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By By Sarah Custen

By Sarah Custen

Once school starts, there’s usually only enough time and energy after work and homework to read 10 or so pages each night, and trying to tackle a novel at that speed is pretty much out of the question. But then there are so many marvelous collections of short stories in the world that you can enjoy reading and still have time to make money and get good grades, maybe even sleep. Short stories and essays are all the fun of reading without any of the commitment. Here are some recommendations to ease you into the school year.
“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris (Little, Brown and Company, 2008)
Sedaris’ sixth book, released this summer, is a synthesis of all his previous books and maybe his most eclectic collection yet. There are the familiar, funny and poignant stories about Sedaris’s personal life for which he’s famous8212;his alternately functional and dysfunctional family, his childhood in Raleigh, N.C., and his extensive drug use8212;alongside descriptions of his semi-literate life in France and his experiences as a writer on tour, the subject of his more recent books. Then there are random essays, like “Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?” which is Sedaris’s personal treatise on fashion (“Time is cruel to everything but it seems to have singled out eyeglasses for special punishment”), or “What I learned,” an absurd essay on attending Princeton in the days before Jesus Christ and double-majoring in patricide and matricide. The last quarter of the book, well-titled “The Smoking Section,” is an account of Sedaris’s recent attempt to quit his pack-and-a-half per day smoking habit in Tokyo. This is classic Sedaris and the best of the book. It had me giggling on a packed UTA bus at 8:30 in the morning.
“No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories” by Miranda July (Scribner, 2007)
Usually when people say something is “interesting” or “different,” they just mean “weird,” and I guess this book is all three. It’s definitely unlike anything I’ve ever read before8212;different enough that it takes a moment to get into the feel of the book. And from there, you might have a tough time with the random, seemingly unnecessary erotic twists (phone sex between two sisters, anyone?). But each story is unique and thought provoking, illuminating small aspects of daily life and presenting you with believable characters (all with their strange secrets, of course). July tries a lot of different techniques, and occasionally the stories feel more like performance art, but each confronts you with something new to ponder. This would make a good book for a book club, as you’d have plenty to talk about.
“The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas” by Davy Rothbart (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Davy Rothbart is better known as the creator of Found magazine (made entirely of writing found and sent in by ordinary folk), and this collection of stories definitely has that same “look how sad and beautiful we all are in our randomness” kind of feel. That said, it’s pretty good. Although the stories’ different characters all have the same voice and each story has a similar feel, Rothbart taps into a part of 20-something life that feels so familiar and yet hasn’t really been fictionalized. Like the part where you fall in love with a girl but it’s doomed from the start, and you go to her party anyway and meet her boyfriend, and you try to make some grand gesture but you just wind up walking the streets alone at night in the cold and then you go home, and it’s 3 a.m. and your roommates are watching a bad movie on TV so you decide to move across the country. Like Kerouac’s On The Road, but more relevant.
“Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories” edited by Jerome Stern (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996)
Each of these stories is 250 words or less, drawn from the winners and runners-up of Florida State University’s World’s Best Short Story contest, which has been going since 1986. Turns out you can pack a lot into only a few paragraphs, or less (a story by Amy Hempel is a single sentence). The range of subject matter and tone is quite wide, but all the stories share the feeling of a snapshot of someone else’s life. Look for “Baby, Baby, Baby” by U English Professor François Camion and “Grief” by Utah native Ron Carlson.