Top Five Short Story Reads for July 2017
It is summertime and social media feeds are awash with photos as people try to outdo each other with their luxurious and/or adventurous trips (come on, that’s the main goal of all the public sharing, right?) as they check more cities/countries off their to-do lists.
This month’s collection of short stories is related to travel. There are five new stories and five that I have featured in past months and am resharing in case you missed them earlier — all free to read online, just click the titles. The traveler-writers included here: Jack London, Virginia Woolf, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Nanjil Nadan, Joy Williams, Reem Abu-Baker, Meron Hadero, Goli Taraghi, and one of my own published earlier this year.
For me, travel has always been a more purposeful endeavor beyond a change of scenery or relaxation or checking off a to-do hotspot — beyond “tourism,” really. This is also why solo trips work best for me (and I know they also work best for my family members.) In these times, going somewhere new ought to be about a deeper personal transformation and not simply about eating, shopping, and being waited upon while rushing from one place to the next taking a gazillion photos. We can do most of this now from the comfort of our homes. Global cuisine is now delivered or cooked locally, Amazon offers everything from all corners of the world, a tap of a phone app brings an army of service providers to our doorsteps, and Google/Flickr has a treasure trove of photos better than anything a layperson can manage.
Taking in an underground play in East Berlin shortly after the Wall came down, cruising the Loch Ness at midnight, driving cross-country through national parks and small-town USA, sharing bread and cheese with a French gardener in a near-deserted country chateau in Dijon, meeting writers from around the world at the Jaipur Literary Festival, practicing Yoga in the mountains near the Himalayas — these are the kinds of travel experiences where I have met the most interesting people, collected fascinating stories of past and present, and, most importantly, learned more about the world and myself in conscious, mindful, and transformational ways.
John O’Donohoe’s poem, ‘For the Traveler,’ sums it up best for me. Read the whole thing but, especially, this bit:
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
During my corporate career, I traveled a lot globally and often tagged on 2–3 personal days at the start or end of each business trip to take in local sights. Since then, though my traveling has lessened, given my interests, I still veer toward places rich in history, culture, and literary connections rather than beaches, nature trails, or leisure activities.
John Ruskin also wrote against “quick tourism.” As the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in the late-19th century, he had a lot to say, particularly, about the then-new trend of photography. He did not care for the “blindness and haste of modern tourists,” who proudly covered “Europe in a week” with cameras capturing every possible sight. He encouraged drawing/sketching instead, regardless of whether one had the talent, for slower, proper observation. He’d have some choice words for how we’re all always whipping out our phones to take photos, but never really “seeing” what we’re capturing. Here are some of his words-to-live-by — so applicable to the whole tourist vs traveler distinction too.
No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.
Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals.
The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all!
But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see, here and there, a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty. Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes.
Is not this worth seeing? Yet, if you are not a sketcher, you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.
For those of us who sketch with words, it is most satisfying to do this kind of “slow travel” because it gives us more to write about — perhaps not right away but, certainly, over time. Which brings me, finally, to this month’s collection of short stories, which are all related to travel. There are five new stories and five that I have featured in past months and am resharing in case you missed them earlier — all free to read online, just click the titles. The traveler-writers included here: Jack London, Virginia Woolf, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Nanjil Nadan, Joy Williams, Reem Abu-Baker, Meron Hadero, Goli Taraghi, and one of my own published earlier this year.
Jack London was one of those intrepid 19th-century American explorers turned fiction writers who also happened to be an excellent journalist and lifelong social activist. Though more well-known for his novels, his short stories are a perfection of their own. In fact, some critics now say that his novels are more like linked short stories. His eye for detail, his descriptions of people and the outdoors, and his insights into people’s relationships with the outdoors (us vs nature) — all these are worth savoring.
London’s most famous short story is ‘To Build A Fire’ but let’s not start off with death. Instead, this story has more mystery, adventure, and the keen insights of a traveler who has survived to narrate his tale. It also deals with racial bias, as you see right from the opening paragraph below, and the meaning and effect of art. The prose is simple but musical and conversational. What I also love about this story is how, as the two men discuss different visual images, their individual observations and interpretations of each artwork reveals so much about them. And, by the way, it illustrates very well what Ruskin described in the above excerpt about truly seeing something as opposed to simply looking at it.
