The best contemporary North American short story collections that find the beauty in hard-ass, hard-luck cases

The Books I Picked & Why

Friday Black

By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Book cover of Friday Black

Why this book?

The scenarios in Friday Black, at first, felt unbelievable, even though they were an amplification of rampant capitalism and racism that are already very real. I didn't want them to be real. Adjei-Brenyah rendered them so perfectly and developed his narrators' psychology so effectively (especially his retail workers, so reminiscent of a commercial world I used to inhabit) that I became immersed in these new realities. 

The characters are underdogs by virtue of simply being Black people in America. But they are resilient and complex, finding unique ways to resist. 

The writing is beautiful, with tightly turned phrases aptly describing the time and place.

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The Beggar's Garden: Stories, The

By Michael Christie

Book cover of The Beggar's Garden: Stories, The

Why this book?

Christie’s stories are set in downtown eastside Vancouver, a neighbourhood notorious for junkies and homelessness. Of course, the realities are much more diverse. 

These stories focus not only on the down-and-out but also on shop owners and others trying to make a go there, the traumatic things they witness and experience, and the guilt of surviving there. In prose that is sharp and witty, yet evocative and illuminating, he shows every character to be struggling, regardless of their situation. 

It is a very real look at completely believable characters. And he sees them very clearly, shows their humanity, and finds compassion for all of them.

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Willem De Kooning's Paintbrush

By Kerry Lee Powell

Book cover of Willem De Kooning's Paintbrush

Why this book?

Kerry Lee Powell writes some of the best sentences I’ve ever read. A lot of her opening lines (“Today's the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him” ... “I took my kung fu instructor off speed-dial today” ... “A dozen of us were dressed up as low-budget ghosts outside Earl’s Court tube station”) are arresting, instantly grabbing my attention, while hinting at something more, posing a question and inviting me to read on. 

What was happening was usually much deeper than first expected. She's economic with her words, but in a few pages I came to care about the characters and I miss them now, feel like they're still out there somewhere wheeling and dealing to keep their head above water.

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Peninsula Sinking

By David Huebert

Book cover of Peninsula Sinking

Why this book?

The long titular story from Peninsula Sinking is about three phases in a young man’s life, and his maturation from a guy who does crazy stunts to get attention from the cool kids to someone who, full of regrets and hopes, grapples with highly evolved intellectual and ethical conundrums and finds safety only in love. Its final third opens with this enticement: “Imagine it’s you facing the loss of the still-ripening cherries between your legs.” Throughout the book, Huebert proves himself a wizard with figurative, sensual writing, layering bizarre images with tricky turns of phrase. We are reminded that “there were palm trees on Antarctica once.” Anything can happen.

This collection is filled with great energy, stunning images, and overall great stories—all of them prominently featuring non-human animals, and their interactions with humans, in some cases tackling complex ethical dilemmas with considerable insight.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad

By Jennifer Egan

Book cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Why this book?

Egan's point-of-view and temporal experiments worked very well. Even the Powerpoint presentation-as-story/chapter. I loved getting different perspectives on the same characters at various times in their lives, and thus became emotionally attached and curious about what happened to them. 

Some consider this a novel, but I enjoyed each “chapter” as a self-contained short story. Several pieces focused on aging punker Bennie Salazar and/or his employee, Sasha. In the non-Bennie chapters I wondered about Bennie, and Sasha. Despite the time leaping, the plot had a nice circular arc in the end that was quite satisfying, tying the whole thing together.

The reason this work ultimately resonates with me is that these stories offer profound insights about modern humans: the universal power of our music, the influence of hype and technology, the nature of time, frailty and desire, pollution and energy, aging, and the long-term consequences of our choices.

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