Harvey Freedenberg

If it were possible to sum up Jess Walter’s The Angel of Rome and Other Stories in a word, it would be humane. In the 12 wide-ranging, consistently empathetic stories that compose his second collection, he creates a memorable assortment of characters who bump up against life’s inevitable obstacles, large and small, then stumble through or surmount them.

The collection’s titular novella embodies all these qualities. Its protagonist, Jack Rigel, is an unhappy 21-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, who improbably receives a scholarship from the local Knights of Columbus to study Latin in Rome in 1993. After he arrives, he inadvertently encounters an Italian actress he’s idolized and an American TV star whose career is on a downward trajectory, setting his life on an unexpected new course. The story of Jack’s coming-of-age is both wistful and often comic.

The Angel of Rome audiobook
Read our starred review of the audiobook for Jess Walter’s collection.

Walter makes use of his hometown of Spokane, Washington, as the setting for several of these stories, among them “Mr. Voice,” selected for Best American Short Stories 2015. The eponymous character, who’s a ubiquitous presence on local radio whose “rumble narrated our daily life,” turns out to be more than a set of well-tuned vocal cords. In “To the Corner,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2014, an aging widower contemplates the end of his life as he watches the young boys hanging out across the street from his house, never imagining the role they might play in giving him a reason to live.

The collection’s concluding story, “The Way the World Ends,” is representative of Walter’s light touch and ability to expose his characters’ flaws with a combination of candor and sympathy. Two climate scientists interviewing for the same position at Mississippi State University spend an alcohol-drenched evening with their faculty hosts, bemoaning the rapidly approaching demise of the planet. Jeremiah Ellis, a Black student manning the desk at the university guest house where they’re carrying on their revels and who’s recently come out of the closet, overhears their grim musings. His reaction in the bright light of the morning is both chastening and a reminder of the persistence of hope.

The tales in The Angel of Rome aren’t easily categorized, but each one, in its own way, provides a refreshingly honest glimpse into what it means to be alive.

The tales in Jess Walter’s The Angel of Rome and Other Stories aren’t easily categorized, but each one provides a refreshingly honest glimpse into what it means to be alive.

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Fans of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, Election (the inspiration for the beloved film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick), will be delighted that protagonist Tracy Flick gets another star turn. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sharp-elbowed high schooler with visions of becoming the first female president is now a 40-ish, world-weary (albeit still driven) assistant principal of Green Meadow High School in suburban New Jersey, where she hopes to ascend to the top job after the principal announces his retirement. The darkly comic story that ensues is further proof of Perrotta’s mastery of the subtle complexities of American suburban life.

Tracy’s quest for what she believes is a well-deserved promotion plays out against the search for the first inductees into the high school’s Hall of Fame. The institution is the brainchild of Kyle Dorfman, an alumnus and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s returned to his hometown and now serves as president of the school board. Kyle believes the plan to honor some of the high school’s distinguished graduates will help dispel the “pall of mediocrity and depression hanging over the place.”

As the principal succession search plods on, fueling Tracy’s anxiety at the prospect that she’ll be passed over for a less-qualified candidate, the Hall of Fame committee dutifully sifts through the list of nominees. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Vito Falcone—a former football star who played briefly in the NFL—but the memory of his achievements on the field has been darkened by his alcoholism and the wreckage of three failed marriages. Several of the other candidates, among them a local car dealer and an obscure novelist, possess even more dubious backstories.

Perrotta expertly plumbs the depths of his characters’ lives and loves from multiple points of view, sympathetically assessing their achievements and regrets at falling short of their own expectations and those of the people around them. At the center of the story, of course, is Tracy, whose dream of a life at the pinnacle of American politics vanished long ago in the face of familial duty.

With a light touch, Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success and how we judge what counts as a meaningful life. By the time the Hall of Fame induction ceremony arrives, he has skillfully laid the foundation for the shocking climax of this fast-moving novel. Just as in real life, there are winners and losers, but as he reminds us in this deceptively simple but memorable story, assigning them to their respective categories may not be as easy as it might appear.

