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You’ll Be Obsessed with These 6 Short Story Collections

by | February 19
You’ll Be Obsessed with These 6 Short Story Collections

When I was much, much younger, I thought short stories were written by authors for the express purpose of giving English teachers something to assign their students as homework. I often dreaded reading them, the main reason being that their subject matter and tone were often quite a bit darker and more serious than those of my preferred escapist fantasy reads or Jane Austen satiric romances.

I don’t know which story—or which teacher—it was that finally changed my mind,* but after years of reading classics like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” (all of which, I’m sure you’re familiar with), I realized short stories are downright incredible. Some people call them “training wheels” for novels, but that’s a load of tosh. In a short story, a writer has to create a whole universe and make the reader feel something in a significantly smaller word count than a novel, and that is a difficult thing to do. It’s an exercise in brevity, and it is its own particular kind of craft. I have the utmost respect for the people who can do it well. (And maybe I also like short stories a bit better now that I’m older, a lot more critical of the world, and cynical about well…everything.)

These six collections are some of the most life-changing, mind-f***ing, just-short-of-crazy stories I’ve read in the last few years, and they will definitely elicit a reaction (if not many) from you too.

This list is by no means definitive, and I’m already kicking myself for not including Stephen King’s Different Seasons and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies…follow-up list to come!

*I’m lying. I don’t know which teacher it was, but I’m almost 100% sure reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” changed my young life many years ago.

Sing to It

Sing to It

by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel, if you didn’t already know, is short story royalty. Sing to It (which officially releases on March 26) is her sixth collection, the first she’s published in over a decade, and it has been a thing of great anticipation for some time now. If you’ve read Amy Hempel before, then stories like “Cloudland,” “A Full-Service Shelter,” “Greed” (one of my favorites at the moment), and “The Correct Grip” (another favorite) will be recognizable in how swiftly, subtly, and suddenly they create moments of revelation and transcendence. If part of the short story craft is brevity, then Amy Hempel is truly skilled. Some of these short stories are half a page long, but they’ll leave you wondering where the main character came from, where they are going, and wanting to go with them.

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Rutting Season

Rutting Season

by Mandeliene Smith

Something that pleases me tremendously about writers is how much they support each other. In 2007, Stephen King chose the first story in this collection, “Mercy,” for the list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories” in The Best American Short Stories 2007.

And now, twelve years later, “Mercy” is one of nine stories in Rutting Season. Most of Mandeliene Smith’s debut collection is quietly shocking, because you never quite know how the stories will end. The author traces the lives of people in moments of crises. The main characters are always poised between disaster and redemption, and it’s up to you to figure out what the resolution of each story means.

I found myself laughing throughout, because the inspiring is so often placed side by side the ridiculous. “Mercy,” in particular ends on an arresting image that is ludicrous and meaningful at the same time—which baffles the main character as much as it did me!

You can read “Animals” on Literary Hub now.

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Heads of the Colored People

Heads of the Colored People

by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

One of my favorite authors, George Saunders (who is further down on this list), called Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive.” And the man isn’t wrong.

This collection of stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era and is shocking and alluring in its breadth. From moms passing notes back and forth through their kids’ backpacks to a young girl trying to figure out how best to use social media to let her friends know she wants to take her own life, each of these stories grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in compelling, humorous, and sometimes disconcerting ways. This book is for fans of George Saunders and Carmen Maria Machado (who is next on this list!), and honestly, just anyone who loves utterly original characters.

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Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties

by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is magic. This collection is everything you can think of—it’s psychological realism, it’s science fiction, it’s comedy and horror, it’s fantasy, it’s fabulism (yes, that’s a word!), it’s at times downright ridiculous, and it’s wry at every turn.

I will not claim to have favorite stories in this collection because it’s impossible to pick—they are all in their own unique worlds. That being said, the first story, “The Husband Stitch” has perhaps haunted me the longest because of how deceptively simple the story’s form is, and how it carries the full weight of the collection’s common thread: the exploration of the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

You *have* to read this book.

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Pastoralia

Pastoralia

by George Saunders

Like many of the collections on this list, I don’t even know how to begin explaining exactly how captivating this book is. In each story, George Saunders builds a world that is so familiar, except in each one, something is a bit off, not quite right, has been shifted around just enough to fill you—the reader—with an extreme sense of dread. In the title story, “Pastoralia,” a man makes his living by working full-time as a caveman in an amusement park diorama. In “Sea Oak,” a woman comes back from the dead to continue to take care of her nieces and nephew, evolving from meek-older-woman to zombie-in-command. In “Winky,” a man attends a self-improvement seminar to learn how to identify “Genes” in his life—toxic people who crap in the “oatmeal” of your soul.

Suffice it to say, the man knows dark comedy. You’ll laugh-cringe all the way through.

BONUS: A couple of years ago, Amazon, in a move that was not talked about nearly enough, produced a pilot based on “Sea Oak.”I haven’t seen it, and need to watch it ASAP!

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You Know You Want This

You Know You Want This

by Kristen Roupenian

If you were anywhere near the internet in December 2017/January 2018, then you probably heard about Kristen Roupenian's short story “Cat Person” (originally published by the New Yorker). It went viral for a bunch of reasons, not least of which because it sparked a lot of debate about dating culture, communication, and gender norms.

Now, you can experience “Cat Person” and eleven more stories in Kristen's first-ever short story collection, You Know You Want This. Focusing on the horrible things that are done to women, and the horrible things that women themselves do, these stories are hilarious at times, horrific at others, and most often both. Trust me when I say, the images will stay with you.... An absolute must-read in 2019.

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Shefali works on the Corporate Digital Marketing team at Simon & Schuster. Because her whole life is #reading, it’s hard for her to pick a favorite genre—anything with strong voice is amazing. She sometimes has unpopular opinions, loves Jane Austen, and finds snark, sassiness, and Oxford commas to be necessary parts of life. Follow her on Twitter at @ShefaliLohia or Instagram at @shefallsgracefully.