Weekly Spotlight On…The Short Story

tenth of decemberTwo books have been released recently that have drawn attention to that oft-neglected form of storytelling: the short story.  Tenth of December by George Saunders came out early in January, and drew attention when the New York Times Magazine boldly hailed it as the “best book you’ll read this year”.  Quite a statement for so early on into 2013.  As someone who enjoys the occasional short story collection, I joined the literary masses and borrowed Tenth of December from the library–and, unlike so many books that I read that receive so much hype, this one did not in any way disappoint.  There is something to be said about an excellent short story, an achievement that is made that no novel can make.  In fact, I believe that it is harder to write a single excellent short story thanvampires in the lemon grove to write a 500 page novel.  There is so much thought and feeling that needs to be expressed in a very limited amount of time, that sometimes one single ten page short story packs more of a wallop than an epic novel (two great examples of this are Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Ray Bradbury’s All Summer In A Day).  The second book that is making a splash on the literary scene today is Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  This is Russell’s second publication after her wildly successful debut novel Swamplandia!, and it is also a collection of bizarre, highly imaginative, and poignant short stories.  It has already gotten rave reviews and I am sure that we will see a growing holds list at the library in the next couple of weeks.  The best short story collections are also like the best music albums–each individual story and the order in which they are read contribute to the book as a whole.  In the spirit of the recent short story craze, I have provided a select list of other fantastic short story collections that are truly rewarding to read.

the pugilist at restThe Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones

This outstanding collection of short stories was a National Book Award finalist in 1993, and is one of my personal favorites.  These mostly hard-luck stories are dark, gritty, existential, occasionally heartbreaking, and occasionally gruesome.  Yet despite the intensity of these stories, his characters are often portrayed with a sensitivity that allows the reader to empathize with each and every one of them.  Jones’ prose is abrasive yet refined, allowing stories that would ordinarily be interpreted as sensational and unrealistic instead be devastatingly real.  These stories have impact, and this collection is truly one of a kind.

amy hempelThe Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel

Many short story writers attempt to write in the minimalistic style, but many do not succeed.  Or, they simply become a similar voice among many.  Not so with Amy Hempel.  While many of her stories are told in sparing, imagistic prose, she writes in a truly unique voice.  Hempel doesn’t waste a single word in describing the thoughts and feelings of those she portrays, and for this reason her stories are deeply emotional and affective.  While Hempel is known to active seekers of the short story, she is not as well known in larger literary circles.  If you have read George Saunders’ Tenth of December and loved it, then you’ll love these stories, too.

krikkrakKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

This was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995.  “Examining the lives of ordinary Haitians, particularly those struggling to survive under the brutal Duvalier regime, Danticat illuminates the distance between people’s desires and the stifling reality of their lives.  Spare, elegant and moving, these stories cohere into a superb collection.”

drownDrown by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz earned major buzz in 2012 for his short story collection This Is How You Lose Her and for winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  If you haven’t read any of his books, you should.  If you’ve read the two that have received the most media attention and loved them, I highly recommend you go back to the beginning and pick up Drown.  This collection is slightly more academic in tone, but it still contains Diaz’s unique and gritty portrayals of life in the Dominican Republic and in the rough areas of New Jersey.

jesus' sonJesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

This set of short stories is unique in that they all share the same disagreeable narrator, a “lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption” (Library Journal).  Some people may recognize the title as a 1999 movie starring Billy Crudup–the short story collection is far more magnificent and moving.

things they carriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This may seem like an obvious choice, but I couldn’t leave this one off the list.  While it was marketed as a novel when released, it is more of a hybrid of short stories/essays/recollections of the Vietnam War.  So, be warned, this is not light reading.  The novel itself is narrated by the writer 20 years after the Vietnam War, but the stories themselves center around a platoon of foot soldiers fighting in 1970.  This is a great example of short stories coming together as a whole–you shouldn’t read just one story from this collection, you should read the whole compilation from beginning to end.

Booklist Online’s Shelf Renewal blog also has a great list of short story collections that you should read.  Find it here!