Sitka Charley smoked his pipe and gazed thoughtfully at the Police Gazette illustration on the wall. For half an hour he had been steadily regarding it, and for half an hour I had been slyly watching him. Something was going on in that mind of his, and, whatever it was, I knew it was well worth knowing. He had lived life, and seen things, and performed that prodigy of prodigies, namely, the turning of his back upon his own people, and, in so far as it was possible for an Indian, becoming a white man even in his mental processes. As he phrased it himself, he had come into the warm, sat among us, by our fires, and become one of us. He had never learned to read nor write, but his vocabulary was remarkable, and more remarkable still was the completeness with which he had assumed the white man’s point of view, the white man’s attitude toward things.
Woolf is another writer more well known for her novels than her short stories. Even so, I find her short stories give us brief moments of life like beautiful butterflies caught and pinned inside glass for us all to observe up close and with new perspectives.
Here, a female narrator is traveling by train from London to the southern coast of England. And, like many of us, she is a people-watcher and finds strangers interesting enough to make up stories about them in her head. I won’t give away the rest because the story, overall, does not have a whole lot of plot other than what the narrator is imagining. But there is a satisfyingly crunchy twist at the end. And there is, of course, Woolf’s shining, brilliant prose.
Interestingly, Woolf first began thinking about these characters as a response to Arnold Bennett, one of the great writers of her times. He had complained about how the early-20th-century writers were not writing good novels because they were failing at character-building. To him, character was the foundation of good fiction. In her famous and must-read essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,’ Woolf argued that every person is a natural judge of character, but a true skill for character-reading (for the purposes of good fiction and, of course, for life too) requires practice. She shared her own experience of a woman she encountered on the train from Richmond to Waterloo and wrote, “I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite.” [Personal trivia: after I read this particular essay for the first time in 2001, I began writing my own version of a lady on a train. For whatever reason, my story did not progress and I put it away till earlier this year, when I dusted it off, finished it, and got it published at ‘The Vignette Review.’]
Together, Woolf’s essay and this short story form a masterclass in the art of character creation and building in fiction. There are a couple of excellent analyses of this story here and here. A decent listicle summary of the essay mentioned above can be found here.
Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one’s eyes slide above the paper’s edge to the poor woman’s face–insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of–what? That life’s like that, it seems. Five faces opposite–five mature faces–and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth–the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game–do, for all our sakes, conceal it!
John Cheever is called the Chekhov of the American suburbs. Known more for his short stories than his novels, he wrote about the duality of things: the conflicts between wealth and happiness, inner persona and outer appearance, cultural/community traditions and modernism, and much more.
This story is frequently anthologized and taught. I like how it is about a journey through a familiar neighborhood but seen afresh as if for the first time. The main character is a typical Cheever fella — socially active, upper middle class, and with a Mad-Men-esque sense of entitlement and privilege that makes him blind to much of what his life is really all about. Neddy Merrill decides to swim through all the pools of his neighborhood on a summer’s day. Things begin well enough but take a rather dark, surreal turn, which I will not spoil for you. The beauty of the story is in how the various characters interact with Ned in surprising ways and what he realizes about himself and his life as he continues his quest. In many ways, this is Homer’s Odyssey set in 60s suburbia.
Cheever began this as a novel and, after 150 pages of notes, cut it down to a short story. There is a movie version with a rather well-toned Burt Lancaster in a pair of swimming trunks through most of it. Picture him this way:
Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man — he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth — and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather. He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest.
Of her various travel-related stories, the one that is most widely-anthologized is ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ about an unforgettable family road trip. Post-modern Southern Gothic at its best.
I am sharing this one instead because, though it is not as well known as the latter, it is still among one of O’Connor’s best. Please do not be put off by the n-word in the title and the story. It simply shows us a certain kind of white people at a certain time in history who used the word and not always in a derogatory sense. Besides, in this story, the “Negro” is really symbolic for all the strange unknowns that evoke both fear and fascination within us from time to time.
