Time is the essence of this spare, subtle short story collection.
Two middle-aged women, friends from high school who haven’t seen each other for years, ride the train together from central London to the end of the line to recover a lost pair of reading glasses and, along with them, their old, easy friendship and spontaneous sense of adventure. A long-married couple, their relationship buffeted by bitterness and betrayal, find themselves the youngest travelers on a package tour to see Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in Berlin and, as the shared experience crumbles the emotional wall between them built by entrenched grudges and fears, find their way back to each other as old age approaches. A prosperous lawyer in London’s financial district—on his second marriage, to a woman around the age of the daughters from his first marriage—takes the teenage son of an acquaintance to lunch to persuade him that law would be a wise course of study, yet, as the lawyer reflects back on the course of his own life, his choices, and their consequences, its wisdom seems less clear. The nine stories in Simpson's (In-Flight Entertainment, 2012, etc.) sharply written collection carry titles that reflect a sense of place (“Moscow,” “Arizona,” “Berlin,” etc.). But, perhaps to a greater degree, the stories concern time—the effects of its passage, the disappointments it brings, the opportunities for growth it offers. Too, they grapple with issues of gender—especially incisively in the sly, clever “Erewhon”—and touch on the topics of art, literature, and economic and social inequality. And although Simpson’s stories are timely and rooted in their British milieu—strongly evoking the personal and cultural struggles of today’s middle class—they are also far-reaching and timeless, addressing matters of loyalty and mortality that are universal and deeply human.
Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.
One of the best short story writers in America resumes her remarkable balancing act with a collection that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same paragraph.
With the announced retirement and Nobel coronation of Alice Munro, Moore (Birds of America, 1998, etc.) seems peerless in her command of tone and her virtuosity in writing stories that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. There’s nothing particularly “difficult” about her fiction—except for the incisive reflections of the difficulties, complexities and absurdities of life—nothing academic or postmodern in her approach (except perhaps for the deus ex machina motorcycle gang that inadvertently crashes the unusual wedding in the astonishing closing story, “Thank You for Having Me”). And there is no title story, though the two longest (and two of the best) stories suggest the dual reference of the word "bark," to a tree or a dog. In the opening “Debarking,” a man in the aftermath of a painful divorce becomes involved with an attractive woman who is plainly crazy—and perhaps the craziness is part of the attraction? “Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane,” he ruminates. “Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people.” He is a man with a protective bark, and one whose ex-wife accused him of “being hard on people—‘You bark at them.’ ” In “Wings,” a singer involved with a musician who may be crazy, or just deceitful or manipulative, befriends an older man, who responds to the adage “his bark is worse than his bite” with: “I don’t know why people always say that. No bark is worse than a bite. A bite is always worse.” Every one of these stories has a flesh-tearing bite to it, though all but one (“Referential”) are also fiendishly funny.
In stories both dark and wry, Moore wields a scalpel with surgical precision.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
In 11 electric short stories, the gifted Groff (Fates and Furies, 2015, etc.) unpacks the “dread and heat” of her home state.
In her first fiction since President Barack Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of the year, Groff collects her singing, stinging stories of foreboding and strangeness in the Sunshine State. Groff lives in Gainesville with a husband and two sons, and four of these tales are told from the perspectives of unmoored married mothers of young ones. The first, “Ghosts and Empties,” which appeared in the New Yorker, begins with the line, “I have somehow become a woman who yells,” a disposition the narrator tries to quell by walking at all hours as “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.” Groff fans will recognize the descriptive zest instantly. The same quasi-hapless mother seems to narrate “The Midnight Zone,” in which she imperils the lives of her boys by falling off a stool and hitting her head while alone with them at a remote cabin, “where one thing [she] liked was how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” Ditto for the lonely oddballs telling “Flower Hunters” and “Yport,” the longest and last story, in which the reckless mother is often coated in alcohol. These are raw, danger-riddled, linguistically potent pieces. They unsettle their readers at every pass. In the dreamy, terrific “Dogs Go Wolf,” two little girls are abandoned on an island, their starvation lyrical: “The older sister’s body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground”; their rescue is akin to a fairy tale. Equally mesmerizing is “Above and Below,” in which the graduate student narrator sinks away and dissipates into vivid, exacting homelessness. Even the few stories that dribble off rather than end, such as “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” have passages of surpassing beauty. And Groff gets the humid, pervasive white racism that isn’t her point but curdles through plenty of her characters.
