Come bedtime, after a full day at home with the tot, I’m often too exhausted to read more than a few pages before passing out on the pillow. This makes a novel slow going, and the thread of the plot easy to lose. What’s a reader like me to do? I’ve turned to graphic novels I wrote about a few stand-outs last week and short stories.
The short story’s time has come again, I think. With our attention spans torn asunder by the Internet, cable TV, smart phones, and, you know, life, many lack the drive to make it through an 800 page tome. Well, fear not there’s a wealth of single-sitting-sized fiction out there to choose from, and don’t harbor any guilt about going short instead of long. There can be greater skill in telling a tight tale than in rambling on at length. (I’m a fan of 90 minute movies too. Why we need so many 2+ hour epic films these days is beyond me.)
With that in mind, here are 8 short story collections ranging in style that will entertain and enthrall, and that parents especially may find of interest. This is by no means a complete list there are so many amazing collections out there! I started to get overwhelmed compiling this just consider it a jumping off point.
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We’re Parents! We’re Tired! 1 of 9Don't worry. You don't have to abandon your bookworm habits just yet...
The Safety of Objects, by A.M. Homes 2 of 9A.M. Homes' stories go to 11. Or, I should say, they start at 11, with the tension ratcheted up to a nail-biting level, and skyrocket from there into the imaginative stratosphere. The ticky-tacky suburban backdrop of the stories in The Safety of Objects proves a smokescreen, the beautiful tract houses home to a depraved, twisted, and sometimes angry citizenry who spit dialogue crackling with displaced dreams and unfulfilled longings. And what desires they harbor one of the most famous tales from this collection, "A Real Doll," concerns a boy who falls in love with his sister's Barbie doll. But my favorite is "Adults Alone," which features parents Paul and Elaine, who decide to liven up a weekend without the kids by smoking crack. What parent hasn't wanted to make the most of their time without the kids around? (If you dig that one, you can follow the couple's further mis-adventures in Homes' novel Music for Torching.) Trust me, you'll tear through The Safety of Objects at a fever pace.
Purchase The Safety of Objects for $11.19 from Amazon.
Tell Everyone I Said Hi, by Chad Simpson 3 of 9Tell Everyone I Said Hi takes place in the heartland, both literally Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and metaphorically, as many of these characters suffer from loss and heartbreak, and struggle to move forward with their lives, though they're not sure exactly how. In the opening tale, "Poloma," a new widower can't quite face his own grief at the loss of his wife, let alone help his adolescent daughter deal with it. His heart-in-the-throat confusion, quiet care, and well-intentioned inaction are something every parent can relate to. Later, in another story, when the same girl wants to learn to drive, the widower must confront his greatest fear: that he may lose another loved one in a car accident. Simpson's gift is in creating characters who feel both familiar and unique, and placing them in tales layered with just the right mixture of sweetness and sorrow.
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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell 4 of 9Take a trip into the fantastic swamps and beaches of Florida with these exquisite stories from Karen Russell, the Pulitzer Prize nominated author of Swamplandia!, a novel that grew from the first piece here. Fans of the supernatural will eat this collection up, as each story contains some amazing element kids who hunt for their sister's ghost with magic goggles, or the human daughters of werewolves in a reform school run by nuns. But don't let that turn you fans of realism off Russell's acrobatic sentences and endearing, funny characters are grounded in familiar emotional territory, even if they're living in an Alligator-wrestling theme park. One of my favorite stories, "Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration," tells of a boy's family going cross-country in a Conestoga wagon, but the boy's father happens to be a Minotaur. The boy is in awe of his father's strength and power, and yet feels distant from the strange beast, and sometimes scared of him. What better metaphor for how children see their authoritarian fathers: as monsters both beautiful and frightening. Two words which describes these stories in a nutshell, actually.
Purchase St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves for $10.20 from Amazon.
Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock 5 of 9All set within the Ohio town of Knockemstiff the "holler," the locals call it these stories are connected, with characters moving from tale to tale over the course of some decades; a boy in the first story reappears as a man in a later one. Leading off with a map, this strikes me as an update on Sherwood Anderson's classic linked story collection Winesburg, Ohio. The town of Knockemstiff has reached an economic dead-end, its denizens struggling with depression and addiction to alcohol or meth, their dreams of greatness stalled out and propped up with beer like the rusty cars on cinderblocks decaying in their front yards. This is dark stuff, almost post-apocalyptic in its grimness. In "Real Life," for example, a drunk father eggs his son into a fight, and is proud when his son beats the other kid up bad, like go to the hospital bad. Yikes. This is one of my favorite story collections in recent years, a strong shot of literary rotgut bracing, alarming, a pure rush.
Purchase Knockemstiff for $10.17 from Amazon.
Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon 6 of 9Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a magnum-opus about, in part, the history of comic books, sets his gaze on smaller, more domestic tragedies in this collection. Almost every story concerns a marriage marred by some dysfunction or tragedy. In one, "Son of the Wolfman," a woman is pregnant after a sexual assault, but decides to keep the child, though obviously this makes her husband uncomfortable. In another, a failed marriage leads a man to visit his wife's senile grandmother, with the intention of robbing her. Chabon's images are often arresting, and even at their most despicable or confused, his characters are familiar and empathetic. While the stories here are not nearly as fantastical or dramatic as others on this list, they feel very real and immediate.
Purchase Werewolves in Their Youth for $10.20 from Amazon.
Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories, by Raymond Carver 7 of 9Famous for his minimalist approach, Carver's stories come across as gems unearthed whole from the ground rather than stories an author sweated over and crafted. You get just what you need, no more and no less, with wellsprings of emotion pulsing beneath the cool surface of his descriptions. Recent looks at Carver's drafts suggest the credit should be shared with his editor, Gordon Lish, who sliced Carver's stories down to the bone. Men in particular will find plenty to contemplate in this compilation that includes Carver's greatest hits a group of buddies find a girl's corpse while fishing and must decide what to do, a man's wife leaves him and so he moves the contents of his house onto his front lawn to give away. In one of my favorite stories, "A Small, Good Thing," a boy's parents order him a birthday cake, but before the party the boy is hit by a car. The baker then harasses the couple, upset they never came to pick up the confection, unaware that he's slicing open their grief with every nasty call. It's haunting, but there are countless beauties here, stories worth returning to again and again. And if you enjoy these, then make sure to check out The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, one of Carver's most clear influences.
Purchase Where I'm Calling From for $10.88 on Amazon.
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri 8 of 9Lahiri writes "just right" sentences, constructions that are simple, graceful, and yet strong; powerfully compact, it takes just a few lines to find yourselves fully immersed in her stories. Similar to Carver, it's hard to imagine her stories coming together any other way. There's often a sadness at play, something that's not quite right and which her characters are puzzled about, or at odds over how to correct. Issues of parenting abound, as in the title story, when a woman confesses to a near-stranger that she's born a child from an affair. In the opening tale, "A Temporary Matter," a couple stops buying food and slowly eats through everything in the house, not talking about the thing that's eating them, a child lost before birth. By the end of the tale, you'll be biting your nails and tearful the tension and grief is such that not even the coolest of customers would be unmoved. No surprise that Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for this collection. It's near perfect.
Purchase Interpreter of Maladies for $9.48 from Amazon.
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger 9 of 9Talk about perfect no survey of short story collections would be complete without Salinger's classic. With verve and wry humor, Salinger builds characters scarred by some trauma, boldly or blindly stumbling forward with their lives. A master of voice, his characters' words rise off the page and echo in your head. You feel like you know them, and they're all different and unique and yet undeniably part of Salinger's erudite, New York City centric world. Each piece in this collection is fantastic, but "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" will be of particular interest to parents, in part as an example of how not to parent. The mom in the story, Eloise, has her old college roommate over for afternoon drinks. Eloise has way too much, mocks her daughter's belief in an imaginary friend for a cheap laugh, and, it becomes increasingly clear, seethes with bitterness over an unhappy marriage and the unfulfilling direction her life's taken. Mom-of-the-year she's not. It's nasty stuff, but put over in such a way that you can't look away.
Purchase Nine Stories for $9.62 from Amazon.