Story collections with legs
Why is it that the long lazy days of summer call for long and difficult books? We look at June, July and August, and think it's a good time to tackle War and Peace, or even Crime and Punishment, that psyche-twisting I-done-it that seems so popular among high school intellectuals (what guilt makes young people want to read it?). Come September, we put them aside, forever unfinished, in favor of blogs, movies on demand, or books on tape. Kindle, anyone?
Consider the short story. Story collections give you something to finish, even if you don't finish the entire volume. And short stories recover well from the kind of frequent interruptions that summer reading encounters, be it at the beach or behind closed doors with the air conditioner running full blast. The ones listed below are damn good.
The Book of Others(Penguin Books; paperback, $15) is an anthology of personalities. Editor Zadie Smith (Beauty) gave her 23 contributors one direction: "Make someone up." So we have Jonathan Safran Foer's "Rhoda," who's the type of smothering, busybody mother ("Have a cookie" is the story's first sentence) we all know. A.L. Kennedy's "Frank" is a man whose obsessive desire for repetition and familiarity is so important it drives his wife away. ZZ Packer's "Gideon" is a gutless guy who collects crickets and doesn't have the conviction to out his interracial relationship. Cartoonists Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware make contributions, as does Smith herself. You probably won't like most of the characters sketched here (except for one who happens to be a monster), but you'll come out feeling better about yourself.
The four graphic stories in Adrain Tomine's Summer Blonde (Drawn & Quarterly; paperback, $16.95) feature young, alienated misfits who can't quite get the hang of love or life itself. "Alter Ego" is about a onetime writing wonder who boosts his confidence by dating a high schooler. "Hawaiian Getaway" revolves around crank phone calls and a radio contest come-on. The other stories include some (seemingly) innocent stalking and an insecure young lady who craps her pants at a party. Can anybody out there identify with this? Tomine's reality-based drawings put a comic perspective on some sorry situations.
On the other hand, we like most of the misfits in Richard Lange's Dead Boys(Little, Brown; hardcover, $21.99). Lange's addled, lowlife tales of Southern California suggest a Charles Bukowski for the painkiller generation. But while Bukowski's alter-egos were so far in the bottle even a genie couldn't pull them out, Lange's characters believe that something better is about to pop like a cork. Still, there's always too much wrong in their past, too much obsessive violence or thievery or drug usage in their behavior to grant them success. You can't help liking Lange's boys even when their worst traits are showing. And you can't help but be disappointed when failure looms.
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Dagoberto Gilb's Woodcuts of Women (Grove Press; paperback, $12) is really more about men and how they're stooges for the opposite sex. "Maria de Covina" is the tale of a 19-year-old department-store floorwalker with a girlfriend, a hankering for older women (including his boss and Cindy in cosmetics) and a habit of giving his friends "discounts." In "Hueco," an unemployed carpenter has a girl he craves, another he screws and a landlady who walks in at just the wrong moments. Frustration abounds in this collection, but it left me craving the one thing these guys seldom seem to get, or get too much of. The beautiful woodcut images by Artemio Rodriguez sprinkled through the book only make things worse.
Armageddon In Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut's posthumous collection of unpublished stories (G.P. Putnam's Sons; hardcover, $24.95) is a timely reminder of the cruelties and absurdities of conflict. Not everything here is fiction. A copy of Vonnegut's letter to his parents announcing his prisoner-of-war status is included, as is a thoughtful introduction by author and son Mark Vonnegut. Lovers of Slaughterhouse Five—remember Dresden?—will suffer the ironies here even more deeply.
How many summers have we spent reading Stephen King? This year, we found horror as well as food for thought in Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts (William Morrow; hardcover, $24.95), a smart collection of the weird, supernatural and occasionally gory. An abducted young boy gets phone calls from his fat captor's previous victim. Parents frighten another kid with tales of "playing card people" who slip under doors with little golden hatchets. The least horrific story here takes place on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. And I thought my life was a nightmare.
The darkest reading we've recently encountered is Leah Hayes' Funeral of the Heart(Fantagraphic Books; paperback, $14.95). Illustrated in scratchboard (you may remember this technique from your high-school art class), its black pages carry tales of duck slaughter, incurable disease and a tunnel that leads to an ornate powder room deep underground. This one will keep you up nights wondering, "What the hell?"