A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.
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.
The 21st-century surge of African American voices continues with these mischievous, relentlessly inventive stories whose interweaving content swerves from down-home grit to dreamlike grotesque.
Cross River, Maryland, rural and suburban at once, exists only in the imagination of its inventor. And in his second collection, Scott (Insurrections, 2016) manages to make this region-of-the-mind at once familiar and mysterious, beginning with Cross River’s origins as a predominantly African American community established by leaders of the only successful slave revolt—which never really happened. Nor for that matter were there ever any sightings of God doling out jelly beans at Easter time in Cross River, as chronicled in the opener, “David Sherman, the Last Son of God,” whose main character is a guitar prodigy struggling through his fraught relations with local clergy and other pious folk to play the sounds only he can hear. (“God,” David remembers somebody telling him, “answers all prayers and sometimes His answer is no.”) In another story, Tyrone, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at mythical Freedman's University, submits a thesis positing that the practice of knocking on strangers’ doors and running away is rooted in black slave insurrection; he recruits a friend for his thesis’s practical application with lamentable results. There are also a pair of science fiction stories, set in a futuristic Cross River, in which the customs—and abuses—of antebellum slavery are replicated by humans on robots and cyborgs, who, over time, resent their treatment enough to plot rebellion. And there’s a novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, chronicling an academic year at the aforementioned Freedman's University during which professors and students alike struggle with their deepest, darkest emotions. Even before that climactic performance, you’ve figured out that Cross River is meant to be a fun-house mirror sending back a distorted, disquietingly mordant reflection of African American history, both external and psychic. Somehow, paraphrasing one of Scott’s characters, it all manages to sound made-up and authentic at the same time.
Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.
An assured debut collection of stories about men and women, young and old, living and loving along the margins in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
In “I Happy Am,” one of nine tales Brinkley spins here about dreamers constricted or confounded by realities, Freddy is a young black boy from the Bronx who, at least for the length of the trip his summer camp is taking to the suburbs, imagines himself as a superpowered robot. Upon finding the house his camp is visiting to be “a bigger version of the apartment where [he] lived,” Freddy begins to wonder whether real life “spoke…to what his imagination guarded”: that there may be more potential for wonder and mystery beyond his dream life. This story shares with the others a preoccupation with characters’ reckoning with unfulfilled promises and unrecognized possibilities. The title of “J’ouvert, 1996” refers to an all-night revel originating at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza during which a teenage boy, his wide-eyed younger brother in tow, intends to find, and assert, a grown-up self. In “A Family,” an ex-convict grapples tentatively, even a bit reluctantly, with the idea of becoming a lover to the widow of his closest friend. The title story is about a middle-aged man who believes his wife has left him and taken whatever luck he could claim with her, while “Infinite Happiness” navigates the dicey emotional maze of a lopsided romantic triangle playing out in the promised land of present-day Brooklyn. It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding since they are each distinguished by Brinkley’s lyrical invention, precise descriptions of both emotional and physical terrain, and a prevailing compassion toward people as bemused by travail as they are taken aback by whatever epiphanies blossom before them.
In this debut collection, Filipino students, teachers, activists, maids, and chauffeurs negotiate their lives under martial law at home and seek fortune abroad in the Middle East and New York.