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by Lucy Liu and a full cast!

With a light touch, Tom Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, his memorable return to the heroine of Election.

You don’t need to know anything about the titular subject of Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses to appreciate this candid and engaging memoir of how rediscovering a long-abandoned passion helped lift her out of a crisis.

Four years after the birth of her daughter, Nina, novelist Maum found herself drowning in a whirlpool of insomnia-fueled depression, creative stasis and dissatisfaction in her marriage to Leo, a French filmmaker. “I am a blob,” she writes, “struggling through the hours with eyes that will not close.” In search of the relief that even medication and a wise-beyond-his-young-years therapist couldn’t provide, Maum turned to one of her childhood pursuits: horseback riding.

It had been 29 years since Maum abandoned riding lessons at age 9, but she never lost her love for these majestic creatures. Her first lesson as an adult—when “the heat of that beast underneath me, the breadth of his body and the pump of his great heart, had touched something primitive inside”—instantly rekindled her affection. That encounter eventually led her into the “weird sport” of polo, where she learned that putting aside the futile quest for mastery in favor of simply having fun was the path to finding joy.

Through flashbacks to her privileged childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, Maum also explores some of the roots of her adult angst. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her younger brother, Brendan, developed some rare and serious medical problems that added to the family’s stress. She traces how some of her more troublesome personality traits from that period—notably a perfectionism that eventually expressed itself as anorexia—continued to manifest in adulthood.

Maum emerged from finding her footing in the world of horses “clearer and braver regarding what I needed in my marriage,” simultaneously discovering a focus and patience that allowed her “to reconnect with the daughter I’d lost track of.” While Maum’s prescription isn’t for everyone, her story reveals how “what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising.” The Year of the Horses shows how the willingness to put aside fear and take on a new challenge in adulthood can unlock a happier life.

You don’t need to know anything about horses to appreciate Courtney Maum’s engaging memoir of rediscovering this long-abandoned passion at a moment of crisis.

In 2014, the well-known literary blogger Maud Newton wrote a cover story for Harper’s Magazine titled “America’s Ancestry Craze.” Now, in her first book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, she significantly expands on that piece, blending a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.

Newton introduces a large cast of characters from her lineage, some of whom were accused of murder and witchcraft. The conflict-filled marriage of her parents—a father from whom she’s been estranged for two decades and who would welcome the return of slavery, and a mother who believes in demonic possession and once led a fundamentalist church in her living room—provides rich narrative material, as do Newton’s often moving reflections on her markedly different relationships with her Texas and Mississippi grandmothers.

Maud Newton, author of ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ shares how she’s working to acknowledge the sins of her ancestors.

In the most incisive and tough-minded chapters of the book, Newton confronts the twin “monstrous bequests” of her ancestors: their ownership of enslaved people and involvement with the dispossession of America’s Indigenous population. She was able to trace her father’s forebears’ slaveholding back to 1816, which she more or less expected. But in the process, she made the unpleasant discovery that there are also slave owners in her maternal lineage, and that she’s descended from Massachusetts settlers who expropriated the lands of native tribes through treachery and violence.

As absorbing as it may be, Newton’s family story is only one element of her account. Ancestor Trouble broadens into a much deeper excavation of the subject of ancestry that ranges widely across an abundance of topics, among them the allure and danger of websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and the spiritual practice of ancestor veneration. She also investigates controversies in cutting-edge DNA research, acknowledging that apparent scientific advances are not always unalloyed goods.

Newton’s family history is uniquely hers, but her book arms anyone who’s ever been tempted to visit their own ancestry in a serious way with a host of provocative questions to consider.

In her striking debut, Maud Newton blends a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.
Interview by

According to an article in the MIT Technology Review, by early 2019, more than 26 million people had added their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases. That level of interest cries out for an in-depth examination of genealogy’s broad appeal, and Maud Newton gives us just that in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.

