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Shorts

Unattainable goal: Read at least one short story every week. Mini-recaps/reviews here. Newest additions at the top. Stories I recommend highlighted.

ruleRecommended Reads
(links to reviews below)

 

Karen Russell “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves”
Nic Pizzolatto “Ghost Birds”
George Saunders “Sticks”
Ron Carlson “Towel Season”
Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
George Saunders “Victory Lap”
Allan Seager “The Town and Salamanca”
Jim Shepard “The Netherlands Lives With Water”
Jenny Hollowell “A History of Everything, Including You”
Jim Shepard “Cretan Love Song 1600 B.C.”
Steve de Jarnatt “Rubiaux Rising”
Donald Barthelme “The Balloon”
Gail Godwin “A Sorrowful Woman”
Wendell Berry “Stand By Me”
Annie Proulx “Them Old Cowboy Songs”
J. Robert Lennon “Eight Pieces for the Left Hand”
D. Winston Brown “Ghost Children”
Dennis Lehane “Until Gwen”

ruleKaren Russell “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves”

The story of a group of wolf-girls enrolled at a kind of Jesuit finishing school. Only at this school, the end goal is to behave like a human. Some girls progress through the different stages, learning skills like “Party Talk,” “How to Tactfully Acknowledge a Disaster” and a dance called the Sausalito, fighting to bury their primal urges—to not bite ankles, to not howl at the moon. Some wolf girls (like Jeanette, the most advanced) are able to advance through the stages with grace and apparent ease, whereas others (like Mirabella) just can’t ever seem to get it right. This is a funny, whimsical story on the surface, but has a sad undercurrent that makes one question the behavioral standards society forces on all kids, pushing out those who don’t conform.

Granta, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, The Best American Short Stories, 2007

ruleWilliam Gay “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You”

A bit of southern gothic, in the vein of Daniel Woodrell. A man, The Jeepster, out of prison, trying to stay off the meth, raging horribly and losing his grip on reality, determined to get to see the body of his girl. Gay captures the high-octane bender in the language. “He was armed and dangerous and running on adrenaline and fury and grief and honed to such a fine edge that alcohol and drugs no longer affected him…He had a pocket full of money and a nine-millimeter automatic shoved into the waistband of his jeans and his T-shirt pulled down over it.” In a few pages, Gay throws casts arc of the lowly meth-slinger: “Little by little Emile had sold things off for pennies on the dollar and day by day the money rolled through his veins and into his lungs, and the greasy coins trickled down his throat.”
It lives in the world of Nic Pizzolatto or Dennis Lehane. Not quite as good as either, but the prose grabs your arm and drags you along and is jittery and paranoid and irritated and feels fueled by whatever anger is driving Jeepster A punch in the nose.

Tin House, The Best American Short Stories, 2007

ruleReeves Wiedeman “The Big Hack”

Not meant to be a horror story, and borderline short story, this piece of imaginative journalism succeeds in being both. If the reader brushes over the date in the first paragraph—December 4, 2017—it reads as a news report on events that actually did happen. The straightforward recounting of facts, the precise timeline, the introduction of the various real-world players—all the elements of standard journalism. But what it “recounts” is a day that is possible. Based on actual hacks that have happened (with footnotes for each), Wiedeman creates a scenario in which hackers show what’s possible in a city like New York. Their act is not apocalyptic. It’s not even devastating. It’s meant to strike fear in the residents and the reader. Since the residents are fictitious, it’s hard to say if it achieves the former, but it certainly achieves the latter.

