Perfect for dipping into, these four collections offer the experience of great fiction without the commitment that a novel requires. If you’re in need of an excellent read for the lazy weeks that lie ahead, check out the selections below.
PORTRAITS OF HUMAN NATURE
Dark humorist A.M. Homes taps into the contemporary American mindset and our obsession with perfection in Days of Awe. An irreverent writer, Homes can create a completely realized character in just a few strokes, and her dialogue—chiseled to film-script perfection—is enlivened by rapid-fire exchanges and funny one-liners.
The collection’s excellent title story takes place at a genocide conference, where, among stiff scholars and serious academics, two old acquaintances—a novelist and a war reporter—strike up a romance that almost upends their lives. In “Brother on Sunday,” Tom, a plastic surgeon, injects himself with a Botox-like substance—an action that’s horrifying in its offhandedness. While vacationing with a group of affluent friends, an old feud erupts between him and his brother, disturbing the calm of their getaway. In “Hello Everybody,” Walter visits his wealthy friend Cheryl in her pristine, technologically advanced home. Her family’s fixation on physical flawlessness borders on the satirical—and feels all too familiar.
In these perceptive stories, Homes hits a nerve, offering reflections of who we are and projections of who we might become.
IN A WILD PLACE
Lauren Groff (Arcadia, Fates and Furies) plumbs the mysteries of her home state in the captivating collection Florida. Through arresting imagery and a sustained mood that’s ominous and unsettling, Groff, who lives in Gainesville, delivers a sense of the peninsula’s humid exoticism. Of an old cabin at a hunting camp, she writes, “the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards,” and Florida itself is described as a place of “frenzied flora and fauna.” The region’s wild environment infects and affects her characters.
“Ghosts and Empties” features a figure who appears in a number of stories—an anonymous wife and mother who’s worried about the world’s decline and finds relief in walking through her neighborhood at night, where she observes the lives of others through lit windows. In “Dogs Go Wolf,” two young sisters are abandoned on an island and are able to adapt to their rough surroundings—it’s when they’re rescued that hardship begins.
In gorgeous prose, Groff offers startling insight into the human heart. Florida is as mesmerizing as its namesake state.
Set in Los Angeles and its affluent environs, Fight No More, Lydia Millet’s masterful collection of intertwined stories, features characters with conflicting wills and interests who can’t be made to compromise. The undercurrent of friction that results lends a quiet force to stories that explore the challenges of communication and the meaning of home.
Nina, a recurring figure, is a young real estate agent transformed by the prospect of new love. Many of the stories in the book feature her clients—people in various states of transition—and in a phenomenal feat of plot-spinning, Millet links the lives of this disparate group of characters. In “To Think/I Killed a Cat,” 16-year-old Jeremy, caught in the crossfire of his parents’ divorce, does his best to repulse potential purchasers of the family home. In “The Fall of Berlin,” his frail grandmother, Aleska, is forced to sell her beloved house and move into her son’s guest cottage, yet she refuses to surrender to the inevitabilities of old age. “I only want to keep going,” Aleska says. Like the other characters in these richly realized stories, she’s unwilling to give up the fight.
STORIES OF THE MODERN SOUTH
Mississippi author Nick White made a memorable literary debut with How to Survive a Summer, his 2017 novel about a gay-to-straight conversion camp. In his new book, Sweet and Low, an accomplished, atmospheric collection of stories that take place in his native state, White continues to explore the experience of being queer in a conservative culture.
“Gatlinburg” chronicles the unraveling of a romantic relationship involving Reed, a New Yorker, and Eric, a Mississippian. The two have fallen “into something like love” but can’t seem to fully connect, in part because of the North-South disjunction. (When Reed’s mother introduces Eric at a party, she says, “He’s from Mississippi—isn’t that adorable? Just wait till you hear him speak.”) In “The Lovers,” Rosemary knows her husband, Arnie, was having affairs but assumed they were with women. She learns otherwise after Arnie’s tragic death, when she unexpectedly connects with Hank, his last lover. A wonderful sequence of stories centering on would-be writer Forney Culpepper has the makings of a first-rate novel.
An author on the rise, White displays impressive range in this rewarding collection.