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Summer reading: Short fiction edition

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For some, selecting their summer reading is one of the most important decisions of the season. Choosing what we’re going to read at the beach, at camp or even just on the porch or in a backyard hammock is a significant key to maximizing our simple pleasures quotient.

And so, once again, here are The Maine Edge’s annual summer reading recommendations.

In past years, this story has focused on a variety of different reading options. One summer, the target was suitable book series. Another tackled Maine authors exclusively. Still another allowed me to offer up my own personal recommended reading list. And last year, it was a look back at some of the books you might have missed over the past five years.

In keeping with that commitment to mixing things up, this year’s summer reads story is all about short fiction. The following collections run the gamut in terms of genre and span the breadth of this century and half of the last. Some of the titles and authors will be familiar, while others may have slipped under your radar, but all are capable of fulfilling your summer reading needs.

Happy reading!

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A People’s Future of the United States – Various (John Joseph Adams & Victor LaValle, editors)

“A People’s Future of the United States” is the newest book on the list, and the only one to feature multiple authors, but neither of those facts should preclude its inclusion. It features stories that look forward from our current fractured place and project how our societal journey might progress if we remain on certain paths. There are bleak prophecies and optimistic hopes, tragedies and triumphs – all of them springing from similar starting points.

It’s rare for any collection, let alone one of this size, to be completely devoid of duds; most books like this have a couple of pieces that don’t measure up. That’s not the case here – every single one of the stories in “A People’s Future of the United States” deserves your attention.

It’s a different kind of American Dreaming being done here. This kind of provocative and passionate writing illustrates just how valuable and powerful speculative fiction can be; these stories help show who we are by looking toward who we might become.

Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout

“Anything Is Possible” is a little different than most of the other books on this list; it’s a series of loosely-connected stories featuring characters pulled from Strout’s also-exceptional “My Name is Lucy Barton.” However, it exists on its own terms, both as far as its inter-story connectivity and in terms of its adjacency to a previous work. You could really read these stories in any order that you chose (though front-to-back is the way to go); you’re also fine if you’ve never read “My Name is Lucy Barton” (although if you haven’t, you might as well rectify that error while you’re at it).

Elizabeth Strout is one of the best writers of her generation, full stop. She manages to elicit the epic from the seeming mundanity of small-town life, doing so with exquisite prose and captivating characters. The narratives that she weaves have within them a distinct sense of truth that often proves elusive in contemporary literature.

“Anything is Possible” is capital-G Great.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel – Amy Hempel

This one is another sort-of cheat; while I could have chosen one of Hempel’s first four collections, why not just put forward the book that brings them all together?

That’s what we have here – pretty much everything Hempel published between 1985 and 2005, including her previous books “Reasons to Live,” “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom,” “Tumble Home” and “The Dog of the Marriage.” It is an astonishing body of work, a magnificent amalgamation of the stark minimalism that has long been Hempel’s trademark. The pared-down nature of her work often has striking results, stories that have been honed down to their absolute essence in a way that is positively mesmeric. Saying so much with so little – it’s simply amazing.

It should be noted that Hempel’s style is not to everyone’s taste, but anyone who isn’t sure should help themselves to a sample, because if you like it, you’re going to love it.

Dangerous Laughter – Stephen Millhauser

“Dangerous Laughter” is a collection of 13 stories – and every single one of them is a gem. From the opening “Cat ‘N’ Mouse,” a deconstruction of the relationship dynamics of a cat and mouse that are clearly meant to be Tom and Jerry, to the diary-style ruminations on the genius of invention of “The Wizard of West Orange,” the story that closes the book, the reader is invited to investigate the infinite possibilities inherent to the world that surrounds us.

The book is broken down into four sections: Opening Cartoon, Vanishing Acts, Impossible Architectures and Heretical Histories. Going into detail would require far more space than is feasible, so suffice it to say that each of these sectional breakdowns is wonderfully appropriate. Millhauser demonstrates a mastery of form even as he leans into absurdity and the surreal.