New York Magazine

ruleThomas McGuane “Weight Watchers”

I came across Thomas McGuane in a book about Richard Brautigan. The writers were neighbors in Montana. I picked up McGuane’s The Cadence of Grass somewhere along the line—it’s on my bookshelf—but haven’t read it yet. I may after Crow Fair, McGuane’s latest book of short stories. I like the feel of his writing. A bit melancholy but funny in its absurdity. In “Weight Watchers,” the narrator’s father is kicked out by his mother after crossing the threshold she set for him of 250lbs. The narrator is a contractor, the father a Viet Nam vet. Their lives kind of coexist in nearer parallel lines for a bit and we get bits and pieces of their lives—enough to see a tenderness between them, despite the irritations of any typical family. There are some great turns of phrases and strange observations throughout. At one point, the narrator is describing his parents’ history together and says that his father, a big believer in blue collar work who didn’t trust anything outside the rust belt, was determined to keep his mother “within sight of smokestacks all her life.”

The narrator is a man content with his life. He goes to bed tired, he says. he doesn’t want to think when he’s trying to go to sleep. “…if there is some residue from the day, I want it to drain out and precipitate me into nothingness.” He then follows this strand of thought on a wonderful tangent: “I’ve always enjoyed the idea of nonexistence. I view pets with extraordinary suspicion: we need to stay out of their lives. I saw a woman fish a little dog out of her purse once, and it bothered me for a year.

Crow Fair

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Nic Pizzolatto “Ghost Birds”

The thing I can’t always tell about Pizzolatto’s stories: are the references all truly meaningful, or are they just thrown into the soup as an experiment in flavoring? Here, a blend of midwestern landscapes, Japanese martial arts, Asian philosophy and the kind of Pizzolatto asceticism we know from True Detective’s Rusty Cohle–somewhere between spirituality, poverty and drug addiction. There are byzantine lines in this story, though less cryptic than some of Cohle’s dialogue. So what is the story about? A park ranger who BASE jumps from the St. Louis Arch on moonless nights. About fighting loss, about letting go. About finding peace within oneself amidst the chaos of life. How’s that for some themes?

The Atlantic, October 2003; Between Here and the Yellow Sea

ruleGeorge Saunders “Sticks”

The shorter the story, the more difficult to write, the conventional wisdom says. Even more impressive, then, that Saunders manages a remarkably moving story about a man and his odd sort of front-yard scarecrow in a mere 393 words (including the title). It has the same quirky, small town feel as J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, but hits harder. The ease of the storytelling is remarkable.

Harpers, 1995; Tenth of December

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David Foster Wallace “Good Old Neon”

I first read David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon” in 2013 after coming across an article by Jonathan Franzen that dove into Wallace’s psyche as only a good friend could. Although this story is ostensibly not about Wallace—a deft sleight-of-hand makes that clear—it is very much about Wallace’s mind. A guy tortured by a crippling obsession with self-image careens toward suicide. I wrote a post about “Good Old Neon,” self-image and social media the first time I read it. The second reading was probably less enjoyable, but I highlighted different passages the second time. Perhaps a more biographical reading. Either way, how I described it the first time still holds: “It is a mobius strip of contradictions and paradoxes, of metacognition gone haywire. The narrator can’t enjoy anything because there is this hyperawareness and the constant noise of doubt.” The eerie sense I got this time, though, is that it’s a trick from beyond the grave. We are meant to read the story about a guy who committed suicide by a guy who committed suicide. We are meant to think it is Wallace talking about himself. Not only in the way his mind works, but in one critical biographical detail: for the end twist to attain maximum effect, the author’s suicide is required.

Oblivion

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Tom Franklin “Grit”

Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was one of my favorite novels from last year. Here, Franklin keeps it close to home—a small grit plant, north of Mobile, Alabama. The owners of the plant live in Detroit, and the small group of misfits running the plant are like kids left home alone, only scarier. Greg, the plant manager owes one of his employees thousands of dollars in gambling debt. The boss-employee dynamic gets flipped on its head and things get out of control, to say the least. It’s funny at times, but it is at heart a dark story about the dynamics of power.

