Through all the uncertainty of 2020, I found myself turning more towards short stories and essay collections. I have always loved short stories, finding solace in them; they are concise, often intense and easy to devour. Novels we often remember snippets from, recollecting only the essence of the story, however, a good short story remains in our mind as one.
Lockdown was a time where I found my mind often wandering, more so than usual, with there being so much going on in the world around us. Picking up a thought-provoking short story that could be consumed in one sitting felt like a much easier option than trying to plough through a novel. This mind fog only lasted for a few weeks, but I have found it can often appear in times of stress or upheaval. During these times, there is nothing I enjoy more than the simplicity of reading a few short stories, without the commitment of a novel. Yet they are often more than just a quick fix, still providing a whirlwind of questions and thoughts.
Like all novels and stories I read, I do not love every short story collection I pick up. Often when I find myself being unmoved by one story in a collection, the same author strike’s a cord with another. That is the beauty of them, as you don’t have to continue to plough through a whole novel if you dislike it; they are not meant to be read in that way.
For a short story to really grip its reader, it often begins at a pivotal moment. There is no need for an explanation as to why it starts there at first. From the stories I have read, plots are often centred around an unusual situation with intriguing characters and come to a gripping end. They leave me with incredibly strong emotions, be it upset, hope or just a state of shock of the horror I have just read.
Here are five collections of short stories and essays that made lockdown that little bit easier, with some being fruits of lockdown published in 2020, whilst others have derived from famous magazines such as The New Yorker. All are different, yet all enticing, bringing a new element to the literary world:
To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss
Krauss, being deemed “one of America’s great writers” by the Financial Times, set a high expectation for her new short-story collection, which was published at the end of 2020. She explores what it means to be in a couple in turbulent and unpredictable times, questioning the struggle of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. The story ‘Future Emergencies‘ foreshadowed the fright of living in a Covid-like era and felt particularly poignant. A line that stuck out, perfectly encapsulating the current lockdown we face, was: “Outside the world was cold and dark, but inside the rooms were lit with the yellow glow of lamps.” It conjured hope of the time we can spend inside with our loved ones, whilst also reminding me of how lucky I am to have that yellow glow in such dark times. What I particularly delighted in throughout all the stories was the strong connection they had to the places they were set, from Switzerland to Tel Aviv. Krauss paints such wonderful pictures of all the beautiful settings – another method of escapism.
Modern Love curated by The New York Times
“Love, at its best, is more of a wheelbarrow than a rose: gritty and messy but also durable.” This very real collection of short stories was a particularly emotional read, with each one touching me and being quite unforgettable. All from the column that has appeared in the New York Times since 2004, this book explores the many types of love – romantic, friendship, familial, unrequited – often in both positive and negative lights. Some made me smile, some made me weep, others were funny, and some were tragic. The spectrum of emotion that I felt whilst I devoured these stories was endless, with each one leaving me wondering ‘How did their story end?’ and ‘What do their lives look like now?’.
Cat Person and Other Stories by Kristen Roupenian
This collection left me confused. The stories are incredibly well-written, with Roupenian being thrown into the limelight in 2017 when her first published story Cat Person went viral after being published in The New Yorker. This story could be easily consumed anywhere and numerous times, with it being tragic yet also hilarious and having multiple angles. It also arrived exactly when the world needed it, in the midst of #MeToo. However, the collection presented me with mixed emotions. The stories were dark and violent and, whilst I did easily read every single one (being weirdly fascinated by them), they left evocative imagery that I didn’t know how to let go of. I suppose if the main element of any good short story is that they stick around in your mind for a long time, this collection is certainly good.
Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola
This 2020 anthology provided me with such joy. Babalola’s debut novel is written so beautifully, intertwining rich mythical tales from around the world with modern-day romance stories. Whilst all the stories are heart-warming and refreshing, some left me shook when I finished them and others landed much more gently. What touched me the most was the tone of the whole book, being extremely warm and often humorous.
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Now, Zadie Smith never fails to go wrong in my eyes and her book of short essays captured my heart once again. This collection of six short essays had to be included as Smith describes life’s changes and challenges throughout the pandemic. The section illustrating the Black Lives Matter movement is extremely moving and particularly powerful, a necessary inclusion within this collection due to the momentous shift in attitude it has acquired in 2020. This collection is an insight into the unusual world we are now living in. Smith sums it up perfectly: “what was once necessary appears inessential; what was taken for granted, unappreciated and abused now reveals itself to be central to our existence.”