Short story collections can work well for book groups. They’re rich in content, but most often quick to read. Even if participants don’t finish the entire book, they can still talk about the stories they did complete. There are plenty of good options for approaching discussion: assign each reader to introduce a different story in advance, challenge them to identify a favorite, or simply work through the book in sequence.
In previous years, I haven’t broken out short stories as a separate category in the All-the-Best-Books Compilation (ABBC), but it seemed like a logical addition. With 70+ best-of-the-year lists consulted now, 45 books of short stories are among those that have received honors for 2012. You can read about and download the full ABBC spreadsheet here.
The most honored book of short stories in 2012, by far, is Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. It’s a collection with strong themes of Dominican-American culture and lost love, narrated by Yunior, a character familiar to those who read the previous Diaz story collection Drown or his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but explored in much more depth here. Yunior is a romantic but a hopeless womanizer, a troublesome skill learned from his father, and he gets his karmic come-uppance again and again. His brother Rafa–spoiled, cancer-stricken, and exploitative–is his rival and still the subject of a kind of worship. These are gritty, emotionally raw stories, clearly works of some powerful resonance to critics, as attested to by its 32 mentions as a best book of the year, a number surpassed only by Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
In second place on the short story list, with 15 mentions to date is Alice Munro’s Dear Life. This master of the short story, now in her eighties, has shown in book after book that she has a gift for finding the pithiest moments in life. Her stories are often described as “epic”, but also as “spare” as they follow people across their lives, but hone in on the key moments of those lives. As usual, most of these stories are set in the Canadian towns around Lake Huron, hardscrabble settings for tough people. Perhaps most powerful are the final four stories, which Munro confesses in advance are largely autobiographical.
The third collection to ride a little ahead of the pack is by the first collection from Nevada’s Claire Vaye Watkins. Battleborn is an edgy collection, exploring dark territory like incest, abortion, Nevada brothels and the author’s own real-life connections to the Manson cult (her father Paul was Manson’s second in command). These are stories of brutal honesty and gallows humor, set where the neon glare of Vegas and Reno meets the barren Nevada deserts, scattered across the years between the Gold Rush and modern times.
Beyond these three leaders, a pack of other works follow with four to six mentions each: Nathan Englander’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Emma Donoghue’s Astray, Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock at the Door, Megan Mayhew Berman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am an Executioner: Love Stories.
I’ll be back next week with results from another category, but you might also want to drop in at Williamsburg Regional Library’s Blogging for a Good Book, where I’ll highlight other categories from March 4th through the 8th. Further releases of the ABBC will also follow as I finish compiling other awards and lists into the spreadsheet.