If a group of short stories is called a "collection," what do you call a collection of collections? For the literati, it's simply called "May." Last month was short-story month, and to celebrate the short form, I read several excellent collections and one lousy one:

Tenth of December by George Saunders: Saunders is America's pre-eminent short-story writer, and his latest collection demonstrates why. Daringly inventive, Saunders uses social satire and cynical humor to show us where we're headed. Reading Saunders is like flicking on a pair of high beams while driving down a deserted road at night and instantly seeing more than you thought was out there, and—this is the important part—you can't unsee it. 

Favorite story: "Escape from Spiderhead"

Favorite line: "No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water / light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform them (transform us!) into earth's offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression."

The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: Novelist and short-story writer Sam Lipsyte specializes in literary humor, and at the sentence level, he's utterly brilliant. 

Favorite story: "Ode to Oldcorn," which I read for the first time in 2001 when it was published in a curious art journal called J&L Illustrated. I photocopied the story, mailed it to friends, taught it in classes and kept it close for years and years. I thought seeing the story in this new collection might change the way I felt about it, but it still has that grim magic, conjures up a world both forgotten and new and teaches the reader something essential.

Opening sentence: "Oldcorn was a shot-putter from the hippie days. He was my hero for a while. I was a shot-putter from the long-after-the-hippie-days-were-gone days. It was called the Reagan era, but I learned that only later."

What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life by Marie Calloway: For a book of stories about sex and degradation, I found the writing to be grindingly dull. These autobiographical tales tease the reader into wondering where the boundary between fact and fiction lies. The naked photos, including a close up of Calloway with a mouth full of semen, make suspension of disbelief impossible. 

Favorite story: "Jeremy Lin"

Typical sentence: "I wasn't sure if I was attracted to him or not, but said that I was because I was confused as to how he felt towards me and wanted to know."

Any Deadly Thing by Roy Kesey: Most short-story writers are like baseball pitchers. The really good ones have four or five different pitches, but most only have two or three that they've perfected and go to over and over again. Kesey is more like a five-tool outfielder: He can do it all. In Any Deadly Thing, he collects stories about lovable losers, tales of hardscrabble redemption, experimental fiction, Bosnian war stories and expat tales set in Beijing apartments and Peruvian jungles. There's no limit to the man's imagination.

Favorite scene: In the story "Wall," the protagonist attempts to save his relationship by taking his wife out on their anniversary and ends up in a bar filled with hookers. 

Favorite quote: "She asked the girls how much for a three-way, how much for a four-way, then turned and told Ernie that he wouldn't be one of the ways."

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa: First of all, Revenge is a dumb title. In Japan, this collection was originally published as Kamoku na Shigai, Midara na Tomurai. I don't speak Japanese, but the translations I found online invoked the words "corpse" and "funeral" and made no mention of revenge. Neither do the stories. Nevertheless, this fascinating collection of interconnected stories is unlike anything I've ever read. They're not crime stories, yet there are lots of bodies. They're not ghost stories, though many of the characters are haunted by the past. There's a dash of the erotic, a trace of the macabre and a sinister mood that stifles the many nameless characters who are drawn to one another for reasons they don't understand. Ogawa's prose is stridently straightforward—like Joyce Carol Oates on downers—and reads like a David Lynch film. 

Favorite story: "Tomatoes and the Full Moon," in which the protagonist reads a novel that shares a title with the story that opens the collection. His thoughts on that echo my feelings about Ogawa's writing. 

Favorite quote: "Her prose was unremarkable, as were the plots and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again."

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


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