I am currently halfway through reading Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs, and thoroughly enjoying it. It's one of those books that seemed to pop up on everyone's top 5 or 10 or 25 last year. I am working my way through last year because I'm not (yet) cool enough to be on the cutting edge. Anyhow, something I forgot to add to my earlier thoughts on short stories is that I have always found it difficult to get through anthologies. The change between stories is too jarring to read a lot in a day for me. So for a while, like many people, I was once under the impression that short stories just didn't work for me. But I've found myself, over the past few years, becoming positively addicted to short story collections. When the stories are all by the same author, the transition between them tends to be refreshing rather than cumbersome for me. Of course, I have also been reading more lit mags, and tend to get through those fairly quickly, too, but we're usually only talking maybe 3-5 per issue. Expectations also play a role, I think. If I read something that has been placed in a best-of anthology, and I don't like or just don't connect with a story at all, the sense of disappointment and annoyance is more profound than if I read a new story in a lit mag I don't particularly care for. On the other hand, if I find something new that is unexpectedly good or surprising in some way, the excitement from that is much greater than what I would feel reading something that is already supposed to be brilliant. It's probably a matter of the fact that short stories seem more prone to be shoved aside into some dusty, historical realm of stilted expectations, while everyone is aware of the fact that new novels are being written. So for the sake of saying so, there are some great, great stories being published recently. And here is some of what I've been liking:
Yes. Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs. A collection of what so far seem to be either loosely or intricately connected stories based around life on and around an Indian reservation in Virginia. This book makes me think of some kind of beautiful and edible flower, that is, something beautiful that is also nourishing and all the more surprising for it. Narrative staples, such as traditional description and plot movement, that are often made tedious by a less skilled hand, go down surprisingly easy here. The trials and tribulations of the characters are presented in a way that is straightforward enough to highlight the side of tragedy that interests and intrigues rather than simply adding weight. I'm looking forward to finishing it. In the meantime, I'm just incredibly tickled by the fact that BELLE BOGGS has a BLOG. Oh my god, I am so sorry.
Next up, Danielle Evans with Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. I'm not going to even comment on the awesomeness of the title, as it's too obvious, but if you want to know, the line is from a poem by Donna Kate Ruskin that is quoted in a broader context inside the book. I was surprised to find, when I started reading this book, that I had actually read the opening story, "Virgins," in the Paris Review years ago. I think Danielle Evans was some sickeningly absurd age like 23 or something at the time, and the fact that she has this collection out at 26 or whatever obscene age she is now strikes me as no less appalling. I can't imagine having been mature enough to write stories like this in my early twenties, let alone disciplined enough to actually get them published in a timely manner. The stories all center (at least in part) around aspects of race and class, but they are not just about how society makes life complicated for the characters. They are also about the ways in which the characters react to the forces around them. The choices that they make reflect a non-contradictory vision of both helplessness and power that is at the same time refreshing and scary. Several of the stories focus on friendships and relationships maintained between people caught in perilous situations, and ensuing questions of personal responsibility and loyalty imbue the plots with an almost thriller-esque drive. The end result is stories that are compulsively readable and unafraid in their nuanced explorations of human nature.
This is taking longer than I thought, so it's going to have to be a to-be-continued for tomorrow. If you are one of the six or so people actually reading this, please stay tuned.