A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. I took an excellent workshop with Tom Barbash on examining the intricacies of craft in fiction. We poured over short stories and chapters of novels line by line to see how they worked. Doing so for a week has made me want to return to my favorite pieces of writing as I begin putting together my MFA dissertation. I want to be inspired not only by unexpected plots and moving characters but by sentences that stun me. I’ve put together a list of five collections for your end-of-summer reading pleasure. These collections are all by women because, let’s face it, even in 2015 the VIDA count has shown this still-present disparity in the literary world. We should all be reading and publishing more women and people of color. Here are some of my favorites. Happy reading!
1. Jhumpa Lahiri—Interpreter of Maladies
This one is a classic that I hope you’ve already read. It’s worth the reread, though. Interpreter of Maladies is the book that made me fall in love with the short story form. When I was an undergrad, I read the first story, “A Temporary Matter,” and had my heart ripped out. This is the first short story that taught me that old writing adage about endings being somehow both surprising and inevitable. I find the vast majority of Lahiri’s work to be this way—not only does she captivate you with beautiful descriptions and interesting characters, she will be sure to break your heart. Did I mention that this was her first published book and it won the Pulitzer Prize? If you’ve reread it too recently, give Unaccustomed Earth a try. The book ends with a trio of linked stories that will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished them.
2. Roxane Gay—Ayiti
In 2014 the larger world was introduced to the literary force that is Roxane Gay as she released her novel, An Untamed State, and her essay collection, Bad Feminist. Those of us who’ve been following Gay’s career for a long time weren’t surprised, though. In 2011 she published a short collection, Ayiti, one story of which would eventually become her novel. This experimental book cemented my love of Gay’s work. It focuses on the people of Haiti through a combination of short stories, flash fiction, a ledger, and prose poems. Be sure to read the dark love story “There is no ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We.” This story is an excellent example of how to use short, declarative sentences masterfully, which you can see with the opening—instructions for creating a zombi:
“Kill the pufferfish. Don’t be squeamish. Extract the poison. Just find a way. Allow it to dry. Grind it with the blood and hair to create your coup de poudre. A good chemist can help. Blow the powder into the candidate’s face. Wait.”
If you love Gay’s work, this isn’t a collection you want to miss.
3. Aubrey Hirsch—Why We Never Talk About Sugar
Hirsch is one of my favorite flash fiction writers today, and this collection features some of her best. Flash is so short that there’s little room for error—every sentence must be working on multiple levels. Plot and character development must happen simultaneously, and the sentences should be intriguing and beautiful. Hirsch has a talent for achieving this, while also delivering amazing absurdity and magical realism. Whether your reading “The Disappearance of Maliseet Lake,” where an entire body of water—and a small town’s main source of income—is one day gone with no explanation, or the haunting title story “Why We Never Talk About Sugar,” in which pregnancy is no longer related to sex and women can conceive simply by loving an inanimate object, Hirsch creates strange little stories that will take your breath away.
4. Claire Vaye Watkins –Battleborn
If you’re interested in writing about landscape, especially in the West, this is a book you should definitely study. In Watkins’ stories, place not only comes to define characters, but also seems to have an eerie ability to impact them. My favorite story in the collection is “The Archivist” because here the experience of place is transferred to what it means to inhabit a woman’s body. A young woman ruminates over a breakup as she realizes she is pregnant, but her ruminations take the form of museum exhibits and their placards. One placard states, “She did not want to allow that love could be so fearful and meager and misshapen. He left, and she did not try to stop him. She was through trying to stop him. She had been trying to stop him since the day they met.” In addition to her expert use of place, Watkins also pulls a great deal from her own life to write her stories. “Ghosts, Cowboys” is particularly fascinating because its main character’s father, much like Watkins’ actual father, was a member of the Manson family.
5. Dessa –A Pound of Steam
Some prose writers shy away from poetry too much, but I know I’ve seen an improvement in my writing from reading more poetry. Plus, poetry is gorgeous. If you’re like me—a little bit intimidated by poetry—try this chapbook out. Dessa’s poems are often quite narrative and her language is very accessible. She’s also a rapper/singer/songwriter in the Doomtree hip hop collective in Minneapolis, so you know she’s constantly thinking about language in addition to concept. My favorite poem in the book is “Mercy” because of lines like these:
is to break the wishbone of a living bird
who consents to the procedure,
and volunteers to stay awake
to save on anesthesia.”
Brenna Gomez is the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review