Each of these nine revelatory stories delivers characters who are equal parts endearing and disturbing. In the stunning “Esmeralda,” a cleaning woman ponders her station in life as she dusts offices in the twin towers in the months preceding 9/11. “You lay there—Esmeralda, daughter of the dirt, born to toil in God’s name till your hands or heart gave out—reclining like an infant or a queen, a hundred levels aboveground.” In “A Contract Overseas,” a budding fiction writer in the Philippines reveres her older brother despite his immoral, often dangerous behavior in Saudi Arabia. “I could picture him, reading my words somewhere, chuckling at my attempts to save some version of his life. Who could say, then, that I had an altogether lousy or inadequate imagination?” In the chilling “The Miracle Worker,” a special education teacher befriends her student’s family’s maid—who, it turns out, has a dark side. “I had underestimated her: what looked like a lifetime of toil and taking orders had contained subversions that no one, until now, had seen.” Alvar deftly flips the master-servant dynamic on its head. Her electric prose probes the tension between social classes, particularly in “Shadow Families,” in which wealthy Filipina housewives in Bahrain throw parties for working-class Filipinos. “These katulong—‘helpers,’ as we called them—were often younger but always aging faster than we were, over brooms and basins, their lungs fried with bleach and petroleum vapors….Helping these helpers, who’d traveled even farther, felt like home.”
A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.
A posthumous collection of stories, almost uniformly narrated by hard-living women, that makes a case for the author as a major talent.
From the 1960s through the '80s, Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) published brilliant stories for low-profile publications—her six collections all appeared with reputable but small presses. One suspects she might have had a higher profile had her subject matter been less gloomy: she mined her history of alcoholism in stories like “Her First Detox” and “Unmanageable,” which detail the turmoil of the DTs and lost potential, and her work in hospitals in stories like “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” which establishes a milieu of “rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools.” Yet the prevailing sensibility of this book, collecting 43 of the 76 stories Berlin published, is cleareyed and even comic in the face of life hitting the skids. The title story, for instance, balances wry commentary about housecleaning work (“never make friends with cats”) and deadpan observation (“I clean their coke mirror with Windex”) with a sad, thrumming back story. Similarly, “Sex Appeal” is narrated by a girl watching her older cousin primp for a date only to realize that she herself is the lecherous man’s lust object—a discovery Berlin presents with both a sense of surprise and foreboding. Berlin’s skill at controlling the temperature of a story is best displayed in her most emotionally demanding material. In “Tiger Bites,” narrated by an El Paso woman who heads to Juarez for an illegal abortion, the pain of her experience and the pieties of her family at home collide. And “Mijito,” which deserves to be widely anthologized, exposes how an immigrant woman’s best intentions to care for her ailing son are easily derailed by circumstance and obligation.
A testament to a writer whose explorations of society’s rougher corners deserve wider attention.
When the patriarch of a large, wealthy clan in Mexico City is kidnapped, it leads the family to an unintentional diaspora.
Mexican-born, Texas-based journalist Ruiz-Camacho shows a wealth of talent in this fiction debut, a collection of interconnected stories about the blowback from the disappearance of José Victoriano Arteaga, a wealthy Mexican citizen. In the opener, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring,” the don’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Fernanda, offers a flashback about what happened when the patriarch disappeared after leaving his office for lunch one day in 2004: “It is the year all the members of my family will end up fleeing Mexico, following Grandpa’s disappearance, but at that point I don’t know for sure what’s happened to him.” Ruiz-Camacho captures a younger child’s take on grief and misunderstanding in “Okie,” written from the point of view of 8-year-old Bernardo. An outstanding offshoot from the main plot comes in “Origami Prunes,” in which a young consulate officer named Plutarco Mills meets the don’s daughter Laura in a laundromat and starts an affair with her only to meet her daughter Nicolasa years later under sad, strange circumstances.There’s a funny, almost theatrical exchange in “I Clench My Hands Into Fists and They Look Like Someone Else’s,” in which two siblings, Homero and Ximena, have holed up in a Manhattan flea trap to pop pills, snipe at each other and dream of better days ahead.Another offshoot, “Better Latitude,” examines the unique heartache carried by Silvia Guevara, mistress to Don Victoriano and the mother of his 6-year-old son, Laureano, to whom she must explain where Daddy went. Finally, Ruiz-Camacho sticks the landing in the title story, transposing son Martin's trip to the vet in Madrid with his memories of the don’s body parts' arriving in the mail, ending with a conversation with his father’s ghost.
A nimble debut that demonstrates not a singular narrative voice but a realistic chorus of them.