As always, it was very difficult to narrow our choices for finalists down to only three books. We read quite a few exceptional collections, many of which would have made excellent finalists for The Story Prize. Here then are fourteen other notable books, with a look at one story that exemplifies what’s best about each.
A Better Angel by Chris Adrian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Children, sickness, death, hospitals, souls, visions, and angels intersect in extraordinary ways in these nine stories by a writer who is also a physician and a divinity student. In “The Sum of Our Parts,” the body of a woman named Beatrice lies unconscious in a hospital bed after a failed suicide attempt as she awaits a life-saving transplant she doesn’t really want. Her disembodied spirit floats about and observes the doctors, nurses, and lab technicians in the hospital, whose thoughts and feelings she can read as clearly as their actions. Beatrice’s watchful eye reveals the workaday routines of the hospital and intersecting lines of attraction between various characters, including her fondness for one of the technicians and another’s infatuation with her--“the jumper,” as she is known among the hospital staff.
Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan (Little, Brown)
Any of the six stories in this collection set in Africa is enough to break a reader’s heart. Two are novella length, including a tour de force, “Luxurious Hearses,” that takes place on a crowded bus waiting to carry refugees away from the inland Muslim region of Nigeria south to the Christian part of the country along the coast. The passengers, who represent different factions within the country and the continent, include: a supercilious tribal chief, a crazed mercenary, a passenger sick with malaria, two insolent young women (each from a different tribe), and a militant Christian. We see them all through the eyes of a Muslim boy so devout he voluntarily submitted to having his hand cut off as a punishment for a minor theft. To his surprise, the boy finds himself fleeing the sectarian violence after his friends turned on him for having a Christian father. Dressed in secular clothes, and calling himself Gabriel rather than Jabril, he keeps his wrist buried in his pocket afraid to reveal himself to the other passengers.
The Development by John Barth (Houghton Mifflin)
These stories, in typical Barth fashion, turn storytelling on its head. But they also paint a fond and detailed portrait of a development called Heron Bay Estates on Maryland’s eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, whose residents are mostly affluent, white retirees. In “Toga Party,” a grieving widower seizes a machete that’s part of a friend’s costume (serving as a Moroccan dagger) and drives it into his chest, badly injuring himself and disrupting the revelry. This action indirectly leads an aging couple to make a surprising choice. Within the story we encounter several characters who take center stage in other stories and see the social stratification within the community.
The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon)
Four of the 13 stories in his collection are labeled as fables. Another is a “choose-your-own-adventure” story that allows the reader to flip to different sections based on a dichotomy of choices. The first story, “A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets,” sets the tone for the entire collection. It concerns a mute man living in a city of song who takes to breeding parakeets and showing up at social occasions to give them as gifts to the townspeople. It’s simple, beautifully written, and ultimately profound and moving.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (Harcourt)
A book of connected stories about a young middle school teacher at a private school may not sound inherently interesting, but Sarah Shun-line Bynum spins such straw into gold in these eight perfectly crafted stories, each with a simple, single-word title. “Accomplice,” weaves together an ingenious plot that includes: Ms. Hempel assigning This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s powerful and raw memoir, to her class despite (or perhaps because of) the rough language; a writing exercise that has her students impersonating her and writing anecdotal reports to their parents about themselves; and the young teacher recalling speaking at a memorial service for her father a year earlier. All of these strands come together in a story that—like this book—transcends its premise and adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford (HarperCollins)
This paperback collection of sixteen stories demonstrates both Ford’s flair for inventiveness and a keen eye for everyday details that make even some of the more fantastic premises utterly credible and absorbing. “The Night Whiskey” tells the tale of a town in the middle of America and off the beaten path that practices an unusual ritual that binds its citizens together. Every year, eight townspeople are chosen to drink a brew made from a rare black berry. Each becomes thoroughly intoxicated, has a transformative appearance, awakens the next morning in the branches of a tree, and is collected by a team of harvesters who must prod the celebrants with long poles and catch them in the back of a mattress-lined truck. Like any stimulant, the fermented juice of the local fruit, turns out to have its share of risks as well as its rewards.
I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass (Pantheon)
This novel-in-stories traces the evolving, often contentious relationship between two adult sisters over the course of twenty-five years. The older sister, Louisa, is introspective, artistic, deliberate, and romantic. The younger sister, Clementine, is confident, outgoing, reckless, and charismatic. “Now Is Not the Time,” set in 1983, finds 27-year-old Louisa, at that point a ceramicist and editor for an art magazine, house sitting for the summer in a wealthy Connecticut town on the Long Island Sound. After a month of solitude, Louisa hears from a man she is interested in, who says he’d like to visit. But on the day he is to arrive for what Louisa hopes will be a romantic dinner, Clementine suddenly comes down from Maine (abandoning an assignment to monitor seals in Labrador) and her longtime boyfriend arrives at the house, a convergence that disrupts not only Louisa’s plans but her hopes for her sister as well.
