best-short-stories-2021

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Lily King has been rightly praised for two terrific recent novels, Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. But who knew she was such an exceptional short story writer? Maybe a few readers of Ploughshares or O Magazine, where a couple of the stories gathered in Five Tuesdays in Winter first appeared. But about half of these stories are new. All of them flash with brilliance.

King’s stories are mostly situated in New England in the 1980s, and her characters are often in adolescence, revealed at their moments of emerging into adult life and consciousness. Three tales are about would-be writers whose experiences shape them: a teen girl just beginning to consider writing, a woman in her early 20s trying to figure out her life, and, in the collection’s exhilaratingly surreal final story, “The Man at the Door,” a married mother being confronted about her audacity in thinking she has the right to write.

Lily King shares the New England memories that inspired one of the stories in her first collection.

King places these lynchpin stories at the beginning, middle and end of the collection. But four other stories are from the perspectives of young men. This includes the astonishing “When in Dordogne,” in which a boy’s wealthy and neglectful parents leave their house in the care of two college students for the summer. “As I came with the house, these two college boys were obliged to take care of me, too,” the son observes sardonically. A disaster in the making, right? As it turns out, no. The college boys are funny, sensitive and caring. The story is a soulful exploration of male sensitivity and love.

The very satisfying title story is about the fairly rigid owner of a used bookstore, his teenage daughter and the bookstore’s sole employee, who agrees to teach Spanish to her boss’s daughter. Over five Tuesdays, a tentative and then quite wonderful relationship develops among the three of them.

King’s observations are both sharp and generous. Five Tuesdays in Winter is a collection worth dipping into again and again.

King's sharp and generous observations make for a story collection worth dipping into again and again.
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Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s intricate story collection, My Monticello, explores how it feels to be Black or biracial in America. Johnson doesn’t shy away from any topic as she calmly delivers, with too-real certainty, a ruthless kind of truth. 

These six innovative, avant-garde stories showcase Johnson’s ingenuity. In “Control Negro,” a Black professor studies his son from a distance, scientifically examining the young man’s evolving life and comparing it to those of American Caucasian Males (ACMs). In “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” a young biracial woman yearns to break free of her roots by changing her name and leaving home. And in the eponymous novella, a group of neighbors from Charlottesville, Virginia, flee to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello after their neighborhood is destroyed by white terrorists. 

Johnson plots each piece delicately, arranging them so that the subtleties shine through. The stories range in content and in tone—some ironic, some hopeful, some slightly sadistic—but each pulls its own weight, and each feels completely natural alongside the rest of the collection.  Some are written in first person, while others unfold solely through second-person imperatives. Some are in past tense, others in present; some are epistolary, some more traditional. Throughout, Johnson’s one-of-a-kind voice offers a gateway to new perspectives, and necessary ones at that.

Part of the enjoyment in reading My Monticello is gaping at Johnson’s seemingly endless skill in plotting and sentence structure. While the novella is a bit slow-paced at first, and a couple of the stories could have benefited from a more apparent focal point, the collection is full of depth, and there are too many takeaways to count. 

Fans of story collections like The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans will appreciate this fictionalized outlook on America’s present and future. My Monticello is both unprecedented and inimitable, a beautifully thought out collection of elegant craftsmanship.

In her debut collection, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson doesn’t shy away from any topic as she calmly delivers, with too-real certainty, a ruthless kind of truth.
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Jaime Cortez is a celebrated Chicano graphic novelist, visual artist, writer, teacher, performer and LGBTQ rights activist. His collection of short stories, Gordo, reveals that he also possesses the eye of a photographer. Like Diane Arbus or Weegee, Cortez depicts warts-and-all moments of vulnerability precisely, sometimes even harshly, and without sentiment. Unlike Arbus and Weegee, his camera is the printed word, rather than a Nikon or Speed Graphic.

The protagonist of many of these short stories is a young lad nicknamed Gordo who feels confused by the world as he grows into his oversize frame during the 1970s. He lives in the ag-industrial maw of central California, where a person’s horizons are frequently circumscribed by the limited choices available (working in the fields or trundling off to one of the mega food processors that stipple the landscape), particularly if that person’s first (or only) language is Spanish. 

Like many of John Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, the people who inhabit the pages of Gordo are often poor in economic terms but lead richly complex lives. There’s Raymundo, who as a boy is bullied for growing his hair long, and as an adult unexpectedly finds himself in a position to assist a former classmate. Nelson Pardo is an Salvadoran ex-army colonel who hates his janitorial gig at the Jolly Giant vegetable plant. And an accident with a chainsaw reveals Alex’s gender to Gordo, who is shocked by the realization that everybody else already knew.

