Lydia Davis is one of those writers who defies categorization. Short story writer? Poet? Social critic? Satirist? She is arguably all of the above. Can’t and Won’t, her most recent collection of short stories (a term used loosely here), is largely made up of entries that barely fill a page. One reviewer has described her stories as bite-sized – as if they are tastes of a moment, place, or experience. A MacArthur Award winner and superb translator of Proust and Flaubert, Davis is also a master at evoking the absurdity and comedy of everyday life, sometimes in the form of a letter, comment, or dream fragment. But she doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the human condition either, confronting with raw candor the anxieties that come with contemplations of death, loneliness, and other life mysteries. Most of all, her writing is a testament to the power of brevity and exactitude in prose.
Heather O'Neill takes children's tales, in the broadest sense of the term, and re-envisions them as imaginative adult fantasies in Daydreams of Angels, her first short story collection. The medium suits her. Whether it is a town full of Nureyev clones plotting their escapes, a young woman visited by a very attractive angel, or mothers plucking newborns from the sea like oysters, each story has a sublime strangeness about it. Some dark, some light, these surreal tales expose the reader to the bizarre and beautiful.
Anthony Marra announced his presence a couple of years ago with his prize-winning debut novel set in war-ravaged Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His new book, The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth, $25), returns readers to the former-Soviet region and the lives of people young and old whose experiences are marked by war, crime, and the devastating effects of a totalitarian regime. In Marra’s stories we meet an accomplished ballerina and her granddaughter, an artist who’s tasked with erasing disgraced people from official photographs, petty criminals, and myriad mothers, fathers, sons and daughters all trying to survive, first in the USSR, then in a Russia of chaos and nouveau riche. While each story is full and complete on its own, the links between them resonate in ingenious and surprising ways to create a tremendously satisfying whole.