Electric Literature’s Best Short Story Collections of 2015
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Each year, Electric Literature polls our staff and regular contributors to pick our favorite books of the year. For fairness sake, books by Electric Literature staff were disqualified (although we encourage you to check out Book Review editor of electricliterature.com Michael Seidlinger’s novel The Strangest and Editor-in-Chief of electricliterature.com Lincoln Michel’s story collection Upright Beasts.) Otherwise, there were no restrictions, and the resulting list of nominated books was long and eclectic. We then collected the books that received the most nominations to make our final lists.
Here is our list of the top 18 short story collections of 2015 in no particular order. These 18 dazzling collections span genres, styles, and countries. If you love short stories as much as we do, you’ll want to put these on your to-read list. (You can also check out our favorite story collections of 2014.)
Our lists of the best novels and nonfiction books will be published later this week.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
The unfathomable uniqueness of Berlin’s style — her voice, in particular — is evident in the adjectives being thrown around. Recent pieces on Berlin and reviews of A Manual for Cleaning Women have described her work as joyful, careworn, dark, bright, funny, sad, vivid, droll, sincere, bawdy, offbeat, fierce, gritty, unfailingly feminine, wickedly wise, emotionally raw, and (my favorite) spiky. […] This was a brilliant woman. Her work transcends funny and shows us the absurd. She doesn’t let her characters hide behind artifice or sensationalism or substances, as much as they might like to. Reading these stories, you get the sense that this is what she wanted for herself: to let go of the bullshit. As a result, the transformation she provides is visceral and startling: We get the sense that Berlin, writing these stories, was often as surprised as you at where they wind up.
– Kelly Luce from our review of A Manual for Cleaning Women
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
If I had the power to write fiction like one contemporary writer, I think I’d probably say Link. She has this uncanny ability to stretch a short story way past the boundaries of both length and possibility without ever crossing the line into fantasy. And no, I don’t mean that in a phantasmagoric, Borgesian kind of way (although you can also see his influence from time to time when reading Link); rather, Link’s work feels fully realized, emerging from her brain as truly and impossibly colored. She’s the sort of writer always able to surprise me, even though I’ve finished all of her other books, even her latest collection, Get in Trouble. Link’s writing has been compared to everything and everybody, from H.P. Lovecraft, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hardboiled noir writers, but stands out in its originality and idiosyncratic loveliness.
– Jason Diamond from his intro to our interview with Kelly Link
The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams
Joy Williams has long been one of America’s greatest living writers, and The Visiting Privilege might have been the best book of the year. Her sentences are as sharp and precise as scalpel incisions, and her ability to turn the real beautifully surreal is second to none. Ben Marcus, in the New York Times Book Review, called her work “one of the most fearless, abyss-embracing literary projects our literature has seen [with] the sort of helpless laughter that erupts when a profound moral project is conducted with such blinding literary craft.” If you have yet to read Williams’s work, there is no better place to start than this book, which collects stories from across her decades of ground-breaking work alongside several new stories.
– Lincoln Michel, Editor-in-Chief, electricliterature.com
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector
It would be enough to call Lispector an original, whose authority is embedded in her abiding strangeness. It’s a strangeness instantly recognizable for anyone who has thoughts rolling around in their head, that they didn’t prompt, and can’t quite account for. That’s the proof of Lispector’s greatness. She crafted stories out of what people can’t get used to, being born for no reason they know, inside a universe whose expansion they have no sensory evidence of, though astronomy and physics attests to it. As long as that feeling of unease lingers, these stories will remain primary, true.
– Kyle Coma-Thompson from our review of The Complete Stories
Refund by Karen E. Bender
What is your life worth? What is any life worth? These are provocative questions that hover over Refund by Karen E. Bender–a Finalist for the National Book Award — a collection of stories that ultimately explores the emotional and economic devastation in the country since 9/11. In “Anything for Money” we see these questions examined through a most modern vehicle: a television game show. The wealthy producer of a show that watches people put themselves in awkward (and often debasing) situations for money finally learns the limits of what his great wealth can buy when his estranged granddaughter, who has recently and unexpectedly come to live with him, becomes in a need of a new heart.
