Short Stories for Summer

'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.' (from Alice and Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll)

Remember when summer stretched out endlessly before you, and kind people fixed you snacks while you sprawled on the floor in impossibly limber positions reading to your heart's content? Well I do, and even though I haven't taken a real summer vacation in my entire adult life, I still compile my reading list as if I'm heading off for a month-long sprawl in the Hamptons. With 23 books on my "shortlist" for this already-waning summer, even if I got on the Jitney right now I'd never finish them by Labor Day. Woe is me, woe to all of us readers who still race into a bookstore with the breathless hope of school children on holiday. Because I remember what it feels like to turn the last page under the same setting sun that rose that morning, and nothing can replace the feeling of being completely immersed in a story from beginning to end.

Which is one of the many reasons I love short stories. I may not have twelve hours to read everyday, but I certainly have twelve minutes, and so far I've read over 30 short stories this summer, most in a single satisfying gulp:

If you read only one collection on this list, make it Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. The stories grab you from the first line (It took me damn near a week to convince Sue-Bee to come watch this guy shoot himself in the face) and surprise you with shocks of tenderness mingled with absurdity. Many of these stories involve some little tweak of reality that makes them loveable, funny, and engaging, illuminating their often sad underpinnings. The opening story, "Grand Stand-In," is narrated by an older woman with no family of her own who answers an ad in the paper: "Grandmothers Wanted - No Experience Necessary." Soon she's employed by a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider - in short, she's a rent-a-grandma for five families whose own matriarchs have died before their kids got to know them, or who are too unwell to be any fun. In a novel such an improbable premise would likely devolve into science fiction of the least interesting kind. But in 26 pages, Wilson makes this a beautiful and deeply human meditation on loneliness, and the expectations and failures of family. My favorite story in the collection, "The Museum of Whatnot", involves a serious young woman who cares for a museum of obsessively collected junk, and an older doctor who comes in once a week to stare at the collection of ordinary stainless-steel spoons. All of the characters in these stories are lonely; each story is about finding a way to become a little less lonely – in the most unusual ways.

Even if I wasn't already a fan of Maile Meloy's writing, I would have read Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It for the title alone. In the collection's penultimate story, a conflicted husband reflects on a poem by A.R. Ammons (One can't/have it/both ways/and both/ways is/the only/way I/want it). He lies curled up with his wife of three decades, comforted by her intelligence and aging beauty, while he contemplates leaving her for the recently-teenaged girl who taught their now-grown children how to swim. The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way? Each of the eleven stories poses this same question, as affairs, marriages, and childhoods teeter on the edge of decision: go or stay, live it up or keep on living. None of the characters are terribly likeable, but their interior conflicts make us feel for them, even as we narrow our eyes at their lack of fortitude. In "Two-Step", a woman reflects on her best friend's unfaithful husband: He was acting like the man he wanted to be, in hopes that he could become it. He would keep acting until he couldn't stand it anymore, and then he would be the man he was. These are stories about people becoming who they are, and the great drama is in the wishy-washiness of the wrestling. Meloy's prose is clean, but not too spare, detailed without feeling labored, quiet, but never detached -- all of which elevate the often piddling nature of the central conflict to great emotional effect. For a writer these stories are examples of true craftsmanship, and for a reader they are just plain good.

Unlike Meloy's, Simon Van Booy's characters in Love Begins in Winter dive after love without hesitation, act on mysterious coincidence, and bandage their tragic wounds with new memories. The stories are on the long side (50-70 pages), offering the reader more time to piece together the fragments of characters and story. Van Booy writes with a combination of chunky, breath-paused sentences and poetic fluidity. The rhythm reminds me of someone recounting a dream – each detail built upon the last, gaining momentum until the revelation erupts:

One day, George Frack received a letter. It was from very far away. The stamp had a bird on it. Its wings were wide and still. The bird was soaring high above a forest, its body flecked with red sparks. George wondered if the bird was flying to a place or away from it... Then he opened it and found a page of blue handwriting and a photograph of a girl with brown hair. The girl was wearing a navy polyester dress dotted with small red hearts. She also had a pink clip in her hair. Her hands were tiny.

The handwriting was full of loops, as if each letter were a cup held fast upon the page by the heaviness of each small intention.

When George read the page, his mouth fell open and a low groaning resounded from his throat.

Van Booy is generous with philosophical musings and declarations about love, life, memory, which, paired with coincidence and fateful encounters, give these stories an ethereal, other-worldly quality – much like the suspended-in-time feeling of falling in love.

My copy of Lydia Peelle's debut collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, is filled with bookmarks notating remarkable lines and passages, starting with the first line of the first story: My father was eighteen when the mule killers finally made it to his father's farm. Each story demands to be read in one sitting, but you'll need a break in between to take in their often surprising emotional heft; this is no lightweight collection, and Peelle knows how to break hearts. In my favorite story, "Sweethearts of the Rodeo", the narrator remembers the summer she and her best friend spent together as wily stable girls - "the last summer, the last one before boys."

We are covered in scrapes and bruises, splinters buried so deep in our palms that we don't know they are there. Our bodies forgive us our risks, and the ponies do, too. We have perfected the art of falling.

The story is alive with the proud fearlessness of these rough-and-tumble girls who still know how to play, undaunted by the dawning awareness of the adults misbehaving around them. (Rodeo is our favorite game, because it is the fastest and most reckless, involving many feats of speed and bravery...) Writing mostly in the first person plural, Peelle nails the inseparable pair, the fierce solidarity, the superiority that is possible only in childhood. "Sweethearts" is deeply atmospheric – for a few pages I really lived in that hot, dusty world, wishing I'd been a sweetheart of the rodeo. As I reached the last page, guessing at some loss of innocence approaching, all of a sudden my throat caught and my eyes filled – a sudden cry escaped when I reached the last paragraph. No plot spoiler here; nothing "happens," except the end of that summer, the summer before boys. I couldn't read anything else the rest of that day – except for this one story, over and over again, to try and figure out how it was done, and to spend another moment inside that summer.

-- Lucia Silva

In addition to being a key reviewer for BookBrowse, and our content editor, Lucia is the book buyer for Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, CA, and manager of The Book Works in Del Mar, CA. She can also be heard recommending books on NPR's Morning Edition with Susan Stamberg, and on KPBS in San Diego. More reviews by Lucia

So many people forget about the impact a short story can have, thanks for this great list of recommendations!
# Posted By Megan T | 8/31/09 1:51 PM
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