A couple of weeks ago, we talked with author J. Ryan Stradal in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. Our conversation about his debut novel The Kitchens of the Great Midwest covered his impeccable rendition of Midwestern food and culture, what his grandmother thought of his first book, and how he crafted a novel written in cleverly connected short stories.
I’m a total nerd about book structure, so that conversation has been on my mind ever since. Novels that are told in this format often compel me to keep reading in order to find out how it all comes together, but they’re also easy to set down in between chapters and come back to later. That means they make for easy reads when my attention span needs a boost.
Today, I’m sharing a list of well-crafted novels told in short stories or vignettes that will keep you turning the pages—or compel you to slowly savor each chapter.
Calling this a novel is a stretch, but I'm eager to get it onto more readers' TBR lists, and the structure fits so well on this list. In 1905, young Albert Einstein dreamed repeatedly about time as he worked on his paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" and made creeping progress on his special theory of relativity. Each dream reveals "one of the many possible natures of time." Lightman presents these (entirely fictional) dreams as a collection of poetic vignettes. Small enough to read in an afternoon, but easy to wander in and out of. Unusual and utterly delightful. If you need more convincing, listen to Beth Wallen and I discuss this little book on a past episode of WSIRN. More info →
By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how the deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. Her debut follows the generations of one family over a period of 250 years, showing the devastating effects of racism from multiple perspectives, in multiple settings. For the first hundred pages I didn't quite grasp what the author was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful (and the family tree in the front of the book helped me track the characters). A brilliant concept, beautifully executed in short-story-like chapters that span centuries. More info →
Stradal’s novel-in-stories spans more than thirty years and takes us to half as many kitchens, introducing us to fancy chefs and Lutheran church ladies, portraying the food of a region and the unlikely threads that bind us, with a satisfying, full-circle ending. We got to talk with Stradal in book club, and we asked bunch of questions about his writing process, the structure of the novel, and his Midwestern ties. Gracious and charming, he revealed his literary inspirations and a sweet story about his grandmother. You can watch the video replay in our library with your book club membership. More info →
J. Ryan Stradal cited Egan's novel as a major inspiration for The Kitchens of the Great Midwest (which I didn't see until he mentioned it, but now it totally makes sense). In interlocking stories, we meet several different characters who all circle Bennie Salazar, a former punk rocker and music executive, and Sasha, his employee. Crossing continents and character arcs, the reader uncovers secrets and side stories that are unbeknownst to the central characters, Bennie and Sasha. A compelling book about time, music, and fate—and ambitiously told in different styles and formats throughout each chapter. More info →
Retired schoolteacher Olive is not keen about the way her small Maine town is changing. Through a series of interconnected short stories, we get to know Olive's family and some of the townspeople as they each grapple with their respective problems. Each story is written with care and offers some hope as Olive comes to have a better, more honest understanding of herself and those around her. If you enjoy Strout's writing and the short story format, be sure to pick up Olive, Again, which meets Olive later in life. More info →
Orange's multigenerational, multi-voiced novel offers a nuanced glimpse into contemporary Native American life in Oakland, California through the experiences and perspectives of twelve wide-ranging characters. As they prepare for the city's first Big Oakland Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, the lives of Orange's diverse characters become intertwined: an aspiring filmmaker, a man who's taught himself traditional Native dance with YouTube videos, a woman traveling to meet her grandchildren for the first time—on the condition that she remains sober. I'm amazed at how each distinct voice rings true, and how he weaves the disparate storylines together. It's also full of triggers, so sensitive readers be aware. More info →
This modern classic is a coming-of-age almost-memoir of a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, who is inventing the woman she will grow up to be. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes—some joyful, some heartbreaking—that draw the reader deep into her Hispanic Chicago neighborhood. Esperanza's observations feel at once highly specific and incredibly universal, as she reflects on growing up on Mango Street, and how she eventually wants to leave. More info →
Toni Morrison said “the beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being completely devastated by its power." Erdrich's debut novel reads like a series of connected short stories, drifting back and forth between two intertwined Ojibwe families. Vignettes of drama, healing, justice, and magic reveal the tight bond between the Kashpaws and Lamartines. Told with Erdrich's signature poetic style, her first work is certainly worth reading. More info →
Told over the course of one year on the Kamchatka peninsula, this uniquely structured novel takes us to "places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas." When two sisters, ages eight and eleven, go missing on the shoreline of northeast Russia, their tight-knit community is deeply affected. In alternating chapters that read like short stories, the reader gets to see how each character is impacted: everyone from the neighbor, to the detective, to the mother. And in this isolated region, we see how a community can come together or fall apart in the midst of fear and crisis. More info →
Do you have more books-in-short-stories to add to our list? Tell us about them in the comments section!