Straight Man is one of my favorite comic of all times — and so when I read about Rebecca's Lee's short story collection Bobcat and Other Stories (published summer 2012) being mostly about academics or students doing academic-y and/or student-y things, I was all over it (2013 is unquestionably the year of the short story for me. And it is good.)
Of course, then, my favorite story in the collection — the title story "Bobcat" — is the only one in the collection not specifically about academics. It's about a dinner party where the hosts are trying to decide whether a their friend knows that her husband is cheating on her. The guests are an eclectic group — there's a book editor waiting patiently for a call about a Salman Rushie memoir, a woman who wrote a memoir about being attacked by a bobcat and who annoys the other guests by talking about nothing else (the other guests wonder if her story is even true), and a woman who is a descendent of the members of the infamous Donner party. It's a riot!
Another highlight is the longest story in the collection (but they're all pretty short, no more than 20 pages) titled "Fialta" about a small group of students studying at an artist colony under a famous architect named Franklin Stadbakken. Here, at Fialta, romance between the student is strictly forbidden, but there may be a romance between the hallowed architect and the woman (oddly named Sand) for whom our narrator develops a massive crush. I loved this story. I didn't realize it until just now as I sat down to write this and learn a little bit more about Lee (she's a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington) but this story actually won Lee a National Magazine Award in 2001. Impressive, but not surprising!
The other five stories in the collection were mostly interesting in their own ways — one titled "Min," which I thought just bizarre and am still not sure if I liked or not, was about a woman who goes to Hong Kong with her good friend after they graduate college, where her friend has promised her that his rich father, a Hong Kong big wig, will give her a job. The job isn't what she expected — she has to help her friend's father find him a wife by culling through hundreds of applications to marry him. And then there's a tangent (or is it?) about Vietnamese refugees possibly being deported. One of the cool things about these stories is that you're never quite sure where we're going — you'll think it's pretty straightforward, but the a minor detail becomes a major issue, and you have to stay on you toes to figure out what the story is actually "about." It's pretty cool. Another titled "The Banks of the Vistula" is about a freshman who cheats on a linguistics paper, but finds herself forming a bond with her professor anyway. "World Party" is about a college campus that is the victim of lots of student group protests, and amused me because it reminded me a little of the movie PCU.
So it's a solid collection — not my favorite of the year, but I enjoyed these stories as short snacks between longer reading sittings. It's not a huge investment in time, and it was chance to read a new-to-me writer.