Orientation: And Other Stories by Daniel Orozco and Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross
I once heard someone say that only English majors like short stories, which sadly seems truer than I’d like to admit. Short fiction is a lovely, underrated medium—one with few popular literary heavyweights to popularize the form. This is the part where I’m supposed to introduce a couple collections that will change the minds of short story haters, but the truth is that the eccentric characters and unconventional places they take us can never really have broad appeal—and that’s largely what makes short stories so much fun.
Orientation: And Other Stories is a surprisingly varied debut collection from Daniel Orozco that offers brief glimpses into irregular lives—the sorts of characters who are too strange to carry a novel, but can certainly be understood in a short story. “Somoza’s Dream” is a about an exiled dictator and the people who surround him; “Officer’s Weep” is a love story between two cops in the form of a police report. My favorite story is the wonderfully inventive “Hunger Tales,” a series of vignettes that captures all the emotions that we associate with eating in the span of 20 pages. Orozco’s stories will remind you of George Saunders, but a little darker and with a lot more heart.
Adam Ross’s Ladies and Gentlemen is similar in its contemplation of ambiguous lives, but perhaps a bit crueler in that exploration. Ross made waves last year with his debut novel Mr. Peanut, though these short stories are far less violent or grotesque. Ladies and Gentlemen doesn’t have the same moments as Orientation, but it’s a more cohesive collection, tonally and thematically. Some of the characters and stories are relatable—the brotherly conflict of “When in Rome” is universal for anyone with a sibling—and some are intentionally less so, like “The Suicide Room,” a cruel tragedy about two college students who challenge each other to escalating dares. But perhaps the most heartbreaking story is the opener, “Futures,” about a man duped in his desperate pursuit of a job at a mysterious company called Auratec. I don’t want to give away the ending, but trust me when I say that it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking, as emotionally resonant as any novel.
Read If You: Like short fiction, or believe you could ever fall in love with an English major.
Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner
There’s no shortage of sweetness in Vaclav & Lena, a romance that opens with its titular lovers at the adorable age of ten, preparing to perform a magic show on the boardwalk of Coney Island. They are the children of Russian immigrants, but from very different upbringings. Vaclav’s home is warm; his mother Raisa is a tough but generous figure. Lena, on the other hand, doesn’t have a real family, and barely has a place to live. She sleeps in a disheveled apartment with her aunt, a stripper (really, a prostitute), a fact revealed in one of the book’s best chapters when Raisa walks Lena home, puts her to bed, and cleans the apartment. As it turns out, Raisa does this every night.
Vaclav is the magician, but it’s Lena who actually performs the disappearing act. One day, without explanation, she vanishes from Vaclav’s life. The book jumps ahead seven years, when they meet again, and their relationship becomes something more than a childhood friendship. The last act feels a little rushed, but the revelation Vaclav comes to in learning the circumstances around Lena’s disappearance is handled with a rare narrative deftness.
Also, as much as the book is about Vaclav and Lena, it’s about Vaclav and his mother, and both relationships are told convincingly and honestly. I wish Vaclav himself had a bit more depth to him, but it’s easy to accept him as the dopey, naive narrator of the book.
I’m not one for love stories—I realize that saying so makes me sound crotchety, maybe cynical—but the underlying darkness of Vaclav & Lena keeps it from being too saccharine. I think it’s important to know that Haley Tanner met her husband after he was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma at the age of 25. I learned this long after I read the book in a heartbreaking video on the New York Times website. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever watched, and it brings together the central lesson of Tanner’s novel: love doesn’t solve tragic circumstances—it perseveres in spite of them.
Read If You: Have ever felt like you lost someone that could never be replaced.