October 29, 2013

Short Story Collections

During the earlier part of this year, I had a new habit of reading short stories most mornings while I ate breakfast. In April I posted about my favorites among the stories I'd read to that point. I was planning to make this a recurring quarterly feature.

As often happens with habits, this one fell by the wayside not long after when I decided that the morning short story reading didn't fit well into my schedule. I have been continuing to read a decent amount of short fiction this year, though, mostly in the form of recently published story collections.

→ The stories in Jessica Francis Kane's collection, THIS CLOSE, are about contemporary people in unexceptional settings, and they are fascinating. I aspire to write stories like this. Many of them have a quality I find most impressive and elusive: no huge event takes place, and yet the interactions of the characters as they deal with small issues make for a gripping read.

The first two stories in the collection, "Lucky Boy" and "American Lawn", especially demonstrate this feat. Both are about characters who find themselves trapped in awkward relationships with people who aren't quite friends. Their uncertainty over how to act is easily identifiable as a general human condition, but the stories are specific and carefully drawn.

Later stories are just as good but have at their core something bigger, such as death or a failing marriage. Of these, "Next In Line" stuck with me most. It's beautiful, but it's a heartbreaker.

I recommend this collection to anyone looking for literary short fiction that succeeds in telling a good story. I previously read Kane's debut novel, THE REPORT, and raved about it.

HALF AS HAPPY by Gregory Spatz is another collection focusing on familiar emotions and relationships between people. The stories tend toward the introspective, with many examples of characters mulling over their lives and past events and where they went wrong. This is the kind of story that tends to be depressing, but there were also great moments of humor throughout.

As with any collection, I liked some stories better than others. My favorites were the first and last in the book. "Any Landlord's Dream" is about a marriage faltering after a loss. In "String", a single bad decision impacts a set of strangers, altering the course of their lives. It happens that both these stories make good use of multiple points of view, which is probably one reason they appeal to me.

This was an interesting collection for me to read as a writer, because while the subject matter is the same sort of individual turmoil that I choose for my own stories, Spatz has a very different writing style than mine, featuring long, dense paragraphs crammed with details. This summer, Spatz was the workshop leader when my story was workshopped at Squaw Valley, and it was quite an honor to get feedback from this accomplished writer. Now in studying his stories, I'm learning even more.

I've already posted recommendations of two other new collection this year:

TENTH OF DECEMBER is the much-hyped collection by George Saunders, and it deserves the attention. The worlds in Saunders's strange and darkly funny stories are very different from those in the two collections above, which are grounded in familiar reality. This will be a selling point for some readers and a turn-off for others -- the flavor of weirdness appealed to me immensely. Read my full review.

→ I can't be fully unbiased about THE AVERSIVE CLAUSE by B.C. Edwards because the author is an old friend, but I hope you will trust me when I say this collection is fabulous, and even when I suggest that fans of Saunders might want to check out Edwards. Some of the stories in THE AVERSIVE CLAUSE are about apocalypse, others are about scenarios as mundane as a family reunion, but all are fascinating. Read my full review.

As a final recommendation, I'd like to suggest that those interested in writing short stories check out this great podcast conversation between four short story writers talking about the craft, presented by Litquake's Lit Cast.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Brad Leithauser examines the pet words of famous writers: "I sometimes wonder what could be responsibly deduced about a poet whose work you'd never actually read--if you were supplied only with a bare-bones concordance providing tables of vocabulary frequency. A fair amount, probably."


laurenhat said...

I tend to avoid reading short fiction, because I generally don't like doing the work to get to know and care about new characters; already knowing the characters is, I think, a lot of what I enjoy about epic fantasy series and also rereading books I like. I've been reading a lot more short fiction recently, but it's mostly been fanfiction, and thus characters I already know.

Despite my instinctive avoidance, I adored "Six Months, Three Days", and have also enjoyed some short story collections by Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis. And I still intend to read The Aversive Clause and also that funny short story collection they raved about on Bookrageous whose name currently escapes me (you read the short story about the condom and were underwhelmed, I believe). Looking forward to eventually discussing these more with you.

(Also this is the first time I've had an identity crisis over which account to use to leave a blog comment. ;) )

Lisa Eckstein said...

While I did like many of the stories in these collections because of the characters, I agree that a great character-focused story mostly makes me want to know if the author has written any novels so I can spend longer with the characters they develop. Ultimately, novels are always my preferred length of fiction.

I think the best short stories are those with a really cool idea that only requires (and allows) the length of a story to explore, and usually that's less about the characters than about plot or world-building. When I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction short stories and found that the perfect length for experiencing different interesting scifi premises.

Anyway, I do hope you'll try some more short stories just because it's interesting to read different kinds of things. The funny collection is LAST GIRLFRIEND ON EARTH by Simon Rich, btw.

Andrea Blythe said...

I rather love short stories and how they let me step briefly into a world or setting or meet a character. I suppose I relate short stories to poetry in the sense that they both fit emotion and story into small spaces (unless the poem is very long).

Lisa Eckstein said...

Andrea, I hadn't thought about connecting short stories and poems in that way, but I think you're right that they share certain aspects and appeals. Since you're a poet, and have a far better appreciation of poetry than I do, I can see why short fiction would work well for you!

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