BY rob cline
Often, when folks discover what an avid reader I am, they shake their heads ruefully and make a fairly predictable comment: “I just don’t have time to read.”
I know the feeling. Even with my commitment (my wife might characterize it as “my addiction”) to reading, it isn’t always easy to steal even a few moments out of my packed schedule to enjoy a book. Given the relentless time pressure many of us feel and our apparent thwarted desire to read (and I’m admittedly taking the head shakers at their word), it has always struck me as odd that so few people seem to read short stories or novellas with any regularity.
Here are a few collections that offer plenty of gems that even the busiest of busy readers should be able to squeeze into the schedule.
Tourist Season, by Enid Shomer
At long last, Enid Shomer is back with the follow-up to 1992’s Imaginary Men. Tourist Season (Random House, $13.95) reaffirms the author’s gift for conjuring characters who are both unique and wholly recognizable. Shomer has also honed her ability to produce a subtle shift or explicit twist that changes a story’s direction or impact in an instant.
She delivered such a moment in the title story of Imaginary Men, and does so with aplomb in the title story of the more recent collection, as well as in the beautiful and moving “The Other Mother.” If occasionally her plots seem a bit underdeveloped to contain her characters—as in “Chosen,” the opening story of Tourist Season—meeting her cast is always worthwhile. One hopes the wait for her next collection (or first novel) will be significantly shorter.
The Fires, by Alan Cheuse
Death, conflagrations, and unexpected encounters with Hinduism spark the plots of the two novellas in Alan Cheuse’s The Fires (Santa Fe Writers Project, $10). Cheuse, the book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, has crafted a pair of narratives that compellingly investigate the emotional and spiritual landscapes of his well-drawn characters.
The title novella is a powerful piece that opens with a sparkling bit of comedy that quickly descends into tragedy. Gina Morgan, suffering from a mysterious ailment, must travel to Uzbekistan, where her husband has been killed in a car accident. Her efforts to fulfill his wish to be cremated are frustrated until a Hindu community agrees to handle the task. Cheuse successfully takes the reader on the story’s various journeys, and he effectively executes a tricky narrative maneuver in which Gina imagines her husband’s final hours.
In “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson finds himself listening to the Bhagavad Gita as he travels to collect his daughter from the college where she has set a grand piano on fire in response to her mother’s death. A refrain of forgiveness runs through Swanson’s ruminations as he relates the story, and if his demons are not ultimately entirely exorcised, he does reach a sort of self-understanding.
Desert Gothic, Don Waters
Don Waters populates the desert of the American West with an array of memorably desperate characters in his debut collection, Desert Gothic (University of Iowa Press, $16). The collection, which garnered Waters this year’s Iowa Short Fiction Award, is filled with engaging stories of individuals trying to salvage the best of bad situations.
Challenging relationships are at the center of many of Waters’ stories, and he excels at avoiding clichés in his portrayals of the vagaries of love and lust. Take, for example, “Dan Buck,” a story in which the title character is engaged in a hard-core running event (“I’ve cultivated the philosophy that 26.2 miles is for the weak”). In the end, “Dan Buck” turns out to be a love story of sorts, and a powerful one at that.
The character-driven stories in Desert Gothic occupy a landscape that might seem barren, but their interior landscapes—like Waters’ imagination—are fertile.
Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman
The versatile Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is a collection of short stories, poems, and a few oddities. Reading Gaiman’s introductions to the various pieces, it quickly becomes clear that his versatility has made him an in-demand author for various themed anthologies. If you need a story about gargoyles, or to accompany your newest CD (if you happen to be Tori Amos), or to go on the website for your soon-to-be-released film (in this case, The Matrix), Gaiman is apparently your man.
Often these stories are breathtaking. For example, “A Study in Emerald,” written for a Sherlock Holmes anthology, is simply stunning as Gaiman blends the worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft with aplomb. “Other People” is another standout, conjuring a vision of Hell readers won’t soon forget. Gaiman writes with a confidence that sustains even his weaker efforts, and his stronger efforts are very strong indeed.