This week’s Chicago Tribune column is a reflection on Short Story Month, and something of a lament that short stories are not more popular. My theory is that school creates a dysfunctional relationship with short prose (and poetry), where these pieces are viewed as something to be “figured out” or explained, rather than “experienced.”
Going into a story asking “What does this mean?” versus simply letting the narrative wash over you makes for a fundamentally different experience. When I was a little kid being read to, no one was going to quiz me on the underlying symbols of Goodnight Moon. That naive mindset is a necessity to allow a short story to works its magic on the reader, but it can be hard to recapture if schooling has warped our perceptions.
This is why, when I was teaching fiction writing, early in the semester I would take time in class to just read a short story aloud to students and ask them not to interpret, but to react. I had a number of stories I would use, but one of my favorites was “Through the Safety Net” by Charles Baxter which is from a collection of the same title.
I used it because it’s rather short, a single extended domestic scene that nonetheless manages to establish great tension, including over the act of slicing up a grapefruit, believe it or not. The student response is predictable. They’re astounded at how they were manipulated to a place of great worry for a character they know almost nothing about, which opens up a semester-long (or life-long) conversation about how writing works, as opposed to what a piece of writing means.
Short stories are truly my first love as a writer. I consider my own story collection, Tough Day for the Army, the best work I’ve ever done. Even though there’s no money in it, I still find myself writing stories for fun, including this one told from the perspective of George Conway, husband of Kellyanne Conway.
I’m going to list an extremely limited handful of story collections that I treasure below, but more important for me is to share stories or story collections that you find particularly moving. Let’s help everyone discover something new.
These are in no particular order and are simply a selection out of a list of books that is hundreds of titles long, but which feel like the ones I want to share this particular day.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Pastoralia by George Saunders
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Selected Stories by Andre Dubus
Self Help by Lorrie Moore
60 Stories by Donald Barthelme
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
I’ve compiled these books in a list at Bookshop.org, titled “Short Stories Recommended By Me and the Council of Wise Readers.” You all are the “Council of Wise Readers,” a title which will make its broader public debut in next week’s column at the Chicago Tribune.
Any books you add in the comments, I’ll add to the list. Let’s do this.
Well, the worst happened. Alden Capital now controls the Chicago Tribune and various other newspapers. I co-sign the sentiments of Margaret Sullivan writing at the Washington Post.
It looks like some of Philip Roth’s papers will be destroyed without being seen by any scholars/writers other than disgraced biographer Blake Bailey.
A great story about how an independent bookstore survived by knowing and being supported by its community.
Over at his Counter Craft newsletter, Lincoln Michel explores how much authors earn. A: Both less and more than you think.
Reading Companion of the Week
This is Eli, “an excellent reading companion and all-around best buddy.”
Email me a picture of your favorite reading companion to firstname.lastname@example.org
All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. Another good week put the tally at $60.40 for the year.
As always, recommendations are open for business. Follow the instructions at the link below.
1. The Survivors by Jane Harper
2. A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green
3. The Tresspasser by Tana French
4. Oracle Night by Paul Auster
5. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Kristian B. - London, England
This is a big one, but it’ll stick with you once you’ve read it, probably forever, The Overstory by Richard Powers.
Book Club #1
1. The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead
2. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent Isabel Wilkerson
3. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: A Novel Bali Kaur Jaswal
4. The Vanishing Half Brit Bennett
5. A Long Petal of the Sea Isabel Allende
Book Club #2
1. Circe Madeline Miller
2. American Dirt Jeanine Cummins
3. Fracture Andres Neuman
4. Seagull and short stories The Grasshopper and The Kiss Anton Chekov
5. The Housekeeper and the Professor Yoko Ogawa
Elizabeth B. - Chicago, IL
Alrighty, this one is a bit of a twist. Elizabeth is in not one, but two book clubs, which dictate a fair share of her reading, so she’s looking for recommendations to take to the groups for possible selection. Both clubs have made some very fine choices, so the pressure is on. For book club #1, I’m going to try to inject a little froth while still retaining some dramatic weight with Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky. For book club #2 I’m hitting them with Infinite Country by Patricia Engel.
1. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
3. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
4. Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
5. Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveiria
Ann M. - Pocatello, ID
Ann looks drawn to heavy stuff, so maybe it’s time to let in a bit of light? We’ll see if Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple hits the mark.
It’s a great day for reading, wherever you are. Happy Sunday!