Reading is the only thing in the world I am good at. A lifetime of reading, fifteen years of working in bookstores, and libraries, and an obsession with the written word makes me qualified enough to talk someone's ear off about books. Now I am getting more ARCs than I have room for in the house. Let me get back to reading them!
I am one of the people out there who LOVES short stories. Not all of them obviously, not the stupid ones that try to make themselves and the writer seem really clever, but I don't immediately dismiss short story collections, and I am actually pretty intrigued by them. Shirley Jackson's short story "After You, My Dear Alphonse" is my all-time favorite short story ever, although "The Night Face Up" by Julio Cortazar is a close second. I am always willing to give short story collections a fighting chance, and so many of the collections I pick up end up having at least one gem in them. The Tenth of December by George Saunders, and The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith have been pleasant surprises in the last few years.
In a good year, I read two or three short stories collections. For some reason, this year almost all the new books that came out that I really, really wanted to read were short stories. I feel like I read nothing else, but when I looked over my reading list for the year, I find I have "only" read eleven collections. Since I have read 145 books this year, this seems like nothing, but it is more than triple the amount I usually read.
Here is the list of short story collections I have read in 2015 (so far!), in order of how much I loved/liked/hated them:
Night at the Fiestas: Stories by Kirstin Valdez Quade
I just can't heap enough praise on this book. It is, without a doubt, the very best book I have read this year, and the very best book I have read for many years. I was completely captivated. It made me wish I was still working in bookstores so that I could force as many people as possible to buy it. Even if you end up hating it, I strongly recommend that you go out and purchase a copy for yourself, and one for each of your friends. Give it to them and beg them to read it so you can all talk about how great it is. I admit to only reading it because I had heard last year that it was coming out in March of 2015, and that the stories were set in Northern New Mexico, where I was born and raised. Then I found out the author wasn't from New Mexico, but she "visited family" a lot while growing up, and my expectations plummeted. Being as I am a true Norte New Mexicana (an Española-area raised chica, and current Burqueña to boot) I knew a lot of people who "visited" New Mexico. Wealthy people who had a summer house in Santa Fe that they opened for opera season, or a house in Taos to use during the ski season do not get the gist of living day to day among the ancient culture of New Mexico, the mix of a million different worlds, the joy and sorrow of collective slights and sufferings. They do not get what it is to grow up in the Land of Enchantment, in the mysticism, and realism of Northern New Mexico. It is an impossible burden to bear, and it is an honor to carry that burden forward. I was sure Kirstin Valdez Quade would not get that. I was willing to read the stories anyway, if only to complain about them later. I read them, and they were beyond anything I could have imagined. They were phenomenal. They were stunning, and they still bring tears to my eyes. "Five Wounds" is definitely the story that is getting the most buzz, especially since it was previously published in The New Yorker, and it was one of my favorites, since it was about Penitentes in the Española area. However, the stories that packed a true emotional punch for me were "Jubilee", and "Canute Commands the Tides", which is an especially astute portrait of an East Coast retiree who finds being a true New Mexican is so much harder than moving to the Santa Fe hills, buying a fancy house, and deciding to paint. But all of these stories are incredible. I would recommend any one of them, to anyone. I don't care if they make you uncomfortable. Get over it, or move out of New Mexico. (Or never plan to visit.)
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories by Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra's first book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was a book I picked up idly a few years ago, and then tore through in two days. It was amazing, and I was eager to read his collection of short stories when I heard they were coming out. I was lucky enough to snag an ARC, and I was prepared to be disappointed with his sophomore effort since I had loved his first book so much. However, the more I read, the more I was blown away by Marra's skills as a storyteller. These stories are gorgeous, with heartbreakingly brave characters, and as the book unfolds, so does the larger picture. The Tsar of Love and Techno makes you realize how small and interconnected we are to our fellow humans, even if we don't realize it. These stories are all interconnected, so skip around if you must, but do read ALL of them, or you will not understand the beauty of the final scope. Reviewer Andrew on Goodreads said it best in the first line of his review: "It's not short stories. It's one big story broken into scenes. And it's astounding."
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
When I heard that this collection beat Lorrie Moore's Bark, and Francesca Marciano's The Other Language, for the 2014 Story Prize, I knew I had to read it. I had read both Moore's and Marciano's short story collections in 2014, and I detested them. After reading Thunderstruck I was thrilled that it got the Story Prize over the other two hacks. I felt justified in my harsh reviews of Moore and Marciano since the judges obviously agreed with me. Thunderstruck & Other Stories was incredible, and completely deserved the prize. I liked almost all the stories in this collection (the title story didn't leave me "Thunderstruck", ha ha). It was "Juliet" that was the story that especially "struck" me, since it was about life at a public library. (McCracken has a degree in library science.)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar
I was only drawn to this book because it was written by a Filipina author, and the stories were about Filipinos. Since my husband was born in the Philippines I was excited to read this. Most of the stories were pretty mediocre, but a few really stood out in my mind. "Old Girl" is a story I am still thinking about, especially after my husband informed me that it is based on a real person -- Corazon Aquino, who restored democracy to the Philippines after the Marcos regime. "Esmeralda" is another story I loved. The very best thing about this book is that it made me understand my mother-in-law in a whole new light, and gave me a new appreciation for her. It also made me actually research the history of the Philippines, especially the politics of the country, so that I could understand it, instead of just relying on my mother-in-law's vague recollections, and my husband's hazy memories. I can understand why some people may not like all these stories, since it was my personal connection to the Philippines that made them worth reading all the way through, but if you have to try one or two, I really do recommend "Old Girl" or "Esmeralda".
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link
I was completely charmed by the first story in this collection, "Summer People". When I was a child my favorite fairy tale was called "Mr Fox" which I found in my mother's old copy of English Fairy Tales, edited by Andrew Lang. Looking back, it's kind of a creepy story for an eight year old to be obsessed with, but I think what I really, really liked about it was the warnings that are posted on the evil fiance's house: "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart's blood run cold." I used to chant that little rhyme all the time, and I am now trying to get my friend to paint it on the door of my house. Anyway, "Summer People" incorporates that warning in the story, and that same hazy, creepy, fairy tale quality. I thought it was fantastic. "The Lesson", about a gay couple waiting for their first child was the other story that really touched me. The rest of the stories ranged from OK ("The New Boyfriend") to terrible ("Two Houses").
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc
I saw this sitting on the table of new releases at my library, and picked it up to read the first sentence, which was, "Every night I stunned myself with gin." I had stunned myself with gin the weekend before, and decided that anyone who knew that gin was stunning, and could stun was worth reading. Some stories were lovely, particularly the first one, "A Violence", but so many of these stories were annoyingly short. They were more like a page of bad haiku. However the collection itself is very small (less than 200 pages if I remember correctly) so it's over before you are really worked up about it.
Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman
This one I was very let down by. I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue who also writes short stories about historical incidents you don't hear too much about, so I was hoping these would be good also. They were not terrible, but they weren't that interesting. The historical women characters paled in comparison to the author's supporting casts, most of whom were fictional. When I mention it to people I tell them, "There's no reason to read this when you could read The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue instead." It even has a better title.
The Wilds stories by Julia Elliott
I can't remember where I heard about this collection, but I had it on my list only a short time before I decided to read it. My friends are assistant professors at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where Julia Elliott teaches English, so I thought if these stories were any good I could pass on a recommendation to them. Well, I am keeping that recommendation back for now. Although there were some great images, and some moments of beauty in these stories, on the whole they were mind-numbingly boring. I used these stories to put myself to sleep during the month of February. A lot of reviewers called these stories things like "modern Southern gothic", but to me they were just boring, bland, yeah, we live in the south. In other words, to me there was nothing that made them stand out in any way, and certainly not as an example of contemporary Southern fiction.
Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray
This collection puts the "short" in short story. Most of the stories are only a few pages long. Some of them are ok, but I got tired of trying to keep with the different stories. They all seemed the same after awhile.
Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser
This was a collection I was really excited to read (I can't remember why) and I was on a long waiting list for it at the library. By the time it came in I was no longer so enthused about it. It was summer, we were in the process of buying a house, etc. I just didn't have the concentration for it. At some point in the future I may try to read this again.
Refund: Stories by Karen E Bender
If not for Voices in the Night, this would have been the very worst of all the short stories I read this year. In fact, I will say that, yes, these are the worst stories I have read this year. There was nothing wrong with Voices in the Night, I just wasn't in the mood for it, and so I couldn't get into it. I wanted to read Refund after it was nominated for the National Book Award, but after reading the whole thing I could not understand how it got nominated at all.
I might also be willing to consider The Shore: A Novel by Sara Taylor as short stories, but since the title clearly says it's a novel, I will refrain from adding it to my list. However I found it to be similar to The Tsar of Love and Techno because each chapter focused on separate individuals, living in the same geographic place, but in different experiences and times. I find it interesting that The Shore sells itself as a novel, and The Tsar of Love and Techno sells itself as short stories when they essentially use the same storytelling tool. I will say that (of course)The Tsar of Love and Techno is a million times better, but The Shore isn't bad. I would recommend it, especially if you liked The Tsar of Love and Techno.
Any other good short story collections out there I should look for? What are your favorites?