Melanie Haney is a great writer and she masterful at the what makes short stories strongest: the last sentence. In Melanie Haney’s collection, The Simplest of Acts and Other Stories, you’re often left at the end of the story wishing it would go on, but knowing that it ended perfectly: concise and alive, as if you know the characters will go on living even if you’re not reading. These stories are quiet, deep, and powerful.
In a way, the book is not well-advertised on the back. The back copy says these are “carefully wrought tales of loss and love and the small – perhaps overlooked – moments of catharsis in our daily lives.” But really this book is not just about small moments, it’s about the biggest moment of all: death. In the first stories in this collection, there’s a story about someone who has lost a daughter, someone who has lost a mother, and someone who has miscarried. Are these stories overly morose? Not at all – because death is something that everyone has to deal with; everyone.
Which makes the title of this collection all the more poignant, The Simplest of Acts. As it says in that story:
I needed Jillian’s warmth beside me as much as she needed mine. And I only braided her hair and tied the ties because I had learned from Mom how to find peace in the simplest of acts. She had taught me that there’s a sense of calm in the patient weaving of hair over and under and over again, and in the slow rolling of a piecrust to just the right thickness, knowing by the feel of cool dough between your fingers.
So the “simplest of acts” is not just the small things we do everyday to get by, but even death itself. It comes so quickly, changing everything. This collection is very much about how people deal with this universal issue – not with self-destruction, but smaller, more subtle habits. Nothing in this collection hits you over the head with sentimentality or being overly somber, it is about how people slowly adapt to life’s big emotional moments.
I want to mention some problems with the design of the book because as well-crafted as these stories are, there are some basic issues that should be avoided in self-published books, but occur often. This book has the major two for interior design: the margins are not flush right and the tab for paragraphs is a full tab, as they would be in a Word document, and not a few spaces, as it is in professionally-published books. This is a problem in a large number of self-published books. Additionally, there are numbers on blank pages with the table of contents on the left side page, rather than the right side page.
Does all this matter? Not a lot, but Melanie Haney has obviously put a lot of care into her writing, and probably a lot of drafts, and these things can be easily fixed in any word program. It’s my personal preference as well that a short story collection be novel length and this a slim volume of just over 100 pages – but that could have been fixed as well in a smaller book (it’s 6×9) with wider margins between the text and spine.
I don’t really want to end on that note because this is such a good set of stories. But for anyone thinking about putting together a story collection – which makes perfect sense, as it’s harder to get a collection of stories published than a novel – they should take some of these issues into consideration. And they should read this book because it’s how short stories should be written.