It’s National Short Story Month. It’s also National Poetry Month, although it seems rather unfair that the two writing forms that have to compete for a single month. One of my goals is to read 26 short story collections and anthologies by the end of 2013. I’m reading a lot of women writers particularly, because they don’t get enough love. Not even from me, a woman. So far I’m on the tenth book. I’m a slow reader, easily distracted by online literary journals and articles about the fiber content of ground flax.
I told a friend at work, an avid reader of romance novels, that I was reading short story collections for a while and she was surprised.
“I didn't know authors wrote books of short stories,” she said.
Quite understandable. Until rather recently, they were considered unmarketable. I suppose the last time she saw a book of short stories, it was a fifth grade English textbook – a time in life that no one likes to look back on. Or maybe it was a collection of fairy tales or Greek myths. I didn't know I liked short stories until I read Poe and Kafka in high school, but I always loved fairy tales and myths of all sorts.
Some very good reasons to read short stories: You can read a short story on a fifteen minute bus ride. You can read a few short stories on a forty minute train ride. You can read a short story on your cell phone now. You can squeeze one in at the end of your lunch break. And if your job happens to be waiting for a phone to ring, you can read stories in between calls and not feel as jolted out of the story as you would reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27 volume opus about cats.
Here are some short story collections and anthologies that fill me with immense readerly pleasure. This list features entirely women, because they don’t get enough love. If you have a penchant for the surreal, absurd, uncanny, and grotesque, you would probably appreciate these. If not, click here to be led away from this nonsense forever, as it will annoy you and furrow your brow. And if you would like to discuss the beneficial lignans in ground flax, feel free to contact me on the “Contact” page.
1. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Kelly Link might be my favorite living short story writer at the moment. The cover says, “A Best Book of the Decade.” I thought to myself, “That is, indeed, a haughty claim.” This book lives up to the hype on its cover. Kelly and her husband, a sci-fi writer, had to create their own press just to publish her first collection. At the time, short stories were considered to be unmarketable and her stories also don’t conform to one genre. They are a mix of experimental literary fiction, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, myth, fairy tale, and surrealism. Ghosts, zombies, and fairies are presented in unique ways. They present you with uncanny pajamas or dog fur handbags. A ghost wife gets divorced from her living husband in Disney World; the Devil gets Seven Minutes of Heaven with a cheerleader. Kelly Link does magical things with sentences. Whenever you think you know where the story is going, you really don’t.
Definitely read: “Magic for Beginners,” “Lull,” and “The Faerie Handbag.”
2. Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray
I read a lot of these stories multiple times and I never get sick of them. These stories are mostly very short, have unusual forms, and make me laugh loudly but also make me deeply depressed. It’s an emotional roller-coaster to say the least. The collection lives up to its name with characters feasting on their own hair and toes, an armadillo hitting on a penguin in a bar, and a guy who marries a bag of frozen tilapia. Click here to get threatened by the author.
Definitely read: “Babies,” “The Cottage Cheese Diet,” “Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan,” and “Code of Operation: Snake Farm.”
3. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting
Alissa Nutting has an awesome brain and I would pay thousands of dollars for it in an Ebay bid. This is a very funny book. The humor sometimes reminds me of Futurama, maybe because there is an intergalactic deliverywoman in it. You may wonder what unclean jobs it features. There’s a porn star who is paid to have sex with a game show contestant on the moon, a human ant colony, and a romantic funeral home employee who smokes blunts stuffed with the hair of the dead. I'm kind of in love with the "Sweedishy" model Garla (just like everyone else is) and the experimental rock singer who wears a tight leather jumpsuit with a butt-flap so he can easily relieve himself anywhere. So many characters that I love. So much awesome.
Definitely read: “Dinner,” “Model’s Assistant,” and “Bandleader’s Girlfriend.”
4. Fantastic Women, an anthology of stories from Tin House
Here is an anthology of 18 stories by women writers that are uncanny, absurd, and surreal, all bound together behind underwhelming cover art that doesn't really fit. Kelly Link is here; Alissa Nutting is here. There are quite a few authors that I had never read before that I love now. The women in these stories undergo metamorphoses, travel between pocket universes, and socialize with lonely circus dwarfs. Sometimes they are tied up and suspended from the ceiling of their charming suburban homes. There are even werewolves and somehow I don’t want to punch them.
Definitely read: “Dinner,” “Abroad,” “The Wilds,” and “The Entire Predicament.”
5. St. Lucy’s Home forGirls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Last year I got an email from a former professor suggesting that I read this collection. She knows me too well. The narrators of these stories are precocious children on an imaginary island near Florida. They lure baby turtles out of the sea, learn to behave like humans, and follow the Oregon Trail with a Minotaur. Their voices are wonderful; you want to give them a hug even when they make atrocious mistakes.
Definitely read: “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” and “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”