Speaking by FaceTime from her home in Queens, New York, the red-haired and bespectacled Newton is relaxed and cordial as she sits in front of a wall of glass-enclosed bookshelves. She speaks thoughtfully but with evident passion about a project that had its genesis some 15 years ago, when she started researching her family on Ancestry.com. But it wasn’t until 2010, when she received her 23andMe DNA test results, that her interest in the subject took off. Even then, she admits, she was “puzzled by my obsession with it. I wasn’t really sure exactly what I was trying to get at.”

Read our starred review of Maud Newton’s ‘Ancestor Trouble.’

A 2014 cover story for Harper’s Magazine on “America’s Ancestry Craze” led to a book contract and launched Newton, a writer and former book blogger who briefly practiced law before her literary career began, on a long and sometimes circuitous path through subjects like the heritability of trauma and the spiritual importance of ancestors in various cultures. “As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited,” she says, “but I really wanted to do my best.” The broad reading list reflected in her book ranges from ancients like Aristotle and Hippocrates to the work of contemporary writers such as Dani Shapiro and Alexander Chee.

At the core of Ancestor Trouble is Newton’s complex and often difficult family story. She describes her birth as a “kind of homegrown eugenics project,” writing that her parents “married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.” The union between her father, a Mississippi-born lawyer and unabashed racist, and her mother, a Texas native who later in life became a fundamentalist minister who conducted exorcisms in the family living room, lasted only 12 years but left Newton with a colorful, though at times painful, lineage to explore.

Among the most memorable characters in her family line are her maternal ninth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced multiple allegations of witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts, and her maternal grandfather, Robert Bruce, who reportedly married 13 times. (So far, Newton has only been able to document 10 marriages, though she’s still searching.) Another is Charley, Robert’s father, who was accused of murdering a man in downtown Dallas with a hay hook in 1916. He died in a Texas mental hospital, but Newton became so engrossed in his story that she purchased a tombstone to mark his previously anonymous grave.

“As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited, but I really wanted to do my best.”

For Newton, the most problematic aspect of her ancestry concerns her family’s connections with slavery and with efforts to expel Indigenous peoples from their native lands. On her father’s side, that history hardly came as a surprise; he was, after all, obsessed with the Confederacy. But Newton was dismayed to discover that some of her mother’s ancestors also enslaved people and participated in genocide against Native Americans. “It was an unpleasant surprise, but ultimately a healthy and useful one,” Newton says, “to recognize that it wasn’t possible for me to divide my family into the part that enslaved people and that I didn’t relate to as much, and the part that I related to more that didn’t have this history. It was on all the sides.”

Though her family history is rife with material, Newton wanted to write a book that was more than a conventional family memoir. “The only way I wanted to write it was if I could . . . look at it through these different lenses, both through my own family history and in the larger historical, sociological, scientific, philosophical and religious history context,” she says.

That broad perspective magnified Newton’s reservations about online DNA research websites like the ones that launched her investigation. “I am very skeptical and very concerned about the data those sites are collecting and the lack of control we have over what is done with that data,” she says. “And I also continue to use both of those sites regularly. I objectively think they’re highly problematic, and on a personal level, I continue to be seduced by the tools that they offer.”

“Making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”

Newton’s comprehensive approach also led her to explore different ancestor veneration practices, such as Tomb-Sweeping Day in China and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. As she studied these rituals throughout history and the world, she came to realize that “we in the contemporary West who do not venerate ancestors or minister to them in the afterlife are the aberration, not the other way around.” That intriguing and moving investigation, she says, provided her with “a spiritual connection now, a healthy connection to my ancestors, including to some of the ancestors who were problematic when they died, with whom I had difficult relationships in life.” In the end, she says, “it’s less important or interesting whether there’s some objective reality to this feeling that I have of connection to my ancestors. What’s important to me is the healing potential that this inquiry can have.”

Readers will connect with many aspects of Newton’s vivid story, but there’s one—what she calls “acknowledgment genealogy”—that she hopes will especially resonate. This encompasses, as she puts it, “personal harms that we can acknowledge within our own family or larger harms that relate to the systemic problems that we’re facing now as a country. . . . If each of us can feel a little more comfortable coming forward and recognizing these harms and thinking about them and feeling about them in a larger context,” she says, “we’ll move a lot further along as a country toward the kind of conversations and healing that we need.” Newton believes this and brilliantly reflects it in Ancestor Trouble. After all, she says, “making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”

Maud Newton author photo credit: Maximus Clarke

The essayist and critic has penned a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.