“Dangerous Laughter” is a heady read, but a rewarding one as well.

The Dixon Cornbelt League – W.P. Kinsella

No one has ever captured the magic inherent to baseball like W.P. Kinsella. The author’s bent toward magical realism fits the national pastime perfectly, blending sport and spirit in a unique manner. There’s a quiet gentility to Kinsella’s work that ideally suits the slow pace of summer.

There’s a real joy inherent to these works – as well as a willingness to get weird when the occasion calls for it. Kinsella’s love for baseball and his affection the people who play it is palpable. Take the title story, where a fading prospect makes his way to an off-the-radar league in an effort to get back to the Show, only to realize that there’s something very different about the place. Other highlights include the metamorphic “Lumpy Drobot, Designated Hitter” and the sad grace of “Waiting for Clemente,” but really, all nine are gold.

Nothing says summer quite like baseball, so it only makes sense that you should spend some of your summer reading time with the game.

Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges

This is another book that doesn’t really fit the traditional notion of what a beach read should be, buit I would be remiss if I didn’t include something from Borges, one of the 20th centuries absolute masters of short fiction.

“Ficciones” features two of my all-time favorite short stories – both of which I encountered in contexts outside the norm. I first read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as part of a philosophy class, while I first saw “The Library of Babel” in a math class (I subsequently read them both for lit classes as well). That said, the rest of the collection is outstanding – if you haven’t read “The Secret Miracle,” for instance, you should.

The depth of ideas that Borges brings to the page is almost staggering. So while “Ficciones” might not be anyone’s definition of light reading, it is also a work of no little importance. If you’re looking to dive into the deep end with your literary adventure, this book makes one hell of a springboard.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders – Neil Gaiman

This is one of the more unconventional collections included on the list. The works contained in the pages of “Fragile Things” aren’t all short fiction – there are a number of poems included. However, there are very few storytellers out there as gifted as Gaiman, so it seemed important to include this book here.

Perhaps the most well-known story in the collection is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” an alien encounter riff that wound up being adapted for film, but there’s plenty more good stuff. “A Study in Emerald” is the Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos mash-up you always wanted, for instance. There are a couple of pieces that connect to other Gaiman works – “The Mapmaker” and “The Monarch of the Glen” both connect to his “American Gods.”

It doesn’t come more evocative than Neil Gaiman – something made abundantly clear through the huge variety of work contained within “Fragile Things.” If you’re looking to mix it up, this is a great way to do it.

Get in Trouble – Kelly Link

The nine stories in “Get in Trouble” find an assortment of ways to beautifully twist and warp the conventions of speculative fiction, all in the service of constructing tales both ridiculous and sublime. Kelly Link is an incredible talent, finding myriad ways to elevate and subvert literary convention.

The margins of these stories are filled with genre tropes, but every one of these pieces is about people who are flawed and relatable elements of sci-fi and fantasy and horror are used to create a juxtaposition and emphasize characters and situations that are all too real.

Few collections of short fiction shine quite as brightly as this one. These stories are powerful and poetic, beautifully written and masterfully conceived. Make no mistake – if you take the time to join Kelly Link on this particular journey, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up a fan for life.

Girl with Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace

As a literature junkie of a certain age, I have a real hardcore love for the work of David Foster Wallace. Yes, he and his work are problematic in many ways, but it’s tough to deny that his work largely defines the literary world of the 1990s.

“Girl with Curious Hair” was Wallace’s first collection and features stories that I still consider be among the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read. I still can’t quite believe that a story like “Lyndon” exists. The game show weirdness of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the bizarre fakelore of “John Billy,” the amoral aggression of the title story – all of it changing my understanding of what fiction could be.

