5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads from May 2016 (Short Story Month)

5 short storiesMay was Short Story Month. Not that we should need an excuse to read short stories. But, it is good to dedicate a month to this form of literature because, generally, it tends to be under-rated by the average reader and, sadly, by the larger publishing industry.

Lorrie Moore, American short story writer, is often quoted as saying that:

A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.

A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.

With that short-story-as-photograph analogy, Moore was preceded by another of my all-time favorite short story writers, the New Zealander, Katherine Mansfield, who wrote:

Short stories can be like photographs, catching people at some moment in their lives and trapping the memory forever . There they are, smiling or frowning, looking sad, happy, serious, surprised … And behind those smiles and those frowns lie all the experience of life, the fears and delights, the hopes and the dreams.

Here are several more quotes about short stories.

As a reader and a writer, the allure of the short story form came to me late. It was only when I started reading like a writer, in my late-30s, that I came to appreciate the power, beauty, and skill of a short story. That a few thousand words can create an entire world, say and do so much with such precision and economy, and manage to haunt you for years later — these are reasons enough to appreciate this art form. But, more than that, what I have found is that, generally, writers take more risks and indulge in more experimentation with this form of fiction than the longer form, the novel.

There are more magazines publishing short fiction today, in every genre, than ever before in the history of publications. And, though their readership may not be in the high numbers that were once feasible, they continue to bring us amazing stories.

I am thinking of doing a “top five short stories” post every month. Also, while I will try to present newly-published works, I might throw in the odd classic. At some point, I will also list some podcasts where other authors share their favorite short stories or read their own. So, watch this space.

Oh, and please share your favorite short stories too. Let’s keep the short story fest going all year round, not just for a month each year.

1. The Human Phonograph by Jonathan Tel

The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award is the biggest (£30,000) prize for a single short story in the English language. The award is open to any novelist or short story writer from around the world who is published in the UK. Past winner and shortlistees have included Hilary Mantel, Junot Diaz, Yiyun Li, Anthony Doerr, Meira Chand, and more.

This year, they announced Jonathan Tel as the winner. Tel has a MS in Theoretical Physics and a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Stanford. And he just happens to write award-winning fiction.

You can read all the shortlisted stories here. Tel’s story is a deserving winner.

A weird request. Music? From her? He knows perfectly well she has no voice. Well, if her husband wants her to sing, then sing she must. What, then? There are those songs she’s heard over and over again, played through the loudspeakers at the Institute: ‘Rely on the Helmsman While Sailing the Sea’… ‘The Red Army Crosses a Thousand Mountains and Ten Thousand Rivers, Yearning for a Moment Of Rest’… But surely he’d prefer something more personal. It’s not as if they ever had a song that was their song. Unlike other courting couples, they never listened to jazz together, back when it was permitted; they never went ballroom dancing. She chooses something she was taught in Russian class, ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen.’ Yo heave ho. Once more, once more again, still once more. Yo heave ho…

He lowers his gaze. He says with conviction, No, you do not have the talent to be my assistant.

2. Souvenir by Joy Williams

Williams won the PEN/Malamud Prize in April. This story was published in ‘The Offing’. Not having read much of Williams’ work at all before, I went searching for some online. This is a wonderful, dryly-narrated story, starting out pretty light and then turning dark. That, right there, is so hard to do. And, when it’s done right, so satisfying to read. It starts out like an O Henry story, almost, with the rich details and the satirical glances at the tourists and the locals. Then, as it gets towards the end, it’s almost like a Joyce Carol Oates story in how it darkens. Beautifully done.

They weren’t going to tell any scary stories, not these two. Weren’t going to tell this crowd about the vanishing hitchhiker or the man with half a face. Or the ones about the boiled baby’s revenge and the body of water that likes to break little boys’ backs. They were just going to play a few games, give these tourists something to remember. What did they think life was, a vacation?

3. This Door You Might Not Open by Susan Scarf Merrill

This is a retelling of the famous ‘Bluebeard’ folktale about a rich man who kills his wives when they disobey him. It has been passed down in Europe orally with slightly different variations. Here’s a bit more history/context.

It was published in ‘Electric Literature’.

Here, the wife now has power and the husband has to obey her. It is also set in the present-day with emails, supermarkets, television, and so on. What I enjoyed most here was Merrell’s beautiful writing. In the introduction, Rachel Pastan writes: “Exploring how the world is changing is central to Merrell’s motive, but what I love most about this story is how it sets modern questions in a world that still feels enchanted, crepuscular, alive with the unbounded possible. Partly she does this through the way she uses language. Her prose is both clean and incantatory, and she knows when to explain and when to leave a mystery. In a kind of prismatic sorcery, we see the old “Bluebeard” story in a new way, yet at the same time we feel the hundred tenacious threads that connect our new world with the old one. In both, Merrell suggests, marriage can be perilous territory. A locked, bloody room inside which anything can happen.”

I tell her I left the egg outside the room, the one he told me I was to carry always. “Death comes to anyone who drops the egg,” he said before he left on that first journey, a few months into our marriage. In his voice, I heard regret — eons of it. Not simply his own, but that of his brothers, his father, his uncles. (No one lives forever, not even Bluebeard.) His family has always preferred mine.

And me? The fact is, I forgot his orders. Or so I tell myself. Some weeks after his departure, I placed the egg on the table in the hall, watched it wobble for a moment, and went inside the room.

4. Harsingar by Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar is a Professor at Vassar in New York. Published in Catapult, this is a coming-of-age story. The narrator is the adult writer looking back on his childhood and adolescence and putting the pieces together. All introspection, as they say, is really retrospection, as is the case with this story. And, through this narrator’s retrospection, we understand the unrequited loves that have filled his own life.

Satyadev’s father was a Deputy Superintendent of Police. He had shot himself in his bedroom. My mother revealed this to me. Satyadev’s father suspected that his wife was having an affair with a music director. My mother also mentioned that there is one detail in “Bungalow Number 43” that is drawn from real life. The young woman in the story, a dancer, wears small, white harsingar flowers in her hair. That is exactly how Satyadev’s mother used to adorn her hair.

5. Train to Harbin by Asako Serizawa

Throughout the year, magazine editors submit their issues to The O. Henry Prize Stories series editor. The stories must be published in an American or Canadian periodical and originally written in English. Novel excerpts and works in translation are not considered. Online publications are not eligible for submission to the O. Henry Prize Stories.From the multitude of stories submitted, the editor chooses twenty winners that stand out above the rest. Each juror then reads the twenty winning stories in manuscript form, without knowledge of author names or publications. Without consulting one another, they each select their favorite and write a short essay about what led them to their choice. These final twenty also make it into an anthology.

From the multitude of stories submitted, the editor (this year, it was Laura Furman) chooses twenty winners that stand out above the rest. Each juror then reads the twenty winning stories in manuscript form, without knowledge of author names or publications. Without consulting one another, they each select their favorite and write a short essay about what led them to their choice. These final twenty also make it into an anthology.

I once met a man on the train to Harbin. He was my age, just past his prime, hair starting to grease and thin in a way one might have thought passably distinguished in another context, in another era, when he might have settled down, reconciled to finishing out his long career predictably. But it was 1939. War had officially broken out between China and Japan, and like all of us on that train, he too had chosen to take the bait, that one last bite before acquiescing to life’s steady decline. You see, for us university doctors, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We all knew it. Especially back then.

And, this interesting article about the state of the short story is by one of the editorial assistants, Kelly Luce, who was on the judging panel for this prize.

Finally, one of my short stories was also published in a literary journal in May. You can read that here: The Symphony of a Future Memory.

 

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