Carmen Maria Machado

The 10 Best Short Story Collections of 2017

By Adam Vitcavage

George Saunders, the 21st century master of short stories, looks for a sense of a human being on the other side of the page. He says short stories are very hard work and oftentimes people hide behind showmanship or tricks to make a story impactful in such a short page count. He mastered these stories over his long career and released them as a collection in 2013. Saunders reached the pinnacle of the art form. This year, he finally released his follow up—only it was a debut novel. Only it was a debut novel instead. A debut that happened to win the Man Booker Prize, by the way.

This year, there was a general consensus on what were some of the best collections. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides released his first collection. As did Joshua Ferris. Haruki Murakami released his fourth collection translated into English. Hell, even two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks released a terrific collection.

Here are 10 collections—some that have been consensus crowd favorites and some under-the-radar ones—that I felt were the best this year. 

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz

This collection of short stories succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries. Chanelle Benz is able to engage readers with invigorating stories from a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

In her debut collection, Hunt uses her ability to deconstruct the norm by creating lush worlds in a few paragraphs and then flipping it upside down. Metamorphosis, from the literal to figurative, is prevalent throughout these stories. With these changes, she explores womanhood in a roundabout way. A subtle, and peculiar, story involves a woman turns into a deer at night. A more upfront one would be a woman wondering why she and her husband haven’t had sex in nearly a year. Either way you go, Hunt is onto something eerily familiar, but wholly original.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Off-kilter stories about what it means to be female are a welcome trend. This collection uses hints of reworked fairy tales as a lens to view what society has to say about feminism. One story has a character who can hear porn stars thoughts. Another asks if being a female writer writing about a female writer is a tired trope. One is about sexual history. Through and through, this collection is so enthralling because it has drop dead gorgeous writing. A plot summary only goes so far. It’s the writing that makes this collection so remarkable.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

Enriquez’ stories are vibrant depictions of her native Argentina, mostly Buenos Aires, though she also ventures out to surrounding countries. She fills the dozen stories with compelling characters in haunting stories that evaluate inequality, violence, and corruption. Characters range from social workers to street dwellers—even dark magic users. With those characters, the author explores tourists in Argentina, the rich visiting the slums, plus so many more dynamic areas of her home country.

In tradition with the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and NoViolent Bulawayo, this collection features well-crafted and vibrant stories about being black in America while still holding onto roots in Africa. These stories are all nearly about that specific idea, but never feel stale. Throughout the different stories, we meet a wide-ranging spectrum of characters in a variety of settings. Still, she brings a cohesion to the stories that make them feel connected, even though they all stand alone.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen’s stories focus on mostly Vietnamese refugees whose stories take place from the 1970s through present day. Some do take place in Vietnam, however, most of the stories take place in America. Nguyen taps into the daunting reality refugees faced in America, but balances the haunting trauma with the beautiful humanity extremely well. None of the stories are necessarily autobiographical. They were influenced by Nguyen’s own experiences as well as what happened to his friends and family. This is important because it is vital to remember where refugees in America came from and what they accomplished. This is one of the most vital books released so far in 2017.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Using a thread to connect all the stories in a connection can be tricky. You don’t want each story to get stale. Zhang sets her stories mostly in Queens, focusing on the daughters of Chinese immigrants. Zhang uses very direct, in-your-face prose that is tough to swallow at times. She wants you to experience the rawness that these girls have to face every single day. It makes for an obscene collection you wince at, but in a good way.

Stories of migration and the toll it takes on families are the centerpiece of this collection. Most of the stories take place in anonymous Latin American cities, which really helps focus on the characters. These people can be anywhere. Alarcon adds flourishes to his stories, never letting them seem as earnest as they appear. He twists and turns until we learn more about the characters in a handful of pages than some authors portray in entire novels.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

In Bad Feminist, a collection of essays, Roxane Gay wrote eloquently about race, feminism, and poverty in an accessible way. She continues to use her strong voice in this collection of short stories that take those same themes and weaves them into stories of resilience and power. She avoids stereotypes within character development as well as plot. Her stories truly reflect modern America through the lens of black women. It is an invigorating read that is eye opening and enlightening.

Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor

Tharoor is preoccupied with language. His stories want to make sense of what we are saying and how we are saying it. Technology plays a heavy role. But don’t be fooled! This isn’t science fiction. It’s an influence for sure, but these stories have a foot in the normal—even the mundane—while the other foot dips into the fantastical. He’s a stylish writer with plenty left to showcase.

19 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: October 2017

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Daniel Ford: You can tell from the opening lines of The Last Ballad that Wiley Cash had this story in his bones. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of a fateful (and deadly) mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. Shifting between the perspectives of all those involved, Cash explores themes that are as alive today as they were in the 1910s.

On a recent podcast episode, Cash said he was chasing Ella May’s ghost the entire time he was writing the novel. That passion and research led to one of the most unforgettable and empathetic main characters you’ll read in fiction this year. If the book only focused on her, it still would have been great, but, to Cash’s credit, May’s supporting cast is just as finely drawn.

The Last Ballad is a special book, one that I think readers will fall in love with. Cash does the Southern storytelling tradition proud, and he adds even more to the remarkable fiction coming out of that region in the last couple of years.

Sean Tuohy: In the summer of 1987, a killer stalked the streets of New Bedford, Mass. He targeted young women who were addicts. He preyed on them, killed them, and left on the side of the road. In Boyle’s riveting narrative, the killer, a lurking, sinister figure, is left in the background. The author focuses on the victims, their family members, and the town itself. Boyle writes with a passion that shines in each passage, and she shares the pain of the victims.

Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades

Daniel: One day I’ll get to tell you my reaction to the final scenes of Nicole Blades’ cheeky and engrossing novel Have You Met Nora? Just know it made Blades “LMAO” in an email chain. Doesn’t get much better for a reader (or writer)!

We’ve come to expect great fiction out of Blades, and this novel is no exception. Have You Met Nora? (out Oct. 31) features a freight train plot and well crafted characters who deliver lines of sassy dialogue as if they were lightning strikes. Issues of identity, race, friendship, and family are all explored without beating you over the head with a blunt instrument. Blades gets bonus points for using punctuation in her title! 

bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Daniel: I didn’t realize the recent paperback release of Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone features 40 more pages of poetry not included in the original 2014 release until after I finished the collection in roughly one sitting. It says something about Daley-Ward’s talent that a publisher signed off on an expanded edition given today’s publishing market! What’s interesting is that none of these poems feel added on or misplaced (I can’t even imagine the process involved in narrowing them down for the first launch). The collection’s title is apt considering that each poem seems to be stripped down to only its essential components, reveling in their devastatingly honest and personal nature. There’s one section of a poem called “things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to work out” that could serve as a mission statement for most creative types:

There are parts of you
that want sadness.
Find them out. Ask them why.

Indeed.   

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Daniel: Gabriel Tallent's debut contains gut punches for days and will make you slam it down more much often than you anticipated. However, you'll keep picking up, sucking the marrow out of Tallent's prose. Turtle Alveston is a heroine for the ages, and the author gets inside her head in a way you won't find in any other fiction. My Absolute Darling also features one of the sweetest and well-earned denouements I've ever read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Gary Almeter: I read this book immediately after Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling (see above). Sing, Unburied, Sing is also about a child, in this case, 13-year-old Jojo, let down and abused by parents. Jojo is a resilient and caring young man; his wisdom beyond his years is due in large measure to the patience of his grandfather, Pop, with whom he and his 3-year-old sister Michaela live, and the fact that he is tasked with caring for Michaela whenever their mother leaves them for days at a time. Jojo's white father, Michael, is at Parchman prison, the same prison Pop spent time in decades ago.

The whole book is teeming with ghosts. Leonie's brother was murdered and haunts her whenever she gets high; the rural Mississippi setting is haunted by the oppressive and omnipresent legacy of racism; Pop had a friend at Parchman prison whose memory stays with him. Woven into these ghost stories is a road trip to Parchman to retrieve Michael upon his release. The journey becomes a nightmare as everyone learns that there are absences that can never really be filled and ghosts that can never be outrun. Jojo perseveres nonetheless.

Read Adam Vitcavage's  interview with Jesmyn Ward .