Even aside from Sylvia Plath’s literary output, there’s always been intense interest in the writer’s short, tragic life, which ended in 1963 with her suicide at age 30. Debut novelist Lee Kravetz’s The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. is a fascinating fictional re-creation of Plath’s final decade, a paean to the allure of poetry and an investigation of the mysterious sources of literary inspiration, as told by three women close to Plath.

When Plath enters the coveted Boston poetry workshop run by famed poet Robert Lowell, her arrival ignites the professional and personal jealousy of Agatha Gray, a contemporary who publishes under the pseudonym Boston Rhodes. Plath is the Mozart to Rhodes’ Antonio Salieri, “a success in all the ways I was not,” as Rhodes bitterly summarizes it. As she describes in a lengthy, anguished letter to Lowell, Rhodes is convinced that Plath is the only thing standing between her and the status of “Major Voice” in the confessional poetry movement emerging in the 1950s.

Estee, a master curator at a struggling Boston auction house, also has her own personal connection to Plath’s story. In 2019, three spiral notebooks containing a previously unknown draft of Plath’s posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, are discovered in the attic of an abandoned home. As Estee supervises the sale of the notebooks in her final auction before retirement, she wrestles with her misgivings about allowing this literary treasure to pass into private hands.

In addition to the voices of these fictional characters, Kravetz introduces Ruth Barnhouse, the real-life psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who treated Plath with several unconventional therapies following the poet’s first attempted suicide in 1953. Ruth describes her difficult work with Plath’s persistent depression in a series of candid journal entries: “Miss Plath is no longer chasing literary prizes, top marks, or perfection,” she writes. “I fear she is chasing death itself.”

Rotating between the three voices, Kravetz skillfully orchestrates a chorus of regret and longing that swirls around Plath. The women, each of whom has been touched by Plath in markedly different ways, try to make sense of their lives and their relationship to hers. Into this narrative Kravetz cleverly inserts a subplot that pursues the mystery of how Plath’s notebooks fall into the hands of a pair of aliterate Boston house flippers. The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. will intrigue admirers of Plath’s work and likely introduce her to a new group of readers.

Lee Kravetz’s novel is a fascinating fictional re-creation of Sylvia Plath’s final decade and a paean to the allure of poetry.

“The making of many books is without limit,” says the book of Ecclesiastes, and that weary reaction seems appropriate when considering yet another offering on personal finance. But Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People: Getting a Grip on Your Finances is a refreshingly original contribution to this crowded field, and one her fellow millennials will find especially valuable as they contemplate the decades of decisions that will shape their financial futures.

Founder of the Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm that emphasizes service to creatives, de Leon touches all the traditional bases, from how to handle debt to saving and investing for retirement. Much of this advice (e.g., automate savings and max out contributions to a retirement account when there’s an employer match) doesn’t stray far from conventional paths. But as she leads readers on the perilous ascent of what she calls the “Pyramid of Financial Awesomeness,” several aspects of her approach stand out.

Acknowledging that we are all “weird about money,” de Leon offers an empathetic yet concrete perspective on overcoming the psychological barriers that prevent many people from dealing effectively with financial decision-making. And while she’s not averse to discipline, she disdains some of the popular emphasis on austerity (think David Bach’s The Latte Factor). Rejecting a worldview that chooses “scarcity over abundance,” she’s intent on “helping people connect to their financial power,” encouraging them to think at least as hard about generating more income as they do about saving in order to balance what she calls the “personal finance equation.”

