Electric Literature’s 25 Best Story Collections of 2014
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Year-end lists are always subjective and incomplete, but they are especially tricky for books. A dedicated film critic can watch every wide release film and a theater critic can go to most every play, but the book critic is faced with an insurmountable mountain of books each year. The sheer number of books is inspiring as a reader, but it can make “best of” lists laughably subjective when the critic has only read a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of books published each year.
With that in mind, I decided to crowd source Electric Literature’s year-end lists. On Tuesday, we published our 25 Best Novels of 2014. Today, we are publishing our 25 favorite story collections. To get the list, I asked sixteen Electric Literature contributors and friends to pick their favorite collection published in 2014 to write about, and then asked them to send me a short list of other collections they loved. The books that got the most mentions have been included with everyone’s top picks. Our hope was to have an eclectic list of books that included more than just the obvious names, and I think you will find at least a few books here that you hadn’t heard of. Our list also includes two collections of prose poems and one collection of comic stories. Keeping in mind that if I’d asked a different set of writers and critics we would have a different list, here are the definite 100% objective best story collections of 2014:
Cook’s collection dips and dives between the real and the refreshingly unreal, with a perfect balance of imagination and morbidity. Man V. Nature is a breathtaking standout and perfect introduction to a future literary force of nature.
An intricate, ambitious, and thoroughly devastating collection. This is Hemenway’s debut and it is stunning.
Kyle Minor’s second collection of short fiction abounds with stories that come at life from all sides. Questions are raised of faith, sexuality, and family; they channel the grittiest of realism and feature magnificent surrealism, depending on the occasion. What they share is a haunting quality, and the ability to remain locked on to a reader.
[Read our review of Praying Drunk]
Holt should be a household name. He’s an unbelievably talented prose stylist and inventive writer — see his excellent first short story collection, In the Valley of the Kings. And…he also happens to be a doctor. This collection is a gorgeous, melancholy, thoughtful group of stories loosely based on his time in residency. And if you happen to be — like me — obsessed with work, illness, death, and the body, then you need to put this on your list immediately.
It’s been a really great year for short story collections. I really enjoyed dipping into Snow In May by Kseniya Melnik, The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim, J. Robert Lennon’s See You In Paradise, and Ben Marcus’s Leaving The Sea. One that stood out for me in particular among these very good books is Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J. T. Lichtenstein. Nettel is a wonderful Mexican writer, and each of the stories in this slim collection, published by Seven Stories, takes a wry philosophical look at the relationship between people and the creatures they live with — whether a pair of pet fish or an infestation of cockroaches.
Rivka Galchen’s fictional world, no matter how fantastical, remains our world. Regardless of its walking furniture and time travel paradoxes. Her commitment to a kind of scientific dream logic always delivers me to some true place I’ve never been or imagined. Or as she says in one of her stories: “Surely our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations.” I could say the same of this uncannily beautiful collection.
I’m biased here: in 2012, we published Phil Klay in Recommended Reading, and he just became a 5 Under 35 Honoree and National Book Award Winner. Fortunately, in making lists of the best book of the year, objectivity isn’t top priority. And, in any case, Redeployment isn’t just an important book for 2014 (it focuses on the experiences of Marines in Iraq and how to reconcile a return to civilian life), but it’s also a remarkably written book that handles language, psychology, and narrative reliability in ways that I’ve never seen before.
– Benjamin Samuel, co-founder of Recommended Reading and Program Manager at National Book Foundation
Although a lot of collections these days are said to be “beyond genre,” Julia Elliot’s stories truly are — I can’t think of anyone they wouldn’t appeal to. By turns terrifying, anxious, delicate and fantastic, Elliott has a Bowie-esque range (and sometimes similar subject matter). Free of the irony that can spoil a good tale of killer dogs, robotic grandmas or recreational brain surgery, Elliot, more than anyone else writing today, is the heir to the bedroom kingdoms and true-to-life fairy tales of Angela Carter, Barry Hannah and Ballard.