Cortez is native to this locale, and it shows. He succinctly portrays a largely overlooked California landscape that’s as far removed from the worlds of Silicon Valley and Hollywood as it is from the 14 moons of Neptune. What ultimately draws the reader in, though, is the book’s emotional honesty. Gordo is no smarty-pants, wise-beyond-his-years kid; even as he grows up, he’s often puzzled by life’s abundant mysteries. The characters in and around his life exhibit kindness and cruelty in fluid motion. Cortez artfully frames these characters’ daily struggles and captures them in the freeze-frame flash of a master at work.

 

Note: Edited for clarity on 9/20/2021.

As in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the characters in Gordo are often poor in economic terms but lead richly complex lives.

Generations of Cambodian immigrants and their children bring their heritage and culture to America’s melting pot in Afterparties, a bold and incisive collection of short stories by the late writer Anthony Veasna So.

There’s a mesmerizing quality to these nine beautifully brash, interconnected stories filled with feisty, flawed characters living in central California. Each tale touches on themes of history, family, sexuality and identity, topics that are inextricably tied to all cultures. 

In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” Sothy is the Cambodian owner of a donut store, which she’s named Chuck’s because she thought the American-sounding name would attract customers. She is haunted by memories of the concentration camps she survived during the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. However, a strange new source of dread appears in the form of a stranger who bears an unusual resemblance to Sothy’s ex-husband. As Sothy and her two American-born teenage daughters wonder about this stranger, they also come to a new understanding of their own complex identities as Cambodian Americans.

In several stories, So handles sexuality and religion unabashedly to illuminate the paradoxes of life. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” teen narrator Ves reflects on his and his cousin Maly’s explicit sexual adventures amid preparations for the celebration of Maly’s dead mother’s reincarnation. And in “The Monks,” Rithy, who appears as Maly’s boy toy in “Maly, Maly, Maly,” is confined to a temple for a week to ensure his father’s smooth transition into the afterlife, making Rithy’s loyal duty to his unworthy father sound more like he is doing time.

So died in December 2020, leaving behind this collection as an important legacy that challenges stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans. Respecting the challenges of history while simultaneously giving voice to generations, these refreshingly unsterilized stories transcend race, culture and time.

Insightful and energetic, Afterparties’ tales about the complex communion of history and identity will intrigue fans of Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife.

These nine beautifully brash, interconnected stories are filled with feisty, flawed characters living in central California.
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As a Latino reader, I like to keep up with the latest in Latinx literature, but you don’t have to be Latinx to appreciate Variations on the Body by Colombian American author María Ospina, translated by Heather Cleary. Latina identity serves as the foundation for Ospina’s powerful debut collection, and its six stories explore what it means to occupy a body bound by that identity. Each tale tackles a different angle, at turns pondering ownership of the body, how a body is tied to history, and why connection between bodies is so important.

Ospina’s characters are all Colombian women struggling with their bodies, though not with body image but rather the actual experience of living in human form. For example, the protagonist in “Occasion” is a young pregnant woman who’s working as a nanny, and between the needs of the child in her womb and the demands of the child she is paid to care for, the woman barely has any autonomy. Throughout the story, Ospina shifts the narrative’s perspective—sometimes the woman speaks, while other times the child she’s caring for does—to illustrate the precariousness of ownership.

This polyvocality repeats and is rearranged several times throughout the collection. In the first story, “Policarpa,” a former guerrilla fighter is silenced by the editor of her memoir, and in the third story, “Saving Young Ladies,” an isolated young woman projects her desire onto those she doesn’t know. In every story Ospina outdoes herself, and each time the message is profound and vital.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing awareness of overlapping systems of oppression, Variations on the Body is undoubtedly timely as a poignant portrait of people on the margins whose bodies are trapped in space and time. While that may sound like science fiction, Ospina shows how real these experiences are, and she challenges everyone to empathize.

María Ospina outdoes herself in every story of this collection, and each time, the message is profound and vital.
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In fiction, the corporal ecstasy of sexual tension often comes in peaks and waves. That’s not always how it feels in reality, however. In Brandon Taylor’s short story collection, sexual tension acts more like an undertow, lurking to pull its victims down below.

Author Roxane Gay has described the stories in Filthy Animals as “melancholic”—truly the right word for this collection. Taylor’s characters endure rape, sexual abuse, suicide, violence, cancer and familial abandonment while searching for friendship, love, sex or even just respect. Many of his characters are LGBTQ, partially closeted and living in the Midwest, which in many cases amplifies their struggles.

