I’ve always loved falling into a good novel, befriending the characters and being relentlessly sucked into a new and interesting plot. Recently, however, I’ve found that short story collections can often be an even more intellectually engaging and enthralling experience. The diverse cast of characters and scope of the work as a collective allow these projects to tackle a vast expanse of human experience, commenting in new and nuanced ways throughout unrelated or intricately related tales. As such, here are five short story collections that have been touching, challenging, and simply entertaining enough to truly affect my life.
1. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is the author of Bad Feminist, Hunger, and Difficult Women — all of which are thoughtful, pressing, and important works. Difficult Women, a collection of stories about women from all walks of life living imperfectly and coping with what it means to exist as a woman, forces the reader to grapple with difficult realities and the depths of human emotion. These tales follow sex workers, sexual abuse survivors, single mothers, working women, and even glass women, handling each story with the insight and compassion necessary to balance riveting prose with heartbreaking truths. This is a book I will always keep close, rereading the stories I love and the stories I don’t with equal reverence and adoration.
2. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
I first read The Opposite of Loneliness when I was a freshman in high school, and I truly believe this book shaped me. Marina Keegan was a journalist and avid writer who tragically died in a car crash days after graduating from Yale University. This book is a collection of fiction and nonfiction stories compiled after her death, and I wish I could personally thank the people responsible for bringing this work into the world. The fiction stories focus on young adults and perfectly capture how it feels to be young: the uncertainty, hope, rebellion, and ethics.
The nonfiction is poised, thoughtful, and powerful as Keegan tackles everything from millennials selling out when they enter top-tier universities to a mother’s expressed love through her reaction to a celiac disease diagnosis. This collection makes you fall in love just to break your heart, but you’ll still love every second of it.
3. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado writes about queer characters in a series of stories that simultaneously fall into fantasy, science fiction, horror, and psychological realism categories. Each of them is weird in a way that makes you want to understand more, see more, and explore more, while still being rooted in very realistic characters facing very real struggles. The feminist characters and stories deal with assault, gender roles, and body issues in ways that are new and sharp.
A personal favorite is “The Husband Stitch,” a loose retelling of the famous childhood story “The Green Ribbon,” which follows a young girl as she meets and eventually marries a man. Their relationship shows the ways in which you can love someone who doesn’t understand you and who, more than that, ultimately ruins you through their perceived right to your body.
4. Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
Abandon Me is slightly different from the other selections on this list in that it isn’t made up of unrelated fictional stories, but instead charts Febos own life in a variety of touching memoirs. This collection rang of honesty maybe more than any other memoir I’ve read, and I was captivated by the prose as well as the plot. Febos explores her family and childhood struggles, tumultuous relationships, and her own identity. This collection is both smart and incredibly vulnerable, and it made me ponder the ways love and loss have shaped my own identity.
5. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz has faced some heat lately for sexual assault allegations and, as such, I completely understand hesitations to buy and support his work. However, he is an incredible writer and if you stumble across this work in a thrift store or used book store strongly consider it. The writing is raw, rough, and fascinating and ultimately made me want to be a better writer.
If you can stomach the author and some of his infamous writing quirks (and derogatory slang), you won’t regret this read. Follow Yunior on his romantic adventures in this National Book Award finalist.