I find that some of the most wholly unique and original writing comes from short story collections. Although limited in page count, short stories at their best hold a mirror up to society, with collections featuring vibrant casts of characters and thorough examinations of human relationships to place and nature. Here are ten compelling collections that contain short stories with the emotional impact of a full-length novel.
Perennial short story author Megan Mayhew Bergman returns with her first collection in six years, HOW STRANGE A SEASON. Like her previous two collections, this fresh collection of stories and a novella explore the interior lives of women. In “Workhorse,” a woman fresh off of a breakup attempts to heal through filling a terrarium with endangered flowers, while in “Peaches, 1979,” a farmer reconciles with the fact that her peach farm may not survive a drought. HOW STRANGE A SEASON is sure to leave an indelible impression with its explorations of strong female characters interacting with nature, inheritances, and family.
Named a Most Anticipated Book of the Year by The Millions, Thrillist, LitHub, The Week, and more
An evocative and engrossing collection of new stories and a novella about women experiencing life’s challenges and beauty from the award-winning writer Megan Mayhew Bergman.
A recently separated woman fills a huge terrarium with endangered flowers to establish a small world only she can control in an attempt to heal her broken heart. A competitive swimmer negotiates over which days she will fulfill her wifely duties, and which days she will keep for herself. A peach farmer wonders if her orchard will survive a drought. And generations of a family in South Carolina struggle with fidelity and their cruel past, some clinging to old ways and others painfully carving new paths.
In these haunting stories, Megan Mayhew Bergman portrays women who wrestle with problematic inheritances: a modern glass house on a treacherous California cliff, a water-starved ranch, and an abandoned plantation on a river near Charleston. Bergman’s provocative prose asks the questions: what are we leaving behind for our descendants to hold, and what price will they pay for our mistakes?
I first came across Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person” when it made waves after its publication in The New Yorker. Its unnerving realism and moral unclarity made it the best story about dating I had ever read, and it still remains one of my favorite short stories of all time.
When I found out that Roupenian had released a full short story collection, I knew I needed to read it. The stories in “CAT PERSON” AND OTHER STORIES perfectly blend unease with domestic and everyday affairs, featuring an eleven-year-old’s birthday party gone wrong, a boyfriend narrating his girlfriend’s experience with a skin condition, and a woman who fantasizes about biting her new coworker. Personally, I have not stopped thinking about “Look at Your Game, Girl,” a story that follows a girl who meets an adult male stranger at a playground, since I read the collection.
FEATURING A BRAND NEW STORY
“What’s special about ‘Cat Person,’ and the rest of the stories in You Know You Want This, is the author’s expert control of language, character, story—her ability to write stories that feel told, and yet so unpretentious and accessible that we think they must be true.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Kristen Roupenian isn’t just an uncannily great writer, she also knows things about the human psyche—things that I always supposed I would learn at some point, but never did…The world has made a lot more sense since reading this book.” —Miranda July, New York Times bestselling author
“If you think you know what this collection will be like, you’re wrong. These stories are sharp and perverse, dark and bizarre, unrelenting and utterly bananas. I love them so, so much.” —Carmen Maria Machado, National Book Award Finalist and author of Her Body and Other Parties
A compulsively readable collection of short stories that explore the complex—and often darkly funny—connections between gender, sex, and power across genres.
Previously published as You Know You Want This, “Cat Person” and Other Stories brilliantly explores the ways in which women are horrifying as much as it captures the horrors that are done to them. Among its pages are a couple who becomes obsessed with their friend hearing them have sex, then seeing them have sex…until they can’t have sex without him; a ten-year-old whose birthday party takes a sinister turn when she wishes for “something mean”; a woman who finds a book of spells half hidden at the library and summons her heart’s desire: a nameless, naked man; and a self-proclaimed “biter” who dreams of sneaking up behind and sinking her teeth into a green-eyed, long-haired, pink-cheeked coworker.