Rebecca’s February Recommendation

Accelerated by Bronwen Hruska

accelerated“This novel focuses on Sean Benning, single father to 8-year-old Toby.  Toby attends the prestigious Bradley school in Manhattan, where everyone who is anyone has matriculated from.  The school is extremely competitive, breeding it’s students to be super-thinkers and part of the world elite.  Sean, however, is not like the other parents at this fast-paced and competitive school.  His in-laws are footing the bill, and he highlights as a tabloid journalist as he struggles to make his name in the art world.  When Toby’s teachers and his estranged wife start to pressure Sean to put his son on medication for ADD in order to keep up with his classmates, Sean at first refuses and then finally relents.  Toby’s initial reaction to the medication goes as expected–but then tragedy strikes.  Sean’s anger compels him (with the help of a sympathetic teacher–also the love interest in the novel) to delve deeper into the issue of medication at Bradley, and he soon stumbles upon a hornet’s nest of lies and conspiracy that he is determined to expose to the rest of the world.  This is a great book to read if you are in between novels and want something fun, fast-paced, and intelligent.  Sean is a sympathetic and admirable hero, the romance is sexy and fun without overwhelming the rest of the story, and most importantly it truly does make a statement about the over-medication of this country’s youth.”

3 Similar Reads (Fiction)

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets by Garth Stein

The Heart Broke In by James Meek

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Better Than Normal by Dale Archer

The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre

Victoria’s February Recommendation

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

brain on fireHere is an excerpt of a Book List starred review of this book: “In this fascinating memoir by a young New York Post reporter previously known for going undercover as a stripper and writing a butt-implant story headlined Rear and Present Danger, Cahalan describes how she crossed the line between sanity and insanity after an unknown pathogen invaded her body and caused an autoimmune reaction that jump-started brain inflammation, paranoia, and seizures…Cahalan expertly weaves together her own story and relevant scientific and medical information about autoimmune diseases, which are about two-thirds environmental and one-third genetic in origin…A compelling health story.”  Victoria loved this book so much that she wants more books like it.  Check out the list of read a likes that I selected for this book below.

Read about or request this book from the library catalog!

4 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox

January First by Michael Schofield

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

Ellen’s February Recommendation

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

the righteous mindHere is a summary of this book from our online catalog: “Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount? Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens? In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.”  Ellen says that is a “very thought-provoking book”.

Read about or request this book from the online catalog!

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

The Political Brain: The Rule of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of Our Nation by Drew Westen

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath

Laona’s February Recommendation

The History of Us by Leah Stewart

history of us“I just finished The History of Us by Leah Stewart.  This is domestic fiction focusing on grief, adulthood and responsibility.  I like domestic fiction because it allows me to lose myself in the issues of some other family (where the problems are far from mine).  This was a good read for a cold winter day underneath my fleecy blanket where I was safe from Eloise’s problems.  Library Journal says: ‘Eloise Hempel is the de facto mother to three twentysomething siblings, having become their primary caregiver after their parents were killed in a car accidents. Always planning to put her life back on track as a Harvard professor, Eloise has found herself rooted in Cincinnati for 20 years as she parented her sister’s children to adulthood.'”

Read about or request this book from the library catalog! 

3 Similar Reads (Fiction)

The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O’Nan

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

Two Kisses for Maddy by Matthew Logelin

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley


Pat’s February Recommendations

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor AND Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

my beloved world“I am presently reading Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World and enjoying it to no end.  It is good to read about this woman who came from poverty and discrimination to become a Justice in our Supreme Court.  She tells of her alcoholic father, her devoted but overburdened mother and of the refuge she took in the home or her grandmother….I also just read Mortality…Christopher Hitchens’ last little tome.  Since mortality is on my mind these days, I wanted to see where he was going with this, as he was a confirmed atheist…and since I have read his other books and am his fan!”

Read about or request My Beloved World and Mortality from the library catalog!

3 Similar Reads for My Beloved World (Nonfiction)

Lazy B by Sandra Day O’Connor

Young Thurgood by Larry S. Gibson

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

3 Similar Reads for Mortality  (Nonfiction)

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Enjoy Every Sandwich by Lee Lipsenthal

Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Mary Ann’s February Recommendation

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

back to blood“I love Tom Wolfe and since I’m visiting Florida I chose his latest, which is set in Miami.  I enjoy his look at political and police dynamics.  As usual, he works in lots of ethnic and class details relevant to the place.  I learned a lot about today’s Miami, such as the influx of Russians and Haitians.  I’ll look for Dave Barry’s Insane City for a funny take on the same place.”

Read about or request this book from the online catalog!

3 Similar Reads (Fiction)

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

South Beach by Brian Antoni

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

Muck City by Bryan Mealer

Miami by Joan Didion

The New New Thing by Michael Lewis