I love a good short story — a world you can become fully immersed in, no matter how quick of a read it is. I’ve read short stories as tiny as three sentences, and they were incredible, breath-taking, and left me utterly stunned. For a while, I wanted to write fiction, and I thought sampling a little bit of everything was the way to go. I read Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and a stack of heavy anthologies I would study for language, structure, and dialogue. It worked. My writing became better. More vivid, more angular, more exciting.
I don’t write fiction these days, but short story collections are still in my regular reading rotation. Now when I make time for a short, it’s like the adult version of “story time” — except I'm reading about things like tragic romances, dysfunctional families, and colonization. Er, well, at least I am.
A lot of male writers are known for their prolific short story collections, but so many female writers have dazzled me with their impeccable prose, too. And those women deserve nods. This list below gives a heads-up to some of those amazing collections you'll want to pick up ASAP, whether you're reading to become a better writer or simply to get away:
1. Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith
Leesa Cross-Smith is the voice of every lost girl; every girl who’s gotten a little too drunk and kissed a stranger; every girl who loves the idea of love. Every Kiss a War comprises 27 beautiful short stories that are so descriptive, funny, and relatable, I just wanted to hug each and every protagonist. A line that stood out to me the most: “How sometimes your body couldn’t tell the difference between not loving someone enough and loving someone too much.” So. Good.
2. b oysgirls by Katie Farris
A hybrid of a short story, vignette, and a poetry collection, boysgirls is a set of dark and lovely scenes, all narrated by a mad woman. “The inventor of invented things” is a brief story about exactly what you think it would be. A man invents things that already exist: collard greens, sea salt, and risotto. “The girl who grew” tells the tale of a girl who grows so much, she drinks 47 pails of milk, and becomes too powerful. The stories are short, but drenched in depth and a magical realism influence.
3. The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
The Isle of Youth is a book of stories that center on women and their, at times, dreadful relationships with others. Much like Flannery O’ Connor, Laura van den Berg brings out the worst in her protagonists. Women are subjected to plane crashes, loneliness, acrobats, deceit; a key theme in this book is “struggle,” and these stories embody that in a fluid, wonderful way.
4. A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
A Guide to Being Born is structured around each stage in life and what it entails: initial romance, reproduction, pregnancy, and birth. Stories about transformation include “Atria,” which is about a girl who thinks she’ll give birth to animals. “Poppyseed” illustrates the desperate love of two parents who don’t want their child to change. Funny and deeply touching, each story leaves you surprised.
5. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
One of the first short story collections I fell in love with, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is thick with magical elements and stories that illuminate how lonely and desperate we can be sometimes. Weird, deranged, sexy, and heartbreaking, Bender’s stories will give you an excuse to take a break from reality.
6. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
This delicate book of . . . I want to say “love” stories, but I think “human” stories is a better way of putting it, is subtly amazing. Stories about fathers and mothers and their daughters, artists in love and mourning, and a solo traveler show us just how scared, yet fearless we can be.
7. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin
Although Chin doesn’t exactly follow standard structure, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen is a collection of stories that are loosely tied together. In fact, some are not tied together at all. When I had workshop with her, she explained that sometimes in the literary industry, you need to just slap a label on your book in order for it sell, so that’s what she did. This book centers on two Chinese American girls, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong, who get into all kinds of trouble. Other stories that dip into mythology and folklore also showcase Chin’s talent and zaniness.
8. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a book that opens up the conversation about race, racism, sexuality, college, and family. It’s incredibly dense and serious without taking itself too seriously. “Brownies” endearingly and sadly illustrates the binaries between the white and black girl scouts. “When you lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was easy to forget about whites. Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about,” the narrator says. Each story follows the transformation or journey of a character, and whether they attain their object of desire doesn’t matter. They change.
9. Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta
Chinelo Okparanta writes about Nigerian immigrants and their struggles. So much of this reminds me of books like Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and basically anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (both of whom follow literary traditions similar to Okparanta's). The difficulty of forcing oneself to grow accustomed to a new culture while retaining your own is illustrated beautifully and sorrowfully in Happiness, Like Water .
10. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Every single story I’ve read from Lahiri has been insanely tight. She could very well write a book about each individual character, since one of Lahiri’s many strengths is character development. You will truly care for each fictional person. You will care about what happens to them and who they become. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories that, like most of her work, discusses India and Indian heritage.
11. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
This book always makes me think of the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As in, happy families don’t actually exist. In Too Much Happiness , Munro unearths the pains humans experience when they lose what they love. Each story is so intoxicating and vivid, it’s hard to put the book down, no matter how sad it makes you.
12. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is a set of stories based around decision-making. Tight, concise, and confident, Meloy puts together each story by tugging on our heart strings and making us dig deeper than what is presented on the surface. Plots about love, family, and friendship are standardly presented, but intricately pulled apart for us to decide for ourselves what humanity really is.
13. At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid
After I read “Girl,” I became obsessed with Jamaica Kincaid. I wanted that rawness, that almost aggressive prose. The stories, which are often in the form of vignettes, paint a Caribbean childhood. Kincaid focuses on familial relationships and female and male binaries. Her style of writing is certainly very much her own, and it takes a few stories to get used to it. It’s abstract at times, lyrical, but still strong, and much of what I love about “Girl" is present throughout.
14. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
While most of Adichie's work is set in Nigeria, The Thing Around Your Neck follows characters living in America. Men and women deal with relationships, hate crimes, and the loneliness that being a new country brings. If you loved Americanah (which I also recommend, if you haven't read it), you’ll welcome Adichie’s familiar honesty and blunt story-telling. Her depiction of the struggles her characters — who feel alien to their new country — face, is gorgeous, deep, and moving.
15. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
Filled with stories we can all relate to or sympathize with, Self-Help is a must-read for everyone. Affairs, illnesses, relationships — it’s all here. What sets her apart from the rest is her talent with figurative language. She pulls you into metaphor after metaphor, and this stylistic way of explaining the inexplicable becomes addictive. Above all, her humor is probably what many of us love most — the way she makes us laugh and feel so much.