– JW McCormack, a writer, editor, and teacher
I grew up with this idea that there was always going to be an abundance of great Jewish fiction out there since I came of age in the shadow of all the Roths, Bellows, Ozicks, etc. And yes, there are plenty of great Jewish writers, from Michael Chabon to Jami Attenberg, who give us books with unforgettable Jewish characters, and very Jewish problems. But an entire collection? That would seem tough, like everything has been done before and getting a handful of original tales would be nearly impossible. But not for Antopol. This is a book filled with Jewish characters and stories, sure, but anybody from any walk of life will find the greatest of pleasures in its reading.
Brief, imaginative, and wonderfully subversive, Fullblood Arabian is Syrian writer Osama Alomar’s first collection of very short stories and parables to appear in English. These are stories in which a clock on the wall might enviously regard a bucket in the sink as a rival clock, stories in which we might be asked to reimagine the act of applause — from the hand’s point of view. Drawing from influences such as Khalil Gibran, Aesop, and Kafka — and championed by America’s resident short-prose master Lydia Davis — Alomar takes aim at the absurdities of political and social status quos, joyously upending them with humor, wit, and élan in stories as short as a single sentence.
Read Shelly Oria’ debut short story collection if only because her dialogue is either scarily reminiscent of your own life, or, at turns, better than real life.
– Ryan Britt, author of the forthcoming book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: A New Geek Manifesto
In a year chock full of gorgeous story collections, one that stood out for me was, gasp, illustrated. (Which is perhaps less shocking given Roz Chast’s inclusion on the National Book Awards short list this year.) Eleanor Davis reminds us in her introduction that How To Be Happy is not about how to be happy. Instead these deeply imaginative and beautifully rendered stories show us the quiet struggles (and loveliness) of the everyday, no matter how wild the premise of the story. Each of the stories included here is entirely its own — moving from a lonely man’s failed attempt to create a present-day utopia, the simple beauty of a teenage summer love affair or a relationship failing, to an exploration of a dystopian future. Davis’ voice is entirely original, her range exceptionally broad, her artwork stunning and flexible, and her storytelling elegant and moving.
Not much to say about Flings that I haven’t already declaimed from a barstool throne: This book is Da Bomb! But it’s also a bomb, a small explosive device that will destroy you if you get too close. I dare anyone to tell me your heart’s still in tact after reading “Adon Olam”, a modern tale of drugs, Jewish summer camp, and bromance gone bad that sucker-punches at the end with its deep emotional resonance. I dare anyone to tell me you didn’t explode with laughter after reading the mushroom-suit monologue that opens “Sungold”. I dare anyone to finish this book and not be blown away.
[Read our review of Flings]
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for “Watching Mysteries With My Mother,” the story that opened Recommended Reading over two years ago. “I don’t think my mother will die today,” it begins, and by the story’s conclusion the underlying fear of that statement has been thoroughly excavated. I like that word, “excavated,” to describe Marcus’ writing, because many of his stories have a burrowing quality, the way they lodge themselves in the base of your brain and continue to work. Other tremendous stories in the collection include “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” about teaching writing on a cruise ship, and “What Have You Done?”, about the time-travel that is returning to childhood hometowns.
We need to have a better conversation about race and I want Claudia Rankine at the head of the table. I want her to read us the stories and poems in Citizen, with its micro-aggressions, its pain, its wisdom, and its invitation to empathy and the right anger. This book is powerful and unsettling. I’ve read it three times and I think everyone in the country should too and then we should have that conversation.
Written in a gonzo-style cadence which mixes prose poetry with outlaw confession, Luke B. Goebel’s stunning debut, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, just may be the irascible yet heartfelt contemporary of Hunter S. Thompson’s Songs of The Doomed. As Goebel’s teacher — Gordon Lish — once said, the role of fiction is “To displace the other, yes. […] Delusion, the will, yes. Project your voice louder than the other, sure. Have the loudest voice. Wasn’t that the title of Grace Paley’s story? ‘The Loudest Voice’?” Goebel’s voice in 14 Stories is not only loud, it is in turns brave and endearing and self-critical. It reminds us that indeed the sentence need not be a “lonely place” — and recalls many masters of the form. I’m thinking here of Mark Richard (his story “Strays” from his collection The Ice At the Bottom of the World.) And of course I’m thinking too of writers like Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. What I admire most about Goebel’s work as a piece of fiction is its attention to the story as an organic body — a rhythmic, fractured, irreverent and yet irretrievably whole vessel.
