Short stories are a tricky business. When done well, just a few pages of text can offer a tantalizing glimpse of another world, or immerse you in a scenario so familiar it feels claustrophobic. Creating a brief narrative that contains depth and nuance is a significant accomplishment. I’d venture to guess that only a few writers have managed to master the craft. For several years, my dependable favorites have been Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Miranda July, Flannery O’Connor, and Etgar Keret. Since reading Smoke and Mirrors, this list now includes Neil Gaiman.
Smoke and Mirrors brings together a wide variety of Gaiman’s short pieces. In the introduction, Gaiman writes that “Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.” I’d like to think that most of Gaiman’s stories live up to such lofty ambitions.
In When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka uses a sparse, lyrical writing style to illuminate the psychological effects of one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. The novel opens with a portrait of an ordinary woman going about her daily chores in Berkeley, California. While en route to her local library, she sees something troubling: Evacuation Order No. 19. After reading the notice, she abandons her errands and begins preparing for life in an unfamiliar locale.
At first, the sequence of events feels dystopian or apocalyptic – the world is ending and a family is forced to prepare to face the unknown. But this narrative is a dramatization of history, not a speculative tale of the future. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government began to suspect that American citizens of Japanese ancestry might harbor allegiance to Japan. In 1942, these paranoid fantasies lead to the forcible internment of Japanese-Americans announced in Evacuation Order No. 19.
Tom Bissell's Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creations represents the best of what an essay collection can offer: incisive observations about a wide range of intriguing topics, intelligent social commentary that refrains from didacticism, and a good sense of comedic timing. Bissell's essays are characterized by impressive eclecticism. He discusses established cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and Werner Herzog, as well as less conventional subjects, such as Tommy Wiseau (the auteur responsible for the cult film The Room), the Underground Literary Alliance, and Jennifer Hale, “the Queen of Video-game Voice-over.” While these topics might seem incurably disparate, Bissell's interest in the process and consequences of creation provides a framework which links them together.
Only Jonathan Lethem could turn an homage to the classic noir style into a wildly inventive exploration of language, loyalty, and the principles of Zen Buddhism. Lethem’s fascination with noir played a major role in his debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music. In Motherless Brooklyn, the reader is treated to a gritty interpretation of noir filtered through an unforgettable narrator—Lionel Essrog. As always, Lethem’s writing is superb, and the construction of Lionel’s narrative voice is a rare accomplishment.
Lionel Essrog is an inexperienced detective who has a complicated relationship with language. Lionel is always looking for an antidote – some sensation or substance that will temporarily quell the feral language percolating in his brain. White Castle hamburgers can have therapeutic properties, and fear will work in a pinch. But Lionel’s mind always reverts back to an intricate arrangement of associative tics, repetition, and wordplay.
“All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hidden in plain sight.”
In Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, an unemployed Web designer, a bookstore that never closes, a series of beloved fantasy novels, a secret society, and a typeface known as Gerritszoon are all embroiled in the search for immortality. While eternal life is a frequently-pursued prize in history and popular culture, Sloan’s rendition of this classic quest revolves around quirky characters and a cadre of technophobic code breakers.
Clay Jannon’s life has been disrupted by the economic recession. Since losing his job as a Web designer for a bagel company, he has struggled to find a sense of purpose and a source of income. One night while aimlessly wandering the streets of San Francisco, he happens upon a fascinating sight: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay is drawn to the store and takes special notice of the help wanted sign hanging in the front window. Once inside, Clay discovers Mr. Penumbra’s labyrinthine store requires parkour-like maneuvers: “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”
In Every Day, David Levithan creatively reinvents the familiar saga of star-crossed romance. The relationship at the novel's core is predictably fraught with tension and angst, but a significant twist transforms the entire scenario: one of the participants isn't actually a physical person, but exists as an intangible entity that inhabits a different body each day.
The entity known as A has no gender or corporeal presence, nor can it control which body it will occupy next. There are several restrictions that govern A's movements, however. A is never in the same body twice, inhabits hosts that match A's own age, and lingers in a geographical area as long as there are eligible bodies for it to occupy.
In the United States, the word “wedding” tends to evoke certain associations. The mind automatically regurgitates images absorbed from films, commercials, and magazines: a glowing bride ensconced in layers of delicate white fabric gliding among tables festooned with elaborate decorations, decadent food, and thousands of dollars worth of fresh-cut flowers. In this fantasy, money is no object, happiness is guaranteed, and future contentment seems likely. But how did such an extravagant, illogical vision become normative? Why are weddings consuming people's lives and bank accounts to such an extreme degree? These are the questions Rebecca Mead explores in One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.
As Mead describes her excursions to bridal shows, wedding planner conventions, Aruba (a popular locale for destination weddings), and a Chinese factory that mass produces bridal gowns, she both contextualizes and deconstructs the fantastical visions of beauty and perfection which generally dominate our sense of the American wedding. Even if you aren't planning a wedding, it's difficult to avoid the current glut of wedding-themed media. Wedding cake decorators feature prominently on TV shows that compete with Say Yes to the Dress and A Wedding Story. Each year it seems more and more books and magazines are dedicated to offering advice on how to fully enjoy an ice sculpture center piece or perfectly match the flower girl's shoes to the bride's sister's earrings.
The Sirens of Titan might be one of Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser-known novels, but it deserves just as much praise and attention as Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s tendency to combine satire and existential inquiry gives Sirens an invigorating edge. It is an inventive drama, one that successfully incorporates space travel, dark humor, apathetic deities, and bleak ruminations on the futility of human progress.
Junot Diaz's versatility enables him to effortlessly shift from elaborate epics to intimate, micro-level storytelling. Just a few years after his sweeping epic, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz is back with This is How You Lose Her, a collection of overlapping and intersecting short stories that offer brief, nuanced glimpses of complex characters, emotions, and situations.
Although the stories contained within This is How You Lose Her are arranged in a non-linear sequence, they create a fragmentary portrait of Yunior's life and progression from a young immigrant learning English from Sesame Street to a middle-aged man reflecting on a hollow life and deteriorating body.
Of the eight memoirs I’ve read so far this year, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is definitely the funniest. Fans of Laurie Notaro and Jen Lancaster will probably adore Lawson’s spirited descriptions of everything from her father’s affection for armadillo racing to her encounter with Stanley, the Magical Talking Squirrel.