An old man, Mr Head, takes his ten-year-old grandson, Nelson, to visit the city, hoping that the boy will not like it and will prefer to live out his life in the country. But the city is, for both of them, almost like a foreign country and they are both awed and overwhelmed by it. Both man and boy are, of course, changed by their journey in different, unexpected ways. So is their relationship.
O’Connor’s prose is pitch-perfect and we can hear the two distinct voices so clearly — we are there with them, trudging around the big, bad city and drinking in all it has to offer. One of the best scenes, visually, is where Nelson talks to a black woman for the first time in his life. And the ending is so raw and beautiful, unspooling mercifully from a rather harsh climax. This is the kind of story you don’t want to end, though. You want to continue walking with the two of them as they head home quietly in the moonlight after their eventful day in the city.
They reached the junction some time before the train was due to arrive and stood about two feet from the first set of tracks. Mr. Head carried a paper sack with some biscuits and a can of sardines in it for their lunch. A coarse-looking orange-colored sun coming up behind the east range of mountains was making the sky a dull red behind them, but in front of them it was still gray and they faced a gray transparent moon, hardly stronger than a thumbprint and completely without light. A small tin switch box and a black fuel tank were all there was to mark the place as a junction; the tracks were double and did not converge again until they were hidden behind the bends at either end of the clearing. Trains passing appeared to emerge from a tunnel of trees and, hit for a second by the cold sky, vanish terrified into the woods again. Mr. Head had had to make special arrangements with the ticket agent to have this train stop and he was secretly afraid it would not, in which case, he knew Nelson would say, “I never thought no train was going to stop for you.” Under the useless morning moon the tracks looked white and fragile. Both the old man and the child stared ahead as if they were awaiting an apparition.
Where the previous story was a planned train excursion to a city with an agenda, this one is a spur-of-the-moment bus trip through a forest.
Nanjil Nadan is the pseudonym of Tamil writer, G. Subramaniam. He has received several awards, including from the Sahitya Akademi. Gita Subramanian is an award-winning translator of five Tamil novels. Based in Bangalore, she is also a professor of history and English literature and has taught at international universities.
The narrator is having a bit of an existential crisis and decides to first take an aimless walk, then board a bus going from Tamil Nadu into the neighboring state of Kerala. As the vehicle loads up, he makes pithy and somewhat caustic observations about the hurrying passengers, the angry driver, the good-looking conductor, the ethnically diverse men working the drink/food stalls at various stops, and the dense forest they pass through. There isn’t much of a plot here but it is a well-drawn sketch of a typical scene in rural, southern India — one that I got to witness first-hand when traveling via local bus from Thekkady in Kerala to Madurai in Tamil Nadu.
Half the bus got off at Attapadi. Half the goods on the bus were also unloaded. This was the hill country of Kerala. There seemed to be Tamils everywhere — the coolies, the little wayside shopkeepers, in the bakeries, in the supermarkets, all the workers seemed to be Tamilian. Worry lines due to poverty and humiliation were evident on those faces. Just as all South Indians are called “Madrasis” in the north, and all UPites and Biharis (including politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav) are referred to as “Bhayyas” in Mumbai, all over Kerala, Tamilians are hailed as “Annachi” or “Pandi”. There was no way out; one had to accept the mocking epithet with a grin — even in “God’s own country.”
And here are some of the previously-featured stories in case you missed them:
Williams won the PEN/Malamud Prize in April 2016. Not having read much of Williams’ work at all before, I went searching for some online. This is a wonderful, dryly-narrated story, starting out pretty light and then turning dark. That, right there, is so hard to do. And, when it’s done right, so satisfying to read. It starts out like an O Henry story, almost, with the rich details and the satirical glances at the tourists and the locals. Then, as it gets towards the end, it’s almost like a Joyce Carol Oates story in how it darkens. Beautifully done.
They weren’t going to tell any scary stories, not these two. Weren’t going to tell this crowd about the vanishing hitchhiker or the man with half a face. Or the ones about the boiled baby’s revenge and the body of water that likes to break little boys’ backs. They were just going to play a few games, give these tourists something to remember. What did they think life was, a vacation?
I first read this story last year when I was trying to get into the habit of writing flash fiction. I had not been much of a flash reader before. It is a tricky kind of prose to write because you have to tell an entire story in compression. There’s more of an impetus to make it memorable and punchy. This particular story is definitely both of those.
