Category Archives: Short Stories

Tomorrow: Summer Shorts 2014 Comes to EDIWTB

Tomorrow (Sunday), Summer Shorts 2014 stops here at EDWITB. I will be featuring a audio short story from Susanna Daniel called “Sharks and Seals”, performed by Karen White, as well as an interview with both Daniel and White about the story and their collaboration. You can listen to the story for free on my blog on Sunday 6/30, so be sure to stop by and give it a try. It’s a really short story – 3 minutes or so – and very memorable. See you tomorrow

SO MUCH A PART OF YOU by Polly Dugan


This almost never happens here on EDIWTB, where I am not particularly organized and rarely plan ahead, but I actually finished a book the night before it came out! Shocking! The book is So Much A Part Of You, by Polly Dugan, and it went on sale today.

So Much A Part Of You is a collection of loosely interconnected stories that span from the Depression to the present. Dugan’s stories focus on families and relationships, and particularly how the relationships we develop in our formative years continue to play a big role in our lives as we age. I am not always a big fan of short stories, because I sometimes find them unsatisfying, but I really liked these stories. The threads of connection between the stories (in the form of overlapping characters and one that recurred through most of the book) helped make this collection more cohesive than others that I’ve read.

I like Dugan’s writing style, which is spare and unemotional. The book, however, is full of emotion. Her characters experience love, loss, grief and anxiety, and she conveys those emotions beautifully through their actions and dialogue. I especially liked the college and post-college stories, which accurately captured those confusing years of loneliness and feeling untethered. Some of the parents in So Much A Part Of You are pretty awful, and the characters make mistakes and are often full of regret. No one here is perfect, and there is no neat bow at the end of the book. But isn’t that how life is? I nodded in recognition throughout this book, marveling at Dugan’s ability to capture intense and familiar emotions in such fleeting vignettes.

Dugan has a novel coming out in 2015, which I can’t wait for. I think that she will really take off in the longer format. Until then, tide yourself over with this collection.

Depressing-O-Meter: 7 out of 10, thanks to deaths, abortion, and euthanizations at an animal shelter.

ONE MORE THING: STORIES AND MORE STORIES by BJ Novak


You’ve probably seen One More Thing: Stories and More Stories online or at the bookstore, and maybe thought to yourself, “Oh yeah, the short stories by the guy who plays the intern on The Office. How good can they really be?” I can answer that question: they are very good.

One More Thing is BJ Novak’s first collection of stories, many of which had their roots in his standup comedy routine. They cover a really, really wide swath of topics and settings, but they share one thing in common: they are funny, insightful and original. I was impressed throughout the collection by Novak’s ability to shift from the frivolous to the profound even within a single page. Some of the stories are as short as a few lines, while others stretch to 15 pages or so. And while not every one was brilliant, enough were.

My favorite stories were:

  • The Rematch, which imagines who would win if the tortoise and the hare had a rematch, and the hare actually tried this time
  • No One Goes to Heaven to see Dan Fogelberg, a view of the afterlife where everyone meets up with the people who predeceased them and goes to free nightly concerts with the greatest musicians in history
  • Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30 PM on Wednesday, in which an entire relationship plays out in a single “Missed Connections” post
  • Walking on the Moon, in which the glory of having walked on the moon is dismissed by someone who clearly never did it
  • The Man Who Invented the Calendar, a diary written by the person who created the calendar
  • MONSTER: The Roller Coaster, in which a focus group evaluates a roller coaster designed by artist Christo and meant to mimic life itself
  • One Of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie, in which a group of friends from college tries unsuccessfully to stage an intervention after one of them appears to be partying too much
  • Bingo, in which four cousins play Bingo on a family vacation

It’s no surprise that Novak writes for TV. He has an unfailing ear for dialogue and the way people really talk to each other. There wasn’t a single spoken line in this collection that didn’t ring true for me. I laughed out loud many times, and the stories made me think. They were sometimes absurd, sometimes comical, and always meaningful. There were a few that dragged for me, but only a few.

I got a review copy of the audio version of One More Thing, and it’s a treat. Almost all of the stories are narrated by Novak, with some help from Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Mindy Kaling, Julianne Moore, and others. The audio is great – you can hear Novak inhabiting his stories and characters, which I’m sure he perfected over many standup performances.  The only drawback to the audio is that you don’t know how long a story is going to be, which I think is kind of helpful when you’re reading short stories.

If you’ve been avoiding One More Thing because you think, “enough already from that Harvard guy on The Office“, I urge you to give it a try. It’s entertaining and touching, and I promise that at least a few of Novak’s stories will have a lasting impact on you.

Depressing-o-Meter: 5 out of 10. (Mostly funny but lots of poignant moments too.)

Book Haul From The Strand

You know what I DON’T need? More books!

But I recently found myself with the opportunity to go to The Strand, which I couldn’t pass up. Thanks to my Goodreads to-read list, I ended up with these books:

photo 1 (1)Here is the list:

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (I have wanted this since it came out; have heard that it is better than The Red Thread)

How to Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman (see a theme here?)

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard (coming of age in the 70s)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (highly recommended by Ann Patchett)

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (short stories)

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (have wanted this since it came out too)

Sparta by Roxana Robinson (read the Q&A with Robinson about Sparta here)

If you’ve read any of these, please weigh in! What am I in store for?

