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The Last Book I Loved: Short Story Collections

For Short Story Month, we asked our readers: What was the last short story collection that you couldn't put down, that kept you up all night, that you couldn't stop recommending? We were delightfully surprised by the number of replies we received. Here are some of our favorites. If you'd like to submit your own book recommendations, click here for instructions.

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The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin

Recommended by: Alice L. from San Diego, California
Favorite short story author of all time: Alice Munro — not terribly original, but there won't be much argument, except perhaps from Bret Easton Ellis, and who listens to him?
Favorite short story of all time: There are two — both Alice Munro. I can't choose between them: "Meneseteung" from Friend of My Youth and "The Albanian Virgin" from Open Secrets.

I recently read a 1981 collection by Laurie Colwin, The Lone Pilgrim. Colwin's work has become a secret garden for short story enthusiasts, increasingly obscured from view due to her untimely death in 1992 at the age of 48. I've heard her dismissed on the basis of writing homespun family tales, nothing very remarkable, but this group of stories is evidence to the contrary. I'll pick two of the 13 stories that are examples of Colwin's narrative voice, her mischievous and keenly observant sensibilities. In "Family Happiness," Polly's life follows her family's expectations, and her husband is a duplicate of her father ("He was big and handsome. His underwear was made of pima cotton. She had moved from one family to another and often hardly noticed the difference."), but her long and happy affair with Lincoln enables her to maintain the necessary façade. No disaster ensues, no Anna Karenina–like punishment for her sins; it works for everyone. "The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing" starts off: "Once upon a time, I was Professor Thorne Speizer's stoned wife, and what a time that was." In this case it's weed that enables the protagonist to endure a stuffy husband and a proscribed life. In the end — spoiler alert! — she turns him on to it, and, to their mutual delight, he discovers that "it produces unhealthy mental excitement."

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Fidelity by Wendell Berry

Recommended by: Maureen E. L. from Wheaton, Illinois

Fidelity is comprised of five short stories inspired by Berry's own environment and represented by the fictional farmland and town of Port William, Kentucky. In the stories, he combines poetry, storytelling, and essay to create a work both profound yet mundanely simple. An absolutely beautiful piece of art necessary for any and every library.

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Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Column McCann

Recommended by: Thomas from New Jersey
Favorite short story collection of all time: Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

I'd received McCann's Fishing the Sloe-Black River as a gift from a great-aunt of mine and had no idea of the author. I was hesitant to start the book (the last gift I'd gotten from her was a Grisham novel that didn't wow me), but when I did I was completely enthralled and captivated. Column's collection reminded me of Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge. It was brutal and powerful, and keeps you thinking about the characters long after the book is done.

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The UnAmericans by Molly Antapol

Recommended by: Cheryl F.

I love The UnAmericans. Antopol is a wonderful, evocative writer who creates poignant, full little worlds in each story. To me she is a cross between two of my favorite contemporary writers — Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicole Krauss. Each story is a fully developed world inhabited by complex emotional situations. Each story, with its characters desperately trying to find connections, was a very emotional experience for me as a reader. Whether it was a widower looking for love again and mistakenly thinking he found it in "The Old World," or the grandmother telling stories about surviving the war in the forests in "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story," or the estranged father fearful of the play his daughter has written about their tenuous relationship in "The Quietest Man," or the developing relationship between the young girlfriend and her widower boyfriend's teenage daughters in "A Difficult Phase," these are all characters trying to fix their loneliness by attempting to make connections — some more successful than others. Brilliant, heartfelt, and intensely personal, these stories and characters will stick with me for a long time.

Fools by Joan Silber

Also recommended by: Cheryl F.

Fools is a string of beautiful gems. Each story is so specific and personal, yet they all fit together beautifully. I love the way Silber has her characters all speak in their own voices, and as the observer/reader you can see their "truths" through their own observations and through what they omit and do not see. Although "Buying and Selling" is not my favorite story in the collection, there are some passages at the end, where both Rudy and Liliane are sharing their thoughts with us and we see how each is so misreading the other character, that are very sad and poignant. I love the way Silber creates a story that can cover a many-year span and also just a few days and never feel like it is in fits and starts — it flows together so beautifully. There is such beauty in Silber's writing — it seems so simple and straightforward, yet it is so precise in the way it tells small personal stories that represent much larger issues.

Books mentioned in this post

2 Responses to "The Last Book I Loved: Short Story Collections"

    Cindy June 4th, 2014 at 6:25 am

    Definitely Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell ... quirky, thought provoking, entertaining. Astonishing imagination.

    Cindy June 4th, 2014 at 6:30 am

    VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE by Karen Russell. A talented writer with an astonishing imagination. No wasted words, no plot to bizarre. Loved it. My book club loved it.

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