– Dan Smetanka Executive Editor, Counterpoint Press, introducing “Anything for Money” from Refund in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading no. 183
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
As poignant as it is tonally diverse, Fortune Smiles — full of pedophiles, refugees, and digital ghosts — captures the contemporary “realistic” moment as well as any of our most earnest novels and stories, drone strikes and absurdity in all. Like his earlier Emporium and his Pulitzer-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, the stories in Fortune Smiles demand to be torn from the spine and passed lovingly and desperately to strangers. The National Book Awards didn’t screw this one up.
– Jake Zucker, Assistant Editor, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Making Nice by Matt Sumell
“Assholery is similar to masonry, in that both are primarily concerned with putting up walls, shutting others out, hiding things, providing shelter to that which is vulnerable, and protecting that which we can’t bear to see exposed. […] Unlike masons, assholes like to destroy things. And when Matt Sumell punches holes in Alby’s walls, he reveals the troubled heart of a sensitive man. […] Every editor gets into the game to find powerful, original voices and catapult them into the world, but it rarely works out the way you imagine it will. With Sumell it has. Here’s a fierce talent whom the world will soon know.”
– Andy Hunter, Founder and Chairman of Electric Literature, introducing “Punching Jackie” from Making Nice in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading no. 141
Gutshot by Amelia Gray
Gray’s writing frequently leaves us mystified, unable to comprehend the scenes laid out before us with near-sociopathic detachment. In “House Heart,” one of the most twisted stories in Gutshot, a couple kidnap and imprison a young prostitute who “smelled like a bowl of sugar that had been sprayed with a disinfectant.” They bribe her to live within the arterial ventilation system of their house like a human hamster, engaging in a game they call “House Heart.” Aroused by her fear and the thought of her captivity, they make love as she crawls above them, pressed onto her stomach, dehumanized.
Young Skins by Colin Barrett
My town is nowhere you’ve been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.
So begins Colin Barrett’s mesmerizing debut collection of stories, Young Skins, released to near-universal critical acclaim and, in the months between its Irish and US publication, a raft of major literary awards. His brutal, linguistically stylish tales of Sisyphean young men, voluntarily trapped within the confines of the fictional west of Ireland town of Glanbeigh, have elicited high praise from Colum McCann, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin, Sam Lipsyte, and The New York Times.
– Dan Sheehan from our interview with Colin Barrett
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas is an astounding debut, packed with unforgettable characters, vivid landscapes, heartbreak, and spiritual yearning. Writing for The New York Times, Kyle Minor captured the book’s power: “This is a variety of beauty too rare in contemporary literature, a synthesis of material and practice and time and courage and love that must have cost its writer dearly; it’s not easy to be so vulnerable so consistently. Quade attempts, page by page, to give up carefully held secrets, to hold them up to the light so we can get at the truth beneath, the existential truth. Perhaps this is as close as we can get to what is sacred in an age in which so many have otherwise rejected the idea of the sacred.” The National Book Foundation named Valdez Quade one of its 5 Under 35 for 2014.
– Dwyer Murphy, Interviews Editor, electricliterature.com
In the Country by Mia Alvar
Alvar was born in the Philippines and lived there until she was six, after which her family moved to Bahrain and eventually to New York. As a writer, she has the ability to capture that peculiar blend of excitement and pain that comes with uprooting oneself from a specific place or idea. Many of the stories in the book deal with literal border-crossings, but what binds the collection together more broadly is a sense of creative displacement. This is a book in which characters are addicted to dreaming, embellishing, or outright lying, and in one story a young woman even goes so far as to become that most heinous of fraudsters: a fiction writer. “I never could get used to the ‘withdrawal,’” the character admits. “The rude comedown from having lived so much inside a story it felt real.”
There’s a similar comedown to be experienced upon closing In The Country, a vivid debut that deserves to catch the interest of prize committees. I sat down with Alvar earlier this month to discuss it.
– Jonathan Lee from our interview with Mia Alvar
Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce
When I first encountered Thomas Pierce’s writing, it set off quiet and powerful earthquakes in my brain. His stories have the power to bring you immediately into their world, and then turn you upside down, sideways, and transformed. Reading his manuscript for the first time, I felt the tension and anticipation (and greediness) that an editor feels when they know… this is one I must publish. This is a voice that needs to be delighted in, needs to be heard.
