This year was a stellar one for short fiction. In addition to releases from celebrated practitioners of the form, like Kelly Link and Edith Pearlman, it also saw the emergence of fresh, exciting voices—and a short story collection even managed to nab the National Book Award. These 10 collections were standouts for us.
In her first collection of stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (2012), Megan Mayhew Bergman focused on the relationships between humans and animals. In her new collection, Almost Famous Women, Bergman focuses on the lives of real women who have been marginalized (or mythologized) in history.
Lauren Holmes’ debut, Barbara the Slut and Other People, is lighter fare . . . but don’t equate light with inconsequential. Holmes’ deceptively breezy stories focus on women grappling with sexual politics and make important observations about challenges faced by millennials.
It takes a writer of immense confidence and talent to fashion beautiful stories that chronicle ordinary people coping with devastating challenges. Adam Johnson demonstrated this talent in his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He now does the same in Fortune Smiles, a collection of six powerful short stories in which characters are forced to contend with some of life’s biggest tragedies.
Kelly Link tends to inspire a range of comparisons to other authors—usually, some blend of Angela Carter and Haruki Murakami—but, in fact, nobody writes stories like hers. Link’s fantastical worlds feel utterly real, partly because they’re intensely matter-of-fact. Her characters are sassy, moody and cool, and they never, ever make any big deal out of the fact that there are monsters, aliens, vampires or ghosts hanging around, or that they might stumble into a pocket universe or some alternate dimension. Mostly they’re concerned with cute guys and flirting and drinks, plus occasionally needing to save the world.
In his excellent debut short-story collection, Southern writer Thomas Pierce features a cast of characters caught up in the pain and beauty that can be found in all close relationships. Though sometimes strange, sometimes fantastical, it manages to perfectly balance between tragic and hilarious. If you enjoy George Saunders, Karen Russell or J. Robert Lennon, you need this book on your bedside table.
Edith Pearlman has been publishing award-winning stories since the late 1970s, but became more widely known in 2012, when her story collection Binocular Vision won both the PEN/Malamud and National Book Critics Circle awards and was a finalist for numerous others. Her new collection, Honeydew, gathers tales from the last 15 years, each one a closely observed look at the ordinary graces and sorrows of everyday life.
Rebecca Makkai’ s novels—The Borrower and The Hundred Year House—have established her as one of the most talented literary voices today. Her short fiction has been selected for The Best American Short Stories four years in a row. Now the acclaimed writer returns with Music for Wartime, an anticipated collection of short stories, several of which were inspired by the lives of her paternal grandparents.
This radiant collection of short stories features a set of flawed yet sympathetic women in a whole mess of compromising positions. . . . First-time author Katherine Heiny takes great care to make her characters relatable even in their imperfections. She paints sweetly resonant moments that also can be very funny.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is an intricately structured and powerful collection. These interconnected stories set in Russia span more than 70 years. They begin with the tale of Roman Markin, a “correction artist” who works for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job is to airbrush images of political dissenters out of photographs and paintings. One of the dissenters is his younger brother, Vaska.
Steven Millhauser is our patron saint of elsewhere. He is the bard of an Arcadia we long for (but also dread), a sorcerer who can materialize phantoms in our backyards, where they’ve been standing all along, just there, behind the bushes.
If you're looking for a fresh take on Southern life, get excited about this new collection of stories from Alabama author Helen Ellis.
Almost every reader has at least one "long-lost" author—that writer you Google every few years in the hope of finding an announcement of a new release. Helen Ellis is one of mine. An ARC of Eating the Cheshire Cat showed up at the Auburn University Bookstore when I was working there nearly 15 years ago, and was unlike any book I'd ever read before—a dark, psychologically complex portrayal of female friendships in the South that somehow managed to ring true even while being completely over-the-top (you'll never look at an axe the same way).
Needless to say, I'd been hoping she'd write something else for adults* ever since, so I cannot wait to dive into American Housewife, a story collection that Doubleday will publish in January. They describe the collection as "vicious, fresh, and nutty as a poisoned Goo Goo Cluster," which seems like just about the perfect description of Ellis' charms to me. Will you read it?
* She published a paranormal YA book in 2010, which, as a cat lover, I should probably pick up.
Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning has the feel of a fairy tale collection. But these strange and haunting fairy tales are not recommended for bedtime stories. As he warns in the intro: "There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you . . . . Consider yourself warned."
Gaiman cuts a fine line between fantasy and reality, with each story plopping you into another dark world that is so similar, yet so disturbly dissimilar, from our own. There are ghoulish old ladies, ominous hounds, rolling fogs and monarchs—there's even a "Doctor Who" story. It's pretty clear that Gaiman's creativity is in no short supply; I can only imagine what having him around a campfire would be like.