Spanning a range of genres and topics—from the mundane to the murderous and supernatural—these are stories about sex and punishment, guilt and anger, the pleasure and terror of inflicting and experiencing pain. These stories fascinate and repel, revolt and arouse, scare and delight in equal measure. And, as a collection, they point a finger at you, daring you to feel uncomfortable—or worse, understood—as if to say, “You want this, right? You know you want this.”
Written by short story veteran Ann Beattie, THE STATE WE’RE IN showcases the height of her talents. The collection cleverly utilizes its title to explore the concept and significance of “state” literally and figuratively; many stories in this collection take place in Maine while exploring the emotional states of its characters. In the tradition of OLIVER KITTERIDGE, the stories in THE STATE WE’RE IN feature one central protagonist and a cast of characters that weave in and out of her life. The collection focuses on Jocelyn, a disaffected teenager living with her aunt and uncle for the summer, attending summer school while her mother recovers from illness. As Jocelyn progresses through the summer, each narrative that enters her life serves to either enhance or challenge her worldview.
“Ann Beattie at her most magnificent…Her first new collection in ten years...These tales explore the range of emotional states the author is famous for: longing, disaffection, ambivalence, love, regret. It’s nice to hear her voice again” (People).
“A peerless, contemplative page-turner” (Vanity Fair), The State We’re In is about how we live in the places we have chosen—or been chosen by. It’s about the stories we tell our families, our friends, and ourselves, the truths we may or may not see, how our affinities unite or repel us, and where we look for love.
Many of these stories are set in Maine, but The State We’re In is about more than geographical location. Some characters have arrived in Maine by accident, others are trying to escape. The collection is woven around Jocelyn, a wry, disaffected teenager living with her aunt and uncle while attending summer school. As in life, the narratives of other characters interrupt Jocelyn’s, sometimes challenging, sometimes embellishing her view.
“Ann Beattie slips into a short story as flawlessly as Audrey Hepburn wore a Givenchy gown: an iconic presentation, each line and fold falling into place but allowing room for surprise” (O, The Oprah Magazine). “Splendid...memorable...every page…fitted out with the blessed finery of hypnotic storytelling” (The Washington Post), these stories describe a state of mind, a manner of being. The State We’re In explores, through women’s voices, the unexpected moments and glancing epiphanies of daily life.
If you’re looking to read a short story collection guaranteed to be filled with immaculate language, look no further than John Edgar Wideman. The seasoned writer has written six short story collections and won the 2019 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.
Wideman’s most recent collection, LOOK FOR ME AND I’LL BE GONE, highlights themes that have been most essential to his work, from family and loss to racial division and the penal system, with his creative range on full display. “Atlanta Murders” sees Wideman twisting a common joke into commentary on James Baldwin’s book-length essay, Evidence of Things Not Seen, while “Arizona” is written in the form of a letter to the singer Freddie Jackson.
*A Wall Street Journal Top 10 Best Book of the Year*
From John Edgar Wideman, a modern “master of language” (The New York Times Book Review), comes a stunning story collection that spans a range of topics from Michael Jordan to Emmett Till, from childhood memories to the final day in a prison cell.
In Look For Me and I’ll Be Gone, his sixth collection of stories, John Edgar Wideman imbues with energy and life the concerns that have consistently infused his fiction and nonfiction. How does it feel to grow up in America, a nation that—despite knowing better, despite its own laws, despite experiencing for hundreds of years the deadly perils and heartbreak of racial division—encourages (sometimes unwittingly, but often on purpose) its citizens to see themselves as colored or white, as inferior or superior.
Never content merely to tell a story, Wideman seeks once again to create language that delivers passages like jazz solos, and virtuosic manipulations of time to entangle past and present. The story “Separation” begins with a boy afraid to stand alone beside his grandfather’s coffin, then wends its way back and forth from Pittsburgh to ancient Sumer. “Atlanta Murders” starts with two chickens crossing a road and becomes a dark riff, contemplating “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” James Baldwin’s report on the 1979–1981 child murders in Atlanta, Georgia.
Comprised of fictions of the highest caliber and relevancy by a writer whose imagination and intellect “prove his continued vitality...with vigor and soul” (Entertainment Weekly), Look For Me and I’ll Be Gone will entrance and surprise committed Wideman fans and newcomers alike.
