Author & Editor Picks: Favorite Short Stories
Lori Sambol Brody asks authors, editors, and publishers to pick their favorite short stories for Short Story Month.
It’s May, and that means it’s Short Story Month. I asked writers and editors to tell me about their favorite short stories or favorite short story collections. Get ready to add these to your ever-growing to-read pile.
When asked to choose a favorite short story, there are several ways one could go. I could throw out a vanity pick — the obscure classic — and have you nodding your heads at my wisdom. Or I could choose something by somebody I kinda know — and win some love from my peeps. Or I could tell you about something I really love. Etgar Keret’s “Guava.” I’ve recommended this story more times than I’ve read it, and I’ve read it plenty. Flash fiction is a form that often rewards richness of language, but “Guava” offers instead richness of thought. In six hundred words it addresses life and death and peace on earth — not necessarily in that order. It makes my problems feel small, and the world feel big again. And funny — it’s so funny. Reading Etgar Keret is like listening to a smarter, funnier, older brother talking about his day with his smarter, funnier, older friends. You should all read this story, right now. And then you can give me some love and nod your heads at my wisdom in choosing it.
Sweet Talk, Stephanie Vaughn’s 1990 collection, is remarkable, not so much for its carefully observed, skillfully constructed first-person narrations about sweetly droll women and their gentle yet uncontrollable men, but for the two magnificent stories that open and close the book. Both stories are narrated by Gemma, the adult recounting her Army brat childhood served under the competent dictatorship of her officer father. The opening story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” is about that competent father, how the unthinkable (inevitable?) happens and his authority begins to crumble. The final story, “Dog Heaven,” touches on many themes — growing up, canine loyalty, nuclear annihilation, the trendiness of winter pompon hats, ending with the literary equivalent of boxing’s rear uppercut/lead hook combination, leaving the reader sprawled on her ass, wondering what just happened. Not an image is wasted here; each one returns with dramatic effect. Sweet Talk is a testament to the power of storytelling.
Rane Arroyo was best known as a poet and playwright, but during his highly celebrated career, he also wrote a series of short stories, which he gathered together in How to Name a Hurricane in 2005. Here are Arroyo’s usual themes of exile, masculinity, and sexuality, drawn from his life as a gay Latino, but now played out through the fictions of his vibrant and beautiful characters. Ever the experimentalist, these short stories run the gamut. There are traditional narratives, split narratives written from multiple perspectives, a story told through cyber communications, a sequence of 27 flash fictions, a novella in verse, and even a story modeled on the Christian Bible. For some writers, experimentation is a game, a test of one’s creative wits, but for Arroyo, and for so many marginalized writers like him, breaking the traditional rules was a necessity, a way of life, a way of survival. Arroyo’s fictions were written during a time of intense prejudice and discrimination against LGBT Americans. These were written during the AIDS crisis and during a wave of anti-LGBT legislation. It is important to remember that, a year prior to publishing How to Name a Hurricane, Arroyo’s adopted state, Ohio, passed with wide margins a Constitutional amendment forbidding him from marrying his long-time partner, poet Glenn Sheldon. So, in these stories, breaking traditional narratives is required in order to break the stereotypes and the rules that attempted to bar Arroyo from public and literary life. Add to this, his identity as a Latino, through which he became a margin within the margins, and it is easy to understand why Arroyo’s experimentations were not only useful but also vital to the literary landscape.
Through all of the ways he played with form, however, his fictions remained focused on what he saw as the central goal of writing: intimacy. His characters, whether they were the cyber conquistadors Santos and ElCidMan or Blackie Soto (of the Blackie Soto Mystery Series, a play on the Hardy Boys Series that Arroyo so loved), are all drawn with fierce compassion and honesty. It is through this intimacy, this honesty of prose, that readers from all walks of life, whether a transgendered student in Des Moines or a straight poet in Toledo, could enter the bars and chat rooms that house Arroyo’s drag queens and post-colonial superheroes, allowing all of us to break down form, break down stereotypes, and break down prejudice. Through these fictions, How to Name a Hurricane proves Arroyo’s introduction, in which he writes, “The library card, to me, is the most magical and dangerous power in the United States.” In this way, these fictions stand not only as a testament to his creativity but also to his incredible heart and his devotion to the human experiment. And they stand as a testament to what was lost when he died, suddenly, in 2010. In my copy of How to Name a Hurricane, page 35 is dog-eared. It is the page I was reading when I learned Rane had passed away. It took me two-and-a-half years to come back to this book, during which time I mourned my mentor and friend in the only ways I knew how: by reading his poems and writing my own. I’ve since read and reread How to Name a Hurricane a number of times. But I leave that page perpetually bookmarked, not only as a reminder of what was lost when we lost him but also as a reminder of the hundreds of pages of gifts he gave to all his readers.
