St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell

I liked this collection much better than Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and it was interesting to read the first short after having read Swamplandia!, which expands upon that piece. It's an immensely entertaining and rather accessible book, despite the determined strangeness of the people and places Russell describes. The final story, after which the collection is titled, was captivating---as when, for example, one of the wolf-girls takes stock of the "purebred" girls who visit the home, throwing games of checkers in a show of misplaced pity:

I wondered what it would be like to be bred in captivity, and always homesick for a dimly sensed forest, the trees you've never seen.

The sense that there is another world, just out of reach, seems to me to pervade much of Russell's work; perhaps the beauty of her writing is that it brings this shadowland closer to us, makes the untenable suddenly seem like a hazy possibility.

The Complete Short Stories, Agnes Owens

My favorite of Owens's stories are the darkly twisted tales like "Arabella," which follows a compellingly detestable woman who pushes her four dogs in a pram and practices some sort of alternative medicine that relies on her own healing brew of excrement and other odds and ends. "The Castle," about two sisters on holiday, is grimly fantastic, as is "Roses," which tells of a bookish woman who can't seem to keep good help around -- but who needs a gardener when you have a green thumb like she does?

For a longer exploration of Owens's work, and her place in Scottish literature, Alasdair Gray's "'Honest poverty' and Agnes Owens at 70" is a good primer.

The Color Master, Aimee Bender

I love Aimee Bender's stories, but there's something about a collection of them that can become a little overwhelming -- instead of appreciating the finely wrought little worlds in and of themselves, it's easy to get lost in a universe of these worlds, dizzyingly unfamiliar and yet still recognizable.   Perhaps best not to read the collection in a single sitting, then. 

Of course, the dedicated reader will find something to suit her fancy. Bender's glorious empathetic weirdness is at its best in "Tiger Mending," a story of sisters, one of whom is a seamstress called to duty to patch together tigers coming apart at their stripes; the lush language of "Appleless" leaves you yearning for more. 

 

Stay Awake, Dan Chaon

Quick, oddly chilling stories of worlds falling apart. I found this melancholic meditation particularly touching:

She is fond of this kind of vague philosophical conundrum, and perhaps that is why her life feels sad to her even though she should be happy. She wants to find connections where there are none, meanings and structures that she can't completely discern, that are perhaps indiscernible. 

You can search, indeed, but what you find may not be what you set out for. 

 

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell

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Russell is at her best with more delightful weirdness in Vampires in the Lemon Grove: women transformed into silkworms, American presidents reincarnated as horses, tailgaters for a yearly battle between whale and krill (TEAM KRILL). Not every short story is a hit, but pieces like "Proving Up" (a tale of homesteading and the marshaling of a glass window from one unsteady outpost to another) showcase her truly outstanding talent.

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins

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In Watkins's Battleborn, a short-story collection, we hear dispatches from the great, glittering American West---breathtaking, heartbreaking commentaries on the world today. (Plus one piece about forty-niners at Angels Camp, mere miles from the Sierra town my family hails from; "The Diggings," though of a different era than most other stories in the collection,  made an odd sort of sense in that it, too, tells of great hopes dashed by the world's cruel venality.)

Beautiful writing; Watkins is certainly a writer I'll keep my eye on.

Tenth of December, George Saunders

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I'm not as gung-ho about George Saunders as everyone else seems to be; I didn't love all of the stories in this collection. But "Tenth of December," the final piece (and the one for which the collection is named), is a masterpiece writ small, as many others have already said.

Oddly enough, though, my favorite of his stories in this book was "Sticks." It's quite short, the tale of a man who adorns a metal pole in his yard with holiday-themed decorations: "Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey ... On Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veterans Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost." It's a gem, an oddity, and I love how effectively he can sketch the family's life when showing so little of it.