Thursday, May 10, 2007

short story countdown

I just found out that May is short story month: who knew? And like some others, I'm moved to list, in no particular order, my favorite short stories of all time (with the understanding that "of all time" is a flexible term, and that the list may in future change according to a wild new enthusiasm, or if I take a violent and inexplicable dislike to any of these, although I probably won't).

"The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Tolstoy. I'm always trying to talk people into reading and loving this story, which truth be told is hardly a story, more of a novella. But whatever it is, it's brilliant. Ivan dies, and then lives in back story, and then dies again in slightly slow motion--simple, yes, but it's Tolstoy who's telling this, and he is the master of rendering daily life in high relief, and also of making you see that even characters you thought were contemptible have something else to them, and further that in some ways you are just like they are, with the contemptible and the glorious generously and chaotically mixed. If you don't believe me, read it--I'd love to argue about it.
Quote: "Having told his wife at dinner-time of Ivan Ilych's death, and of his conjecture that it might be possible to get her brother transferred to their circuit, Peter Ivanovich sacrificed his usual nap, put on his evening clothes and drove to Ivan Ilych's house. At the entrance stood a carriage and two cabs. Leaning against the wall in the hall downstairs near the cloakstand was a coffin-lid covered with cloth of gold, ornamented with gold cord and tassels, that had been polished up with metal powder. Two ladies in black were taking off their fur cloaks."
"A Good Man is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor. No matter how many times I read this, it hits me with the same well-aimed jab. Unpleasant family goes on a road trip and meet the Misfit, a brutal criminal, with not entirely unforseen results. O'Connor is so unsentimentally sharp you wonder how she lived with herself, but at the same time the characters are shown in detail that is so well observed that it's almost loving. Also it's funny. And has one of the best endings ever.
Quote: "'Now look here, Bailey,' she said, 'see here, read this,' and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. 'Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it.'"
"The New Atlantis," Ursula K. Le Guin. (I'm pretty sure this is the title.) This is a surreal story, part of which takes place in a tired somewhat future world, where resources are scarce, and people aren't allowed to marry or do anything so useless as play music or make art. The other part is a poetic evocation of the awakening of a longdead land that might be Atlantis--the 2 parts of the story comment on each other, layering and overlapping. A haunting story. (Couldn't find a quote for this on-line, and my copy is not to be found.)
"A Wilderness Station," and "Meneseteung,"Alice Munro. I could have chosen a dozen other Munro stories, because I love her work inordinately, but these 2 go together nicely, because both use "documentary" material to write stories that are alternate histories. "Meneseteung," a fictional bio of an obscure (fictional) 19th century poetess and spinster, collages it up with newspaper articles, poetry, artfully slipping points of view--very postmodern but extremely readable. "A Wilderness Station" is the violent and ambivalent story of what did or didn't happen when 2 brothers and a woman who is wife to one of them go out to try and wrest a hard living from the bush. It's the lady or the tiger, except so much better (I always hated that story).
Quote (from "Meneseteung"): ''Champlain and the naked Indians and the salt deep in the earth, but as well as the salt the money. . . . Also the brutal storms of winter and the clumsy and benighted deeds on Pearl Street. The changes of climate are often violent and if you think about it there is no peace even in the stars.''
Julie Orringer. This is from her 2003 collection, How to Breathe Underwater--the story of a sad family who goes to a vegetarian Thanksgiving. It breaks a lot of rules about how to write a short story in the most satisfying way, and uses a child's point of view in a daring and unsentimental way.
Quote: "Ella pushed at her loose tooth wit hthe tip of her tongue and fanned her legs with the hem of her velvet dress. On the seat beside her, Benjamin fidgeted with his shirt buttons. He had worn his Pilgrim costume, brown shorts and a white shirt and yellow paper buckles taped to his shoes. In the front seat their father drove without a word, while their mother dozed against the window glass. She wore a blue dress and a strand of jade beads and a knit cotton hat beneath which she was bald."
Kafka. You knew I was going to say this, didn't you? In fact, I don't always like Kafka, although I always admire him. But "Metamorphosis" is so beguilingly written, so seductive, I can't resist its awful charm. You remember the plot: man becomes bug; goes downhill from there.
Quote: "He needed arms and hands to push himself upright. Instead of these, however, he had only many small limbs which were incessantly moving with very different motions and which, in addition, he was unable to control. If he wanted to bend one of them, then it was the first to extend itself, and if he finally succeeded doing what he wanted with this limb, in the meantime all the others, as if left free, moved around in an excessively painful agitation. “But I must not stay in bed uselessly,” said Gregor to himself. "
"Happy Endings," Margaret Atwood. This is a deconstruction of narrative that makes fun of the plot of all fictions, but still manages to be moving. The beginnings are individual, Atwood reminds us, and the middles can be byzantinely different, but the end of all stories is the same.
Quote: "John, who is an older man, falls in love with Mary, and Mary, who is only twenty-two, feels sorry for him because he's worried about his hair falling out. She sleeps with him even though she's not in love with him. She met him at work. She's in love with someone called James, who is twenty-two also and not yet ready to settle down. "
"Rock Springs," Richard Ford. I don't like Ford as much when he's writing novels and being funny, but when he's writing short stories, when he's gloomy and low-down, I love him to death. In RS, the narrator and Edna plan to go to Florida, but things go from bad to worse, every detail of their miserable road trip lovingly detailed.
Quote: "But we were half down through Wyoming, going toward Interstate 80 and feeling good about things, when the oil light flashed on in the car I'd stolen, a sign I knew to be a bad one."

There are so many other short stories that I love--there's one about a bird expert who gets captured by some guerillas, and another by Le Guin with characters that change roles in each of several sections, and a wonderful one by Toni Cade Bambara that is not "Gorilla, My Love" (although that one is good, too)-- but I can't think of them right now, or can't remember the titles, plus I'm hungry, plus I want to watch Ugly Betty. If you have a list, put it up. If you love or hate these, let me know. I'm open to other people's opinions. Really.



Blogger Gina Ventre said...

Rock Springs is the shit. It's in my top 5 for sure.

5/11/2007 9:06 AM  
Blogger Brian Kornell said...

Love "Rock Springs" and "The Metamorphosis".

Isabelle Fish is my favorite Julie Orringer story. I just read "Good Country People". I liked it, but "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is better.

Have you read any Miranda July? Her new collection is really good.

5/11/2007 9:24 AM  
Blogger lucette said...

I've only read a story by MJ--a story about a wedding that I really liked. I keep forgetting to put her on my reading list.

5/11/2007 10:22 AM  
Blogger nova said...

This is such a wonderful list. And I love that you included quotes from the stories.

5/18/2007 12:46 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

Nova--I could claim "Civilwarland" and "White Angel" from your list, too--both amazing stories.

5/21/2007 11:17 AM  
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