Friday, April 12, 2013

Time for Some Short Stories

Since I teach literature, I tend to read short stories one at a time, rarely reading a whole collection by the same author at one time, which is a shame.  Recently, I read Junot Diaz's recent collection This Is How You Lose Her and George Saunders' Tenth of December.

I had read Diaz before; in fact, I think my book club may have read his nove The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I've even heard rumors that he may be part of a writers series here in my part of the world next (school) year.  The short stories were separate, stand-alone stories, but with some overlap, some characters, particularly Yunior, reappearing in later stories, and all were set in and around New Jersey. The main characters are Dominican immigrants, and Diaz's language is steeped in the flavor his his culture. His characters, often flawed, deal not simply with the immigrant experience, but with the human experience, particularly the loss of love.

Tenth of December, Saunder's collection, is more loosely connected.  Some of the stories are set in the real world, while others are certain imbued by fantasy, sometimes little enough that those elements sneak up on readers.  The opening story "Victory Lap" brought to my mind Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are Your Going? Where Have You Been?" without being the least bit derivative.  The title story, which closes the collection, follows two lives that coincide, a dying man attempting to end his life and a young misfit of a boy, out walking and wishing to be a hero, who nearly loses his own life trying to save the man.  Between these two, all the characters seem to wrestle with their idea of living with "moral courage," an elusive trait indeed.

I realize that one of things I like best about reading a collection of short stories is the quick payoff. I can finish a single story in a short time (I think Poe prescribed one sitting), but then if I want more, there they are.  I can also postpone the agonizing decision of what to read next.  For now, that decision is pressing. I have two novels I can't wait to read, but while I'm in short story mode, it's time for Ron Rash's Nothing Gold Can Stay.

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