National Short Story Day - Recommended Reads, part 2
Winter solstice - 21 Dec - is traditionally national short story day, so to get you in the mood, we're sharing some recommendations of great modern and classic short stories, from a galaxy of authors, readers and literature lovers - in many cases with links to free reads and audiobooks.
RA PAGE, publisher, Comma Press, recommends...
Classic: ‘A Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka (from The Complete Stories)
For prophetic power and inexhaustible symbolism alone, I’d have to say one of my favourite would have to be Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’. Celebrity culture, reality TV and performance art are just three aspects of contemporary 21st century life that this story envisioned a century before. Add to this list of prophesies Kafka’s own tragic demise – starving to death after a throat infection left him unable to eat – and you realise the horror of the story just goes on an on. And yet it isn’t a wholly bleak story, it has humour and wonder in it. That’s the thing about Kafka, the stories are so strange you can see almost anything in them. This story also pulls that masterful conjuring trick that you see elsewhere in stories like ‘In the Penal Colony,’ that of viewing the future from an even more futuristic vantage point, i.e. retrospectively. The future is just a passing fad.
Contemporary: ‘The Dead Astronaut’ by J G Ballard (from The Complete Stories)
If I were honest I’d say my favourite modern short would be either David Constantine’s ‘In Another Country’ (from Under the Dam) or Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Corpse Exhibition’ (from The Madman of Freedom Square), but no one would believe me, since I also happen to be their publisher. So I’ll keep things neutral and plump for J G Ballard’s ‘The Dead Astronaut’– or at least that’s my favourite this week. The intricate, layered symbolism of this story enables it to be simultaneously about both the betrayal of a relationship and the collapse of a civilisation (namely the American Empire, as fanfared through the space race). ‘Sputnik’ – Murakami tells us (in another book) – is the Russian word for ‘fellow traveller,’ but what happens when your fellow traveller is dead? Ballard’s story even has a classic plot twist and a quite separate reveal which, like all good reveals, isn’t actually explicated. Awesome. If I could do a Dr Frankenstein on modern short story writers it would be to fuse the poetry of Constantine with the ideas of Philip K Dick. This story crash-lands not too far away from that perfect spot.
CARYL PHILLIPS, author, In the Falling Snow, recommends...
Classic: ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ by Jean Rhys (from, Tigers Are Better-Looking).
A beautifully modulated story about a single woman’s descent into confusion, and ultimately imprisonment, in post-war London. The West Indian vernacular is brilliantly sustained and the narrative is full of startling images and observations which shed light upon the psychological fragility of the central character.
Contemporary: ‘The Incalculable Life Gesture’ by James Lasdun (from It’s Beginning to Hurt)
A middle-aged man faces cancer and makes a trip from New England to New York City in order to undergo a biopsy. It is a long day in the city, during which he now realises he loathes the place in which he had once revelled. The deceptively simple conclusion to the story brings him face-to-face with life in the broadest sense.
ADAM ROBERTS, SF author and critic, recommends…
Classic: ‘Symbols and Signs’ by Vladimir Nabokov (from Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics)
Nabokov is the 20th-century writer I revere above, pretty much, all others. This is very moving stuff; the situation of the old couple, uprooted by Nazi persecution and in a strange land (a situation which Nabokov himself had personally experienced), a poignancy that not even the hypertrophic craziness of their son diminishes. But it's the handling of the details that is so marvellous here: the jewel-like precision of Nabokov's style, the specificity, the way those details work like poetic images to generate precisely the surplus of meaning, of referentiality, that is the core of the boy's schizophrenia. It's a commentary upon the working of art, particularly shorter or lyric art, as well as a superbly effective emotional portrait of real people. Two things I especially love: the section in which 'she' goes through the photos in her album, and each snapshot opens to a whole person, and a whole world ('Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths--until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.') And the beautiful inflections of the final paragraph; the hakiu-like vividness; the terrible, dangling possibility of the last sentence.
