5 Short Stories You Absolutely Have to Read

July 15, 2009

in Short Stories

5 Short stories you must read.

As an English major (ahem creative writing major to be more precise) I read quite a few short stories.  Some strummed my emotional chords, more than a few wrinkled my brow but there were a handful that flat out wrenched my entire reality right out from underneath me and spit me out onto the floor.  I was such a naïf before my exposure to the following five stories, but I am all the better for having read them.  I feel compelled to share the titles, author and a brief commentary for those who enjoy memorable stories.  I will not spoil the stories for you by divulging any pertinent information, but instead hope to entice you enough to read them.

I was impressed by the sheer variety of prose and the ability of humans to compile such different and moving stories.  If you think there is nothing left to write about, or no new angles to peer at the world from, then I suggest trying these stories on for size.  I can wholeheartedly say; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Story #1: Isabelle

Author: George Saunders
published in 1996 in Civilwarland In Bad Decline

Coming in at only six and a half pages this powerful story by George Saunders took me for a ride.  Prior to returning to school I had never heard of Saunders.  As of this moment he is one of my favorite authors. Of course I have only read his first collection of short stories but that is all it took to throw him up on my growing list of treasured authors.

Words like compact, halting, humorous and brutal jump to mind when thinking about the Isabelle story.  There is such a tremendous amount of information jammed into a few pages that it was hard to follow at times and worth a few more reads.  The prose are halting in that they jump around because of the amount of verbal real estate necessary to cover but yet the story does not feel disconnected or nonsensical.  Names like “Boneless”, “Balled-Up Gumby” and “Split Lip” are some of the not just humorous but outright brutal descriptions contained within this unique story.  From my understanding Saunders wrote Isabelle in one sitting.

Story #2: Hang The Moon

Author: Jim Lewis
Published in Tin House (only available in book format) magazine Summer 2001

Not only is this a stellar short story but as far as I know the author Jim Lewis has not published another story, at least not under that name.  Sometimes a story pulls me in and builds this narrative and atmosphere that is so believable everything else around me drops away and leaves me alone in this new world.  Hang The Moon elicits a strong sense of youthful longing and the fly by the seat of your pants type of living that the young do so well.  Reading this story while enrolled in college was like taking a direct trip to my youth and young love, the type of experiences that are fleeting but worthy of filling buckets of memory.

There are so many wonderful lines such as “every day was huge, every dollar a kiss on the mouth”, “How mighty is the tenderest thing” and “back when the world was green.”  If you want to take a ride back in history and to your youth give this one a shot.

Story #3: Black Tickets

Author: Jayne Anne Phillips
Published in Black Tickets

“Jamaica Delila, how I want you; your smell a clean yeast, a high white yogurt of the soul.”  So begins the dense, intense and mind bending story Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips.  When I first read this story I was amazed that not only could someone write with such intensity but that the type of style was accepted and the story critically acclaimed.  The entire story is written from inside the mind of one man sitting in jail and the story bounces around and changes tenses to the point of it being difficult to follow.  The language is thick with hip terms of the 60’s and 70’s and flows like a crystal clear stream slicing through a mossy forest.

There is not a lot of hope and humor to be found in this story yet it shines with life, a life outside of the mainstream, carved out of creaky wood that others discarded.  Phillips brings these characters to life and creates a reality that many don’t want to know about but with the force of her prose readers will be forever changed.

“I love you the way I love nightmare, secrets coming up like smoke through a grid; the way I love mirrors shattered but still whole, reflecting the foolish image in a hundred lit-up fragments.  No one else could take me; pay my way with what your skin knows.”
- Black Tickets

Story #4: The Mysteries of Ubiquitin

Author: Andrea Barrett
Published in Servants of the Map

The intersection of the past and present and how memories become tangible parts of our lives are a few of the themes of this believable and emotionally stirring story.  I don’t always have to believe a story could happen, after all I am writing about fiction, but when a story like this splashes across the page with such forceful emotion I am taken aback.  A tragedy sits at the core of the story and the main characters Peter and Rose revolve around this tragedy, avoiding each other and then bumping into one another throughout their lives.  There is tenderness to the narrative but also a screeching discomfort between the two main characters that plays out as they become closer.

I love how Rose is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by Peter, she can’t seem to get enough of him until she peeks out from behind her memories and witnesses the reality of who he is.  This is a story about tremendous loss and not only how people deal with it but also what types of things bring back vivid memories and feelings of what was lost.

Story #5: Proper Library

Author: Carolyn Ferrell
Published in Don’t Erase Me

Lorrie the main character immediately struck me because his life paralleled many aspects of the childhood of author James Baldwin.  Both lived in a home with many siblings and family members, had immense responsibilities for caring for younger children, and of course both were black, poor and gay.  Don’t fret about me spilling the beans in regards to Lorrie’s sexual preference, it quickly becomes evident he is not interested in girls.

Lorrie lives a complicated life that is striking in not only its chaos but its seemingly impenetrable barriers of exit.  There is a dead end towering in front of him if he does not take certain steps to bypass it.  The possibly tragic aspect of Lorrie’s character is that he knows what he needs to do to change the course of his life but his strength wavers as he traverses the many emotional potholes that confront him.

Final Words

The only further piece of advice I can give you in regards to the aforementioned short stories is to go and read them.  Do not weigh your options or see what Amazon recommends, simply dive into the minds and worlds of these many varied characters.  I hope you enjoy them.

“I didn’t understand the different flavors of the pie.”
- Carolyn Ferrell, Proper Library

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