As an editor, I’m lucky enough to be paid for doing what I love, but there are times when reading begins to feel like a chore, and when I lose my taste for a good story. I come home from work looking for something that will delight but not daunt a word-wearied brain, but everything I pick up feels dull or like a homework assignment.
This year, I found three methods of breaking out of that kind of funk. The first was reading short stories, since they don’t require a long attention span. Second, I discovered that reading books about other people’s editorial problems was a great way to forget my own. And, finally, books about non-verbal activities such as surfing, shepherding, or even walking made me feel as if I’d taken a vacation from the page.
The most delightful book I read this year falls into the first category. Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations (Picador, $15, 192 pp.) charmed me with its just-so-slightly off descriptions of quotidian life. Each story reimagines another famous short story, centering it on a compelling female character, instead of on a man. Nodding to Gogol, the protagonist of the collection’s titular story grows a “dorsal breast.” Another story, “The Lost Order,” tips its cap to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” telling of a daydreaming woman who argues with her nagging husband and undertakes a quixotic mission to fulfill a misplaced order for Chinese food.
While it’s fun to try to identify the original story, Galchen’s collection stands on its own even without the gimmick. Her women are self-effacing, careful, and just a tad too transparent in their attempts not to overshare. “I’m a pretty normal woman, maybe an even extremely normal woman,” one protagonist assures us before going on to list the items she saw exit her window under their own steam. “I was at home, not making spaghetti,” begins the narrator of another story, reassuring us that, no, she doesn’t comfort herself with food while unemployed.
Revealing though not confessional, each woman’s story shows her trying to make the best of a bad situation—a hopeless crush, a difficult mother-in-law, an unpleasant party—usually while doing something a bit crazy. Yet it’s all rather playful, and for every wince there’s a laugh. More often than not, there’s a flash of self-recognition, too, the kind that I first experienced as a child when I found friends in books.