Contemporary: 'Gene Wars' by Paul McAuley (from the anthology Hackers, Ace Books)
The Paul McAuley is Britain's best contemporary writer of SF. His own training and academic background is in the biological and biochemical sciences, so when he writes his brief but resonant story of genetic engineering, as he does here – he knows what he's talking about. But though the science is compelling, it's the way the keyholes of the story's 10 brief sections grant us evocative glimpses into a cumulatively estranging future version of our own world that works so memorably here. Some SF trades in monsters that threaten the protagonists, and give us the pleasurable thrills and fears. In McAuley's effortless piece, it is genes that are the creature; which is to say, life itself, in its purest state. Brilliant.
JACOB ROSS, author and playwright, recommends…
Classic: ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster (from Selected Stories, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
It is difficult to believe that E M Forster's, The Machine Stops was first published in 1909. It is one of the most prescient stories I have ever read. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, people live in underground 'cells' completely dependent on 'the Machine' which service all their spiritual and material needs. Ideas and knowledge derived from direct interaction with the world become taboo. In an uncanny feat of imaginative projection, Forster foresees a world of virtual reality, text messaging and video conferencing that gradually becomes the only means of contact/communication between humans. A century later, the story feels as if it was written just yesterday.
Contemporary: ‘The Boy Who Loved Ice-Cream’ by Olive Senior (from Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman Caribbean Writers Series)
Olive Senior is at her very best when she writes about childhood trauma. 'The Boy who Loved Ice-cream' is a deceptively simple story about Benjy, a young boy in rural Jamaica, whose only desire in the world is to taste ice-cream. But there is his jealous, ageing father with a young wife that he mistrusts, and a sensitive child (Benjy) that he does not believe is his. Senior combines these elements to create a heart-rending and unforgettable narrative about the selfish, casual psychological violence that parents are capable of subjecting their children to.
RACHEL TREZISE novelist and short story writer, recommends...
Classic: ‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor (from Complete Stories)
I read recently that O’Connor didn’t know what she was going to do with the bible salesman when she introduced him. It’s almost impossible to believe that since the structure of the story is utterly perfect; I want to believe it though.
Contemporary: ‘A Lonely Coast’ by Annie Proulx (from Close Range: Wyoming Stories)
Savage and decadent but brimming with enthralling language and insight.
SARAH SCHOFIELD, short story writer, recommends…
Classic: ‘Flowers For Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes (from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1959.)
I first read Flowers for Algernon in a battered copy of Panther's The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction in my early teens and felt profoundly affected by it. I love the diary/ report structure and the tender handling of subject: a man of low IQ who is subjected to medical trials to make him more intelligent. Keyes later adapted the short story into a novel and it has been reproduced into films and series. But, for me, it is punchiest in its original short story format.
Contemporary: ‘Winter Break’ by Hilary Mantel (first published in The Guardian, 4 Dec 2010)
The power of this story for me is in its apparent simplicity. A married couple on holiday making the transfer journey by taxi from the airport to the hotel. But beneath this lies sharp and painfully fascinating complexities in their relationship. And it has the most memorable close of any short story I have read. A perfectly measured, utterly captivating story. But not for the faint-hearted.
FELICITY SKELTON, poet, short story writer and senior lecturer, recommends…
Classic: 'Reunion' by John Cheever (from The Stories of John Cheever, Penguin)
I would have liked to suggest a British writer, but finally have to admit that John Cheever's very short story about a young man's brief meeting with his estranged father in New York is as near perfect as it gets. The story begins 'The last time I saw my father…' and ends '…and that was the last time I saw my father.' The reader assumes he means the last time ever, but in fact, it could be part of an on-off relationship which will continue to be difficult. It is a story which repays close reading. The father smells of 'a rich compound of whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male.' He is a businessman, whose secretary has arranged the meeting, and he insults the waiters in three different bars in three different languages. However, when you ask yourself why he has already had a drink, and why he has dowsed himself with after-shave and had his shoes freshly cleaned, the image of a man who is desperately anxious about this meeting with a son he hasn't seen for three years takes on a poignancy which could otherwise be missed.
Contemporary: 'Miles City, Montana' by Alice Munro (from The Progress of Love, Flamingo)
Of the many fine stories by Munro, this is my personal favourite. As so often in her writing, the narrative spans many years of a woman's life, from an incident in her childhood when a local boy was drowned, to a car journey with her husband and two small children along the border between Canada and the USA. We realise there is friction in the marriage, but the real story is the relationship between parents and children, and the duty which we owe, and the failure we cannot escape. The children in the story are beautifully drawn, real children with real childish observation of life. The ending is crucifyingly painful, especially if you're a parent, in the unexpected and the completely unsurprising way of which Munro is such a master.
