The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Throughout the year, Pravesh Bhardwaj posts his favorite short stories on Twitter, and then in January, we get to share his favorites with you to enjoy in the year ahead.
Starting with Kevin Barry’s “That Old Country Music” from Electric Lit to Aleksandar Hemon’s “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls” from The Baffler, I posted 276 stories in 2021. Here are the ten I most enjoyed reading.
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life was shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2020. He followed it with the short story collection Filthy Animals, published in June, 2021. The following story is set in the world of academia — Brandon Taylor’s Macondo.
The famous black writer was in town to give a reading, and Coleman was not sure if he would go. He had known the famous black writer for a few years, but only indirectly. They had many friends in common and had gone to the same university, though years apart. The famous black writer had a kind of totally useless fame, which was to say that he was notable among a small group of people interested in highly experimental fiction that was really memoir but also a poem. The famous black writer had built a reputation for pyrotechnic readings that sometimes included slideshows of brutalized slave bodies and sometimes involved moan-singing. Coleman had watched videos of the famous black writer and had felt a nauseating secondhand embarrassment, thinking Is this how people see me?
The famous black writer was handsome—tall, with striking bone structure, and a real classic elegance. He looked like an adult, like a finished version of an expensive product. His hair was quite architectural. The night of the reading, he wore a mohair coat and slim-cut, all-black ensemble right out of a photograph from the 1950s.
Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a sensational debut collection of short stories. Since reading it, I have been looking forward to his next work. The following story appeared in The New Yorker.
Back in the nineteen-fifties, when old Mian Abdullah Abdalah rose to serve as Pakistan’s Federal Secretary Establishment, a knee-bending district administration metalled the road leading from the Cawnapur railway station to his Dunyapur estate. They also pushed out a telephone line to his farmhouse, the first phone on any farm in the district. Even now, thirty years later, there was no other line nearby. A single wire ran many forlorn miles from Cawnapur city through the flat tan landscape of South Punjab, there on the edge of the Great Indian Desert, then alongside the packed-dirt farm tracks laid out in geometric lines, and finally entered the grounds of a small, handsome residence built in the style of a British colonial dak bungalow.
Now, for the second time in a month, the Chandios had stolen a section of the telephone wire, which served for all the area as a symbol of the Dunyapur estate’s preëminence. The Chandio village sat far from the road at the back end of the estate, buried in an expanse of reeds and derelict land, dunes that had never been cleared. Testing Mian Abdalah’s grandson, Sohel, who had returned from college in America six months earlier and moved onto the estate, they had been amusing themselves and bearding him by cutting out lengths of the wire that passed near their village and selling them for copper somewhere across the Indus.
The current pandemic has changed our lives; I am one of those who felt that 2021 was tougher than 2020. Hilma Wolitzer’s story, published in her collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket tells a tender but sweeping story of a decades-long marriage.
I used to look at Howard first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before one of the kids crashed into the room and plopped down between us like an Amish bundling board. Lately, though, with the children long grown and gone to their own marriage beds, I found myself glancing over to see if Howard was still alive, holding my breath while I watched for the shallow rise and fall of his, the way I had once watched for a promising rise in the bedclothes.
Whenever I saw that he was breathing and that the weather waited just behind the blinds to be let in, I felt an irrational surge of happiness. Another day! And then another and another and another. Breakfast, vitamins, bills, argument, blood pressure pills, lunch, doctor, cholesterol medicine, the telephone, supper, TV, sleeping pills, sleep, waking. It seemed as if it would all go on forever in that exquisitely boring and beautiful way. But of course it wouldn’t; everyone knows that.
This story was selected as an O. Henry Prize winner in 2021.
My sister threw upon the door so that it banged against the little console table she kept by the entrance. “Silas,” she said breathlessly, before even removing her coat, “I have to tell you something.” Which was enough to make me feel trapped, as though the words out of her mouth were expanding and filling up the space in her tiny apartment. I told her to calm down and apologized, and then I began making excuses for myself. I had assumed she would be angry at me because of the previous night, so I was primed for what she might say when she got home from work.
“Don’t be so defensive,” Bernice said. “I’m not talking about that.” She tapped my legs so I would move them and then plopped down next to me on the love seat. The chill from outside clung to her body. I saved my reformatted CV, set my laptop on the floor, and listened.
The man who sang out of tune had been waiting for her again. He had started standing near the card shop on Amsterdam Avenue during her lunch hour two weeks earlier, and she had quickly noticed his repeated presence. As she passed him that afternoon, he faced her directly and gave her a meaningful look, which was more than he had ever done before. “But all he did after that was keep belting it out in that terrible voice,” she told me. “A sentimental song, you know? The sweetness of making love in the morning.” Even though he was thin and light skinned and wore those big, clunky headphones—“ Not my type at all,” she said—Bernice did find him somewhat handsome. But since he didn’t say anything, she just went inside the shop.
Lauren Groff had a lovely novella What’s the Time, Mr.Wolf? published in The New Yorker as well, but this story is special and carries a punch.
Pretend, the mother had said when she crept to her daughter’s room in the night, that tomorrow is just an ordinary day.
So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside on the porch. The dog thumped his tail against the doghouse in the cold yard but was old and did not get up. The children’s breath hovered low and white as they walked down to the bus stop, a strange presence trailing them in the road.
