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The Price of the Haircut: Stories by Brock Clarke, Algonquin Books, US $15.95, Pp 240, March 2018, ISBN 978-1616208172

You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, US $27.00, Pp 228, April 2018, ISBN 978-0399592867

Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane by Gerald Murnane, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US $18.00, Pp 550, April 2018, ISBN 978-0374126001

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg, Holt Paperbacks, US $17.00, Pp 192, March 2018, ISBN 978-1250113429

The Price of the Haircut is a collection of eleven satirical and funny short stories with surreal themes and filled with absurdist plot twists. The title story explores racism in modern America. The story begins when a black teenager is shot by a white policeman in Cincinnati. In some other stories, Brock Clarke explores marital relations and associated stresses and conflicts in stories such as Concerning Lizzie Borden, Her Axe, My Wife in which a husband and wife try to resolve their issues by spending a night in the bed-and-breakfast that was once the home of infamous Axe-murderer Lizzie Borden. The Misunderstandings also focuses on marital conflicts. In The Pity Place, Clarke looks at self-absorption and self-delusion. The protagonist is a reclusive husband who believes his wife had left him for a celebrity novelist. He starts selling tickets to tourists in the hope to meet someone in worse condition. He wants to win back his wife from novelist Mario Puzo who may not even exist. In Children who Divorce, the child actors from a movie recreate their role in a dinner theater sequel. They have not really grown up in spite of having grown up. In these stories, Brock Clarke dissects human nature in a way even a casual reader would understand and enjoy. These profound short stories are highly entertaining and enjoyable.

Brock Clarke is the author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller and has appeared in a dozen foreign editions, and three other books. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College.

*****

In You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld has collected ten short stories that explore human psychology by penetrating the appearances of the characters. In ‘The world has many butterflies,’ unhappily married friends play intimate games that bring devastating results for them. The unhappy wife learns that the man with whom she had been sharing bitchy remarks about friends and acquaintances is not what he says he is. He also judges her by the conventional standards. In ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto,’ a shy Ivy League student learns the truth about a classmate’s apparently enviable life. In “A Regular Couple,” a well-known lawyer honeymooning with her husband is caught off guard by the girl who bullied her in school. In “The Patriotic Wife,” a suburban mother of two fantasizes the downfall of an old friend whose wholesome lifestyle empire may or may not be built on a lie. Curtis Sittenfeld explores class relationship gender roles in a nation that is adrift and divided. She goes beneath the surface and tries to see the turbulence that is not apparent to everyone. In “Bad Latch,” an annoying and perky wife and mother has some gumption to back up her chipper proclamation. Parenting overwhelms the parents in both “Off the Record” and “The Prairie Wife.” Both have mixed feelings about celebrities who apparently lead enviable lives from their vantage point. In You Think It, I’ll Say It, the characters are mostly secure middle-class professionals who are not happy with their lives. As you read the stories, you will feel empathy with her characters. They are some of the best bedtime stories.

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland, which have been translated into twenty-five languages. Her nonfiction has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Glamour, and broadcast on public radio’s This American Life. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, she currently lives with her family in St. Louis, Missouri.

*****

Stream System is a collection of twenty-one stories by Gerald Murnane, Australia’s leading fiction writer, who is better known for his long fiction. Nearly all stories in this collection are set in Melbourne, Australia, where he was born and raised. Some of them may be reminiscent of author’s childhood. These stories were published between 1985 and 2012. “Land Deal” is the fictionalization of the process of colonization of Australia and the resultant vengeance of aboriginal people. “Finger Web” is a scary story of the scars of war and what lies behind misogyny. The protagonist in “The Interior of Gaaldine” is stranded beyond the limits of fiction itself. “The Boy’s name was David” is about a part-time writing professor who looks back on his students’ stories and imagines his students were horses in one long race. “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” deals with the problem of pedophilia and sadism as a teacher tries to come to term with an aborted school project. “The Only Adam” is about eighth-graders who have a howling and mating ritual. In “The Interior of Gaaldine,” in which a writer attending a literary event in Tasmania is asked for his thoughts on a 2,000-page manuscript that contains “a detailed chronicle of horse-racing” in an imaginary island nation. Interestingly, the longest piece in this collection of short fiction, Emerald Blue, runs 106 pages. The protagonist in this story can only fall in love with the image of a woman in his mind. He is unable to like or love a woman enough to get married. Gerald Murnane penetrates the minds of his characters and makes them live as they would love to. This makes his characters memorable and they stick to your memory. These stories are extraordinarily engrossing. This is one of the best short fiction collections, along with others in this article, for your bedtime reading.

Gerald Murnane was born in Melbourne in 1939. One of Australia’s most highly regarded authors, he has published ten volumes of fiction, including Barley PatchThe Plains, and A Million Windows, as well a collection of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, and a memoir, Something for the Pain. He received the Patrick White Literary Award, the Melbourne Prize for Literature, and an Emeritus Fellowship from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He lives in Victoria, Australia.

*****

The Merry Spinster is a collection of eleven what can be described as dark and mischievous stories. The stories are based on classic fairy tales and Mallory Ortberg has adapted these stories from “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” They are sinister and continue the traditional children’s stories and fairy tales. Mallory Ortberg has added some psychological horror, emotional clarity, and a keen sense of feminism. Ortberg has done this in a sly and scathing way and hit the nail right on the head. In one sense, The Merry Spinster is the continuation of  Ortberg’s earlier works like The Toast and debut Texts From Jane Eyre. If Mallory Ortberg is known for deconstruction and destabilization, she is equally known for boisterous good humor. She has done that quite carefully. She is a master of giving a new spin on fiction. Her works are known to be full of mischief and unsettling. In The Merry Spinster, she illuminates the unsuspected, alarming emotional complexities at play in the stories we tell ourselves and each other. In “The Daughter Cells” and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” Ortberg echoes the old pragmatic pedagogical oral tradition of fairy tale narrators. “The Rabbit,” is a deeply disturbing horror story that uses the emotional power of the original novel to hit reader’s mind. Gender roles disappear only to reappear in different shapes. This feminist style is very typical of Mallory Ortberg. This collection is full of wit and charm. This is a good collection for those who want to read light, entertaining and relaxing short stories.

Mallory Ortberg was the co-creator of the website ‘The Toast’ and the author of the New York Times Bestseller Texts From Jane Eyre.

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