A remote Polish village is utilized as a microcosm to explore the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Poland in THEY WERE LIKE FAMILY TO ME. Set in 1942 against a backdrop of moral ambiguity, Shankman blends myth and folklore with history to tell the stories of the residents of Włodawa as they contend with the Nazi party at the height of their power. In one story, an SS officer is dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, while in another a Jewish girl is hidden by an outspoken antisemite and his talking dog. Similar to James Joyce’s classic DUBLINERS, THEY WERE LIKE FAMILY TO ME examines tragedy and resistance through one town’s memorable residents.
Finalist for the 2017 Story Prize
Honorable Mention in the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for achievement in Jewish Literature
“An absolutely dazzling triumph…A singularly inventive collection” (Jewish Book Council) of linked stories set in a German-occupied town in Poland during World War II, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.
1942. With the Nazi Party at the height of its monstrous power, Hitler’s SS fires up the new crematorium at Auschwitz and the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish citizens. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival depends on unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire, a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.
“Filled with rich attention to the details of flora and fauna and insightful descriptions of the nuances of rural and small-town life” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town at a crossroads: we meet an SS officer dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book; a Messiah who announces that he is quitting; a Jewish girl who is hidden by an outspoken anti-Semite—and his talking dog. And walking among these tales are the enigmatic Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the forced labor camp who has grand schemes to protect “his” Jews, and Soroka, the Jewish saddlemaker and his family, struggling to survive.
“Moving and unsettling...Like Joyce’s Dubliners, this book circles the same streets and encounters the same people as it depicts the horrors of Germany’s invasion of Poland through the microcosm of one village....A deeply humane demonstration of wringing art from catastrophe” (Kirkus Reviews), They Were Like Family to Me (originally called In the Land of Armadillos) is a testament to the persistence of humanity in the most inhuman conditions.
Similarly to HOW STRANGE A SEASON, Leigh Newman’s NOBODY GETS OUT ALIVE illuminates the intersection between women and nature, as well as how women struggle with their marriages and families. Alaska, Newman’s home state, takes center stage in each of these stories, as suburban sprawl, global warming, opioid addiction, and remote wilderness feature as prominent themes. Sporting feminist takes on the frontier narrative and a memorable collection of characters, NOBODY GETS OUT ALIVE is a can’t-miss debut short story collection.
Named a MOST ANTICIPATED book by Vogue, Literary Hub, The Millions, Good Housekeeping, and Oprah Daily
From the prizewinning, debut fiction author: an exhilarating virtuosic story collection about women navigating the wilds of male-dominated Alaskan society.
Set in Newman’s home state of Alaska, Nobody Gets Out Alive is a collection of dazzling, courageous stories about women struggling to survive not just grizzly bears and charging moose but the raw, exhausting legacy of their marriages and families. In “Howl Palace”—winner of The Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize, a Best American Short Story, and Pushcart Prize selection—an aging widow struggles with a rogue hunting dog and the memories of her five ex-husbands while selling her house after bankruptcy. In the title story, “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” newly married Katrina visits her hometown of Anchorage and blows up her own wedding reception by flirting with the host and running off with an enormous mastodon tusk.
Alongside stories set in today’s Last Frontier—rife with suburban sprawl, global warming, and opioid addiction—Newman delves into remote wilderness of the 1970s and 80s, bringing to life young girls and single moms in search of a wilder, freer, more adventurous America. The final story takes place in a railroad camp in 1915, where an outspoken heiress stages an elaborate theatrical in order to seduce the wife of her husband’s employer, revealing how this masterful storyteller is “not only writing unforgettable, brilliantly complex characters, she’s somehow inventing souls” (Kimberly King Parsons, author of Black Light).
