than others; but those that do resonate profoundly. For instance: the first story, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” is told from the point of view of a white antique-toy dealer who, upon encountering the black family who now own a rare 19th-century train set once given as a present to Robert E. Lee’s son, is nonplused by their willingness to give him the valuable artifact without haggling over money. There is also a poignant four-story cycle bearing the rubric “The Five Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band,” referring to a quintet of teen funk band musicians from an at-risk neighborhood in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb. McBride is daring enough to apply his realist’s sensibilities to fantasy with “The Moaning Bench,” in which a flamboyant heavyweight boxer bearing the looks, sass, and swagger, if not the same name, as Muhammad Ali challenges hell’s satanic gatekeeper to fight for the souls of five quivering candidates for Eternal Damnation. The best is saved for last: “Mr. P & the Wind,” a five-part suite of stories set in a contemporary urban zoo whose menagerie communicates with each other—and at least one human—in what they call Thought Speak. The charm emitted by these whimsical-yet-acerbic tales seems to come from a hypothetical late-19th-century collaboration of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.
McBride emerges here as a master of what some might call “wisdom fiction,” common to both The Twilight Zone and Bernard Malamud, offering instruction and moral edification to his readers without providing an Aesop-like moral.
A collection of stories, most set amid the Vietnamese exile communities of California, by the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer (2015).
“We had passed our youth in a haunted country,” declares the narrator of the opening story, a ghostwriter who quite literally finds himself writing about ghosts. One in particular is the ghost of his brother, lost somewhere in the chaos of the Vietnam War, who has somehow managed to swim across the ocean to find his family and is now dripping in their hallway. He is not the only ghost: there are other civilians, the eviscerated Korean lieutenant blown apart in a treetop, the unfortunate black GI, "the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water,” and the Japanese private from another war—so many ghosts, so much horror. Some of the living are not much better off. There is, for example, the Madame Thieu–like operator who works the merchants of a refugee shopping district, demanding what amounts to protection money and darkly hinting that they might be accused of being Communists if they do not pay up; she nurses a terrible grief, but that does not make her any less criminal. And then there is the 30-something divorcé, torn between cultures, who cannot seem to find himself in the midst of all the expectations others hold for him but is still enraged when others disappoint him in turn. Nguyen’s slice-of-life approach is precise without being clinical, archly humorous without being condescending, and full of understanding; many of the stories might have been written by a modern Flaubert, if that master had spent time in San Jose or Ho Chi Minh City.
Nguyen is the foremost literary interpreter of the Vietnamese experience in America, to be sure. But his stories, excellent from start to finish, transcend ethnic boundaries to speak to human universals.
A radiant collection of stories linked to Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016, etc.), but moving beyond its first-person narration to limn small-town life from multiple perspectives.
Lucy is long gone from Amgash, Illinois, but her absence looms large; now that she’s a well-known author, the fact that her desperately poor family was despised and outcast has become an uncomfortable memory for the locals, including her damaged brother, Pete, and resentful sister, Vicky. Strout stakes out the collection’s moral terrain in its first story, “The Sign.” Tommy Guptill, who was kind to Lucy when she was a girl, still drops by the ramshackle Barton house to check on Pete even though it’s quite likely that Pete’s father was responsible for the fire that destroyed Tommy’s dairy farm and reduced him to taking a job as a school janitor. Tommy is an extraordinarily good man who took the calamitous fire as a spiritual lesson in what was truly important and has lived by it ever since. Patty Nicely, protagonist of “Windmills,” is another genuinely decent person who returns kindness for cruelty from Vicky’s angry daughter, Lila, who, in addition to viciously insulting Patty, states the jaundiced town wisdom about Lucy: “She thinks she’s better than any of us.” That isn’t so, we see in the story in which Lucy finally visits home (“Sister”), but there are plenty of mean-spirited people in Amgash who like to think so; it excuses their own various forms of uncaring. Class prejudice remains one of Strout’s enduring themes, along with the complex, fraught bonds of family across the generations, and she investigates both with tender yet tough-minded compassion for even the most repulsive characters (Patty’s nasty sister, Linda, and her predatory husband, Jay, in the collection’s creepiest story, “Cracked”). The epic scope within seemingly modest confines recalls Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge (2008), and her ability to discern vulnerabilities buried beneath bad behavior is as acute as ever.
Another powerful examination of painfully human ambiguities and ambivalences—this gifted writer just keeps getting better.
A stunning debut collection from Unferth (Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, 2011, etc.), in which a maverick cast of lonely characters wades through life’s uncertainties.
Unferth, whose collection of short-short fiction, Minor Robberies (2007), was published by McSweeney’s, re-emerges with 39 poignant, sharp-edged stories that cut right to the bone of the human psyche with precision and grace. The collection opens with the Pushcart Prize–winning “Likeable,” a story ironically about a woman who is so “inconveniently unlikable…she will have to be shoved into a hole and left there.” While this woman sadly capitulates to her fate, the rest of the books’ inhabitants don’t fold so willingly (at least not without a fight or the haphazard adoption of two turtles). They’re disenchanted, mordantly obsessive, delusional, yet nevertheless utterly relatable in their indefatigable search for love and acceptance, each one quietly shouldering “the familiar slow-burn panic that you were doing nothing with your life, had not lived up to your ‘potential,’ or, worse, you had and it changed nothing.” In “Flaws,” a couple’s listless gossiping devolves into a gloves-off screaming match (succinctly encapsulated in one paragraph). In another story, a father, ignoring the glaring chasms in his family life, signs up for a prison mentoring program and becomes deeply invested in a one-sided relationship. Meanwhile, the title story’s protagonist, a clairvoyant adjunct professor—who can predict how long someone has to live—arrives at a moral crossroads when she falls in love with her failing student. Prickly dilemmas, physical and existential, abound in these allegorical stories, each terrifically mundane and told with an exquisite restraint that drolly captures the inherent hope of humanity, or, “the sheer human stubbornness that causes those worse off...to grab hold and climb back into the world of the living, ‘optimism,’ one might call it.”
Chock-full of emotional insight and comic verve, Unferth’s beguiling stories are not to be missed.
Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home in a fantastical debut work of fiction, winner of the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
In 28 engrossing linked stories, Unnikrishnan blends Malayalam, Arabic, and English slang as well as South Asian and Persian Gulf cultures to capture the disjunction and dissociation of temporary foreign workers who live in the Arabian Peninsula but will never receive citizenship. In “Gulf Return,” a laborer swallows his passport and turns into a passport, and his roommate swallows a suitcase and turns into a suitcase so that their third friend can dash away with them both to the airport. In “Birds,” Anna Varghese tapes construction workers who fall from tall buildings back together. “Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men….She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin.” The tongue of an English-speaking teen escapes from his mouth, shedding words with every step in the agile “Glossary.” “Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs died at the scene but the surviving nouns, tadpole-sized, see-through, fell like hail.” A lonely renegade cockroach called The General mimics humanlike qualities in the ingenious “Blatella Germanica.” “It was when he started picking up the language of the building’s tenants, bits of Arabic from the Palestinians and the Sudanese, Tagalog from the Filipinos, modern variations of Dravidian languages, that he began crafting a custom-made patois from the many tongues he heard, then practicing it at night in the kitchen, as he foraged walking on two legs and in costume, that he startled the other Germanicas in his community, and they ostracized him.” The author’s crisp, imaginative prose packs a punch, and his whimsical depiction of characters who oscillate between two lands on either side of the Arabian Sea unspools the kind of immigrant narratives that are rarely told.
An enchanting, unparalleled anthem of displacement and repatriation.