Brevity Is Bliss: The Best Short Story Collections to Read Now | SignatureReads.com

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By May 11, 2017

Sometimes, the most impactful stories are the shortest ones — the ones that explore emotional highs and lows within the span of a only a few pages. Though these stories may be brief in length, they are vast in meaning, and are nothing short of breathtaking.

In honor of Short Story Month, Signature compiled a list of excellent short story collections that span a variety of topics and facets of life. The collections listed below are all newly released this year or forthcoming in the next few weeks. Each and every collection touches upon something we all know too well: the delicacy of humanity, and all of the love, tragedy, and recovery that comes with it.

  • The cover of the book Things We Lost in the Fire

    Things We Lost in the Fire
    by Mariana Enriquez

    Argentina provides the backdrop for this collection of sometimes disturbing and always provocative stories by Buenos Aires-based writer Mariana Enriquez. From an unlikely serial killer to a curious form of protest to a particularly strange instance of hikikomori, the stories in this collection will mesmerize you.

  • The cover of the book The World to Come

    The World to Come
    Stories by Jim Shepard

    Award-winning writer Jim Shepard is back with his fifth collection of stories, courtesy of The World to Come. The author takes us on adventures spanning geography and time in these ten stories, which touch on war, family, grief, disillusionment, and beyond.

  • The cover of the book Bit Rot

    Bit Rot
    stories + essays by Douglas Coupland

    In his 1991 novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland debuted his straightforward, edgy, intelligent style of writing while popularizing the phrase we needed to define the post-Boom generation. He’s hardly slowed down since and now presents his new collection, Bit Rot. Ever one to find inspiration in the changing times, this collection of essays and stories focuses on new-millennium life.

  • The cover of the book Hot Little Hands

    Hot Little Hands
    Fiction by Abigail Ulman

    Australian writer Abigail Ulman’s fiction debut, Hot Little Hands, was met with ample praise from critics when it landed in May 2016. In nine stories, Ulman introduces us to young women who are in various states of coming of age – and all the while entirely relatable – while imparting the perfect amount of humor and poignancy simultaneously.

  • The cover of the book What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

    What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
    Stories by Helen Oyeyemi

    Award-winning British novelist Helen Oyeyemi had, until last year, stuck to novels and plays for her life in fiction. When her much-anticipated debut story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, landed in March 2016, it was everything we wanted it to be and more. And we’re not alone in thinking so; the book has landed on some of the most respected Best Of lists out there. With the theme of keys at its center, Oyeyemi’s first collection is as playful as it is thoughtful and will keep you captivated until the very last page.

  • The cover of the book Cockfosters

    Cockfosters
    Stories by Helen Simpson

    Helen Simpson continues her legacy of being one of the finest internationally acclaimed short story writers with the release of this cynical, yet tender collection. These nine stories revolve around the ever-perplexing concepts of time and aging, and take us from today’s London and Berlin to the wild west of the USA and the wilder shores of Mother Russia.

  • The cover of the book The Family Markowitz

    The Family Markowitz
    Fiction by Allegra Goodman

    These witty short stories are linked through three generations of Markowitzes: Rose, the irritable matriarch; Henry, her art-loving son living in London; Rose’s younger son Ed, a terrorism scholar at Georgetown; and Ed’s daughter Miriam, the medical student who, to her parents’ dismay, becomes an Orthodox Jew. Goodman follows the family’s everyday experiences in such a way that makes the whole family come alive between the pages.

  • The cover of the book These Heroic, Happy Dead

    These Heroic, Happy Dead
    Stories by Luke Mogelson

    Luke Mogelson’s debut collection provides a raw and intimate look at lives that have been transformed by war: soldiers, their families, government officials, and civilians. These ten stories showcase the unexpected cost of war, and the people who have paid the price.

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  • The cover of the book Homesick for Another World

    Homesick for Another World
    Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh

    Award-winning fiction writer Ottessa Moshfegh is known for her short stories for a reason. She has the unique ability to develop characters that represent the human condition in an unfiltered way—they’re lonely and dissatisfied, desperate for something more. These stories are for anyone that has ever felt a deep homesickness for a place they’ve never been before.

