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Entries in short stories (35)


Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Published by Scribner on March 26, 2019

Several of the stories in Sing to It are the shortest of short stories. Perhaps discerning readers will appreciate their depth of feeling or discern their hidden intent. Most of them left me cold. The title story, just a few sentences long, begins with “At the end, he said, No metaphors.” The story is, I guess, a metaphor, but not one that I grasped.

Amy Hempel’s style is to convey intense feelings using as few words as possible. That’ an admirable goal. When she uses too few words, however, I find myself missing all the rich flavor that she seems to have excised in order to get to the story’s core. I’m not sure that all of these stories are really stories at all, but I know that Hempel is popular in literary circles and that other readers are likely to disagree with me about the value of her brief glimpses of life.

As for the longer stories, I loved “A Full-Service Shelter,” which has the indirect storytelling feel of “The Things They Carried” in its heartbreaking description of how dogs perceived the volunteers at a humane society shelter. No dog lover could read the story without being moved.

The longest story, “Cloudland,” is told by a teacher who did cocaine with her students and moved to Florida to make a new life, although not the kind of life that depends on ambition. The protagonist has an abundance of random thoughts and memories and she isn’t shy about sharing them with the reader. Her most substantive memory is about giving up a child for adoption. “For safekeeping. For peace of mind.” Some of her current thoughts are fantasies about seeing or spending time with her daughter; others are about the emptiness she feels. In contrast with Hempel’s other stories, “Cloudland” might have been told more powerfully with fewer words.

The women in these stories are not living happy lives. The narrator of “The Chicane” tells the story of an an American woman who got pregnant by a French actor, then married a guy from Portugal and labored to turn him into an American after she got pregnant again. Neither relationship works out well for her. “Greed” is narrated by a destructive woman whose husband has an affair with an older woman. In “The Correct Grip,” a woman who was attacked by a man with a knife chats amiably with her attacker’s wife.

Only one of the stories in this collection appealed to me, so I cannot recommend the volume to readers who share my tastes. Your mileage may vary. Other than “A Full Service Shelter,” I was largely indifferent to the book’s contents. Even the stories with more substance, such as “Cloudland,” came across to me as pointless. Maybe pointlessness is the point, but it isn’t a point that makes me want to read story after story. The quality of Hempel’s prose, on the other hand, made the stories easy to read, even when I lost interest in the narrative.



This Is Not a Love Song by Brendan Mathews

Published by Little, Brown and Company on February 5, 2019

The stories in the collection differ in style, but they all have substance. In “Heroes of the Revolution,” a writer from Sarajevo tours Chicago with a group of Eastern European journalists. When their bubbly tour guide wants the writer to open up about her life, she is unprepared for the story she hears, yet it feels familiar to one of the journalists. The experiences that two characters associate with apple orchards illustrate the vast differences in people’s lives, differences that prevent them from bonding despite their commonalities.

“This Is Not a Love Song” is a lengthy character sketch of a singer named Kat who became a bit famous before she died, as sketched by her photographer, a former roommate and friend who seems to have been obsessed with her. “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer” is told from the perspective of a jealous circus clown who falls in love with a trapeze artist. The setting suggests a less serious story than the others, but the themes (working without a net as a metaphor for life) are just as somber as those advanced in the other entries.

“Salvage” describes a man who earns cash to tear apart buildings in the decaying Midwest to salvage treasure for his boss. Faced with a father who wants him to “man up,” a boss who abuses him, and the unattainability of his dreams, the man hits bottom before realizing that the treasure he needs to salvage is his life.

Many of the stories are about families and relationships. “How Long Does the First Part Last?” recounts a guy’s thoughts during a lengthy drive, memories of the past and glimpses of the future, all beginning when he hears “Can we not talk?” as the prelude to a long, silent trip. Another story set in a car, “The Drive,” is about the generation gap between dads and the girls they drive home.

Dan is sure the house has toxic mold, Jenna is sure it doesn’t. It is the marriage in “Airborne” that has become toxic. Told largely from Jenna’s perspective, the story is one of uncertainty and growing fears about choices she has made, all leading to an abrupt and entirely unexpected ending.

“Henry and His Brother” is told in alternating sections, one narrated by Harry and the other by his brother. The story is interesting for the differing perspectives of two brothers who love each other but need to find a way to accept each other. If they both agree on one thing, it is probably this: “It’s the years invested in loving another person, or trying to love them as best you can, that can turn your heart to stone and drag you down, deeper than you ever thought you could go.” As for the brothers, maybe “keeping each other close is the only way to keep pressure on the wound.”

