Short Story Recommendations

I still think of myself as a person learning to appreciate fiction.  I’ve been reading fiction actively for about seven years, reading more fiction than non-fiction as I go along.  For the last couple years I’ve been getting more into short story collections.  They are both rewarding and brief.

Here are a few recommendations, in case you’re looking for something good to read, alphabetized by author name.

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  This collection is full of grace and care, and it describes well the things that bind people.  I read it a while ago.  I was thankful to get it after reading both of Chimamanda’s novels, two lyrical works she’s won many praises for.  The stories were just as impressive, just as wonderful, and just as searing.  Reading them made me appreciate language more, made me think better about others and how I look at their lives when they are very different from me.
  • I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black.  I finished reading this collection on a trip to the Boston area.  It was a treat to read, in part, because the author is from that region.  I soaked these stories up.  They were pointed to the heart and they illuminated the varied ways one event can take on significance in people’s lives.  I read it thinking through the great detail and world-building which came along with the fresh plot lines.  I appreciated seeing the cast of characters giving pieces of their lives to me.  Alethea just participated in a blog interview here.  Leslie won a copy of the collection.
  • Vida by Patricia Engel.  I read this collection two years ago, when I put myself on a short story diet for a few months.  I enjoyed entering into the families, neighborhoods, and conversations Engel created.  I felt like I could see and feel and smell and hear the conversations in her dialogue, like I could sit in front of the scenes she wrote, meeting the men and women on those pages like they were friends and enemies.  The collection was refreshing and stood up and sang right with some of the other stuff I thumbed through around that time.  I’m still waiting for the author to publish more stuff.  I should email her and tell her.
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans.  This delightful collection came to me at the recommendations of writers and bloggers all over the place back when it was first published.  I was glad to get my hands on it and glad to read each story.  The author depicted the youth and young adults with grace, care, specificity and humor.  She dealt with issues of identity and race and love.  When I think about the stories, I smile.  I’ll probably be re-reading them soon.
  • Gumbo edited by E. Lynn Harris and Marita Golden.  This is a feast that I’m still sniffing, biting and savoring.  It is more than a collection; it’s a massive tribute to two writers (Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Wright) and an undertaking of support for the writing foundation in their name which Marita Golden started.  I’m about a fourth of the way through the 800 page collection.  I’ll be reading it for years, but it will be responsible for the love and appreciation I continue to nurture for black writers and all writers.  This collection is a guide for me, a lifesaver for me, a friend I can call when I can’t sleep or write or when I don’t feel like doing either.
  • Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.  I enjoyed both collections I’ve read by this author, but I came to Lost first.  It was also shorter than the second collection, which is why I’m commending it.  Most readers who are new to short stories look for reasons not to take them on.  Length can be a reason.  But this collection and the other work I’ve read by Edward Jones is still teaching me how to be a patient, careful reader.  His work teaches me how to enjoy a created world on a page.  He is a writer the world needs to read with love and open ears.
  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumphi Lahiri.  I read this book because a coworker told me I should.  That coworker maintains a good place in my mind because of that recommendation.  I may be setting up evaluations of people where I determine how much I like them based upon what they tell me to read.  The people, places, and environments I read in Lahiri’s collection were enticing and probing and edifying.  More than anything, I think this collection sparked my imagination, made me want to write better, made me want to read with love and write with depth.  Other books have pulled that same desire from me, but I remember feeling that while reading this.
  • I Got Somebody in Staunton by William Henry Lewis.  This is collection is a tutor for me right now.  I’ve read through it, both slowly and quickly because the pages were a combination of entertaining and elegant.  Lewis did a great job to build characters who stick with you, incorporating humor and depth and color and breath.  I think these stories are truly worth lingering over, spending time with, even though reading them doesn’t require time commitments.  That’s the mark of a good story to me.
  • Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson.  If there’s one book of short stories I’d love to get as a gift, it would be this one.  I already read it, but I rented it from the library when I did.  I haven’t bought it yet because I haven’t seen it in the bookstore.  It’s dated, but it’s worth reading and re-reading.  It’s worth owning.  I’d trade ten books on my shelf for this one if I had to.  I’m coming close to saying it’s one of the best books I’ve read.  I just don’t want to appear presumptuous in saying so.  The author won a Pulitzer for his work, and the pages still speak to readers.  I think you should read this book at the library and then go to your closest bookstore and do what I haven’t–demand it right away.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer.  I read this collection a few years ago, and I still recall how well Packer introduced me to her characters, to their worlds particularly as women, and to an empathy that I’m steadily cultivating in my life.  I think of her stories as an education in fiction and in living.  This collection should be read and read again.  Her writing is precise and picturesque and spicy.

What short story collections would you recommend?

Chocolates, Valentines, and Child Slaves

I read an article the other day summarizing how many people in advance of February 14–a holiday I’ve boycotted for other reasons–are encouraging people to write and email executives of chocolate candy companies to tell them that there shouldn’t be child labor or forced labor in their chocolate.  Have you thought about where your chocolate or your candy comes from? 

I love chocolate.  I love children.  But this article talks about how children are being trafficked for chocolate.  Children living in towns all over West Africa, girls and boys I’ll never meet.  I learned that 2/3 of the world’s chocolate comes from the cocoa trade on the Ivory Coast.  The question comes.  How much do I like chocolate?

To be honest, I don’t like chocolate candy.  I prefer chocolate desserts, baked goods, stuff that comes out of an oven.  But I can’t grant myself an indulgence on the matter too easily. 

Thanks to some good people at my church, I’ve been learning about the modern ways people are being enslaved, particularly children being forced into sex work across the world and in my own city.  Incidentally, Patricia Engel has a searching, well-written short story with a character who deals with this in her collection, Vida.  I seem to remember the incomparable ZZ Packer having a relevant story in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Kids are being sold, sometimes by their families, sometimes by other pimps, so that their bodies are being given to someone else.  “Given” is the wrong word.  They are being offered.  They are pushed.  Exploited.  They are molested in the act of such flagrant offerings, pushes, and exploitations.  They are being forced to clean houses, to raise other children, and to perform sexual acts on the men and women who “bought” them.

Sex trafficking is one the newest ways of enslaving, though it’s not so new.  Unfortunately people aren’t connecting the purposeful enslavement of small children with holidays like Valentine’s Day or with their favorite candies.  Perhaps it’s not altogether appropriate to suggest a connection.  But the truth is that there are boys and girls and unnamed women and men working themselves haggard so that the shiny bar and that glitzy wrapping with the dark chocolate you love can sit on the shelf at the store.  When you buy that bar, when you munch into that candy, when you talk about love, or when you ask that special person to be your valentine, remember that children who can’t remember what love is, quite literally, had a hand in that chocolate.