Poachers

ruleRon Carlson “Towel Season”

This is a fish-out-of-water story that takes place over the course of a summer. A theoretical mathematician, the aptly named Edison, lives in suburbia with his wife, Leslie, and two children. He is working on a project so complex and abstract that he and Leslie have developed a language of analogy to describe how it’s going. “I’ve crossed all the open ground, and the wind has stopped now. My hope is to find a way through this next place.” “Mountains—blank, very few markings. They’re steep, hard to see.” This special language adds an element of playfulness and helps crystalizes their relationship.

Edison is out of place with the neighbors. He is socially awkward. He approaches the frequent gatherings with the other families as mathematical puzzles to be deciphered. The towels of the title refer to the swimming towels left behind after gatherings at the neighbors’ homes (everyone has a pool). They must be sorted, solved, returned to their proper owners. They represent chaos, the chaos of summer, the chaos of casual relationships. It is difficult for Edison to deal with. At one point, after overhearing a neighbor describe his father with what he interprets as a slander, the son laments, “Daddy’s a genius.”

But then something happens. Something clicks, and with one simple joke, Edison finds his social groove. He begins flirting with the neighbor wives, bonding with the neighbor husbands. They love him, find his work fascinating. Ironically, as his social acumen grows, he loses his way with his math. The final distraction occurs when one of the neighbor women lifts her shirt to ask him if she should get a boob job. “Now his calculations seemed like a cruel puzzle, someone else’s work, dead, forgotten, useless.”

As the summer comes to an end, Edison descends back into his work, the story devolving into a dreamlike analogy, wonderfully abstract. It is not a completely satisfying ending, but there is so much to like in the tone and setup of this story. I love the names of the characters: Paula Plum, Melissa Reed, Janny Hanover. I’d like to hang out with these ladies. One might criticize the story for its stereotypical portrayal of women who stay home and cook meals, but the men aren’t let off easily. They’re doltish, beer-drinking grillmeisters. This is a sendup of the suburbs, or of the idea of the suburbs, so everything is fake, a flattened cardboard cutout. It might be compared to Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” if you replaced alcoholism with theoretical mathematics.

Esquire, May, 1998; A Kind of Flying

ruleSteven Millhauser “The Invasion From Outer Space”

In this short short story, as one might guess from the title, an invasion from outer space occurs. The people of Earth know exactly what to do when the invasion starts, because “hadn’t we seen it a hundred times?” But the invasion itself is like nothing TV or movies prepared them for. The earth is covered in a fine yellow dust, discovered to be benign single-cell organisms that replicate when exposed to light. They are seemingly harmless, perhaps, except that they keep multiplying. But that dim threat is outweighed by boredom. The narrator wonders, “Had it even been an invasion?” The world is unimpressed and disappointed by the lack of spectacle. Where are the aliens with the long necks and giant heads? The world feels cheated.

This is a wry story, a sly jab at the human desire to be entertained by everything, even the thing that kills us. Reminiscent of a less wicked Roald Dahl or, more closely, Donald Barthelme.

We Others: New and Selected Stories, 2011

ruleJoyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

This was recommended to me by the same person who recommended “Victory Lap.” The themes are remarkably similar—a teenage girl trying to find her way to adulthood encounters darkness. It is a classic theme, here played out in a small town. A girl uses her older sister to get out from under the suppressive eyes of her parents, to hang out with the boys in town and do the things that teenage girls do. But she catches the eye of one strange boy who has more than teenage frolicking in mind. The following day, when her family is away at a barbecue, that boy shows up at her house. He is threatening, menacing, mysterious. With lines like “Don’t you know who I am?” the boy becomes symbolic. The reader is forced to try to answer: who is this? Does he represent evil? The devil? The threat of men in the American landscape? The constant danger of abduction, of violence and rape with which women must contend?
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” was sparked by a Life news story about Charles Schmid, a teenage serial killer in Tucson, AZ. Schmid became known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” As a figure in American culture, the serial killer represents our worst fears—evil, illogical, random, violent death. Here, again, another story that can be thematically linked to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” The grotesque for O’Connor was a way to find grace. Here, it is a statement about women and the dangers they face in the modern (1960s) world.