“Dunn & Sons” closely examines three brothers and their father. The narrative voice belongs to the son of one of the brothers who is home from the Army but, feeling now like an outsider, isn’t likely to join the family business. The males in the family give ownership rights to a family story based on who tells it best, but they have never learned to talk to each other. The tension that builds during a family golf outing is palpable. The spotlight illuminating the difference between family stories and family communication makes “Dunn & Sons” my second favorite story in the volume.

Dugan is from Chicago but moved to Durham to further a romance that burned out.  While taking pictures for a photography class, Dugan accidentally burns down a black church. When another church burns, Dugan wonders whether he inadvertently inspired an arsonist, perhaps someone he knows. “Look at Everything,” my favorite story in the collection, explores Dugan’s sense of guilt as he asks himself why he took picture after picture as the church burned.



A Voice in the Night by Jack McDevitt

Published by Subterranean Press on August 31, 2018

Jack McDevitt is at his best with space opera. His novels about explorers or traders roaming the galaxy always convey a sense of realism that is missing from military science fiction and Star Wars clones. As this short story collection shows, McDevitt has a wider science fiction range, but I still like his space opera more than his other efforts. My favorite McDevitt novels star Alex Benedict. I was therefore happy to read “A Voice in the Night,” which introduces Benedict as a teenager who persuades his archeologist uncle to track down the radio waves of the final broadcast of a comedian who died in space.

McDevitt’s other major series of novels (the Academy series) features Priscilla Hutchins. “Maiden Voyage” is a prequel to his Hutchins novels. The story balances the wonders and perils of discovery as Priscilla takes a qualification flight to get her pilot’s license. Another story about Priscilla’s training (“Waiting at the Altar”) involves a distress signal and a first contact that has been lost to history.

In “Oculus,” another character from the Academy series, Kellie Collier, finds herself and her passenger in a pickle when their ship loses power while trying to remove an ancient civilization’s books from the moon where they were stored. The story (one of my favorites in the collection) asks in a rather thrilling way whether a dedication to knowledge can at some point become foolish.

One of the more substantial stories in the volume, “Lucy,” imagines that a space ship has gone missing. Characters debate whether to send a rescue ship operated by the same latest-generation AI, or one operated by the previous generation AI that has a proven track record. The AIs, of course, have their own opinions. The story incorporates old themes (whether there is a political will for space travel, whether AIs are capable of developing emotions), but the story has a new take on the concept of technological obsolescence and how sentient technology might respond to it.

“Blinker” is another good story. Two people who are trapped in a moon base use their ingenuity to survive. As they debate whether robots should take the risk of space travel rather than humans, they realize that humans have a survival instinct and cleverness that robots lack. In one of the most interesting and well-written stories (“Friends in High Places”), God changes history to save Jesus from being crucified.

In a twist on the science fiction cautionary tale, “Good Intentions” imagines a game played by a “solve the mystery club” in which the mystery is crafted by a science fiction writer who wants the participants to resolve, not just a mystery, but a pair of ethical dilemmas. As a good mystery should, the story takes a surprising twist at the end. “Molly’s Kids” is another surprising story about people at NASA who try to trick an AI into doing something it doesn’t want to do.

“Searching for Oz” is a first contact story about aliens who enjoy Jack Benny’s radio show. “Listen Up, Nitwits” is a first contact story in which contact is made by a lonely AI. Another story in which first contact is made by an AI, “The Pegasus Project,” suggesting an interesting way in which aliens and humans might prove to be similar. “Ships in the Night” is a story of contact between a dull human and an alien who (from the human’s perspective) might be even more dull, making them kindred spirits whose lives intersect in brief but important moments.

“The Law of Gravity Isn’t Working on Rainbow Bridge” is told from the perspective of a television news reporters who witnesses the effects of a time bubble. “Midnight Clear” is about displaying a Christmas tree on a planet that aliens no longer inhabit.

Sherlock Holmes investigates a dead physicist’s discovery of relativity two years before Einstein in “The Lost Equation.” In “The Adventure of the Southsea Trunk,” a literary critic is murdered after receiving an autographed copy of the latest Sherlock Holmes novel — autographed by a modern writer, not by Conan Doyle, who is celebrated for his other works.

“Combinations” asks whether dead people can be recreated digitally, and explores the question with a couple of petulant chess players and William Jennings Bryan. Two guys consider changing their lives by taking a long voyage in “It’s a Long Way to Alpha Centauri.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” an AI version of Shakespeare writes modern plays that might bring false fame of the sort that Shakespeare would have abhorred.

In “The Last Dance,” software brings back a nonphysical replica of a widower’s wife, something like a hologram that purports to have her memories and emotions. Easing the pain of moving on turns out to be a bad idea for people who can’t let go.

