A flatlay of Elizabeth McCracken's favourite short story collections

Short but perfectly formed. Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

Elizabeth McCracken is no stranger to a good book. After all, she's written five of them herself, with the latest - The Souvenir Museum - being shortlisted for this year's Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. To celebrate its release, she's gathered together her favourite collections of short stories, from the poignant to the perverse, and explained why she loves them. 

Flying Leap by Judy Budnitz (1998)

Judy Budnitz is the writer I most often Google, hoping she has a new book out. All of her work is strange and inventive, both novels and stories, but I have a particular soft spot for this book, her first, which is funhouse bright and thrilling and dark in turns. There’s a man in a dog suit; a young man badgered by his aunts into donating his heart (which he’s still using) to his ailing mother, a story written in the form of a fashion catalog. A Budnitz story starts in strangeness and keeps going, gets deep. She’s like nobody else.

The Ugliest House in the World by Peter Ho Davies (1997)

I realise that I’ve listed a several first books; that, I think, is because you always remember when you first fall in love with a writer’s work. I read some of these stories before they even were a book, and I love them still, particularly the title story, a slantwise account of a death and an aging parent with some strange architecture at its heart. (I love strange architecture in fiction.) I love “Relief,” too, a story that dares to begin with a fart. There’s a tenderness in Davies' work but also ruthlessness.

Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho (2016)

Ruiz-Camacho started as a journalist, writing in Spanish (he was born in Mexico); he writes fiction in brilliant English. The stories in Barefoot Dogs are connected – the kidnapping of the patriarch of a Mexican family is at the heart of it – but each story stands on its own spectacularly. A bear takes over a McDonald’s in “Deers”; a couple having an affair find a portal to another time in place in clothes dryers; all of the stories are about real life, real trouble, money and class, and family, while being wildly and weirdly imaginative.

A Hundred Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (2005)

Another writer working in her second language who can write rings around anyone else – Yiyun Li’s stories are brutal and beautiful, and nobody is better at capturing the heartbreaking and also sometimes hilarious difference between what people say and who they are when they’re all alone. This is her first book; her second, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, is just as brilliant, and judging from stories published in the past couple of years, she must have a new collection coming soon.

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley (1999)

The stories Grace Paley wrote in three books, collected here, are dearer to me than possibly any other writing in the world. Her work is inherently political – in story after story, she writes about the importance of making the world better – and it’s also full of jokes and passion. Some of her stories are straightforward and some of them are peculiar monologues. My favorite, “Gloomy Tune,” starts this way: “There is a family nearly everybody knows. The children of this family are named Bobo, Bibi, Dood, Dodo, Neddy, Yoyo, Butch, Put Put, and Beep.” It doesn’t ever get any more ordinary. She writes about every kind of relationship, parents and children, marriages, the mothers of the neighborhood, the necessary struggle of life.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2019)

Jesus’ Son, Johnson’s first collection of short stories, is a skeleton key of a book, beloved by more fiction writers than any other single volume I know, despite its idiosyncrasies; I love this book, published posthumously, just as much. A melancholy ecstasy suffuses Johnson’s prose: it can be consoling but it’s also excellent company for those who do not wish to be consoled. I’ve always felt that there’s something numinous in Johnson’s short stories, by which I mean, I guess, that they feel full of useful mystery I feel always just about to apprehend. I know what it means but I can’t explain it to anyone else.

All Aunt Hagar’s Children, by Edward P. Jones (2006)

Jones is my favorite living short story writer. His work is as brutal and darkly funny as life, and nobody describes rooms and street corners and busses and government offices and how they shape human souls better. Everything in Jones’s fiction has specific gravity, and the characters are…well, they’re themselves. We know them extremely well in each story, but they feel as deep as wells, astonishingly human in a way characters in short stories aren’t always, which is to say lovable and terrifying and self-destructive and funny and dear and alienating. All the stories are extraordinary, but my favorite is “A Rich Man,” which makes me laugh out loud and then gasp with worry and shock by the end.  

  • The Souvenir Museum

  • One of the most acclaimed writers of our day, award-winning author Elizabeth McCracken is an undisputed virtuoso of the short story, and this new collection features her most vibrant and heartrending work to date.

    In these stories, the mysterious bonds of family are tested, transformed, fractured, and fortified. A recent widower and his adult son ferry to a craggy Scottish island in search of puffins. An actress who plays a children's game-show villainess ushers in the New Year with her deadbeat half brother. A mother, pining for her children, feasts on loaves of challah to fill the void. A new couple navigates a tightrope walk toward love. And on a trip to a Texas water park with their son, two fathers each confront a personal fear.

    With sentences that crackle and spark and showcase her trademark wit, McCracken traces how our closely held desires-for intimacy, atonement, comfort-bloom and wither against the indifferent passing of time. Her characters embark on journeys that leave them indelibly changed-and so do her readers. The Souvenir Museum showcases the talents of one of our finest contemporary writers as she tenderly takes the pulse of our collective and individual lives.

  • Buy the book

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