These short story collections get you thinking about life

The best short stories ask you to lend a hand in figuring things out. Unless, of course, the writer tacks on a neon message: Now, see here, life is a struggle. The writers below are too smart for that.

At the heart of Kelly Cherry’s 10 interconnected family saga stories in “A Kind of Dream” (Terrace Books, $26.95) is “The Autobiography of My Mother(s).” Nothing “normal” here. The narrator, Tavy, 26, is the adopted daughter of Nina, Tavy’s childless great-aunt. Tavy lives with her daughter Callie in Nina’s basement, where she paints. Missing for all of Tavy’s life are her bio parents, married and living on the West Coast. They find Tavy and want to “make it up” to her, inviting her for a week’s visit. The fallout of all this messiness? Heartbreak? Confrontations? Not in Cherry’s wise hands. Life doesn’t need all its corners tucked. Tavy has learned, as a painter, “to see what’s in front of you,” until you feel like “you’re in that Hitchcock film, ‘The Birds.’ You think your eyes are about to be stabbed and eaten, your face clawed... .” But if you keep looking, Tavy says, “... you realize that what you thought was an assault has become an embrace; the painting-to-be surrounds you, and you are in a place of enormous possibility.” Kelly is a poet, novelist and essayist. Here and elsewhere her kind of knowing is breathtaking.

When the glaze of first love begins to wear, those twin interlopers, loneliness and boredom, come sneaking in the backdoor. That’s what happens in “Marla,” one of the four stories in Andre Dubus III’s latest collection, “Dirty Love” (Norton, $14.95 paper). Marla is 29, a bank teller, overweight, dateless. Enter Dennis, 37. They date, move in together. Uh-oh. Why he’s an obsessive housekeeper! He plays video games! He overeats! Loneliness sets in for Marla. She complains to Nancy. Nancy responds: “You can’t live with a man and not be lonely.” Draw your own conclusions.

A salute to Ellen Gilchrist’s latest collection, “Acts of God” (Algonquin, $23.95). Damage is alive and well in these 10 stories: hurricanes, accidents, illness, death. My favorite is “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath,” about a woman with multiple sclerosis who plans her own death, much to the annoyance of her grown daughter. The daughter complains to her shrink, who tries to imagine a 78-year-old woman “with the balls to jump into the Atlantic Ocean.” Cheered by “her strength and concentration and disregard for what the world expects,” he cancels his afternoon appointments and goes for a 6-mile run.