Hortense Calisher, a virtuoso of the form, once called the short story "an apocalypse in a teacup." It's a definition that suits the remarkable stories published this year by three literary superstars, and two dazzling newcomers with voices so distinctive we're likely to be hearing from them again. These stories are intense, evocative delights to be devoured singly when you have only a sliver of time, or savored in batches, at leisure, on a winter weekend.
As a lagniappe, begin with Object Lessons, a pairing of 20 contemporary authors with 20 potent classics from the pages of The Paris Review. Among them: Dave Eggers on "Bangkok"; James Salter's time bomb of a love-gone-bitter story; and Aleksandar Hemon on Jorge Luis Borges' cosmic "Funes, the Memorious," about a man cursed with the inability to forget anything.
Then move on to these five, my best collections of 2012:
New and Selected Stories
A mix of new and older stories, spanning 20 years of work by Sherman Alexie, a master storyteller who has been honored with numerous awards. Alexie is constantly experimenting with form, but he never forgets to be funny. He laces his incisive observations about race, class, gender, sex, infidelity, and Indian and non-Indian bigotry with biting wit. Standouts among the older stories: "Indian Country," which opens with a noted Coeur d'Alene author arriving in Montana to learn he's been jilted by a Navajo woman, and "War Dances," the story of a 41-year-old undergoing MRIs and steroid treatments for sudden deafness, which probes a still-painful father-son connection. New stories include the raucous "Midnight Basketball," in which one teammate disses Obama's jump shot, and "Cry Cry Cry," which begins, "Forget crack, my cousin, Junior, said, meth is the new war dancer," and takes the cousins through to Junior's brutal end. These are stories that provoke and illuminate.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
This second collection won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, one of the world's richest prizes for the short story form — and the title story is a stunner. Yes, it's a homage to short story wizard Raymond Carver's classic (substituting "Anne Frank" for "Love"), but the subtleties and wit are Nathan Englander's own. What seems at first to be an ordinary reunion between two high school girlfriends, now married, ends up exploring questions of Jewish identity, Israeli politics, intermarriage and the Holocaust.
Englander's lineage reaches back to Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but he's less interior, more likely to give us pages of sparkling dialogue than reams of mulling over this or that. He has a natural sense of drama (a play he's written, based on an earlier story, "The Twenty-Seventh Man," opened at New York's Public Theater in November). And his relaxed storytelling voice makes this collection feel intimate, even when he's writing about Israeli history from the Yom Kippur War to today in "Two Hills," which focuses on two matriarchs of the settlement movement, or following the cross-country ramblings of a traveling writer whose crowds have dwindled down to every author's nightmare, a single demented fan who insists he read to him alone.
The Doctor's Wife
This collection is made up of 91 little chunks of flash fiction — a form that seems ideally suited to our fragmented times (think short, easily absorbed texts like NPR's Three Minute Fictions). Taken all together, they form a finely etched autobiographical portrait of a family that spans 50 years, and three generations.
At its heart: a woman whose life unfolds within a household role limited by her times. The character called simply "the Doctor's Wife" is a 1950s-era wife and mother living in a small town near Seattle. She cooks for her finicky family, does laundry daily, volunteers for community projects, and oversees her outdoorsy brood — Bob, Ann and Petrea, who calls herself Chrissie until she is college age. Watching helplessly as her fourth child, John, begins wasting away from a mysterious ailment, she "makes housekeeping into an art." Luis Jaramillo's combination of irony, tenderness, and restraint brings to mind Evan Connell's iconic portrait of Kansas City's Mrs. Bridge. As he explores how John's death as a toddler carries emotional echoes into the next generation, Jaramillo surprises us with miniature explosions like this, titled "In Contrast:"
"I was only depressed for, like, 40 years," Petrea says to me.
"Because of John?"
"Because of John."
For decades, the internationally lauded Alice Munro's stories have proven to be dependable pleasures, unparalleled for emotional nuance and depth. This collection, her 13th, includes 10 traditional short stories and four "almost stories" that are intentionally autobiographical, a first for Munro.
She often starts her stories abruptly — "At that time we were living beside a gravel pit," she writes in the haunting story "Gravel," in which that pit figures in a traumatizing childhood tragedy. "Amundsen" begins, "On the bench outside the station I sat and waited," and moves into an idiosyncratic story of thwarted early love set in a wartime TB sanitarium. The kick of Munro's work is, in part, its unpredictability. She interrupts herself, loops back to a chronological beginning, throws in strange images and oddities, and often ends with a sleight of hand that changes the meaning of a story altogether.
Reading "Dear Life" and the three other autobiographical stories, it's tempting to draw connections between Munro's life and her fiction. In these four she reveals the vivid memory for early-childhood moments and the sort of fraught mother-daughter relationship she often examines in her stories. When she describes her growing sense of separation from her mother's point of view, and how over time she began to understand her own inner self, we catch glimpses of the writer-in-the-making. It's a rare insight into a writer's life, and, along with these other recent stories, a treasure for Munro fans.
Claire Vaye Watkins' father, who died when she was 6, was a member of the Charles Manson family who escaped the cult to settle in the Mojave. In 10 stories set in her home state of Nevada (dubbed the "Battle Born" state because it was founded during the Civil War), she takes an unflinching look at the apocalyptic. She writes of a mother's suicide, a father's unnatural love for his daughter, a nuclear test blast that "sends the curse southeast, toward Las Vegas, to my mother's small chest, her lungs and her heart." She describes raw and arid landscapes around Reno, Virginia City, Black Rock and a brothel in Pahrump, where an Italian tourist holes up while waiting to learn if a friend lost in the desert has died. In her opening story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," she reckons with her own heritage, giving us artfully crafted sections on the founding of Reno during the Gold Rush era, the Spahn Ranch where 1950s Westerns were filmed, and her parents' "toxic and silver-gilded love." "And there is still so much I'll never know, no matter how much history I weigh upon myself," she writes.
Watkins has a survivor's gift for identifying the crucial detail, and she's a straight shooter. Each story from this talented writer is wired to detonate.