Category Archives: short stories

Short Stories

thumbnail_IMG_4133    After listening to Lauren Groff read her short story “Dogs Go Wolf” in the New Yorker about two little girls, ages four and seven, left behind on a deserted island, I thought about why I preferred novels to short stories.  In Groff’s voice, the little girls came alive, their trials of fear and hunger seemed more acute than if I had read about it.  Their misery continues through a half hour – or six pages in the New Yorker – getting more and more horrible, until they eventually fall into a stupor – “two little girls made of air.”  To distract from the horror, Groff inserts a promise of their future – one becoming a lawyer, the other married – before returning to the blazing sun and the little wolves they’ve become.   By the end of the story, they are rescued, but the gap in their lives seems hollow in the short description of the incident on the island that made them whoever they became.   Perhaps Groff will write more in a novel.  I’d like to know more about these brave souls.

Short stories offer a quick glimpse into a moment of the characters’ lives.  Edith Pearlman and Jane Gardam have successfully navigated the difficulty of the short – both offering soundbites worth remembering.  I am looking forward to reading Penelope Lively’s collection in “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.”  When I write, I prefer the short story, as difficult as it may be to condense, to spending years with the characters of a novel – but maybe that will change.

For now, the short story is a quick diversion, and when well-written, has a lot to offer, but I still prefer immersing myself in the novel.  Claire Messud’s two little girls in “The Burning Girl” have me mesmerized right now, and I am glad to have them with me for longer than a short.

Do you have a preference?  short story or novel?

To hear Groff’s story – listen to the podcast here

Reviews of Other Books by Groff:

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the movie “Arrival” based on the short story – “The Story of Your Life”

51zipo22i7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_  Not until I found the short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” in his collection of short stories – Stories of Your Life and Others – did I understand the movie Arrival with Amy Adams.  Now I get its message on the importance of language and cooperation, buried in a science fiction drama reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

Someone told me to watch carefully as the story unfolds, and it is good advice – but I may have to watch it again anyway.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks’ encounter with aliens, and her attempt to learn their language is mixed up with her own life and the trauma of her marriage and daughter’s death.  The differences between the written story and the movie had me admiring the screenwriter’s adaptation of the complex linguistic and mathematical theories Chiang uses in his short story; however, Chiang’s explanation of Fermat’s physics Principal of Least Time would have be helpful in understanding Dr. Banks’ flashes of memory. Unfortunately, it was not included in the movie – maybe to keep the viewer guessing until the explanation of events at the end.

In another Chiang short story – Babylon – in the same collection, Chiang theorizes about the notion of time.  As he describes the building of the tower of Babel to reach heaven,  the main character, Hillalum, discovers the same truth as Dr. Louise Banks – “Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.”  Chiang envisions time in a circular continuum.

In his short story about the aliens landing on several sites across the Earth, including China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and Europe, Chiang focuses on the importance of immersion in someone else’s culture to fully understand it, with the scientists and linguists working together to solve the puzzle of the aliens’ visit.  Their purpose for coming is difficult to understand without language.

In the movie, someone at one of the sites gets nervous and shoots first. The aliens are forgiving, and thankfully, the movie stays true to the communication theme and avoids becoming Star Wars.  Instead, nations come together to do something that seems more like science fiction today than ever – they work together.

arrival_movie_poster   If you have not yet seen the movie, you might want to read the short story first, and try not to get lost in some of the technical jargon.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks is at the core of both; just remember to look forward, not back.  And consider what you would do if you could see your whole life, from beginning to end – would you make the same decisions?

Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction in books, I am enjoying Chiang’s collection of thought-provoking short stories.  At the end of the book, Chiang offers “Story Notes,” explaining his inspiration for each -for “Story of Your Life,” Chiang notes his interest in telling a story “about a person’s response to the inevitable.”   Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future…. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now…To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient.  Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dot who knows and loves you no matter what you are.'”

The future will get here, no matter what we do.

Jojo Moyes – the Modern O. Henry

9780735221079_p0_v6_s192x300 While reading Jojo Moyes Paris for One and Other Stories, I could not help thinking of William Sidney Porter’s short stories.  Better know as O. Henry, Porter’s romantic tales always ended with a surprise, whether in the selfless romance of The Gift of the Magi or in the story of a sick woman hanging on with The Last Leaf.  In this collection, Moyes offers her wry outlook and, like O.Henry, ends each with a jolt.

