Even amongst bookish people, the topic of short stories can be a divisive one. Some readers see short stories as too tedious or time-consuming, while others readers might complain that they feel short stories lack the depth of a novel. Adding to this conundrum, some readers were never properly introduced to short stories and now feel too overwhelmed by the genre and don’t even know where to start. Whatever the case may be, we here at The Spellbinding Shelf celebrate short stories, inviting you to abandon all prior convictions with our comprehensive list of five collections that are bound to make you fall in love with short stories.
Her Body and Other Parties—Carmen Maria Machado. Machado is known for the macabre undertones in her writing and for creating female characters who are not always wholesomely motivated. The ease of her prose makes this collection incredibly alluring, but there is more to it than that—these stories are dark, empowering, nuanced, sinister, and above all else, great fun to read.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline—George Saunders. This is a powerfully imaginative collection that tests the elasticity of language. It doesn’t matter if Saunders is writing about subversive capitalistic greed or an amusement park that is reminiscent of West World, these tales are impeccably crafted. Each story presents a strange new world that will leave the reader intrigued and wanting more.
Stories of Your Life and Others—Ted Chiang. In this collection, Chiang challenges the notion of what short stories are capable of. He builds dense worlds rich with unique language and dynamic characters. He experiments with time to decrease the flow of information to a drip, and yet every page will leave you yearning to know the tales extraordinary conclusion. Ted Chiang is an author worth reading again and again.
Magic for Beginners—Kelly Link. While all of the authors on this list so far experiment with blending the lines between genre and literary fiction, none are so adept at it as Kelly Link. That is not to say that her stories are gimmicky or weighed down by superfluous magic systems and supernatural characters. On the contrary, Link’s stories are full of emotional truth and excavate the far reaches of the imagination. Simply put, these stories are magical, but their power does not come from casting spells, but rather, in their ability to entrance their reader.
Since 1978, the Best American Short Stories series has been a literary staple with anthologies cultivated by great writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, and most recently Anthony Doerr. Each year, this anthology puts forward twenty short stories that represent the best published short fiction. Each collection offers new worlds of enchantment, heartbreak, and excitement. There is no better place to find scores of talented writers, and also a plethora of publications, to further explore short stories—which by now you’re bound to love.
Publisher: Graywolf Press Genre: Memoir Pages: 264 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
What does domestic abuse look like? In what ways can domestic abuse be more than physical harm? What does domestic abuse look like between two women? What does domestic abuse look like when the perpetrator is smaller than the victim? These are some of the questions Carmen Maria Machado sets out to answer in her inventive new memoir In the Dream House.
In doing the research for this book, Machado sought out experiences that mirrored her own, but found the archive of literature and history to be lacking. This is her attempt at taking the first step in adding to that archive. She constructs her story through more than a hundred narrative tropes (i.e. stoner comedy, Chekov’s gun, man vs. self), resulting in an elaborately weaved and imaginatively told story that explores themes of abuse, queer relationship dynamics, queer world building, assessment of self-worth, and ultimately the emotional endurance that humans are capable of.
What I love most about this book, and there is a lot to love about it, is the way in which it pushes the boundary between nonfiction and fiction through the exploration of narrative tropes. While this memoir explores themes that are heavy and at times difficult to emotionally process, the reader is guided along by Machado’s incessant wit and playful prose; making this book fun to read despite the nature of its subject matter. Additionally, Machado annotates her experience with motifs from folk literature (i.e. taboos, ghost cries, girl mistakenly elopes with wrong lover) creating a dream within the tightly constructed world.
Subsequently, this is a book that can easily be read over and over again and even seems to invite just that. There are whole worlds in this work that is part memoir, part literary criticism, part musing on pop-culture, and even part dissection of the music of Aimee Mann. I suspect that each time I reread this book, I will find something new to admire and obsess over.
In the Dream House became instantly important to me not just because of the innovative way in which it is written, but because it seeks to put in place a framework for a more complete history that previously did not exist. As with her critically acclaimed short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado has again brought attention to an aspect of modern queer life that was once invisible. For this reason and many more, this book will enthrall its readers throughout its course until the wind carries the story away.
Meet author Melissa Duclos, whose new novel, Besotted, is out now from 713 Books. Listen as staff writer Edward Dolehanty has a conversation with the author about her debut novel, the drafting process, and the work she is doing to shed light on small literary presses!
Are you a writer looking to take your craft to the next level? Then look no further than “Write Here, Write Now,” a pop-up writing workshop hosted on the fourth Monday of every month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Changing Hands Phoenix.
This month, acclaimed author Tom Leveen will be hosting a workshop focused on dialogue, making your characters stand out, as well as first and third person narration. For more information, click here.
Destroy All Monsters, by Sam J. Miller, is a book with its feet in two worlds. In one world, Ash is as normal as any other teenager fighting to protect her homeless best friend, Solomon, who is on the verge of being swallowed up by the system. In the other world, Solomon rides on an allosaurus and believes Ash to be a princess in hiding with dormant magical powers that can save the world. While their perception of reality is vastly different, there is something that their worlds have in common—they are plagued by a secretive group spreading hate and divisive attitudes through vandalism, targeting those who are already marginalized. All the while, the story is driven by a mystery—what happened between Solomon and Ash when they were twelve that put them on their present course?
This book is incredibly imaginative and ambitious in its form. It is told from both Ash and Solomon’s perspective, though each of them view the world very differently. Subsequently, scenes are revisited and replayed, however, the result is anything but repetitive. Reading this book is like listening to a concept album that continuously finds ways to integrate a thematic melody in fresh and exciting ways! It has a memory of its own, and it comes alive to create a nearly interactive experience for the reader.
While I would not describe reading this book as anything less than fun, it also finds a way to deal with some pretty heavy issues. Chief among them is the way that it addresses the relationship between trauma and mental health, and the way that it explores the spectrum of homelessness in a way that goes beyond static perceptions of the community. Most importantly, at least in my opinion, it also lays out a blueprint for unifying communities against the divisive rhetoric that has become so prevalent as of late.
Destroy All Monsters is a book of immense power and imagination. In its pages there is an adventure to be seized, mysteries to be solved, and worlds to immerse yourself in; but, there is also an examination of community and our responsibility to take care of one another. For these reasons, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Summer is a time for rest, relaxation, fun, and (of course) copious amounts of reading. This summer, I set a goal to read one novel or short story collection a week. So far, I’ve read wonderful books from authors ranging from Ocean Vuong to Zora Neale Hurston. And while I’ve enjoyed every work, these are some of my favorites.
Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler. Though it was up against some stiff competition, I think this collection is the standout of my summer reading. Each story is a world in itself where the characters and the stakes come alive. Be warned, each of these tales are bound to make your skin crawl (but in the best way possible). One of the highlights of this collection is “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” in which a woman is battling a genetic disorder that leads to self-harm and mutilation. Another highlight is “Amnesty,” which explores a plant-like alien race coming to Earth and becoming the dominant species.
Speak No Evil – Iweala Uzodinma. This story about Niru, the son of Nigerian immigrants, and his white best friend, Meredith, will leave you thinking long after you read the last page. After Niru comes out to Meredith, she urges him to embrace who he is. In turn, they both must suffer the consequences of Niru embracing his sexuality, and a great strain is placed upon their relationship. Speak No Evil takes an outside perspective of the American dream, weighs cultural notions of sexuality, and confronts the challenge of having brown skin in America.
Difficult Women – Roxane Gay. This is a dynamic collection of honest stories that explore the lives of women in modern America. Their stories range from sisters who suffered through the same trauma to a woman who is cursed with making the ceiling leak. These tales are imaginative, powerful, and at times frustrating. One of my favorite stories from the collection is the titular piece, “Difficult Women,” which explores the archetypes of loose women, frigid women, crazy women, and mothers. Another of my favorites is, “North Country,” in which a woman tries to escape the coldness of her relationship, but discovers a new type of cold in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I read this book in high school, and for reasons (that I can no longer relate to) I did not enjoy it. This summer, I decided to give it another try, and I am glad that I did. In this futuristic dystopian novel, freedom and knowledge are regulated. At the center of the novel is Bernard, who questions the highly regulated and “civilized” lifestyle of the times because he does not feel as if he fits in. This novel delves into the cost of both individuality and authenticity and puts them to test against the collective well-being of society.
Watchmen – Alan Moore and David Gibbons. I am new to graphic novels, with my introduction being Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home earlier this year. While researching the genre, Watchmen came up over and over again as a great read, and it proved itself to be just that. It follows a group of washed up superheros in an alternate world where Richard Nixon was never impeached and the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The story concludes with a great moral question that will leave the reader contemplating long after you have put the book down.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019 Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 256 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life.
From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it.
What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety.
At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.
Publisher: Vintage, 2013 Genre: Literature Pages: 176 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
When David’s girlfriend Hella flees the country without answering his marriage proposal, his life is plunged into emotional and financial turmoil. Left alone in Paris in the 1950s, he must find a way to support himself while his father denies him money in hopes of pressuring him into returning to the United States. For a season, David finds refuge in the apartment of a handsome Italian bartender named Giovanni. The two men begin a romantic relationship that plunges David into a moral crisis, dredging up an identity he had been running from. Ultimately, their affair is full of discovery, dependency, and loathing—coming to an inevitably tragic end.
What I most enjoyed about this book is how it fearlessly grapples with the topics of sexuality and masculinity. David and Giovanni’s relationship is enshrouded in a secret—David’s would-be-fiancé Hella—from the beginning, predestining it for a short lifespan. Further complicating their affair, societal pressure weighs the men down and warps their perception of one another. Simultaneous to this relationship playing out, Baldwin presents a secondary character who questions the reader’s view of masculinity: the always sharply dressed Guillaume, a man wealthy enough to force the young men who work for him—like Giovanni—into doing whatever he wants at risk of losing their jobs and having their reputations ruined. While Guillaume is not a particularly appealing character, there is no doubt that he has agency, a revolutionary concept—especially in 1956–for a homosexual male character who is not masculine presenting.
Baldwin furthers the work’s modern sensibilities, and my delight, by perfectly illustrating the “it’s complicated” relationship status on Facebook. Though this is not David’s first same-sex encounter, he finds himself blaming Giovanni as if he has been taken advantage of. This blame leads him to a personal affirmation that their affection for one another is unnatural, driving a wedge between the two men and highlighting the damage that shame and guilt can cause if woven into the emotional tapestry of a relationship; a theme that is universal beyond same-sex relationships, making this novel more accessible to a wider audience.
What resonates most with me about this book, however, is how it examines the cost of living life authentically. David knows that he desires Giovanni more than anything else, and yet, for a chance at normalcy, he must deny his authentic self; Giovanni is a working-class immigrant who is running from normalcy in hopes of finding his authentic self; and Hella wishes to be an independent woman, but also feels that she cannot take full advantage of life without living in a traditionally domesticated way. These internal struggles showcase the damage that denying our authentic self can cause—not only internally, but to those nearest to us as well.
Full of beautiful language and rich emotional landscapes, Giovanni’s Room is an incredibly accessible read and comes in at less than two hundred pages—making it a perfect addition to your pride month reading list.