Short stories are like Brussels sprouts, says Mark LaFramboise, head buyer for Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore: After you’ve disliked one, you’re loath to try another. Yet at the moment, we’re rich with a lot of really talented short-story writers, so it’s a good reason to explore the realm. This summer brings outstanding collections from literary newcomers (including Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat) and experienced essayists (does David Sedaris ring a bell?). Here are our favorite new anthologies:
Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, publishes today
Jealousy. Infidelity. A poorly cooked terrine. These are just a few of the subjects you’ll find in the opening tale of Rebecca Lee’s debut collection, Bobcat ($15; Algonquin Books). All of Lee’s stories are clear, powerful and accessible, making the anthology an appropriate jumping-off point for readers hesitant to try short-form literature. Often dealing with clueless sophisticates with out-of-whack priorities, Lee’s writings tackle modern themes: a college student whose bout with plagiarism isn’t as worrisome as her linguistics professor’s obscure past; a woman who seeks a translator to determine if the Romanian letters her fiancé is receiving are from a sister or a secret lover. Proceed cautiously: Unexpected twists ahead.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, published Feb. 12
Like her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Swamplandia!, about a family coping with the death of their alligator-wrestling mother, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove mixes credible tales with elements of make-believe ($25; Alfred A. Knopf). Think phantasmal stories of young women in a silk factory whose bellies begin producing silk and a massage therapist who assuages a veteran’s pain by manipulating his tattoos. It’s almost hard to fathom that such a young talent – Russell is just 31 – could produce such powerful works of fiction in succession until you realize: Stranger things have happened.
The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte, published March 5
Don’t let the title of Sam Lipsyte’s latest fool you: The Fun Parts is anything but lighthearted ($24; Farrar Straus Giroux). Though it’s laugh-so-hard-you-snort funny, the collection from The New York Times-bestselling author of The Ask recounts such caustic stories as a man with no remorse for cheating on his wife with a lesbian, and an overweight teenage boy who mercilessly bullies the only classmate larger than him. You almost feel bad for finding pleasure in such dysfunction, until you realize that you would never act in such an abhorrent manner and drift off into a lulling state of superiority.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris, published April 23
Omitting essayist David Sedaris from a short-story round-up is a crime punishable by law in 12 states. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more humiliating for the dysfunctional-family man, he’s back with 26 new anecdotes ($27; Little, Brown and Company). He covers his childhood foibles (capturing an endangered sea turtle only to malnourish it to death) and his far-flung escapades (traveling through the Australian countryside, trying not to be offensive) in his latest collection. As is signature Sedaris, every hysterical tale has a twinge of sadness to it, making each essay as thought-provoking as it is snarky.
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel, published May 2
Here’s a fun game to play: Pick a sentence at random from A Guide to Being Born – Ramona Ausubel’s debut short-story collection – and try not to be moved by it ($27; Riverhead Books). Whether she’s writing about grannies who mysteriously wake up aboard a cargo ship or parents who plant their disabled daughter’s extracted mammary glands, Ausubel is deliberate with her words and uses them sparingly. Her austerity is matched only by her psychedelic plot lines. Reading a story in one sitting is like watching Pablo Picasso paint a portrait from start to finish: Just when you think the picture is getting clearer, it only becomes more complex.
The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford, published May 7
Admittedly, we weren’t the biggest fans of Ethan Rutherford’s title story – the plotline is as murky as the waters his submarine-bound characters attempt to navigate. But the remaining stories are redemptive in their painstaking attention to the human condition ($14; Ecco). One in particular stands out: A Mugging, which follows a husband and wife who cope in their own ways after being physically assaulted and robbed, she through attempts at intimacy and he through a glass of whiskey. Others, including one about a lovable counselor at a dud of a summer camp, aren’t quite so somber, though just as affecting.
Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge by Peter Orner, publishes Aug. 6
Not a single one of Peter Orner’s stories is longer than nine pages (and one, about an aging poet, is a mere 11 lines long). What results is a collection so dense and compressed that, when consumed in its entirety, dazzles like a diamond ($25; Little, Brown and Company). The author of 2001’s highly praised Esther Stories, Orner is no stranger to the form, and in Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, he again pens fleeting pictures of sadness (friends of a little boy whose sister has just died struggle with their immaturity and the gravity of the situation) and survival (a father and his daughter outrun a hurricane).