De Leon delivers her message in a breezy, conversational style, emphasizing key points with an assortment of clever cartoons. At the same time, she is eminently practical, insisting on the need to set aside 30 to 60 minutes of “weekly finance time” as a first step toward systematically establishing sound money habits. Most notably, de Leon includes some tips—including journaling as a means of “unearthing your beliefs about money” and using mindfulness meditation to develop the muscle of delayed gratification—not likely to be found in other books of this genre. Above all, she’s an engagingly self-deprecating storyteller, illustrating her advice with tales of some of her own money missteps and their hard-earned lessons.

Dealing with money is one of life’s inescapable realities, and for most people there will always be some amount of pain associated with it. Having a friendly guide like Finance for the People can help the journey become both more bearable and more profitable.

Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People is a refreshingly original contribution to this crowded field of personal finance books.

Pulitzer Prize winner and New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz’s first memoir, Lost & Found, is an eloquent meditation inspired by the end of her father’s life and the beginning of the romance that led to her marriage. This probing, multifaceted exploration of two universal phenomena—grief and love—is both a revealing account of defining moments in Schulz’s life and an eloquent map of the pathways connecting them to our shared human experience.

In the first section of the book, Schulz’s reflections on the profound grief provoked by the peaceful passing of the man she describes as “part Socrates, part Tevye,” at the end of a decade of slowly failing health, illuminate the “essential, avaricious nature of loss.” She examines the complexity and uniqueness of each person’s bereavement, giving the lie to clichés like “moving on” and “closure” that are offered to comfort those in mourning. “Everything felt fragile, everything felt vulnerable,” she observes; “the idea of loss pressed in all around me, like a hidden order to existence that emerged only in the presence of grief.”

The poignancy of these reminiscences is more than balanced by the exuberant account of Schulz’s love affair with C. in the second section of the book. Though C. is a fellow writer, she is also a woman whose cultural roots—as a devout Lutheran from Maryland’s Eastern Shore—are so different from Schulz’s—a nonpracticing Jew from Cleveland—that Mars and Venus can barely encompass them. The affectionately candid story of their instantaneous attachment and deepening relationship allows Schulz to probe some of the ineffable mysteries of human attraction and ponder the wild improbability that two people ever find each other and fall in love.

Concluding her memoir with a section entitled “And,” Schulz skillfully melds the two profound subjects that animate her story, attempting to reconcile herself to an undeniable reality at the heart of life’s beauty and pain: our limitless capacity to love, undiminished by the inescapable knowledge that one day every one of us will inevitably lose all we cherish. “Of every kind of ‘and’ that we experience,” she writes, “I find this one the most acute—the awareness that our love, in all its many forms, is bound inseparably to our grief.”

Discoursing knowledgeably and often with good humor on subjects that include etymology, poetry, natural history, psychology and more, Schulz displays a capacious intelligence matched only by her boundless curiosity and insight. Lost & Found is a beautiful, life-affirming book that passionately embraces some of the deepest questions of human existence in the fullness of their sorrow and joy.

Read more: Author Kathryn Schulz voices the audiobook for ‘Lost & Found.’

Lost & Found is a beautiful, life-affirming memoir about love and grief that passionately embraces some of the deepest questions of human existence.

When it became clear in March 2020 that the coronavirus was more than an annoying temporary disruption, some writers took to keeping COVID diaries. We’re fortunate that one as gifted and insightful as Los Angeles-based novelist and critic Charles Finch chose to preserve his recollections in the eloquent, fierce What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic and fresh from a 13-city book tour, Finch began chatting on Slack with four friends. One of them was an emergency room physician from New York City, the virus’s first epicenter, who quickly impressed on Finch the gravity of the crisis. But even faced with this dire news, Finch obsessed over the availability of pasta, toilet paper and hand sanitizer and became a “candle guy.” As the months ground on, he grew more troubled by his increasing consumption of marijuana. Through it all he watched, with growing anger and dismay, as the human toll mounted, each round number of deaths rolling into the next, exposing our collective naiveté about how truly terrible our losses would be.

Finch is a keen political observer whose takedowns of the Trump administration’s almost willfully incompetent leadership are both savage and, at times, savagely funny. He also reflects on how the pandemic both exacerbated and exposed economic inequality in the United States, excoriating billionaires Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg and confessing to “the joy I would take in shaking a little sand in the gears of capitalism.” Following the murder of George Floyd, he devotes considerable attention to the massive protests, wondering whether they are the harbinger of an overdue reckoning with racism in the United States.

