Short Story Collections Worth A Read
When I started to read Jesse Eisenberg’s book of short fiction, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, I realized right away that the nine-year-old boy who narrates his hilarious and heartbreaking restaurant reviews reminded me of someone.
Eisenberg’s character, a child who lives in a privileged but scary world, struggles to be a companion to his bitter and very lonely divorced mother. He can see what grownups can’t, or won’t. He’s a first literary cousin to Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, who also told a kind of truth adults could not or would not see.
The Catcher in the Rye was a novel, but Salinger also wrote short fiction. This got me thinking of what a powerful punch a good short story can pack. Here’s a list of short story collections worth checking out. A couple are must-reads.
Sherman Alexie is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a book for teens and young adults that won the National Book Award in 2007. Those of you who have read this book know Alexie’s voice – wry, funny and at times very sardonic, as he writes on what it’s like to be a Native American in contemporary America. Alexie has written in every conceivable form – novels, screenplays, poetry – but his book “Blasphemy” collects 31 of his best works of short fiction.
The characters in these stories, mostly Native Americans, may be down on their luck, but they refuse to let the near-annihilation of their culture defeat them. Some are set in schools. Others on the basketball court. Others on Seattle’s meaner streets.
One of my favorites in this collection is This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, the story of a man who heads to Arizona to collect his dead father’s remains. Along for the ride is an annoying friend, Thomas-Builds-A-Fire, who insists on telling stories of the Spokane Indian reservation that no one wants to hear. One gets the strong sense that Thomas may be a stand-in for Alexie himself.
Another writer who has mastered all kinds of writing – novels, kids’ books, comics, screenplays and short fiction – is the incredible Neil Gaiman. His collection of short stories: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is a tantalizing introduction to Gaiman’s work.
Gaiman has a thoroughly unsettling way of inserting the fantastic into real life. One story in Trigger Warnings, The Thing About Cassandra, is the story of a young man who hears that his high school girlfriend is back in the country. The problem – Cassandra was a figment of his teenage imagination, made up to impress his friends. Now she’s back. At the end of this tale, you won’t know who is real and who is not. Another, The Case of Death and Honey, is a beautiful Sherlock Holmes story, and advances an intriguing explanation for Holmes’ apparent immortality in the minds of readers.
Ellen Gilchrist is another author who jumps back and forth between novels and short stories. She is a Southerner, and she specializes in writing about the particular kinds of craziness Southerners carry around with them.
The stories in her 2014 book Acts of God are focused around natural and unnatural disasters – Hurricane Katrina, tornadoes, the Iraq War. They are unblinking but hopeful tales of people pulling together in the face of life’s hardships and indignities. The title story is about a couple in their 80s who escape their caregiver, and have a wonderful afternoon reveling in everything that’s been denied them. It doesn’t end well, but you feel the joy of their liberation, at least for a while, and are thrilled to be along for the ride.
Now for the must-reads. You must read the short stories of Edith Pearlman. I don’t know of anyone who writes them better – she’s one of the few short story writers I know who have never tried novels, pouring all her skill and creativity into short stories. She has mastered the form.
Her new collection, Honeydew, has so many good ones, I don’t know how to pick just one. One, Tenderfoot, tells the story of a widow in a small town who gives pedicures for a living. She lost her husband in the Iraq War, and now wonders why she didn’t argue him out of signing up. Pearlman shows how uncomfortable truths dog people their whole lives, and how a simple act of tending the body can sooth the wounds of the soul.
Castle 4, the story of several people whose lives play out in the halls of an enormous Victorian Gothic public hospital, is just sublime. Pearlman is not an optimist, but she writes of people who display enormous generosity and kindness. In the halls of the Castle, kindness is not just a virtue – it’s a necessity.
Finally, one of my favorite novels is actually a collection of short stories focused on a one woman. That’s Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
Olive is a seventh-grade math teacher in a small New England town. She is not easy to love, or even like – part of the pain of these stories is watching Olive push away people who care for her. “You can make people feel terrible,” Olive’s son tells her. Olive loves her son more than anyone on earth, but her affection is more than almost anyone can bear.
Olive possesses a granite strain of moral integrity and a special kind of empathy – one reviewer called it “an empathy without sentimentality.” Not every story in this book has Olive front and center, but the best ones do. If you watched the HBO version of this book, try to put it out of your mind – the book is much, much better.