Summer celebrates its sunny beach reads, while fall calls for ambitious novels by Jonathan Franzen and other literary hotshots. Winter, with its long, cold nights, asks quietly for tales well told. Settle in with your fleece by the fire (or perhaps with this year’s weather, it’s best to open a window and enjoy the breeze), light a candle or just sit at your kitchen table when things are quiet. This season offers an unusually rich variety of short story collections to warm your heart.
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales
By Michael Cunningham; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23
My top pick this winter has to be Michael Cunningham’s gorgeous retelling of some of our most beloved fairy tales in A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. Cunningham imagines a world of both castles and subways, beanstalks and limited edition handbags by Louis Vuitton. In some of the tales, Cunningham examines a relationship you might not have considered: what exists between the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” and the harp Jack steals last — and what if it is love? In others, he twists the tale into an almost unrecognizable form: what if it is Hansel and Gretel, with their “starved and foxy faces,” who visit evil upon a slightly crazy old lady who lives off the grid in the woods? Cunningham teases out and brings to light the strangeness in some of our most dearly loved tales. In my favorite, “Little Man,” he forces us to think about how awful it is for the miller’s daughter to marry a greedy, gold-crazed prince who would have executed her in a heartbeat had she failed to spin the straw into gold. He imagines a world in which the princess might run away with the Little Man she’s fallen in love with — though, of course, I won’t tell you if she does. You’ll have to pick up the collection yourself! It is utterly enchanting, with illustrations that transport and delight.
By Adam Johnson
Random House, $27
If A Wild Swan is a hot chocolate and marshmallow read, Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, recent winner of the National Book Award, is more of a rich, golden bourbon. The six stories cover an incredible geographic range: from North Korea to North Hollywood, from East Germany to post-Katrina Mississippi. Johnson made his name writing about North Korea in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, and the title story in this collection returns to that territory. In Fortune Smiles, an older and younger man defect together from Pyongyang to Seoul, only to find that one of them has left his heart in the North. Each of the stories considers the great decisions we face in life: how we make them (slowly, or all at once) and their consequences (some intended, so very many not). They also consider: how to die of cancer; how to live with the horrors of Guillain-Barre Syndrome; how to run an East German prison in the days of the Stasi; how to be a pedophile and live a moral life. Don’t let these settings scare you away from this collection! Most of the stories contain some measure of tragedy, death or abuse, yet they don’t make you feel that the human condition is unbearable. They show how people get by — survive — even thrive. They find humor where they can. Often, they find the deepest undercurrents of love. These stories are six gleaming gems.
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
By Lucia Berlin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26
Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories is more like a big jar of pebbles and smoky quartz, a lifetime’s worth. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is something to behold. Recognized by the New York Times as one of the Top 10 Books of 2015, this collection will receive more attention than Lucia Berlin ever did in her life. Berlin died in 2004, and much of her difficult life makes it into these pages. She grew up in small western mining towns, but her father’s career took them to a more glamorous life in Santiago, Chile, when she was a teenager. The years of wealth and ease were few for Berlin. Back in the United States, with three failed marriages and four sons to support, she worked as a teacher, a cleaning lady and in hospitals (among other jobs), all the while an alcoholic. After sobering up, she wrote more regularly, eventually teaching at the University of Colorado. She was never widely read in her lifetime, though critically acclaimed. Berlin admitted that she drew freely from her life, and A Manual for Cleaning Women reads like an autobiography told in the form of short stories. The stories do not all have the polish of Adam Johnson’s in Fortune Smiles. They do have a greater depth and breadth of lived experience. They always move right along and are over before you are ready for them to end. This substantial book might be a good pick for a book club that doesn’t usually read short story collections.
