Short Stories

Armchair BEA: Short Stories

This is a topic near and dear to my literary heart. For years I read short stories almost exclusively: collections, anthologies, literary journals, and magazines. I own every Best American Short Stories edition since 1995, when I first became interested in the form. I kept subscriptions to Tin House, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, One Story, Harper’s, and The New Yorker until the piles of magazines and journals threatened to crowd us out of our home. I’m always vexed when people tell me they don’t “get” short stories. They seem to believe short stories are either too dense and “literary” to be entertaining, or they expect them to be “bite size” literary experiences when they don’t have time to read longer works. Either way, the short story gets short shrift. (Go ahead, say that five times fast!)

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, it was a banner moment for the short story. Creative writing programs across the country have seemed to contribute to the popular idea (among both writers and readers) that short story collections are “starter” efforts for serious writers, a way for them to flex their literary muscle before they get down to the “real” work of writing a novel.  By awarding Munro—who writes short stories almost exclusively—with the prize, the Nobel committee also conferred a higher status to the short story, recognizing it as a distinctive and worthy form apart from the novel.

Like the best novels, the best short stories are character-driven. In other words, the plot derives from character, not the other way around, and for readers who are more focused on “what happens” than on underlying motives and behaviors that drive action, short stories might take some getting used to. Writers tend to focus more on language in short stories. That’s not to say that plenty of novelists aren’t concerned with language, but simply that in the short story the language must do much more heavy lifting than in the novel because of the shorter form. In that way, the best short stories have more in common with poetry than with novels.

If you are interested in reading short stories but you aren’t sure where to begin, anthologies are a great place to start because you’re exposed to different writers and can get a sense of what you as a reader expect and enjoy from stories. The Best American series of anthologies is wonderful (I am partial to Best American Mystery Stories in addition to the annual “literary” short story collection), as are The O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Stories. Beyond that, I’ve listed some of my favorite collections:

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage, by Alice Munro

Rare and Endangered Species, by Richard Bausch

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

After Rain, by William Trevor

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett

The Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter

Rock Springs, Richard Ford

Almost No Memory, Lydia Davis

Monogamy, by Marly Swick

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky, Mary Robison

Female Trouble, by Antonia Nelson

Heat, Joyce Carol Oates

In the Garden of North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff

Delicate, Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

I’m All Out of Love

Have you ever fallen out of love with an author? Recently on NetGalley I requested a book of stories by a writer whose stories and novels I used to love. I have read at least five of this author’s books (three collections, two novels), and one collection in particular I have recommended many times to people who were interested in reading short stories but were not sure where to start.

I was excited about this new story collection. (And I’ll confirm that I am not talking about Lorrie Moore’s Bark, which I own in hardback but have not even opened yet.) The first story was one I had already read when it was published elsewhere. I remember thinking it was okay. On second reading, I was even less impressed.

This author does tend to visit the same themes over and over again, but a lot of authors (Alice Munro, for example) do that successfully over the course of an entire career. I can appreciate this, as long as I continue to see the author handling certain themes or subject matter in new ways—when I can see the author has turned the thing this way, and then again that way, and realized that perhaps long-held ideas were misguided, or the result of pride or vanity or anything, really.

What I found in this new collection was that this author seems to have stopped seeing things through the prism of age or changing culture or world events and is instead viewing them through a single lens, one with an old prescription. I feel as though I have seen these characters before, in these same situations, responding in the same ways, and it leaves me thinking, “Really? Again?” It’s like watching an old friend repeatedly make the same mistakes. Or maybe it’s the way I’m reading? My expectations were too high, perhaps?

I am being purposely coy and not naming names (or even revealing gender) because I feel that I can still recommend the author’s past books. But I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing this one, and I’ll never suggest it.

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

All Hail Alice Munro! All Hail the Short Story!

Unless you live under a rock or simply do not care about literature at all (why are you here, by the way?), then you probably know by now that Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. I heard the news this morning on NPR. I gave a whoop and started to cry; I was so happy to hear the news because Alice Munro is my favorite author, and I know I’m not alone!

“This is quite a wonderful thing for me. It’s a wonderful thing for the short story.”—Alice Munro

But another reason to be happy is that this is such a significant award given to a writer dedicated to the short story form. I did not know, until I started this blog and became acquainted with other book bloggers, how many readers–even readers of ‘serious’ literature–have an aversion to the short story. I’ve often wondered why that is, but the attitude is not an uncommon one, even if the reasons are singular and unique.

