Mia Alvar's stunning debut story collection marks her as a writer to watch: In the Country moves from Manila to Bahrain to Tokyo, from 1971 to 1986 to the 21st century. Here are her picks for the 10 best short story collections you've never read.
E.L. Doctorow has said that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Similarly, I’ve found that a great short story collection can cover as much, if not more, ground than an epic doorstopper, one brief vignette or character at a time. I fell hard for short stories in college, when fiction workshops first opened my eyes to the wonders that George Saunders and Junot Díaz and Alice Munro and Salman Rushdie, among other masters, could accomplish within the form. Here’s a list of favorite collections that may have skipped your radar, or perhaps deserve a revisit after some time. Spanning a range of countries, continents and even (in some translated cases) languages, they still share what every great story collection has in common: fully realized worlds compressed into a few pages, and a multiplicity of perspectives shedding light on what it is to be human in the world.
1. In My Other Life by Joan Silber - By her own account, Joan Silber is “interested in how fates roll out over many years”; and few writers, in my opinion, write as gorgeously as she does about the passage of time and how our youthful (mis)adventures look to us in later life. The middle-aged men and women in this collection are clean, sober, and decidedly bourgeois versions of their younger, wilder selves. But Silber doesn’t cast their backward glances in terms of pure regret or nostalgia; her clear-eyed prose and authoritative storytelling thread a much finer and more interesting needle.
2. The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories, Nina Berberova, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz - The Russian expats who inhabit these stories aren’t given a lot of time to nurse their wounds between the revolution back home and the impending world war in their adopted city of Paris. And Berberova’s graceful but merciless portraits—of fading countesses, dreary bohemians, former elites now busing tables and cleaning floors, all clinging if only barely to their memories (or fantasies) of a fancier life—had me aching right along with them. One heroine, Sasha, wakes up from a dream with “a strange aftertaste, a mysterious knot that weighs on me to this very day”—words I could easily steal here to describe the spell Berberova casts with each story in this collection.
3. Essence of Camphor, Naiyer Masud, translated from the Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon and others - This collection isn’t exactly what you’d call “plot-driven,” but I dare any reader not to be transfixed by its dreamlike qualities and Naiyer Masud’s stark, heady prose. As they revisit mysterious boyhood memories, the men in these pages don’t do all that much besides stare at images or objects (a miniature glass chandelier made of perfume-filled vials, in the title story; the faded photograph of an old friend in “Remains of the Ray Family”); or wander through houses (an ancestral home in “Interregnum,” a stranger’s courtyard in “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire”). Masud moves his characters swiftly through time and space—inviting us, sentence by sentence, to think about the nature of reality and illusion, attraction and revulsion, and memory and consciousness, in new ways. To me, reading Essence of Camphor feels a bit like spending time with Roberto Bolaño or W.G. Sebald, who similarly create strange-but-not-entirely-unwelcome moods and seduce with narrative voices so compelling I can’t help but follow wherever they lead.
4. Scent of Apples by Bienvenido Santos - Santos published these stories over a 22-year period in both the Philippines and the United States, chronicling the varieties of expat loneliness he experienced firsthand in that time. Moving the U.S. more than once—escaping war-torn Manila in the 1940s and then attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the late 1950s, to name just two occasions—Santos always thought his most recent return “home” to the Philippines would be his last. His characters—which include “old-timers” in California struggling to keep up with younger, more sophisticated countrymen; and an exiled academic connecting with an immigrant farmer in the Midwest over their shared yearning for the mother country—reflect that tension between his Eastern and Western selves. The title story is his melancholy meditation on longing and nostalgia, in prose as stripped down and forlorn as his Michigan farmer’s wintertime “apple trees…bare against a glowing western sky.”
5. Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories by Hisaye Yamamoto - Like Santos, Hisaye Yamamoto contends with immigrant life in America—in this case, among Japanese laborers settling in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. A Nisei daughter herself, Yamamoto often opts for the child’s-eye view of events, with deceptively simple language throwing traumas like domestic violence and wartime internment into starker and more poignant relief than a “sophisticated” adult analysis could. While tensions between first and second generations, and between old-school husbands and their more quickly-Americanizing wives, can feel like well-trod territory in immigrant fiction, I find Yamamoto especially compelling when she touches on dynamics outside the usual East-West, Old/New World divide. A Japanese girl’s budding romance with a young Mexican neighbor in the title story, a Japanese mother and daughter mutually attracted to a Filipino farm hand in “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” and an African-American man’s complicated encounter with a Japanese family in “The Brown House,” all spark profound questions about what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.
6. Lend Me Your Character, Dubravka Ugrešić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Michael Henry Heim - Ugrešić herself has described this collection, first published in Zagreb in the 1980s, as “stories [written] by altering other stories.” Her sources range from as high and as low as Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” sensationalist news items, Slavic folk tales, and editorial pitch letters; and what she spins out of this material might make an old-fashioned reader grumpy, if it wasn’t so much fun. “A Hot Dog in a Warm Bun,” for instance, channels the absurdities of Gogol’s “The Nose” into…a different member of the (male) anatomy. Her characters—almost all of them blocked writers, fretting over their literary legacies—struggle with the impossibility of creating a truly original story nowadays. It’s an anxiety that feels especially poignant in the work of a post-Yugoslav artist. Questions like “Where am I? In someone else’s apartment? In some foreign country?” from an Alice in Wonderland-inspired character remind us, as the author also does in her 2003 afterword, that these stories were written in a nation “that no longer exists” and a language that “too has divided, in three.” In light of that disruptive and tragic history, Ugrešić’s quirky humor, irreverent feminism, and playful postmodern style often had me wincing through my laughter.
7. Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul - Is this a collection of short stories or a novel in sketches, and does it matter? The young narrator of all the vignettes in Miguel Street doesn’t have a name, but introduces us to a host of vivid voices in his Hindu neighborhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad on the eve of World War II. In the tradition of Dubliners or Winesburg, Ohio, Naipaul chronicles their biggest dreams and deepest disappointments with the vast sweep of a novelist and the careful detail of a miniaturist.
8. Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston - I’m not sure this bestseller qualifies as “under-read,” but it’s been a few years and I wanted to include it here for the boldness and enduring charm of its heroines, who are strong and watchful, wild and cerebral, all at the same time. Too smart to buy into the mystique of the strong silent Marlboro man, but too human to be altogether above a good romantic ride into the sunset, these women speak to anyone who’s felt an inner tug-of-war between wanting to be free and needing to be close.
9. In the Penny Arcade by Steven Millhauser - To me, Millhauser’s stories resemble no other writer’s but instead the meticulous, intricate work of the clockmakers, puppeteers, and craftsmen who populate them. That he can build such tension and anticipation out of the most unexpected details—abandoned pinball machines in the title story, mechanical singing birds in “Cathay”—never fails to shock and delight me. One of these days I’d like to take one of his elaborate creations apart and figure out just what makes these mundane-seeming yet fantastical, strange yet utterly convincing creations tick.
10. Girls At War and Other Stories by Chinua Achebe - These bleak, unflinching tales of bureaucrats and schoolchildren, soldiers and housewives during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s are far from an easy or comfortable read. Yet even as Achebe traces just how quickly political ideals and worthy causes can decay into corruption and opportunism, he maintains a deep empathy for all his flawed characters, not to mention a sometimes gut-wrenching humor, throughout each story. “Let no one be fooled by our writing in English, for we intend to do untold things with it,” he famously declared of Anglophone African writers like himself, and so here he does.