I go for big, long immersive novels as much as the next person, but not over Christmas break. Too many distractions: gifts to return, parties to go to, visiting family members to entertain. Soldiering through, say, Orhan Pamuk’s 560-page latest just isn’t in the cards. A book of short stories you can dip in and out of, on the other hand, makes the perfect holiday companion.
Plus, it has been an unusually bountiful year for fiction’s underdog literary form. On The Daily Beast back in March, I called 2009 the year of the short story, and nine months later, my mind hasn’t changed. When it came time to assemble a list of five favorite reads, I discovered that three of my picks were collections (from Robert Boswell, Alice Munro, and Wells Tower). And there were more I’d missed, from major publishing houses and small presses alike. So I gathered a short stack of these overlooked titles (overlooked, at least, by me) and started reading. Three rose to the top: two debut collections and one from a veteran of the form. In the spirit of the holidays, I offer them here.
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
For a writer born and raised in the Northeast, Lydia Peelle has pulled off quite a trick: crafting vividly detailed short fiction about the rural South. Fans of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories should take a look at Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, which was published back in July, but didn’t get the attention it deserves. Like Proulx, Peelle captures the physical textures of rural life, the sound of mule hooves on a truck bed, the sight of mice scampering over a manure pile (“like currents of electricity”), the smell of a mattress saturated in goat piss. Though she sets nearly all of the stories in a bleak, trash-strewn Tennessee landscape, Peelle (who lives in Nashville) has assembled an impressively varied cast of characters. She convincingly inhabits the mind of a grumpy old taxidermist who’s lost his leg to diabetes, a shiftless teenager working on a goat farm for the summer, an ex-drug addict hunting for treasure with his buddies in the mountains. It’s not a cheery collection—Peelle’s characters are death-haunted and regretful folks—but there’s a core of feeling that animates the best stories, like “Kidding Season” and “Sweethearts of the Rodeo.” This is only Peelle’s debut, but she paces her material like a pro; it’s exciting to think of what she’ll write next.
Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
The 25-cent description of Antonya Nelson’s stunning collection—her ninth book of fiction—leaves the wrong impression. Stories set in fly-over states, about infidelity, unplanned pregnancies, and drinking too much. Ordinary people making ordinary mistakes: Aren’t there libraries worth of American short fiction about this stuff? But Nothing Right is a wild ride, and one of the very best, if least heralded, books of the year. Nelson’s method is pure realism—no trendy experiments in form or postmodern hijinks here—and yet these 11 stories are deliriously, satisfyingly intricate. One of my favorites, “Kansas,” brings together eight characters in its first two pages—a web of siblings, cousins, husbands, friends—but Nelson works the material like a conductor. Their histories and conflicts are instantly clear and when a child goes missing, you’re hooked to the end. Nelson’s sentences are long and insight-studded, almost Jamesian in their complexity, but she’s good for a quick punchline, too. Most of Nelson’s considerable humor comes from sending up her own educated class, bohemian professors who fancy themselves enlightened but are repulsed by an obese relative or frightened by a black dinner guest. Start with “Or Else” in which a serial liar takes his new girlfriend on a disastrous trip to Telluride, or the unbearably sad title story in which a 15-year-old son knocks up his 18-year-old girlfriend and his mother has to deal with the consequences.
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Usby Laura van den Berg
The striking and affecting stories in Laura van den Berg’s recently published debut have a restless, adventurer’s spirit. They’re peopled with field researchers, scientists, and world travelers and set in places like Madagascar, Congo, and Scotland (and they bear a passing resemblance to the work of Joy Williams, a writer van den Berg has said she admires). And yet, their themes couldn’t be closer to home: fraught family ties, sexual longing, belief in the unknown. In “Where We Must Be” a failed actress impersonates Bigfoot for paying customers and carries on an affair with a cancer-stricken neighbor. In “Inverness,” a botanist finds something like faith through an encounter with an obsessed Loch Ness Monster hunter. Van den Berg has a thing for monsters, it seems; in “Rain Season,” the mokele-mbembe, a fearsome horned creature, may or may not be lurking in the Congolese jungle; in “Up High in the Air,” a zoologist husband searches for the mishegenabeg, a mythical giant water snake, in Lake Michigan. All of these stories were published in journals such as Third Coast, One Story, and The Indiana Review, the “little magazines” with micro budgets and tiny circulations that nonetheless play a crucial role in nurturing new talent. Van den Berg’s debut was recently tapped as part of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program; here’s hoping it finds the readership it deserves.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.