Short Stories: The Best of the Tiny Bites
Sometimes the shortest stories are the sweetest treats; each tiny bite is as filling as a full meal and these short stories are no exception. For the readers looking for that smaller portion, check out this lists of books from our Winter 2017 issue.
The focus on Irish themes proves the adage that the local is the universal. These are stories that concern us all.
All Over Ireland features fourteen short stories by contemporary Irish writers, stories in which emigration is a recurring theme and relationships are dislocated by illness and death, social inequality, and family secrets. In short, the collection covers the full human catastrophe.
Characters gather at funerals and garden parties, in front rooms, and at faded beach resorts. Or, like the woman who becomes increasingly unbalanced in the aftermath of her husband’s murder in Frank McGuinness’s haunting “The Widow’s Ferret,” they’re isolated by politics.
Kathleen Murray’s “They’ll Best You with Fun,” about a crew cleaning up a protest against clerical child abuse, is also political, though her tone is darkly comic. Family history repeats itself in Michael Gilligan’s “Absent” when a young teenager deals with his father’s death, and again in Selina Guinness’s “The Weather Project” when an Irish woman on a trip to London with her grown daughters recalls secrets from her life in that same city over a half century earlier.
While many of the stories are contemporary, the moving final story, “The Journey to Galway,” by Colm Tόibín, is set during World War I and is based upon events in the life of Lady Gregory, a friend of Yeats’s and a cofounder of the Abbey Theatre. A mother learns of her son’s death and travels to Galway to inform his wife. The story is a meditation on the before and after in a time of grief: “It came to her as a story that had been told and retold rather than a brutal single fact.”
All Over Ireland includes a mix of new and established writers, and each of its stories are published for first time in this volume. Not all stories reach excellence, but the focus on Irish themes proves the adage that the local is the universal. These are stories that concern us all.
KAREN ACKLAND (November 28, 2016)
This collection is a modern, feminist meditation on relationships.
Claire Rudy Foster ruminates on the harried and complicated identities of men and women in a contemporary American hegemonic context, in her short-story collection I’ve Never Done This Before. These six tales vibrate with violence and alienation, exploring sexuality as a weapon, a commodity, a link, or a wedge between lovers and strangers, yet Foster’s literary explorations refrain from making big-picture pronouncements, deferring to the intimate and immediate.
Foster’s writing is firm, grounded in a contemporary realistic literary style, with each story more resembling a meaningful snapshot than a dissection of the situation and its players. Strong metaphors are put to good use, allowing for multiple readings and intentional ambiguity. Although sex and sensuality are central to the series, eroticism and romance generally take a backseat to more factual, functional expressions of desire, which often goes unquenched.
A persistent theme of absence permeates each tale—a woman’s husband has retreated from her in favor of Internet porn; a man’s girlfriend attempts to torment him with not-so-subtle hints at infidelity—and what the corresponding partners choose to fill this void is of particular interest. In “Runaway,” Foster writes in the second person, drawing the reader into complicity; its tenor warns against choosing to be distant from or abandon the protagonist—and perhaps, by extension, the rest of the characters in the collection.
Coupling isn’t romanticized, despite a general tone that favors it throughout the collection: “My body missed him. My heart was on the fence,” observes the narrator in “Fidelity,” while Foster explores the concept of finding a relational “good fit” via a tailoring metaphor. Emotional and physical compatibility, and alienation from/of both the self and others, are an extension of this theme of separate, distant genders.
Characters are allowed to exist as both tender and rough, with external expressions often contrasting, out of habit or survival, with the interior. Foster’s stories examine classic questions: What do men really want from women? Is objectification unavoidable? Can fatalistic opposition truly benefit anyone involved, even those presumed to inhabit more advantageous social positions? This collection is a modern, feminist meditation.
PATTY COMEAU (November 10, 2016)
A small triumph, a growing awareness, a pleasant irony: these stories draw forth satisfaction.
The nine stories in Sam Allingham’s Great American Songbook are a brilliant array of forms, character and relationship types, prose styles, and points of view. Different though these pieces are, they all explore the sometimes merging themes of identity and the creative process.
Music is, at varying times, either an incidental or a prominent feature in the former music instructor’s work. While music is touted to be “the essence,” silence is sought in several of these stories as a necessary adjunct to creativity. A character in “Bar Joke” exclaims, “Someday I’m going to shut up and it’ll be the happiest day of my life.”
In the title story, the most powerful in the collection, the clarinetist Artie Shaw battles madness during a Pennsylvania winter until “the sound of nothing at all” becomes an ending and a beginning, and brings a peace that jump-starts new compositions. As in music, silence, repetition, pattern, substitution, and imitation become the dramatic structure in some stories, while they are the finer details in others.
“Assassins” and “Rodgers and Hart” offer two variations on the question of identity. The latter is a study in the contrasts, in which each descriptive detail contributes to an impression. In “Assassins,” the four characters are fixed in descriptive detail until Assassin A shoots Assassin D; Assassin A, having killed off someone like himself, “has the strange sensation of merging into himself, like paper folding inward to form a picture that had previously been hidden.”
While these pieces involve conflict or loss or estrangement, their endings are satisfying—a small triumph, a growing awareness, a pleasant irony. In “Stockholm Syndrome,” a conventional third-person narrative, a woman escapes the clutches of a man who she once thought was a victim of the syndrome, but is in reality a potential perpetrator. In “Love Comes to a Building on Fire,” the jilted lover/narrator has a last healthy thought: “When fire comes to a building, Ramona, you have long since disappeared.”
Sam Allingham’s debut collection puts forth nine variants on the short-story genre—and nine reasons for believing there is more to come.
JOE TAYLOR (November 9, 2016)
These stories are peopled with unconventional women navigating between freedom and family ties.
The thirteen stories in Leesa Dean’s vibrant Waiting for the Cyclone range across the Americas, depicting characters who long for meaningful connections and temporary escapes from disappointing realities.
Appearances are deceptive in these tales: a driver and a hitchhiker make assumptions about each other based on looks, a confident nonconformist gets stuck in a suburban rut, and true love often faces hidden complications. In the title story, the narrator recalls a trip to Coney Island with a former boyfriend. Their shaky relationship, based on mistaken identity, couldn’t survive an ill-fated ride on the Cyclone roller coaster.
Most of the stories begin in Canada, but travel—if only through flashbacks—to the USA or Latin America. Other countries symbolize the fleeting chance to escape ordinary life: staying with an uncle’s family in Arizona briefly seems like a taste of normality for the twelve-year-old narrator of “Malad,” while a one-night stand in Mexico gives Alison a respite from infertility struggles, in “Libertad.”
Snippets of Spanish and French flavor many stories with the diversity of the North American experience. Descriptions of natural scenery add cinematic depth, as with “snowflakes pixelate the night” and “the sky was all gunmetal clouds.” Narrative voices are nicely balanced. “The Four Bradleys” splits the point of view four ways, reflecting how a departed loved one leaves divergent memories behind.
Motherhood, especially mothers sought and lost, is another robust element. In “September,” a teenager takes a road trip to find the mother who left her on a church doorstep when she was an infant; in “Shelter from the Storm,” the main character can’t decide how to inform her partner that she’s pregnant. Yet the mother-child bond remains strong, with a mother’s sudden illness bringing the narrator of “One Last Time” straight back from Mexico to British Columbia. These themes are poignant, all the more so because—as the acknowledgments reveal—the author’s mother passed away before she could read the finished book.
These stories, peopled with unconventional women navigating between freedom and family ties, give an out-of-the-ordinary window into contemporary North American lives.
REBECCA FOSTER (November 28, 2016)