“Because I work in the short story form, this is a special thing, to get this recognition.” —Alice Munro

Earlier this year, an article on Gawker took American writer George Saunders to task for never having written a novel. The premise? Real writers write novels…enough playing at all this short story business. Short stories are for MFA theses. They are for dallying and tinkering with between writing real books. They are not serious literature. That story garnered quite a bit of criticism when it was published, but hopefully now we can begin to put the debate to rest (or at least lock it in a closet where we can’t hear the muffled cries of outrage).

In honor of Ms. Munro being awarded the prize, I thought I would share a list of some of my favorite short story collections.  I hope you find something you like here.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage, by Alice Munro (Favorite stories: “Post and Beam” and the title story, soon to be a movie starring Kristin Wiig. Candian actress, director, and activist Sarah Polley also made the film Away from Her, which was based on “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” the last story in this collection.)

Rare and Endangered Species, by Richard Bausch

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

After Rain, by William Trevor

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett

The Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter

Monogamy, by Marly Swick

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky, Mary Robison

Female Trouble, by Antonia Nelson

In the Garden of North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff

Delicate, Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

“Well I hope [the prize brings a new readership], and I would hope this would happen not just for me but for the short story in general, because it’s often sort of brushed off you know as something people do before they write their first novel, and I would like it to come to the fore without any strings attached sort of. It doesn’t have to be a novel.” —Alice Munro

*Alice Munro quotes from her telephone interview today with Nobel member Adam Smith. You can listen to the call in its entirety here.

**Image from The New York Times

***Updated 10/14/2013 to add link for short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” now available on The New Yorker site.

New Year, New Books (Part 2)

Please pardon my really super fabulous photography skills. Thank goodness I don’t have a food blog. I actually have thought about sharing some recipes here from time to time, but every picture I take of food…well, something happens, and let’s just say the photo never looks like anything anyone would want to eat. Ever.

As promised, in New Year, New Books (Part 1), I am sharing the “real” books I bought for Christmas. Even with the funky flash action I think you can kinda see all the titles. I am not ashamed to admit that Downton Abbey is completely responsible for my renewed interest in World War I, so I bought The Guns of August and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman, as well as Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. The Guns of August won a Pulitzer, so it must be brilliant. I expect good things.

Sort of by accident I ended up with two Civil War era reads. I have had Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln on my wishlist since President Obama was elected the first time around. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield was a very recent addition to my wishlist after I heard Nancy Pearl talk about it on NPR back in November 2012. (For the record, she also talked about Liz Moore’s Heft, which I also purchased.) Here in the South, the Civil War never dies, and after many states started petitions to secede after President Obama’s recent election (and to be fair, not just states here in the South), I was curious to read about this concept of “nation” at a time when people seem more divided than ever.

I guess you can see that lately I am going through some kind of history craze (oh lord don’t let it leave me now that I spent all my Christmas money). I bought Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created after hearing this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Trust me: he’s so engaging, if you listen to the interview, you’ll want to buy the books, too!

Of course, I had to buy some more fiction (although who knows when I’ll get to it, with all those other huge tomes and the fact that I read about 30 words a day). Because I feel like practically the only person who has not read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I decided it was high time I got around to it. I know I added The Report by Jessica Francis Kane to my wishlist back in 2010 not long after I read Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch because I was interested in reading more novels about World War II. The two Charles Portis novels, Norwood and The Dog of the South I bought because I love True Grit so much, I am determined to read all his books. I bought only one short story collection, American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been on my list since it was published in 2009. And then, finally, I bought Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, because I’ll never stop dreaming…although with all this reading to do, who has time to write?

*Just a little note: All these links are from Amazon, but I am in no way affiliated with them and I do not make any money should you choose to purchase one of these books because you know how cool I am and you probably want to read all the same books I read. I feel so much better for having said that.

Paris Review: Dorothy Parker

Interviewer: How about the novel? Have you ever tried that form?

Parker: I wish to God I could do one, but I haven’t got the nerve.

Interviewer: And short stories? Are you still doing them?

Parker: I’m trying now to do a story that’s purely narrative. I think narrative stories are the best, though my past stories make themselves stories by telling themselves through what people say. I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things. But I am not going to do those he-said, she said things anymore, they’re over, honey, they’re over. I want to do the story that can only be told in the narrative form, and though they’re going to scream about the rent, I’m going to do it.

Interviewer: Do you think economic security an advantage to the writer?

Parker: Yes. Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats. The people who lived and wrote well in the twenties were comfortable and easy living. They were able to find stories novels, and good ones, in conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret. As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be a darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.” I realize that’s not much help when the wolf comes scratching at the door, but it’s a comfort.

*photo from nndb.com; interview excerpt from The Paris Review Interviews, vol. I

Paris Review: John Cheever

Interviewer: What comes first, the plot?

Cheever: I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring…one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, like a kidney.

*photo from Wikipedia; quote from Paris Review Interviews, vol. III