Two books have been released recently that have drawn attention to that oft-neglected form of storytelling: the short story. Tenth of December by George Saunders came out early in January, and drew attention when the New York Times Magazine boldly hailed it as the “best book you’ll read this year”. Quite a statement for so early on into 2013. As someone who enjoys the occasional short story collection, I joined the literary masses and borrowed Tenth of December from the library–and, unlike so many books that I read that receive so much hype, this one did not in any way disappoint. There is something to be said about an excellent short story, an achievement that is made that no novel can make. In fact, I believe that it is harder to write a single excellent short story than to write a 500 page novel. There is so much thought and feeling that needs to be expressed in a very limited amount of time, that sometimes one single ten page short story packs more of a wallop than an epic novel (two great examples of this are Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Ray Bradbury’s All Summer In A Day). The second book that is making a splash on the literary scene today is Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. This is Russell’s second publication after her wildly successful debut novel Swamplandia!, and it is also a collection of bizarre, highly imaginative, and poignant short stories. It has already gotten rave reviews and I am sure that we will see a growing holds list at the library in the next couple of weeks. The best short story collections are also like the best music albums–each individual story and the order in which they are read contribute to the book as a whole. In the spirit of the recent short story craze, I have provided a select list of other fantastic short story collections that are truly rewarding to read.
The Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones
This outstanding collection of short stories was a National Book Award finalist in 1993, and is one of my personal favorites. These mostly hard-luck stories are dark, gritty, existential, occasionally heartbreaking, and occasionally gruesome. Yet despite the intensity of these stories, his characters are often portrayed with a sensitivity that allows the reader to empathize with each and every one of them. Jones’ prose is abrasive yet refined, allowing stories that would ordinarily be interpreted as sensational and unrealistic instead be devastatingly real. These stories have impact, and this collection is truly one of a kind.
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel
Many short story writers attempt to write in the minimalistic style, but many do not succeed. Or, they simply become a similar voice among many. Not so with Amy Hempel. While many of her stories are told in sparing, imagistic prose, she writes in a truly unique voice. Hempel doesn’t waste a single word in describing the thoughts and feelings of those she portrays, and for this reason her stories are deeply emotional and affective. While Hempel is known to active seekers of the short story, she is not as well known in larger literary circles. If you have read George Saunders’ Tenth of December and loved it, then you’ll love these stories, too.
Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
This was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995. “Examining the lives of ordinary Haitians, particularly those struggling to survive under the brutal Duvalier regime, Danticat illuminates the distance between people’s desires and the stifling reality of their lives. Spare, elegant and moving, these stories cohere into a superb collection.”
Drown by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz earned major buzz in 2012 for his short story collection This Is How You Lose Her and for winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. If you haven’t read any of his books, you should. If you’ve read the two that have received the most media attention and loved them, I highly recommend you go back to the beginning and pick up Drown. This collection is slightly more academic in tone, but it still contains Diaz’s unique and gritty portrayals of life in the Dominican Republic and in the rough areas of New Jersey.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
This set of short stories is unique in that they all share the same disagreeable narrator, a “lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption” (Library Journal). Some people may recognize the title as a 1999 movie starring Billy Crudup–the short story collection is far more magnificent and moving.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This may seem like an obvious choice, but I couldn’t leave this one off the list. While it was marketed as a novel when released, it is more of a hybrid of short stories/essays/recollections of the Vietnam War. So, be warned, this is not light reading. The novel itself is narrated by the writer 20 years after the Vietnam War, but the stories themselves center around a platoon of foot soldiers fighting in 1970. This is a great example of short stories coming together as a whole–you shouldn’t read just one story from this collection, you should read the whole compilation from beginning to end.
Booklist Online’s Shelf Renewal blog also has a great list of short story collections that you should read. Find it here!