Let’s dream of the perfect cocktail party this holiday season, discerning reader!  Little black dresses float round about, and gentlemen sport their festive ties.  One’s champagne flute is always full – and every conversation is short and sweet.

Why get trapped in the corner by a huge novel this December?  It’s not the season for The Goldfinch.  Two smart new short story collections provide just the right fizz and sparkle – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel, and Thunderstruck, by Elizabeth McCracken.

You’ve heard of Hilary Mantel’s bestselling and Booker-Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.  They are big, weighty, sometimes challenging historical novels set in 16th century England.  I could not have been more surprised by her short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, for the brevity of the stories, the contemporary settings, and the edgy prose.  Each of the stories can be seen as variations on a theme, the answer to one fundamental question:  What happens if you open a door you shouldn’t?  That door might be literal, as in the first and last stories of the book, or it might be metaphorical.  Kissing someone not your wife in the kitchen during a party is also a form of opening a door.  What Mantel seems to recognize is that opening doors is an essential part of being human; we open them when we are curious, or full of desire, but also when we’re bored or not feeling well.  Most often, we couldn’t even tell you why we did.  When we try to explain it later, we are mystified:  “If you spent your time trying to understand what happened when you were eight and Mary Joplin was ten, you’d waste your productive years in plaiting barbed wire.”  Mantel plaits the barbed wire for us in her stories:  painful, brilliant, shining work.

Unknown-9Elizabeth McCracken delivers a jolt of lightning at the end of each story in Thunderstruck, nominated for the National Book Award this year.  She reels you into a character’s world – that of a quiet librarian, for instance, or the manager of a Hi-Lo grocery store – and then in the final page or two, wrenchingly reveals how the character has misunderstood herself, a family member, or the world around her.  McCracken’s stories cover death, grief, complicated marriages, bad parenting and the inexplicable cruelty of the world and other people.  Still, her prose can be full of light and dance: a grandmother is a “bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted.  She knew it, too.”  This seems to be the point of McCracken’s stories:  to get characters to the point where they understand their own misperceptions and limitations.  Sometimes they get there, sometimes they don’t.  Either way, the journey sparkles and illuminates.

1456801_853648681346272_980580062705909344_nThis post appears in this month’s nfocus, on newsstands now!

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