Short stories. A simple way to enjoy a quick, satisfying read, a collection of short stories provides perfect dipping-in-and-out-of literary fare. Whether you’re looking to get back into reading, or fancying something requiring a little less commitment than Don Quixote or War And Peace, short stories are the way to go. We take a look at the best short story collections – from fantastical, surreal tales of Paris to anecdotes of sexual transgression and the tenderness of human relationships.
Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974) – Angela Carter
Of the four short story collections and nine novels the English writer Angela Carter wrote in her too-short life, Fireworks is a collection I return to again and again. The majority of stories here are set in Japan, beautifully capturing the acute feeling of otherness and displacement experienced by their heroine, a young Western woman living there in the late 1960s. Carter herself spent two years doing just that, using prize money she’d won from the Somerset Maugham award. These stories are rich in theory, symbolism, folklore and literary play, but aside from this, they are to be read for the pure pleasure of the images Carter conveys. The sequinned eyes of the narrator’s lover in ‘Flesh and the Mirror,’ the elemental metaphors in ‘The Smile of Winter’ and the pyrotechnic descriptions of the sexually dangerous marionette-turned-woman, in ‘The Loves of Lady Purple,’ to name but a few.
Blow-Up And Other Stories (1967) – Julio Cortazar
Julio Cortazar spent most of his childhood in Argentina, later emigrating to Paris. He went on to become one of the major figures in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s, and was as culturally influential as the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This hefty collection is a mix of realism (including fictionalised biography: ‘The Pursuer’ is based on saxophonist Charlie Parker’s life), and bizarre tales, more surrealist in tone. A man vomits bunny rabbits whilst he pines for a missing lover in ‘A letter to a young lady in Paris,’ another encounters an immortal, drunk in a Parisian bar in ‘A Yellow Flower’. The feelings conveyed in these tales are intensely real yet Cortazar’s way of revealing the heart of them is stunningly fantastical. Incidentally, the title story ‘Blow-Up’ inspired the Antonioni film of the same name, which is also worth discovering. Read this heady collection as an insight into this writer’s experimental and moving work.
Birds of America (1998) – Lorrie Moore
American writer Lorrie Moore, who currently teaches and writes at the University of Wisconsin, won a New York Times bestseller award with Birds of America. However, she’s not quite so acclaimed outside the US, and often regarded as having a cult following. For those who have read her, Moore inspires devotion and it was this book which convinced me that a collection of shorts could be as engaging as a novel. Birds of America presents twelve stories of flailing relationships, of characters in various stages of derangement, of dysfunctional families and of the strategies used to cope with chronic illness. The result is at turns cynical, hilarious, heartbreaking and brilliant.
Will you please be quiet, please? (1976) – Raymond Carver
The Sunday Times described Raymond Carver as ‘the American Chekhov,’ which gives some idea as to the writer’s prowess within the short story form. The 22 stories in this collection expertly capture the perplexing and complex undertones in the seemingly simple and mundane. ‘The Student’s Wife’ documents a couple’s night of mutual insomnia, while in ‘Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes,’ a man quits smoking and fights with his neighbour, and in ‘Collectors,’ a vacuum cleaner salesman pointlessly demonstrates his wares to an unemployed man. Carver excels when it comes to dialogue, and it is a joy to read his characters communicating – or in most cases failing to. Will you please be quiet, please? is a wonderful shot of ‘dirty realism’ direct to the veins.
Bad Behaviour (1988) – Mary Gaitskill
In 1988, after years of having her stories rejected Mary Gaitskill hit the literary big time with Bad Behaviour, with one story from the collection – ‘Secretary’ – going on to be made into a film in 2002. Despite the title, these stories are non-judgmental tales dealing with themes of addiction, sexual violence and exchange, and estrangement. Gaitskill was labelled the ‘Queen of Sexual Transgression’ following publication, but at the risk of sounding sentimental these stories are more about the difficulty of human connection than breaking taboos. Surprisingly perhaps considering the theme, Gaitskill manages to expertly articulate moments of great tenderness through these characters’ struggles, without ever becoming mawkish.