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Bite-Sized Summer Reads: Compulsively Consumable Short Story & Essay Collections

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Anne Mai Yee Jansen

Contributor

Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

Summers are full of daylight hours and supposed leisure time, but I find that I’m usually so busy that I have a hard time finding time to read longer books. From casual conversations with friends and colleagues, I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In fact, summers can be tricky because people’s schedules tend to be disrupted by everything from traveling (for those lucky enough to squeeze in a vacation or two) to childcare (for folks with school-aged children) and more.

Sometimes, you simply need a bite-sized read, and short stories or essays can help you feed your literary needs.

Admittedly, I’m notoriously incapable of reading short story or essay collections. This is mostly because a huge part of why I read is for the characters, so when I read short stories, I feel like I’m only just beginning to get to know the characters when the story ends. Similarly, with essays, there often aren’t any characters, so I can struggle to find a connection to the writing.

But summertime demands are different than those long, dark winter evenings. When there’s daylight to be had, the downtime needed to be able to spend time with a good book is limited. Can’t be too picky, right?

The short story and essay collections on this list are all fairly recent publications that are every bit as hard to put down as the most engaging novel. They might nab your attention with an interesting premise, a familiar name, an important consideration, fascinating information, or just plain good writing. No matter the appeal, I hope you enjoy them!

Short Story Collections

A Darker Shade of Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates book cover

A Darker Shade of Noir: New Stories of Body Horror by Women Writers, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

This thoughtfully curated collection of stories by the likes of Cassandra Khaw, Margaret Atwood, and Aimee Bender (to name just three of the amazing writers represented here) is absolutely stunning. Each tale in this tome engages with body horror in some way, and believe me, these stories may be connected through body horror, but beyond that, they have a lot of variability. Personally, I really like that because when I read a collection of stories by different authors, I enjoy it when those stories are distinct and don’t blend together. These definitely don’t do that, yet they are also bound together by their common interest in gender and power. (Side note: this book is scheduled for publication in September 2023.)

Man Made Monsters by Andrea L. Rogers book cover

Man Made Monsters by Andrea L. Rogers

This is my new favorite book. It’s stunning, both in terms of the stories and the physical book itself. I’ll start with the content: it’s a story cycle that begins in the mid-1800s when a young Cherokee girl named Ama is making the trek from colonial Texas to Indian Territory with her family. They’ve already been through Removal by this point, so it’s a second dispossession…during which they encounter vampires and Ama becomes one. From there, each story picks up years later (the spans vary) and focuses on a character who shares blood ties with Ama. There are all kinds of literal monsters in these pages (werewolves, zombies, even an extraterrestrial) alongside the figurative monstrosities of such things as settler colonialism and state-sponsored violence (to name just two). And if all of this isn’t enough, you might be interested to know Man Made Monsters also features striking artwork alongside each story. Seriously, you should read this one.

Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang book cover

Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang

The stories in Alexandra Chang’s short collection span continents and bridge past and present. The versatility of the stories in this book is impressive. In one story, a woman contends with the algorithm she created in a quietly humorous investigation of technology in our lives. In another story that unfolds in reverse chronological order, we learn about the life and desires of a woman who was often overlooked in life. Chang’s tales are inventive and fascinating — this collection is the perfect carry-along companion for the summer.

What You Are Looking For is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama book cover

What You Are Looking For is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama

Okay, full disclosure: this book is technically a novel, and it’s also not set to release until September 5th. Regardless, I had to include it here because it reads like a short story cycle. There are only five chapters, each of which centers on a new character and can be read independently of the others. The premise is really fun: there’s a very unusual librarian who, when approached, asks patrons what they’re looking for. They’re always looking for books on a specific topic, of course, but when this librarian gives them a list of recommendations, there’s always one bizarre recommendation that ends up being precisely what the character needs in order to find what they’re seeking in life. It’s a tranquil and introspective book and one that’ll stick with you for a long time.

Essay Collections

Brown Neon by Raquel Gutiérrez book cover

Brown Neon by Raquel Gutiérrez

This unique collection of essays is bound together by its interest in boundaries, whether bodily, geopolitical, artistic, or otherwise. Described by the press as “part butch memoir, part ekphrastic travel diary, part queer family tree,” Brown Neon is a thought-provoking and timely book that beautifully defies categorization. Gutiérrez’s essays are, at times, deeply personal, highly political, and aesthetically complex. (And sometimes they manage to be all of those things and more at once.) It’s a great book to read one essay at a time, allowing yourself space in between to simply think about what you’ve read.

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay book cover

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay

Ross Gay opens this collection by asking, “What happens if joy is not separate from pain? What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another?” He then explains that his aim is to figure out what incites joy and, conversely, what joy incites. And in the subsequent 11 essays, he does just that by considering everything from gardening to education to basketball, and more. As you might expect from a poet, Gay’s essays are rendered in careful and evocative prose. In keeping with his inquiry, they are at times filled with happiness and, at other times, thick with grief. Throughout it all, they are powerful.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin book cover

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

Gay Bar is one of the most interestingly organized books I’ve read recently. You might describe it as a memoir where each chapter focuses on a specific gay bar. Or, you might think of it as a work of cultural criticism that brings the author’s personal experiences to bear on queer spaces. Or, you might understand it as an eclectic history that comments on our current moment and the role of technology in changing the landscape of gay bars. However you perceive it, it’s a poignant read that will stick with you long after you put it down.

Black Paper by Teju Cole book cover

Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time by Teju Cole

Black Paper is so different from Teju Cole’s works of fiction, even as there are some strong thematic connections. It’s a meditation on Blackness that ranges from classical European art to colonial legacies, from light and photography to print and paper technologies. Arranged into five sections (plus a preface and an epilogue), Cole’s essays are relatively brief, which makes them perfect for on-the-fly reading and in-between perusal. Despite their short length, they’re characterized by a depth of thought that you can carry with you as you move through your summer.

Long Summers Call for Long Reading Lists

If you’re anything like me, the end of the summer makes me want to hang onto those sunny days for just a little bit longer. Whether that means you’ll be interested in one of the best 2023 beach reads or will want to imagine some extra vacation time with a pick from this list of books set at the beach, we’ve got you covered. If you’re feeling a little more ambitious, Barack Obama’s 2023 summer reading list won’t leave you disappointed!