Epoch, Fall 1966; various anthologies including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories

ruleGeorge Saunders “Victory Lap”

“Victory Lap” leads off Tenth of December, a collection that was National Book Award Finalist and on The New York Times Review of Books best of 2013. It is the story of three characters—Alison Pope, a suburban girl “three days shy of her fifteenth birthday;” Kyle Boot, the nerdy boy who lives next door—“palest kid in all the land,” “he looked like a skeleton with a mullet;” and a strange man, a deranged interloper who attempts to abduct Alison.

The narration jumps POV between these three characters as the action plays out. The plot is disturbing enough as the security of everyday suburbia is shattered with a shocking, violent conflict. But more disturbing is that all three characters are unmoored in their own ways, to varying degrees. The story starts with Alison descending a staircase, a princess-seeking-suitor fantasy playing out in her mind. She is hoping for a prince charming to come to her door. But when there is a literal knock at that door, it is not at all whom she intended. Kyle, boy next door and unlikeliest of heroes, springs into action. But he too is off—product of a weird family system of rules and rewards, his own dangerous proclivities lurking underneath.

In the end, it is hard to say who is the most deranged. We witness three crazy people colliding, but the impression is that what is most crazy is our insistence that everything is safe. Our suburban dream is a delusion, and when events bring certain characters together, it can’t possibly play out in any other way than stark violence.
Love this story.

The New Yorker, October 2009; Tenth of December; available online

ruleIvan Turgenev “The Rattling of Wheels”

In Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Hemingway cites Turgenev as a major influence and this story in particular as the best short story of all time. That probably says more about Hemingway than Turgenev. Written in the mid 19th Century, the story feels dated. It’s the story of a hunting party that, realizing it’s out of ammo, hires horses and sends the protagonist to purchase shot from a nearby village. Along the way, the protagonist is haunted by the sound of rattling wheels from another group which he is certain will rob and kill him. Tension builds throughout the story as the strangers grow nearer.

It might be a good exercise to compare “The Rattling of Wheels” to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” They have similar plots and overlapping themes, though the resolutions are very different. The latter has more depth and, despite Hemingway’s endorsement of Turgenev, is a more interesting short story.

A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1852; available online

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Andy Weir “The Egg”

This four-page story makes an attempt to be very big. It’s about the universe, for one. About death, about life after life, about the big Why. It’s interesting, a little amusing. The dialogue is a little heavy-handed, as is the reveal. But for a super-short story, there’s not much of an investment. There are a lot of reviews calling this story “mind-blowing.” I imagine those are from people who either already love Andy Weir from The Martian or may be a little younger (no offense). Those people might also enjoy The Screwtape Letters. But for a story about the universe and our place in it, Jenny Hollowell’s “A History of Everything, Including You” isn’t as clever, but more poetic and interesting (see review below).

“The Egg” is free online.

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Raymond Carver “Why Don’t You Dance”

A mysterious short story about a man who has set up all of his furniture out on the front lawn in the layout of a living room, including working television and water spigot. A young couple comes along, assuming the man is selling the furniture. They are in the market for a few things. The exchange is both tense and tender. The man, a drinker, we might infer has lost his wife. Perhaps she left him, perhaps because of his drinking. At one point, the girl says to him, “You must be desperate or something.” And he does seem desperate. The kids are too young to connect with the man in a way he seems to need. They ask what he wants for each item of furniture and when he quotes a price, they counter ten dollars lower, something the girl has probably heard from someone is good bargaining. It is somewhat sad, this man. And it is a haunting image, this furniture displaced onto the lawn. Symbolic of an empty home? Of all the trappings of a life without the love? The emptiness of material possessions? We are left to guess, a clue given a week later when the girl, still trying to make sense of the encounter and the items they purchased, says, “Will you look at this shit?”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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Aimee Bender “Death Watch”

“Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live.” So opens this short, playful examination of how we choose to live our lives, all of us knowing very well that we are here for a finite time–be it two weeks or 80 years. What difference should it make that we might die tomorrow? And if someone told us that the end is near, how would we spend our remaining days? Ten paths are examined here in a story that reads like a parable.

