Tracy K. Smith’s third collection is poetry with a David Bowie soundtrack. Winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Life on Mars (Graywolf, $15), while sampling some of Bowie’s lyrics, is Smith’s own deftly crafted, thoughtful consideration of existence on Earth and beyond. In lines at once musical and muscular, Smith has composed an extended elegy for her father, who worked on the Hubble telescope. As matters of science, grief, and faith inform each other, Smith wonders, “is God being or pure force? The wind / or what commands it?” and uses vivid cosmic imagery to speculate on whether loss of a life here is balanced by the existence of life out there.
The poet, essayist, and novelist Charles Baxter started his career in 1984 with an award-winning collection of short fiction. Many accomplished books later, Baxter has chosen twenty-three outstanding stories for Gryphon (Vintage, $16). The typical Baxter character falls somewhat short of heroism; like many of the ordinary, complex figures in Chekhov’s work (which one of Baxter’s characters recommends), they’re diligent, middle-class people, the type who might get “carefully drunk” a little too early in the day, or who want to make a difference by, say, helping the homeless, but whose good intentions backfire. Earnest and compassionate in his depictions of an uncle adopting his dead brother’s son, or a young couple testing themselves by driving across a frozen lake, Baxter also has a delightfully whimsical side. In the title story, more reminiscent of Lewis Carroll than of Chekhov, a fourth-grade class goes slightly down the rabbit hole when a substitute teacher shows up with “substitute facts,” declaring that “sometimes” six-times-eleven could be sixty-eight.
The impeccable craft of Julian Barnes’s richly textured collection of short fiction, Pulse (Vintage, $15), is evident in every detail, including the organization, of these fourteen pieces. The bulk of the first half explores various scenarios of connection and disconnection—a man rummaging around in the apartment of a woman he’s dating, a widower returning alone to the island he and his wife had visited together—interspersed with the lively dialogues of a dinner party; life has both its lighthearted and its grave moments. The book’s second section focuses on various sorts of loss, but Barnes shows how these deprivations can be opportunities for deeper understanding, as when a deaf-mute man develops a special talent for drawing people’s portraits, or a woman so traumatized by her abusive father that she loses all sense of smell becomes a talented musician. Barnes is always a keen and compassionate observer.