3 short story collections: some of the best I've ever read

When it comes to short stories, the best insight on how to read them I've ever found came from a new book on writing, “Unless It Moves the Human Heart,” by Roger Rosenblatt. One of Rosenblatt's graduate students said, in effect, that the writer begins by saying, “And so, we have come to this.” Of three new collections out this winter, two rank among the best I've ever read. If this is what we've come to, 2011 should be rich indeed.

1. Binocular Vision By Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books, 375 pp.)

“To that great list of human mysteries which includes the construction of the pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material, let me add this one: why isn't Edith Pearlman famous?” novelist Ann Patchett writes in her foreword to Binocular Vision, three-time O. Henry Award-winner Pearlman's new collection.

After reading four or five of her stories, I came up for air long enough to second Patchett's bafflement, before eagerly diving back in. Pearlman writes with a kind of serene precision that would astonish any writer. The stories' settings range from fictional Godolphin, Mass., to Jerusalem, Latin America, and tsarist Russia, but the note-perfect word choices and resolute compassion remain.

In “Self-Reliance,” a retired surgeon applies that Yankee virtue to her own life. In “The Noncombatant,” a doctor diagnosed with cancer rides out the last days of World War II on Cape Cod, while in “Day of Awe,” a Jewish grandfather travels to Central America to meet his new grandson. In her foreword, Patchett predicts that “Binocular Vision” will be the book that elevates Pearlman's stories alongside Alice Munro's and John Updike's. Boy, I hope she's right.

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