5 Must-Read Short-Story Collections

In honor of National Short Story Month, Jane Ciabattari picks a few she’s read recently that surprised, moved, and delighted her—and ones you should seek out.

05.30.10 7:40 PM ET

Short stories are self-contained universes, transporting us instantly to imagined other worlds, moving and surprising us. Short stories are perfect for snap reading during downtime at the computer, the inevitable lag time at the airport, that brief moment before bedtime, at the gym. You can complete a collection over a long weekend. Individual short stories and collections are easily portable in all formats (print, ebook reader, smartphone, iPad). Here are five wondrously accomplished new collections to read during National Short Story Month.

A Taste of Honey by Jabari Asim. Broadway. 224 p. $9.36

A Taste of Honey
By Jabari Asim

This first collection from cultural critic Jabari Asim ( Why Obama Matters and The N Word) is a clear-eyed, warm-hearted, often humorous portrait of a sometimes tough time gone by. The 16 linked stories are set in Gateway, a Midwestern city not unlike Asim’s hometown of St. Louis. Four stories are narrated by Crispus Jones, a charmer barely old enough to cross the street by himself. The youngest of three boys, Crisp is sometimes humiliated (his brother Shomberg, 12, is a particular tease), but he gets revenge in his dreams: “I undid the day’s disasters and rewrote them to suit my most fervent desires. I had control. Everyone listened to me, and there was no end to my handsomeness…”

Asim draws us close to the tightly knit Jones family, their friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, the newly radical young “Warriors of Freedom,” and the police in the months from the hot foreboding summer of 1967 to the climactic moments of “urban unrest” after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968. As Asim highlights individual dreams and disappointments, near misses and triumphs, he’s always attuned to the sting of racism and the balm of tenderness and joy that comes from being with the ones we love.

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black. Random House. 288 p. $16.32

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
By Robin Black

The opening lines in the title story in Robin Black’s first collection show how daring a storyteller she is: “If I loved you, I would tell you this: I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer. And that is why you should be kind to me. I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer that has spread into my liver and my bones and that now I understand there is no hope.”

This begins one woman’s response to a letter from a new neighbor who has resurveyed the land and is building a six-foot wood fence that will keep her from opening her car door in the garage and will separate from her yard the hemlocks she has tended for 16 years. Black orchestrates her outburst of neighborly frustration brilliantly.

In 10 stories, Black ranges from the voice of a 10-year-old who develops a bond with a new classmate who was kidnapped in Italy at 3, to a 70-year-old portrait painter who finds her enthusiasm flagging, to a philandering husband whose only daughter, blinded in a childhood accident, binds him to his past. Black’s assurance and command are matched throughout by the subtlety with which she builds intricate layers of emotional residue and follows the circuitous pathways of memory.

Further Adventures in the Restless Universe by Dawn Raffel. Dzanc Books. 120 p. $10.17

Further Adventures in the Restless Universe
By Dawn Raffel

The 21 stories in Raffel’s slim second collection (after In the Year of Long Division and the novel Carrying the Body) reflect the disconnects, interruptions, and riddles in a contemporary woman’s hectic life.

Raffel nails the age-old struggle between a mother and adult daughter as they make their way awkwardly through a brief getaway, and the equally complex mix of responsibility and fierce love a mother feels while tending her 7-year-old son. In the brave and touching story “The Air and its Relatives,” a distant father’s closeness to his daughter comes through reading together—a physics text called The Restless Universe—and patiently teaching her to drive.

The opening one-pager (“Near Taurus”) encapsulates what might have been between a boy and girl who have gone to the reservoir to gaze at the stars. “He died, that boy. Light years! And here I am: a mother, witness, raiser of a boy.” The final story, “Beyond All Blessing and Song, Praise and Consolation,” titled for a line in the mourner’s Kaddish, distills sadness into an ending both poetic and pure.

Alone With You by Marisa Silver. Simon & Schuster. 164 p. $14.96

Alone With You
by Marisa Silver

Former screenwriter/director Marisa Silver published her first short story in The New Yorker’s first “Debut Fiction” issue in 2001. She followed up with a collection, Babe in Paradise, and two novels, No Direction Home and The God of War, all set in Southern California and following families dealing with abandonment, economic struggles, and separation. Her new collection (eight stories, three first published in The New Yorker) showcases her uncanny ability to tap into the unsettled nature of our times.

In “Temps,” an Oklahoma transplant rooming with another temp worker in a loft in L.A. finds herself in a love triangle that happens almost at random. In the O. Henry Award-winning “The Visitor,” a VA hospital nurse’s aide acts out a vicious empathy in working a triple amputee. Other characters who find themselves in extremis—dying of cancer, recovering from suicidal depression, adjusting to life after emergency bypass surgery—somehow find the confidence to move forward into uncertainty. As the 37-year-old in “Leap” whose heart surgery changed her life puts it, “Assumptions that the earth would be there to meet her foot when she put it down, or that her body would remain upright without her expressly willing it were no longer certain, and she found herself hesitating more than she used to, as though to give the world a chance to announce its true intentions.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique. Graywolf Press. 240 p. $10.20

How to Escape from a Leper Colony
By Tiphanie Yanique

Tiphanie Yanique’s ravishing and bold first collection, set mostly in the Caribbean, invokes a chorus of distinctive voices and keeps up a narrative pace so intriguing and suspenseful you listen eagerly for the next unfolding of the tale.

In the title story, a 14 year old is sent to a leper colony on an island off the coast of Trinidad in 1939; her secret meetings with an older boy named Lazaro ignite a haunting disaster. The recurring image of a burning church hovers over “The Saving Work,” which revolves around two white American women married to black island men. The women’s hatred grows as they prepare for their children to be married. “Between Deirdre and Violet there is more than a fire,” Yanique writes. “There is something more destructive. It is something like history and the future converted into flesh. They have children between them. And now they have their similar histories and their common futures like a leash from one to another.”

Yanique’s storytelling virtuosity is at its peak in the longer stories in which she fluidly juggles multiple viewpoints. “The Bridge Stories” begins with the parable of a man who makes tiny decorative bridges. He is convinced by his family to build a real bridge “stretching from Guyana—the place in the world most south—to Miami, the place in the world most north.” On the day it opens, the bridge falls apart.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.