– Ann DeWitt, writer, critic and essayist
Karate Chop is a slim little knife of a book, and the collection that has stayed with me the most this year. Nors’s stories are compacted gems that don’t try to hide the inclusions of life. As I said in an earlier list, “The fifteen short stories are realist stories, but realist in the bent way of Diane Williams, Lish-edited Raymond Carver, or Amy Hempel. Nors keeps readers on their toes and isn’t afraid to be a bit nasty with her characters. Highly recommended for fans of very short, minimalist fiction.”
NOTE: the following novels received the most votes from the panelists.
Stuart Dybek is a writer’s writer, so no surprise his latest collection of gorgeous stories made our list. Donna Seaman at the Chicago Tribune said, “Dybek summons up the wonder of the unexpected and the improbable, he achieves a low-key form of magical realism that places him in a constellation of writers that includes Joyce in ‘The Dubliners,’ Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Marquez and Chicago’s own Leon Forrest.” -LM
This is why I read Lorrie Moore: “If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really absolutely alone when you were dead, why ‘learn to be alone’ in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand.” That piece of depressive wisdom is from “Thank You for Having Me,” the story that anchors Bark, Lorrie Moore’s first collection of new stories in 16 years. If you followed her work during that time in places like The Paris Review, Granta, and The New Yorker, the stories found in Bark are old friends, which is also how I often think of Moore’s characters. Invigorating and enraging, with quick tongues and slow hearts, pro-nuke pacifists, selfish do-gooders, over-indulgers, poor wedding guests, and mortally offended by rat-kings. For new readers and for old fans, Bark was definitely worth the wait. — HM
[Read our review of Bark]
The mind of J. Robert Lennon holds a seemingly endless supply of extraordinary fiction, full of darkness, magic, and intelligence. “Hibachi,” which originally appeared in the fifth issue of Electric Literature’s now retired quarterly anthology, “unleashes the unexpected cathartic power of a hibachi grill on a paralyzed marriage.” “A Stormy Evening at the Buck Snort Restaurant,” which originally appeared in A Public Space, takes what might have been an innocuous diner, and makes it the center of the terrifying universe. Graywolf Press continues to publish excellent short story collections, and See You In Paradise is yet another feather in their festooned cap. — HM
Jac Jemc’s follow-up to her PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize finalist debut novel has been called “an emotional, catastrophe-strewn story collection” by the Chicago Tribune and “bright, sharp, mysterious gifts, designed to enchant and unsettle” by author Laura van den Berg. -LM
Adam Wilson’s shot stories are easily some of the funniest and most heartfelt around. Wilson was called “one of our best young writers” by Flavorwire and The New York Times Book Review said, “The buoyant comedy and insight of Wilson’s prose carries these stories farther and farther past taboo, into sensitive and complicated territory.” -LM
[Read a story from Adam Wilson]
David Gordon’s White Tiger on Snow Mountain is named after a behemoth of a short story seething with bondage, chat rooms, impotence, and long jogs along the Westside Highway. Gordon himself is a runner, and other ordinary aspects of the author’s life are also featured, distorted by noir overtones and extraordinary encounters. In “What I Have Been Trying to Do All This Time,” a writer, also named David Gordon, is the subject of an Argentinian grad student’s thesis because he was thanked in the liner notes of a Bad Religion record. The grad student sleeps with him because he was a character in a Rivka Galchen story, seducing him with the line, “Please, I have never met a real fictional character before.” That overlay of extraordinary on ordinary is what makes Gordon’s stories such a pleasure to read; it’s a familiar world, but with more (sexual) possibility. — HM
Elizabeth McCracken’s first story collection in 20 years was called “delightful and destructive, packed with electricity, fascinating to watch unfold from the safe harbor of a comfortable chair” by Salon. The New York Times Book Review said, “Elizabeth McCracken knows how loss can melt reality, forever altering a person’s sense of time” and called Thunderstruck a “restorative, unforgettable collection.” -LM
Antrim’s fifth book is his first story collection, but our panelists agree he’s as brilliant at the short form as he is at the long. Lydia Kiesling at The Millions called it “a landmark, almost cartographic document, showing a profound recalibration of style, voice, and form” and noted that “we should always say yes to genius, yes to that emerald light in the air.” -LM