This excerpt comes from "A Calendar of Tales":
My mother had a ring in the shape of a lion’s head. She used it to do small magics—find parking spaces, make the queue she was in at the supermarket move a bit faster, make the squabbling couple at the next table stop squabbling and fall in love again, that sort of thing. She left it to me when she died.
The first time I lost it I was in a café. I think I had been fiddling with it nervously, pulling it off my finger, putting it on again. Only when I got home did I realize that I was no longer wearing it.
I returned to the café, but there was no sign of it.
Several days later, it was returned to me by a taxi driver, who had found it on the pavement outside the café. He told me my mother had appeared to him in a dream and given him my address and her recipe for old-fashioned cheesecake.
What are you reading this week?
Thomas Pierce's debut short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, is sometimes strange, sometimes fantastical and manages to perfectly balance between tragic and hilarious. Within this collection, a mother is saddled with a cloned baby mammoth by her selfish son; two siblings are trapped in a pantry and very confused; and a father and son blunder through a cliqueish, vaguely cult-like community of campers. Ultimately this collection shines a light on the pain and beauty that can be found within all close relationships. If you enjoy George Saunders, Karen Russell or J. Robert Lennon, you might want to pick up this book.
Here's an excerpt from the title short story, "Hall of Small Mammals":
“I think the pace is picking up,” the woman behind me said, and when I looked up, I saw that she was right. We were really moving now. I could see the entrance ot the Hall of Small Mammals, its brown double doors open wide to receive us. But where was Val? I scanned the crowds. Had I been wrong to let a twelve-year-old go off on his own at a public zoo? I was beginning to suspect that I’d made a poor decision. My experience with children was and is fairly limited. I have two grown nieces that I rarely see in person, though my fridge is plastered with their childhood photos and printed emails. My older brother, the girls’ father, once said that being a parent is the most important thing he’s ever done with his life. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him what that says about my life.
What are you reading today?
As part of our Best Books of 2014 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
There’s a playful bite to the eight short stories that make up Lorrie Moore’s new collection: They address the banality and bitterness of romance with subversive, mordant humor. In these tales of marriage and divorce, comedy is the coping mechanism for the disappointments of being in (and out) of love. It’s like laughing with a mouthful of food—the reality isn’t pretty, but we’re laughing anyway.
Fans of the best-selling and highly-lauded author Neil Gaiman have two projects to be excited about in the coming months!
First up on the coming-soon calendar: Gaiman's simultaneously creepy and poignant coming of age middle-grade novel The Graveyard Book, the only book to ever win both the Newbery and Carnegie Medals, is being released as a full-cast audiobook! Featuring some of the U.K.'s most talented actors from stage and screen—including BBC's "Sherlock" star Andrew Scott—music by Béla Fleck and a special essay read by Gaiman himself, this is sure to please audiobook lovers.
Listen to an excerpt from the recording here, and find it in stores September 30 from HarperCollins.
A little further on the horizon is a new collection of short stories and verse, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Discoveries. Along with a number of previously published pieces, a press release from Morrow promises "a 'Dr. Who' story written for the 50th anniversary of the series in 2013 . . . and a brand-new story exclusive to this anthology." Trigger Warning is slated to hit shelves in February 2015.
What do you say, readers? Excited to get your hands on these upcoming releases?
Short stories make for perfect reading in the summer. Since each one is a self-contained dose of literature, you barely even need a bookmark—plus, there's no worrying about whether you'll remember what you read on the flight over when you reopen the book on the way back. If you're looking for a bite-sized dose of summer reading, explore our guide to 2014's spring and summer collections.
Readers looking for a voice from a very different world should pick up Hassan Blasim's The Corpse Exhibition (Penguin). Compared to Roberto Bolaño and Borges, this Arabic author sets the stories in his debut collection during the Iraq War—and they're told from the Iraqi perspective. If you want a collection that will test your beliefs and haunt your dreams, this might be your pick.
Another collection that features a distinctive cross-cultural voice is Snow in May (Holt), the first book from author Kseniya Melnik. Melnik was born in Russia and emigrated to Alaska as a teen, and the stories featured here are connected through her hometown of Madagan, a port city in the Far East of Russia that was a stopover on the way to Stalin's gulags. Spanning the later half of the 20th century and geographical locations from Madagan to Fargo, these stories plumb the weight of history and the struggle to reconcile where you come from with where you are now.
Those interested in coming-of-age stories and tricky relationship dynamics will enjoy the linked stories in Polly Dugan's debut collection, So Much a Part of You (Little, Brown). Featuring characters that reappear across decades, the book explores the way that relationships—romantic and otherwise—change over time. When Anne inadvertently dates her best friend's high school boyfriend, the same mistake destroys both relationships. A student's one-night stand changes her college life. And a deathbed revelation spurs forgiveness. Utterly real and insightful.
Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions) is a much wider-randing collection, spanning decades and countries in stories linked only by the strange twists each one takes. The delusional narrator of one story is addicted to making lists, stalking a girl called Allison and writing love songs to Jodie Foster. In the title story, parents struggle with the dual burdens of unemployment and a child with behavior issues. Occasionally experimental, always imaginative.
Another edgy collection comes from Scottish author James Kelman, whose novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994. The stories in If it Is Your Life (Other Press) are mostly written with the stream-of-consciousness style and dark humor that Kelman is known for, and they're a bit more outré than his novels. But readers who like to read about lives lived on the edge will be excited for this new collection.
Take a nostalgic trip back to your childhood (at least, if you're a child of the late 80s like me!) with a newly published collection of Lois Duncan's short stories, Written in the Stars (Lizzie Skurnick Books). The author of teen classics like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Duncan has collected 13 tales from her very early career—including a story she published when she was only 13 years old—and includes a brief contemporary commentary on each one. As you might expect of stories that originally appeared in places like Seventeen or American Girl, these are mostly focused on the concerns of youth, but the glimpse they provide into the shaping of a young writer are fascinating.
Another familiar name with a new collection is David Guterson. The author of Snow Falling on Cedars returns with the playfully titled Problems with People (Knopf), which branches out from the author's typical Pacific Northwest territory to encompass most of the U.S. as well as Nepal and Africa. Though diverse in locale, these 10 tales are united by Guterson's strong storytelling voice and will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of his fans.
And we'll end with another collection from a beloved voice: Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck (Dial). Though most of these nine stories have been previously published in some of the best short fiction venues—Granta, The New Yorker—taken together, they demonstrate McCracken's remarkable range as well as her ability to truly understand the her characters and her quirky sense of humor (the title story opens with a 12-year-old girl being brought home by the police from a nitrous oxide party).
Kaui Hart Hemmings follows up her best-selling debut novel The Descendants—which was made into an award-winning movie starring George Clooney—with The Possibilities, a moving story of a mother struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of her 22-year-old son. Our reviewer says of the book: "While [it] is a book ostensibly about death, it is at its core really about life—in all its messy, funny, hurtful, confusing and transcendent moments." (Read our complete review and a Q&A with Hemmings about the book.)
We were curious about the books Hemmings has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Bread and Butter
By Michelle Wildgen
I’ve been a fan of Michelle’s work ever since our first workshop at Sarah Lawrence. This novel was rich, page-turning and simple, in the best way. Two brothers, two restaurants, one small town. The characters seriously sizzled with life—they were so utterly real, and the writing—the writing!—sings. Michelle is a master storyteller.
Another book about brothers that was captivating and fluid. This time the brothers are attorneys who return home to help their sister and her son who has been accused of hate crime. It’s an intimate book—clear-eyed, gripping and beautifully written.
The Stories of John Cheever
By John Cheever
I may as well stay the course. “Goodbye My Brother” is one of my favorite short stories of all time. A simple premise: The Pommeroy family—three sons and one daughter—meet at their summer place on the shore. One brother is so pessimistic and aggravating that he provokes his brother to hit him on the head. Small, profound and lyrical. Transcendent and enduring. It is, to me, a perfect story.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Possibilities—or any of Hemmings' recommended books—to your TBR list?
We're highlighting a new batch of the most humorous, unsettling and vibrant short story collections this April, and one of our favorite stars from NBC's "The Office" may surprise you with the strength of his literary muscle.
B.J. Novak is most often recognized for his role as Ryan, the Dundler Mifflin temp, but his first collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, is anything but a vanity project. Novak’s Harvard degree in English and Spanish literature combined with his sharp, absurdist style of humor are more than enough to convince us that he’s the real deal.
With 64 pieces that dip into everything from pop culture and celebrity to Mark Twain’s word choices in Huckleberry Finn, Novak delivers a fresh and emotionally astute literary debut.
The hilarious trailer stars Novak himself as he desperately tries to get his chic yet snobby Parisian crush (a fellow "Office" alum) to notice him.
What do you think, readers? Are you planning to read Novak's first collection? Is he giving Gary Shteyngart some competition for most entertaining book trailer?
Author Tony Earley's 2000 debut novel, Jim the Boy, was a national bestseller, but he is also known for his short stories, which serve up satisfying slices of life. On August 26, he'll release his third short story collection—and his first in 20 years—Mr. Tall (Little, Brown).
The seven tales—one of which is novella length—have varied Southern settings, from the Outer Banks to contemporary Nashville (Earley is an English professor at Vanderbilt University).
From the publisher:
Earley indelibly maps previously undiscovered territories of the human heart in these melancholy, comic, and occasionally strange stories. Along the way he leads us on a journey from contemporary Nashville to a fantastical land of talking dogs and flying trees, teaching us at every step that, even in the most familiar locales, the ordinary is never just that.
Will you read it?