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Shorts To Begin a Summer of Reading: Great New Collections

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Three recently released collections of short stories provide the kick-off to a summer of good reading. On the beach, in the backyard, or even on the subway, sit back and immerse yourself in Matt Debenham's brilliant debut collection, The Book of Right and Wrong; Amy Bloom's stirring Where the God of Love Hangs Out; and Evgenia Citkowitz's crystalline Ether. Short stories are a good way to ease your way back into the art of relaxed reading after a cold and intense winter. Start with these great shorts and just see where this summer can take you.

The stories in Matt Debenham's The Book of Right and Wrong are about the fragility and the resilience of the human heart, in all its ages and incarnations. His narrators range all over the landscape of suburbia, male to female, child to adult, but his characters share an underlying need for connection amidst upheaval and change. Debenham exposes specific turning points in lives so real and so engaging that my own life felt transformed -- illuminated -- by the changes wrought in the lives of the characters. Whether it is an ex-con trying to create stability amidst the upward changes in his previously blue collar hometown, or a wife trying to hold onto her kids and her sanity after being abandoned by her husband, or a child trying to figure out who is in charge when all the adults in his life have checked out, Debenham's characters are provoking, moving, and unforgettable.

Amy Bloom has planted herself firmly in middle age with her most recent collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. Her original and authentic characters refuse to give up lust, desire, and impetuosity solely because they are growing older. When love calls, Bloom's characters answer. How they answer is all over the map but all points lead to kinship, if not exactly understanding and acceptance. For Bloom's characters, being understood and accepted is less important to them as they get older, whereas kinship - stimulating and affirming companionship - is what will get them through the night.

Ether, a collection of seven stories and a novella by Evgenia Citkowitz, explores very ordinary lives that have been turned extraordinary by unexpected twists of fate (Are there ever expected twists? No, but some twists are more twisted than others and Citkowitz is master of the sick twist). Citkowitz's characters seem at first glance to have everything under control but then she forces us to take a closer look and we see the cracks. A woman left stranded but keeping up appearances for the daughter; a man still haunted by his father's lack of interest; a lonely man who finds comfort in the arms of an ethereal stranger; a nanny who knows best; a writer who finds inspiration in what he can leach from the lives of others: Citkowtiz's characters are entangled in webs of relationships, past and present, that will not let them go or will not let them stay. Whatever it is that they need is exactly what they are not getting, and what they need most of all is assurance that their existence matters and that their lives have importance. Citkowitz gives such lucid portrayals of people making mistakes and paying for their mistakes, and taking chances but getting little credit for trying, that I felt for the characters. They all certainly mattered to me.

The short stories of Matt Debenham, Amy Bloom, and Evgenia Citkowtiz are a great start to a long summer of good reading. Up next week: novels and memoirs to put on your summer reading list.