I knew it would happen. I knew as soon as I clicked the "Publish" button on the previous blog post, The Great Big Roundup of 2014 Short Story Collections, more noteworthy books would start coming out of the woodwork. Apparently, the woodwork is a pretty big place.
In the time it takes a penitent tear to fall, I'd collected so many "you-should-have-included"s that, to quote the late great Roy Scheider, I knew I was gonna need a bigger boat. Rather than tacking this list onto the other blog post, I felt it was only fair to build a whole new boat blog post.
My thanks to Jeffrey Gleaves, Larry Dark, Loran Smith, Jessica M., Comma Press and other Tweeps and Facefriends for bringing these other titles to my attention.
Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates can scare the skin right off me, in ways more subtle and deeply macabre than what I get from Stephen King (who I also love, but in a different way). As I wrote in my review of The Museum of Dr. Moses, her stories are "sneaky little things. The horror comes in on cat's paws, barely noticeable." I would expect nothing less from JCO's new collection, which comes out in September. Here's a little more about Lovely, Dark, Deep from the publisher:
In “Mastiff,” a woman and a man are joined in an erotic bond forged out of terror and gratitude. “Sex with Camel” explores how a sixteen-year-old boy realizes the depth of his love for his grandmother—and how vulnerable those feelings make him. Fearful that that her husband is “disappearing” from their life, a woman becomes obsessed with keeping him in her sight in “The Disappearing.” “A Book of Martyrs” reveals how the end of a pregnancy brings with it the end of a relationship. And in the title story, the elderly Robert Frost is visited by an interviewer, an unsettling young woman, who seems to know a good deal more about his life than she should.
"Lovely, Dark, Deep" (the story) drew criticism when it was published in Harper's, with friends and relatives of Frost's calling Oates' portrayal of the poet "preposterous and distasteful." Well, sure, maybe it's not flattering, but can anything in fiction really be called "preposterous"? Check out these Sample Lines from that story:
Here was the first surprise: the great man was much heavier, his body much more solid, than I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat, but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of a middle-aged woman. The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos (at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall) had coarsened and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the seventy-seven-year-old poet had too often scowled or squinted. The snowy-white hair so often captured in photographs, like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head, was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy white, in fact disheveled, as if the poet had only just risen, dazed, from sleep.
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
The author of the nicely old-fashioned novel Jim the Boy returns with a collection of stories and a novella. I expect the fiction will be sweet, sentimental and lovely. Here's how the publisher describes the collection:
Two decades after his debut collection Here We Are in Paradise heralded Tony Earley as one of the most accomplished writers of his generation, the rueful, bittersweet, and riotous stories of Mr. Tall reestablish him as a mythmaker and tale spinner of the first rank. These stories introduce us not only to ordinary people seeking to live extraordinary lives, but also to the skunk ape (a southern variant of Bigfoot), the ghost of Jesse James, and a bone-tired Jack the Giant Killer. Whether it's Appalachia, Nashville, the Carolina Coast, or a make-believe land of talking dogs, each world Earley creates is indelible.
This is Not an Accident by April Wilder
I'm a well-known First Line junkie, and man oh man, April Wilder certainly provides the smack in her debut collection. Exhibit A, your honor:
A few days after Stephanie called and told me Bob had shot himself in the foot, then in the gut, Sammy Sosa got caught corking his bat. (from "We Were Champions")
Jack circled the block looking for Ann's junker Saab and tonguing his lower left canine, which was loose and clicked in his gum like a light switch. (from "The Butcher Shop")
And then there's this terrific opening to the title story of the collection:
Each week the driver who’d made the least amount of progress took home the Decelerator Award. The thing itself was an actual gas pedal removed from the instructor’s late-model Tacoma, a pedal she believed to be not only faulty but the true cause of her multiple citations for unnecessary acceleration. “As it happened,” she told the class, “Toyota recalled these pedals for that very reason, among others.”
Kat raised her hand. “Among other reasons or among other pedals?”
Everyone laughed, though Kat wasn’t sure why. She wondered, too, why an accelerator was being used to denote deceleration, but the one question was enough to let everyone know she was awake.
The instructor backed up, half-sitting on the lip of the desk and crossing her short sturdy legs. She was an all-business blonde who worked for a bail bondsman and claimed to be related to Houdini (a fact the class wise guy, Roger, had pounced on: “Yeah? I’ll bet he coulda got himself out of those acceleration tickets”).
