Summer short stories 2024

Myth and folklore intertwine seamlessly with the tumultuous lives of Asian women in this mesmerizing collection of stories.

Each story in Ninetails: Nine Tales reveals the poignant struggles of young Asian women marginalized and scorned, struggling to eke out their identity, follow their heart and break free from political oppression and social expectations. At the heart of these tales of strength and transformation is Ninetails, a fox spirit known by many names—hulijing, huxian, fox demon or fox fairy—who helps women of diverse backgrounds and ages transcend the violence and turbulence of their lives.

The central story, divided into several parts, is called “The Haunting of Angel Island.” Set in the 1900s, against the backdrop of the Angel Island immigration station located in San Francisco Bay, it features Tye, a Chinese interpreter who witnesses the harrowing experiences of women detainees. Other stories include the tale of a silicone love doll who yearns to be human, the plight of a Korean girl bullied in a land foreign to her, and the story of two friends connected by being cheated on by the same man. Unfolding with gripping intensity through author Sally Wen Mao’s vivid depictions of the gritty settings and sobering situations that confront her characters, each premise is made even more powerful by the magical element introduced when a fox spirit manifests to liberate the women from their misery, or inflict retribution for wrongdoings.

Some of the stories in Ninetails end abruptly and can feel a little disjointed; nevertheless, Mao’s compelling depiction of Asian women’s experiences is powerfully unsettling in its authenticity. Through themes of revenge and redemption, these stories illuminate our enduring capacity for resilience.

In Sally Wen Mao’s Ninetails, a fox spirit helps Asian women of diverse backgrounds and ages transcend the violence and turbulence of their lives.
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There’s a quiet intensity to the way Zach Williams crafts short fiction, like a coiled spring ready to snap, or a snake about to strike. You can sense tension lurking like a camouflaged animal in the careful prose and dreamy strangeness of the worlds Williams builds.

In Beautiful Days, his first collection, Williams delivers intensity on page after page, but it’s how he uses the tension he creates that makes the work so remarkable. In stories that take the mundane to wondrous, frightening and deeply affecting places, Williams keeps finding new ways to remind us of the strangeness of being human, and the many ways our lives can transform in an unexpected instant.

There are no real limits to the subject matter of the 10 tales within this volume. The settings shift from skyscrapers to secluded cabins, seductive bedrooms to the quiet house next door. The characters are parents, roommates, neighbors, co-workers, even mice whose lives hang in the balance of another character’s quest for the right trap. In “Trial Run,” a man visits his office amid a snowstorm, only to find a storm of a different kind waiting inside. In “Red Light,” a sexually adventurous fitness buff finds himself in a particularly mysterious bedroom. And in “Wood Sorrel House,” which might be the most unsettling short story you read in all of 2024, new parents find themselves in a house outside of time, watching in horror as their baby refuses to age even as their own bodies fail.

Many of these stories push their subjects into the realm of the unreal, the supernatural and even the horrific, but genre conventions do not concern Williams any more than neat endings do. What’s most striking about Beautiful Days is not the premises of the stories, but the way in which the author lets them unfold at their own quirky pace, like alien insects inching their way out of cocoons. His prose is precise, witty and full of vivid imagery, dropping us into 10 distinct worlds that might all be part of the same dreamy landscape, or might be individual pocket universes. Either way, we can get lost, because Williams has a gift for marrying tension and humanity that calls to mind John Cheever or Shirley Jackson. That makes Beautiful Days a powerful, unsettling, genuinely thrilling collection, one that singles Williams out as a must-read voice in fiction.

Zach Williams lets each of these 10 short stories unfold at their own quirky pace—like alien insects inching their way out of cocoons.

Conceived as a tribute to Franz Kafka on the 100th anniversary of his death, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories features short stories by 10 contemporary writers in the idiosyncratic style of the literary genius, a style Merriam-Webster defines as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Watching writers that include Ali Smith and Tommy Orange apply their considerable talent to this task makes for a mind-bending and consistently enjoyable reading experience.

One of the principal pleasures of this project is the range of subject matter and variety of styles the authors bring to their stories. In “God’s Doorbell,” for example, Naomi Alderman reimagines the biblical account of the Tower of Babel in a fashion that seems especially relevant to our current concerns with the promise and peril of artificial intelligence. Yiyun Li’s “Apostrophe’s Dream” is a whimsical piece presented in the form of a dramatic work featuring squabbling punctuation marks as its characters.

But when one thinks of Kafka’s short stories, what most often surfaces is the image of an individual trapped in a bizarre, inexplicable situation. The volume features several works in that genre, among them Elif Batuman’s “The Board,” where the prospective purchaser of an apartment confronts the baffling commentary of the building’s implacable governing body. In “Headache,” by Leone Ross, the protagonist is drawn against her will into an increasingly problematic health care system.

Screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman has acknowledged Kafka as an early influence, and so it’s fitting that the collection ends with his story, “This Face Can Even Be Proved by Means of the Sense of Hearing,” whose enigmatic title comes from an entry in Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks. In Kaufman’s story, a novelist identified only as “I.” descends, after a disastrous launch event for his latest novel, into an ever more complex and seemingly inescapable literary labyrinth as his identity shape-shifts, blurring the boundary between fact and fiction.

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird is a roller coaster ride that will delight the adventuresome reader, even if the twists and turns of some of its most daring stories may challenge those who enjoy more conventional short fiction. Somewhere, though, it’s easy to imagine Kafka paging through these varied and deeply imagined tales and nodding in admiration.

10 contemporary writers (Ali Smith! Tommy Orange!) apply their considerable talents to the signature style of Franz Kafka in this anthology.

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