I’ll be the first to admit that David Foster Wallace is on the heavy side for a beach read, and that a certain type of lit-bro has poisoned the DFW well. But if you’re looking for a challenge this summer, this could be one worth taking on.

Goodbye, Columbus – Philip Roth

Sure, Philip Roth has fallen somewhat out of favor these days – largely because he refused to stop writing and his late-career works didn’t measure up to his peak. But “Goodbye, Columbus” is a book that should not be forgotten. The 1960 National Book Award winner has its issues – it’s at times regressive and undeniably dated – but it’s an important work from an American master.

No one devoted as much time and talent to telling the stories of the Jewish people as they moved from being first-generation immigrants toward becoming more and more Americanized, whether it was through college, the military or simply purchasing a house in the suburbs. These stories are a vivid and occasionally controversial exploration of that evolution.

Admittedly, Roth’s work can be a little dry. And it might not be as exciting as some of the other books on this list. But it is still a book well worth reading – a meticulous snapshot of a bygone time and place.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

This collection lashes out with dexterous prose and narrative surprise, constantly peeling back the layers of the human condition, pulling away the facades and revealing an underneath that is often unsettling and/or unpleasant. 

Mining beauty from the unbeautiful is one of the more difficult things an artist can attempt, yet Moshfegh accomplishes the feat with ease. The readability of these stories is such that they generate a sort of car-crash compulsion – one simply cannot look away. Rendered in exquisitely scattershot prose such as this, even the darkest shadows invite our inspection. Every single one of these pieces not only scoffs at all that is the literary anodyne, but actively, almost gleefully undercuts it.

“Homesick for Another World” is challenging, confrontational work. Each one of these stories shines with a cracked-mirror bleakness that slices the reader to the emotional quick. And all 14 of Moshfegh’s final lines leave us wrung-out and strained … and eager to tackle the next one.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a short book, but not a short read. Johnson is a master of quality over quantity, crafting exquisite sentences that capture feelings with poetic precision. His prose demands savoring; one can find oneself turning these turns of phrase over and over, re-reading and re-experiencing the words as they evoke a dirty beauty rendered all the more stunning by their grit. The language builds in the brain and haunts the heart, mining the mire for a sense of the sublime.

Denis Johnson is one of the finest writers of his generation. His National Book Award and pair of Pulitzer Prize nominations certainly don’t hurt his case. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is the last such collection we’re going to get from this seminal talent, a brilliant and idiosyncratic crawl along society’s underbelly, a place of duty and desperation where sadness and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. A remarkable work and a fitting goodbye from a literary great.

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai

Each of the stories in “Music for Wartime” is a glittering jewel on its own. There are thematic elements that carry throughout, but each stands tall on its own merits. That said, there’s no disputing that their sharing of space between these particular covers lends additional (and valuable) perspective to each story.

Makkai’s use of language is hypnotic in its elegance. The places that she creates and the people with whom she populates those places are beautifully engaging - especially those characters and events that are drawn from the annals of her own family history. She has a unique ability to marry past and present into singularly powerful narratives.

“Music for Wartime” offers a chance to experience an author who is among the very best of her generation. These stories are disparate in subject and tone, yet undeniably the product of the same insightful, intelligent voice. Any fan of exceptional writing should already be reading Rebecca Makkai; if you’re not, you’re missing something special and rare.

Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger

This is another oldie-but-goodie that I wanted to be sure to include on the list. While I acknowledge that Salinger isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – and that his relative literary importance might not be what it once was – it’s tough to argue against the importance of this collection.

Whether you’re looking at the bookending stories of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (whose familiarity with many springs largely from its placement at the beginning of this book) to the thematic culmination of “Teddy,” this is a book that still occupies a place in the American literary canon. And while the stories contained within might not resonate today the way they have in the past, they still warrant notice.

This is another collection that’s perhaps a bit much for the beach, but for those who are looking to broaden their horizons with their summer reading, “Nine Stories” could prove a solid choice.

