Adam Johnson follows-up his Pulitzer-winning second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, with this collection of rich, expansive stories. Winning this year’s National Book Award for fiction, Fortune Smiles (Random House, $27) showcases Johnson’s craft and emotional reach. “Nirvana” portrays a programmer whose wife is suffering from a severe auto-immune disease. The woman finds solace in the unlikely pairing of a digital simulacrum of the President of the United States and a soundtrack of Nirvana music. This sounds like a writing prompt: who can turn these plot elements into a compelling statement about adulthood, suffering, pop culture, and technology? Well, the answer is right here. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” a former sswarden of a Stasi prison denies many details about his past, even as irrefutable evidence surfaces; the warden’s ostensibly innocent revisionism makes him the most fascinating character here. And in the title story, Johnson returns to Korea, scene of Orphan Master’s Son, chronicling the efforts of two North Korean defectors to adjust to their new lives in Seoul. From the range of his subjects to the depth of his treatment of complex themes, Johnson’s mastery makes each story distinct and unforgettable.
Any short-story aficionado would be instantly drawn to a collection featuring writers of the caliber of Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor as editors, and 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), a hefty centennial celebration of the longtime Best American Short Stories series, presents an unparalleled cross-section of work written over the past century and gathered from throughout the country—and there’s a gorgeous cover, to boot. You’ll get a kick out of Moore’s characteristic wry humor and acerbic wisdom in her introduction. And for those of you who loved The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike, fear not: Moore and Pitlor have not repeated earlier selections. These stories are arranged chronologically, and every decade comes with a brief introduction that reacquaints readers with the stories’ wider socio-cultural significance and grounds them firmly in their historical moment. The commentary draws our attention, too, to the rise and fall of the literary journals that fostered many of the writers represented here and provided first homes for the works we reprint, reread, and revere today. This collection is a must-have for short story lovers and aspiring writers. Here, you’ll find the masters.
Almost fifty years after publishing the landmark collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William H. Gass returns to short fiction with Eyes (Knopf, $26), his follow-up to Middle C, recent recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ William Dean Howells Medal for most distinguished American novel of the past five years. In Eyes Gass returns to storytelling with his old word-drunk power, and the collection features not only some of his most beautiful work, but a cautious optimism that has often been in short supply for this writer. As delightfully fanciful as the four concluding short stories are—in which Gass gives voice to a piano, a chair, and a boy’s box of toys—the collection earns its place on your crowded shelf with its two opening novellas alone. “In Camera” relates the life and death of a photographic print shop, seen from the off-kilter perspective of its proprietor’s Igor-like assistant. “Charity” refracts its title through its protagonist’s short lifetime of experiences, seeing charity as much in a lover’s embrace as in a canned food drive. Few writers can match Gass for richness of prose, and here we have some of his most poignant material—stories that see language and art as eyes that create the physical world around us.