The opening lines could have taken us in several possible directions. And, the sex-with-a-stranger-while-on-vacation story is almost a tired little sub-genre by itself. That said, this little paragraph of a story goes off into a rather unexpected direction and, in just a few sentences, we get an entire world and character that not only grab our attention right away, but also haunt us long after we are done reading.
On vacation, I meet a man with awful bleachy hair. I am the kind of drunk that means I suck his dick while he brushes his teeth in the hotel room. He is the kind of drunk that means he grabs my tit for just a second before he passes out, mouth open, throat wet.
8/ The Suitcase by Meron Hadero (Missouri Review; audio from PRI’s Selected Shorts; Best American Short Stories 2016)
This is a story that most first-generation immigrants will recognize right away. A woman who travels back home from the US and, as she begins to leave, a large group of friends and relatives show up with gifts for their own family for her to take back with her. The interplay between the various characters and the individual stories behind each gift item or each family member they miss so much are achingly familiar. Of course, the suitcase will only bear so much weight per the airline allowance. So, decisions have to be made. In addition, there is the underlying story about the main character’s inability to really “come home again”. She feels a stranger in the country of her birth and upbringing now and that adds to the tension and inner conflict — again, something most immigrants know all too well.
It was time to go and she was relieved when Fassil said–in English, for her benefit–“We are running out of time, so we have already started to fill this one for you.” He pointed past the suitcase that Saba had packed before her walk and gestured to a second, stuffed with items and emitting the faint scent of a kitchen after mealtime. At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items and a second that, for the trip there, was full of gifts from America–new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine–to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.
Iran has a long tradition of storytelling — all the way to ancient Persia. My internet search gave me so many choices that I am both embarrassed for not having bothered to read more Iranian stories before and amazed at the talented, skillful art this country continues to produce.
My first introduction to literary Iran — if we leave aside the Arabian Nights stories — came from Azar Nafisi’s memoir ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran‘. It is about, among many other things, the repression of women in revolutionary Iran. Then, more recently, there was the news about an Iranian short story writer, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, being sentenced for an unpublished fictional work found in her home — this, after her activist husband was already serving a 19-year sentence. There’s censorship for you.
I have met the pomegranate lady, and you may have as well. If you’ve ever made a disarmingly intimate connection with a stranger while traveling, you’ve had the experience. Connections and dislocations drive the characters in these stories: dislocations of place — exiles who end up in Paris, but never really leave Iran behind, and dislocations of time — elites who preserve a bubble of the “old,” secular, drinking, partying Iran — upon which modern, revolutionary Iran intrudes, with tragic-comedic results. Constantly moving between cultures is not easy on these individuals — but perhaps because of that, it reveals so much raw humanity, both cruelty and compassion.
You should also read this excellent 2007 interview at Bookslut, where Taraghi talks about publishing and censorship in Iran, living as an expat in France, and her own writing.
In the title story of this collection, an educated, worldly woman is traveling from Tehran to Paris and has to help an older, illiterate woman who has never been on a plane before and is going to Sweden to see her fugitive sons. There are all kinds of tragicomic exchanges between the two women, of course. But, it is also a beautiful story within a story of the life of the older woman and we can see why the younger one is drawn, against all her common sense, to try to help her. The ending has a little wrenching twist.
I hate this life of constant wandering, these eternal comings and goings, these middle of the night flights, dragging along my suitcase, going through Customs and the final torture, the humiliating body search. “Take off your shoes, open your handbag, let’s see inside of your pockets, your mouth, your ears, your nostrils, your heart and mind and soul.” I am exhausted. I feel homesick — can you believe it? Already homesick. And yet I want to get away, run, flee. “I will leave and never come back,” I tell myself. “I will stay right here, in my beloved Tehran, with all its good and bad, and I will never leave. Nonsense. I am confused. All I want is to close my eyes and sleep, to slip into that magic land of oblivion and disappear.
This is one of my short stories featuring a road trip from Mumbai to Goa. The link above gives some of the context/background. You can read it free online too after you click through to the above.
Originally published at indiatopia.com on July 9, 2017.