NEWS FROM HEAVEN by Jennifer Haigh


A new book out from Jennifer Haigh is always cause for celebration here at EDIWTB. I think she has become my favorite contemporary author. Her books are rich, layered stories, usually about families, told in a distinctive gentle, quiet tone that immediately sucks me in and keeps me reading to the last page. There is always sadness and loss in her books, but they aren’t depressing. Instead, they are realistic portrayals of the ups and downs of life, and the myriad disappointments, secrets, thrills and dreams that make up our individual histories.

News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, which just came out two weeks ago, is a collection of stories that extend the post-war Pennsylvania mining town world Haigh created in Baker Towers (reviewed here). There are a number of characters here that overap with those in Baker Towers; in some cases, Haigh has filled out lives that were skeletal in Baker Towers, and in others she has added new chapters to lives she left at the end of her previous work.

Not all of these stories take place in Bakerton, but the claustrophobic, past-its-prime town plays a role in each of them. Everyone returns home to their once high-flying but now dying town, it seems, whether to visit, or in a casket, or in shame, or for a sense of belonging and history. Haigh’s stories span half a century, and there are many stages here – not only of her characters’ lives, but of the town’s history.

I enjoyed that most of these stories had a catch at the end – a little twist that cast the rest of the story in a new light. I found myself speeding up at the end of the chapters, eager to reach that “Eureka!” moment that Haigh had quietly dropped in. An infidelity discovered many years later, or the discovery that a revered hometown hero was keeping a secret, or simply the question of whether a younger man in an unexpected relationship had honorable intentions or not – these are the little mysteries that Haigh solves throughout the collection.

My only complaint is my typical one about short stories – they just aren’t as satisfying as novels. Each of these chapters could have been its own novel, and I was sad to see it end every time. But I won’t complain – a new Haigh book is a new Haigh book, and it’s simply a treasure.

WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU by Molly Ringwald


Yes, I admit that I am 80s obsessed. I listen to 80s music, my favorite podcast is the excellent Stuck in the 80s, and I can still recite every line of “Sixteen Candles”. But when Molly Ringwald’s – yes, that Molly Ringwald- story collection came in the mail a few weeks ago, I was surprised. I had no idea that she was a writer, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was it published on its own merits, or because its author was Claire from “The Breakfast Club”?

I gave Ringwald’s book When it Happens to You a try on vacation this week, and I was blown away. It’s excellent. It’s a collection of interrelated stories – “a novel in stories”, says the cover – that deal with marriage, betrayal, motherhood, infertility, and modern life in L.A. Damn if Ringwald isn’t an extremely talented writer.

The main characters are Greta and Philip, spouses facing the breakdown of their marriage upon the discovery of Philip’s infidelity. The other characters radiate out from these two – the parent of one of Greta and Philip’s daughter’s classmates; Greta’s mother; Philip’s brother; Greta’s next door neighbor. Events are sometimes told from more than one perspective from chapter to chapter, helping this book avoid the fragmentation and disorientation that often plagues story collections. Ringwald understands relationships, particularly marriages, and her characters are flawed, totally realistic, and utterly compelling.

I read a review that complained that the stories weren’t really stories because the characters felt rather than did. That didn’t bother me at all. I found that these stories were packed with enough drama to support the self-analysis of the characters, and I loved being privy to their innermost thoughts and conflicts. Ringwald’s eye for detail and ear for believable dialogue made When It Happens To You a very pleasurable reading experience for me. I highly recommend this one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.

 

TRACKS by Eric Goodman


Eric Goodman’s Tracks is an homage to train travel, a novel told in stories about passengers on a train from Baltimore to Chicago. The characters are diverse – a Holocaust survivor, a hit man trying to retire, a traveling salesman, a train conductor, to name a few – but they all come together in the lounge car of the Amtrak Cardinal, and their stories occasionally intersect and intertwine.

I found the individual storylines pretty interesting. I enjoyed learning the background for each person, as well as what brought them to that particular train on that day. Train travel that far of a distance is definitely an anomaly, so Goodman had the challenge of coming up with plausible reasons for each of the characters to be using such an old-fashioned mode of transport. So why train travel? It affords Goodman’s characters the chance to reflect on their lives, to consider the choices they’ve made so far as well how they might change their lives. The length of a train ride allows the characters to interact as well, whether for a one-night stand or simply for conversation. For the most part, Goodman succeeded in creating this microcosm, although occasionally the plot construct felt a little staged, almost theatrical.

Baltimore and Chicago also play a role in Tracks, as most of the characters lived in one city or the other, and their feelings about their city of departure and/or destination were part of their reflections on the trip.

I liked Goodman’s writing, which is descriptive and flows easily, although sometimes he repeated himself as each character came across the others on the train. I think the strength of the book was the cast of characters, who were quite memorable for a short story collection. Often when I finish a collection of stories, I look back and the characters seem to run together, blending into one borderless whole. But the characters in Tracks have remained distinct to me upon finishing the book. Their stories are unexpected and unique, which made them memorable beyond their short allotment of pages.

Thanks to Atticus Books for proving me a review copy of Tracks. It was a refreshing read, thanks to a memorable cast of characters and a unique setting and construction.