Balancing heartbreak with humor, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE is a wholly unique look at Black identity in the United States, with each story written from the perspective of Black middle-class Americans. Each of the eleven vignettes in this debut collection pushes boundaries as she explores an epistolatory feud between two mothers exchanging notes in their children’s backpacks, a teen girl struggling to reconcile her upper-middle-class identity with her desire to embrace Black culture, and the dire consequences for a Black cosplayer who is mistaken for a threat. This collection, winner of the PEN Open Book Award and the Whiting Award, is sure to leave an impact long after the last page is turned.
*Winner of the PEN Open Book Award*
*Winner of the Whiting Award*
*Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award and Aspen Words Literary Prize*
*Nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize*
*Finalist for the Kirkus Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize*
Included in Best Books of 2018 Lists from Refinery29, NPR, The Root, HuffPost, Vanity Fair, Bustle, Chicago Tribune, PopSugar, and The Undefeated.
In one of the season’s most acclaimed works of fiction—longlisted for the National Book Award and winner of the PEN Open Book Award—Nafissa Thompson-Spires offers “a firecracker of a book...a triumph of storytelling: intelligent, acerbic, and ingenious” (Financial Times).
Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with race, identity politics, and the contemporary middle class in this “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive” (George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo) collection.
Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks—while others are devastatingly poignant. In the title story, when a cosplayer, dressed as his favorite anime character, is mistaken for a violent threat the consequences are dire; in another story, a teen struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with so-called black culture.
Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires “has taken the best of what Toni Cade Bambara, Morgan Parker, and Junot Díaz do plus a whole lot of something we’ve never seen in American literature, blended it all together...giving us one of the finest short-story collections” (Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division).
For fans of Jennifer Egan and Annie Proulx, Scott O’Connor’s A PERFECT UNIVERSE offers a piercingly real exploration of the actions of morally ambiguous individuals set against a backdrop of Los Angeles, California. In this ambitious collection, O’Connor narrates how sisters must grapple with the reality of schizophrenia, how a thief attempts to find a missing boy, and how a well-known author is exposed as a fraud. Perhaps the most fascinating examination of humanity takes place in O’Connor’s “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” where a gang shoot-out at a coffee shop is narrated from three wildly different perspectives.
Scott O’Connor’s novels have been hailed as “astonishing” (Library Journal), and “so insistently stirring, you want to lean in close to catch every word” (The New York Times Book Review). Now, from the author of Untouchable and Half World comes A Perfect Universe, a piercingly emotional cycle of stories in the tradition of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Annie Proulx’s Close Range.
Welcome to the often-overlooked corners of sun-bleached Los Angeles, where a teenaged bicycle thief searches for a kidnapped boy, a young musician emerges as the lone survivor of a building collapse, and an aging actor faces the erasure of his past. There, far from the Hollywood spotlight, we also meet two sisters locked in a destructive cycle of memory and illness, coffee-shop regulars whose lives are torn apart by a stunning moment of violence, and the desperate, fraudulent writer whose fictions connect these unforgettable characters in subtle and surprising ways.
Sharply observed, exhilaratingly paced, and beautifully written, A Perfect Universe is a masterful exploration of growing up and growing old, loss and longing, identity and deception, and the search for redemption, humanity, and grace.
My introduction to Carmen Maria Machado was IN THE DREAM HOUSE, her inventive memoir that quickly became one of my all-time favorite books. It should come as no surprise then that months after finishing IN THE DREAM HOUSE, I picked up her short story collection HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES as an audiobook. HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES is just as innovative as IN THE DREAM HOUSE and proves that Machado is one of the most talented and original authors of our age. Each story in this collection exemplifies that her creativity knows no bounds, blending science fiction, fantasy, horror, psychological realism, feminism, and queerness. Standouts include the iconic “The Husband Stitch,” where a husband ignores his wife’s single request to not remove the green ribbon from her neck, and the daring “Especially Heinous,” a novella that reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Jhumpa Lahiri has firmly established herself as one of her generation’s greatest authors, and her talents are fully showcased in UNACCUSTOMED EARTH. In this collection, Lahiri articulates the experiences of Bengali families living in the United States, with many families living just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Through meticulous, thought-provoking prose, Lahiri captures themes of isolation, desire, and generational clashes between family members.
Photo credit: iStock / Ekaterina Morozova