By Eric L.
I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately. I’d contend the short story is really its own art form, of which I’m a big fan. In fact, in my book discussion group, Read. Think. Talk., we’ve spent the past quarter reading exclusively short story collections. It makes for a different sort of discussion, and in some ways the long form – a novel or novella – lends itself a bit better to a book discussion. Personally, I like to discuss the characters and situations that change throughout a novel. However, as a group we’ve done short stories plenty of times, and it’s a great opportunity to discuss which ones you like, which ones you didn’t like, and generally how the stories worked, or didn’t, in a short number of pages.
I’ve always enjoyed short stories for their brevity. They are especially well-suited for the time-challenged, modern world we live in. You can just jump into a story when you have a brief period of time, or perhaps need a short respite from whatever else you’re reading (e.g., maybe you’re a student reading textbooks and academic periodicals and would like some fiction in your life). I’ve read some great collections lately.
George Saunders, who mainly writes short stories, is remarkable in the field. His collection Tenth of December is by no means a feel-good read, but the stories are an abstract satirical take on modern-day America. They are collected from The New Yorker, where Saunders contributes stories regularly and where I read a great interview with the author to prepare for our book group discussion. Most of the stories concern disastrous situations and terrible characters that frankly scare you a bit, but somehow they don’t end catastrophically. I would even describe the stories as ending on an optimistic note, which seems like the opposite of how they’re presented on the surface. They’re definitely worth a read, or two.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a companion to his excellent book The Sympathizer. Although I’d recommend the latter over the former, I don’t want to denigrate the story collection; it’s just a tall order to compete with that great book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America after the Vietnam war. (Please read my review of The Sympathizer here.)
The stories are all colored by Nguyen’s personal experience of being a refugee as a child. Dedicated to “refugees everywhere,” I think the book speaks to the importance of expanding our understanding of what it means to be a refugee. In my mind’s eye, I see people walking with their few possessions without a land or place. While a physical journey of this sort sometimes happens, the next step deals with the ongoing psychological effects of living in a foreign land. Particularly, one that is politically and culturally controlled by people different than you. Nguyen deftly tells stories from the perspective of a man, a child, a younger woman, and an older woman. There is even an interesting commentary about how some refugees perceive others as having it better when one character laments the fact that they’re not Korean.
In February, the book group is considering Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, and the library just procured some fresh copies. I’ve always loved his wit, humanism, and the cynical optimism that flavors his satire. Vonnegut began his career and was able to support himself and his family as a writer by selling stories. I learned this recently by watching the documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. The collection is worth checking out if only for the great tale “Harrison Bergeron.” I first read this in a freshman college English class (even a slacker like me was game for this short story). Vonnegut tells the story of a futuristic society that has attempted to forcibly make itself completely equitable via technology. For example, if you’re intelligent your brain is zapped when you start to think too much; if you’re physically gifted, you’re saddled with weights; if you’re attractive, you wear a mask, etc. It’s a complicated message that I think I get, or at least I have my own interpretation. However, I don’t want to influence yours. I enjoy art like this, though, and I’d describe it as open-ended and open to interpretation.
Although I could go on about all the great short story collections I’ve read, I won’t. However, I’d like to mention one final great one. Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales is by Margaret Atwood, another author I love for her wit and great social commentary. These tales are sort of “light horror” stories, which is how I would describe much of Atwood’s writing. I hope it’s not heresy to state here that I think the collection is better than The Testaments. The stories should be read in order, as some are connected. The overarching theme throughout is the experience of being a woman and aging, and they’re all wondrously done.
I have always marveled at those who do the short story well. To tell a story in just a few pages takes craft, specifically, to get people to invest in the plot, scene, and characters. Try it, sometime. It’s not easy.
Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.