10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2016

Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li (Photo by Don Feria/Getty Images for The MacArthur Foundation Awards, via Wikimedia Commons)

Below is a guest post from Mumbai-based writer-filmmaker—and longtime #longreads contributor—Pravesh Bhardwaj (@AuteurPravesh).

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For a couple of years now I have been posting short stories from free online sources, using the hashtags #fiction #longreads. The idea was to read something new and discover interesting stories instead of sitting on my chair staring at the laptop screen or indulging endlessly on Twitter. It was designed as a ‘worthy’ distraction from my efforts toward writing (rather attempting to write) a screenplay. This year I posted 274 stories, and also finished the first draft of two screenplays—Love is Blind (a Hindi film) and Touché (an English-language spec screenplay)—so the process really works for me.

Here are the ten short stories that I enjoyed reading the most in 2015, in random order. Put them on your own reading list for 2016:

“Home” (Alice Munro, VQR, 2006)

Nobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro tells the story of a woman who visits her father, who is not keeping too well, and her stepmother in an old farmhouse:

This is an old school bus, with very uncomfortable seats which cannot be adjusted in any way, and windows cut by horizontal metal frames. That makes it necessary to slump down or to sit up very straight and crane your neck, in order to get an unobstructed view—I find this irritating, because the countryside here is what I most want to see—the reddening fall woods and the dry fields of stubble and the cows crowding the barn porches. Such unremarkable scenes, in this part of the country, are what I have always thought would be the last thing I would care to see in my life.

“Assimilation” (E. L. Doctorow, The New Yorker, 2010)

E. L. Doctorow passed away last year at the age of 84. In this story, Ramon, who works as a dishwasher in Borislav’s restaurant, agrees to marry Borislav’s niece Jelena for a sum of $3,000. The deal is that he will remain married till Jelena gets her green card and then divorce her, two years after the marriage. With the money, he will be paying for a film school.

Some sort of city functionary married them. He mumbled and his eyes widened as if he were having trouble focussing. He was drunk. When the photographer’s flash went off behind him he lost his place in his book and had to start again. He swayed, and nearly knocked over the lectern. He clearly didn’t understand the situation because when he pronounced them man and wife he urged them to kiss. The girl laughed as she turned away and ran to the heavyset fellow and kissed him.

The photographer placed a bouquet of flowers in the girl’s arms and posed her with Ramon for the formal wedding picture. And that was that. Ramon was dropped off at the hotel and the next day he flew home.

“In Hindsight” (Callan Wink, The New Yorker, November 2015)

Callan Wink’s In Hindsight is a novella, the first to be published in The New Yorker’s online-only feature, New Yorker Novella. I hope they make it a regular feature. Read the opening passage of this fascinating, brutal story set in the dusty, barren land where Lauren lives with her cattle, hogs, cats and dogs while doing a day job at the local high school.

Lauren followed the drag mark for a mile down the gravel road and then another half mile down her dusty driveway and then parked her truck and cried. The bastard had shot one of her steers—one of six, red Texas longhorns—and dragged it down the road by its neck and deposited it here for her to find, practically on her front step.

“What Happened to the Baby?” (Cynthia Ozick, The Atlantic, 2006)

Ozick’s story about Vivian and her family’s relationship with her crazy uncle Simon, aunt Essie and their daughter Henrietta, who died when she was eleven months old.

Uncle Simon was not really my uncle. He was my mother’s first cousin, but out of respect, and because he belonged to an older generation, I was made to call him uncle. My mother revered him. “Uncle Simon,” she said, “is the smartest man you’ll ever know.” He was an inventor, though not of mundane things like machines, and he had founded the League for a Unified Humanity. What Uncle Simon had invented—and was apparently still inventing, since it was by nature an infinite task—was a wholly new language, one that could be spoken and understood by everyone alive. He had named it GNU, after the African antelope that sports two curved horns, each one turned toward the other, as if striving to close a circle.

“A Ride Out of Phrao” (Dina Nayeri, Alaska Quarterly Review / LitHub)

Dina Nayeri’s story about a middle-aged Iranian doctor, who had moved to America, relocating to work for the Peace Corps in a remote Thai village, and her Americanised daughter who comes visiting. This gem of a story was an O. Henry Prize winner in 2015.