  • The cover of the book Signals

    Signals
    New and Selected Stories by Tim Gautreaux

    Widely celebrated novelist Tim Gautreaux proves that he is also a master of short stories with this timeless twelve-story collection about decision-making and morality. Gautreaux deviates from writing about history with this collection and instead focuses on the contemporary life of tight-knit, working class communities in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Minnesota.

  • The cover of the book Mexico

    Mexico
    Stories by Josh Barkan

    International Short Story Prize Winner Josh Barkan has, yet again, captured the essence of humanity by exploring the lives of different people striving for one common goal: peace. Cartel violence seems to make this goal impossible to achieve, with danger lurking around every corner. These stories are about overcoming fear and finding love in the midst of great loss.

  • The cover of the book Living in the Weather of the World

    Living in the Weather of the World
    Stories by Richard Bausch

    Award-winning novelist and universally acclaimed short story writer Richard Bausch showcases his talent in thirteen remarkable tales of human experience. He gives a voice to those that are suffering from troubles with family and marital woes, the tragedy of suicide, the divide between friends and lovers, and the delicate transience of love.

  • The cover of the book What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

    What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
    Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah

    One of the most anticipated books of 2017, this debut collection explores the bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, and to the places they call home. Each character in this collection experiences something that changes their life forever, and must learn to cope with unexpected repercussions.

  • The cover of the book The Pier Falls

    The Pier Falls
    And Other Stories by Mark Haddon

    This collection from the beloved, bestselling author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes the reader on a journey from England to Mars, and from ancient Greece to deep in the Amazon. Largely based on history, myth, folklore, and modern life, The Pier Falls combines sci-fi and realism to form nine unforgettable stories.

  • The cover of the book Trajectory

    Trajectory
    Stories by Richard Russo

    Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo veers from his typical blue-collar profile of his characters in these four extensive stories. This time around, we look at the relationships between a professor and his plagiarizing student, a father and a son, two brothers, and a novelist and his sick wife. This collection reminds us that people are flawed, and inflict pain on those they love the most.

  • The cover of the book Wedding Stories

    Wedding Stories
    Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

    A brilliant, romantic matrimony of a variety of works by famous writers from across the past two centuries. The stories collected here encompass the lives of all kinds of people– young and old, rich and poor, divorced and widowed, and single mothers and fathers– all seeking happiness and satisfaction in marriage, even when life doesn’t go as planned.

  • The cover of the book Men Without Women

    Men Without Women
    Stories by Haruki Murakami

    This collection of short stories centers on seven men dealing with emotional tragedy: be it a broken heart, a love triangle, or even death. All seven men seem to feel lost and alone, but soon become overwhelmed with passion as they cross paths with mysterious women.


 

Be sure to download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing, get yourself a [collection] from this list, dive into [reading short stories], and take part in celebrating Short Story Month with us.

BOOKS @ signature-reads.com

Alice Walker Quote to Get Your Mind Right Tonight

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t
have any.

—Alice Walker

 

 

I, Too by Langston Hughes 

I, Too

I, too, sing America. 

I am the darker brother. 

They send me to eat in the kitchen 

When company comes, 

But I laugh, 

And eat well, 

And grow strong. 

Tomorrow, 

I’ll be at the table 

When company comes. 

Nobody’ll dare 

Say to me, 

“Eat in the kitchen,” 

Then. 

Besides, 

They’ll see how beautiful I am 

And be ashamed— 

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland #2) by Catherynne M. Valente with illustrations by Ana Juan

“Hearts set about finding other hearts the moment they are born, and between them, they weave nets so frightfully strong and tight that you end up bound forever in hopeless knots, even to the shadow of a beast you knew and loved long ago.”

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland, #2)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland #2) by Catherynne M. Valente with illustrations by Ana Juan

Quote on Editing the Work of [Other] Writers by Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books, an industry legacy and a great man, who passed away today at age 87.

The New York Review of Books Obituary 

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

                                         —Robert Silvers

Robert Silvers, co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books , died today, March 20, 2017, after an illness. He was 87 years old.

