Blame it on MTV. Maybe it's their fault our culture seems only able to digest sound-bytes and 100-images-a-minute stimuli. Does that need also transfer over to our reading habits? It may explain why publishing houses are producing more collections of short fiction these days. Just a few years ago reviewers and literary critics were hailing the death of the unmarketable form and now we are in a deluge of novella nibbles. Contemporary writers are producing finely crafted short stories for today's market of Oprah-friendly, book hungry readers. Here's a slew of new releases, some by regulars to the long-form novel, trying their hand at creating refined short tales that pack a wallop.
By Rick Moody
Little Brown & Co., $24.95
The author's name seems perfectly appropriate for the man who is also responsible for the book-turned-screenplay, The Ice Storm. As in that story, this collection of shorter snapshots of contemporary relationships and fractured fairy tales paint a bleak picture of hope arising from death and unhappiness. An upper-class mother and daughter risk gang gunfire while at a drive-thru; a happy threesome's boat is capsized and one is killed; characters are afflicted by run-of-the-mill sloppy divorces. It seems gratuitous until you recognize too-real-to-be-true occasions from your own life. The most telling stories end up being the bookends of "The Mansion on the Hill" and "Demonology," from which the collection takes its name. The former is a fictionalized account of a brother coping with his sister's death in an automobile accident; the latter is the autobiographical cathartic writings of a man dealing with the same death.
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God
By Etgar Keret
St. Martin's Press, $19.95
Keret is touted as one of Israel's hip, young writers. That translates into brief, witty, strange punctures into the reality of a war-torn land constantly in international headlines. The uneven, provocative stories tell everything from a child's love for his piggy bank as though it's a real pet to a mother's beautiful uterus put on display in a museum. Comments on the artificiality of the world around him and the highly religious atmosphere of his homeland, Keret's stories are steeped in a surreal language that attempts to keep you laughing to keep you from crying.
In Cuba I was a German Shepherd
By Ana Menendez
Grove Press, $23
Ana Menendez is the daughter of Cuban exiles who fled to Los Angeles in the 1960s, but it's the time she worked as a journalist with the Miami Herald and the Orange County Register that seem to inspire the characters in her first collection of shorts. It is in Miami that the author captures the regret of Cuban immigrants bundled with the hopes of a better future. The titular first story begins this collection of connected tales about men who cast aside the positions they held in Cuba for a menial subsistence in America.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
By J.T. LeRoy
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc USA, $23.95
At the University of Wisconsin, experiments were performed in the 1950s and 60s that tested social bonds among primates. After a mother chimp catapulted its infant across the room, the baby chimp would come crawling back to her arms for comfort. This reaction is hauntingly similar to J.T. LeRoy's description of himself as a child in his collection of too-true stories. We see J.T. from toddler to teenager and the ravages he experiences at the hands of his mother and her manipulative ways. As a reader, you almost wish them to be fabrication for entertainment purposes, but the stories do more to horrify and astonish than entertain. And why would a boy lie about being whipped until bleeding and then forced to bathe in chlorine? Luckily we know that LeRoy has a gift for humor and metaphor from his first and best-selling novel Sarah (published at the ripe age of 20). In fact, these earlier stories collected in Deceitful are what landed him that book deal.
By Arthur Bradford
Three-legged dogs hop when they walk. It's one of the things you'll notice after reading Arthur Bradford's book of short stories that focus on mutant puppies, cat-faced men and, of course, three-legged dogs. Although dogs don't figure prominently in every story, they do show up quite a bit -- but never how you might expect. In the most unsettling of the stories, "Dogs," you discover immediately that the narrator is having sex with his girlfriend's dog, and now she's pregnant. A more conventional story, "Six Dog Christmas," tells of a slacker's inspiration to save six puppies from his friend's mother. The most memorable of the non-dog stories tells of a 10-pound slug that breaks up a marriage. Because of the humor and poignancy he employs in his weird world, Bradford is able to pull off these oddball stories.
Speaking with the Angel
Edited by Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, $12
Hornby has collected the best of the best of contemporary fiction writers. Original stories by novelists Dave Eggers (Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones's Diary), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Irving Welsh (Trainspotting), Hornby (High Fidelity) and others prove to be interesting exercises in creativity for their talents. Hornby decided to collect the stories also to aid charity and a portion of the sales of each book benefit child autism funds. But you don't need a good cause to buy this collection of witty, piercing and edgy stories from some of today's leading authors. It's a must-have for any fans of these writers.
By Ha Jin
Vintage Books, $12
Atlanta resident and former Emory professor Ha Jin has made headlines with his best-selling and National Book Award-winning Waiting, but his finely crafted short stories really pack a punch while passing under the radar. The stories pithily explain the disconnect between the Western capitalistic and Eastern collective philosophies of running a society. The protagonist in "The Entrepreneur's Story" can't handle his wealth and burns money to scare his mother-in-law. A mother leaves her town and family in China for the U.S. and is forsaken by them all upon her return in "The Woman from New York." The most comic story is the Chinese reaction to American fast-food chains and the "customer is always right" policy in "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town."