I avoid short stories and I don’t know why.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten excited about a new release from one of my favorite authors, only to immediately lose interest upon finding out it’s a short story collection and not a novel. This reaction is especially nonsensical because I often complain about not having the fortitude for long books. Short stories are bite-sized by design! How am I not more into them?!
This fall, I decided to challenge my inexplicable bias and plow through a few short story collections. I approached my self-assigned task with grim determination, expecting to be underwhelmed even though on the blue moon occasions when I’ve given short stories a chance in the past, I’ve almost always liked them.
Here’s what I tried and how it went:
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
This one came to my attention when it appeared on the fiction longlist for the National Book Award. I had never heard of Edith Pearlman (apparently I’m in good company there, as everything I read about her mentioned how little-known she is), but I was intrigued when I read that she began her writing career late in life. I’ll read the next twenty-five-year-old wunderkind as eagerly as anyone, but there’s something deeply comforting about people who don’t write (or get published, or find critical acclaim) until they’re of advanced age. It gives me hope for my own future.
I did not expect this collection to be as weird as it was. Some of Pearlman’s imagery was surprising, disturbing, graphic…not at all what I expected from the white-haired, genteel lady on the jacket flap. Respect, Edith. Do your thing. (But also—ew.) I’m trying to think of an example and failing—I must have blocked them out. I think there might have been biting?
There are several stories where the connections between characters are more extensive than they first appear, which was mind-bendy and cool. Overall, though, I don’t know that I entirely “got” what Pearlman was doing, so maybe these were a little more literary than I as a casual reader really wanted.
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
I feel like with short stories, you either immediately buy in to whatever weirdness the author presents, or you don't. I was able to find that entry point much more quickly with the second short story collection I tried, Night at the Fiestas by 5 Under 35 Honoree Kirstin Valdez Quade. The stories, most set in rural New Mexico and centered around themes of family ties and obligations, had me hooked within the first page.
My favorite story, “Canute Commands the Tides,” wasn't my favorite because it left me feeling warm and fuzzy. It actually made me pretty damn uncomfortable. I related to the central character so hard—this well-meaning, liberal white woman who, in romanticizing the life of her Hispanic cleaning woman, ends up abandoning all her cozy ideals when confronted with a hard dose of reality. I could see myself doing the same things she did, congratulating myself on my broadmindedness, then turning tail and running once I learned how things really are.
Yeah...not always comfortable when we recognize a piece of ourselves in a less than perfect character. Even though it's not always pleasant, I don't mind a book that humbles me every now and then.
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
My reactions to the stories in Falling in Love with Hominids were all over the map. Hopkinson is a Caribbean-Canadian speculative fiction writer with quite possibly the biggest imagination I’ve ever come across. Whether her stories work for you or not will depend on your ability to hang with the weirdness.
My favorite story, entitled “Emily Breakfast,” was an outwardly silly tale of a couple whose chicken goes missing one morning. Their three chickens are named Lunch, Dinner, and Emily Breakfast. (Because Emily the chicken already had a name when they got her, so they just tacked the “breakfast” part on the end. Obviously.) The distressed chicken owners are aided in the hunt for the missing chicken by their winged cat. Also, the chickens can breathe fire, and a neighbor owns what she calls a “scuttle” of messenger lizards. It’s an absolute delight from start to finish.
Other stories weren’t as big a hit with me. A couple were clearly for insiders, like the story taking place in a fictional world from a book series I haven’t read. Those I skimmed or skipped entirely, knowing I wasn’t the intended audience. Still, the good stories here are REALLY good. Hopkinson’s characters are refreshingly diverse—black, brown, straight, gay, male, female, teenaged, elderly—and they’re immediately knowable, despite whatever craziness might be happening around them. I don’t often get the feeling that an author had fun writing a book, but I just can’t imagine Hopkinson putting this stuff down on paper with anything but a playful smile on her face.
If you’ve ever seen an elephant’s skin up close and wanted to apply lotion to it, you and this book will probably get along famously.