Reading a novel is a commitment. Upon purchase, you enter an agreement with the author: Should sufficient curiosity be instilled by its early pages, you'll gladly accompany the narrator on whatever strange or dull adventures lie ahead. But beautiful opening scenes don't always pay off, and some stories that sparkle on a sentence level fail to move us in the end.
Some (ahem, 2012's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction committee) might say Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, which begins with a literal splash, ends in an awkward and perplexing thud. If we're to believe the numbers eReader company Kobo offers up about The Goldfinch, most readers who embark on Donna Tartt's saga give up before the halfway mark, either bored with the arguably uneven story, or daunted by the looming page count.
Readers who'd rather test the waters before taking a plunge might do well to pick up a short story collection instead of a lengthy novel. In theory an outstanding collection should feature stories that complement one another, like an artfully arranged album, but taking in an author's words one story at a time is an excellent way to acquaint yourself. Luckily, there are a wealth of new short story collections publishing this winter. Here are five we particularly enjoyed:
There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter
What's the story?: Charles Baxter is a lesser-known master of the short story. He headed up University of Michigan's MFA program for many years, teaching now-famous writers Jess Row and Davy Rothbart. His fiction is regularly anthologized in Best American Short Stories, including a story from his new collection.
The stories are linked -- a character who plays a minor role in one may be explored deeply in another. In one, a committed couple has an argument about child-rearing, which was perplexingly predicted by a soothsayer on their honeymoon. In another, a man must confront the mistakes of his younger years when his estrange ex-wife reappears. Each story is named after a sin or a virtue, but the associations we make with, say, fidelity, are subverted by Baxter's complex characters, who practice virtues or commit sins in ways that couldn't easily by praised or criticized.
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
What's the story?: Megan Mayhew Bergman writes illuminating stories about women. In her first collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, she explores the tenuous differences between man and nature -- she's at her best when observing how other mammals take on the duty of motherhood, and relating them to our own practices.
In Almost Famous Women, she creates lively, fictionalized accounts of women who were, as the title implies, almost famous. A conjoined twin turns her abnormality into a lucrative endeavor; a quiet painter prefers to produce her work without promoting herself. By exploring the women who didn't quite make it into history books, Bergman offers thoughtful commentary on the stories we do and don't preserve.
Read an essay by Megan Mayhew Bergman about art and the family narrative.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
What's the story?: Kelly Link is known for imbuing quotidian events with a touch of the extraordinary. Her stories begin in settings we understand -- on a prime time TV show, or in a quiet neighborhood -- and slowly creep somewhere stranger and darker. In a recent interview she said, "I love ghost stories with all my heart." Her affection for the strange is evident: with stories populated with aliens and superheroes. But aside from the wacky characters, the plots she weaves feel much like real life. Any fan of Karen Russell, Ursula K. Le Guin, and any other smartly written, fantastic stories should not miss out on Kelly Link.
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
What's the story?: Edith Pearlman's previous collection, Binocular Vision, was her first to garner major acclaim, earning a National Book Critics Circle award and a National Book Award nomination. With it, her reputation was transformed from that of a well-respected writer to a household name among the short story crowd. She's written consistently for decades about the oddities of everyday life, and Honeydew perfectly showcases her ability to do so deftly. In "Tenderfoot," a widowed protagonist works as a manicurist, and her position as a servant to her customers allows her to eavesdrop discreetly. One suspects the job is not unlike Pearlman's, as the author prides herself in being a quiet, astute observer.
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman
What's the story?: If Kelly Link's collection merely whets your appetite for fantastical fictions, you needn't look further than a new collection by sci-fi stalwart Neil Gaiman to get your fill. Gaiman super fans will delight in the stories, although some have been previously published elsewhere. Some of the content is brand new, including "Black Dog," which exists in the world of American Gods, one of Gaiman's earlier books. Another story, "A Calendar of Tales," is comprised of Twitter responses to fans. There's much to revel in here, especially for those who've never read anything by Gaiman.