Read Adam Vitcavage's interview with Jesmyn Ward.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Sean: Ronald Balson does not waste any time. He quickly pulls the reader into the story and allows his characters to build over the course of the story until they are almost too real. After a Holocaust survivor accuses one of the city's wealthiest men of being a Nazi, it’s up to a burned out lawyer to find the truth. Rich in history, Once We Were Brothers is a wonderful tale.

Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett

Daniel: Kellye Garrett's debut novel Hollywood Homicide is such a fun read. In Dayna Anderson, Garrett has created a sassy, determined, and sometimes confused heroine that will be entertaining readers for plenty of beach "Days" to come. Every supporting character is a gem, and the plot moves along like a binge-worthy TV dramedy. Garrett's voice is a welcome breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see what it has to say next.

Daniel: Vanessa Grigoriadis' distinct voice and empathetic, curious reporting are used so well throughout Blurred Lines, a book that delves into the myriad issues surrounding campus rape in the United States. Grigoriadis tackles everything from "Mattress Girl" to Rolling Stone's errant reporting during the University of Virginia rape controversy and the new age of consent to Donald Trump. The author/journalist interviewed hundreds of people, including students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and advocates, and that dogged reporting led to an even-tempered (though not unemotional) narrative our polarized electorate desperately needs.

One of the most refreshing things about Grigoriadis' work here is her ability to include comments, research, observations, and facts that questioned her beliefs or hypotheses. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers or discard information because it didn’t fit into a concrete mold she decided on long before writing the book. Journalism like this is of the utmost importance because of our current political climate. Read this book and recommend it to others.

Daniel: There’s a reason Kat Howard is one of our favorite authors (check out her “Author’s Corner” below). She delivers opening lines like the ones found in her new novel An Unkindness of Magicians.

The young woman cut through the crowded New York sidewalk like a knife. Tall in her red-soled stilettos, black clothing, that clung to her like smoke, red-tipped black hair sharp and angular around her face. She looked like the kind of woman people would stop for, stare at, notice.

None of them did.

Yeah, we can get down with that. What we’ve read so far of An Unkindness of Magicians proves why Howard has amassed the following she has. This fantasy thriller, which features competing magicians fighting to preserve (or maybe it’s to demolish) the magical system that binds the world, is the perfect read headed into the Halloween season.

Dreamfield by Ethan Bryan

Daniel: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear reading fellow 50/50 Press author Ethan Bryan's debut novel. I think Sid Sanford and his main character “Ethan” would get along just fine. Ethan finds himself transported back to high school, where he has a chance to relive his dream of being a star baseball player (yes, Bryan made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). Part “Field of Dreams,” part “The Rookie,” Dreamfield is a fun meditation on time, religion, family, and baseball.  

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Daniel: There is officially no limit to Tom Hanks’ talent. In his debut short story collection (out Oct. 17), the actor brings all of the traits that define him on the silver screen: honesty, irreverence, humor, and unending empathy and passion. Be warned, this is absolutely one of those collections that will cause you to stay up way past your bedtime and mutter, “Okay, just one more.” If these are the types of stories we can expect from Hanks and his typewriter in the future, we’re all very lucky readers.

Author’s Corner

By Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

I try to always have one book of poetry that I’m reading. This is the sort of collection that I’ll turn to again and again. Smith’s writing is clear-eyed, precise, and full of beauty. It gives me hope.

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

One of my very favorite books, and a quintessential October novel. Haunted and full of melancholy, it is also gorgeously written. I mean, it’s Bradbury.

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

The first of the completed Metamorphoses trilogy, it’s myth and Seattle and brilliant and a book I’ve reread at least once a year since it came out.

From the To Be Read pile:

Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia

Okay, so maybe Baba Yaga doesn’t spring immediately to mind as the sort of person you’d go to for life advice. But I loved this column when it ran on The Hairpin, and I’m really looking forward to picking this up.

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

Ben’s first collection, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day, was a book I absolutely adored. He writes strange tiny gems of things, and I can’t wait to see what he’s done here.

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Okay, no one needs me to tell you to read this collection, because it is winning all the awards, getting rave reviews, and is one of the most buzzed about books of the year. If you’ve ever read Machado’s writing, you know the praise is deserved. If not, you are in for a treat.

#NovelClass

Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher.