Ten Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2021

Pravesh Bhardwaj read and and shared 304 short stories on the #longreads Twitter hashtag in 2020. Here are his favorites.

The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.

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For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter using the #longreads hashtag. It’s a habit now. Before sitting down to write — I am developing an erotically charged drama about the relationship between two promiscuous people in South Mumbai — I look around for a story, read it, and share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether or not I am able to write.

Starting with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Mother Nut” from The New Yorker, to Georges Simenon’s “The Little Restaurant Near Place des Ternes” from Electric Lit, I posted 304 stories in 2020. Here are the 10 that I enjoyed the most.

“Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu (Lightspeed Magazine)

Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. As soon as my self-imposed embargo on buying new books is lifted, I shall pick it up from a local bookstore. The reason is not just the award but this fascinating story.

Don’t feel like having a bad day? That’s a line from one of our commercials. Let someone else have it for you. It shows a rich executive-looking-type sitting and rubbing his temples, making the TV face to communicate the stress of his situation. There are wavy lines on either side of his temples to indicate that the Executive is! really! stressed! Then he places a call to his broker, and in the next scene, the Executive is lying on a beach, drinking golden beer from a bottle and looking at the bluest ocean I have ever seen.

I saw this on American television at the lunch counter across the street that has a satellite feed. I was eating at the counter and next to me was a girl, maybe four or five, scooping rice and peas into her mouth a little at a time. She watched the commercial in silence, and after it was over, turned to her mother and softly asked her what the blue liquid was. I was thinking about how sad it was that she had never seen water that color in real life until I realized that I was thirty-nine years old and hey, you know what, neither had I.

“The Strange Story of the World” by Chigozie Obioma (Granta)

A delightful short story from yet another literary star of Nigerian origin. Chigozie Obioma has been called an heir to Chinua Achebe. His novel An Orchestra of Minorities was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019.

The story of how my father became rich starts in 2002, shortly after Savannah bank, where he worked for nearly twenty years, closed down. Papa had gotten a job there as a junior clerk through the help of his uncle, even though all he had was a secondary school certificate. He’d gone on to become a chief clerk, but there was nothing else he could do when the bank closed. His uncle was dead and gone, and Papa had missed the chance to improve himself. ‘I should have gone back to school,’ he would say in those days, mostly to Mama. Often, Mama would shake her head and say, ‘No, no, Nathan. Don’t do this to yourself, ni to ri olohun.’ I suspect in those days that Papa liked to hear this. He liked to be consoled, petted and comforted by Mama, as if he were one of the children. Once, I saw Mama spoon-feeding him when he broke down one day, after Folu, my six-year-old brother, told him he wanted a bicycle like our neighbor’s sons had. The stupid boy, he hadn’t understood why we were only having boiled corn and groundnuts for dinner that night.

“House for Sale” by Colm Tóibín (The Dublin Review)

A recently widowed woman must deal with her kids and make arrangements to sell a country house in this story by Colm Tóibín, told in his lucid and straightforward style.

It was clear now that no one else would call. Nora was relieved that she would not have to entertain people who did not know each other, or people who did not like each other.

‘So anyway,’ May Larkin went on, ‘Frank was in the hospital bed in Brooklyn, and didn’t this man arrive into the bed beside his, and they got talking, and Frank knew he was Irish, and he told him he was from the County Wexford.’

She stopped and pursed her lips, as though she was trying to remember something. Suddenly, she began to imitate the man’s voice: ‘Oh, and that’s where I’m from, the man said, and then Frank said he was from Enniscorthy, oh and that’s where I’m from too, the man said. And he asked Frank what part of Enniscorthy he was from, and Frank said he was from Court Street.’.

May Larkin kept her eyes fixed on Nora’s face, forcing her to express interest and surprise.

‘And the man said that’s where I’m from too. Isn’t that extraordinary!’

She stopped, waiting for a reply.

‘And he told Frank that before he left the town he made that iron thing – what would you call it? – a grille or a guard on the windowsill there at Gerry Crean’s. And I went down to look at it and it’s there all right. Gerry didn’t know how it got there or when. But the man beside Frank in the bed in Brooklyn, he said that he made it, he was a welder. Isn’t that a great coincidence? To happen in Brooklyn.’

“Anything Could Disappear” by Danielle Evans (Electric Lit)

Electric Lit had a great year in their recommended reading section, where they drop a story every Wednesday. I have included two on my list. They published many good ones, especially stories by Leah Hampton, Shruti Swamy, Jenny Bhatt, Alejandro Puyana, and Mavis Gallant. In this story, a young woman on her way to New York City is asked to keep an eye on a 2-year-old boy while on a Greyhound bus. The mother disappears, leaving her child.

