The Last Girlfriend on Earth, Simon Rich’s latest collection of short stories about love, sex, commitment and control, is wonderfully funny, insistently clever and light and heavy at the same time. The lightness comes when you grin and laugh as Rich sets up wickedly witty situations—Mother Theresa, Hitler, Zeus and Santa Claus make cameos; an unused condom tells his life story; and God doesn’t finish creating the earth because his girlfriend demands more attention. However, underneath it all, Rich is talking about the perils of passion, the slings and arrows of love and courtship (though that seems an old-fashioned term for what goes on here), and the messier side of messing around. These are very short short stories, some seemingly just dashed off. But short can be far more difficult than long, and Rich knows how to dissect the bumpy, obstacle-ridden course of love with quick, sure, acerbic strokes. As he reads his stories in his distinctive, youthful voice, you can’t help but hope that his understanding of boy meets girl, gets girl, loses girl comes more from observation than personal experience.

DOWNSTAIRS, UPSTAIRS
You’d think that with the third season of “Downton Abbey” rolling along, another “Upstairs, Downstairs”-esque saga would be overkill. Yet listening to Habits of the House, the first installment of Fay Weldon’s new Edwardian-era trilogy, is more like allowing yourself to polish off a pint of Häagen Dazs Belgian chocolate, an indulgence and slightly guilty pleasure—but this one without the calories. So, settle in for a good, entertaining comedy of manners as Katherine Kellgren reads with all the appropriate accents. On the morning of October 24, 1899, the Earl of Dilberne, a gambling buddy of the Prince of Wales, and his beautiful, socially prominent wife, still in London though the season has ended, discover they’re on the brink of financial ruin. The easiest way out is to find a wealthy wife for their dilettante son, their suffragette daughter not being marriage material. Enter Minnie O’Brien, a Chicago meat-packing heiress, and her gauche but likable mother, located by a coalition of willing downstairs servants. What ensues has charm, humor and interesting historical detail. There’ll be another helping served up soon.

TOP PICK IN AUDIO
Alice Munro, now 81 and surely one of the most revered short story writers living, says that Dear Life, her new collection, will be her last. Let’s hope not. How Munro does what she so eloquently and elegantly does is elusive. You get so caught up in her narratives that you have to go back again and again (and that’s a pleasure) to try and figure out how she can capture so much in each story, how the contours of an entire life can be conjured up, how the flick of a sentence can imply possibility or tragedy, how she moves seamlessly back and forth in time. Most of the stories here (and in much of her writing) are set in small, rural Canadian towns not unlike the one Munro grew up in. And the last four pieces are autobiographical, perhaps the closest thing to memoir she’ll allow. They show us Munro as a child and young woman and let us see how her own memories and distance from events shape her telling of them. Two accomplished narrators, Kimberly Farr and Arthur Morey, make this audio version a gem.

comments powered by Disqus