New Short Stories From Vonnegut, Sneed

Two new collections of short stories are out. One from the late Kurt Vonnegut, While Mortals Sleep; the other from Chicago writer Christine Sneed, Portraits of a Few People I've Made Cry.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Our book reviewer, Alan Cheuse, has noted this year has begun with a round of really interesting collections of short fiction. Here's his lowdown on two worthwhile possibilities for reading in short takes, one from a familiar voice.

ALAN CHEUSE: The big short story event this winter is the latest volume of previously uncollected stories by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. Now, be forewarned, none of the stories you'll find in "While Mortals Sleep" approaches anywhere near his best work. But the pleasure of reading these 16 brief pieces - all of them popular tales published in popular magazines, as opposed to art stories published in literary magazines is really steady. These are mousetrap stories, as Dave Eggers points out in his worthy introduction stories that close in on you as you reach the end.

As Vonnegut puts it in the story "With His Hand on the Throttle" - a story about his husband who pays more attention to his model railroad in the basement than to his wife and life in his imagination, he could make his model railroad as real and important as affairs in the full-scale world.

This makes sense about most short stories we read, too. And it's certainly true about the stories in a debut collection by Chicago writer Christine Sneed. In her book, called "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry," she takes you to places that you might not have been before and gives them the feel of authentic experience. That's what all good fiction does.

Sneed writes mainly about women, young and old, women with open hearts, women who are terrifically observant of their own emotions, as well as the souls of others. Sneed carries us into the world of art and finance, and she also does portraits of nurses and artists with equal strength. Her gift for conveying sexual experiences in a sharp, effective phrasing really stands out.

In some of the best stories, the openings and middles resonate with emotion and insight, although sometimes the endings seem to trail away. Here's a writer you'll want to keep your eyes on.

NORRIS: The collections are "While Mortals Sleep" by the late Kurt Vonnegut, and "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry." Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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