Are We Raising Racists? | NYTimes.com | March 14, 2017

DES MOINES — Last year at this time, my 7-year-old was running around singing the praises of George Washington. I was happy to see her so engaged with what she’d learned at school. But I was dismayed that the peace- and diversity-centered curriculum she gets at her public school had left her with such a one-dimensional view of history.

I struggled with how best to respond. Then one morning, she overheard the news on our kitchen radio about a politician charged with ethics violations. “What’s that about?” she asked. I told her someone in the government had done something wrong, and she asked how an adult who was a leader could possibly do something bad.

“Unfortunately,” I responded, “a lot of our country’s leaders have done bad things.” When her eyes grew big and she said, “Like who and what did they do?” I knew I had my opportunity.

“Well,” I said, “you know how you’ve been running around here celebrating George Washington? We always talk about George Washington fighting for freedom. But George Washington also owned black people as slaves.” Her intrigue turned to horror.  

Fast forward, one year. For those of us raising children, the future couldn’t be more on our minds. With the news full of reports about vandalized Jewish cemeteries and mosques on fire, police officers who terrorize and endanger black and Latino children, and engineers from India being shot while enjoying a meal after work, it’s tempting to shut off the radio, turn off the TV and cancel those news alerts on our cellphones. But it’s more critical than ever that we talk about difficult and morally complex issues with our children.

Of the many dangers this presidency poses, one of the greatest is deep damage to our children’s perceptions of race, gender and other kinds of difference. We know the youngest children internalize racist perceptions of themselves and others. As early as age 5, children recognize differential treatment and understand something about the social status of different racial groups, their own group and others. These effects are powerful in normal times. In this political climate, they’re on steroids.

Meanwhile, studies have long shown that generic messages about equality aren’t effective in countering such racial socialization. Right now, then, it’s even more urgent that parents who rely on messages like “we’re all equal” or “we’re all the same underneath our skin” in the hope of teaching our children the values of inclusion, equality and difference significantly up our game. And let’s be frank, it’s parents of white children, like myself, who tend to rely on these sincere, but ineffective, strategies. 

The consequences are serious. When we don’t talk honestly with white children about racism, they become more likely to disbelieve or discount their peers when they report experiencing racism. “But we’re all equal” becomes a rote response that actually blocks white children from recognizing or taking seriously racism when they see it or hear about it. This is at best.

At worst, the consequences are akin to what happens when you breathe in polluted air. Not realizing the pollution is there doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short.

We have better models. Parents of black and Latino children have long made thoughtful choices about when and how to engage in difficult and nuanced discussions about difference. Studies show that such parents are two to five times more likely than whites to teach their children explicitly about race from very young ages to counter negative social messages and build a strong sense of identity.

These parents have responded to the racial epithet overheard at recess in age-appropriate ways. They’ve figured out when to have “the talk,” explaining how their children must conduct themselves around police officers. They’ve had complex discussions about equality: “We should all be equal, we all have equal worth, but we don’t all experience equality yet.” Parents of children who are not white have long contemplated how to make their kids aware of painful racial realities in the United States, while simultaneously nurturing resilience and a healthy sense of self.

Those of us who are not immigrants or Muslim and who are raising white children stand to learn much from parents like these, even as we apply the teachings differently for our particular families.

For example, I’ve tried to go beyond the abstract “be kind to everyone” to encourage my children to recognize racial meanness and understand that white kids have a particular responsibility to challenge racism. These are necessary skills when the racism emboldened by this administration shows up in the world.

One-dimensional, generic teachings are tempting. They feel easier and safer. That’s the only reason my daughter’s school would settle for partial truths about George Washington. But raising children who are resilient for justice and able to do their part to create an inclusive society takes more, especially now. And it’s not as hard as it might seem.

After I told my daughter the whole story, she asked, “If Washington held slaves, why do we celebrate him as if he was such a great man?”

What a good question — one that allowed us to engage in moral reasoning together. I asked her what she thought the reason was. In turn, I speculated that sometimes it’s hard to admit our white predecessors did bad things because it makes us feel bad. Then we talked about how we don’t have to just feel bad about the past, but instead should find ways to challenge injustice today. We talked about the importance of telling the whole truth, even when it’s hard.

