Favorites Series guest blogger Leigh Johnson is an assistant professor of literature at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. She blogs at academicleigh.wordpress.com, but mostly about her two boys, ages 4 & 3.
So few people list a short story collection among the books they’re willing to read; after all, the payoff seems less satisfactory than the longer, meatier novel. However, when thinking about a favorite book I know you should read, I found myself turning to short story collections. Like Christi, I don’t have a favorite book, and my memory of plots has gotten so bad, I can only remember the emotional hangover from a book. Here are short reviews of my favorite short story collections. Each of the stories stands alone, but becomes richer when read in the context of the larger collection.
As a native Kentuckian, I was surprised to find a book of stories set in the town next to the one I grew up in. They ring disturbingly true. Holly Goddard Jones is an exceptionally talented writer with a knack for rendering wildly unsympathetic characters human and simultaneously exposing the chinks in a system of social justice.
The stories follow unpredictable lines, but each has at its center a critique of the way cultural expectations for women create “girl trouble.” Sometimes this means a high school coach whose student is pregnant with his baby. By far the most emotionally satisfying stories are “Parts” and “Proof of God.” They’re enough to warrant getting the book on their own. Told from different perspectives of a grisly murder at Western Kentucky University, the stories explore complicity and justice.
Who should read it: anyone from a small town; people interested in gender and adolescence; those who like crime drama, for a change up.
I read this one for myself.
Junot Díaz’s third book, like his first book, is a short story collection. Both are good. This one is better because Díaz is giving less of a fuck if you like it or not, which frees him up to write really, really well. Some of the stories are a little raunchy, some are heartbreakingly sad, some are funny, all are emotionally wrenching in different ways.
Favorites are “Invierno” and “Alma” for representative range. Díaz says two things about this book that are particularly poignant. One, that we rarely hear this kind of masculinist perspective in literature; he’s not afraid to crawl inside the teenage/ young adult man’s head. Two, that Dominicans own their blackness more than other Latinos, which makes this book a really engaging narrative on race and gender in a shifting landscape.
Read it if you: are interested in immigrant experience, like social commentary, don’t give a fuck about feeling like the narrator is making some bad choices.
I taught this one to my students, and they’re pretty convinced that made me cool.
This collection’s title is ironic in that the characters are never separated—they couldn’t get away from each other if they tried. The stories follow several generations of a Jewish immigrant family in New York, mostly concentrating on the second generation. The stories have a little gimmick in the manner of a sestina, a poetic form in which words appear at the end of each line in a different order in each stanza. Images appear in each of the stories in a different order, weaving through the narrative to bind the stories even tighter together.
Mattison plays easily with her characters, settings, and plotting. The different generations interact with each other in ways that make you want to fill in the gaps, and the stories are all different enough to let you start over with each one, but still feel like you’re building on. Favorites are “In Case We’re Separated” and “Election Day.”
Who should read it: Those who like piecing together a story you don’t have all the linear information for.
I gave this one to my family, and it’s gone around at least three of us so far, connecting us to each other through the stories we’ve read.