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Wednesday, 20 February 2019 14:04

‘Aerialists’ a literary high-wire act

There are a number of ways for an author to assemble a collection of short fiction. Some just repurpose whatever stories they’ve published in various literary magazines and other outlets and put them together. Others develop their stories around some sort of shared thematic or stylistic tendencies. Still others use go the “novel in stories” route, using their tales as chapters of a connected whole. And some follow more than one of these tenets.

Mark Mayer’s collection “Aerialists” (Bloomsbury, $26) falls into the latter category. This collection of nine stories draws from Mayer’s previous work – three of these stories have appeared elsewhere. His stories are rich in characterization, very internal and bleakly funny. And as his framing device – his connective tissue, as it were – he uses the notion of the circus.

Now, that’s not to say that these stories are all about the circus. In fact, none of them are. Their names are derived from circus figures, from the opening “Strongwoman” to the titular tale to the collection’s closer “The Ringmaster.” But while these names aren’t to be taken as literal representations of circus tradition, they are meant to evoke the unique feeling inspired by the circus, that mélange of joy and fear and unsettling otherness that you can’t get anywhere else.

Another common bond that these stories share – a very important one – is that they are excellent.

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From its very beginnings, speculative fiction has been used to comment on the world in which we live. Sometimes, it’s a lens that allows closer examination and subsequent extrapolation; other times, it’s a mirror that forces us to look at a potentially unsettling reflection. The very best often does both.

The new collection “A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers” (One World, $17) – edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – offers numerous examples of just how good that very best can be. They are stories that look forward from our current fractured place and project just 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.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 09 January 2019 13:56

‘The Trash Detail’ a treasure

Too often, short fiction gets short shrift.

Allowing a piece to be just long enough isn’t easy. It’s a real skill, one that not every writer possesses. To create a good short story, the creator has to be willing to embrace their creation on its own terms. Shaving away the superfluous until all that is left is the tale that is to be told. The truly gifted are those who can find that tale again and again.

You’ll find plenty of that just-right fiction in “The Trash Detail” (New Rivers Press, $18), a collection of stories from local author Bruce Pratt. It’s an assemblage of 17 stories, each devoted to spending exactly as much time as necessary to complete their journey – no more, no less. These pieces are explorations of the sublime and the ridiculous, populated by men and women who seek to understand the world in which they live and the space within it that they themselves occupy. Every story is dry and sharp.

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Tuesday, 06 March 2018 16:28

The art of war - ‘Bring Out the Dog’

From every war comes art inspired by that war. The pressures and pains of conflict have proven fertile ground for creators since the days of ancient Greece and Homer’s “Iliad.” There’s loads of room for disparate feelings and emotions - hurt, heart, humor, hubris and much more – in tales from the battlefield.

America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different; some remarkable art has sprung from those fallow fields. Music, movies, literature – all have found ways to reflect the people, places and ideas of our country’s lengthy hitch in the Middle East.

With his debut collection “Bring Out the Dog” (Random House, $27), Will Mackin has produced something that holds up alongside the very best war literature of the 21st century. These remarkable stories – 11 in all – are inspired by Mackin’s time deployed with a special ops task force in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They began life as notes jotted down on torn-off flaps of cardboard boxes or even on his own forearm. From there, these thoughts and observations made their way into Mackin’s journals. And those journals served as the foundational material to build this book.

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The best short fiction embraces the limitations of the form and turns them into foundational strengths. There’s a power in brevity that many writers can never fully harness, their work coming off as either overwritten or clumsily truncated.

But when someone displays a true mastery, literary brilliance often follows.

And so it is with “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (Random House, $27), a quintet of stories from the late Denis Johnson that explore the writer’s longstanding fascination with the freaks and fakes that exist on the fringes of society. Each one of these five tales can be held up as a masterpiece and a masterclass, powerfully evocative and poetically emotive even as the unsavory seediness and/or deliberate disconnect displayed by the characters bubbles and oozes to the surface.

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Elizabeth Strout’s latest an exceptional, engaging literary feat

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Short story collection finds the exquisite within the unpleasant

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016 14:03

Love and loneliness - 'The Pier Falls'

Collection features wide range of stylistic diversity

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Collection offers look at society's fringes and failures

Short fiction is relatively easy to write. Good short fiction, however, is quite difficult. Any writer can tell a story in a few thousand words. Telling a story that makes an impact and moves the reader in those same few thousand words is an art that many writers will never master.

Sam Lipsyte's newest book 'The Fun Parts' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $24) is that rare collection that carries that art forward into full bloom. It's a baker's dozen worth of postcards from the edge; each of the 13 stories is a glimpse at the people existing on the fringe. The characters populating Lipsyte's literary landscape aren't the sort that the reader is meant to love or even to like, to be truthful but they are brought to life with sharply-honed cleverness and furious glee.

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