Category Archives: Short Stories

Book Haul From The Strand

You know what I DON’T need? More books!

But I recently found myself with the opportunity to go to The Strand, which I couldn’t pass up. Thanks to my Goodreads to-read list, I ended up with these books:

photo 1 (1)Here is the list:

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (I have wanted this since it came out; have heard that it is better than The Red Thread)

How to Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman (see a theme here?)

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard (coming of age in the 70s)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (highly recommended by Ann Patchett)

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (short stories)

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (have wanted this since it came out too)

Sparta by Roxana Robinson (read the Q&A with Robinson about Sparta here)

If you’ve read any of these, please weigh in! What am I in store for?

NEWS FROM HEAVEN by Jennifer Haigh


A new book out from Jennifer Haigh is always cause for celebration here at EDIWTB. I think she has become my favorite contemporary author. Her books are rich, layered stories, usually about families, told in a distinctive gentle, quiet tone that immediately sucks me in and keeps me reading to the last page. There is always sadness and loss in her books, but they aren’t depressing. Instead, they are realistic portrayals of the ups and downs of life, and the myriad disappointments, secrets, thrills and dreams that make up our individual histories.

News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, which just came out two weeks ago, is a collection of stories that extend the post-war Pennsylvania mining town world Haigh created in Baker Towers (reviewed here). There are a number of characters here that overap with those in Baker Towers; in some cases, Haigh has filled out lives that were skeletal in Baker Towers, and in others she has added new chapters to lives she left at the end of her previous work.

Not all of these stories take place in Bakerton, but the claustrophobic, past-its-prime town plays a role in each of them. Everyone returns home to their once high-flying but now dying town, it seems, whether to visit, or in a casket, or in shame, or for a sense of belonging and history. Haigh’s stories span half a century, and there are many stages here – not only of her characters’ lives, but of the town’s history.

I enjoyed that most of these stories had a catch at the end – a little twist that cast the rest of the story in a new light. I found myself speeding up at the end of the chapters, eager to reach that “Eureka!” moment that Haigh had quietly dropped in. An infidelity discovered many years later, or the discovery that a revered hometown hero was keeping a secret, or simply the question of whether a younger man in an unexpected relationship had honorable intentions or not – these are the little mysteries that Haigh solves throughout the collection.

My only complaint is my typical one about short stories – they just aren’t as satisfying as novels. Each of these chapters could have been its own novel, and I was sad to see it end every time. But I won’t complain – a new Haigh book is a new Haigh book, and it’s simply a treasure.

WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU by Molly Ringwald


Yes, I admit that I am 80s obsessed. I listen to 80s music, my favorite podcast is the excellent Stuck in the 80s, and I can still recite every line of “Sixteen Candles”. But when Molly Ringwald’s – yes, that Molly Ringwald- story collection came in the mail a few weeks ago, I was surprised. I had no idea that she was a writer, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was it published on its own merits, or because its author was Claire from “The Breakfast Club”?

I gave Ringwald’s book When it Happens to You a try on vacation this week, and I was blown away. It’s excellent. It’s a collection of interrelated stories – “a novel in stories”, says the cover – that deal with marriage, betrayal, motherhood, infertility, and modern life in L.A. Damn if Ringwald isn’t an extremely talented writer.

The main characters are Greta and Philip, spouses facing the breakdown of their marriage upon the discovery of Philip’s infidelity. The other characters radiate out from these two – the parent of one of Greta and Philip’s daughter’s classmates; Greta’s mother; Philip’s brother; Greta’s next door neighbor. Events are sometimes told from more than one perspective from chapter to chapter, helping this book avoid the fragmentation and disorientation that often plagues story collections. Ringwald understands relationships, particularly marriages, and her characters are flawed, totally realistic, and utterly compelling.

I read a review that complained that the stories weren’t really stories because the characters felt rather than did. That didn’t bother me at all. I found that these stories were packed with enough drama to support the self-analysis of the characters, and I loved being privy to their innermost thoughts and conflicts. Ringwald’s eye for detail and ear for believable dialogue made When It Happens To You a very pleasurable reading experience for me. I highly recommend this one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.

 

TRACKS by Eric Goodman


Eric Goodman’s Tracks is an homage to train travel, a novel told in stories about passengers on a train from Baltimore to Chicago. The characters are diverse – a Holocaust survivor, a hit man trying to retire, a traveling salesman, a train conductor, to name a few – but they all come together in the lounge car of the Amtrak Cardinal, and their stories occasionally intersect and intertwine.

I found the individual storylines pretty interesting. I enjoyed learning the background for each person, as well as what brought them to that particular train on that day. Train travel that far of a distance is definitely an anomaly, so Goodman had the challenge of coming up with plausible reasons for each of the characters to be using such an old-fashioned mode of transport. So why train travel? It affords Goodman’s characters the chance to reflect on their lives, to consider the choices they’ve made so far as well how they might change their lives. The length of a train ride allows the characters to interact as well, whether for a one-night stand or simply for conversation. For the most part, Goodman succeeded in creating this microcosm, although occasionally the plot construct felt a little staged, almost theatrical.

Baltimore and Chicago also play a role in Tracks, as most of the characters lived in one city or the other, and their feelings about their city of departure and/or destination were part of their reflections on the trip.

I liked Goodman’s writing, which is descriptive and flows easily, although sometimes he repeated himself as each character came across the others on the train. I think the strength of the book was the cast of characters, who were quite memorable for a short story collection. Often when I finish a collection of stories, I look back and the characters seem to run together, blending into one borderless whole. But the characters in Tracks have remained distinct to me upon finishing the book. Their stories are unexpected and unique, which made them memorable beyond their short allotment of pages.

