June 2010

Can’t Be Too Thin

Lonely Hearts Book Club Picks

“I like a thin book because it will steady a table, a leather volume because it will strop a razor and a heavy book because it can be thrown at a cat.”
—Mark Twain

My ex used to say I was ADD, but really, I just have a short attention span. I also have this urge to call him in the middle of the night—although I don’t know why, since he cheated on me at least twice, and he’s about 20 pounds overweight. My therapist tells me every time I feel like picking up the phone, I should sit on my hands. TV gets my juices going, but reading relaxes me—and I do need to sleep at some point. Can you recommend any short stories—because who in my position has the patience to plow through a whole book?    —Caitlin, Santa Monica

Dear Caitlin,
Don’t you hate the way people toss around labels—ADD, OCD, PMS? Your boyfriend sounds like a PIG (Phat Insensitive Good-for-nothing). Anyway, lots of authors, both classic and contemporary, have fine short-story collections. Chekhov, for instance, was one of the most famous, though you don’t always feel like Chekhov at 2 a.m. Here are some others that will divert your attention—at least until breakfast.

The Summer He Didn’t Die, by Jim Harrison

Three novellas by a master storyteller. This macho writer manages to capture women with surprising depth and insight. Try reading “Republican Wives”—three married women, one literate philanderer who slept with them all and a well-deserved attempted murder. How can anyone pass up a story where one character calls another “the moral equivalent of a show tune”?

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy

Readable, plot-driven stories with the unexpected lurking just out of sight. Meloy’s deceptively simple prose carries you through shifting loyalties and relationships, subtle mysteries and shocking conclusions. She is the critic’s darling—and rightfully so.

How It Ended: New and Collected Stories, by Jay McInerney

Three decades’ worth of entertaining tales (26 stories that span 26 years of his career)—smooth writing, mordant humor and engaging, self-absorbed characters. “Penelope on the Pond” follows a young campaign worker who whiles away the hours waiting for her very married politician. Think Rielle Hunter—only, like, not as clever.

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

The writer’s forte is describing women in seemingly impossible situations, showing how they manage despite rotten husbands, difficult children and lost dreams. In her latest collection, the word happiness takes on a whole new meaning. And naturally, it became a bestseller.

The Stories of John Cheever

One of the leading voices of American lit, famous for stories about upper-middle-class life, Cheever infuses his best work with fantasy and nostalgic, melancholy characters. Consider “The Swimmer,” set in postwar America, about a man who travels home via the pools of his friends. By the time he gets there, it’s years later and his house is boarded up.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Most of us were forced to read the Pulitzer-winning Welty’s post-Depression-era short stories in high school, but satiric gems like “Why I Live at the P.O.” just get better with time, complete with a certifiable cast of characters with names like Mama, Papa-Daddy and Stella-Rondo.

Where I’m Calling From, by Raymond Carver

Where he’s calling from is rehab. And neither his wife nor his girlfriend returns his calls. Some have called Carver the best short-story writer since Hemingway. His motto: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.” A hard-smoking, hard-drinking product of poverty and domestic strife, he was an American original who wrote about people like himself with empathy. A self-described “body attached to a cigarette,” the writer died of lung cancer at 50.

Have a question? You can reach Mack and Kaufman at lonelyheartsbookclub@latimes.com.