Shorting It

Melissa recently wrote a piece on readers’ advisory and a new service the First Floor is providing (which I think is excellent and genius and I’m so proud that I get to work here) and it prompted me to think about how I handle readers’ advisory situations. One question I usually ask is “Do you like short stories?” I rarely get a “Yes! Yes!” so now that I have a captive audience (please keep reading), I thought I’d talk about some of my favorite short story collections. A little distance readers’ advisory, if you will.

I love short stories. It takes a very talented writer to pull a reader in and invoke an emotional response in a few pages. To quote myself from a blog post I wrote about short stories, “I believe that in the hands of the right author, you know everything you need to know in that specific moment. Maybe reading short stories requires a leap of faith and belief in the author’s ability to show you only what’s immediately important.” What most of these collections have in common are characters who are messy and complicated and whose lives aren’t perfected in 250 pages. I like being dropped into a life and then being taken out before everything is put back together.

I admit to judging  A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein by its cover and thought I didn’t want to read it, but I’m glad I ignored my feelings. Some of the stories are slightly fantastical (which I love), like the title story where two women go on vacation and find that the only other people on the island are every one of their ex-boyfriends. Others are heartbreaking like “Luxor” in which a woman who cannot get pregnant shelters a child during a terrorist attack.

When the Messenger is Hot by Elizabeth Crane is my favorite of her three short story collections. Definitely read “Return from the Depot” which is about a daughter who tells everyone that her mother, recently deceased, is coming back. The mother does return, to the amazement of everyone but her daughter, after spending time in a bus depot in North Dakota. (Odd, yes, but amazing and interesting.)

Junot Diaz‘s newest book is This is How You Lose Her, a series of stories which follow the character Yunior through a good portion of his life. Diaz won praise with his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I hope readers of that book follow him and read this collection.

I could write an entire post on Pam Houston; she has been one of my favorite authors for years and is the reason that I, a bonafide city girl, imagine that one day, I will live on a ranch. Cowboys are My Weakness is an excellent place to start loving Houston.


Self-Help by Lorrie Moore is witty and original and Moore is another one of those writers who deserves a post of her own.

I’ve never gotten over that Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer is her only book (so far); she’s that good.

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca is realistic about the not-so-prettiness of life and love. “It Sounds Like You’re Feeling”, a story about a mental helpline worker who is forced to see a counselor and “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing” were standouts for me.

Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy is a fabulous collection about loneliness and human connection.


Other places to find great short stories are The Best American Short Stories series and The Best American NonRequired Reading series.

If I can’t convince you to read these collections, several of these authors have novels I highly recommend. Crane’s We Only Know So Much, Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, and Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs are all excellent reads. And maybe if you like their style, you’ll give their short stories a try.

Do you read short stories? If you don’t, do you promise to start reading them? Or tell me why you don’t enjoy them? Are there any collections do you recommend?



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16 responses to “Shorting It

  1. I’ve got nice, short Sherlock Holmes stories on my bedside table. :)

  2. Maria

    I love short stories, too! Two of my favorite authors are Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  3. lizzy

    The science fiction genre is one that is extremely well-suited to short stories. If you aren’t a sci-fi ‘fan’ but have wanted to dabble, this is the perfect way. these stories often have a surprise ending or a great zinger that you didn’t see coming. I always start folks with Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star.

  4. lectorconstans

    Short stories are hard to write. You’ve got to get it all in, in a few pages. And not leave out the beginning, middle, and end.

    The best short story I’ve read in years is “Bronsky’s Dates with Death”, in Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/Aug 2011. (As lizzy says, science-fiction seems to be a good area for the genre (I just bought a copy of Asimov’s “The Compete Stories, Vol 1”. In some ways they’re dated – computers still take up whole rooms (and more), but the stories are quite good. (One in particular is relevant today: “Franchise”, in which one man is chosen (by the giant computer) to represent the entire population, and he gets to cast the one vote for President).

    Back to Bronsky: here’s an interview with the writer, Interview: Peter David on “Bronsky’s Dates with Death” (which I just now found. The first paragraph gives you the bare-bones outline, but you should try to find the magazine for the flesh and blood and soul of it.

  5. I will dig out my anthology of Southern Fiction. I’m inspired. I teach 9th grade English, and I wish I could spend weeks on short stories, but as always….we have to move on.

  6. CM

    Love short stories! Some recent good reads & old favorites:
    Homeland/Barbara Kingsolver
    The Love of a Good Women/Alice Monroe
    Cathedral/Raymond Carver
    Smoke and Mirrors/Neil Gaiman
    Kate Chopin
    Just After Sunset/Stephen King
    Ordinary Life/Elizabeth Berg
    Local Girls/Alice Hoffman
    The Best American Short Stories

    • CM

      I meant Alice *Munro*.

      • I love Alice Munro and I religiously read “The Best American” series. Not just the short stories, but the essays and crime writing and travel writing, too. I haven’t read any Carver in a while so I might have to put him on my list to read.

    • lectorconstans

      I’ll second the “Best American…” series. They’re all great.

      Another short-story writer: Flannery O’Connor. And how could I forget Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”?

  7. Charles Burk

    Love short stories, thanks for this post. Recently enjoyed the new Junot Diaz collection myself. And, I agree, ZZ Packer is great. Lorrie Moore, too. I’ve made it something of a quest to introduce my non-short-story-reading friends to new collections. I’ve had good luck with the following:

    George Saunders, In Persuasion Nation
    Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
    Tobias Wolff, The Night in Question
    Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures

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