It’s always risky to tell other people how to raise their children, and I don’t want to imply that I’m some kind of perfect parent. On top of that, our children and families are all different and there are many distinct ways to have conversations about race with our children. But however we talk about it, we need to talk about racism now more than ever. 

Link to original article.

Advanced Reader Book Review and Excerpt | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng, whose 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a stunning success, will release her follow-up novel, Little Fires Everywhereon September 12, 2017.
Little Fires Everywhere, follows Elena Richardson, a tightly-wound rule follower, whose carefully planned world is shaken up when a mysterious, alluring single mother, Mia Warren, moves to Shaker Heights and rents a house from the Richardsons with Pearl her teenage daughter.  Elena is already suspicious of Mia, but when an attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby divides the town in two — with Elena and Mia on opposite sides — she’s determined to figure out her tenant’s secrets once and for all, no matter the cost. 


EXCERPT from Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firemen unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale-blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and shut the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trip’s tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wong’s house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened.

From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.  

Fear

​Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less. 

Marie Curie

The dazzling musicality of Derek Walcott, recipient of a Nobel Prize in Poetry, who passed away on Friday, March 17,2017 | Vox.com

Nobel Laureate Poet Derek Walcott has died this Friday at 87 years old. Walcott’s poetry centered around his life in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and with the complex colonialist legacy that created his world — but it contains multitudes, and it travels around the world as much as its voraciously erudite author did. By turns epic and compact, Walcott’s poetry has a dazzling musicality and lyricism. It begs to be read aloud; you can almost taste the words as you read them.

To celebrate his legacy, here is a stanza from In the Village, a poem about Walcott’s time in New York’s Greenwich Village:

Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,

so that I am a musician without his piano

with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque

as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so

full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.

The notes outside are visible; sparrows will

line antennae like staves, the way springs were,

but the roofs are cold and the great grey river

where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,

moves imperceptibly like the accumulating

years. I have no reason to forgive her

for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,

past the longing for Italy where blowing snow

absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range

outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting

for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning

of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange

without the rusty music of my machine. No words

for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange

of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds. 

It’s a quiet, melancholy poem built around the idea of being unable to create poems, and it moves so naturally and swiftly that it might take a few readings to catch its tricky, irregular rhyme scheme (I make it ABABCDEEDFEFBGFHGIGI) and the subliminal musicality it creates.

Thank you for everything, Derek Walcott. You were so / full of poems.

http://www.vox.com/culture/2017/3/17/14959438/derek-walcott-obituary-in-the-village

Related Story:  Derek Walcott In The New Yorker 

REFUGEES IN AMERICA by Joyce Carol Oates

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen tells stories about people poised between their devastated homeland and their affluent adopted country

     Consider the distinctions between the words “expat,” “immigrant,” “refugee.” “Expat” suggests a cosmopolitan spirit and resources that allow mobility; to be an “immigrant” suggests some measure of need. A “refugee” is, by definition, desperate: he has been displaced from his home, has been rendered stateless, has few or no resources. The expat retains an identity as he retains his citizenship, his privileges; the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him. In the way that enslaved persons are truncated by the term “slaves,” defined by their condition, there’s a loss of identity in the category term “refugees.” It might seem to be more humane, and accurate, to give someone who is forced to seek refuge a more expansive designation: “displaced person.”

     Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term “refugee” precisely for the punitive violence it betrays. Born in 1971, he is, by self-description, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and he has been a refugee himself; he has married a refugee, a fellow-writer named Lan Duong. In the acknowledgments of The Refugees (Grove), his beautiful and heartrending new story collection, he speaks of his son, Ellison: “By the time this book is published, he will be nearly the age I was when I became a refugee.” 

     It is hardly surprising that the refugee is obsessed with identity, both personal and ethnic. He is likely to be highly sensitive to others’ interpretations of him and of his “minority” culture. And so his peripheral status confers certain advantages, for he is in a position to see what others do not. As Nguyen has recounted, in an afterword to his début novel, The Sympathizer (2015), “I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched ‘Platoon’ and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes . . . left me shaking with rage.”

     Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels. The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of the minor talents, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.

     The speaker is indeed a spy: he was, in the Republic of Vietnam, a Communist mole on the staff of a South Vietnamese general, before being evacuated from Saigon and taking refuge in America after the Vietnam War. 

     His confession is fraught with irony and his history is tragicomic; unlike the refugees of The Refugees, he regards himself with the distance of self-loathing, for he has participated in assassinations while following orders. Obsessed with “universal and timeless” questions, he is the epitome of twentieth-century man: “What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”

     The stories in The Refugees, too, feature protagonists who are poised between the past of a devastated homeland, Vietnam, and an affluent, adopted country, the United States. The book takes one of its epigraphs from James Fenton’s A German Requiem:

It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all your life.

     To survive, for the refugee, is to be buffeted between the grief-suffused admonition to remember the losses of the homeland and the self-protective counter-admonition to “forget,” the effort of which will be enormous and lifelong.

     Ordinary existence, to the death-haunted, is populated by ghosts. These are not ideas of ghosts, or poetic metaphors. These are ghosts who leave behind damp carpets and the brine-soaked clothing in which, twenty-five years before, they drowned while escaping a war-torn homeland. They are family ghosts: a fifteen-year-old boy, for instance, who had traded his life to save a sister threatened with kidnapping and rape by pirates. “These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns,” we read in the almost unbearably moving opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.” 

     Compulsive and unflinching introspection—another symptom of “refugee” consciousness—may lead survivors to realize harsh truths about themselves, as with an eighteen-year-old refugee who, in “The Other Man,” has been taken into an affluent San Francisco household:

He tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.

     Truths about others are no more comforting. At any time, the refugee is likely to be confronted—confounded—by the myopia of non-Vietnamese. In “The Transplant,” Arthur, the beneficiary of a liver from a Vietnamese donor, has “trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another,” and is “also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same.” In “Fatherland,” a Vietnamese girl working in an upscale Saigon restaurant overhears tourists speaking of “delicate and tiny” Vietnamese women, whose “dresses look stitched onto them.” A Vietnamese tourist guide entertains his credulous American customers for whom “act was fact”—“we’re all the same to them . . . small, charming, and forgettable.” As the sharp-eyed narrator of The Sympathizer tells us, the “all-American characteristic” is not sympathy or generosity but racial paranoia: “In America, it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.”

     Which you were, of course, could be a matter of context. In “Fatherland,” a young Vietnamese-American woman, Vivien, goes to Saigon to visit the children of her father and his second wife, her half siblings. (Vivien’s mother had fled to America with her kids after the war.) Her visit is a grand occasion for the family. She gives them expensive gifts and treats them generously, taking them to the sort of restaurants that native residents can’t afford. In particular, Vivien’s half sister, seven years younger than she, is in awe of Vivien’s glamour, and has fantasized about coming to the United States to live with her, and to emulate what she believes to be Vivien’s success as a doctor in Chicago. Disillusion comes when she discovers that Vivien isn’t a doctor but, rather, an unemployed receptionist with prospects as limited as her own. After the American half sister leaves, the Vietnamese half sister burns photographs of the two together: “Vivien’s features melting before her own, their faces vanishing in flame.” It is the final image in The Refugees, ashes blown into the sky above Saigon.

     Although only now published together in book form, the earnest, straightforward, relatively conventional stories of The Refugees would appear to have been written before the more stylized and experimental The Sympathizer. But all Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes. By the end of The Sympathizer, we have doubled back to its thematic beginning, as the narrator, now a survivor of torture in a Communist reëducation camp, becomes a refugee again amid anonymous “boat people”—a name, the narrator notes, that “smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family.” Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable. And yet, The Sympathizer ends with a proclamation that would work as well for the displaced Vietnamese of The Refugees: “We will live! ” ♦

Joyce Carol Oates, a visiting professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of, most recently, “A Book of American Martyrs.” More

This article appears in other versions of the February 13 & 20, 2017, issue, with the headline “Not All There. 

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