A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
For this round-up of favourite short stories and story collections, I had a rather hard time getting recommendations from my vulpine fellows; many of them pleaded ignorance of the genre, and it is interesting that short stories are often seen to have a specialist readership as much as specialised authors. (Of our resident short story experts, Trilby will be writing about her favourites on Friday; and Kirsty will cover her choice, Gogol, later on in the Russian Series.) It then occurred to me to ask recommendations from some of our favourite book bloggers and other friends – and I’m glad I did, as the result is an interesting variety of short stories in all shapes and sizes (and genres)!
JACKIE: Since I couldn’t decide between Saki’s ‘The Interlopers’ or Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’, I decided to do both. They both have the same sort of setting– apparently winter wilderness really clinches it for me. I first read each as a teenager and still recall the impact they had on me then and they continue to impress me as an adult.
‘The Interlopers’ is about two men hunting in an European forest, the ownership of which has been disputed for generations. They become separated from their companions and as they confront each other, the winter wind topples a tree, trapping them both under it. What happens as they wait for rescue and the surprising outcome is what makes this story memorable.
‘To Build a Fire’ is the account of a nameless man, traveling alone except for a husky, through the Yukon to a camp miles away. Inadequately prepared for the -65 degrees weather, he falls through the ice on a frozen stream, soaking his legs. He builds a fire under a spruce tree to dry out and when snow falls from the branches and smothers his campfire, he tries to build a new one as he slowly grows colder. London’s story is over twice as long and more detailed, to show each step on the man’s path to self destruction. It’s a simple concept for a story, but the telling of it is masterful. The only thing that’s annoying is London’s usual penchant for having the dog think primal thoughts while staring into the fire, much like a soap opera character.
The important factor in both these stories is how Nature is stronger than humans, no matter how macho the man or how fierce his anger, it’s all quite trivial in the face of the Nature on an ordinary day. It’s a reminder that we are not, after all, the rulers of this world.
SIMON of Stuck In A Book: I was equally blessed and cursed by my first foray into the world of short stories, in that I started with the best. Katherine Mansfield is unquestionably the best short story writer I’ve read (no, I haven’t read Chekhov; yes, I have read Joyce) – and ‘The Garden Party’ (1922) is my favourite individual story, as well as the title of my favourite collection.
‘And after all the weather was ideal.’ – the opening line of ‘The Garden Party’, and we are flung, albeit gently, into the superficially important concerns of the Sheridan family. Laura is trying to help organise a garden party, with such crucial concerns as which hat to wear, and where to have the marquee placed. But: ‘Something had happened’. A very private tragedy strikes one of the little cottages in the lane near Laura’s house – and thus conflict interrupts the cosy domesticity to which Laura is accustomed. Continuing the party seems unspeakably heartless to Laura; for her mother, however; ‘People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now’. And so Laura visits the afflicted family herself.
Though the class issues about which Mansfield writes may have abated, her portraits of humanity and emotion have not dated a day. Each of her stories is profoundly affecting, and ‘The Garden Party’ provides the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory, which would be an ideal starting point for any Mansfield virgin.
KIRSTY of Other Stories: I recently had the very great pleasure of reading Clare Wigfall’s debut short story collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing. It really was terrific: rarely have I read a collection that spans such a broad range of ages, countries, or dialects, and I think it says much about the skill of Wigfall as a writer that she is equally adept at writing in the vernacular of a remote Scottish island and she is in the Southern US states.
The stand-out story for me was ‘The Parrot Jungle’, which follows a man as he drives across America, picking up a confirmed hippy and her son along the way. Also look out for ‘Night After Night’, which describes the fall-out of a man’s arrest from the perspective of his wife, who didn’t suspect he’d done anything wrong, and ‘On Pale Green Walls’, in which a young girl is scared that the Virgin Mary doesn’t love her as much as she loves Jesus. Also in this collection is ‘The Numbers’, which recently won Clare Wigfall the BBC Short Story Competition – and deservedly so. It sounds like hyperbole, but I truly mean this: The Loudest Sound and Nothing is one of the best short story collection I have ever read.