The Boat by Nam Le (Knopf)
In this debut collection, Le shows assurance and range. Each of the stories is set in a different time and place and focuses on characters as varied as a teenage hit man in Colombia and an aging New York painter. The stories that anchor the collection are those closest to the author’s background and experience, and the most powerful. The title story, the last in the book, follows a young woman escaping from Vietnam in an overcrowded boat, short of food and water. The visceral details convincingly convey the suffering and desperation of the passengers.
Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (Knopf)
Millhauser’s unique brand of allegorical story told in a matter-of-fact style is on prominent display in this collection of thirteen stories. The book is organized into four sections: “Opening Cartoon,” “Vanishing Acts,” “Impossible Architectures,” and “Heretical Histories,” each of which represents one of the book’s overriding obsessions. In “The Room in the Attic” (a “Vanishing Act”), the teenage narrator, David, accompanies a new classmate home and meets the friend’s sister, Isabel, who lives in a darkened room she rarely leaves. Over the course of a summer, despite being unable to see her, David visits Isabel often. They play a game in which he has to identify objects by touch and, over time he finds himself falling in love with a voice in the darkness, but David’s desire to discover what Isabel looks like mirrors his fear of the very same thing.
Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx (Scribner)
In this, Proulx’s third collection of stories set in Wyoming, two broadly comic pieces about the Devil punctuate seven gritty tales of hardscrabble lives in a desolate landscape. “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” set in 1885, concerns a young couple braving formidable elements and difficult circumstances to try to make a go of homesteading in the hope of forging new lives for themselves. Telling details convey the difficulties of such efforts and the incredibly hard, day-to-day work of living hand to mouth. But the story also reveals how the harsh, unbending forces of nature and the heedless, errant ways of men and women can converge with awful results.
Glass Grapes and Other Stories by Martha Ronk (BOA Editions)
This first, full-length collection of stories by poet Ronk focuses inward, keying on observation, perception, and reflection more than plot. The payoff, in the best of these stories, is a keen sense of recognition and shared experience--thoughts a reader may have had but has never seen put into words. “My Son and the Bicycle Wheel,” a short meditation on a mother-son relationship, hinges on the son’s repeated protest that he’s not like the mother and the many ways it is and isn’t true.
The Size of the World by Joan Silber (W.W. Norton)
Though billed as a novel, this book consists of a ring of stories, with an element from one appearing in the next until the last connects back to the first, completing the connection. This form, which Silber forged in Ideas of Heaven (a National Book Award and Story Prize finalist) unfolds, in part, like an intricate puzzle that has the reader searching for connections. While the earlier collection focused on love and spirituality, the spotlight here is on cultural differences and moral dilemmas, as the stories range in locale from the U.S. to Mexico, Sicily, Vietnam, and Thailand. In “Paradise,” a young woman living with her parents in Florida in the 1920s moves to what was then called Siam to join her brother, a tin prospector, after a storm wreaks havoc on her home and family. Far from the sheltered life she knew, the young woman encounters an alien land and culture that changes her perspective on the world.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
The cantankerous title character is at the center of several of these twelve stories set in Maine and a bit player in others. During the course of the book we see Olive, a middle school math teacher, age, lose her beloved husband, and come to terms with a son she’s never completely understood or gotten along with. The opening story, “Pharmacy,” establishes a contrast between Henry Kitteridge, a kindly pharmacist, and his outspoken wife, Olive, as he establishes an attachment to and empathy she can’t comprehend for a plain young girl who assists him in the shop. In introducing a complex character who is often difficult to like, Strout establishes a tension that remains as Olive ages, changes, and remains her curmudgeonly self.
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann (University of Massachusetts Press)
The centerpiece of this collection is a powerful and harrowing novella that absorbs two-thirds of the pages. “Sukkwan Island” describes the ordeal of a boy going to live with his unstable, philandering father on a desolate island in Alaska where they have set the task of living off the land and surviving the harsh winter that looms even at the peak of summer. The boy, Roy, comes to regret his decision to go along with this plan and leave behind his sister and mother, as his father, Jim, increasingly reveals his selfishness, incompetence, and madness. Everything seems to go wrong, leading to a tragic and shocking accident that spins the story into a different and unexpected direction, hinging on a struggle to survive and troubles that only deepen.