If you’re not a speed reader, a binge reader or any other voracious type, then four to six weeks of winter break is an awkward amount of time to play reading catch-up. There might be time for one or two, maybe three novels. But in order to maximize the amount of solid nightstand narratives you encounter, we’ve compiled a list of the best essay collections, short story collections, and multi-part narrative journalism from 2014. The perks: You can finish these multi-part stories in one or two sittings, and if you can’t finish a collection by the time the semester picks back up, no problem: months can go by and it won’t matter if you don’t remember anything about the previous stories. From chilling crime investigations to essays about poverty tourism in Mexico and orphans in Russia, here are 11 suggestions to diversify your reading queue for the remaining winter weeks off:
1. The Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s nine stories are where psychological thriller, horror folk tales, and romanticism intersect. Her main characters in each story are all aging artists and writers with haunting pasts. In one, a widow hears the voice of her long-gone spouse; in another, a woman with a genetic deformity is mistaken for a vampire; and another man finds a surprise in storage—that one’s called “The Freeze-Dried Bridegroom.”
2. “The Murders at the Lake,”; by Michael Hall, in Texas Monthly
In five “books,” each from a different character’s perspective, Michael Hall tells the story of the grisly triple homicide that rocked Waco, Texas, in 1982. Decades later, some are still wondering if the notoriously ruthless Texas justice system executed and incarcerated innocent men.
3. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison
Sparked by her experience as a medical actor (essentially, pretending to feel pain for studying med students, and for money), Leslie Jamison’s essays seek to understand the human condition from positions in which we are most likely to judge. She’s a tourist in Mexico. Meets former prisoners attempting to finish a brutal marathon that only eight men ever have. She attends a conference for people who suffer from Morgellons, who believe there are fibers crawling beneath their skin, who are generally written off as crazy. Consider her an expert on understanding pain.
4. “I Want It, and I Want It Now-It’s Time for Instant Gratification,” by Liz Gannes, in Re/code
Tamales delivered to your doorstep at the press of a button, sexual man servants delivered at the press of a button, Uber for your laundry, Uber for massages, Uber for housecleaning—yeah, we’re spoiled as hell. In five parts, Liz Gannes tackles the problem with instant gratification and the new world of on-demand everything.
5. The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan
With a job at The New Yorker secured as her first post-grad gig, Marina Keegan had a promising career ahead. But at only 22, it was cut short after she died in a car accident, five days after graduating from Yale in 2012. In this posthumous collection—compiled by friends and family—her fiction often chronicles lives of confused college students, in ambiguous relationships or with hard-to-reach big dreams, and her essays wrestle with the big decisions that hover over a 22-year-old, encompassing what it’s like to be young and aspiring.
6. “The Lost Bones,”; by Ben Montgomery, in the Tampa Bay Times
In two parts—and after six years of reporting—Ben Montgomery chronicles the story of a search for the graves, and the identities, of dozens of missing boys who disappeared from a boy’s institution over several decades. The institution, for boy criminals, had long been suspected of abuse and inhumane mistreatment. One determined anthropologist set out to find the truth.
7. Family Furnishings, by Alice Munro
Family Furnishings is a collection of Munro’s 24 best stories since 1995. Many of which are set in small-town Ontario. There are stories of first loves, leaving home, leaving marriages, a single mother mathematician leaving Russia to find work, only to face gender discrimination. The 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is the kind of writer who fools you into thinking you know her story, only for you to finish both terribly mistaken and wonderfully stunned.
8.“Firestone and the Warlord,” by T. Christian Miller and Jonathan Jones, in ProPublica
Charles Taylor was among America’s most trusted allies in Africa. Firestone—the car-fixing enterprise—was among Taylor’s most trusted allies in taking over Liberia. Firestone wanted it for the country’s rubber. Starting in 1992, Firestone provided Taylor and his anarchic, “ragtag” army—which wore jeans and included children—with millions of dollars of resources. ProPublica’s seven-chapter investigation exposes how this global corporation played into a gruesome, insurgent African conflict.
9.Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio
Loitering is largely about trying to understand sadness. D’Ambrosio grapples with the suicide of one brother and the attempted of another; with the tragic stories he reported on as a journalist, such as his visit to a Russian orphanage; and with the feelings of estrangement that ultimately shaped him while growing up in Seattle in the 1970s.
10.“The Cost of Life,” by Justine Griffin, in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
In memory of a friend who died, the writer decides to become an egg donor to help give life to an infertile couple. But once she signs the contract, she soon realizes that “the doctors were there for the eggs and not for me.” Three chapters on the troubles faced by Griffin and other donors who may never meet the children who look like them.
11. Bark, by Lorrie Moore
There’s a lot of bitterness and bleakness in Bark (a truthfully unintended theme of this list). There’s a newly divorced Jewish man who kicks off his dating life at a Catholic Lent dinner, where he meets a woman who only plummets him further; a broke and failing boyfriend/girlfriend musical duo, who prey on their elderly neighbor; a desperate man with an institutionalized son. Her use of language in these stories is the kind that makes you squirm uncomfortably or bite down on your gums, but exactly—that’s why it’s here.