In a year packed with noteworthy novels, it can be hard to remember that big, important, vital ideas sometimes come in small packages. Many of the year’s best collections represent a return to form for some of the greatest writers of our time, and while the stories may be brief, their impact is felt long after they’ve been read. In these pages you’ll find heartbreak and longing, estrangement, fear, desire, and political upheaval, told in the forms of myth, folktales, and yes, everyday realism. All of these collections, from widely varied vantage points, get at the heart of what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human.
Here are Electric Literature’s top four short story collections, followed by additional favorites listed below.
The Top 4 Short Story Collections of The Year:
Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang
Tomb Sweeping phenomenally unravels the heartaches, deferred dreams, and desires in a range of characters living across Asia and the US. Within these fifteen stories, you’ll find mediums, disoriented housesitters, doppelgängers, unsatisfied marketing directors, unfulfilled housewives, immigrant families, heartbroken college grads, expecting parents, and unexpected twists. All the while, Alexandra Chang consistently maintains an incisive pulse on the grief that invades these communities and what gets inherited in families beyond DNA. As Chang mentioned in her EL interview with Annie Liontas, the characters in these stories each endure sharp growing pains, along with transformation, but not necessarily one in which they become better beings: “If anything, connection with others helps them find themselves and their place in the world, but most of these connections are temporary, too. That’s how I see the world and experience life myself… Transition seems constant, ideal even.” Sample a taste of this brilliant collection by reading “Phenotype,” published in Recommended Reading earlier this year.
White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link
Kelly Link is a master of illusion, threading reality and surreality together to create stories where nothing is quite as it seems, and the stories in White Cat, Black Dog are no exception. In this delightfully strange collection, each story stems from a different fairy tale, pulling inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, Norwegian folklore, seventeenth-century French lore, and more. Link’s reinvention of these tales are not only unique, imaginative, and contemporary (think Hansel and Gretel as androids, Snow White as a housesitter avoiding his dissertation), but also deeply human. These once-flat characters of fairy tale land are given new layers of psychological depth: they desire, they love, they betray. Their emotions are painfully recognizable, even as the stories themselves are bizarre (in the best way) and wholly unpredictable. In classic Link style, they’re also often funny: as Link says in her EL interview with Chelsea Davis, “Humor and horror are both doors into story for me—and inside a story, they’re paths to understanding or rearranging situations.” The result is a collection of stories that are witty, startling, and emotionally real, each story taking us somewhere that at first feels familiar, only to pull back the veil and show us that we are, in fact, in territory entirely new.
Wednesday’s Child by Yiyun Li
Wednesday’s Child is full of stories that only Yiyun Li could write: moving and deeply introspective work that reaches great depths of human emotion without ever becoming overly sentimental. These stories center around characters reckoning with loss and grief: a woman creates a spreadsheet of everyone she knows who has died while she grieves the death of her son, a woman confides a haunting story about her past to a man whose wife recently passed away, and in “Such Common Life,” a three-part novella excerpted in Recommended Reading, a retired entomologist and her caretaker reflect on the lives of imaginary friends. This collection is full of tender, quietly heartbreaking stories written with the compassionate, observant eye that Li always brings to her prose.
Witness by Jamel Brinkley
In the ten stories that make up Witness, all set in New York City, you’ll encounter as broad of a range of characters as you’ll find within the city itself: children, adults of all kinds (UPS workers, grandparents, volunteers at an animal rescue), and even ghosts. In each of these stories, Jamel Brinkley explores what it means to bear witness, asking the weight that comes with truly perceiving one another. With sharp, beautiful, probing prose, this collection plumbs the depths of human connections. And by drawing us into the world of these characters, Brinkley turns each of us into a witness in our own right.
Electric Lit’s Other Favorite Short Story Collections:
The Hive and the Honey by Paul Yoon
Moving across centuries and continents with a focus on the Korean diaspora, Paul Yoon masterfully explores the shared history, displacement, alienation, and the lasting effects of war within The Hive and the Honey. Throughout seven stories, Yoon’s lean and cutting prose dissects truth and inheritance, interweaves haunting tales with mundane lives, and reveals far-flung characters searching for home, such as when a samurai journeys with an orphan in 17th century Japan, a contemporary couple grappling with their heritage manages a small shop in London, and a Korean settlement in Far East Russia is plagued by its past. Recommended Reading published the beautifully wrenching title story from the collection in September.
Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri
Written originally in Italian, the nine stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection each revolve around a central protagonist: Rome. And while the city may now be a second home to Lahiri, many of the incisive narratives focus on the stinging feelings of discrimination, estrangement, and exile that persists for these characters, many of which are immigrants or outsiders. In beautifully moving prose with acute observations and reflections, Lahiri paints a mosaic (or a fresco, if you will) of dazzling yet pain-ridden lives from the multifold perspectives of a caretaker’s daughter, a tempted husband, two alienated women, and the many migrants and refugees in Rome.
Every Drop Is A Man’s Nightmare by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto
Megan Kamalei Kakimoto builds a contemporary portrait of an ever-changing Hawaii in this debut collection—excavating gender, race, sexuality, and the very act of storytelling. As Molly Antopol wrote in her introduction to the story “Madwomen” (published by Recommended Reading in August), “the legends that permeate Kakimoto’s Hawaii play innovatively with received notions of genre, seamlessly braiding magical realism and ancestral myths into her convincingly realistic character-driven narratives.” Within these eleven stories, Kakimoto’s female protagonists face issues such as the chaotic anxiety of motherhood, the chance to trade a personality trait for a free Brazilian wax, displacement by drills of U.S. military bombing in Kauai, and much, much more.
A Small Sacrifice for An Enormous Sacrifice by Jai Chakrabarti
In vivid and musical prose, A Small Sacrifice for An Enormous Sacrifice explores the complex realities of desire, culture clash, parenthood, faith, and legacy through lively characters in Brooklyn, Kolkata, upstate New York, and beyond. In one story, set in the 1980s, a closeted gay man longs for a child from his lover’s wife. In another, an Indian woman grapples with how to sustain her identity alongside her new Jewish fiancé’s family traditions. All in all, the fifteen stories in Chakrabarti’s collection are a testament to the ways families form, change, and move forward. Read “Prodigal Son” from the collection, published in Recommended Reading.
So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men by Claire Keegan
The three stories in Claire Keegan’s latest collection each profoundly dissect relationships, interpersonal communications, and misconnections. The sharp observations and memories of Keegan’s characters reach back into the inheritance and perpetuation of misogyny as well as the objectification of women, but is done so masterfully, naturally, and imaginatively that you may not even realize that these ideas drive the stories until the second read. So Late in the Day is a powerful and necessary collection for not only this day and age, but any.
The People Who Report More Stress by Alejandro Varela
In thirteen interconnected short stories set in and across New York, Alejandro Varela uses pithy prose and sharp commentary to explore racism, sexuality, and gentrification on a personal and political level. While mainly focusing on one central couple, the stories revolve around the anxieties present beneath everyday interactions and the biases held by characters they encounter as well as themselves. These stories are full of insight, humor, and surprise—as in “An Other Man” where Gus and Eduardo make their marriage open while inside a multiverse and, in another story, Eduardo tracks the love-hate relationship between him and his therapist. In an EL interview, Varela discusses their work, class anxiety, and the multiplicity of queerness and transness in fiction.
The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde
In this urgent and timely collection, Allegra Hyde conveys the confusing, often terrifying, act of existing today through protagonists who are mystified by love, their own identity, and seeking perpetual purpose in a collapsing world. The characters in The Last Catastrophe are plagued by loneliness, cynicism, and wonder. A husband leaves and then his wife’s skin turns the color of Gatorade, while another woman needs “a little extra attention as she face[s] her own impending obsolescence,” and an émigré searches for his lost love across the surgically supplanted faces of strangers. As Hyde discussed in her EL interview with Annie Liontas, writing this collection was a way of distorting grief, refracting it through objects and ideas: “It’s processing extinction in a playful, sometimes humorous way.”
Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go by Cleo Qian
Cleo Qian’s debut collection is enthralling, surprising, and obsessed with loneliness as much as it is with the tenuous ways we connect with one another today. In her EL reading list about alienated women, Qian writes of her collection: “The young women who weave in and out through my stories lurk watchfully: looking for allies, connection, a meeting of minds that will make them, finally, safe and seen. They are millennials, Internet surfers, queer and questioning, immigrants, the children of immigrants. They wander alone through perilous, defamiliarized urban landscapes.” The sparkling, restless characters in Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go question convention, expectation, listen fondly to the stories of elders, and change their fates all to make unforgettable memories and choices, lingering in readers’ minds long after they’re over.
After the Funeral and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
Emotional and psychological richness fill the pages of Tessa Hadley’s After the Funeral and Other Stories. The twelve stories in this collection take the small, real moments of life and make them expansive, meaningful, and startling. In this collection, Hadley’s mastery of drawing out the complexities and dynamics at play in relationships is on full display, making the interior lives of each of her characters intoxicating to read.
Disruptions by Steven Millhauser
The eighteen stories in “Disruption” exemplify what Steven Millhauser does best: spinning strange, provocative tales out of suburban lives. One town struggles with the challenges of having both average-height inhabitants and their two-inch tall neighbors. Another installs a guillotine. A caller is strangely affected by an automated customer service line. Each of these stories take American suburbia and unsettles (or, you might say, disrupts) it, stretching out into the absurd to create something unique, unsettling, and delightful to read.
Evil Flowers by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated by Kari Dickson
Gunhild Øyehaug’s “Evil Flowers” is dazzling, energetic, and a constant surprise. The stories in this collection are bizarre and playful, pushing against the boundaries of everyday life to create tales that are as absurd as they are clever. Read “A Visit to Monk’s House” from the collection in Recommended Reading, which takes a woman reading a review on Trip Advisor and turns it into something addicting, expansive, and wholly unique.
Good Women by Halle Hill
Halle Hill’s debut collection is a darkly humorous exploration into the lives of Black women in Appalachia and the South. The vivid, deeply human characters who embody each of these twelve stories fly off the page and are utterly unforgettable. Hill’s observant eye brings an intoxicating liveliness to her protagonists and their settings as we follow them from Weight Watchers to the emergency room to a 22-hour long Greyhound bus ride with a sugar daddy. Good Women delves into contemporary Black womanhood with humor, empathy, and beautiful prose.
Holler, Child by LaToya Watkins
Holler, Child is a profound, haunting collection that follows Black men and women in West Texas. In these eleven complex and probing stories, LaToya Watkins explores the things that make us human: love, guilt, betrayal, forgiveness. The tragedies that haunt the pages of this collection are rendered beautifully and with great care; they are the kind a reader will carry with them forever.
I Am My Country by Kenan Orhan
The stories in Kenan Orhan’s dazzling debut, I Am My Country, are each set in or around Turkey, the author’s ancestral homeland, while anchored by acts of rebellion and finding the meaning of identity amidst political upheaval. Orhan’s characters—ranging from a woman, who uses her magical attic to house Istanbul’s discarded and forbidden musicians, to a teenager in Soma who dreams of escaping his predetermined future in a small mining town, to a muezzin who spies on a Turkish baker and her adulterous husband while the city floods with apocalyptic rain—invite readers to interpret for themselves what reality means and how to combat it when history isn’t on your side. Learn more about the collection by reading EL’s interview with Orhan, published in June of this year.
I Meant It Once by Kate Doyle
Women in their early twenties drive Kate Doyle’s debut collection, I Meant It Once. The characters in this collection navigate the world of early adulthood with honesty and wit, seeking to find themselves and break from the expectations placed upon them. With humor and sharp prose, Doyle explores the dynamics at play in these transformative years as relationships with family, friends, romantic partners, and even oneself shift, fall away, or take shape for the first time.
This Is Salvaged by Vauhini Vara
This is Salvaged is a collection full of intimacy. The characters in these stories all seek connection in an often alienated world, from an experimental artist trying to recreate Noah’s Arc to teenagers operating a phone sex line to a woman at the onset of perimenopause seeking a friend in a new town. Vauhini Vara balances the emotions and relationships at play in these stories with depth, humor, and mastery. Read “The Hormone Hypothesis” from the collection, which was featured in Recommended Reading.