Thirteen new stories and the contents of three previous books, The Visiting Privilege (Knopf, $30) is a stunning retrospective that shows Joy Williams as a fierce, uncompromising writer and an astute observer from the very first story, where a dying woman’s husband notes that the medication was dispensed “not for his wife but for her blood.” Deftly capturing the intimate impersonality of health care, Williams is equally unforgiving of America in general, where “having a gun was like having a pet or a child,” and where the wild west has become “many thousands of acres of grazing land with not a single creature grazing.” Then there’s Williams’s way with children. One boy envisions god as a magician who hypnotizes people like sheep so they’ll go calmly about their self-destruction. A little girl shows an aptitude for a career as a mortician. Many of these kids have lost a parent, some have stood by and watched—or even caused—deaths. They are wise—or at least startling—beyond their years. Meanwhile, the adults can’t seem to grow up. They have trouble making decisions. Their dogs meet bad ends after suffering canine versions of their owners’ neuroses. Even the “clouds aren’t as pretty as they use to be,” but people go on, looking for consolation, and settling for distraction with road trips, gin, and stories of “spectacular wrecks” they don’t realize they are part of.
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.