When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?
The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.
The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.
Lisa Taddeo won her first Pushcart Prize for this story. Her novel Animal was published in 2021.
In a small wooden box at her nightstand she kept a special reserve of six joints meticulously rolled, because the last time she’d slept with someone on the regular he’d been twenty-seven and having good pot at your house means one extra reason for the guy to come over, besides a good mattress and good coffee and great products in a clean bathroom. At home your towels smell like ancient noodles. But at Joan’s the rugs are free of hair and dried-up snot. The sink smells like lemon. The maid folds your boxers. Sleeping with an older woman is like having a weekend vacation home.
Mary Morris’ story is one of heartache and loss, about a family and their newly found rescue dog.
The dog is a rescue. He was dumped from a moving car right in front of Dr. Katz’s office. Pete, the vet technician, was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette, when it happened. Dropped like a sack of potatoes, Pete told Dr. Katz. Pete picked up the dog—a mangy black-and-white with deep dark eyes—and brought him to Dr. Katz, who was finishing up a Rottweiler with glass in its paw. The dog is a mongrel—a Lab and something-else mix. Maybe shepherd or border collie. Dr. Katz isn’t sure. A gentle dog. About two years old. He is mostly white but with a black tail and black patches, including one that encircles his left eye. The minute Roger Katz lays eyes on the dog he knows he’ll call him Pirate.
Roger wasn’t planning on adopting a dog. It’s kind of a joke among his wife, children, friends, and extended family. The cobbler’s family has no shoes. The Katz family has no pets. They’d had the occasional fish and hamster—none of which had survived very long in that household. But never a cat and never a dog. In fact, Roger’s name is a bit of a joke for his line of work. Katz Animal Care. Danny, his middle child, had thought up the motto: “We do dogs. And Katz too.” But the family itself has never had either of these as a pet.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Breynah’s story about a father and his writer son is a part of his celebrated collection Friday Black.
“What are you looking for?” said a woman who I hoped knew I was already lost and scared. She stood in front of me in purple scrubs and colorful nurse-type shoes. Her brown hair was spun into something that let everyone know she was very busy and hadn’t slept in a long time. The tone of her voice, spiced with the Bronx, said I was one of many inconveniences in her life.
“I’m looking for my dad; he just came through here a second ago.”
“Is that all?” She tapped her clipboard with a pen. “What department?” I had no idea what department my father was looking for, so I told her the truth about that. “Well, I don’t know how you don’t know, but —” She was about to take great pleasure in telling me that I was in this situation due to my own incompetence and that even though she could not help me, she herself was very competent. I walked away from her before she could finish.
Sally Rooney won an O. Henry Prize for this story in 2021. Her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You was published last year.
At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon, a woman sat behind a desk in a shared office in Dublin city center, scrolling through a text document. She had very dark hair, swept back loosely into a tortoiseshell clasp, and she was wearing a dark-gray sweater tucked into black cigarette trousers. Using the soft, greasy roller on her computer mouse she skimmed over the document, eyes flicking back and forth across narrow columns of text, and occasionally she stopped, clicked, and inserted or deleted characters. Most frequently she was inserting two full stops into the name “WH Auden,” in order to standardize its appearance as “W. H. Auden.” When she reached the end of the document, she opened a search command, selected the Match Case option, and entered “WH.” No matches appeared. She scrolled back up to the top of the document, words and paragraphs flying past illegibly, and then, apparently satisfied, saved her work and closed the file.
At one o’clock she told her colleagues she was going to lunch, and they smiled and waved at her from behind their monitors. Pulling on a jacket, she walked to a café near the office and sat at a table by the window, holding a sandwich in one hand and a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” in the other. At twenty to two, she looked up to observe a tall, fair-haired man entering the café. He was wearing a suit and tie, with a plastic lanyard around his neck, and was speaking into his phone. Yeah, he said, I was told Tuesday, but I’ll call back and check that for you. When he saw the woman seated by the window, his face changed, and he quickly lifted his free hand, mouthing the word Hey. Into the phone, he continued, I don’t think you were copied on that, no. Looking at the woman, he pointed to the phone impatiently and made a talking gesture with his hand. She smiled, toying with the corner of a page in her book. Right, right, the man said. Listen, I’m actually out of the office now, but I’ll do that when I get back in. Yeah. Good, good, good to talk to you.
Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection In Land of Big Numbers was included in Barrack Obama’s favorite reads of 2021. This story is about a flower shop assistant’s involvement with a professional who has a fountain pen that costs more than the assistant’s yearly salary.
The man who lived upstairs had died, and it had taken the other tenants days to notice, days in which the sweetly putrid scent thickened and residents tried to avoid his part of the hall, palms tenting their noses as they came and left. At last someone sent for the building manager, who summoned his unemployed cousin to break the lock and paid him 100 yuan to carry the body down the three flights of stairs.
There was a squabble as the residents who inhabited the adjoining rooms argued that they should have their rent lowered; the death was bad luck. Xiaolei stood listening as the building manager shouted them down. She felt sorry for the man who had died, whom she recalled as middle-aged, with tired, deep-set eyes, a chain-smoker who’d worked at the local post office. She supposed that if she ever asphyxiated or was stabbed overnight, the same thing would happen to her.