Vera was moving to New York on a Greyhound bus, carrying only a duffel bag. The morning she left Missouri, there was a heat advisory and an orange‑level terrorism alert. An hour outside of Chicago, there had been an older woman, crying and demanding that the bus pull over to let her off. From Chicago to Cleveland, she had sat next to a perfectly cordial man who had just finished a ten‑year prison sentence and was on his way home from Texas with nothing but his bus ticket and twenty dollars in his pocket. Between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, there had been a man who kept trying to get her to share a blanket with him, citing their proximity to the air‑conditioning vent, and between Pittsburgh and Philly, a teenage runaway had sat beside her and talked her ear off. And now there was this: a small, wobbly child whose mother had deposited him in the seat beside her with a simple “Keep an eye on him, will ya, hon?”

Vera tried to catch the eye of another passenger, maybe the woman two seats ahead of her on the other side of the aisle—she looked like the sort of person who would turn around and say, Keep an eye on him your damn self, lady; he’s yours, ain’t he?—but nobody looked up. The boy was around two years old, brown‑skinned with a head of curls that someone had taken the time to properly comb. He was dressed in a clean, bright red T‑shirt, baby jeans, and sneakers nicer than Vera’s. The mother was a thin, nervous white woman, with wispy hair in three shades of blond. She smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and chocolate milk. She had gotten on the bus with the boy and a girl, about seven, who looked like her in miniature. The little girl was chewing purple bubble gum with the kind of enthusiasm that would have prompted Vera’s own mother to ask, “Are you a young lady or a cow?” The mother had a cell phone pressed to her ear and was having a terse conversation with someone on the other end. She kept the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder, even as she leaned over the baby to kiss him on the forehead before walking farther toward the back of the bus.

“When Eddie Levert Comes” by Deesha Philyaw (Electric Lit)

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies made waves last year. This story of an elderly mama waiting for her singer lover is told through the eyes of her daughter.

“Today is the day,” Mama announced, as she did every day when Daughter came to her room with the breakfast tray.

“Good morning, Mama.” Daughter set the tray on the padded bench in front of Mama’s vanity. She squinted at the early morning sun shining through the thin curtains. Mama’s vanity was covered with powders and bottles of fragrances that hadn’t been touched in months.

Mama brushed past Daughter without a word. She opened a chifforobe drawer and took out a navy-and-white-striped short-sleeved blouse. She carried the blouse over to her bed and placed it above a light-blue cotton skirt with an elastic waistband, smoothing down the fabric of both items with her hands, as if ironing. She frowned.

“Where did all my beautiful things go?” she asked Daughter, the room, the air. “My beautiful wrap dresses and my pencil skirts? I want to look my best for him. He’s coming today, you know. Where are my lovely sheer blouses and my pantsuits? Have you seen them? Did you move them from my closet? Are you stealing from me?”

“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” by Haruki Murakami (The New Yorker)

Murakami crafts another unpredictable fable. This one is about a talking monkey a traveler encounters in a ramshackle inn. (It’s translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel.)

I was soaking in the bath for the third time when the monkey slid the glass door open with a clatter and came inside. “Excuse me,” he said in a low voice. It took me a while to realize that he was a monkey. All the thick hot water had left me a bit dazed, and I’d never expected to hear a monkey speak, so I couldn’t immediately make the connection between what I was seeing and the fact that this was an actual monkey. The monkey closed the door behind him, straightened out the little buckets that lay strewn about, and stuck a thermometer into the bath to check the temperature. He gazed intently at the dial on the thermometer, his eyes narrowed, for all the world like a bacteriologist isolating some new strain of pathogen.

“How is the bath?” the monkey asked me.

“It’s very nice. Thank you,” I said. My voice reverberated densely, softly, in the steam. It sounded almost mythological, not like my own voice but, rather, like an echo from the past returning from deep in the forest. And that echo was . . . hold on a second. What was a monkey doing here? And why was he speaking my language?

“Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked, his voice still low. He had the clear, alluring voice of a baritone in a doo-wop group. Not at all what you would expect. But nothing was odd about his voice: if you closed your eyes and listened, you’d think it was an ordinary person speaking.

“The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press)

This fantasy is about a girl and her eccentric grandmother, who has a community of fairies living in her black handbag. If you choose to read just one story from this list, let this be this one.

