Three Short Story Collections I Recommend

A few weeks ago while wandering the isles of The Strand in New York City, I picked up Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls her collection of short stories.

I brought the Schappell collection with me for my travels recently to Bozeman, Montana for work. While in Bozeman, I had an opportunity to walk the Main Street where they have two independent bookstores. (As an aside, Bozeman is a pretty cool town considering it is in a rural part of the plains, and a short drive to the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, but apparently the nearby ski resorts bring a lot of tourists and outside influence to the place. You can get organic salads from the local food co-op near the bookshops, for example.)

The Country Bookshelf was inviting, and the three women working there were all helpful when I asked about short story collections they’d recommend. I explained I was reading Blueprints, and that I’d be open to recommendations of local Montana talent as long as all the stories did not involve cows and horses. They did not disappoint, and handed over Aryn Kyle’s collection Boys and Girls Like You and Me, along with Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Both Kyle and Meloy originate from Montana, but Kyle moved east to New York City, and Meloy moved west to Los Angeles. It seems Montana could hold neither of them.

What’s so interesting about the three collections, which I read in succession, is how similar they are in their subject matter and selection of main characters. I was actually surprised by this because I was expecting each to have distinctive writing characteristics, but for me these tomes blended together…with some exceptions.

In the case of Schappell, her writing is more finely polished than the other two… although don’t get me wrong, all three of these women are very talented story tellers.

Schappell’s women scared me a little, some of them wanted to be sexually used or humiliated, others were dealing with the aftermath of rape, or they were anorexic and just generally fucked up. Most of them drank heavily or did drugs. I do not assume these women were stand-ins for the author, but there was a level of… depravity… in the Schappell collection I wouldn’t have necessarily expected. I’m no prude, but it made me wonder why the stories had to be dealing with topics so extreme.

Meloy’s collection was very tuned into the emotional aspects of loss and despair, and many of her characters were cheating on their partners, or having family problems of one kind or another. I think the strongest story in the collection is Spy vs. Spy, a story about two brothers who don’t get along, but the older and more responsible one (a doctor) has a daughter that the younger brother (ski instructor) is always trying to impress as a way to one-up his brother by being good to his niece. The ending of the story (which I won’t give away) was a perfect balance to the relationship between the two brothers and the people that surround them. Some of the other endings were similarly adept. Overall the writing was very strong.

Kyle’s characters were mostly adolescent boys and girls dealing with issues of growing up, sexual awakenings, and similar fare. I found the endings to some of Kyle’s stories to be problematic (for me) in that she would be telling the story and going along in the present, and then within the last page she would zoom out and have the character looking back from a great distance of time. I suppose that technique could work for some stories, but it was a conceit I felt she used too often and it jarred me out of the reading and intimacy with her characters. I don’t like it when the writer is showing me she can pirouette in the story. I don’t want to be able to “see” how she’s writing the story while I’m reading it, that doesn’t work for me.

To be fair, some of these stories – from all three collections – had excellent emotional resonance and I could feel what the characters were feeling (or I imagined I could, I should say.) It’s more important to feel something about a story than to have it written and executed perfectly, so I can be forgiving about certain endings, etc.

Perhaps of interest to the writers among us (most of you reading this?) is that all of these women were published by big names for their collections. (Is there hope for short stories after all?) Meloy was pubbed by Riverhead Books, a Penguin imprint; Kyle was pubbed by Scribner, a Simon and Schuster imprint; and Schappell was pubbed directly by Simon and Schuster. Not too shabby. Yeah, and both Schappell and Meloy were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review too.

So if you’re looking for interesting women characters written by contemporary women writers, go out and acquire these three collections. And no, I’m not getting a kick-back from these ladies, I just like their work. I think you will too.