Willful Creatures

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Leonard Michaels “Murderers”
In just three pages, Michaels delivers a shocking story of four boys who climb to a rooftop in New York to spy on their rabbi have sex with his wife. There is an accident. It does not end well, for one of the boys in particular.

I recently read Michaels’ short novel, Sylvia. The same sharp writing is on display here: “My family came from Poland, then never went anyplace until they had heart attacks…We should have buried Uncle Moe where he shuffled away his life, in the kitchen or toilet, under the linoleum, near the coffeepot.”

I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (2007)

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T.C. Boyle “When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone”
A man meets another man at a bar. The second man is on a bender. He has a right to be–we find out that his son has died as the result of a stupid fraternity hazing ritual. Drunk, forced to drink by the frat brothers, the boy passed out and choked on his vomit. When the man was younger, his father died as a result of drinking too, so it runs in the family. Speaking of family, the brother will also make an appearance at the bar. It is a story about the effects of alcohol, with just the hint of sentimentality right at the very end as the narrator seems to come to some conclusion about his own life and responsibilities. But it is this lack of sentimentality that I like best–the sharing of these very emotional moments in a way that is almost pathologically without emotion to a stranger in a bar. It seems real, for men.

There’s also some nice description and a sense of humor in the desperation, such as this line: “her name was Steena, she was five-ten, blond, and just getting over a major breakup with a guy named Steve whose name dropped from her lips with the frequency of a speech impediment.”

Tooth and Claw and Other Stories

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Allan Seager “The Town and Salamanca”
“It was as if we had trusted him to keep our youth…” laments the unnamed narrator of this story, one of a group of friends living in an unnamed town in the Midwest. They live vicariously through their friend, John Baldwin, who quietly goes about his adventurous life. One year, when they are younger, he builds a sailboat as they are all whiling away the time over poker games. When summer comes, without fanfare he launches down the river, and spends the following months sailing around the Caribbean. None of the others ever venture very far, certainly not as far as John, who brings back stories of exotic, far-off places.

I first read this story when McSweeney’s republished it in 2001. Seager’s writing is simple and gently moving. I went on to read a couple collections of his short stories and his novel, Amos Berry, which is a classic on my shelf. This is a great place to start with Seager.

The Old Man of the Mountain and 17 Other Stories, McSweeney’s Vol 7, Best Short Stories of 1935, O’Brien’s Fifty Best Short Stories

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Jim Shepard “The Netherlands Lives With Water”
There is a pang of disappointment when you realize that a writer whose formula you’ve pegged is executing that formula yet again in the short story you’re reading. But then delight when that formula plays out masterfully. In fact, there is almost more delight in feeling that you’ve seen this trick before, only to find something completely new. Here we find a love distressed in yet another off-beat context that serves to analogize the love distressed. We are in the future, in Rotterdam, and two people who work for Amsterdam’s water control department find their city, as well as their own love, being quickly submerged. Climate change and geopolitics (the damn Germans have built higher dikes, sending the problem of excess water downstream to their unfortunate neighbor) have conspired to sink the Dutch, and there’s little to be done but maintain a calm and, perhaps, pretend that all will work itself out in the end. And that is what they have been doing, despite the fact that now a “storm of the century” hits every couple years. Even the impressive engineering masterpieces that are the Dutch dikes and other water abatement systems are no match for the storm that is approaching.