Here's what the publisher says we'll find in the rest of these pages:
In the title story, a cartoonist tries to cause a car accident to know what a car accident feels like. In the novella You're That Guy, a house sitter hides among poets in Salt Lake City after his canine charge dies tragically. In "Three Men," a wife helps her soon-to-be ex-husband pick a tie, but neither can find the words to stop a seemingly evitable divorce. In "It's a Long Dang Life," a grandma’s boyfriend holds a backyard barbecue under siege—with the kids as his pint-sized guards. Wilder's characters are all, at first glance, a bit off. But by the end of the collection, Wilder's world begins to feel all too familiar, describing not so much what is "dark" in modern American life, but what we step over every day on our way to work. In the tradition of Wells Tower and Jim Shepard, This Is Not an Accident signals a bold new voice and delivers the kind of insanely incisive moments only a master of the human condition can conjure.
The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
This one I'm particularly embarrassed to have left off the original list. Not only is The Corpse Exhibition on my radar, it's high on my To-Be-Read list. Blasim's stories show the Iraq War from the Iraqi perspective (which was also addressed in some of Katey Schultz's Flashes of War). In my reading schedule, I'd meant to pair The Corpse Exhibition with Phil Klay's Redeployment (the war seen through American soldiers' eyes), but then I got distracted by other obligations. In a sign of commitment, I'm marking my calendar with a red pen right now to make a date with this Corpse. "Blasim has a sense of humor. He must have learned his jokes from the Grim Reaper." That's William T. Vollmann's assessment, and one that seems to hold true given the snips and sips I've taken from the collection so far. This is Blasim's first publication in the U.S. and it combines stories from his previous collections, The Iraqi Christ and The Madman of Freedom Square--both of which were published in Great Britain by Comma Press. Here are some Sample Lines from "The Iraqi Christ," a story which packs a surprising punch in a very small space:
Daniel was always chewing gum. The soldiers had baptized him Chewgum Christ. I often imagined that Daniel's chewing was like an energy source, recharging the battery that powered the screen in his brain. His life's dream was to work in the radar unit. He had completed high school and volunteered to join the air force, but his application was rejected, maybe because his father had been a prominent communist in the seventies. He loved radar the way other men love women or soccer. He collected pictures of radar systems and talked about signals and frequencies as though he was talking about a romp in the hay with some girlfriend.
I'm going to have to succumb and obey the Los Angeles Times when it says in its review: "Blasim's agonized wrestling with the act of writing about human suffering should be required reading for anyone putting pen to paper in the wake of this war. The Corpse Exhibition masterfully demonstrates that gritty realism is not the only response to war's unreal reality, and war is just as real for those who don't sign up to fight." Blasim's previous short story collection The Iraqi Christ recently won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, making him the first Arabic writer to win the prize; it's also the first time a short story collection has been victorious in the competition's 24-year history.
Marine Park by Mark Chiusano
In this collection, Mark Chiusano zooms in via a literary Mapquest to a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marine Park, which includes a fertile salt marsh, provides an equally fertile setting for these stories, which "delve into family, boyhood, sports, drugs, love, and all the weird quirks of growing up in a tight-knit community on the edge of the city." The characters in Marine Park include, as Publishers Weekly describes them, "a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project in 'Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away'; an ex-high school basketball star turned gun-toting drug dealer in 'Ed Monahan’s Game'; and the brothers Jamison and Lorris Favero, whom we follow from adolescence in the early 2000s to adulthood in the present, in eight of the stories." It sounds like a fascinating line-up. Here are some words of praise from Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy: “One of the most subtle, tender, emotionally powerful books that I’ve read in a long time. Set mostly in Brooklyn, but its subject is the whole of America. If you’ve never been to Marine Park before, by the end of this collection you’ll feel like you’d lived there your whole life. This is a stunning debut.”
The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter
There are characters, and then there are characters. Just look at the parade of people you'll find in this collection of short stories by Kathleen Winter (author of the prize-winning novel Annabel):
Meet Xavier Boland, the untouchable cross-dresser, whose walk is loose and carefree as an old Broadway tune. Meet barmy Ms. Penrice, clambering up a beechnut tree at the age of seventy-six. Meet a Zamboni mechanic turned funeral porteur, Madame Poirer's lapdog (and its chastity belt), a congregation of hard-singing, sex-crazed Pentecostals, and more. With The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter brings her quirky sensuality, lyrically rendered settings, and off-key humor to bear on a new short story collection about modern loneliness, small-town gay teenagers, catastrophic love, gut-wrenching laughter in the absolute wrong places, and the holiness of ordinary life.
Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith
Leesa Cross-Smith's collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and comes highly recommended by writers like Roxane Gay:
Leesa Cross-Smith is a consummate storyteller who uses her formidable talents to tell the oft-overlooked stories of people living in that great swath of place between the left and right coasts. She offers thrilling turns of phrase like, “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read,” or “let your smeary mouth be his question mark.” Where she is most stunning is in the endings of each of the 27 stories in Every Kiss a War, creating crisp, evocative moments that will linger long after you’ve read this book’s very last word.
and Kathy Fish:
Read the stories Leesa Cross-Smith has made for us here and remember the cheap beer & the old songs & fireworks & cowboys & ‘ice clinky frontier whiskey’ & kisses that feel like tiny wars. Remember these things as if they happened to you because they did. Her writing is exquisite and fearless, exposed and bleeding onto the page. Every story without exception is smart, gentle, heartbreaking, and most importantly, real.
and Chad Simpson:
Leesa Cross-Smith is a sorceress. Out of pop songs and humid Kentucky nights, out of big belt buckles and back-road drives, Cross-Smith conjures stories filled with sentences that dazzle and characters who yearn with their whole broken hearts. Every Kiss a War is a remarkable debut collection by a writer whose words I’d follow down any starlit gravel road.
Those endorsements alone (along with the description of a mouth tasting like Russian novels) is enough to propel me into the pages.
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
I've been a fan of Antonya Nelson's fiction ever since she visited the University of Alaska-Fairbanks when I was an grad student there. After hearing her read one of her stories, I went out and bought In the Land of Men. Reader, I ate it up like it was a bowl of fresh-baked Cheez-Its. And now I'm chagrined to see she has a new collection of stories out on the streets and it completely swam below my radar. That mistake has been corrected and I hope to sit down soon with new A. N. stories (along with, yes, a bowl of Cheez-Its). In the meantime, here's a taste of what's in store for us, courtesy of Jenny Shank's excellent review in the Dallas Morning News:
“If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything,” Antonya Nelson writes in her seventh short-story collection, Funny Once.
The characters in Nelson’s fiction have never been concerned with learning from other people’s mistakes, let alone their own. It’s not as if they aren’t trying to improve—the collection’s title comes from a story about a character named Phoebe, who gives up drinking after her husband accidentally sets her hair on fire during a shared bender.
At a party, Phoebe holds on to her tenuous sobriety, her shaved head hidden with a scarf, while listening to a drunken person tell a joke, repeating the punch line several times. “Phoebe made a mental note, in case she went back to drinking: It’s only funny once.”
Still, as hard as these characters try, it’s difficult for them not to fall back into old patterns. Nelson’s characters lie their way through AA meetings, philander, fall in love with the married and divorce extravagantly, some as many as three times, while retaining their bonds with the children they met along the way. Despite the upheaval, Nelson’s characters make excellent, caring parents and grandparents, both biological and surrogate.
Click here to read the rest of Jenny's review.
The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier
The cover for Susan Hope Lanier's The Game We Play shows a ballroom dancing trophy against a flowered wallpaper dominated by the overlay of the title in pink. This cover fairly screams "Read Me!" Okay, okay, you don't have to twist my arm more than once. Take a look at some of the book's contents:
Ten riveting, emotionally complex stories examining the decisions we make when our choices are few and courage is costly. Topics include a young couple facing disease and commitment with the same sharp fear, a teenager stealing from his girlfriend's mother's purse to help pay for her abortion, and a father making a split-second decision that puts his child's life at risk.
Here's some nice Blurbworthiness from Joe Meno (Hairstyles of the Damned) about this Chicago writer: "Susan Hope Lanier's collection of brilliant short stories, The Game We Play, is a triumph. Detailing distinct human relationships, moments of connection, and modern crises, these stories--all effortlessly rendered, all deeply felt--evoke the best of Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore. An outstanding debut that should reaffirm our shared belief in the absolute necessity and imaginative possibility of the short story."
After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
The term "people lights" has a sinister connotation, as if our houses are being watched by animals or aliens. I would expect this kind of creepy unease from Stephen Graham Jones, author of fourteen books of horror, fantasy, science fiction and dark realism. He's published more than 125 stories in places like Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, and Asimov's. Be prepared for darkness once you open these pages....but remember to keep your people light on. Here's how the publisher describes the collection:
This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday. Included are two original stories, several rarities and out of print narratives, as well as a few "best of the year" inclusions. Stephen Graham Jones is a master storyteller. What does happen after the people lights have gone off?
