There comes a point during summer – usually toward the end – when my reading momentum begins to flag and I find it difficult to muster the energy required to pick up the next 400 page book. The answer, for me, is short stories. Done well, a short story does everything a novel does: there’s narrative, an engaging cast of characters, a conflict or source of emotional momentum. Plus there’s the chance to opt-out: I can read just one story, and then put the book down for 6 months without worrying I will have forgotten the characters or plot when I come back to it, or I can continue to read story after story. A book of short stories can be just the ticket when reading time is scarce, or you simply feel like something quick yet complete, like watching a half hour TV show instead of a two hour movie.
Many authors who write full-length novels also write short stories, so you can look to see if your favorite writer also has a book of short stories out. If they don’t, or you’re looking to discover something new, here are some suggestions to get you started.
Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves tells beautiful, resonant stories, mostly about children and teenagers accidentally discovering independence, and all the twisted, complicated emotions that come with it. “Haunting Olivia” is not to be missed.
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain presents, among other stories, an American trying to plan a golf course in the war-torn mountains of Burma, and an ornithologist who discovers a near-extinct species of parrot while held captive by Columbian rebels. Each story explores a different vividly etched setting, making for a literary trip around the world featuring characters who expected things to go differently.
Amy Hempel is a master of concise writing: many of her stories are under four pages, and some are as short as a single page, yet she paints portraits of complex relationships with subtle, wry humor. Hempel’s stories have recently been gathered together and published as The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, or for a slimmer, backpack friendly book check out The Dog of the Marriage.
In Twin Study, Stacey Richter uses humor and straight-faced bizarreness (cave men in suburban basements, anyone?) to get at the glue of interpersonal relationships between sisters, husbands and wives, neighbors.
For pithy, conversational non-fiction writing, Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas gathers together pieces that Klosterman wrote for a variety of magazines, such as Slate, Esquire, and SPIN. He interviews Val Kilmer on his Texas ranch, reasons out The Nemesis Hypothetical (we all need one, evidently), and is the only person to have ever made me care about basketball (I’m now obsessed with Steve Nash).
Jorge Luis Borges is hard to describe and harder to categorize: he was a great miniaturist, posing questions about time, memory, and the labyrinthine nature of reality, in addition to portraits of Argentinean cowboy (gaucho) culture. I read his Collected Fictions five years ago, and I still think about the story “The House of Asterion” about once a week.