Of course, weather, particularly of the stormy variety, is a cliché metaphor for relationships, but Shepard is able to paddle atop the floodwater with the strength of his writing. On the relationship of the protagonist couple: “As we’re undressing that night she asks me how I’d rate my recent performance as a husband.” And later, an observation on the mindset of the Dutch: “I remind her about the number-one download of the year turning out to have been of fireworks sound effects, for those New Year’s revelers who found real fireworks too worrisome.”

Never does a Shepard story fail to deliver something new. Even when it’s well-trod ground, he presents a unique vantage point. This is one of my favorite Jim Shepard stories.

You Think That’s Bad, McSweeney’s #32, The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories 2010

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Annie Proulx “Them Old Cowboy Songs”
“Archie and Rose McLaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes down from the Sierra Madre…” So begins this tale of two young, passionate dreamers who in 1885 set out to live a life woven with the promise of the open frontier and their love for each other.

Archie is only sixteen, with a “singing voice that once heard was never forgotten.” He and Rose are idealistic teens, sweet and tender, but tragically naive. They manage fine at first, Archie building a small cabin. Life is idyllic for a season, and Proulx paints the world with the kind of language that makes one envious of Archie and Rose. “It was pleasant to sit in the cool of the evening with their feet on the great stone and watch the deer come down to drink and, just before darkness, see the herons flying upstream, their color matching the sky so closely they might have been eyes of wind.”
The luster begins to fade, however, as the realities of everyday life sink it–the confines of the cabin, the difficulties of land, Archie’s trouble finding a job once his regular work dries up. Rose becomes pregnant and Archie heads off to find work for the season.

Proulx writes knowing that Archie and Rose are likable characters who we want to make it–struggle some, but in the end pull through and live happily with their family. But as winter moves in, there is a greater point to be made. About the uncaring of the west, the weather, the elements. Life is harsh, and the way Proulx handles the fate of our young couple mimics the blowing snow, the passing seasons. They are nearly forgotten come spring–gestured at with a set of vague allusions to their ultimate fate. The world has already moved on and we are left with the unsettling–harrrowing, even–realization that the story has moved on as well, that things have not gone how Archie, and Rose, or we the reader, had hoped.

The Best American Short Stories 2009, The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, The New Yorker, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3

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Jim Shepard “Minotaur”
Shepard’s standard modus operandi is to juxtapose an exotic setting, character or story (e.g. neanderthals, the Hindenburg, the creature from the Black Lagoon) with a theme from everyday life (e.g. marital strife, fatherly fears about protecting family, illicit love affair). Here, the theme is secrecy between spouses, and the exotic is that one of them is a top secret agent who develops weapons for the U.S. government. The central scene is this government agent and his wife meeting a buddy–another weapons developer–and the buddy’s new girlfriend for cocktails. Ironically, a moment of indiscretion by the top secret buddy touches a nerve in the protagonist’s wife. Remove the secret agent thing, and it’s a real, human argument any couple might have. It’s a pretty good read, but I thought the degree of thematic linkage–secret agent, secrecy between spouses–was a little too expected. At least, for a Shepard story.

You Think That’s Bad, 2011

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J. Robert Lennon “Eight Pieces for the Left Hand”
This collection of eight short shorts is a sampling from Lennon’s book-length collection, Pieces for the Left Hand. Each story, usually a page or less, gives a small but complete narrative about an incident in a small, nameless town. Many of them read almost as jokes, but each is sharp and insightful, as much a glimpse into or comment on the human condition as the story of the poor victims of circumstance who inhabit Lennon’s town. These stories are evidence that the arc of a story does not need to be long to feel complete.

The Best American Short Stories 2005, Pieces for the Left Hand

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Thom Jones “Ooh Baby Baby”

A plastic surgeon and his special lady friend are stuck in L.A. traffic, trying to get out of town for the weekend. She’s also his patient. He’s an arrogant, bitter dude lamenting his aging body. As a doctor who allows Hollywood stars to remain forever young, the loss of his youthful vitality is bumming him out. This story takes place in three locations, but it bounces around in time. It’s unsettling—something about it makes the reader feels the same tension building that’s in the doc, the same frustration, the same sense of futility. You can fake it, but time will get you in the end.