Blurbworthiness: "After The People Lights Have Gone Off shows that Jones knows the horror genre. It has stories that you would expect from Jones, stories about werewolves, aliens and other horror tropes. Though, these aren’t tropes as you would imagine them, Jones takes what we know of the monsters we were scared of as kids and gives us reason to be afraid now. Horror is where lots of the tropes are born, sure, and perhaps it should be that way. Hearing those stories so much is the reason we check the backseat of the car for killers. But Jones re-imagines them, breathes new life into them, makes them roam the world again so we read them for a new time with the door locked and a gun by our side." (from a review at Revolt Daily)
By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente
Here's a new release from one of my favorite small-press publishers, Dzanc Books, I somehow overlooked in the earlier crush of collections I posted here at the blog. And the fact that at least one of the stories is set in my old stomping grounds of Alaska....well, I can't believe I missed this one. I will now do the Penance of 1,000 Paper Cuts. Here's Dzanc's description of the contents: "From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in. Across thirteen stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief." You can find links to some of Anne Valente's stories at this page on her website. Blurbworthiness: "In these wonderful stories, Anne Valente shows again and again her talent for extracting the obsessions and anxieties and wonder of childhood, then extrapolating them across the whole of a life: Here feelings manifest as objects, relationships exist as gifts physically given, and every page contains a thrilling combination of sadness and joy, humor and loss, science and mystery and magic. By Light We Knew Our Names is a striking debut, reminiscent of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, but with a bright promise all its own." (Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods)
Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman
Ghosts, fairies, and a merman wait for you behind that beautiful cover of novelist Delia Sherman's first book of short stories. Young Woman in a Garden comes to us from the good folks (led by Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link) at Small Beer Press; one of their previous short story collections, At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson, is still perched high in my To-Be-Read stack. In Sherman's Garden, the fantastic and the fabulous enchant the 300 pages. Here's a brief synopsis from the publisher:
In her vivid and sly, gentle and wise, long-anticipated first collection, Delia Sherman takes seemingly insignificant moments in the lives of artists or sailors--the light out a window, the two strokes it takes to turn a small boat--and finds the ghosts haunting them, the magic surrounding them. Here are the lives that make up larger histories, here are tricksters and gardeners, faeries and musicians, all glittering and sparkling, finding beauty and hope and always unexpected, a touch of wild magic.
A sampling of the story titles: “The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor,” “Walpurgis Afternoon,” “The Fairy Cony-Catcher,” “Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride,” “The Maid on the Shore” and “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche.”
Devil's Tub by Edward Hoagland
I'll admit "short fiction" is not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Edward Hoagland, an author I know primarily as a first-rate nature writer (John Updike called him "the best essayist of my generation"). But Hoagland is the kind of author who can grace any form of writing with beautiful and vibrant language. From the opening of "Cowboys," first published in 1960 in The Noble Savage (a literary magazine started by Saul Bellow), come these Sample Lines:
Zino'd been the gator wrestler since he'd left the Army last spring. Lemkuel's Hollywood was a pretty good carny. Offered lots of attractions but nothing too big for the trucks or expensive to use. Easy to move; played it cool. The hard part for the wrestler was hopping on him and off because if you know about gators you know they can't open their mouth once you're holding it closed--nor the same as the muscles which shut it. That was when the gator's being calm was important. There's a powerful tail also, but this one forgot about his and, as it worked out, only had teeth to eat. Lemkuel told Zino to take some kind of spurs to him to jazzen up the show. Zino told Lemkuel to hire a freak.
Zino wrestled with the gator, and Spike, his friend, took care of the hyenas, controlled their jitters and made them laugh at the right times. The third guy who was with them, the paratrooper, took care of the carnival's elephant, gave the towners rides. He did a lot else and so did Spike and so did Zino, but the point is they thought they were tops for handling animals, Frank Buck, Tarzan, and the cat's meow.
This story, about carnies tussling with some rodeo riders in eastern Oregon, is even more interesting when you know that Hoagland spent two summers working for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1950s.
Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Here's another collection with war-related fiction which I'm sorry to have overlooked (he says as he cautiously, carefully places another book on top of the TBR stack, which is now dangerously swaying--a light breeze could bring it all crashing down on my head; so if you don't hear from me again, you'll know what happened....). Elegy on Kinderklavier is a current Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, so those of you near a B&N should have no trouble getting your hands on a copy. For the rest of you, please consider ordering it through the Iconoclast Books link above. Here's more about the book from the publisher:
The stories in Elegy on Kinderklavier explore the profound loss and intricate effects of war on lives that have been suddenly misaligned. A diplomat navigates a hostile political climate and an arranged marriage in an Israeli settlement on a newly discovered planet; a small town in Kansas shuns the army recruiter who signed up its boys as troops are deployed to Iraq, falling in helicopters and on grenades; a family dissolves around mental illness and a child's body overtaken by cancer. The moment a soldier steps on an explosive device is painfully reproduced, nanosecond by nanosecond. Arna Bontemps Hemenway's stories feel pulled out of time and place, and the suffering of his characters seem at once otherworldly and stunningly familiar. Elegy on Kinderklavier is a disquieting exploration of what it is to lose and be lost.
