If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken
University of Iowa Press • $17 • ISBN 9781609382018
Published October 2013
The 12 carefully observed stories in Kate Milliken's debut collection introduce a fearless voice in fiction. Ranging in setting from California to Maine, from the 1970s to today, the stories feature everyday people, yet somehow manage to unsettle with their exploration of loneliness, dark motivations and desires.
Tim pulled off at the hookout, as usual. Josie opened the glove box to find the bottle of Jim Beam he stashed in whichever car he took. She uncapped it and slipped her shoes off and cranked the seat low enough that all she could see were the two or three stars visible behind the screen of smog. Josie had wanted to leave L.A. so badly, get as far as she could, filling out only out-of-state applications, but here she was all over, again. The whiskey warmed her: down her throat, inside her chest, moving through her until the whisper of its heat rested between her legs. She put her feet up on the dash and tapped her toes to the glass, pinning the stars.
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250034700
published September 10, 2013
Best book jacket of the year? Maybe.
With his razor wit and uncanny ability to capture the lives of everyday Americans, it's almost unbelievable that Nine Inches is Tom Perrotta's first true collection of short stories (Bad Haircut was technically linked stories). The characters in these 10 stories—and all their many terrible decisions—link together in their own way: Everyone's doing everything wrong, but they're not bad people. Because of these characters' collective foibles, I'd recommend reading each story individually rather than all in one sitting, as the stories here stand stronger on their own than as part of a group.
Read on for an excerpt from "Backrub":
I didn't realize I had a problem until my next run-in with Lt. Finnegan. This time I wasn't speeding and hadn't violated any traffic laws. I was just minding my business, heading back to Sustainable around nine-thirty on a Wednesday night, when an unmarked Crown Victoria popped up in my rearview mirror, that familiar white-haired douchebag at the wheel. There were no flashing lights, but he tailgated me for a couple of blocks before finally hitting the siren, a quick bloop-bloop to get my attention.
We were right by Edmunds Elementary School, the quiet stretch of Warren Road that runs alongside the playing fields. I pulled over, his car still glued to my bumper, and cut the engine. It felt like a bad dream, the same cop stopping me for the third time in less than two weeks.
I was fishing around in the glove box for the registration when he startled me by tapping on the passenger window—he usually approached from the other side—and yanking the door open. Before I could react, he had ducked inside my car and shut the door behind him.
The Prius was pretty roomy, but Lt. Finnegan seemed to fill all the available space. He reached down, groping for the adjuster bar, then grunted with relief as the seat slid back.
"That's better." He rotated his bulk in my direction. He was wearing civilian clothes, khakis and a sport coat, but he still looked like a cop. "How are you, Donald?"
"Did I do something wrong?"
"I don't think so," he said. "Not that I know of."
"Then why did you pull me over?"
"I didn't pull you over."
"Yes, you did. You hit the siren."
"Oh, that." He chuckled at the misunderstanding. "I just wanted to say hi. Haven't seen you for a couple of days."
Do you like Tom Perrotta's novels? Think you'll check out his short fiction?
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993806
Pubbed January 8, 2013
The year has just begun, and right out of the starting gate, the New York Times is calling George Saunders' new collection of short stories "the best book you'll read this year." Saunders is often considered a "writer's writer," but it's possible that Tenth of December may do for Saunders what This Is How You Lose Her did for Junot Díaz—excite a brand new audience and bring him brand new recognition as one of the most brilliant writers of our age.
I started to get excited about the collection back in December when I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2012, which features titular story "Tenth of December," published in The New Yorker. Editor Tom Perrotta enjoyed the "poignant and very funny" story for the "vague kinship" he felt for the character Wallace, the young, lonely schoolboy who encounters a dying man on a frozen lake.
And then I got even more excited when I started giggling over the style sheet used in-house by the book's editors and production team (how else will you know how to edit "thrashfest"?).
Read on for an excerpt from "Tenth of December."
The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cub-like mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad's white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he'd spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.
Today's assignation: walk to the pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived among the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And reveled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.
Safe inside the rock wall, the shot one would go, Guys, look at my butt.
As a group, all would look at Gzeemon's butt, exchanging sullen glances of: Gzeemon shall indeed be limping for the next nine million years, poor bloke.
Because yes: Nethers tended to talk like that guy in Mary Poppins.
What are you reading today?
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
Riverhead • $26.95 • ISBN 9781594487361
On sale September 11, 2012
Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer (and a pile of other awards) for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but I've always been all about Drown, his first collection of short stories and the book that singled him out as the most promising literary voice of the Dominican-American community. As much as the world recognizes him as a genius novelist, I have to say that when I heard the third book from Díaz would be a collection of short stories, I could barely contain myself. Victory for the short story!
Five years after Oscar Wao and 16 after Drown, Díaz didn't disappoint. The stories explore the strengths and failings of Dominican-American love and relationships, from cheating men to struggling immigrant families. Readers will recognize bullheaded Yunior, who first made an appearance in Drown and is a recurring protagonist in This Is How You Lose Her, as well as other characters like Yunior's brother Rafa.
One of my favorite stories from the collection, "Otravida, Otravez," does not star Yunior or any of his girlfriends, but rather a young Dominican couple trying to put down roots in the U.S. An excerpt is below:
"While he sits by the window and smokes I pull the last letter his wife wrote to him out of my purse and open it in front of him. He doesn't know how brazen I can be. One sheet, smelling of violet water. Please, Virta has written neatly at the center of the page. That's all. I smile at Ramón and place the letter back in the envelope.
Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn't do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel."
Keep an eye open for an interview with Junot Díaz for This Is How You Lose Her in our September issue!
Other People We Married by Emma Straub
Riverhead • $15 • ISBN 9781594486067
On sale February 7, 2012
Emma Straub is a bookseller in Brooklyn and an entertaining Tweeter, and I've had my eye on her story collection ever since a) it was reviewed on The Book Lady's Blog and b) I saw that Lorrie Moore described it as a "revelation" on the book jacket. Other People We Married was originally published by a small, independent press, but in two weeks Riverhead will publish a paperback edition. (Riverhead will also publish Straub's debut novel.)
I haven't finished this collection yet, and I've been skipping around, but so far I love these stories. They're about people in transition, about loss and change and hope. Like in the best short stories, the language is clear and lovely and packed with imagery that will immerse you in a character's world in just a few short pages. The stories are also very funny.
Here's an example. This is from "Puttanesca," in which a couple meet on a blind date arranged by their mutual bereavement therapist. This is the moment they first see each other at Starbucks:
"Stephen?" she said, sure that she would be speaking into thin air, that the quarterback would shake his head and probably laugh when he got outside. Laura wasn't unattractive, she knew, but hers was a subtler kind: unplucked eyebrows and sensible footwear.
He looked startled, like a baby next to a popped balloon just before the tears started to flow. But then the momentary look of panic was gone, so absent, in fact, that Laura was sure she'd imagined it. "Laura?" he said. Stephen was already smiling when he slid into the seat across from her, as easily as if she and everyone else at the Starbucks had somehow wandered into his living room.
"Looks that way," Laura said. Her hair felt even more brown than usual, like mouse fur or dry dirt. "Hi." At least it was long again. After John died, she'd chopped all her hair off, up to her ears. Her mother said she looked like Joan of Arc, who Laura thought probably didn't have a mirror. It had not been a compliment.
What are you reading today? Are you interested in Other People We Married? For even more fantastic short story collections, see this spotlight from the February issue of BookPage on new books from Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
Simon & Schuster • $24 • on sale September 6, 2011
Abby Plesser describes the collection as a "multifaceted portrait of modern womanhood" in her review for BookPage; she praises Schappell's "piercing insight and good humor." I'll go ahead and add that I love Schappell's snappy (and often painful-in-a-good-way) dialogue . . . especially when a character is thinking one thing and saying another. For example, here's a passage from The Joy of Cooking:
I was halfway out the door when the phone rang. Another person would have let the machine pick up, but you know how it is when you're a mother.
"Thank God you're there," my daughter Emily said, sounding out of breath.
"I am, but sweetie," I said, "I'm in a bit of a rush . . . " [ . . . ]
Emily cleared her throat theatrically. "Well, you'll just have to wait a minute, as I have an announcement to make. Today," she paused, "I became a woman."
Emily was twenty-four.
"I bought a chicken. I did. With legs and everything."
Emily didn't cook. She chopped salads, sliced fruit, and poured brewer's yeast on popcorn. She went to restaurants where she tortured the waiters with special orders, everything steamed or boiled, sauce on the side, then ultimately returned half of it. Emily had been anorexic for almost half her life.
I assumed she meant a dead chicken.
"I have a suitor!"
It sounded like she said: suture. Slap a steak on a black eye, a chicken breast with stitches. I wish I didn't think this way.
"A suitor, Mommy. A gentleman caller," She sighed as if she might faint with the mere pleasure of saying the word. Emily had often lectured her sister, Paige, and me on the subject of love, saying, "When Percy Shelley, the poet, drowned, Mary Shelley carried his burnt-up heart in her handbag for the rest of her life. In her handbag! That's real love. That's what I'm waiting for."
I wondered, How long before that heart started to stink?
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
Riverhead • $25.95 • September 23, 2010
I was first drawn to Danielle Evans' debut book—short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self—because of the title, which is taken from "The Bridge Poem" by Donna Kate Rushin. I can't think of a single title from 2010 that has made me more interested to keep reading. (And I'm not the only one. Last week, I took my copy of the book with me on vacation, and the friend I was visiting promptly took it away from me so she could read the stories before I returned to Nashville.)
The characters in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are African-American or mixed race. As Lauren Bufferd writes in her BookPage review, they are "people in transition":
adolescents, children split between divorced parents, college graduates drifting between partners and jobs. Erica in “Virgins” is a prototype for several of the other young women who appear in these pages—independent but longing for connection, educated but not savvy enough to avoid the hurts of love and life.
Here's an excerpt from "Virgins," the story that's had the most acclaim. (It was originally published in the Paris Review and then The Best American Stories 2008.)
Inside at Michael and Ron's house, they put me on the downstairs couch and gave me a blanket. When Ron said good night and went into his bedroom in the basement, I thought maybe I'd only imagined the look he gave me earlier. I unlaced my shoes and took down my hair and curled up in the blanket, trying not to think about Jasmine and what kind of mess I'd left her in. I thought of her laughing, thought of the look on her face when she had closed her eyes and let that man kiss her, and for a second I hated her and then a second later I couldn't remember anything I'd ever hated more than leaving her. I was sitting there in the dark when Ron came back and put an arm around me.