DANEET STEFFENS, editor and critic, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry (from 100 Selected Stories)
because it was the first short story that I remember reading, and I still remember how it made me gasp out loud at the end.
Contemporary: 'The Boat' by Alistair MacLeod (from Island, 2000)
My all-time favourite remains ‘The Boat’ for the beauty of the writing, for its steady, deceptively quiet tone and for the immense, mesmerising power it holds over you as you read it. My current favourite is 'Diary of An Interesting Year' by Helen Simpson (in this year's In-Flight Entertainment) for the sheer, spot-on, scary believability of this creepy, disturbing, dystopian future.
LILI WILKINSON, author, Scatterheart and Company of Angels, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Elephant's Child’ by Rudyard Kipling (from Just So Stories).
This Elephant's 'satiable curtiosity, along with the sarcastic drawl of the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake and the treacherous tears of the Crocodile make this the perfect read-aloud story.
Contemporary: ‘Winkie’ by Margo Lanagan (from Red Spikes)
Nobody writes short stories like Margo Lanagan. I once heard Margo read this creepy re-imagining of Wee Willie Winkie to a bunch of adults at a science fiction convention. They were all too shocked and horrified to clap at the end – I overheard one gasp "but she looks so nice!"
LOREE WESTRON, author, critic and editor of Thresholds: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/, recommends…
Classic: ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ by Ernest Hemingway (from The Complete Short Stories, Simon & Schuster)
I love Hemingway’s punchy, no-nonsense prose and the way he allows the reader to collaborate in his stories by never telling us too much. This one is classic Hemingway – all gun-toting, gimlets and testosterone in the African bush. And though it was published in 1936, the story still feels very modern, particularly in terms of the structure.
Contemporary: ‘What You Pawn I Will Redeem’ by Sherman Alexie (from Ten Little Indians, Secker & Warburg)
Redemption, in both senses of the word, is the theme of this intensely moving, yet comic storyofJackson Jackson, an alcoholic Spokane Indian, living on the streets of Seattle. On his way to buy a bottle of ‘fortified courage’, the narrator discovershis grandmother’s beaded dance regalia, stolen fifty years before, on display in a pawnshop window. Believing that the theft led to the cancer which killed her, he sets off on a quest to getthe regalia back. The story is edgy, but full of compassion and humour, and the final scene is truly transformative.
SUSIE WILD, author, The Art of Contraception, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (from The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories)
Part psychological horror, part before-her-time stream-of-consciousness. This is a classic short that doesn’t date: the evocative language still resonates today. Based on her own experiences of depression and the rest cure – where she was prevented from working – during which the writer and journalist experienced a deeper nervous breakdown. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fictionalised, chilling account of her unravelling mental health.
Contemporary: ‘Tristram and Isolde’ by Michele Roberts (from Mud, 2010 Virago)
I adore this collection, so inventive, so clever. I also recommend ‘Easy as ABC’ from the same collection. I stumbled upon this sunny yellow book in the library, and now I am working my way through her brilliant back catalogue.
RACHEL ZADOK, author, Gem Squash Tokoloshe , recommends...
Classic: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ by Raymond Carver (from Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories).
I think this an example of Raymond Carver at his most astute. This is essentially a story about love, and the different kinds of love, and it manages to analyse this human condition without being sentimental or romantic. I love the sparseness of his language, and I'm a big fan of this kind of slice-of-life narrative style.
Contemporary: ‘Mother’ by Grace Paley (from Collected Stories, Virago)
I was first introduced to this story by Tamar Yoseloff, a poet and my first creative writing teacher. To me, this is the ultimate short story. I never get tired of reading it and I never tire of trying to emulate it. In 450 words, three characters, and the relationships that bind them, step off the page into my imagination. And it is just a single page, but at the same time there is nothing gimmicky about it like there is with flash fiction. It's just a perfectly formed, short short story.