Ten impressive short story collections you may have missed

Last week I wrote about a dozen short story collections that in most cases didn’t receive the acclaim and readership they deserved. Not surprisingly, I kept thinking of other books that I could shine a light on, most of which were issued by small, independent publishers. So here are ten more outstanding collections for your reading enjoyment, listed in reverse chronological order.

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Life and Other Shortcomings (She Writes Press, 2020)

By Corie Adjmi

This collection of twelve stories offers readers an intimate view of the lives of several women who are connected to each other. The early stories concern Callie, whom we follow from her childhood in New Orleans to adulthood in New York City. In one story, Callie tries to make sense of the tension over gender roles in her parents’ marriage, while in the next, she experiences the vicissitudes of friendship with Willow, whose parents also have a troubled marriage that spills into the girls’ lives. Adjmi skillfully depicts Callie’s adolescence and tentative first steps in love.

The latter half of the book introduces us to other characters struggling within the confines of their marriage, each of which is unhappy in its own way. Iris, feeling stifled by the restrictions on her life as an Orthodox Jewish mother and wife, tests the boundaries of her husband’s devotion to her and their faith’s laws. Callie’s perfectionist and soulless husband is the protagonist in one story. Through Adjmi’s sensitive depictions of these varied characters we see the social changes of the last 50 years play out in individual lives.   

The Book of Jeremiah (Press 53, 2019)

By Julie Zuckerman

Zuckerman, an American who has lived in Israel for decades, has written a novel-in-stories depicting the life of Jeremiah Gerstler. The son of Jewish immigrants, a WWII vet, and college political science professor, Jeremiah struggles to become a man he and others will respect and love. We get to know him and his family intimately through their ups and downs over the decades. Jeremiah is the kind of character you find yourself talking to as you read, encouraging and questioning him. Zuckerman masterfully uses the mundane experiences of one man’s family, career, and friendships to show us the universal nature of life’s arc.

 As with Life and Other Shortcomings, these 13 stories cover much of the 20th century and capture many of the common experiences of Jewish Americans with a clear-eyed compassion and just a little bite.

Once Removed (University of Georgia Press, 2019)

By Colette Sartor

The 2018 winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Once Removed is a thought-provoking collection of linked stories about women struggling to find their way as individuals and in relationships, especially as mothers. As the title suggests, most of them are just a step removed from connecting the way they want or need to. Sartor’s prose is as polished and shiny as a newly sharpened blade, and her stories are distinguished by a fearless investigation of what makes her characters tick and a sardonic sense of humor.

The Bird Catcher and Other Stories (Jaded Ibis Press, 2018)

By Fayeza Hasanat

Fayeza Hasanat’s debut collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories was something of an introduction to Bangladeshi subject matter and style. It’s only eight stories from a single writer, so I’m not reaching any firm conclusions, but reading this book has increased my interest in Bangladeshi writers. Hasanat is a professor of gender studies and literature of the British Empire and South Asian diaspora at the University of Central Florida, and her expertise is reflected in these stories.

A few of the stories combine a traditional South Asian prose style with contemporary concerns. They are essentially fairy tales with a feminist bent. Others address the conflict between Old World and New World, past and present, native and immigrant, on issues like marriage, work, and family relationships. A touch of magical realism appears here and there.

The Jungle Around Us (University of Georgia Press, 2017)

By Anne Raeff

The Jungle Around Us is a darkly compelling series of stories set in places we rarely visit and know little about, from southern Mexico and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Paraguay. The characters share a sense of dislocation, literally and figuratively, and Raeff coolly probes their psyches and actions as they try to orient themselves to threats both real and imagined. Yes, there is jungle, as well as war, heartbreak, loss, memory, and identity, all surrounding, oppressing, and confusing these characters. Raeff’s narrative voice and prose style are calm and hypnotic, a contrast to the intensity of her characters’ struggles.

Raeff’s stories are subtle and haunting, and I occasionally felt as mystified as her characters in sorting out the import of people and events. I was rewarded by second readings, a sign of rich, complex stories that, like the characters within, don’t reveal all their secrets at first meeting.

Heirlooms (BkMk Press/UMKC, 2016)

By Rachel Hall

Rachel Hall has used her family history as a springboard to a series of stories that follow four generations of a family from 1939 to 1989 and from France to Israel and the United States. Hall writes with sensitivity and clear-eyed insight about the issues of familial, community, and national loyalty and duty, as well as faith and forgiveness, and loss and survival. Heirlooms is particularly relevant in its depiction of the fraught experiences of refugees and immigrants. The cumulative effect of reading these stories is akin to completing a puzzle. Sections reveal specific issues and experiences, but when the entire puzzle is finished, the result is something larger and more memorable.

People Like You (Atelier 26, 2016)

By Margaret Malone

Malone’s debut is a collection of spare and dryly humorous character studies written with unflinching honesty. These are characters we know from the “awkward moment” comedy of shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” people who through their own fecklessness or emotional confusion just can’t seem to get things right or catch a break. They are often their own worst enemy. In many cases, they are us: imperfect, perplexed, stymied in every direction.

Malone’s writing is so natural and seemingly effortless that the stories fly by. It’s no surprise that People Like You was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction.

Cowboys and East Indians (Curtis Brown Unlimited, 2015)

By Nina McConigley

Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians is a collection of ten stories based on her experiences as an East Indian raised in Wyoming. Where most fiction exploring the immigrant experience is set in urban environments, McConigley takes us to the high altitude, windy isolation, and cozy cities of the least-populous state.

McConigley perfectly captures the duality of being pulled in two directions, the culture in which you live and the culture in which your parents and older relatives came from. The dominant complicating factor is how other people see you; because you look a certain way, you are viewed as foreign rather than “American.” In each of these stories, McConigley’s characters attempt to navigate through their home and outside lives. McConigley’s characters are quirky, three-dimensional individuals who are working through strange places, both literal and figurative. She writes with a combination of deep empathy, droll wit, and vivid descriptions of people and places.

The Universal Physics of Escape (Press 53, 2015)

By Elizabeth Gonzalez

Elizabeth Gonzalez’s debut impressed me with its wide-ranging intelligence and crisp writing. The Universal Physics of Escape presents a diverse cast of characters trying to find their way out of one circumstance or another, to figure out what is next and how to get there. Gonzalez moves across subjects, settings, and conflicts, but the unifying thread is her compassionate insight into her characters’ lives. The other thing that impressed me was the quality of her writing, with its masterful prose, realistic dialogue, and confident display of varied narrative voices. Every story pulled me in and held me fast, intrigued by the unfamiliar settings and plots. While the conclusions of some stories were unsettling or unclear, they left me pondering the people and problems she presents.

The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel & Grau, 2014)

By Violet Kupersmith

Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.

In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.

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