A fresh gathering that highlights the work of mostly well-known story writers through their lesser-known works.

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE MODERN AMERICAN SHORT STORY

A well-selected anthology of short fiction, ranging from long to flash, representing the last half-century.

Former Granta editor Freeman writes in his introduction that where the 1960s were once seen as a fulcrum of the short story form, the succeeding decade has “begun to seem like one of the most fertile periods of American life.” Certainly that was a time when writing by members of marginalized communities, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and politically engaged reexaminations of history came to the fore. All these strands are represented in Freeman’s collection, which begins with Toni Cade Bambara, a writer not heard from often enough, whose “The Lesson,” from 1972, finds a group of Black children inside F.A.O. Schwarz under the aegis of a well-meaning college graduate who has returned to the neighborhood. The narrator, beholding a $35 clown doll (that would be about $220 today), imagines asking for the money from her mother: “ ‘You wanna who that cost what?’ she’d say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in my head.” The exotic field trip yields one lesson for the children: “White folks crazy.” Certainly you’d think so on reading Grace Paley’s “A Conversation With My Father,” with its story within a story of a boy who has become addicted to drugs in “the fist of adolescence” and whose mother, not wishing him to feel isolated, joins him in junkiedom. Andrew Holleran evokes the ravages of the AIDS epidemic in “The Penthouse,” a long story from 1999 that is full of ghosts but scores the comic aperçu that because sex is off the table, “it seemed as if that was all there was to do in New York: eat in public.” George Saunders packs a story into 392 words; finally recognized as a literary writer, Stephen King turns in a characteristically spooky tale; and the closing stories, from Ted Chiang and Lauren Groff, speak to impending extinction, death, and fear.

A fresh gathering that highlights the work of mostly well-known story writers through their lesser-known works.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984877-80-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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