The Pier Falls – Mark Haddon

“The Pier Falls” features nine stories that run the genre gamut. But while Haddon ranges widely in terms of the shapes and styles of these stories, the overall tone – and the themes that are being explored – wend and wind throughout the entire collection.

Haddon’s characters seem trapped in an isolation of their own making. Even with others present – family, friends, what have you – their loneliness is inescapable. This despite a palpable yearning for that feeling of connection. Desire for some form of closeness is the foundational underpinning of every one of these stories. Thriller or history, supernatural or science fiction, these nine narratives all find their own paths into the dark – and take us with them.

It’s a remarkable collection, with every individual story achieving a level of impactful engagement that would make any writer proud. Each one is a gracefully-constructed reminder that Mark Haddon is a rare and incredible talent. From top to bottom, first word to last, “The Pier Falls” is exceptional. 

The Pugilist at Rest – Thom Jones

Thom Jones was a literary sensation in the early 1990s; he made his debut with a story in The New Yorker in 1991 and published in multiple top-tier outlets within the six months following. Most of those stories landed in this collection, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993.

Jones tells stories of pain and loss through a lens of misguided masculinity and the rigors of war. These are tales of men dealing with the Vietnam War, both in the moment and its aftermath. The agonizing solitude of boxing is explored; epilepsy also serves as a central theme to many of these narratives. It’s about the fight – warfare or pugilism or simply standing as strong as possible against a disease.

“The Pugilist at Rest” is a book that has been somewhat lost in recent years – unjustly, to my mind. It’s not for everyone – things get a little visceral at times – but Jones’s was a literary voice from which we still might learn.

Tenth of December – George Saunders

There’s nothing out there quite like the writing of George Saunders. His short fiction has been a mainstay in the pages of the best publications featuring literary work. He’s another one who has found ways to explore and subvert genre tropes in intriguing ways.

“Tenth of December” is all over the place – in the best possible way. Few collections can offer such a wide array of tonal and stylistic variations while still maintaining a distinct and impactful authorial voice. You’ve got the dystopian-scented weirdness of stories like “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” but you also have the deep-rooted, grounded sadness of the title story. One characteristic they all share? Excellence.

Tough to conceive of anyone who is doing it better these days. Honestly, if you wanted to argue that Saunders is the 21st century’s finest writer of short fiction, I wouldn’t blame you. He’s certainly on the short list – and “Tenth of December” is an excellent illustration of why.

The Variable Man and Other Stories – Philip K. Dick

I almost did the same thing here as I did with Hempel, just telling you to grab a volume of collected stories and have at it. And honestly, you should feel free to do that.

But I felt like “The Variable Man and Other Stories” was an interesting and accurate representation of Dick’s weirdo sci-fi sensibility that also largely avoided some of the more troubling developments of his later years. Published over 60 years ago, it features five stories that perfectly capture the technological paranoia that marks so much of his work – including the story that would be adapted into the movie “Minority Report.” In addition, I would argue that the titular story is one of the best – if not THE best – of Dick’s early career.

Dick’s sheer prolificity means that his body of work is both massive and uneven; however, this collection features a handful of his best and serves as an entertaining and appropriate entry point.

Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut

Just like every other young man with a passion for literature, I went through a hardcore Kurt Vonnegut phase – one that still flares up from time to time. “Welcome to the Monkey House” was a big part of that – it was probably the first time that I had read speculative fiction that was viewed as worthy of inclusion at the table of “literature.”

Vonnegut was one of the 20th century’s more important voices for a reason, and while much of “Monkey House” is built on his earlier work, it was that early work that put him on the map in the first place. Stories like “Harrison Bergeron,” “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” and the titular tale would eventually lead to a more accepting attitude toward genre fiction (though my low-key favorite of the bunch might be the decidedly non-sci-fi “Who Am I This Time?”).

If you haven’t read it, you really should. And if you have read it, you should read it again.

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