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Joy and 52 Other Very Short Stories, by Erin McGrawErin McGraw, Joy and 52 Other Very Short Stories, (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Books, 2019) 304pp.

A tired priest.  An accidental murderer.  An anxious mother.  A rapist’s daughter.  These are just a few of the characters Erin McGraw brings vividly to life in Joy, her impressive new collection of “very short” stories.  In these “fifty-three gems that demonstrate all the things a short story can do” (Kirkus Reviews), McGraw moves deftly from the amusing to the heartbreaking, the mundane to the profound.  In “Hallelujah Day,” a reluctant missionary contends with her mother’s “industrial-strength” faith.  In a trio of stories entitled, “Soup,” McGraw explores the relationship between a woman dying of cancer, her husband, and a “friend” who assumes the role of caretaker.  In “Pebble,” McGraw captures a young family’s rise and fall in barely six pages.  In “Prayer,” McGraw’s character appeals directly to God as he struggles to resist an affair: “Because you promise to break and remake us when we go wrong, and because you have made us so that we don’t want to be broken, and we often go wrong.”

Joy is not an easy or easily uplifting book; it’s an honest, searing book that goes for the jugular.  It succeeds because it honors the complexity of what it means to be human. To doubt, to trust, to lose, to lust, to hope, to hate, and to love.  Happiness, if it comes to McGraw's characters, comes sideways, and at a price.  Likewise, closure.  Likewise, communion.  In prose that leaps off the page for its precision and beauty, McGraw allows her characters to step out of themselves for a few brief moments, and tell us who they are, where they come from, and where they ache to go.  Their voices invite us to laugh and cry, yearn and celebrate.  In this, her fourth short story collection and seventh book, McGraw offers her readers a work of profound empathy and artistry — her best yet.

Debie Thomas:

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