Short Stories in September

In 2014 I read 20 short story collections, but in 2015 and 2016 (at least so far) I’ve only managed 10 per year. Three of those have all clumped within the last month or so, though. I started The Pier Falls back in May but set it aside at the halfway point; luckily, when I returned to it earlier this month I devoured the rest within a few hours. I also reviewed the second annual anthology of Best Small Fictions for the Small Press Book Review, a new online venue for me, and tried out Alexandra Kleeman’s short stories after loving her debut novel last year. Mini reviews below…

Best Small Fictions 2016, edited by Stuart Dybek

best-small-fictionsThis collects 45 super-short stories that stand out for their structure, voice, and character development—all in spite of often extreme brevity. Humor and pathos provide sharp pivot points. It helps to have an unusual perspective, like that of a Venus flytrap observing a household’s upheavals (Janey Skinner’s “Carnivores”), or of potential names gathering around a baptismal font (Alberto Chimal’s “The Waterfall”). Hard as it is to choose from such a diverse bunch, I do have three favorites: Elizabeth Morton’s “Parting,” in which a divorce causes things to be literally divided; Mary-Jane Holmes’s “Trifle,” where alliteration and culinary vocabulary contrast an English summer with Middle Eastern traces; and Amir Adam’s “The Physics of Satellites,” which uses images from astronomy and a recent suicide to contrast falling, flying, and barely holding on. There are fewer highlights than in the previous volume, but this is still an excellent snapshot of contemporary flash fiction. (See my full review at the Small Press Book Review.) 3-5-star-rating


The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon

pier-fallsThese nine stories examine what characters do in extreme, often violent situations. My three favorites were “Bunny,” reminiscent of The Fattest Man in Britain with its picture of a friendship between an obese man and a young woman who sees more in him than his size; “The Woodpecker and the Wolf,” a brilliantly suspenseful tale set in space – it reminded me of the Sandra Bullock movie Gravity; and “The Weir,” which imagines the unexpectedly lasting relationship between a lonely middle-aged man and the young woman he rescues from a near-suicide by drowning. “Wodwo” starts off as a terrific Christmas horror story but goes on far too long and loses power. I would say that about several of these stories, actually: they’re that bit too long, so that you start waiting for them to be over. I prefer sudden endings that give a bit of a kick. All in all, though, two-thirds of the stories are fairly memorable, and I’d say I liked this better than any of Haddon’s three novels. 3-5-star-rating


Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

intimationsKleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was a surprise favorite of mine from last year. Alas, her stories don’t pack the same punch. True, some of them employ a similar combination of surreal plot and in-your-face ideology, but only four out of the 12 stories seemed to me strong enough to stand alone. These were “Lobster Dinner,” surely inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, in which crustaceans wreak revenge on their consumers; “The Dancing-Master,” about a man who tries to introduce a nineteenth-century feral boy to culture only for wildness to come creeping back; “I May Not Be the One You Want,” in which Karen, writing a profile about a dairy farmer, avoids men’s attempts to turn her into a sexual object; and “Fake Blood,” another pseudo-horror story about a girl in a nurse costume who can’t decide whether she’s caught up in a murder mystery game or a real serial killer’s trap. Of the rest, four or five – including vignettes from Karen’s future life – are okay and a couple are pointless as well as seemingly endless (“A Brief History of Weather” and “Hylomorphosis”). Students of feminist literature, especially fans of Angela Carter, may be willing to exchange satisfying storytelling for messages about women’s bodies and anxiety about motherhood. 3-star-rating


all-that-manOn Tuesday I finished All That Man Is by David Szalay, from the Booker Prize shortlist. Whether it’s a novel or actually short stories is certainly a matter for debate! After I read Madeleine Thien’s shortlisted novel (I’ll be picking it up from the library on Friday) I’ll report back on both in advance of the prize announcement at the end of October.

how-much-the-heartI’m also currently making my way through How Much the Heart Can Hold, a set of seven stories from the likes of Carys Bray and Donal Ryan on the theme of different types of love, and Petina Gappah’s forthcoming collection, Rotten Row. (Both are out in early November.)

Collections on my Kindle that I’m keen to read soon, maybe even before the end of this year, include We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman.

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

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18 thoughts on “Short Stories in September

  1. To answer your question, no I am not a great fan of short stories – I have tried but they just don’t seem to be for me. As for David Szalay and whether this is a novel, having read it I have to question its inclusion in the Booker because to me its a set of stories loosely linked because they are all about men facing challenges and decisions in their lives. The Thien on the other hand is simply superb

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    1. Ah, you reminded me I’ve been meaning to go back and read your review (I was waiting until I’d finished reading the book)…overall I’d agree with you that it was short stories in the guise of a novel, with an insufficiently strong overarching theme. I very much look forward to the Thien.

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    1. Awesome! That seems like a great way to discover some new authors. I felt the same about the flash fiction anthology (which I fully expect to see your name in one day!). Are you reviewing The Best American Short Stories?

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  2. I’m not the biggest short story fan in the world, maybe because I read quickly, so I lose them very quickly and tend to bolt them. I do love Elizabeth Taylor’s and Dorothy Whipple’s, and also Edith Wharton’s short stories. Not so much the modern ones – I find them too self-consciously clever quite a lot of the time, I think.

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      1. Whipple is a Persephone author; she writes books set in the domestic sphere which are hugely perceptive about the minutiae of family life. But if you like Taylor’s novels, you will LOVE her short stories.

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  3. I don’t read short stories very often, but when I do, I wonder why I don’t. Most of the time I enjoy them, especially if they are somehow linked by characters, theme, etc.
    A few good ones I’ve read recently have been The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux (although it’s officially considered a novel), The Two of Us by Kathy Page (also for the Giller longlist), and Bad Things Happen by Kris Bertin.

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  4. I find the older I get, the more I drift toward short stories. That said, I haven’t read many this year although today I did start Kerry Powell’s Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush which was long-listed for Canada’s Giller Prize. So far, it’s very promising.

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  5. Yes, I’m a fan, but, like you, my pace with them this year has really slowed. Earlier in the summer I read Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit, a collection by a young Metis writer, centered on the Bukowski quote about addiction, which was striking (interesting use of langauge and contrasting styles) and next I have Clea Young’s Teardown in the stack, which has some fantastic blurbs by some of my favourite Canadian writers (novelists and story writers). Good to hear that you’re enjoying the collections you’ve gotten back to!

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