Monday, November 19, 2007

6 BOOKS of fine short stories by Me

Me is me, the person who runs this blog. From time to time, I'll be contributing one of these lists until more contributions from guests are in the hopper. Below, I write about six of my favorite short story collections.

Drown by Junot Diaz

This sharp set of stories set in the Dominican Republic and Dominican communities in New Jersey and New York charts the lives of immigrants and the generations that follow them -- characters who might be described as marginal by some, but who come irresistibly alive through Diaz's mix of colloquial and poetic style. Funny, serious, and moving, Drown was released in 1996. In a blurb on the back jacket, Francisco Goldman wrote, "Diaz is going to be a giant of American prose." For the decade after this debut's publication, fans and critics who agreed with Goldman waited eagerly for a follow-up. It finally came earlier this year with the publication of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel near the top of my to-read list.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's short stories from the 1950s and 1960s, gathered here, showcase the author's legendary range of satirical gifts. On the extreme edges, they also show him delving into more traditional science fiction and even romance. They're populated by terrifically named characters like Diana Moon Glampers.

But you know about Vonnegut already, so I'll just point out that Monkey House also features one of my favorite dedications ("For Knox Burger. Ten days older than I am. He has been a very good father to me.") and one of my favorite epigraphs ("Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." --Thoreau).

Like Life by Lorrie Moore

Moore's Birds of America probably makes more lists, but I prefer this earlier collection of fewer stories. Mixing humor and insight as seamlessly as ever, Moore describes one character's cautious nature thus: "She didn't like to do things where the trick was to not die."

In "Two Boys," the opening story, a woman is carrying on more than one relationship simultaneously for the first time in her life. The boyfriends are referred to as Number One and Number Two. The former is married, and the affair includes this moment:
"I'm worried about you. You seem distant. And you're always dressed in white. What's going on?"
"I'm saving myself for marriage," she said. "Not yours."
Number One looked at her. He had been about to say "Mine?" but there wasn't enough room for both of them there, like two men on a base. They were arriving at punch lines together these days. They had begun to do imitations of each other, that most violent and satisfying end to love.
The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

I haven't revisited this one much since college, but seeing as how it includes everything that Kafka published while he was alive -- including "The Metamorphosis," "In the Penal Colony," and "A Hunger Artist" -- it's an easy choice. In the foreword to the edition I own, John Updike wrote, in 1983:
(These stories) remind us that Kafka wrote in a Europe where islands of urban wealth, culture, and discontent were surrounded by a countryside still, in its simplicity, apparently in possession of the secret of happiness, of harmony with the powers of earth and sky. Modernity has proceeded far enough, and spread wide enough, to make us doubt that anyone really has this secret. Part of Kafka's strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret.
Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

Like the work of any experimentalist, Barthelme's can be wildly hit-or-miss, but this collection has plenty of hits. It includes my favorite story of his, "The Sandman," which takes the form of a sometimes-passive-but-mostly-aggressive letter written from a woman's lover to her shrink. A taste:
Susan says: "I want to buy a piano."
You think: She wishes to terminate the analysis and escape into the piano.
Or: Yes, it is true that her father wanted her to be a concert pianist and that she studied for twelve years with Goetzmann. But she does not really want to reopen that can of maggots. She wants me to disapprove.
Or: Having failed to achieve a career as a concert pianist, she wishes to fail again. She is now too old to achieve the original objective. The spontaneous organization of defeat!
Or: She is flirting again.
The one thing you cannot consider, by the nature of your training and of the discipline itself, is that she really might want to terminate the analysis and buy a piano.
The Collected Stories by William Trevor

Every decent personal library should have a copy of this one. It's nearly 1,300 pages of Trevor's precise, beautiful writing. It was released in 1992, and Trevor has continued churning out work since, even as he nears 80 years old. (To see that he's still on top of his game, read his latest collection, Cheating at Canasta.) I once wrote to a friend something along the lines of how I'd like to move to a bog in Ireland, polishing the same few sentences over and over again until they look like William Trevor's.



Anonymous Kevin Longrie said...

That Kafka series is fantastic. I had actually finished reading it, and had it stolen from me the same day in a college bathroom.

The Vonnegut one is the only one I've read, but I'll look into the others. Great piece.

6:27 PM  

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