Occasionally Finch departs from his contemporary narrative to share some moving bits of personal history, including an evocative scene of a snowy Central Park when he lived in New York in his 20s. He reminisces about the uncle who introduced him to blues and folk music (Finch’s affection for country singer Kacey Musgraves is a recurring theme) and about his grandmother, the artist Anne Truitt. A transplant from the East Coast, he also paints memorable pictures of his adopted hometown of LA, “the only sad city I’ve ever lived in,” as he remarks on how its “cool sunniness, its low-slung tatterdemalion endlessness, give the city a tranquil, dreamlike quality.”

With the election of Joe Biden and the arrival of vaccines, Finch emerged from an ordeal that hadn’t quite ended with the mien of a battle-weary combat veteran. Years from now, historians will comb through primary sources looking for evidence of how we thought and felt during these plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.

Years from now, historians will search for evidence of how we felt during the COVID-19 plague days. They would do well to turn first to What Just Happened.

Taking on questions of race, sexual identity or class in a work of barely 200 pages would be an ambitious project for any writer. Asali Solomon’s second novel, The Days of Afrekete, tackles all three with insight, wit and grace—a tribute to her considerable talent.

At the core of the novel, whose title refers to a character in Audre Lorde’s Zami, is the story of Liselle Belmont and Selena Octave, two Black women who meet at Bryn Mawr College in the 1990s and enter into a brief, intense relationship; each ascribes the fault for its end to the other. Even at a distance of some 20 years, it’s clear that neither woman has been able to shed the memory of their four months as lovers, scenes of which Solomon sketches in vivid, economical flashbacks.

As their college years recede, Liselle’s and Selena’s lives proceed in opposite directions. Selena undergoes a series of psychiatric hospitalizations and moves through a succession of downwardly mobile jobs. Liselle, in contrast, marries Winn Anderson, a white lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut family whose primary campaign against an incumbent Black state representative has ended in defeat, a disappointment compounded by Winn’s entanglement with an unscrupulous real estate developer that has made him the subject of an FBI investigation.

Most of the novel’s present-day action unfolds at a dinner party hosted by Liselle and Winn at their 150-year-old home in an upscale neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia. The racially mixed gathering, intended to thank Winn’s core supporters, subtly dissects Liselle’s profound unease over the state of her marriage alongside her almost comical discomfort in the presence of Xochitl, the highly educated daughter of Liselle’s Latina cleaning woman.

Solomon doesn’t offer a tidy resolution to the story, but her novel doesn’t demand one. The Days of Afrekete’s strength lies in its well-drawn characters and its realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

With insight, wit and grace, Asali Solomon’s second novel offers a realistic portrait of how old desires sometimes refuse to remain buried.

From Mexico, to the former Soviet Union, to England, Japan and the United States, the reach of the short story spans the globe. These five collections, some by established authors and others by writers just beginning to make their mark, offer a generous introduction to the richness of modern short fiction.

Chilly slices of modern life
Ali Smith, author of the critically praised novel The Accidental, has observed, "Stories can change lives if we're not careful." In The First Person and Other Stories, her fourth collection, she offers her unsettling take on contemporary life.

Smith's book is most notable for its air of experimentation. The story that opens the collection, "True Short Story," begins with a writer in a café, observing two men and imagining the story of their relationship before halting the exercise. ("I stopped making them up. It felt a bit wrong to.") It concludes with a series of pithy observations on the nature of the short form from writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Alice Munro.

Smith's style is terse and edgy, almost daring the reader to settle in. In most of these stories, the characters are nameless, and it's only possible to know their setting because of a passing allusion to London or some feature of British life.

One of the more startling tales is "The Child," in which a woman discovers a baby abandoned in her grocery store shopping cart. When she takes the child with her, it begins spouting conservative political dogma, soon laced with racist and sexist jokes. The First Person and Other Stories won't appeal to everyone's taste, but those who like their stories provocative and enigmatic are likely to find it a satisfying work.

