The quality of the short fiction we read in 2007 ran particularly deep, and that made it especially difficult to choose just three books as finalists for The Story Prize. It wasn’t easy, either, to boil down the remaining field of 71 books entered for the award to a reasonable size list of other notable books, but here they are, nonetheless—fifteen story collections well worth reading:
Later, at the Bar by Rebecca Barry (Simon & Schuster). Lucy’s Tavern, in an upstate New York town, is the center of the universe for the well-shaded characters in these affecting connected stories that make the reader feel like a regular at the bar well before the book’s end.
Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis (HarperCollins). These skillful stories operate in two modes: keenly observed realistic pieces set mostly in New Hampshire and dark, disturbing fairy-tales that take place near the edge of mythical forests. At the heart of both are family relationships as commonplace and scary as they get.
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The 57 stories in this collection range from a single observation of a few words to a 41-page study of the long and happy lives of two women from very different backgrounds. Davis pushes the bounds of the story in several directions with mind-blowing work that encompasses jokes, poetry, philosophy, Zen koans, and documentary films.
The Animal Girl by John Fulton (Louisiana State University Press). The big themes of art—love and death—are in full display in these five long, absorbing stories that present ordinary people simultaneously in the throes of helplessness and hopefulness.
Human Resources by Josh Goldfaden (Tin House). Ironic anthropology might be the best way to describe stories that recount situations as varied as an overly sexualized writers’ tour through Europe, a nature photographer who after retirement takes to stalking his neighbors, and an anachronistic band of contemporary pirates.
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (William Morrow). Despite the title, these bold tales actually bring horror into the 21st century, with stories of ghosts, transformation, abduction, and loss. They can be as touching as a tale of friendship between a real boy and an inflatable boy or as hair-raising as a serial killer’s basement dungeon.
Teach the Free Man by Peter Nathaniel Malae (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press). Inmates, their families, parolees, and prison workers are the subjects of this gritty, compelling collection that reveals a parallel world most readers are fortunate to have avoided encountering. It puts a human face on violence, hardship, and suffering in the name of justice, making them that much harder to ignore.
Right Livelihoods by Rick Moody (Little Brown). In a sense, each of these three novellas is a mystery. A retired blue-blood with a drinking problem believes his coastal island is the staging ground for a terrorist invasion of America. A young woman who works in an office tries to figure out which coworker is leaving the nasty notes in the suggestions box she administers. And a freelance reporter in New York City, after a dirty bomb has wiped out most of Manhattan, pursues the origins of a drug that keeps changing the nature of its own origins in a narrative that bends back on itself like a Möbius strip.
Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf Press). Like the author’s excellent 2006 collection, The Lost Language of Elk, these stories are primarily set in the high desert of Central Oregon, a bleak region that, in the brilliant title story, sends more than its share of men to fight in Iraq, leaving sons behind to fend for themselves. Hunting and guns are an everyday part of life, and the forces of nature are often overpowering in these stories in which everything is at stake.
Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash (Picador). The Appalachian Mountains is the setting of this beautifully crafted collection that begins and ends with a fish and spans several generations in an isolated region with characters as craggy as the landscape.
Twin Study by Stacey Richter (Counterpoint). Adult twins who change places as if they were still in grade school, an infestation of cavemen in a suburban community, and a girl whose rock star mother takes her out for lunch and behaves badly at the restaurant are just a few of the original situations that occur in these bold stories.
The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin). Three novellas set in India, linked through characters that all stay in the same hotel suite at different times, depict ugly Americans who often end up on the wrong side of clashing cultures. But the most vivid character of all is India itself, a rising economic power with one foot in the present and one planted firmly in the past.
Throw Like a Girl by Jean Thompson (Simon & Schuster). These twelve distinctive, suprising, funny, and shrewdly observed stories focus on women who are beautifully flawed and utterly human. Each one leaves you feeling like you’ve entered into a relationship with someone you don’t know whether to throttle or embrace.
Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín (Scribner). The opening paragraph of this collection establish a masterful authorial voice that never lets up in these nine forceful stories about mothers and sons set in the author’s native Ireland.
It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature by Diane Williams (FC2). You have to slow down to read every word of the forty-one stories and one novella in this collection. Each line manages to be powerfully disorienting and erotically charged, spare and ornate, logical and absurd all at the same time.