Here in Chicago, you normally have to wait for a month or (often) more for any nominally popular book or ebook from the library. However, that's not the case for short story collections, which for reasons I can't even begin to fathom, seem to be much less popular among librarian patrons. But other readers' loss is my gain, and I've been on a huge short story binge the last few months. Here's a round-up of four collections.
I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro — Man, this was great - by far, my favorite of these four, and one of the more entertaining, sad, smart, funny short story collections I've read in a long time. Quatro has a lot going on here - running as a metaphor for life, several stories about a woman carrying on a long-distance-but-ever-face-to-face affair, and a few stories about a woman who dies of cancer (the story "Here" is one of the saddest things I've read). My favorite story is titled "Demolition" about a southern church that slips, seemingly innocuously, into a sex cult. How could that happen? This collection — which wound up on several readers' best of 2013 lists — is highly, highly recommended.
2. Bark, by Lorrie Moore — This collection was, frankly, a bit disappointing. Of the eight stories included here, only two seemed like well-developed actual short stories (i.e., more than 12 pages), while the other six, all fewer than 12 tiny pages all felt incomplete — like first drafts of longer projects. The two longer stories, however, were both very good. Lorrie Moore is one of those writers for whom the curtains are never just blue — everything means something else. The first story, titled "Debarked" is about a divorced guy named Ira who begins dating a crazy woman with a teenaged son, and a very uncomfortable-making relationship with him. Poor Ira just can't seem to get it together. The other long story - my favorite in the collection - is titled "Wings." It's about a failed musician couple who live in a rental house in the suburbs. The woman befriends a dying old man in the neighborhood, which creates more problems than she could've thought. Fascinating story, in which Moore's trick here is making the easy way out not seem like the easy way out. You'll have to read it for that to make more sense. This collection is worth picking up just for this story.
3. Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus —This collection ranged from straighforward-and-awesome stories, to experimental-and-awesome stories, to experimental-and-WTF-is-he-talking-about stories. The stories in the former two categories were mostly really interesting and fun to read. The stories in the latter (of which, mercifully, there are fewer) were a bit of a slog — you have almost no clue what is going on, like Marcus forgot to include the Rosetta stone that would translate his words into a recognizable story. But so, the collection is arranged in six section, the first of which includes four pretty straight-forward stories, all of which are really good. "I Can Say Many Nice Things" is a highlight — an amusing, slightly sad story about a guy teaching a writing workshop on a cruise ship. The last story in the collection, the longest - almost novella length - was a mixed bag, a microcosm of the collection itself. It's titled "The Moors," and it's ostensibly about a creeping guy following a woman to the office coffee bar. But throughout the story, Marcus is digressive and philosophical and sometimes hilarious and sometimes unintelligible. I'd recommend reading this story first, actually, and then starting at the beginning with the more traditional short stories. (Oh, and I'd recommend skipping "The Father Costume" all together - it doesn't make a lick of sense.)
The Fun Parts, by Sam Lipsyte — There's a fine line between amusing self-deprecation and just plain sad, and many of the characters in Lipsyte's collection - generally drug-addicted or otherwise down-on-their-luck - blow past that line with reckless abandon. They're just pedantic and pathetic, and you feel more sorry for them than you're willing to laugh at them, or even try to empathize with them. There are few highlights: "The Wisdom of the Doulas" is a really funny story about a guy who worms his way into a job as a doula for a couple, but quickly oversteps his bounds, and vastly overstays his welcome. "The Climber Room," the first story in the collection, is another highlight — it's about a failed poet who a rich guy enlists to pay special attention to his spoiled son at the daycare where she works. Overall, though, this collection was a huge downer, and largely disappointing.