Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top 10 Tuesday: Short Story Collections

John Barth, author of Lost in the Funhouse, once said that writers tend to fall into one of two categories: sprinters and marathon runners, meaning they tend to excel at short stories or novels. Ever since I first read this description, I have identified strongly with it because, like Barth, I rarely find myself wanting to sprint (write a short story). Most stories that I'm inspired to write come to me as fully fledged novels. However, just because I don't tend to write short stories doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading them. I recently was reminded of a short story collection I read four years back and was inspired to track down a copy to read again. In that spirit, I'm listing out my Top 10 Short Story Collections. They are, in roughly ascending order:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

This loosely connected collection of stories deals with the Native American/Amerindian/First Nations experience in modern America. It's a skillful and fascinating read that digs into the human condition. Alexie later adapted it into a film titled Smoke Signals that draws together elements from various stories into a single narrative. I highly recommend viewing it after you've read the book.

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges was one of the first authors I read who bent the world with his words and invited me to follow him. He doesn't always explain what he's doing, and he rarely follows the expected course for a story. He writes metafiction, magical realism, and surrealistic fiction. He asks you to think about what you're reading while you read it, not just after. He's not for everyone, but everyone should at least read something of his.

Firebirds, edited by Sharyn November

The first of three anthologies featuring many of the big names in modern fantasy, Firebirds gave me hope for multi-author anthologies. It's one of two on this list, which should tell you how often I find and enjoy them. I usually find multi-author anthologies uneven in skill, style, and content, but Firebirds is more evenly written. It features a number of authors I was familiar with before reading it, but it also introduced me to other authors like Sherwood Smith that I had not read before.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

One of a wave of newer authors who write magical realism or literary fantasy (or something that defies genre), Bender is an author who often takes a familiar concept (a fairy story, a small town rivalry) and turns it on its head. She was one of my inspirations when I was in graduate school because she demonstrated that you could write fantastic literature and not be bogged down by genre limitations.

After the King, edited by Martin H. Greenberg

The other multi-author book on this list, After the King is subtitled "Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien." While that was likely Greenberg's intention, I think it's safer to say the stories in this anthology are driven by Tolkien's influence on fantasy fiction overall rather than any desire by the authors to emulate his storytelling and worldview. That said, this collection has some surprising stories that played with familiar tropes in new ways.

Across the Wall and To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix

Okay, this entry is two books. That's because I loved both of Garth Nix's collections equally. They each feature a novella set in his Old Kingdom/Abhorsen world that explores the story and the world in new ways. Both feature a wide array of stories that deal with Arthurian themes, vampires, and alternate universes. (Across the Wall has two takes on the Merlin/Nimue story that thrilled this Merlin-loving Arthurian.) Whether you're an old Nix fan or someone new to his works, you'll probably enjoy these.

Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe

This is the collection I mentioned in the intro. Wolfe is very much like Borges in that he tends to expect the reader to work at their reading. I'll be honest; I didn't care for Wolfe's fiction the first time I read him. I started with his Book of the Long Sun (well, the first half) and wasn't prepared for his extravagant use of unreliable narrators and his dense, multi-layered storytelling. But I picked this collection up after being encouraged to try his short fiction, and I was not disappointed. The influence of writers like Borges was easier to spot, and I enjoyed trying to figure out each story. I had a note about one of them in my question-a-day journal, which is what set me on the trail of finding the book again.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is one of my writing heroes. He writes lyrically no matter what he puts his mind to, and this is one of his better collections. The stories are loosely connected in a narrative about Earth's attempts to colonize Mars, and the penultimate story in the collection is one of my favorite short stories of all time, "There Will Come Soft Rains."

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

This collection pulls together ten stories that are either fairytales retold or inspired by fairytales. The title story retells "Bluebeard" with the slight revision of the main character's mother coming to her rescue in place of her brothers. It also features multiple retellings of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Little Red Riding Hood" that take more modern views on the tales. All in all, this was an intriguing collection.

Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint's writing always reminds me of autumn and the wanderlust I experience during that time of year. This collection gathers many of his earliest stories set in the fictional town of Newford, the setting for a number of his novels about the intersection of magic and mundanity. It's a solid collection that features a few recurring characters but isn't really concerned with telling a larger story as much as it is with exploring this town where fairies and horrors coexist with humanity.

Honorable Mentions:

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
Skin by Roald Dahl

What are some of your favorite story collections?

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