STEWART of booklit: Collections of short stories are something I tend to buy more than read. They may fill those short gaps where a novel is too much, but I often find myself sitting there wondering what was that all about. Some can be too subtle for their own good, and therefore short stories don’t do much for me. But a recent collection I read, Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, still lingers in my thoughts, its subtleties playing over and over as my subconscious considers the depths only hinted at on the surface. Ogawa, you see, is expert in making so little mean so much, and Steven Snyder’s translation from the Japanese is sharp in delivering a sense of menace to the most everyday of things. The stories in The Diving Pool, Ogawa’s first appearance in English, are more novellas in length (there are only three), but in each, notably the title story, with her detached female narrators, she maintains a thematic harmony exploring fertility, obsession, and motherhood in a spare and detached, haunting style that, layered with intriguing symbols, makes you read between the lines, and when you close the book, it leaves, gently lapping in its aftermath, ripples unexpected but welcome.
CLAUDIA NEHM, author of Die wundersame Wandlung des Dr. Felix Tabeks: One of the reasons for reading a short story is the (banal) reason, that it is short. Hemingways ‘A Very Short Story’ is very short. You don’t need much time for it. You can read it in a couple of minutes and yet dive deep into a world of war, wounds and first love. In this sense it is a long story, the story of Hemingways own disappointed love affair with an Italian nurse in World War I.
The narrator falls in love with a nurse called Luz during his stay in a war hospital. When he returns to the States in order to arrange everything for the wedding, Luz gets involved with an Italian major. This love affair makes her realize that the first one has just been a boy and girl love.
Hemingways typical style of short simple sentences and explaining a situation in one or two sentences is brilliantly used in this story. It is a minimal language where every word is perfectly put and prepares you for what is going to be the end of this story. A very sad story.
In case you liked what you have read and have more time than a couple of minutes, you can explore the same story in a full length novel A Farewell to Arms.
VANESSA GEBBIE, author of Words from a Glass Bubble: There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry (Stinging Fly 2007) has to be the collection I would save if my bookcase caught fire. The stories are that extraordinary mixture of very funny, very thought-provoking, with the occasional clever whiplash of sadness. The overall effect for this reader was one of joy at finding such a vibrant, energetic, original and wickedly sharp voice.
There are Little Kingdoms was awarded the 2007 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.
That’s my choice of collection. But my favourite short story of all has to be ‘The Ledge’ by the American writer Lawrence Sargeant Hall. It is a deceptively simple story of a fisherman taking his son and nephew for a shooting trip on an exposed reef off the New England coast in winter. I must have read it twenty times, and still find it an extraordinary story. Unforgettable. It won the O Henry Award in 1960 and has been reprinted in over thirty anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin 2000 Ed: John Updike).
LISA: My favourite short story is ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which I will talk about more in my review of Close Range. The story is desperate, intense and emotionally very powerful. The idea that ‘if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it’ runs throughout ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and it pretty much sums up my own view of life. A real tearjerker of a short story, but one that leaves its mark.
My second favourite short story is D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sun’ but I realise that it is rather unfashionable to like Lawrence these days, and yet I do. ‘Sun’ is a pretty odd story about a New York woman who skips over to the Mediterranean (leaving her husband behind) to take sun baths to improve her health. She spends most of the story wandering around the countryside naked, eating wonderful food and having profound thoughts about the sun. A really sensuous tale about a woman trying to figure out how to live.
DOVEGREYREADER: I envisage Elizabeth Baines hunched over a magnifying glass, the finest, most delicate of brushes in her hand, painting exquisite little miniatures, and there you have the essence of her short story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World published by Salt. Reading as an onlooker is such a treat and Elizabeth Baines positions the fulcrum of each story with absolute precision and then, with the most feather-weight whispers, proceeds to tip the balance of power first one way then the next. The whispers often so slight that I was often listening too loudly to hear them if that make sense.