Cold Snap: Stories, 1995

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D. Winston Brown “Ghost Children”

This is a little bit of a cheat, as it’s technically an essay, not a short story. But Brown tells an interesting and important story. He contrasts a regrettable moment of violence in which he took part as a teen—a drive-by shooting, a luckily unsuccessful attempt to even the score with a group of kids at a neighboring school—with the kind of violence his father knew during the civil rights era in Birmingham. As a kid in 1963, Brown lived with his family on Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill, named for the KKK’s practice of bombing residences of those who supported integration. His father and a group of men would sit vigil in a dark garage at night, across the street from the home of civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores, protecting it. Brown was in charge of loading the guns and bringing them out to the men in the garage at the beginning of every night, to be used if necessary. He contrasts this with gun culture when he became a teenager, when kids started carrying guns as badges and shooting each other over pairs of shoes. And he contemplates the role of violence in becoming a man.

The Best American Non-Required Reading 2007; Creative Nonfiction

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Dennis Lehane “Until Gwen”

The opening line sets the tone for this tense, gritty thriller. “You father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Dad’s a con man. Son’s getting out of prison after four years for his involvement in a heist gone wrong. What’s impressive is that a story this short can contain so many good twists without losing its equilibrium. This story introduced me to Dennis Lehane. I’ve read several of his novels since, The Given Day probably my favorite.

The Atlantic Monthly, June 2004; The Best American Short Stories 2005; Coronado: Stories

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Wendell Berry “Stand By Me”

I’ve always enjoyed Berry’s essays, but this is the first of his fiction I’ve read. It’s the story of two brothers and their families who live across a valley from each other outside of Port William, Kentucky (a fictional town featured in many of Berry’s stories), through the Depression and beyond. Berry is able to conjure the passage of time, the long and melancholy arc of the years, with evolving relationships, life-changing events and the tectonic shift of family structures in a way that portrays the grand scope without losing sight of the moments that matter. At its heart, this is a story about loss. It is a lovely story, unsentimental, but it left me feeling quite moved.

The Atlantic Monthly, The The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010

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Joseph Epstein “Beyond the Pale”

A journalist for Time magazine is contacted to do translations for a famous Jewish writer. While he greatly admires the writer and feels the pull of duty, he isn’t quite sure if he can deal with the writer’s wife or wants to take on the burden.

Commentary, The Best American Short Stories 2009

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Tom Piazza “Brownesville”

It’s more than the location that reminds me of Nick Pizzolato’s Galveston. A man sits in the Napolean House in the French Quarter in New Orleans, observing his room’s decor, including the woman who had “hair down to her ankles and a shotgun in her bathtub and all the mirrors rattled when she laughed.” He is contemplating the end of the line, which he imagines to be Brownsville, Texas, for whatever reason. There is a desolation and a desperation and a sadness in whatever has brought this guy to this point. The only consolation is in the enjoyment of the writing, in lines like this: “The walls in this café have been stained by patches of seeping water that will never dry, and the plaster has fallen away in swatches that look like silhouettes of countries nobody’s ever heard of.”

The Quarterly; Blues and Trouble: 12 Stories; The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

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Gail Godwin “A Sorrowful Woman”

In The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I have what must be an earlier copy of this story from Godwin. Reviews and papers online quote it with an additional “Once upon a time” beginning not present in my copy. Regardless, this is no fairy tale. A send-up of the American Dream, particularly the role of the suburban mother in post-WWII America. Reminiscent of the dissatisfied suburbanite themes of Richard Yates or a John Updike but with a woman’s POV, this is the story of the weight of daily life, unidentifiable and of uncertain origin, slowly crushing a woman, a mother, a wife. The matter-of-fact writing style over somewhat absurd circumstances reminded me a little of Miranda July or A.M. Homes.

