Essential, as always, for buffs and students of the modern short story.

THE O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES 2019

Centenary volume of the esteemed short fiction annual, filled with standouts.

As the publisher writes, with welcome transparency, in an opening note, the choices in this volume are made by series editor and novelist/memoirist Furman (Ordinary Paradise, 1998, etc.); the jurors—in this case, Lara Vapnyar, Lynn Freed, and Elizabeth Strout—pick and comment on their favorite submission among the 20 Furman proffers. That understood, Furman appears to have broad tastes and no fear of sudden violence, something many of the stories exhibit. Perhaps the best—as with most prize volumes, especially those of limited scope, there’s not really a bad story in the bunch, but some are naturally enough better than others—is Canadian author Alexander MacLeod’s searing “Lagomorph,” whose title commemorates an unusually long-lived rabbit whose days are nearly ended by an unwonted visit outdoors and an encounter there with a hungry snake. The metaphor could be obvious in a story whose guiding arc is the deterioration of a long marriage, but MacLeod keeps his eye on the rabbit and firm control over a story packed with meaning: “I couldn’t feel anything out of place, and couldn’t tell if there was something else wrong, something broken deeper inside of him.” Speaking of control, Souvankham Thammavongsa turns the tables nicely with her story “Slingshot,” depicting a 70-year-old woman whose relationship with a 32-year-old man is sexual and sensual but whose terms she sets, quietly rebuking the noisy and nosy: “Old is a thing that happened outside,“ thinks her narrator when one bore reminds her of the age difference. The violence returns in John Edgar Wideman’s self-assured “Maps and Ledgers,” concerning a rising African American academic whose daily burden is by no means lessened when his father kills a man, while Rachel Kondo’s “Girl of Few Seasons” lays a memorable foundation for the reasons why a Vietnam-bound Hawaiian man must kill his flock of homing pigeons, “a steady heartbeat in his hands."

Essential, as always, for buffs and students of the modern short story.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-56553-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Anchor

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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