I used to go to thrift stores with my friends. We’d take the train into Boston, and go to The Garment District, which is this huge vintage clothing warehouse. Everything is arranged by color, and somehow that makes all of the clothes beautiful. It’s kind of like if you went through the wardrobe in the Narnia books, only instead of finding Aslan and the White Witch and horrible Eustace, you found this magic clothing world–instead of talking animals, there were feather boas and wedding dresses and bowling shoes, and paisley shirts and Doc Martens and everything hung up on racks so that first you have black dresses, all together, like the world’s largest indoor funeral, and then blue dresses–all the blues you can imagine–and then red dresses and so on. Pink-reds and orangey reds and purple-reds and exit-light reds and candy reds. Sometimes I would close my eyes and Natasha and Natalie and Jake would drag me over to a rack, and rub a dress against my hand. “Guess what color this is.”

We had this theory that you could learn how to tell, just by feeling, what color something was. For example, if you’re sitting on a lawn, you can tell what color green the grass is, with your eyes closed, depending on how silky-rubbery it feels. With clothing, stretchy velvet stuff always feels red when your eyes are closed, even if it’s not red. Natasha was always best at guessing colors, but Natasha is also best at cheating at games and not getting caught.

One time we were looking through kid’s t-shirts and we found a Muppets t-shirt that had belonged to Natalie in third grade. We knew it belonged to her, because it still had her name inside, where her mother had written it in permanent marker, when Natalie went to summer camp. Jake bought it back for her, because he was the only one who had money that weekend. He was the only one who had a job.

“Birdie” by Lauren Groff (The Atlantic)

A group of women who knew one another in childhood reunite in a hospital to deal with unsolved issues as Birdie is dying of terminal cancer.

The women were drinking peach schnapps, telling stories about the worst things they’d ever done. They had already skimmed through the missing years in haste, as though the past were gruesome, the two decades of lost friendship something untouchable and rotten. Maybe it was, Nic thought. Melodie had said she was a real-estate agent in San Luis Obispo, still playing the field. Her face was so artificially plumped and frozen that it resembled a Greek-chorus mask that had slid between genres and settled on tragicomedy. Sammie was overripe, a bruised apple. Five kids with Hank, she had said with a sigh, all seven of them packed into the little house her mother had left her, in the same little town where the women had all grown up. Birdie was dying, the reason they’d all been summoned. She had only her friends and her parents these days, because she had been a freelancer, working alone, and her boyfriend had taken off at the first diagnosis, stealing the cat. Only Nic was the same as she’d been when they’d last seen her, just a little more droopy and wrinkled now—a law professor, one kid, divorced, chunky jewelry, the whole shebang. In this room, she was hyperaware of how boring her life was, but also that she was the one who was clearly managing the best. A surprise; fortune favoring the brittle.

“All Saint’s Mountain” by Olga Tokarczuk (Hazlitt)

The modern and ancient interact in this tale, set in the Swiss Alps, by the 2018 Nobel Prize-winning author. (This is translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft.)

The plane arrived over Zurich when it was supposed to, but for a long time it was obliged to circle the city, since snow had covered the airport, and we had to wait until the slow yet effective machines had managed to clear that snow. Just as it landed, the snow clouds parted, and against the orange blazing sky there were contrails in tangles that transformed the firmament into a gigantic grid—almost as though God were extending an invitation to play a round of tic-tac-toe.

The driver who was supposed to pick me up and who was waiting with my last name written out on the lid of a cardboard shoebox was quick to state facts:

“I’m supposed to take you to the pension—the road up to the Institute is completely snowed under. We won’t make it to there.”

But his dialect was so strange I could barely understand him. I also felt like I had missed something. It was May, after all, the eighth of May.

“Flashlight” by Susan Choi (The New Yorker)

Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise won a National Book Award in 2019. In “Flashlight,” a 10-year-old girl who loses her father in an accident deals with her grieving mother and a child-psychologist.

“One thing I will always be grateful to your mother for—she taught you to swim.”

“Why.” Not asked as a question but groaned as a protest. Louisa does not want her father to talk about her mother. She is sick of her mother. Her mother can do nothing right. This is the theme of their new life, in Louisa’s opinion: that Louisa and her father are two fish who should leave her beached mother behind.

They are making their way down the breakwater, each careful step on the heaved granite blocks one step farther from the shore. Her mother is not even on the shore, seated smiling on the sand. Her mother is shut inside the small, almost-waterfront house they are renting, most likely in bed. All summer Louisa has played in the waves by herself because her mother isn’t well and her father is invariably dressed in a jacket and slacks. Every day since they got here, four weeks ago, she has asked her father to walk the breakwater with her, and tonight he has finally agreed. Spray from the waves sometimes lands on the rocks, so he has carefully rolled up the cuffs of his slacks, though he is still wearing his hard polished shoes. In one hand, he holds a flashlight, which is not necessary; in the other hand, he holds Louisa’s hand, which is also not necessary. She tolerates this out of kindness to him.

My story picks from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.