Weird, wonderful and wild
Although he's unknown to the American audience, Yasutaka Tsutsui has captured awards in his native Japan for his science fiction. His collection, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, translated by Andrew Driver, contains several examples in that genre, but it also sparkles with biting pieces of social and political satire that reveal a formidable talent.

Tsutsui excels at creating protagonists living in worlds uncomfortably recognizable as our own and yet decidedly dystopian. In "Rumours of Me," a young man suddenly begins to hear and read news stories about the most mundane aspects of his daily life. "Anything can become big news if the media report it," a newspaper editor tells him, bringing to mind the short-lived obsession with "Joe the Plumber" in last fall's presidential campaign. "Commuter Army" is a brilliant satire on the insanity of war, imagining platoons of soldiers who board the train each morning like office workers, the fortunate survivors returning home the same evening. "Hello, Hello, Hello" features a meddlesome "Household Economy Consultant" whose bizarre counsel sheds a revealing light on modern capitalism and our consumer culture.

The title story, the longest in the collection, is a complex exploration of human sexuality and evolutionary biology that plays out in the context of a space adventure. Throughout this wildly varied assortment of tales, Tsutsui's voice is witty and quirky, seducing us to suspend our disbelief for even the most fanciful narrative.

Riding the waves
Whether as a force for life or one of destruction, water in all its forms is the unifying theme in writer and artist Peter Selgin's powerful collection, Drowning Lessons. Selgin is never heavy-handed in his use of metaphor, and it's rewarding to trace the skill with which he employs it in many of these 13 stories.

In the opening tale, "Swimming," an elderly man disgruntled with the state of his marriage offers swimming lessons to an attractive younger woman. "Our Cups Are Bottomless" features a man in a coffee shop in a dying mill town, contemplating the suicide notes he's written as the town's two rivers rise in a raging downpour.

The most dramatic story in Drowning Lessons is "The Sea Cure." In it, two brothers take a trip to Mexico. Lewis becomes ill after drinking the local water, and Clarke meets a mysterious woman he believes will help secure medical treatment for Lewis, whose condition becomes more desperate with each page, until the story reaches its haunting climax. The collection concludes with the alternately hilarious and touching "My Search for Red and Gray Wide-Striped Pajamas." Its narrator suffers from mysterious fainting spells while wandering New York City seeking a pair of pajamas like the ones worn by his late father, his search a metaphor for the attempt to find his way in the world.

Coming to America
When a young writer's first two stories are published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, it's a safe bet she's on the fast track to recognition in the world of literary fiction. In One More Year, Sana Krasikov, born in Ukraine and now living in New York, demonstrates why the early notice she's achieved is well-deserved.

Krasikov's fiction focuses on her fellow immigrants. Unlike the affluent Bengalis depicted in the stories of another young star of contemporary short fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri, however, her characters are struggling to plant their feet firmly on the first rung of the ladder of success in America. Most of the stories are set in Westchester County, New York, but it's hardly the country club and cocktail party world of John Cheever.

In stories like "Companion," "Asal" and "Maia in Yonkers," women from the former Soviet Union find themselves in low-end personal care jobs. Maia's son sums up her plight when he berates her, "Every year you say 'It's one more year, one more year!' " and his blunt indictment sums up the predicament of most of Krasikov's characters. Representative is Anya, the protagonist of "Better Half," 22 years old, married for a few months and working as a waitress, who observes that "trying to escape your tedious fate only led you back to it."

Their task won't be easy, but at the end of this consistently strong collection we're left with a feeling that the determination by Krasikov's characters to establish themselves in a new land will be rewarded.

Living and loving in Mexico
Carlos Fuentes, perhaps Mexico's most distinguished living writer, offers a rich collection of stories in Happy Families. Taking his ironic title from Tolstoy's legendary observation, Fuentes exposes the dark corners of his characters' emotional lives with a piercing light.