Thanks to Atticus Books for proving me a review copy of Tracks. It was a refreshing read, thanks to a memorable cast of characters and a unique setting and construction.

SPOILED by Caitlin Macy

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t love reading short stories. I have trouble enjoying them the way I do a good novel – just when I get into them, they stop, and I have to start all over again with a new cast of characters and a new story.


Yet I often try new story collections anyway. I get sucked in by the descriptions of the stories, and I think that the latest collection will be the one that converts me to short stories. And with my short attention span of late (almost 36 weeks pregnant), a collection of stories seemed like just the thing for me to read right now. So I picked up Spoiled, by Caitlin Macy, which I bought on my trip to The Strand last March.

Spoiled‘s characters are mostly well-heeled New Yorkers in their thirties dealing with issues around class, affluence, and feeling secure with themselves. In one, a young mother lends money to someone else’s nanny in a show of altruism, only to hire her later and experience jealousy when the nanny stays friends with her previous employer. In another story, a young actress and her wealthy boyfriend muddle through a dinner near her old boarding school, only to break up before the check comes (and the boyfriend has a chance to present her with the ring he’s been carrying). In another, a wife on her honeymoon in Morocco, resentful of her husband, traipses off into a Moroccan market on her own and endangers herself in the process.

I liked the premise of these stories, and Macy’s writing is breathtaking. Her use of detail to set a scene, convey the intricacies among relationships, and describe urban pressures is extremely skilled. I was consistently impressed with her writing throughout the book.

But ultimately the collection left me a little cold. As I noted above, just when I started to care about what was going on in a story, it ended. I never really got any momentum with it, and as a result it took me a long time to get through it. I wasn’t hooked. And in retrospect, the stories bled into each other. The women are all sort of the same – yes, spoiled, and pretty unappreciative of all that they have.

I’m glad I gave Spoiled a chance, but I think I’d be more interested in reading novels by Macy than other short stories. And this is a good reminder to me: stick to long-form.

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Vacation read #4 was story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin. My friend Sarah raved about this book last year, so I grabbed it when I recently saw it at a library book sale.

Wonders In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of interrelated stories that take place in modern Pakistan. The characters in Mueenuddin’s stories range from wealthy landowners and Pakistanis educated in America to servants and farm workers. This isn’t a particularly uplifting collection; the author paints Pakistan as a pretty grim place. The wealthy constantly face the siphoning of their assets by unscrupulous employees and the threat of loss of status and power. The poor are mostly at the mercy of their employers, who control their income and offer little job security. Women are either treated poorly – or are temporarily revered, and then discarded – and are forced to resort to selling their bodies at times to achieve security.

Mueenuddin’s writing is spare and powerful, and his stories are understated. He is skillful at getting inside the heads of his characters – especially, surprisingly, the women – and conveying their inner thoughts and desires. I finished the book a week ago, and while some of the stories bled into each other and are a bit amorphous in my memory, the overall impact of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a powerful one. What a sad country Pakistan is, in so many ways, yet with a culture with its own distinct joys and hopes.

I liked that the stories were linked; some later stories in the collection address unresolved questions from earlier ones. Also, by offering multiple perspectives of the same characters across different chapters, Mueenuddin gives them added depth and provides a more textured, richer picture of Pakistani society.

I recommend this collection and am glad that I read it. I found myself comparing it to Khaled Hosseini’s books (which took place in Afghanistan) and really appreciating the more skillful writing, richer characters, and greater complexity in Mueenuddin’s stories.

YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE by Siobhan Fallon

Fallon I just finished Siobhan Fallon's You Know When The Men Are Gone, a collection of very loosely interconnected stories about the lives of military families. Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood in Texas while her husband was deployed twice to Iraq, writes about the lives of the women left behind and the impact of their husbands' deployment on both the husbands and the wives.

The war in Iraq – now Afghanistan – has been going on for years, and it's easy to forget, or at least not think about, the lives of the men fighting abroad and the families back at home. They become names and numbers on a newspaper page, rather than living, breathing people with complicated emotions and motivations. Fallon brings them into sharp relief, however, in You Know When The Men Are Gone. She looks at the women and men of these military families in a range of situations: women waiting for their men to return; wounded men returning to ambivalent wives; men who stay behind while their peers go off to fight; men who return with suspicions about their wives' fidlelity; women who wait at home with suspicions about their husbands' fidelity. Fallon has covered many perspective in her collection (though she writes in an afterward that she has so many more stories that she could share). Her stories are full of details about military life – the parking space at the supermarket reserved for families of dead soldiers, the baskets of cookies collected by military wives to welcome home their men, the "no cell phones during checkpoints" rules at the base – that only insiders would know.

I loved this book. Fallon's writing is spare but emotionally powerful. I am not always a fan of short stories, but the structure here allows Fallon to look at military life through ten different perspectives, which makes for a very rich experience.  The stories that stood out the most to me were "Remission" – about a woman who has just gone through cancer treatment and is having trouble connecting with her teenage daughter, while her husband feels guilty about his troops off in Iraq while he stays home with his wife – and "Inside the Break" – about a wife who checks her deployed husband's email and learns something she wishes she hadn't. But really, all of these stories are memorable. Fallon is a master of narrative tension and understatement, and the endings of her stories leave you wanting more.

In addition to being a great read, You Know When The Men Are Gone is an important reminder of the many, many sacrifices being made all over the world – both abroad and on military bases across the country – to fight wars that have become almost abstractions to many civilians. I highly recommend it.

Check out these other review of You Know When The Men Are Gone from Jenn's Bookshelves, Jen at Devourer of Books, and The Book Lady's Blog. Here also is a Q&A with Siobhan Fallon on her website.

Hello FTC! Thanks to Amy Einhorn Books for the review copy.