Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


I've always been more of a novel-loving girl when it comes to literary preferences, but lately I've been reading more short stories. Maybe my attention span is beginning to slip, or maybe I'm beginning to appreciate an art form I had previously neglected. You know me. You decide. I've dipped into Michael Chabon's Werewolves in Their Youth and several volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror before, but this winter I opened Pretty Monsters, a short story collection by Kelly Link, and read it cover to cover. Kelly Link is the editor of one of my favorite literary zines, the irrepressibly weird Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. It also turns out she writes exactly the kind of story I'll roll over and beg for.

Pretty Monsters is marketed as a collection for young adults, but it contains some crossover from her adult collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. Some highlights from Pretty Monsters: "The Wizards of Perfil," "The Faery Handbag" (which won a Hugo award), "The Specialist's Hat," and "The Constable of Abal." Her stories are full of death, humor, strange magic, and childhoods gone awry, as well as experiments with poems and lists sprinkled into the stories' structure. If you know me, you know I'm a sucker for this kind of thing.

The best thing about reading Kelly Link is that, for a writer reading her work, she has this strange, alchemical quality of simultaneously being fabulously talented and not making you feel like you should never open up your laptop again. Let me back up and explain. I love Michael Chabon's writing. His plots are inventive and the way he can write a sentence takes my breath away. But he's so good, I close his books and feel like there's no point in writing anything, ever, because even if I spend my whole life trying, I'll never write anything remotely near that good. But for some reason I can't entirely explain, when I close Kelly Link's books, I feel like I want to go out and try writing something. Okay, so it won't be as good as "The Specialist's Hat," but hey, at least I'm not a hopeless case. I think this aftertaste of hopefulness might have something to do with the way you can see the fingerprints of real effort on her stories. These aren't little ditties she knocked off in an afternoon because she's just that brilliant; they're clearly something she spent time perfecting.

Then, moving more into the range of pure, green, artistic envy, there's Karen Russell. My friend Nathan recommended her short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, to me earlier this year. I kept checking it out of the library, and then letting it sit on my desk until it was due, without ever reading it. That is, until about two weeks ago, when I sat down to read the first story, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," over my lunch break.

Karen Russell writes about the natural world in a way that's half in and half out of reality. It's beautiful and disgusting, and you're never sure when a seemingly normal situation is going to take a turn for the wonderfully bizarre. I could watch her write sentences all day long. She's been in
Granta and The New Yorker, and she was only 25 when Random House published her collection of short stories in 2006. I'm used to being younger than the people whose books I read, so it was a little bit of a shock to turn to her biography and find out how young she was. By all means, go out and find her book immediately, but don't read the biography. It will only make you feel woefully inadequate, unless you're Michael Chabon.

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