We hear it all the time from people who walk through Turnrow, their eyes wide with all the books they would like to take home — "How does anyone find time to read?"
How does anyone find time to bathe or make love or go to church or call loved ones on the telephone? We carve out time in life to do the things that improve us, that fill a need within. A good book can do that just as well as any of those other things. Maybe it's not the act of reading which intrudes upon one's time but the risk involved — that with all the books flooding the market every season, you might choose a bad one.
This is one reason we started the Turnrow 20, to consolidate the best books of the moment and to improve your odds of taking home a great book and making your sliver of reading time worthwhile, not simply some disappointed reaction to a crass act of commercial exploitation.
And we've often said that there may be no better form of literature for time-starved Americans than the short story. There are enough great artists in the field that you have plenty of collections to choose from, writers with the ability to deliver the power of a novel in the time-span of a magazine article. Already in 2012 we have two remarkable short story collections on our 20 list that will be remembered, at least by us, for years and years to come.
The first book we found for the new list — and its inclusion was assured as soon as we finished the first story, "The Bees" — is Dan Chaon's Stay Awake. We are long-time admirers of Chaon's work (notably his novel Await Your Reply), and for years we've looked forward to new stories. But how, we wondered, would he ever top his incredible collection Among the Missing? We delved into the new collection with measured expectations, but we were astounded to find that he had, improbably, published a new batch that was as good if not better than the last.
These are stories of parents, siblings, mothers, fathers and spouses suffering various forms of love and loss, but the writer is not trying to manipulate or depress you. The prose is simple, plainly elegant, grounded in reality, and yet there is something remarkable, even supernatural, going on within, something none of us were quite capable of explaining yet completely and wholly in awe of. Finishing each story is like coming up for air. It's not grief, though it's equally as powerful. Perhaps it's something more like dread or wonder, something achieved through the author's voice, which walks the spindle-thin line between humor and misery. The overall effect may be the finest evocation of the strange, surreal beauty that can be glimpsed through the haze of sadness.
We'd be hard-pressed to tell you who has published more affecting short fiction in the realm of this particular American-style melancholia since Raymond Carver.
The second new collection is a superb work entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. This is the author's third and arguably finest book, a collection of eight staggeringly good stories, deeply rooted in the author's Jewish roots. They echo the great masters — Carver, Singer, Gogol, Roth — but the overall effect is pure Englander.
We were entranced by the opening title story, an homage to Raymond Carver, in which two couples sit around in loose conversation. It's almost like a stage play in its set-up, deceptively simple and fraught with genuine, subtle tension. After the second story, "Sister Hills," we were blown away. Reading this fable about the settlement of Israel is like listening to a classically trained musician deliver a flawless performance. Story after story, Englander is equally, frighteningly adept at the coming-of-age ("How We Avenged the Blums"), the absurd ("Peep Show"), the darkly comic ("Camp Sunset"), the familial ("Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side"), and the profoundly tragic ("Free Fruit for Young Widows").
This is that rare collection that, like a good album you never tire of hearing, contains no duds, nothing that slips through the cracks. Each tale is distinct, memorable and essential. As you can see, it's difficult to mention just one, or for that matter not to mention one, the last being "The Reader," which was especially dear to us as it tells the story of an accomplished writer on a lackluster book tour who is met at each stop by only one audience member, the same groupie who insists on hearing a reading night after night.
Do yourself a favor and pick up these marvelous works. The time is yours, so make it count.