Esquire, 1971The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

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Donald Barthelme “The Balloon”

In downtown Manhattan, “beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street” and extending north to the Park, “forty-five blocks and an irregular area east-west,” a balloon. People are amused, they are outraged. They argue over its meaning. Some find it annoying. Others love to bounce atop the balloon or “run down an incline, then up the opposing slope” on the balloon’s surface. Children, mostly, are delighted by the balloon whereas adults almost find it offensive in its lack of clear purpose and the fact that they can’t discern the location of the pumps that must be keeping it inflated.

This story is delightful in its charm and its whimsy. It is an observation on a core difference between adults and children. And it is touching when its revealed at the end the purpose behind the ballon. But maybe my favorite part is the way Barthelme, as is his style, peppers in odd details that make the balloon seem real, such as the final note that after its deflation, “trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia.”

Sixty Stories

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Jenny Hollowell “A History of Everything, Including You”

I originally heard this story performed on the Radiolab podcast and was so struck by it that I tracked down the text. A la Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, it is a poetic journey from the beginning of the universe to a single moment, a single scene on a doorstep, then on to the big question. A near-perfect meditation on the relationship between the single relationship, the single moment, and everything else, everything that came before, all that exists (or does not) beyond that moment. This story is grandiose, it is humorous, it is keenly observed and it is as ambitious as they get for a five-page story. I was particularly struck by this series, as the story is zipping past the creation of our modern lifestyle:

“We invented lipstick, vaccines, pilates, solar panels, interventions, table manners, firearms, window treatments, therapy, birth control, tailgating, status symbols, palimony, sportsmanship, focus groups, Zoloft, sunscreen, landscaping, cessnas, fortune cookies, chemotherapy, convenience foods, and computers.”

It is tonally brilliant. The only misstep, I think, is a skosh of heavy-handedness in the last line. But easily forgiven.

New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond

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Steve de Jarnatt “Rubiaux Rising”

A wounded Iraq War vet huddles in his attic as the floodwater (presumably Katrina) raises through his house. “When he opens his eyes again an hour later he sees them—the unholy menagerie. All down the ledge, crowded near him in awkward proximity, are: a large king snake; two smaller water snakes; four fat nutria; a half-drowned feral cat and two shivering kittens; three pitiful brown rabbits; a soggy raccoon; a dozen Norwegian rats; a clot of huddled mice; along with a teeming mess of spiders, beetles, centipedes, and such.” It is the modern Ark, this attic, with the lowest of the earth’s inhabitants comingled, awaiting salvation.

An intense, unsettling story.

Santa Monica Review, The Best American Short Stories 2009

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Jim Shepard “Cretan Love Song 1600 B.C.”

“Imagine you’re part of the Minoan civilization, just hanging out with your effete painted face down by the water’s edge on the north shore of Crete, circa 1600 B.C.” Okay. If Jim Shepard says so, I’m there with him. His short stories are so weird and offbeat, yet so masterfully drawn, that wherever he wants to take me, I’m in. Here he imagines, in a one-page story, the end of a civilization. He takes a moment we would normally consider geological and makes it personal. He uses the second person POV to invite me to imagine that I am a prehistoric father who is, at my core, not much different than the father I am today, with the same fears, the same hopes, the same struggles and a very real existential quandary.

Zoetrope

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Shirley Jackson “The Man In the Woods”
A fable-ish tale about a boy and his cat who encounter an old man and woman in the woods. Similar tone to “The Lottery,” though not nearly as successful as a story. This was a much-hyped story because of Jackson’s fame, but debatable whether it was right for her estate to release it. Although best known for “The Lottery” (which, when published in 1948 in The New Yorker, was so shocking that a slew of readers cancelled their subscriptions), Jackson’s Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are both hilarious memoirs of motherhood.

The New Yorker

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