THE COLLECTED STORIES OF LYDIA DAVIS Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.
The short stories of Lydia Davis are psychic scabs that refuse to heal, though their festering is rarely a symptom of neglect. Quite the opposite. Davis seems unable to stop herself from picking at the emotional wounds she worries with the supple forensics of her language — be the source of the pain romantic rejection or one character’s pained ambivalence toward a father, mother, child, lover, cats, cockroaches. Yes, cockroaches. And yet, for all this literary revulsion, stories like “Story” and “Break It Down” pulse with breathtaking beauty and are seeded throughout with a yearning humanity that occasionally blossoms from the murky mulch of neurotic obsession. Her stories, finally amassed in their entirety in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, are less about self-examination than the sort of relentless self-questioning that can’t be answered. In this literary universe, every door contains a window, and every window turns out to be a mirror. Problems refract infinitely, and Davis’ wrung-out epiphanies arrive more through exhaustion than revelation.
At first glance — and sometimes that’s all you get, the stories are so condensed — Davis appears to be mining a similar territory as Kafka or, more recently, Thomas Bernhard. The stories are dreamy, tangential, highly intellectualized affairs, almost completely devoid of dialogue or plot, and their detached meandering can smack of modernist elitism. But — and this is the benefit of finally having everything in one impressive brick — the cumulative effect of Davis’ stories, stacked end to end, is one of gritty psychological realism. She captures the rhythms, cadences and spontaneous flip-flopping of peoples’ lonely inner lives, and her emotional honesty, honed to a scalpel’s edge by her artistry, performs a shocking autopsy on our deepest privacies. What results is unique in contemporary literature: a kind of quiet awe for the cyclical monstrosity of the mundane, the everyday torture of being trapped inside one’s own skull. — Rick Levin
LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo. Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99. Finalist, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Taylor’s National Book Award finalist is a trio of stories of increasing creativity. In “Goblin Fruit,” a perpetually mortified high school girl is tempted by a too-good-to-be-true young man; in “Spicy Little Curses Such as These,” an old woman who regularly bargains with demons for the lives of children makes a specific deal with deadly and unexpected consequences. Both stories are solid, but Taylor’s third and longest piece, “Hatchling,” is by far the book’s strongest.
In London, 13-year-old Esme’s unusual life is turned even stranger when she hears wolves in the city and one of her eyes changes color. The past has come to claim her — a past full of shapeshifters and soulless, coldly curious creatures called the Druj. The whys and the hows of the Druj and their powers are explained through the stories of Esme’s mother and of the Druj who tricked a queen into beginning to regain her soul. Taylor’s mythology is elaborate, the cruel world of the Druj brutal and believable. Each story is prefaced with what amounts to a visual preview by Taylor’s husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, whose panels are black, white and tempting red. Taylor’s language is lush and precise, and the images she conjures — whether of a modern girl frustrated by her old-fashioned family, or of a young woman growing up silent in British India, or of the stone towers and kitten-eating beasts of the Druj — recall classic fairy tales while simultaneously suggesting new myths about love and heartbreak and growth. — Molly Templeton
THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Knopf, $24.95.
Fiction in the U.S. often addresses the loneliness of immigrants, and Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) goes one better in this collection: The immigrants start out bereft, think their lives will improve in the States but end up even more isolated, lost across the gulf between Nigeria and the country where they’ve arrived. Not everyone in these stories is an immigrant, but the stories set in Nigeria (especially the fine, aching “Ghosts”) also showcase women and men whose restless pain comes from lives unmoored by circumstances beyond their control.
“On Monday of Last Week” mixes a familiar trope — the immigrant nanny of color who regards a U.S. white father’s neurotic child care requests with amusement and impatience — with a deeply affecting portrait of a woman who yearns to be seen, to be recognized for who she is. Other stories recount women mourning children, sisters, cousins, their ways of life gone either into a political void or into the new world. Like other collections by writers living in two worlds, The Thing Around Your Neck opens windows into both cultures, making use of personal pain and unending toil (for acceptance, for love, for resolution) to give outsiders a small way in. — Suzi Steffen
TOO MUCH HAPPINESS by Alice Munro. Knopf, $25.95. A New York Times Notable Book of 2009.
Alice Munro knows not to mess with a good thing. While other brilliant short story writers (*cough Lorrie Moore/Ethan Canin cough*) seem to think they must write novels to be considered real writers, Munro knows so much better. And I thank her for it. The View from Castle Rock, her book before Too Much Happiness, offered a tour de force collection of tales about Scots families (one in particular) immigrating to Canada. Too Much Happiness continues in the historical vein with the last, longest story, a near-novella about the last few days of 19th-century mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. That’s far from the strongest story in a book whose title provides a wry commentary on Munro’s characters. As a matter of fact, the title story doesn’t fit neatly with the rest of Munro’s stories, but no matter; she loves to write about a full, complex life, and Kovalevsky certainly had that. Her other narrators come from different backgrounds. Some of them make foolish choices, let others control them, don’t know how to say no; a few, notably the narrator in the stunningly good “Free Radicals,” tell tales to ease their way, to save their lives.
Munro knows how to recount the joy of childhood friendships and the darkness hidden at the heart of any bond. In a sentence, she can deconstruct a lifetime of careful defense against the self; in an instant, a nice girl can become a killer. The world surprises her characters, and they surprise themselves, not generally in a happy way — and then they go on with their lives, trying to transcend the past and figure out how to struggle and survive. — Suzi Steffen
WAR DANCES by Sherman Alexie. Grove Press, $23.
After years of writing thinly fictionalized (and gloriously literary) versions of his childhood in various short story collections and novels, Alexie won the National Book Award a couple of years ago for his young adult book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. That was a fine book, but War Dances is, occasionally, far better. Alexie’s focus has shifted to adulthood, to the burdens of being a father, dealing with the loss of his own father and recognizing how time fails humans as we strive for connection. And Alexie mixes poetry with his short stories, poetry that walks the edges of irony and regret, sweet and bitter, postmodern and anticolonial while using the plainest language to tell complex tales.
Two weak stories, the unfunny “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” and the painfully bad “The Senator’s Son” (it’s OK, Mr. Alexie, if you never, ever try again to get in the head of a homophobic, privileged, straight white Republican boy), undermine the book, but they’re placed well and redeemed by the poetry and by the two strongest stories: the incandescent title work with its surreal hospital corridors and “Salt,” in which an 18-year-old newspaper intern starts to learn about living and dying with dignity. This collection moves Alexie beyond his youth, and it’s almost all the better for it. — Suzi Steffen