There are only three stories in the collection that didn’t work for me. “Blood Will Tell” is kind of a nothing time travel story about the origin of a business plan. “Cathedral” reads like a Ben Bova lament about how NASA never gets all the funding it deserves. The plot involves a NASA employee who decides to do something about the perceived problem. “Excalibur” is a nothing story about NASA doing nothing when it finds evidence of an alien artifact.

The collection mixes stories from the last three decades. It isn’t a “best of” book. Given the number of stories in this collection, it isn’t surprising that some are stronger than others. There are a couple of “best of” McDevitt collections but I think the last one was published in 2009. A Voice in the Night gives his fans a chance to catch up on his more recent short fiction. And if a retrospective “best of” collection is published, several of the stories in this volume are likely to be included.



How Are You Going to Save Yourself? by JM Holmes

Published by Little, Brown and Company on August 21, 2018

Taken collectively, the stories in How Are You Going to Save Yourself explore the lives of young black men growing up. A character named Gio, whose high school years are spent in Pawtucket, narrates many of the stories. Others spotlight his friends, Rolls, Dub, and Rye.

Gio’s father played in the NFL, but he left Gio’s mother and lived a less successful life by the time Gio was in high school. In “The Legend of Lonnie Lion,” Gio’s father advises him never to marry a white girl (presumably because that’s what his father did). The story offers a glimpse of Gio’s broken home, his troubled relationship with his father, and his ill-fated relationship with a Jewish girlfriend. “What’s Wrong With You? What’s Wrong With Me?” is a dialog-heavy story that consists of a conversation among Gio and his friends that keeps circling back to interracial sex. The heart of the story concerns their attempt to understand why a kid is turned on by racially offensive language that should offend him.

That conversation appears in the collection’s first story and is echoed in “Cookouts,” the final story. We learn in “Cookouts” that Gio did not take his father’s advice. The story focuses on Gio’s post-high school relationship with a white girl named Maddie, who comes from a prosperous family and lives in a world that is much different than Gio’s. The relationship changes in seconds when Gio introduces race into their sexual relationship in a way that understandably shocks Maddie, but race has always been a lurking subtext in their relationship. At least in Gio’s mind, the relationship was haunted by ghosts that Maddie never met.

In “Kinfolk,” Gio collects modest life insurance proceeds from his father’s death and watches the dollars disappear as he parties with his friends. In “Tacoma,” Gio struggles to understand whether anything still binds him to him to his stepmother and stepsister after his father’s death. He wonders whether he will lose his mother and stepsister because he is too much like his father.

 “Be Good to Me” describes a girl’s first blowjob, one she was encouraged to give by a hand at the back of her head. The story then shifts to Rolls, who is trying (or not) to reconcile what he has learned (or not) in college with his self-serving beliefs about women. His attempt to apply what he learned about Kant’s philosophy of moral behavior to his life results only in confusion, as does his inability to separate his emotions from his lust. What happens next points to the ambiguity of so many unplanned sexual encounters, as neither the boy nor the girl are certain that they have any control over the situation, and both feel a sense of guilt. The story is a powerful look at what happens when people of both sexes act because they feel pressured, when they resist their own knowledge of the difference between right and wrong.

“Dress Code” explores the relationship of Dub, whose telemarketing job is going nowhere, and Simone, who hopes to improve her life when she accepts an offer to pose as an artist’s subject. This is one of my favorite stories in the volume, largely because of the tension it makes a reader feel as Dub and Simone both struggle with their self-esteem and as their lives move in different directions.

“Toll for the Passengers” is about a traffic accident that turns into extortion. But in the end, it’s about realizing that your life doesn’t need to be filled with drama, that your skin color doesn’t force you into needless confrontations. “Everything Is Flammable” demonstrates the tension between being street and being straight, the choice between a life of freedom that leads to prison or a life that is imprisoned by employment. The story suggests that every choice leads to risk.

It is the honesty in these stories, the unvarnished self-reflection, that makes them special. The stories span a period of years — long enough that when Gio goes back to the barbershop he frequented as a high school student, nobody remembers him — during which Gio and his friends change and mature, or don’t. The book’s title encapsulates its central theme: What changes can the characters make to save themselves in a changing world?

JM Holmes’ stories capture the confusion of coming of age, of choices made and friendships abandoned, of changing relationships with family members and lovers, and of changing times. He does that with striking prose: “I looked at the table legs, Serena Williams thick.” He tackles large social issues (like the conflict between Black Lives Matter and the police) through personal squabbles among family and friends. By telling small stories, Holmes brilliantly illuminates larger questions that continue to divide the country. Some of the stories make for brutal reading, but they are all the more vital because of that.



The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018 by Laura Furman (ed.)

Published by Vintage Anchor on September 4, 2018

None of the stories in the 2018 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories resemble an O. Henry story. Fewer than half impressed me as worthy of being anthologized. I suppose my taste differs from the editor and jurors who selected the stories. The editor made an attempt to be diverse and inclusive, but the stories are determinedly literary (I suppose because they are chosen from literary magazines) and most are rather bland.