Details jostle for attention from these myriad lives as you meet the humiliated wife who gets her revenge, the writer desperate for recognition, the confident and assured teenage boy about to be changed forever, the children of the divorcing parents, the depressed mother, the one page story that perfectly defines the dilemma of 21st century parenting and know that you will have met a great cross section of life today.
It is the microscopic quality of Elizabeth Baines’ eye that make each and every one of these stories so special.
MOIRA: I have on my bookshelf a fragile, foxed and battered paperback that I found in the early 1970s in a secondhand bookshop on a backstreet in Brighton, near the station, and just down from a surgical appliance shop. (It’s strange what you remember …). The original price sticker says 2/6: two shillings and sixpence, in pre-decimal currency. The price pencilled inside is 2p. The book is science-fiction writer Eric Frank Russell’s Far Stars. I bought it on a whim on my way to catch the train to London. I wanted something to read, it was cheap and it was short stories. Perfect.
Brian Aldiss once said that nobody rivalled Russell at his best – and this slim volume of six short stories pretty much makes his point for him. The stories are proof – if proof were needed – that real quality is timeless. Originally published in 1961, Far Stars has not aged, even though science fiction itself has moved on. That’s because although they are stories of spaceships, aliens and The Final Frontier, they are also stories of bureaucracy, humanity and love – told with humour, a sharp eye and – in one case – an extraordinary gentleness.
‘The Timeless Ones’ and ‘The Waitabits’ share a theme … they are both stories of races who prove to be unconquerable not because of ferocious resistance but simply because … they are unconquerable. I can’t say much more than that without giving the game away – except that the concept of ‘time’ comes into both of them.
‘Allamagoosa’ and ‘Diabologic’ are Russell at his wryly comic best … the former a wonderfully funny riff on the fear of bureaucracy and its potentially dire consequences.
‘Legwork’ is what happens when good, old-fashioned policing plods on its routine way and accidentally foils an alien invasion.
Last but not least … the one people either love or hate … ‘P.S.’. A young boy wins a competition. The prize is to correspond with an alien penpal, which he does for years upon years. Then, one day, as an elderly man, he discovers that his treasured friend, Gaily, is in fact a ‘stinking pile of fungus’ and not a ‘she’ at all, but an ‘it’.
The end of the story is never really in doubt, and the message – that it’s what’s inside that counts – is as old as time; but in Russell’s hands it’s a life-enhancing little tale, beautifully told.
I’ve returned to Far Stars over and over again since I first read it all those years ago. I’ve recommended it to countless friends – some of whom have even thanked me for it – and I’m recommending it to you now … whether you like science fiction or not.
LEENA: As Simon has already written about my all-time favourite short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, I can only echo what he says – except that my favourite collection would be Bliss and Other Stories, and if you ask me ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’ are the most beautiful, and ‘The Little Governess’ the most devastating short story ever.
But my official choice, then, is Edith Wharton. Not her ordinary short stories – even the famous ‘Roman Fever’ – but her weird tales and ghost stories. Some of these are genuinely scary, but even when they’re not, something about them makes them almost unbearably beautiful to me in a way that her novels (though I love them) are not. Even single descriptive passages stand out with a concentrated exquisiteness – for some reason, I’ve never been able to forget this seemingly unimportant passage from ‘The Duchess at Prayer’: ‘From the loggia, with its vanishing frescoes, I looked down an avenue barred by a ladder of cypress-shadows to the ducal escutcheon and mutilated vases of the gate. Flat noon lay on the gardens, on fountains, porticoes and grottoes. Below the terrace, where a chrome-colored lichen had sheeted the balustrade as with fine laminae of gold, vineyards stooped to the rich valley clasped in hills. The lower slopes were strewn with white villages like stars spangling a summer dusk; and beyond these, fold on fold of blue mountain, clear as gauze against the sky. The August air was lifeless, but it seemed light and vivifying after the atmosphere of the shrouded rooms through which I had been led. Their chill was on me and I hugged the sunshine.’
The tales are delicious as Sachertorte, where the beauty is chocolate, sadness is the orange juice, and the mystery the flour that holds it all together. If you’re tempted, take a bite of ‘Bewitched’.