In his latest collection of short stories, Justin Taylor gives us characters whose vulnerability is easy to see through the scenes of their seemingly mundane lives. The book is funny and smart and includes a group of college friends dealing with life in their late 20’s, a chronic underachiever, and a divorced dad trying to figure out how to connect with his children. As the characters recur in story after story we see them grow and change, never losing sight of how they got to where they are today. Taylor is a master at using his characters to teach us about ourselves, and this collection shows how powerful his insight is.
American Innovations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), Rivka Galchen’s astonishing debut short-story collection, is smart, slyly funny, and usually at least a bit off-kilter. In the opening story, “The Lost Order,” a woman answers her phone and, rather than tell the caller that he’s dialed the wrong number, takes the man’s order for Chinese food delivery. The title story is an homage to Gogol’s “The Nose”; in this version, a woman comes home from abroad to discover that she’s grown a breast on her back. In “Wild Berry Blue,” a girl having breakfast with her dad at McDonald’s encounters her first love, a heavily tattooed, recovering drug addict working behind the counter. Galchen’s stories can be strange and mysterious, but it’s difficult to read them without grinning and marveling at her charm, imagination, and command of language.
(This book cannot be returned.)
Lydia Davis’s stories are dreams. They’re also letters and lists, animal fables and obituaries; others recount episodes from Flaubert’s life. Her stories—but are they stories? Can’t and Won’t (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), the cannily defiant eighth book of fiction by the noted translator freshens the world and teases the imagination, as stories do; though Davis is as apt to use crisp observations and tart comments as she is recognizable plots to achieve this end, she is also meticulous in recreating scenes of daily life. This very precision is marvelously suggestive; why exactly these details? Are any essential to shaping a life, or are they all more or less arbitrary? Change one—and new plots, new characters, new stories will emerge. Along with hints of such untold tales, Davis has a delightful and disarming brand of wordplay; a story about an odd crime—the disappearance of salamis—turns into a parable of identity theft when news reports call the salamis “sausages.” Then there’s the meticulous journal of how three cows in a neighboring field spend their days—a rumination on ruminants.