Some of the best stories in this collection are told from the perspective of a child. In “Lucky Dragon,” Viet Dinh describes the radiation poisoning of a boat filled with fishermen after Americans test an atomic bomb on the Bikini Atoll. The story is an effective indictment of inhumanity because it focuses not on massive destruction, but on the very personal effects of a single explosion upon a former POW who has been destroyed by war (and by Japanese traditions of honor) in many ways.

“Nights in Logar” by Jamil Jan Kochai is told by a child who has moved to Afghanistan from America. In the company of friends, he searches for a missing dog, exacts a form of cultural retribution on a young man he doesn’t know, and gets a lesson in village history as he roams past landmarks of local and international conflict. While the story is a brief slice-of-life, it reveals more than the moment it captures.

Another story told from a child’s perspective, Mark Jude Poirer’s “How We Eat,” is a very funny look at the mother from hell. The story suggests that even bad parenting might be insufficient to muffle a child’s essential goodness.

The young girl who narrates Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” recounts her relationship with her overbearing grandmother during the four occasions that the grandmother visits America. The story is funny (because the girl, in her teen years, becomes just as overbearing as the grandmother) while offering a sensitive portrayal of an aging woman who is trying to find ways to deal with her fears.

On the other hand, not every story that reveals the world from a child’s viewpoint succeeded in saying something worthwhile. “Inversion of Marcia” by Thomas Bolt, a story written from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl on vacation in Italy, would probably be of greater interest to 14-year-old girls than it was to me. A friend of the mother of the young girl who narrates Lara Vapnyar’s “Deaf and Blind” is having an affair with a deaf and blind lover in Moscow. The story is well written and I guess it tries to say something about love, but I’m not sure it says anything at all.

My favorite story, “Queen Elizabeth” by Brad Felver, distills the relationship between a math professor and a furniture maker and their lost child to its essence in a series of defining moments. The story draws its power from its sparseness.

The saddest story, “Up Here” by Tristan Hughes, is about a relationship and a decision to end an old dog’s life. The story’s ending, together with carefully planted facts as the story unfolds, implies an additional reason for the narrator’s sadness. I like the way the story says so much by leaving so much untold.

A woman in (I think) Paraguay writes letters for pay by channeling the spirit of the letter’s dead author. The story suggests that the spirits of people who are tortured by authoritarian governments continue to suffer after the body dies. The narrator of Stephanie A. Vega’s “We Keep Them Anyway” has enough pain of her own and doesn’t want to know about the pain of the dead — perhaps with good cause, when the oppressors come searching for the incriminating letters.

The rest of the stories are of lesser quality. Youmna Chlala’s “Nayla” is a slice in the lives of two young women dealing with loss in ways that their culture permits. Another slice of life, Michael Parker’s “Stop ‘n’ Go,” introduces a man who reflects on how life has changed since the war. Ann Enright’s “Solstice” focuses on an Irish man’s frustration with his inability to shield his family from his grief and detachment. All three slices are too small to allow the reader to know the characters, but they at least convey something meaningful.

Marjorie Celona’s “Counterblast” features a woman who is filled with complaints about her husband, even after divorcing him, and with self-satisfied memories about how much she loved her baby, followed by a litany of complaints about how hard it is to be a mother. The protagonist is so full of anxieties and woes that I wanted to shout “Get over yourself!” Dounia Choukri’s “Past Perfect Continuous” is told by a woman who remembers her bitter German aunt whose past was stolen from her. The story is big on bromides but short on insights.

Lauren Alwan’s “An Amount of Discretion” is about a woman who wants to bond with her stepson after her husband’s death while making a decision about the disposition of the art her husband made. The stepson has a free-spirited stepdaughter. The story invites, but does not answer, the question: “Why are you making such as big deal out of this?”

“The Stamp Collector” by Dave King is about a self-pitying alcoholic who visits his former boyfriend in the hospital after the ex-boyfriend’s alcoholic mother crashes a car. This is another story that’s well-written but not very interesting, perhaps because I’ve had my fill of stories about self-pitying drunks.

Jo Lloyd's “The Earth, thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies” is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy that I guess is supposed to be an indictment of capitalism. The title seems to come from a poem by Thomas Yalden that is dedicated to the explorer Humphry Mackworth, which is a little more research into the obscure than I think I should need to do to figure out the meaning of a mediocre story.

Stories that struck me as pointless and/or senseless: “The Tomb of Wrestling” by Jo Ann Beard; “The Houses that Are Left Behind” by Brenda Walker; and “More or Less Like a Man” by Michael Powers.