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:

Abroad by Penelope Lively

Do we see the lives of others through the lenses we create from our own experience?  Anthropologists have struggled with how the observer changes the world of the observed.

imagesListening to the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, I heard Ann Morgan cite Penelope Lively, one of my favorite authors, as someone who had dealt with this theme in Abroad, a short account of a young couple’s trip to the Continent in search of inspiration.

Ann Morgan notes:

“The danger of demanding authenticity, or “spirit” of a place in a book is that we look for what we expect to see and miss what is there. Instead of allowing the stories of a region to open our minds and read us in new directions, we can become narrow and petty, demanding that regional literature conform to our expectations.  Far from broadening our horizons, we risk shutting ourselves in a hall of mirrors where we see our version of the world reflected back at us ad infinitum.”


Since I had never read Abroad, I downloaded a copy for $3.99 and quickly read the 26 page novella.  The story is witty and humorous, with a definite caution to all of us who think we can learn more about the “culture” through travel.

In Lively’s Abroad, two young British artists decide they need to go Abroad to the Continent to see “landscapes peppered with peasants, wearing proper peasant clothes…All so authentic…In England we didn’t have peasants. Just the rural working class. Farm workers.Not the same.”

The Lively fun never stops in its light ridicule and witty banter:

“…part of the appeal – not knowing what people were talking about…You were on the outside, not involved, just looking on, which is what you were there for…”

When the couple comes across a picturesque country wedding party, they are, at first, happy to lurk nearby to sketch the group.  Of course, they are noticed and the country folk invite them over to enjoy food and wine, and the couple revel in their authentic experience. However,when their car does not start and they are stranded at the farm, their hosts are not willing to extend their hospitality to the couple with no money to fix the car or pay for their keep.   By the end of the novella, the pair are forced to admit ‘You can have enough of authenticity eventually,’ but not before the clever “peasants” have squeezed a week’s worth of unpaid farm labor out of them, and a fresco of the family on the kitchen wall.

Never underestimate the locals.



That Part Was True

9781455573653_p0_v2_s260x420By combining an epistolary with a few recipes and some self reflection, Deborah McKinley’s novel – That Part Was True – offers a romantic tale of two characters who live a sea apart but are confronting similar mid-life doubts. They inadvertently help each other through their letters and a mutual love of food, and possibly live happily ever after – but you will have to decide.

Jack is a 49-year-old American writer of a successful detective series; Eve, a lovely but insecure divorced mother who lives outside of London, writes to comment on one of his books, and the long distance relationship begins. The letters sporadically appear between descriptions of each character’s coping with assorted difficulties: Jack’s writer’s block, Eve’s panic attacks, a wedding, a divorce, midlife introspection and insecurities…

If you enjoy stories by Penelope Lively and Eleanor Lipman (her review in the New York Times motivated me to find this book), you will appreciate McKinley’s nuances and the familiar thoughts that surface in the characters’ relationships.

Curiously, reading their descriptions of how they each prepared favorite foods made me hungry, and the informal recipes sprinkled throughout the narrative were my favorite parts. McKinley includes a recipe for peanut cookies that Jack makes in the middle of the night to cure his insomnia. Worked for me too.

I’m including McKinley’s recipe so I can make them again after I return the book to the library:

Granny Cooper’s Peanut Cookies

3 ounces butter
1 small cup sugar
1 egg
1 good cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 dessert spoon cocoa
1 cup peanuts (She liked to roast them in the oven first.  I do , too.)

Cream the butter and sugar; add the beaten egg; then mix in the sifted flour, baking powder, and cocoa; and last, add the cooled peanuts.
Place spoonfuls on tray(s) and bake at 350 for about 15-20 minutes.

Serve with milk.

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Tapestry of Fortunes

After finishing Claire Messud’s stark story of loneliness and betrayal, I needed a 9780812993141_p0_v1_s260x420reaffirmation of the human spirit, and who better than Elizabeth Berg – one of my guilty pleasures – with her latest tale of friendship and happy endings in Tapestry of Fortunes.

The framework resembles Kris Radish’s Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral, but this time the road trip of four friends seeks to bury old lives rather than a body.  Cece Ross has come to a midlife crisis after her best friend Penny dies; unsatisfied with her life as a motivational speaker and writer of self-help books, Cece decides to sell her house, move in with three strangers, and rekindle the true love of her youth. As part of her renewal, she volunteers at a hospice and befriends a dying young man and his fiancee.

The road trip forces all the women (Cece’s new roommates) to face their fears, and make changes in their lives – with the help of fortune telling cards.  All ends well, of course, with Cece reunited with her love, and the others resolving their own issues.

If you are a fan of Berg, you will know the story before it begins, and connect with her thoughtful notes:

“…someone who drives past a house she used to live in and finds it changed feels it in the gut.”

“…I hate this yin-yang life that is always pulling the rug out from beneath your feet…{but} when you lose something…there is room for the next thing.”

” It only needs a small quantity of hope to beget love.” Stendhal

And her reminders of authors to reread:

More Elizabeth Berg books:

  1. Once Upon A Time There Was You
  2. The Last Time I Saw You

Good Night, Sleep Tight

Penelope Lively’s 1994 picture book – Good Night, Sleep Tight – is an echo of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (published in 1963).  Not as scary as Sendak, Lively has stuffed animals leading their little girl owner to adventures in their native habitats – the stuffed lion in the jungle, the stuffed frog in the swamp, the cat into the dark night, and finally, her doll takes her to a party.  The dream sequence is easy to follow and colorfully illustrated by Adriano Gon.

Lively is a prolific author of both children and adult books; this one might make a good bedtime story.

Read Reviews of Lively’s Other Books: