Five Short Story Collections I’ve Read

This is an idea I spotted it over at Kim’s Reading Matters blog and thought I’d pinch it having  enjoyed digging out books I’ve loved for my Blasts from the Past series so much. The plan is to periodically post five short thematically linked reviews, kicking off with short story collections.

There was a time when I pushed short stories firmly away, making the occasional exception for collections by favourite writers who’d not produced a novel for a while. Then I found myself picking up linked sets of stories until eventually I became persuaded that it might be worth reading a collection for its own sake. I very much doubt that short stories will take precedence over novels for me but it seems I’ve gone some way along the road to conversion. Excellent reading while travelling, too.

Cover imageHere are five of my favourite collections, all but one with links to a full review.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is one of the first linked collections I read, way back at the turn of the century. Melissa Bank’s book follows Jane Rosenal through the trials and tribulations of being newly grown up in America, from sex, love and relationships to navigating the workplace. Smart and funny, these stories are hugely enjoyable.

The stories in Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women are also linked, sharing the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are all recurring themes. Noyes’ women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean.

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women draws heavily on her own rackety, vivid life which ended in 2004: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from a graphic, panicky tooth extraction to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking.

Written with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception, the thirteen stories that comprise The Virginity of Famous Men explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. From a woman’s reflections on marriage to a handsome movie star and the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire, to a young man who may finally have emerged from the Cover imageshadow of his father’s celebrity, Christine Sneed’s collection demonstrates a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavened with a dash of humour.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over a period of twenty years, the eight stories that make up Nguyen’s The Refugees  explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative pieces which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic.

Any short story collections you’d like to recommend?

34 thoughts on “Five Short Story Collections I’ve Read

  1. Rebecca Foster

    The only one of these I’m familiar with is Nguyen’s, but all the others sound alluring. I’d second the recommendation for Thunderstruck. The best short story collection I’ve read this year is What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Nocturnes was one of the collections I read before becoming a short story convert. I remember it as being quietly beautiful. I hadn’t heard of Alone with You – thanks so much for the recommendation.

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  2. bookbii

    Fascinating blog, Susan. I think linked short story collections are easier to handle for those of us that think we prefer the novel. Both A Manual for Cleaning Women and The Refugees have piqued my interest over the past year, having read a number of reviews for both from trusted bloggers (including your good-self). Alice Munro would, of course, feature very highly on my list now along with Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (or Travelling Light, both good and both linked), Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar or Cosmicomics, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come at Night. Oh and Akutagawa’s Rashomon & other stories is pretty good too.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Yes, linked stories has definitely been my way in and A Manual for Cleaning Women sealed the deal. Great list of recommendations – thank you. The Alice Munro collection you posted on today is now on my list – a little bit of synchronicity there!

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  3. Elle

    Fully agree about Lucia Berlin’s collection, which is amazing. I also enjoyed What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, and have just read 2084, a collection written in response to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s the best edited collection I’ve ever read – not a single story is weak.

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  4. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I like linked stories and interesting that the two collections that come to mind immediately for me, both contain threads, Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

    Great post!

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I remember your Stone Mattress review. I thought kicking this idea off with short story collections might mean it sank without trace but it turns out there’s a lot of love for short fiction out there.

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  5. Dan

    I’m so glad to see Anna Noyes and Lucia Berlin featured. Please also consider Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In and, in very different registers, any collection of Mavis Gallant and Ann Beattie.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Excellent! Thank you, Dan. I read something by Mavis Gallant so many years ago I can no longer remember which one it was, and I’ve heard of Ann Beattie but not Sara Majika. It was the Lucia Berlin collection that finally converted me but the Anna Noyes is lovely, quite haunting.

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  6. JacquiWine

    It’s good to see Lucia Berlin’s collection in your list – not an easy read at times, but a striking one.

    As for recommendations, I would highlight the stories of Richard Yates – more specifically, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which I read earlier this year. Not a dud amongst them!

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  7. buriedinprint

    A few years ago I read my way through Alice Munro’s stories and I’m enjoying Mavis Gallant the same way now. It’s so interesting to note the similarities and differences between their preoccupations and their styles. One of my first favourites of Alice Munro’s collections was Open Secrets; I have a few faves in that one. Another I really loved not long ago was Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, which I suspect you might enjoy also.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      You’re the second person to have mentioned Mavis Gallant when commenting on this post. I’ve read some of your reviews of her work and liked the sound of it. I’d not heard of Bergman though. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  8. madamebibilophile

    I really enjoy short stories and haven’t read any of these, so I will add them to the list! I agree they’ll never quite take the place of novels though. I have some Alice Munro stories and also Olive Kitteridge in the TBR pile which I’m looking forward to reading soon.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Two treats in store there! I’ve come to appreciate how disciplined a writer has to be to craft a short story which is part of the reason I’ve begun to enjoy them more.

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  9. Mary Mayfield

    i haven’t read ANY of these! (note to self – put them on the ‘to read’ list) Where would i start with short story collections though … The Red Room as mentioned above by JanetEmson.Ursula le Guin’s Orsinian Tales – she’s known for sci-fi/fantasy but these are set in the imaginary country Orsinia, somewhere in Eastern Europe, over several centuries. Carys Bray’s Sweet Home. Donal Ryan’s A Slanting of the Sun. That’s four. I’ll have a think about a fifth and maybe blog about it myself

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  10. Naomi

    All of these sound good! I think I have The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing on a shelf somewhere, and I remember your reviews for a couple more of these. Like you, full length novels come first, but I’m coming around to the fact that there’s also a place for some good short stories. Linked ones, especially!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Perhaps we all come round to them in the end! I think linked stories are an excellent place to start, particularly ones that allow for character development from story to story.

      Reply

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