Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Keeping it Short

This edition of Weekly Geeks is all about keeping things short--whether that means short stories or skinny novels.  I love reading this kind of text, taking the letters in as if I were inhaling with one deep breath then slowly exhaling as I contemplate all I have absorbed.  Often short stories, which I tend to read much more slowly than novels, stay with me longer than even chunky novels.  In a short story, so much craftsmanship has to go into so few words.  I love the laser focus on theme or character transformation that short stories often have.

A few of my favorite stories:

1. "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker
          A story exploring the meaning of heritage and roots.  Told from the perspective of a traditional Black mother in the 1970s, this is the story of a visit home by her daughter, a young woman who has rejected the rural southern traditions of her immediate family and instead--at their expense--embraced an abstract connection with her African roots.  (If you are a quilter or other crafter, this is especially a story for you.)

2. "Why I Live at the PO" by Eudora Welty
          A very funny retelling of the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son--told from the responsible sister's side.  It is a story about pride, place, and the frustrations that arise in family connections as well as the complicated forms of love those connections provide.  The story ends as the narrator tries to makes sense of all the changes that have occurred--and is enough of an unreliable narrator that the reader sees her pain and foresees reconciliation of some kind.  Try reading this story aloud!

3. "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor
          Joy Hopewell, after loosing her leg to an accident, rejects the promise of her name and changes it to Hulga, the ugliest name she can find.  She acquires a PhD in philosophy and embraces a morally smug form of nihilism, claiming she has no illusions: "I'm one of those people who see through to nothing."  When a naive (and dishonest) Bible salesmen meets her, he seduces her--and then leaves her, as they say, without a leg to stand on.  He shifts the terrain upon which she stands and the experience works like lightening to force her to reconsider her beliefs and the meaning of her life.

Occasionally it occurs to me that these authors echo the voices of my family members when I was growing up in the South.  My relatives were all people who loved to sit around and tell stories about their lives and their friends--stories full of humor and wisdom and exaggeration and a deep commitment to place.

As I write this post, I also see that these three stories are all about women who separate themselves from their home--either physically or culturally--and then have to grapple with their relationship to that home.  The characters see themselves as superior, but in each case there is something in the stories that knocks them off that attitude.  I wonder why this appeals to me, this daughter of the South who left for a fancy education in the North but doesn't truly fit in either place, the elder sister who is sure she knows best?

*  *  *

Right now I'm reading a forthcoming book of stories by Margaret Drabble written over the course of her own maturing and the maturing of feminism.  The collection is absolutely fascinating.  More about that this soon.

*  *  *

What are some of your favorite stories?  Who are some of your favorite short-story writers?  As Mel U of The Reading Life suggested, short stories are a terrific way to give myself a little break from my lifetime reading plan without losing my focus.  I'm always on the lookout for suggestions!


  1. Hi, thanks for your thoughts on these stories. Susan Hill has got to be among the best of short story writers.
    much love

  2. My favorite book of short stories this past year is Valerie Trueblood's MARRY OR BURN, and I know that you will instantly catch the allusion in the title, though many readers, I find, do not. Bonnie Jo Campbell's AMERICAN SALVAGE is powerful but difficult to read, in that it's hard to want to stay in that world very long. On the other hand, Campbell's novel, Q ROAD, I completely loved and highly recommend.

  3. martine: I've never read Susan Hill but have been hearing a lot of great things about her writing. Will add to my short story list!

    PJ: Ooh ooh ooh, I DO actually get the allusion! There is so much I haven't read (as you may have figured out from these book lists...) that I very rarely do. Thanks so much for the recommendations.

  4. Sticking with the project, it's a long time to the short story as we recognize it.

    There's certainly short fiction along the way, though - Lucian, the Decameron and Heptameron, some Spanish picaresques and exemplary stories. More, surely, that I am forgetting.

    Is there any point responding to your closing questions? My answers are just the usual stuff - Chekhov on top, the usual suspects following. Welty and O'Connor are both right up near the top. Katherine Anne Porter, too, to add another Southern woman.

  5. Yes, AR--it is a long time before I get to short stories chronologically. You and I seem to be the only people who care about that--and I read a fair bit on the side. Better short diversions than really long ones...? :)

    (Yes, I used all the markers since I know my efforts to justify myself are lame.)

    Giving me suggestions might just lead me astray. KAP I enjoy very much but not as much as Welty and O'Connor. (Southern women writers is perhaps the only area where I am fairly well read.)

    Chekhov, believe it or not, I have never read. Do you have particular stories to recommend I start with? Favorite translators?

  6. "Good Country People" is a great short story. I liked it very much when I read it. I agree with you that sometimes short writing takes more skill than a novel -- every word counts.

  7. I don't even love the short story form but Welty blows me away every time. O'Connor too, in a different and more disturbing way. I almost feel they're the matter (Welty) and anti-matter (O'Connor) of Southern women writers. My favorite Welty short story might be "The Winds"—so Woolfian and beautiful.

  8. My grandparents had a two volume set of Maugham's short works that is now mine that is always my first choice for short fiction. I am also very partial to the short stories of Lydia Davis and Tobias Wolff.

  9. Thanks so much for the mention-I recently read the Welty story you mentioned-I liked it a lot-I was so happy to discover that she had spent time at Elizabeth Bowen's manor house in Ireland!-I endorse the short stories of Mansfield, Bowen and Woolf without reservation-I am 50/50 on Kate Chopin-I like the style and the atmosphere-I was glad to see someone mentioned Barbara Baynton-child of Irish Bonded servant immigrants-The more modern short stories can serve as a kind of commentary on the older works you are reading-mostly I read older short stories I can find online-However I liked Elizabeth Bowen so much I broke down and bought her collection of short stories-Harold Bloom lists her short stories as canon status works

  10. Kim: Thanks. So glad you like Good Country People too. So many of O'Connor's stories are wonderful!

    Emily: The matter and anti-matter--fascinating! I used to be freaked out by O'Connor in high school, but after I read her letters, my opinion completely changed. Once I got that she was trying to do something other than shock, I started loving her stories more than almost any one else's writing.

    Frances: I haven't read much Maugham and have been thinking that needs to be something I do soon. I love Lydia Davis as a translator but have only read one of her stories at this point. Love her voice. And I've never read T. Wolff. What do you recommend as a starting story?

    Mel U: I now am the proud owner of used copies of Bowen's and Mansfield's story collections, completely because of you. I'm looking forward to reading a Bowen story or two during your Irish Short Stories week! I also acquired a book of Alice Munro stories. Have you tried her? I haven't yet at all.

  11. Oh, and Frances? I also found a collection of Angela Carter and brought it home with me in your honor.

  12. Chehkov - "Ward No. 6". Any translator - he sounds the same with every translator I've looked at. Constance Garnett is as good as anyone with Chekhov.

    Tobias Wolff - since you're a professional historian, even though it might cut a little close to home - "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs"! Yes yes.

    But I'm not sure there is too awfully wrong of an answer with either of those writers. Frances, what do you think?

    Marker? Lame? Project in Order with No Diversions = Nervous Breakdown

  13. I love love love Eudora Welty!


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