Everyone who has read Hall of Small Mammals — the collection which includes this story — has confided in me that, of course, this story or that story was the best one, the stand-out of the collection. And it would always be a different story. Every story in this collection is someone’s favorite, including this one, “Videos of People Falling Down.” I hadn’t ever seen this reaction before, and it speaks to the incredible diversity and brilliance of Thomas’ writing. The striking thing to me was this sense of intense ownership and kinship readers felt with Thomas’ work. They came into his world and felt like it was their own.
– Laura Perciasepe, Editor, Riverhead Books, introducing “Videos of People Falling Down” from Hall of Small Mammals in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading no. 138
Also read our interview with Thomas Pierce.
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell
Padgett Powell is one of the true originals of American fiction, and his weird and humorous writings constantly find new ways to shape fiction. His most recent novel, You and Me, was composed entirely of dialogue between two characters sitting on a porch, and the novel before that, The Interrogative Mood, was composed entirely of questions. His collection of forty-four short stories — “forty-four failed novels,” Powell has called them — is the prefect introduction to his linguistic dexterity and try-anything style.
– Lincoln Michel, Editor-in-Chief, electricliterature.com
You can read two short stories from Cries for Help, Various from Okey-Panky.
Ball by Tara Ison
[Tara is] a cool cat: not show-offy, but patient, warm, funny, and supremely gifted. She was a great pleasure to have in class because she was spot-on, but not aggressive or ungraceful about it. She used her powers for good. […] “Ball,” as you are about to find out, is a truly outrageous story about contemporary relationships, sex, and dog ownership. It is about the way these things are very similar. And it is not breezy and light about sex and dog ownership, it is honest and tragicomic and astringent and provocative.
– Rick Moody, author of Hotels of North America introducing the title story of Ball in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading no. 180
Also read our interview with Tara Ison.
The Brink by Austin Bunn
The Brink is the impressive debut book by playwright, screenwriter, and fiction writer Austin Bunn. Bunn’s stories traverse worlds from online gaming to end-time cults, sometimes dipping into the fantastical, but they all deal in characters who are on the edge of a precipice of some kind in their lives. In “The Ledge,” a ship has literally sailed to the end of the world, and the crew discovers what might lie beyond. As Bunn has stated, he is drawn to “stories about the resilience and transformations that happen at the moment when one way of life ends and another begins.”
– Catherine LaSota, Development Director, Electric Literature
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra
Zambra’s stories are disarmingly casual in their delivery. Similar to Chilean predecessor Roberto Bolaño, Zambra has enormous skill for conveying lush emotional landscapes with stripped and distant language. Zambra’s characters tend to be sensitive, brooding, and sharp witnesses, and they navigate the interior landscapes of their situations in ways that are fluid and impressionistic. […] My Documents consists of stories that hit the sweet spot between meandering and meticulous. In many stories, Zambra delays and complicates the slow-building tension — past opportunities for traditional endings — to arrive in uncharted territory.
– Nathan McNamara from our review of My Documents
Half an Inch of Water by Percival Everett
Set in the contemporary American west and centered on husbandry, mystery, and racial politics (on, Everett says, “the West that exists”), Half an Inch of Water is a departure from Everett’s more conspicuously experimental work. Dry, sincere, quiet — the collection reminds us that these adjectives aren’t naughty words, and that Everett’s gifts are as limitless as the landscape about which he writes.
– Jake Zucker, Assistant Editor, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill
The stories in O’Neill’s first story collection, Daydreams of Angels, are reminiscent of fairy tales and fables that marry the dark and the magical. The collection is full of rough characters and situations, but also shrouded with a kind of fantasy that can, like a child’s viewpoint, make difficult places easier to enter. The stories are funny and beautiful and the created worlds are endlessly fascinating.
– Diane Cook, author Man v. Nature, introducing “Swan Lake for Beginners” from Daydreams of Angels in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading no. 176
Also read our interview with Heather O’Neill.