Divine Secrets blog, it seems like the short story has come back. At least, I'm seeing more and more collections on the shelves and in the "critically acclaimed" section of book reviews. I started reading more of them when I picked up a New Yorker subscription a few years ago, but those were singles. Now that bestselling collections are everywhere, I've started reading those, too. Here are some of the headline-makers I've now got under my belt, in order of recommendedness.
1. Tenth of December, George Saunders. The New York Times called this "The best book you'll read this year," which was audacious of them, considering they said it in January. So far, it has certainly been my favorite short-story collection. I loved it so much I went out and got another of his collections, titled CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I've nearly finished. I now have a pretty good feel for his MO: near-future corporate dystopia, handled with wickedly-dark humor at first. He tends to end the stories by leaving off the humor quite suddenly and delivering a sad, brutal finish. The endings aren't twists, exactly—but the sudden change of tone, as the narrator hurls himself at the corporate machine, leaves you gasping all the same. His narrators are often sad-sack employee/slaves: too obese, too old, too young, too cowardly to fight back. And then they do.
2. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins. I wish I'd known, when I started this one, that the first "story" is actually a scene-setting memoir of sorts, and not really a story. Watkins is the daughter of Charles Manson's wingman. Yep: Charles Manson. She doesn't belabor this point, kind of gets it out of the way with the first bit, and moves on. The bulk of the stories are about place—specifically, the desert Southwest; more specifically, Nevada. Watkins grew up in this area and evokes it beautifully, with all its dust and tumbleweeds and unexpected swimming holes and casinos. Her narrators are generally young women caught between self-discovery and self-destruction, and feel very much like thinly-veiled portrayals of Watkins herself. But she can leave this behind and get behind the eyes of a prospecting young man in 1848, stuck with a deranged older brother; or a young Italian tourist who finds himself caught in a Nevada brothel when his best friend gets lost in the desert.
3. Runaway, Alice Munro. Like Saunders, Munro has been described as "The best short-story writer in English today." What I love about her: she defies convention by writing short pieces than encompass an entire life. From childhood to old-ladyhood to death, she will follow a character, and she does that in a dozen pages. Not only that, but you get a real feeling for each character, not a shallow sketch. How is that even possible? Well, one way she does it is the trick of the interlocking story, which I'm finding is a pretty common trend. (See: Revenge, below.) Three of the stories revolve around a character named Juliet, and while each stands on its own (which keeps them from being a novella) keeping one character for several stories allows that life to expand. Munro is fairly elderly now herself, so her characters typically start their long lives early in the 20th century, giving these stories a nostalgic feel. Munro also an excellent word-painter of place, and Ontario is her setting. She has a new collection out, Dear Life, which I haven't got around to yet, but I have read a few of those stories as singles.
4. Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri tried her hand at the novel (The Namesake) and seems to have accepted that the short story is really her strong suit. Lahiri's stories are more straightforward, and therefore more accessible, than the others I've listed here. She's not really experimenting with form. Her specialty is immigration; specifically, growing up in the Northeast as children of Bengali immigrants. Her characters are very American, but as with any first-generation immigrants, they also feel foreign and marginalized, never sure where they really belong.
5. Revenge, Yoko Ogawa. A very strange collection of intertwined tales. Although the subtitle is "Eleven Dark Tales," I would say "macabre" is a better word than "dark." Her tales verge on Stephen King territory, with a Japanese surrealist twist. Some of the stories really worked for me, like the one with the hand-shaped carrots that pop up in a garden, or the bag-maker fashioning a purse for a heart that grows outside his client's body. Some of the stories, though, I just didn't get. I feel this way often when I read Japanese literature, making me wonder if there are cultural shibboleths I'm missing.
Oldies but goodies I highly recommend: A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor, The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff, and The Collected Stories of John Cheever. Next on my to-read list: Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove (which I'm super-excited about, having heard her read snippets on a few podcasts), Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her, and The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales.