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3 novelists who are keeping the short story alive and well

(Harper) - “News from Heaven” by Jennifer Haigh

(Harper) - “News from Heaven” by Jennifer Haigh

In college — before the smartphone; heck , before the cellphone — short stories were held up as the highest form of prose. Professors assigned us Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver. (Angela Carter I devoured on my own.) Today, aside from books by Alice Munro and a few other stalwarts, the number of new collections has shrunk to a trickle — despite our famously fragmented attention spans and new digital formats that, one would think, would favor shorter works.

The financial reasons for the short story’s decline are no secret. Except for the New Yorker and the Atlantic, the magazines that used to publish them — Collier’s and Scribner’s — are gone now, and mainstream publishers, already worried about wobbly balance sheets, are loath to take a chance on commercially risky propositions. But if people aren’t reading them, authors are still writing them — and writing them darned well, if three new collections by acclaimed female novelists are anything to go by.

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PEN/Hemingway award winner Jennifer Haigh’s outstanding “News From Heaven” fits quite comfortably in the company of the hybrid novel-in-stories made so popular by predecessors such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” and Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteredge.” Haigh returns to fictional Bakerton, Pa., site of her “Baker Towers,” to exceptional effect. The Baker 11 mine has failed, throwing 900 miners out of work. While the men flounder, the women keep making roast beef for Sunday dinner and canning tomatoes and cucumbers and going about their daily business. In “Beast and Bird,” a young Polish girl works as a maid for an Orthodox Jewish family. In “Broken Star,” a young woman recalls a summer visit from a beloved aunt. In “Thrift,” 50-year-old Agnes lives in a trailer with a younger man. “How they became what they are is a question she’s stopped asking. She accepts it as she accepts other miracles, the Resurrection and Ascension.” The narrator in “Favorite Son” suggests that “for a certain kind of teenager, a small town is a prison. For another kind, it is a stage. At sixteen I was one of the prisoners.” For Haigh, this small town is a large canvas, one filled in with precise, poignant strokes.

Sarah Hall can write a breathtaking sentence. The multiple prize-winner’s “The Beautiful Indifference” is full of exquisite prose while brutality — murders, maimings, suicide — lurks in the wings. In the standout opening story, “Butcher’s Perfume,” a quiet girl is befriended by the school bully and the bully’s wild, horse-mad family. “She had eyes that got set off easily, like a dog chained up all its life and kicked about, prone to attack for no other provocation than it catches you looking its way. All you can do is pray the chain holds at the stake,” the narrator says of Manda Slessor. Not all the stories are up to the level of the first — particularly one involving a bored housewife and an agency selling erotic services — but there are two other memorable standouts. Both involve couples on vacation, one in an African country, one in Finland. (In both instances, they really should have opted for a staycation.)

In her collection “This Close,” Jessica Francis Kane gives us both chains of linked stories and stand-alone tales. In four stories, she chronicles the lives of a single mom, Maryanne , and her son, Mike. In the first, page-long entry, “Lesson,” he’s 15 and they’re tussling over the steering wheel as she drives. In the second and strongest, “First Sale,” he’s an adoring, valiant 5-year-old helping his mother get ready for a yard sale. In the first of three stories in another linked chain, a woman named Elizabeth suffers from an unexplained depression that sends her to her bed while her husband and daughter tour Jerusalem. The most memorable of the independent stories are “The Essentials of Acceleration,” in which a middle-aged woman who still lives at home is annoyed by the fact that her neighbors persist in finding her 91-year-old father charming, and “Next in Line,” in which a grieving mother haunts the CVS where a stranger once criticized her parenting. Quiet and clear, Kane’s stories eschew the flashy for the profound.

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.

NEWS FROM HEAVEN

By Jennifer Haigh

Harper. 256 pp. $25.99

THE BEAUTIFUL INDIFFERENCE

By Sarah Hall

Harper Perennial. 187 pp. Paperback, $14.99

THIS CLOSE

By Jessica Francis Kane

Graywolf 179 pp. Paperback, $15

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