Short And Sweet: TPM’s Short Story And Essay Collections Recommendations

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As a lifelong novel consumer who enjoys throwing myself into other worlds for hours on end, it probably won’t come as a surprise that I don’t read too many short stories.

The few I have read were part of a capstone creative writing course my senior year of college. But those short works of literature have stuck with me long after graduation — the copies a little dusty with faded highlighter marks, cracked spines and remnants of past lives in other libraries, homes and schools.

Years later I still remember some of them, primarily due to the feelings I experienced while reading them. As I mention in my review of Knockemstiff below, I still feel physically uncomfortable when I think about that Donald Ray Pollock collection. I have very few visceral memories of books 5-plus years after reading them, but Pollack is different. His writing is haunting and his characters are sad people who do awful things and live in a world, a town, that to them feels inescapable. Reading it made the world around me feel darker, and humanity a little less forgiving. And that sentiment sometimes sticks with you when you read something powerful, no matter how long or short the narrative.

Not all short stories evoke such darkness, but they do share a common theme; the conciseness needed to convey human experience in such short form often leaves short story fanatics and newbies alike with a rush of intense emotion that can linger for years to come. I’m looking forward to gobbling up some of my colleagues more heartwarming short story collection suggestions.

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Comment below with some of your favorite collections! You can always purchase any of the books below by visiting our TPM Bookshop profile page. Be sure to check back again next month for some new staff reading recommendations, and if you’ve missed any, you can find all of our reading lists here. Happy reading!

Nicole Lafond, Associate Editor:

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

“I’m embarrassed to admit how old I was when I first heard the term ‘intersectional feminism.’ Perhaps due to my small town roots, at that time in life I hadn’t yet been exposed to advocates that had been pushing for years for more inclusive language to discuss the feminist movement in America. I asked a friend for some book recommendations to educate myself and ‘Bad Feminist’ was at the top of her list. The collection — which focuses on the importance of the inclusion of racial justice within feminism — opened my eyes to the nuance of a movement I’d claimed to support my whole life, employing a mix of humor, self-deprecation and stark commentary on my own privilege that I needed, and that I’ll never forget.”

Jackie Wilhelm, Associate Publisher:

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

“I read Knockemstiff years ago for a creative writing class, and I still physically cringe when I think about this book. Donald Ray Pollock is an excellent storyteller and Knocksemstiff sticks with you long after you’ve finished reading. Harsh and at times gratuitous, this inter-connected collection is definitely worth the read.”

Tierney Sneed, Investigative Reporter:

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands

“Now that shots are going into arms and I can fully embrace the wanderlust I have had to try to ignore the last 14 months, I have been returning to movies, TV shows and books about my favorite destinations afar. After the first shot went into my arm it was like, ‘thank God I can finally watch Stanley Tucci’s Italy show and not get super depressed that I can’t travel.'”

Summer Concepcion, Newswriter:

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

“There’s an inside joke within the TPM staff that I’m supposedly the ‘music czar’ due to my voracious consumption of all things related to music (including my frequent habit of going to concerts before the pandemic), so it’s no surprise that when a friend gave me Hanif Abdurraqib’s ‘They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us’ a few years ago, I couldn’t put it down. Abdurraqib’s collection of essays about music and culture speak to the age of uncertainty we find ourselves in during these politically divisive times. From writing about how the nightclub attacks in Paris sparked his nostalgia about seeking refuge at concerts as a teen, to going to a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, Abdurraqib seamlessly weaves music and culture together to shed light onto what it means to be American in this particular moment.”

Jacob Harris, Front End Developer:

Pastoralia by George Saunders

“People compare George Saunders to writers like Vonnegut or Mark Twain which is certainly deserved. What he really reminds me of, though, is Gary Larson’s ‘The Far Side’ comics. Pastoralia’s six stories are mostly about lovable losers. It’s protagonists are people worn down by the unfairness of life, finding themselves in comedic situations distorted and heightened just enough to point out the absurdity of it all. The satire is goofy and melancholic in equal measure, but it’s never mean-spirited. I read most of Pastoralia in a single sitting. I suspect you will as well.”

Josh Kovensky, Investigative Reporter:

First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

“This collection of recent Murakami short stories is as surreal as anything he usually writes, and just as good. They’re gripping but light, making them easy to get through, but are fantastic in a way that’s very hard to pin down.”

Kate Riga, Reporter:

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

“These dark and surreal fairytales left indelible footprints on my mind, and I still find myself fixated on certain images.”

Derick Dirmaier Head of Product:

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

“While I was at university, the Poet Laureate Billy Collins told a classroom full of English majors that it was rare to meet a writer who was both a great poet and a great novelist. I had just finished reading Jesus’ Son, written by novelist, poet, and playwright Denis Johnson, and got the opportunity to ask Collins what he thought of Johnson’s work. “He’s one of the exceptions,” he answered. Johnson won the National Book award for his novel Tree of Smoke in 2007, but this collection of short stories has always been my favorite.”

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