Several of the stories center on three young adults named Lionel, Charles and Sophie. Lionel is a former graduate student who recently tried to take his life. At a party, he meets Charles and Sophie, two dance students who are in an open relationship. The enigmatic and possibly sinister couple is drawn to Lionel’s fragility, and they begin to pull at his threads, trying to unravel him. Taylor’s depiction of the complicated power dynamics in an open relationship calls to mind Luster, Raven Leilani’s brilliant debut novel.

As difficult as the subject matter may be to stomach at times, Filthy Animals is full of beautiful writing. However, since some stories feature the same characters and others do not, the reading experience lacks cohesion. It’s easy to spend too much time trying to find connections where none exist, which can be a frustrating way to engage with a book.

Nevertheless, the characters in Filthy Animals are relatable in ways we may not want to admit to ourselves, especially regarding unmet desire. A reader doesn’t need to share Lionel’s mental health issues and sexual confusion to understand his shame at being truly seen. Fans of Taylor’s work will be fascinated by Filthy Animals, but newcomers should be aware that it’s an intense read.

In Brandon Taylor’s short story collection, sexual tension acts like an undertow, lurking to pull its victims down below.

Marjorie Liu’s haunting collection of short stories, The Tangleroot Palace, is an astonishing foray into fantastical escapism. These are reworkings of older works of short fiction, and together they create both a love letter to Liu's illustrious career and a curious and joy-filled glimpse into the future. Readers who want to be immersed in otherworldly adventures with feminist themes will find a gifted and enchanting guide in Liu.

As readers find themselves gleefully lost in the labyrinthine forest of stories and monsters that Liu has created, certain beloved tropes will ring true. Liu’s love for superheroes is apparent, especially in the tale of lonely geneticist Alexander “Lex Luthor” Lutheran, who fantasizes about being a comic supervillain. Liu consistently returns to themes of found family, freedom from societal expectations and grappling with the good, the bad and the ugly of family legacy to forge one’s own path as a strong hero. Her various reconstructed fairy tales will also be pleasant surprises for those who grew up wondering why princesses never had more agency and why witches were often portrayed in a negative light.

While common motifs develop across these tales, Liu’s versatility within and mastery of multiple fantasy subgenres also shines. In “Sympathy for the Bones,” teenage Clora reluctantly helps her guardian, Old Ruth, create poppets to kill locals on demand; “The Briar and the Rose” and “The Last Dignity of Man” showcase two very different queer love stories; “Call Her Savage” envisions an alternate history in which women are respected and feared in the military and across timelines; and “After the Blood” is a post-pandemic Amish vampire story (talk about words you never expected to see together in a sentence!) that tests a couple’s love and offers hope and light in the face of a ravaged world.

With its vivid characters and relatable themes, The Tangleroot Palace is, frankly, a marvel. Liu is a chameleon of a writer when it comes to settings and world building. From another writer, these various stories might have felt haphazardly cobbled together, but not here. These are all stories of survival and strength, no matter the cost, in which women are joyously celebrated as heroes, warriors, scientists, sorceresses and duelists. On every page of The Tangleroot Palace, women have the power to take their own stories back and rework them in ways that are resilient, powerful and new.

Marjorie Liu’s haunting collection of short stories, The Tangleroot Palace, is an astonishing foray into fantastical escapism.

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A short fiction collection can be an enchanting contradiction. The assorted stories may defy easy classification as they span genres, styles and points of view, and yet they all spring from one writer’s singular voice. Cameroonian American writer Nana Nkweti commands such contradictions in her debut collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells, a cluster of 10 dazzling stories that are as diverse as they are vibrant.

There’s a great deal that unites the collection’s various worlds. Many of the stories address the immigrant experience and the resulting interaction of cultures, but even with that throughline, Nkweti’s tales explore a vast array of human experiences. Whether she’s probing the often shallow capitalist recesses of the adoption experience in “It Takes a Village Some Say” and the juxtaposition of faith traditions in “The Devil Is a Liar,” or exploring zombie outbreaks in “It Just Kills You Inside” and water spirits in the mythic romance “The Living Infinite,” Nkweti ensures that no two tales are alike, regardless of their thematic connective tissue.

Even beyond the variety of subject matter, Nkweti displays her virtuosity and elasticity through her prose. With the ease of a master, she shifts between points of view, between American and African slang, and between the straightforward and the avant-garde. Each story offers not only a different subject but also a different approach, a new plan of narrative attack to conquer each emotional landscape. The result is an intense, sweeping and altogether stunning reading experience.

With the ease of a master, Nana Nkweti shifts between points of view, between American and African slang, and between the straightforward and the avant-garde.

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