This year has kicked off with a lot of great short fiction. And, this is coming from someone who is not a great fan of collections. Ordinarily, I enjoy my short fiction published in the New Yorker or in anthologies, where the better stories are curated. Often collections by a single author leave me feeling wanting, not because of a lack of amazing stories, but because of the scattering of less-than stories in them. Never fear, here are three collections that were released this Spring which are surprising and funny and tender – and, there’s not a dud in the bunch.
The Merry Spinster– Daniel Mallory Ortberg (Published March 13)
Ortberg’s collection of fairy tales reimagined (to be fair, any classic tale is a potential target here, the collection’s source material ranges from the Old Testament to Shakespeare to The Velveteen Rabbit, in addition to the Brother’s Grimm and the Disney princesses) puts a dark and modern twist on tales you know by heart.
Books with fairy tale elements and retellings always catch my eye. This collection explores the many stereotypical roles that characters play and how those roles may empower or subjugate them. The author uses gender fluidity both to explore issues of gender and, sometimes, to remove them from the equation. My favorite story of the lot is “The Rabbit”, which introduces the protagonist from The Velveteen Rabbit to the concept of “Realness”, which prompts an aggressive ambition that made me double over with laughter. This warped (and I mean that in all the best ways) take on old stories is not to be missed.
Heads of the Colored People – Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Published April 10)
This debut collection from an African-American writer speaks to particular aspects of the Black American experience. Many stories revolve around a protagonist who is the only person of color in the room. This plays out in different ways. Some characters buckle under the weight of feeling like the representative for their race, others blend in so well that others become overtly racist in front of them. My favorite story of the collection, “Belle, Lettres” was a caustic, hilarious, back-and-forth between two mothers who use their young daughters as pawns as they launch a mean girl campaign against each other. Another story introduces Randolph, an African-American professor on a small college campus. He shares an office with a colleague and his anger and frustration about race and academic politics reveal themselves in the passive-aggressive way he deals with his office mate. I especially enjoy what this story has to say about micro-aggressions and how it is the “other” who is committing the aggression here in order to illuminate the issue. The entire collection is sharp, funny and modern.
You Think It, I’ll Say It– Curtis Sittenfeld (Published April 24)
This is the first short story collection for Sittenfeld, whose novels include Prep, Eligibleand American Wife; and it has all of the heart, wit and insight of her earlier writing. Sittenfeld has a way of presenting deeply flawed characters and, somehow, making them sympathetic. Each time I pick up something she writes, I enjoy the writing at the outset because I am laughing along with some behavior or character trait that is over the top. But, by the end, I find that I identify with those characters and am fully rooting for them. This collection puts the spotlight on women in the middle – middle aged, middle class, Middle America. Sittenfeld writes relationships with surgical precision and her stories are full of Shakespearean miscues and misreads. In the story from which the title of the book is taken, Julie and Graham, two acquaintances who are both married to other people, run into each other in social situations and strike up a game called “You Think It, I’ll Say It”. This game allows Julie to pull out all of her catty bitchiness to entertain Graham during these otherwise bland gatherings. Julie misreads this ongoing game as a flirtation and the seemingly funny and light tone shifts as Julie feels her age, her dissatisfaction and self-loathing.
I received an advanced copies of these books from their publishers via netgalley in exchange for honest reviews. Thanks!