Fuentes' prose is lush, almost poetic, as presented in this translation by the distinguished translator Edith Grossman. Indeed, after each story there is a free verse "chorus," many of them illuminating some troubling aspect of modern Mexican life.

In its 16 stories, Happy Families covers the subject of love in all its complexity. We meet a long-married couple raking over the dying coals of their relationship ("Conjugal Ties (1)"), a priest who's fathered an illegitimate daughter and lives with her in an isolated mountain village at the base of a volcano ("The Father's Servant") and a mother desperate to rescue her son from a life of street crime ("The Mariachi's Mother"). Fuentes is a keen student of human behavior, and if his Mexican historic and cultural references occasionally may be puzzling to non-Mexican readers, the emotions on display are universal. In "The Discomfiting Brother," the story of an impoverished man who returns to the home of his prosperous brother after more than 30 years, the former notes, "Life consists in our getting used to the fact that everything will be badly for us." That solemn observation serves as a fitting benediction to this collection by an acknowledged literary master.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

From Mexico, to the former Soviet Union, to England, Japan and the United States, the reach of the short story spans the globe. These five collections, some by established authors and others by writers just beginning to make their mark, offer a generous introduction to the richness of modern short fiction. Chilly slices of modern […]

It’s an embarrassment of riches to have new collections by short story masters Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon released on the same day (Feb. 7). After publishing novels in 2007 and 2009, respectively, they’ve returned to a form that showcases their talents at fashioning sturdily constructed, memorable tales.

Englander caused a stir in 1999 with his first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which offered unorthodox glimpses into the world of Orthodox Judaism. He stays close to his roots here, echoing the art of Jewish short fiction masters from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Philip Roth in tales that are both contemporary and timeless.

Most of the Jewish characters that populate the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank are survivors (literally so, for the several who endured the Holocaust). Nowhere is that more dramatically demonstrated than in the novelistic “Sister Hills,” set in the northern portion of the territory captured by Israel in 1967. The story spans decades, and focuses on Rena and Yehudit, settlers who occupy two desolate settlements on “empty mountains that God had long ago given Israel but that Israel had long ago forgotten.” With its mythic overtones, it’s a stunning narrative achievement.

Englander is intrigued by the difficulty of moral choices, as displayed in stories like “Camp Sundown,” when a group of Holocaust survivors at an elderhostel camp decide to take revenge on a man they believe was a Nazi guard at a concentration camp. And the title story, evoking a classic Raymond Carver tale, follows two couples—one, assimilated South Floridians; the other, friends who have abandoned America for an ultra-Orthodox life in Israel—as they debate which of them would shelter the other in a new Holocaust.

As serious as some of Englander’s themes may be, he displays an equally potent gift for comedy, most notably in “How We Avenged the Blums,” recounting the fumbling efforts of a group of Long Island Jewish boys and their dubious Russian martial arts teacher to retaliate against an iconic bully, “the Anti-Semite.”

Several of the stories in Dan ­Chaon’s Stay Awake have the same enigmatic aura as his 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, an intricate exploration of identity in the cyber-age. From the opener, “The Bees,” in which a recovering alcoholic is haunted by his decision to abandon his wife and young son, a chill descends on Chaon’s world.

The mostly male protagonists  are stunted, both economically and emotionally. The employed ones work as supermarket clerks or UPS drivers, and the most accomplished, a former college professor in the story “Long Delayed, Always Expected,” has been brain damaged in an automobile accident.

Death is another thread that unites Chaon’s stories. Two moving examples are the title story, in which a child is born with a “parasitic” twin head with an underdeveloped body attached to hers, and “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” where a teenager and his “former future wife” struggle after their newborn’s death.

Though their subject matter could not differ more dramatically, in their moral seriousness and literary craftsmanship Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon deliver some of the best of what contemporary short fiction has to offer.

It’s an embarrassment of riches to have new collections by short story masters Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon released on the same day (Feb. 7). After publishing novels in 2007 and 2009, respectively, they’ve returned to a form that showcases their talents at fashioning sturdily constructed, memorable tales. Englander caused a stir in 1999 with […]

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