Think short stories are boring? Old-fashioned? Uneventful? Here are five contemporary collections guaranteed to change your mind.
PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies
By Ken Kalfus
Imagine Breaking Bad but with weapons-grade plutonium instead of meth. That’s the basic premise of the title story from Kalfus’s 1999 cult classic, which throws Soviet history into a centrifuge and hits “spin.” Other stories feature the cosmonaut Nikolai Gagarin, Jewish homesteaders in Mongolia, and a disgraced dissident writer forced to review a novel by Leonid Brezhnev. My favorite story in the collection, “Anzhelika, 13,” is about a lonely girl getting her period for the first time in the last days of Stalin’s reign. No one else writes historical fiction like this.
The Collected Stories
By Leonard Michaels
“Afterward, afterward, it is more desolating than when a good movie ends or you finish a marvelous book. We should say ‘going,’ not ‘coming.’ Anyhow, the man should say, ‘Oh God, I’m going, I’m going.’” In Leonard Michaels’s hands almost anything can be a story—an aphorism, a diary entry, a sexual fantasy. Especially the last, for if Michaels had a main subject, it was sex. Many fans will tell you that his best story is “Murderers,” about boys who risk their lives to spy on the neighborhood rabbi in bed with his wife. My own favorite is probably “Journal,” 46 pages of riveting gossip about people I’ll never meet and will never forget.
Last Evenings on Earth
By Roberto Bolaño
More than any book of the last 10 years, this translated collection by the late Chilean Roberto Bolaño has changed the way Americans write short fiction. Often Bolaño’s narrators spend a whole story trying to figure out what the story is really about. Often they end up as confused as when they started. That doesn’t keep these stories from being funny, beautiful, or weirdly engrossing. The title piece, about a sensitive teenage poet on vacation with his macho dad, is up there (in my tiny private pantheon) with Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.”
The New Yorker Stories
By Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie was the hot young short story writer of the early ’70s, and she’s been paying for it ever since. Back then critics liked to celebrate (or attack) her as the voice of a generation. Read her now and you’ll see that she’s much more than that. Her comedies of manners were prophecies. Odds are you grew up in some version of Beattieland. No one has charted the territory of postmodern family life with her wit or precision. As this collection proves, she has gotten stronger and stranger with age—an experimentalist hidden behind a household name.
Lost in the City
By Edward P. Jones
Jones won the Pulitzer for his 2004 historical novel The Known World, but his real strength is in his short stories. His two collections, Lost in the City and Aunt Hagar’s Children, all set in black Washington, D.C., capture half a century of city life, in particular through the eyes of children. The two books form a diptych: each of the stories in Aunt Hagar’s Children quietly echoes a story in the earlier collection. Together they chronicle a place and time and voices overlooked by other writers, all with sympathy and deep dramatic skill.
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Writer George Packer mostly succeeds in describing the dissolution of our civic culture, says Michael Tomasky.