I can't wait to lose myself in Hemenway's fiction.
Black Vodka by Deborah Levy
I first heard about Black Vodka at The Huffington Post where I was seduced by this description of some of the book's stories:
Like David Lynch, Levy is a master of many mediums. Her writing career began with theatre--she's written a handful of plays that were produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company--which is evident in her ability to craft immersive scenes. She's also a novelist and poet. Black Vodka is her first collection of short stories, and with it she seems to have found the form that best showcases her psychologically poignant observations. Levy's stories are very short--10 are packed into about 120 pages--but each manages to quickly construct its own specific mood. Atmospheric writing tends to shirk the importance of fully realized characters, but Levy manages to create those, too.
The first and titular story, "Black Vodka," follows a man with kyphosis--the overcurvature of the upper back--on a date with an anthropologist, whose interest in him may or may not be strictly clinical. What begins as a brazen diary entry about the toils of misfit-dom ("people sink their eyes into my hump for six seconds longer than protocol should allow") morphs slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a broader, relatable commentary on our desire for acceptance, and the anxiety that comes with "the promise of love." Levy's humor comes in the form of quotidian absurdities, mentioned in passing: the pear liqueur ordered by the couple "strangely, does not taste of pear."
The story ends with the protagonist's heartbeat going "berserk," setting the pace for the remainder of the collection. Levy's terse sentences build into high-pitch scenes. In "Shining a Light," protagonist Alice has landed in a foreign country, and "she knows before it is completely certain that her bag will not appear." The ensuing vacation is dreamlike, funny and bizarre, as Alice dances and swims her way across Prague, all while wearing the same blue dress. Again, Levy humorously fuses the absurd and the commonplace: "The composer tells her his name is Alex but that she can call him Mr. Composer if she likes. And then he doesn't say a word for the entire journey."
Click here to read the rest of Huffington Post's recommendation.
Starting Over by Elizabeth Spencer
I'll close this list with a mention of the latest book from 92-year-old Elizabeth Spencer which came out at the beginning of this year. Here's how Slate began its review of Starting Over:
We last heard from Elizabeth Spencer more than a decade ago. In 1998 she published a memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, followed in 2001 by a “greatest hits” roundup of her novellas and short stories, The Southern Woman, which was followed by a quiet 12 years. One could be forgiven the thought that after a long and illustrious career Spencer, as Alice Munro has hinted and Philip Roth has declared, had decided to put her feet up and recline a little on her laurels.
But Spencer is back with a new collection, Starting Over. The title takes its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes, recover from life’s fumbles. Some might muse that Spencer herself is starting over, once more back to the typewriter, but there is nothing of rebirth here. She is, as she ever was, one of America’s best short story writers, with her invention and craft undimmed.
Click here to read the rest of the review. Here's a bit more about some of the stories from the publisher's synopsis: "In 'Sightings,' a troubled daughter suddenly returns to the home of the father she accidentally blinded during her parents' bitter separation; in 'Blackie,' the reappearance of a son from a divorcee's first marriage triggers a harrowing confrontation with her new family; while in 'The Wedding Visitor,' a cousin travels home only to find himself entwined in the events leading up to a family wedding."
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the annual The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Story anthologies. The O. Henry is the only one I have on hand at the moment, so I can't tell you much about the other two collections (though I've no doubt they'll live up to the standards of previous years). This year's guest jurors for the O. Henry Prize Stories are Tash Aw, James Lasdun and Joan Silber; they select their favorites from among the 20 stories chosen by series editor Laura Furman. This year, their favorites were "The Gun" by Mark Haddon, "The Inheritors" by Kristen Iskandrian and "Opa-Locka" by Laura van den Berg, from which I take these Sample Lines about two private-eye sisters on a stakeout on a hot roof in Florida:
I opened the red cooler we brought on stakeouts and fished out an ice cube. I ran it along the back of Julia's neck and over her cheeks. She sighed in a way that sounded grateful. I kept moving the ice over her skin until it turned into a tiny translucent shard and melted into my fingertips, until it was just my hand on the nape of her neck.
In her introduction to the book, Furman writes, "The art of the short story is in good hands this year. As readers, we ask nothing more of the twenty writers than that they tell us another story, please."
I'll second that.