In Praise of Short Stories

It’s nearly the end of the semester, the days are grey, and there is barely time to read. So, in a nod to our collectively limited time, my book recommendations this week are all short story collections. I love this form. It’s more capacious than it looks, but it is also a sideways form, a back door form. This is special pleading: I write them. And I read them, over and over, because they keep showing me more. And besides, they are the perfect fit for anyone with limited time and attention. Read them on the subway, read them before bed, read them in the snatched fifteen minutes between finishing dinner and cleaning the kitchen, read them while you wait for the laundry cycle to finish, read them while you wait for that friend who never arrives on time. That’s what I often like short stories better than novels. They do not demand too much. They give more than they ask for.

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima

Mishima was one of Japan’s most famous writers, celebrated as a novelist, playwright and a brilliant, brilliant short story writer. He also, incidentally, represents an artistic problem we will never manage to solve: magnificent artist, absolutely repellent politics (reactionary/militaristic/fascist). Read him first. Look him up afterwards. But read him. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t.

White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link

Each story in this collection is a riff on a well-known European fairytale, modernized beyond recognition, though there are echoes. “Skinner’s Mist” will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. Link has been described as “the Alice Munro of speculative fiction.” I rest my case.

How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankam Thammavongsa

This story collection won the Giller a few years back. Each story is deft, understated, and devastating. Thammavongsa doesn’t waste words, or time. Minimalist as the blade of a knife is minimalist.

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod

Another Canadian. A writer who enters so deeply into his subject, you forget he’s there. He’s one of the most accomplished describers of work, of labour, and how it shapes us (up there with or maybe surpassing Michael Ondaatje). “Wonder About Parents” is among the best stories I’ve ever read. I can’t even talk about it. I just start crying. Then I’m embarrassed.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

He’s better known for his novels, Real Life and The Late Americans. I haven’t read either of them. This collection looks at various facets of the lives of young Americans, mostly queer, Black, struggling with the disorientation of moving from working-class to middle-class spaces, and a bit lost in the world. He is full of tenderness, but it doesn’t obscure the clarity of his sight or soften his unerring yet still compassionate judgment. Plus, his blog about writing is a marvel. “On D. H. Lawrence and Moral Fiction” should be a must for anyone attempting fiction in these divisive and ideologically heavy-handed times.