On the morning she begins her job at the local school, a hot rain soaks the village and she glimpses her neighbors eating a word­less morning meal on the floor. Their window is barely three feet from hers, so that she can examine their food, hear some of their whispers, breathe in the sharp scent of their incense. The rain blurs the lines of their faces and bodies, and their movements become dreamlike. They remind her of her parents, the way they broke fast quietly, always on the floor, and as a teenager she often gave them fifteen minutes before she joined with her cup of tea.

“Healthy Start” (Etgar Keret, Tin House, 2006)

I absolutely adore anything written by Etgar Keret and post his stories as soon as I can find one.

At the café they always gave him a table set for two, and sat him across from an empty chair. Always. Even when the waiter specifically asked him whether he was alone. Other people would be sitting there in twos or threes, laughing or tasting each other’s food, or fighting over the bill, while Avichai sat by himself eating his Healthy Start—orange juice, muesli with honey, decaf double espresso with warm low-fat milk on the side. Of course it would have been nicer if someone had sat down across from him and laughed with him, if there had been someone to argue with over the bill and he’d have to struggle, to hand the money to the waitress saying, “Don’t take it from him! Mickey, stop. Just stop! This one’s on me.” But he didn’t really have anyone to do that with, and breakfast alone was ten times better than staying home.

“Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This,I Always Think What a Sacred Profession Bartending Is” (Ryu Murakami, Words Without Borders, 2004)

If you are going to read just one story from the list then let it be this one. After reading the story I immediately bought Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup. This other Murakami also lives in Japan and is a best-selling author in his own right. Audition, on which the famed film is based, is one of his best known books.

The bartender never rests. He lines up the glasses, chills the champagne and white wine, chips rocks out of a block of ice, replaces ashtrays, serves up platters of sausages or raw oysters. No doubt all nine of the people sitting at this bar are looking for sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but all have the same destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to elevate their moral standards. The bartender, sure enough, is a priest of sorts.

“Vitamins” (Raymond Carver, Granta, 2004)

Everything he writes in his graceful, precise prose is immensely readable. Here’s a lovely story by the man responsible for revitalising the short story in the 80s.

My Patti was a beauty. Donna and Sheila were medium-pretty. One night Sheila confessed to Patti that she loved her more than anything on earth. Patti told me she used those words. Patti had driven her home and they were sitting in front of Sheila’s apartment. Patti said she loved her too. She loved all her friends. But not in the way Sheila had in mind. Then Sheila touched Patti’s breast. She brushed the nipple through Patti’s blouse. Patti took Sheila’s hand and held it. She told her she didn’t swing that way. Sheila didn’t bat an eye. After a minute, she nodded. But she kept Patti’s hand. She kissed it, then got out of the car.

“You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Till the Well Dries)” (T. Coraghessan Boyle,  Narrative Magazine, 2015)

T.C. Boyle’s lovely story about a couple during the long drought in a southwestern state. I loved his short story “The Lie,” which I posted earlier as well. Time to order The Harder They Come.

Still, as much as I loved my wife and enjoyed seeing her au naturel, two in a tub was a crowd, and I’m sure she must have felt the same, though she never said as much. She was a good sport, Micki, and if my knees were in the way and the water felt faintly greasy, she made the most of it, but for me the weekly bath began to feel like a burden. “Remember the old days?” I’d say, soaping her back or kneading the shampoo into the long dark ropes of her hair. “You know, when you could just get up with the alarm and step into the shower before work?” And she would nod wistfully, the water sloshing at her armpits and the tender gaps behind her knees, before heaving herself out of the tub to snatch up her thrice-used towel.

“A Sheltered Woman” (Yiyun Li, The New Yorker, 2014)

Yiyun Li’s enchanting story about a Chinese American nanny caring for a troubled mother and her newborn is the winner of the Sunday Times Short Story prize for 2015. Her elegant prose is a revelation. I must confess that I read this story at least half a dozen times.

Auntie Mei had worked as a live-in nanny for newborns and their mothers for eleven years. As a rule, she moved out of the family’s house the day a baby turned a month old, unless—though this rarely happened—she was between jobs, which was never more than a few days. Many families would have been glad to pay her extra for another week, or another month; some even offered a longer term, but Auntie Mei always declined: she worked as a first-month nanny, whose duties, toward both the mother and the infant, were different from those of a regular nanny. Once in a while, she was approached by previous employers to care for their second child. The thought of facing a child who had once been an infant in her arms led to lost sleep; she agreed only when there was no other option, and she treated the older children as though they were empty air.

You can find the ten short stories I enjoyed reading in 2014 here.

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