Ox-Tales: Earth, Air, Fire and Water, various authors

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The Independent Culture

To raise money for its charities and celebrate the impending world domination of its second-hand bookshops, it seems appropriate that Oxfam has published this collection of four books of short stories. Not because they draw attention to Oxfam’s good work - mostly, they ignore it. But because one comes away from them as one comes away from a good second-hand bookshop: baffled by riches and with a ballooning reading list.

Divided quite arbitrarily between the four elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water – the beautifully packaged little books act as an admirable showcase for contemporary talents. Each begins with a poem by Vikram Seth, and ends with a sobering true story, elegantly written by an anonymous Oxfam contributor and showing that life can be stranger, sadder and more hopeful than fiction.

A roster of big-hitting authors has given up work for free: Lionel Shriver's story "Long Time No See" is taken from her abandoned "novel #6.5", which she wrote before We Need to Talk About Kevin, and whose subject of terrorism she now feels it is safe – or rather, vital – to return to.

While it seems brutal to single out any stories above others, those by Marina Lewycka and Hanif Kureishi, in Earth, are a beautifully odd juxtaposition of styles – hers folksy Ukrainian ("we have a saying in Ukraine: 'Keep your head cool, your belly hungry, and your feet warm, and you will live a hundred years...'"), his journalistic and spare – but both are about parents, and forgiveness. DBC Pierre's "Suddenly Dr Cox", which begins with the "baroque" image of butterflies crushed on a road, is so weird that it can only be true. And Ali Smith demonstrates her stunningly eccentric mastery of the short-story form with wit and panache in "Last".

Kamila Shamsie's "The Desert Torso" evokes the nomadic, global qualities that made her novel, Burnt Shadows, such a success. "A man walks through the desert carrying a stone torso," it begins. If that intrigues you, go to our website to read the full story.

To read Kamila Shamsie's story "The Desert Torso" and find out more about the Ox-Tales collection, go to independent.co.uk/ox-tales