The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
With her second collection of short stories, it has become quite clear that Lauren van den Berg possesses a scary talent that is only growing by the day. This collection, the best of the year with its eight stories of people (mostly women) who are put into bad situations by loved ones, really sticks to your ribs — largely because van den Berg doesn’t try to dazzle us with any fancy tricks. Rather, she concocts these tales that leave us wondering if the characters are messing up or if some unseen force is messing with the characters, incorporating measurements of sweet and sour that tend to tip heavier towards the latter.
Tenth of December, George Saunders (Random House)
Few readers would deny George Saunders all the acclaim he gets as a short-story purist, but not even they could have predicted that The New York Times Magazine would proclaim his newest collection the best book we’d read in all of 2013, just three days into the year. After that, there was the backlash, and after the backlash came the National Book Award nomination. But at the end of the day, Saunders just solidified his position as one of our modern masters with his best book since 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This is where we are at in Sam Lipsyte’s career: he writes one of the best novels of the decade (2010’s The Ask), and then decides he wants to go ahead and publish a collection of short stories filled with snapshots of modern day grotesques; freaks, weirdos, people on the fringes, and other creeps you can’t help laugh at, but also feel a dash of sympathy for. That’s the Sam Lipsyte we know and love, and who we hope continues to grace us with a new volume of short stories every decade or so.
Spectacle, Susan Steinberg (Graywolf Press)
A devastatingly great collection of stories about women facing tough odds, dealing with the hands that life has dealt them. Written with a sparse and grim tone, Steinberg’s stories all have individual rhythms, and call to mind Lydia Davis trimming down Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
The Miniature Wife, Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead)
In a year when George Saunders was all the rage, it was more than fitting that Manuel Gonzales would issue this collection of a staggering 18 stories that had many readers calling him Saunders’ heir apparent. A gifted and totally original storyteller, this Austin writer has the type of imagination and writing skills that will lure you in from the book’s first weird entry.
This Close, Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf Press)
You have to stop and pay attention, sometimes, to what’s going on around you, savor the details and the random faces that pass by you. That’s essentially what Jessica Francis Kane’s lucid, sadness-tinged stories are all about, and why This Close is bound to catch any observant reader’s interest.
A Guide to Being Born, Ramona Ausubel (Riverhead)
In a series of 11 dreamlike stories laid out like a life cycle, each section bearing a title like “Birth,” “Gestation,” or “Conception, and “Love,” Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born highlighted the author’s versatility soon after the publication of her great debut novel, 2012’s No One Is Here Except All of Us.
Love Is Like Power, Or Something Like That, A. Igoni Barrett (Graywolf Press)
Barrett’s nine stories send us on a trip through Nigeria, and every word cuts deep. No matter what part of the globe you hail from, the characters and stories contained within Love is Like Power, Or Something Like That will seem familiar.
The Man Who Noticed Everything, Adrian Van Young (Black Lawrence Press)
Strange and sometimes eerie tales from the eastern seaboard, Adrian Van Young’s debut collection recalled voices of literary eras past, from H.P. Lovecraft to Flannery O’Connor. As those comparisons suggest, these stories will have you wondering if they’re set in the real world or some strange, dreamlike place you might not want to go to.
Don’t Kiss Me, Lindsay Hunter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
After Daddy’s, her 2010 collection for the indie Featherpress, it was only a matter of time before an editor at a bigger publishing house realized Lindsay Hunter is a voice worth investing in. This, her followup on FSG, is a weird and imaginative ride, filled to the brim with stories (26 in all) of all shapes, sizes, and character types.