I've been coming across Steve Almond's stories in various literary journals for about a decade now and seen his name on various blurbs. The stories were always quality but never particularly stand-out works. I could probably say the same for the collection as a whole, though in this case, a few individual stories do stand out. I'd expected the collection would all revolve around a theme--probably romance--but in the end, the chosen stories seemed more random, like a best of what Almond's published.
Among the standouts are the title story, which involves a woman who works for a glossy woman's magazine who dates a seemingly mundane man who at first proves to be surprisingly sexy and sympathetic then becomes something quite the opposite, a man who strings women through similar arcs and drops in relationships with the same old excuses and lines.
Going along with that same theme is "Appropriate Sex," which involves a female student who tries to seduce her creative writing teacher and the despised student whom the teacher falls back on to help him avoid the girl.
"A Happy Dream" is about a blind date in which the lies people tell one another prove to be just that--and that's okay, because it's fun to dream.
"The Problem of Human Consumption" involves a man and his daughter recovering from--or perhaps, more appropriately, dealing with--grief over the lost wife/mother.
"Wired for Life" might well be called "Wired for Love." It's about a woman who finds herself oddly drawn to her computer repairman as the sex life with her own significant other seems largely unsatisfying to nonexistent.
"Summer, as in Love" seems like a long prose poem, a hymn if you will, to a short relationship, that is beautiful precisely because of the writing itself.
Another strong story, and perhaps my favorite in the book, is "Larsen's Novel," which is in the end about relationships but which seems, for most of it, to be about the awkward situation that is created when one is ask to read a friend's manuscript. What is the proper etiquette when someone has worked on something so long? Do you tell the truth about how bad it is, how wasted the work has been, or do you lie? And do you even read it? And if so, how do you manage to read it, when it is extremely bad and extremely long?
Other stories, though, seem far from this theme. "Soul Molecule" involves a family of alien abductees in conversation with an old (and somewhat skeptical) friend. Of note here is the way the Almond keeps the tale fairly mundane, given the point of view, which adds to the uncertainty about the reality.
"I Am as I Am" is about a boy who hits another with a baseball bat in a game after school, killing the kid and the change that that brings to the kid's life.
"Lincoln, Arisen," one the the weakest stories in the book is a historical retelling/imagining of a friendship/relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Another weak story involves a conversation about a part of Michael Jackson's body.
Overall, though, the book is a good introduction the Almond's oeuvre and makes me curious to see what else I might have missed over the last few years that has not been collected.