One of the things I love most about the short story is the intensity — so much life or emotion packed into a small space. I came across the short story, “God of Ducks,” by Tina Louise Blevins in an awards compilation, and it’s one of the first times I remember a short story being so impactful that I cried. (I later learned the author had passed away, and this was her first published story. What a loss for the literary world that there will be no more stories like this.) The empathy the writer has for these characters. The life she infuses into each character with such perfect selection of detail. These people felt like family. They felt like me. And in a story where it would be easy to make a joke out of these people, she makes them painfully, beautifully human. If a short story can make me cry (this one, and a shout out to Jennifer Egan’s “Safari”) or laugh out loud (most of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark), it possesses me for life. I will recommend it to anyone who will listen.
There are certain stories that, as writers, we return to again and again. Whether we’re teaching others (or ourselves) compression, characterization, or how to pierce a reader with a melodic, sensory-laden line. Whether we’re returning to it in a time of need because something about the pervading loneliness spoke to us. For whatever reason, some stories stick for life. For me, it’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” The whole collection is a breathless whisper from one desperate soul to another, but it’s the title story that stays loud in my brain. It’s a story about connection and disconnection from children, from spouses, to strangers in far away, romanticized locales. A story about the ways we isolate ourselves. It’s a story about intimacy and the impact a chance meeting with a stranger we will likely never see again can echo through a lifetime and illuminate how others see us and how we see ourselves. All of this emotional weight occurs with some of the most striking images I’ve encountered in a short story — in a country where women keep covered, bare legs dragging across a backseat; a well-dressed tour guide serving as an interpreter in a doctor’s office; a roadside meal of omelet sandwiches, fried potatoes, onions, and mango juice; a walk around a temple; and a confession inside a car. This sort of density in a small space is what I work toward — not to mention the glorious recognition I feel with women characters who utter lines like, “I have terrible urges, Mr. Kapasi, to throw things away.”
Olive Kitteridge, a novel comprised of 13 linked stories and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a page-turner that readers never want to see end. Olive is a central character in nearly all of the stories, a retired seventh grade math teacher whose husband, Henry, is the pharmacist one town over. They live in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Their adult child, Christopher, is trying to make a life for himself. The stories are written from a close third-person point of view in which we are privy to the thoughts and observations of Olive, her family and particular townspeople, allowing us to know them intimately and accept them openly, warts and all. Like many New Englanders, Olive is stoic. She is also odd. By turns, she is critical, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, vulnerable, honest, compassionate, patient, and perceptive. Hers is a real world, full of contrasts, one in which grief and joy, hope and despair, loyalty and betrayal coexist, where life is fragile but endures. In the end, we identify with Olive fiercely, despite her failings and frailties, as we see our own humanity and self-acceptance reflected in hers. That this happens outside our conscious awareness is but one deft stroke in a novel that lingers long after we’ve finished reading it.
Could a title this great lead you astray? Not a chance. The story is myth meets Comedy Central — There are girls born to werewolves, a reformatory where they learn to be little ladies, and nuns who say things like “Ay, caramba.” Here, Russell uses fantasy to bring familiar themes into sharp relief — that of growing up, and of the dangers of being different. Take Mirabella, for instance. She’s the pack sister who doesn’t get hip to the Miss Manners-styled etiquette of the home, who sits muzzled in a corner while her sisters trade growly banter with their reforming wolf-boy brothers. We’ve all known a Mirabella. She’s the weird chick in 7th grade who doesn’t want to kiss boys or shave her pits, who stays wild while her former besties start stuffing their bras and wearing lipstick. Through the lens of fable, Russell manages to make Mirabella even more universal than she would be as your average outsider, and to evoke reader empathy. Russell also rivets us with wit. The pathos of the narrative — the exile from family, the loneliness of human ways — is seamlessly interwoven with humor, preventing the story from feeling overwrought. (Case in point: did you know that the phrase “goody two-shoes” stems back to Jeanette, the prissy big sister of the pack, who “spiffed her penny loafers until her very shoes seemed to gloat”?) If Hans Christian Andersen had a love child with Tina Fey, it would look something like “St. Lucy’s.”
My favorite short story collection . . . it seems like it would be an overwhelming decision. Yet, in a moment, I shoved aside hundreds of well-loved ones and settled on Bobcat. It’s a collection of brilliantly crafted, highly imaginative longform fiction I recommend frequently and have gifted to loved ones and strangers. When I first read it, the title story “Bobcat” surprised me with its complexity of characters, underlying menace, and heartbreak. It is a story deserving of the collection’s title. I expected the next story and the ones following to be good, but hardly able to live up to the accomplishment of the first one. How could a reader be so lucky? In this volume, Lee offers readers and practitioners of short fiction stunning munificence. Lee directs language and story masterfully with intricate layering. Each of the seven stories in her collection is a gem that places the reader in surprising settings with equally unique characters and unusual experiences from a dinner party with a descendant of the infamous Donners to therapy sessions with a strange Professor of child psychology in Saskatchewan to Hong Kong where we find an American woman negotiating an arranged marriage for a good friend. It’s difficult to say which of the seven is my favorite, but I vacillate between “Slantland” and “Min.” All of Lee’s characters and their stories live in my mind and memory vividly. When I manage to fall out of one of her stories and gain my bearings in the world once again, of course as a writer, I wish I could reach toward such talent. Lee’s stories are so wonderful — seven perfect stories — it’s enough to read them.
Originally published as separate posts on 5/17/16 and 5/31/16.