Medium Hero: And Other Stories
By Korby Lenker
If you’re looking for something lighter, open a craft beer and enjoy Nashville singer-songwriter Korby Lenker’s Medium Hero: And Other Stories. Medium Hero is a marvelous debut collection: deep thoughts, light touch, the holy mysteries of life and just a guy trying to figure a few things out. Medium Hero often reflects a young man’s cash-poor life. In one story, the narrator goes to a McDonald’s because he’s out of toilet paper at his house. He’s always having trouble paying the rent. But he is richly alive to the opportunities for wonder and awe each day, even in the face of fear, uncertainty and suffering. In “Bird Crush,” the narrator is on a run when he sees out of the corner of his eye a wrongful fluttering on the street. It’s a pigeon that’s been hit. The passage in which the narrator helps ease the bird’s journey from life to death is among the most moving I’ve ever read. If you’re a Nashville resident, you’ll recognize many places in these stories — Fido, Mafiaoza’s, The Gulch, Green Hills, the Hermitage. Sometimes the narrator has a name (Simon or Korby), sometimes not. Often a girl is in the picture; as often as not, God is, too, or at least the yearning for Him. Imagine a mashup of Marilynne Robinson and Nick Hornby and you’ve got a sense of what Korby Lenker is up to, though that was certainly not his intent. He’s just a guy trying to figure a few things out.
American Housewife: Stories
By Helen Ellis
Helen Ellis has everything figured out already, and she’ll tell you all about it in her sassy cupcake of a collection, American Housewife: Stories. I absolutely love it! You can guess the flavor of the stories from titles like “What I Do All Day,” “Southern Lady Code,” “Hello! Welcome to Book Club” and “How to be a Patron of the Arts.” Some of these stories are quite short — two or three pages — and every ounce charm. In one of them, “What I Do All Day,” the lovely narrator housewife tells you how she gets ready for a party (“I pinwheel. I toothpick. I bacon.”). She tells you a few things during the party (“I can’t be convinced winter white is a thing. I study long-married couples and decide that wives are like bras: sometimes the most matronly are the most supportive.”) She concludes by seeing the guests out and fixing herself a hot chocolate “because it is a gateway drug to reading. I think I couldn’t love my husband more, and then he vacuums the glitter.” Not all of the husbands come off so well — and not all of the narrators are as guilelessly charming. One housewife plots the death of a neighbor in her co-op, and another housewife runs an undercover operation out of her book club that’s almost as creepy as Sweeney Todd. But there won’t be any blood on the carpet! Never. If you’re not Southern, you’ll certainly pick up some helpful pointers in “Southern Lady Code,” such as: “‘Hmm’ is Southern Lady code for: I don’t agree with you but am polite enough not to rub your nose in your own ignorance.” The only problem with this fabulous collection is that it won’t be released until January 12, but you can preorder at your local bookstore!
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
By Joy Williams
Alfred A. Knopf, $30
Meanwhile, consider challenging yourself with The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, by Joy Williams. This is my first time reading Williams, and I felt both awe and unease while immersed. Williams doesn’t offer easy hope or redemption in these stories, though neither can you say she is simply bleak. It’s more that she observes how terribly unreliable people are, how simultaneously capable of love and selfishness, wisdom and folly. In the first story, “Taking Care,” an aging minister must care for both his sick wife and his newborn granddaughter, as his only daughter has run off to Mexico. He remembers how to care for a baby in the loveliest and most touching ways, but the lines that haunt me are these, right after he baptizes her: “Jones begins his sermon. He can’t remember when he wrote it, but here it is, typed, in front of him. There is nothing wrong in what one does but there is something wrong in what one becomes. He finds this questionable but goes on speaking. He has been preaching for 34 years. He is gaunt with belief.” In the end, one has the sense that Joy Williams too is gaunt with belief.
Jennifer Puryear writes about great reads on her blog, BaconOnTheBookshelf.com. Stop by for other fireside choices! In January, I’ll be running features on Only Love Can Break Your Heart, by Ed Tarkington; Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson; and After Alice, by Gregory Maguire, among others.