A dose of dark humor, a captivating historical novel and the 2014 National Book Award winner for fiction make great selections for reading groups this month.
Kelly Link tends to inspire a range of comparisons to other authors—usually, some blend of Angela Carter and Haruki Murakami—but, in fact, nobody writes stories like hers. Link’s fantastical worlds feel utterly real, partly because they’re intensely matter-of-fact. Her characters are sassy, moody and cool, and they never, ever make any big deal out of the fact that there are monsters, aliens, vampires or ghosts hanging around, or that they might stumble into a pocket universe or some alternate dimension. Mostly they’re concerned with cute guys and flirting and drinks, plus occasionally needing to save the world.
This radiant collection of short stories features a set of flawed yet sympathetic women in a whole mess of compromising positions.
Edith Pearlman has been publishing award-winning stories since the late 1970s, but became more widely known in 2012, when her story collection Binocular Vision won both the PEN/Malamud and National Book Critics Circle awards and was a finalist for numerous others. Her new collection, Honeydew, gathers tales from the last 15 years, each one a closely observed look at the ordinary graces and sorrows of everyday life.
In her first collection of stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (2012), Megan Mayhew Bergman focused on the relationships between humans and animals. In her new collection, Almost Famous Women, Bergman focuses on the lives of real women who have been marginalized (or mythologized) in history. They include Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins at odds in life but not in body; Marion “Joe” Carstairs, a womanizing power boat racer; Allegra Byron, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont; and many other women whose stories are as captivating as they are obscure.
I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in 2013. Not because she didn’t deserve it. On the contrary, no writer is more worthy of this crowning literary honor. No, my dismay stemmed from the fact that the secret had gotten out: For years, we Munro fans had fooled ourselves into thinking we were part of some exclusive society with special appreciation for an unsung master. Crazy, of course, since Munro had been reaching tens of thousands of readers for decades with her stories in The New Yorker. But such is the unvarnished assuredness of Munro’s prose, the knowing intimacy of her plots—it is easy to believe she is writing for you alone.
In the title story of J. Robert Lennon’s new collection of short fiction—a book 15 years in the making—a man stumbles, surreally, into a kind of dream job on a tropical island, only to sense that something’s not quite right.
Three novels exploring the confines of art and artistry make great picks for reading groups this month.
Elephant Beach used to sparkle. Before the boardwalks rotted and the hotels and mansions along the bay boarded up their windows, there were ballrooms, parties, dancing. Now, the town smells of cigarettes. The streets are filled with drugs. Haunting screams accompany moonlight as traumatized veterans relive pieces of Vietnam in their sleep.
Spoiled Brats is ridiculous in the very best way. It’s a short story collection that avoids the usual pitfalls because the stories work well together and don’t lose steam as they go along. A common theme (spoiled rich kids, mostly) keeps these stories cohesive, and author Simon Rich holds our interest with a unifying style—each chapter is very funny, and they’re all based on a different outlandish premise.