5 Stellar Short Story Collections


People were quick to label 2013 the year of the short story, but in reality the format didn’t really die a tragic death and then suddenly return stronger than ever.  No, the short story has always been, and continues to be, an important part of modern literature.  Here we proudly present 5 stellar collections from the past few years that you may have missed.

1. Fame by Daniel Kehlmann

FameA lot of different ideas come to mind when one thinks about the definition of the word fame: money, adoration, success, and stalkers just to name a few. What Kehlmann does throughout his collection of loosely interconnected stories is introduce famous fictional characters and immediately put them into situations where the one thing they’re most know for – their celebrity status – becomes utterly useless to them. Are they more than the sum of their notoriety? Can they somehow rise above and survive the trying situations he places them in?  A handful of stories are told in the first person, some are told by authors, others still are narrated by characters those authors have created, and one may even be recounted by a fictionalized version of Kehlmann himself.  The more the interconnectedness of the work begins to show, the less the fabric of reality that binds them all together seems to matter, and that perhaps is Kehlmann’s ultimate point: That each individual, to a greater extent than we ever stop to realize, lives in a reality of their own making, one that is contained within the larger reality we all share. You may rethink your personal definition of what fame means by this collection’s conclusion.

2. Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

Stay_AwakeIntense and immediate, all exploring in some way the idea of dreaming vs waking life, every story in this collection stands up and immediately demands the reader’s attention. Whether Chaon’s describing a young child’s nightmares that in turn cause the boy’s father to recall secrets from his buried past (The Bees), or he’s telling the tale of a man who more randomly discovers more than his fair share of bizarrely written notes (To Psychic Underworld), or he’s chronicling a story of kidnapping and abandonment (St. Dismas) he succeeds both in bonding the reader to each of his protagonists and making them care deeply about the issues at hand.  Within the pages of Stay Awake Chaon tackles some difficult subject matter with death, suicide, brain injury, and parasitic twins on the menu, but surprisingly, given the heavy weight of the subject matter the collection never gets bogged down. Chaon’s ability to write sparse, moving prose combined with innate gift for David Lynch-like storytelling makes each story grounded enough to be believable while also subtly dreamlike enough that you can never quite put your finger on exactly what’s so strange.

3. Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth_of_DecemberImagine the weirdest, most uncomfortable experience you’ve ever had the displeasure of living through. Picture if you will, being dropped into the epicenter of that tragedy with absolutely no preparation. You don’t know the back story. You don’t know the people involved. You’re just flying by the seat of your pants, living the situation as it happens.  That’s what Saunders does to you.  He plucks you from the safe confines of your carefully constructed comfort zone, drops you in the eye of the storm, and wishes you good luck.  The only tool you have at your disposal with which to survive?  That would be the flawed logic of each story’s protagonist. Saunders builds characters like a mad scientist, gleefully sawing open skulls and exposing the raw stream of consciousness contained within for all to see.  He gives the reader a backstage pass to the hottest show in town.  Prepare to be amazed as the brain’s complex self-justification system kicks into high gear!  Watch as each character convinces themselves of their supreme rightness in every conceivable situation!  Gasp at the shocking results!  This is the collection that should have won The National Book Award and it’s the one that will win The Story Prize.

4. The Divinity Gene by Matthew J. Trafford

The_Divinity_GeneMany writers spend their entire careers honing and refining their craft so they can effortlessly draw from the mundane occurrences that appear as part of our everyday lives in the hope of twisting and turning them into something more magical. Not so much in the case of Matthew J. Trafford. He goes about things the opposite way, infusing his stories with flourishes of the supernatural and then having the characters he’s created accept these circumstances as being so overly normal that they border on the banal. Crack open The Divinity Gene and you’ll come face to face with a mermaid with extremely bad luck, an undead fellow who likes to go camping, angels who descend from Heaven to open up night clubs all over the world, and dozens of clones of Jesus Christ that are all strangely un-preacher like. It’s a gift for creating and nurturing absurd ideas like these, combined with an upbeat storytelling style and a knack for attaching just the right amount of a socially conscious undercurrent to each piece that makes this debut collection special, but it’s Trafford’s understanding that his characters must be grounded, relatable individuals first in order for anything else he introduces into the mix to succeed that makes it truly shine.

5. My Life Among the Apes by Cary Fagan

My_Life_Among_The_ApesCary Fagan’s greatest strength is that he writes plausible tales told from the perspective of believable and relatable narrators. Each of the stories in My Life Among the Apes starts off casually enough, telling a seemingly mundane tale about a wife, or a college student, or a waitress, or a grandfather, but then suddenly, from out nowhere, they blindside the reader with the unexpected. In fact, Fagan’s uncanny knack for introducing the near-perfect wrinkle into each of the stories he writes borders on the insane. In some cases the story will turn on a bombshell, a devastating piece of information so strong as to be life altering, while at other times the shift is much more subtle in nature, easily recognizable to the reader as being the catalyst for a significant change in the subject’s life, even when they themselves don’t possess the wherewithal to recognize it as such. Either way, these delicious twists serve to catapult each story high into the stratosphere of unputdownableness.  Both immediate and intense, Fagan’s tales manage to suck the reader in and then force them to keep turning the pages in a desperate attempt to discover what comes next.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • Steph VanderMeulen

    Numbers 3 and 4 are my favourites here! Even though I still have to read the other three books. Trafford’s mermaid story did me in. The whole collection is fantastic and I look forward to him writing more. And Saunders…well, I’m a big fan.

    • http://www.typographicalera.com/ Typographical Era

      I’ve been looking forward to Trafford’s novel for what seems like ages as well! I highly recommend Chaon if you haven’t checked him out. He’s one of my favorites…and yeah…Saunders, what’s not to love??

      • Steph VanderMeulen

        Dan Chaon? I haven’t yet. Thank you!

  • Buffy Cram

    I love all of these books, but I can’t help but notice you don’t have a single woman writer on the list….hmmmm.

    • http://www.typographicalera.com/ Typographical Era

      It certainly wasn’t intentional or a determining factor for who made the list. We featured Yoko Ogawa and Alissa Nutting’s collections in our year-end best-of list and recently reviewed Elisa Ruotolo’s as well.

    • Steph VanderMeulen

      Buffy: Radio Belly could easily fit on this list.