The title story, “Paris for One,” is the longest – all 150 pages – and could easily be an hour long Christmas special.  When Nell’s boyfriend is not at the London station, she gets on the train anyway, hoping he is just late for their romantic weekend in Paris. Feeling alone in a strange city, Nell receives his message that he is not coming and decides to return to London. In a series of serendipitous occurrences, the story evolves into Nell’s emergence as a determined woman who finds true love in Paris.  Only Moyes could transform a melodramatic interlude into a funny and heart-warming story, leaving the reader satisfied and smiling at the ending.

The “Other Stories” include brief tales, peeking into the windows of familiar lives: the has-been actor who is being tortured with racy tweets, the frumpy mother who finds a pair of expensive shoes that change her outlook, the taxi driver who gives a harried woman the courage to live her own life, the jewelry store clerk who saves a burglar, the husband who buys his wife a coat they cannot afford, the couple who find their afternoon delight again after years of marriage, the woman who meets her old lover at a party, and the secret communication of a woman with a stranger’s phone.

If you enjoyed Moyes’ novels (see my reviews below), you will be delighted with this collection.  Not all the stories have happy endings but each has the author’s trademark wit and charm.

Reviews of Other Moyes Books:

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardner

Geoff Dyer in his interview in “By the Book” for the New York Times identifies his favorite short story – Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardner.  Dyer summarizes the story as he remember it:

“A mother goes to a large war cemetery on the Western Front in the aftermath of the First World Was, looking for the grave of her son. She meets the gardner who is taking care of the cemetery. The sense of vast and unendurable grief is all the more powerful for being expressed with such restraint and economy.”

images      I found Kipling’s short story online but connected with different aspects – we all interpret what we read with what we know and what we need.

  • “Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope… “
  • Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her — in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy…

‘My nephew,’ said Helen. ‘But I was very fond of him.’
‘Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death! What do you think?’
‘Oh, I don’t — I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing,’ said Helen…
‘Perhaps that’s better,’ the woman answered. ‘The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well, I won’t worry you any more.’”

Link to Kipling’s “The Gardner” here

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

9781594634635_p0_v2_s192x300Helen Oyeyemi’s name was in the wind.  I heard her mentioned in the book I was listening to on Audible, The World Between Two Covers, and a friend suggested reading Oyeyemi’s celebrated Mr. Fox for a book club discussion. When Nancy Hightower of the Washington Post described Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Yours Is Not Yours as ” a series of loosely connected, magically tinged tales about personal and social justice,” and NPR called her writing masterpieces,  I decided it was time to read her.  Besides, the library conveniently produced What Is Your Is Not Yours in a day.  The universe must be calling.

Keys and locks connect the nine short stories, and as I read the first – “books and roses,” I had the same feeling I get when reading Haruki Murakami – what was I missing?  Some important undercurrent lurked just beyond my grasp, and if I could decipher the meaning, the reward would be great.  Despite rereading the first story, I’m still not sure.

Montserrat, a foundling girl left in a Catalonia chapel with a key hanging around her neck. grows up and finds work in a laundry, where she encounters Señora Lucy, a painter who also wears a key. The strange connection between the two women’s unrelated stories surprisingly merge at the end when Montserrat discovers she and Lucy are linked, as the keys unlock a beautiful garden, and a window into their lives.

Oyeyemi used revealing language to underscore her messages, and comprehension of her plots seemed secondary to reading her words, so I continued.

“Some new tax that only people with no money had to pay.  Or yet another member of the county police force was found to have been an undercover gangster.  If not that then a gang member was found to have been an undercover police officer. An Ottoman-style restaurant opened in a town nearby; it served no food but had a mineral water menu tens of pages long, and fashion models came to drink their way through it while we played football with their bodyguards.”

The second story “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea,” begins with a house of locks and two friends, a rock star, and you-tube. Sisters Day and Aisha, who are being raised by their father and his boyfriend, deal with the news that their favorite singer has been accused of savagely beating a woman.When the rock star is exposed by the victim on you-tube, his fans’ reaction is to praise rather than condemn him, and he cynically uses his exposure as a vehicle for his next popular song.  Young Aisha, an ardent fan, now demands not only accountability but also his repentance.  The ending is satisfying, if other worldly, but had me wondering how we would all like to see some comeuppance for those who tend to “get away with it.”

Happy to have found Helen Oyeyemi, I will keep reading – seven more short stories in this book, and hope I will be able to discuss them with someone who has read them.

Have you?

Related Review:  Haruki Murakami