A Top Ten List…so far

Since we’re at the halfway point of 2018, I thought I would put together a top ten list of my favorite short stories so far. I have no scoring technique. This is based only on my personal likes and dislikes so at any point another story could jump to the top. We’ll see what makes it to the final top ten list in about six months. Here’s where we stand now, though:

10.) A Jury of Her Peers – Susan Glaspell

9.) Blood Burning Moon – Jean Toomer

8.) Evenings at Home – Elizabeth Hardwick

7.) The Gift – Janice Holt Giles

6.) Roses, Rhododendron – Alice Adams

5.) I’d Love You to Want Me – Viet Than Nguyen

4.) The Reach – Stephen King

3.) Death of A Right Fielder – Stuart Dybek

2.) Faith – William Trevor

1.) My Son the Murderer – Bernard Malamud

I guess I also reserve the right to change some of these around if no other stories take their place. I had a difficult time deciding where stories 2, 3 and 4 fell.

Do you rank the stories/books you read? What short stories have been your favorite so far in 2018?

Isaac Babel: The Story of My Dovecot (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 26)

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My world was tiny, and it was awful. I closed my eyes so as not to see it, and pressed myself tight into the ground that lay beneath me in soothing dumbness. This trampled earth  in no way resembled real life, waiting for exams in real life.

The ten year-old narrator of Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” exuberates excitement for learning and optimism for life that only comes with being young. As he tells the reader about his schooling, we get two ideas that all is not as it might be to an innocent child. We learn early on that he is Jewish and therefore can only be one of a small percentage that can get into a prestigious school during the next year. We also know that he lives in Russia in 1905.

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Babel builds the tension between the child and the rest of the world, the history we already know, with gut-wrenching effectiveness. The narrator achieves the success toward which he has been working only as pogroms begin against him and his family.

Not much more needs to be said. The introduction in my collection indicates that Isaac Babel was last heard from in 1936. It is presumed that he died in a concentration camp around 1939 after publishing several collections of short stories.

I read this story when I selected the Ace of Spades for Week 26 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. It is included in my collection “The Secret Sharer” and Other Great Stories edited by Abraham H. Lass and Norma L. Tasman. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Susan Glaspell: A Jury of Her Peers (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 25)

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“My!” she began, in a high, false voice, “it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a – dead canary.”

I find Susan Glaspell’s 1916 “A Jury of Her Peers” entertaining in the sense that it’s a well-told mystery. Set in the late 19th century or the early 20th century, Sherriff Peters grabs Mr. Hale to investigate a crime committed at a neighbor’s house. As Mrs. Peters comes along, Mr. Hale brings his wife.

At the now-empty crime scene, the men condescendingly leave their wives in the kitchen while they investigate upstairs. They make fun of their wives to the point that I had to wonder why they brought them along but no story would exist without them. As the men are upstairs acting like they know everything, the wives putter around the kitchen and slowly unravel the tragic story that occurred.

It’s fascinating the way the wives only talk to each other when they have to and they exchange such knowing glances without ever saying a word. Their discoveries contrast nicely with the mens’ lack of knowledge adding just the right touch of humor for the reader. The story that the women piece together, though, gives a more sinister contrast to the male/female conflict.

By the end of the story, the women exchange one more look of understanding as they decide not to tell their husbands what they have found. If one is fond of mysteries (which I’m usually not), this is a good one.

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“A Jury of Her Peers” is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list is here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

William Trevor: Faith (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 24)

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Afterwards, Bartholomew told himself that what had occurred must surely be no more than a mood of petulance, an eruption from his half-stifled impatience with the embroidery and frills that dressed the simplicity of truth with invasive, sentimental stories that somehow made faith easier, the hymns he hated. For Bartholomew, the mystery that was the source of all spiritual belief, present through catastrophe and plague and evil, was a strength now too, and more than it had ever been. Yet there was disquiet, a stirring in his vocation he had brought upon himself and wished he had not…Bartholomew – not knowing what he should otherwise do – continued to visit the lonely and the sick, to repeat the Te Deum, the Creed, the Litany. He felt he should not and yet he did.

It’s Week 24 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project and I finally selected a Two – the Two of Hearts to be exact – which I’ve designated as a Wild Card for which I pick whatever story I want. I’ve been preparing to read a William Trevor story whenever I selected a Two so here it is. And though I’m not surprised, “Faith” is one of Trevor’s many masterpieces.

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Bartholomew, a passive clergyman and his sister with the prickly personality, Hester, move to a small parish in Oscarey outside Dublin – mostly at the doings of Hester. The congregation is few and made up mostly of elderly people. So in a sense its a dying church. Bartholomew suffers what might be called a crisis of faith but continues to conduct his duties as a pastor. Hester confronts head-on her own terminal illness.

Trevor makes these characters and situations so real and intriguing that just reading the story is enough. A reader doesn’t have to analyze anything for the story to be satisfying. But then there’s that title. It at least makes me want to ask a few questions. Does it take more faith to move on in the face of looming doubt or to move on in the face of looming death? And is faith the same thing as courage? I find both of these characters courageous in their own way.

This story is included in the collection William Trevor: Selected Stories. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has one of the most popular TED talks called “The Danger of a Single Story”. It can be seen here on youtube. I highly recommend it. After watching it, I found and read her collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck and wasn’t disappointed.

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All of the stories have characters that are from Adichie’s native Nigeria. Some are still living there. Others have immigrated to the United States. All of them are coming to grips with their situations and lives regardless of where they happen to be living.

Religion seems to play at least a small part in most of the stories. In “A Private Experience”, which was probably my favorite of the collection, a Muslim woman and a Christian woman, take shelter in a small convenience store while Muslim men and Christian men riot and kill each other outside.

The two women cautiously get to know each other during the short time they are together understanding what they have in common as opposed to their differences. Both willing to seriously contemplate their beliefs and what they mean while telling each other about their families. I thought the Christian woman’s thoughts interesting as she watched the Muslim woman pray:

She cannot remember when her idea of God has not been cloudy, like the reflection from a steamy bathroom mirror, and she cannot remember ever trying to clean the mirror.

“The Headstrong Historian” puts a more humorous spin on religion in the form of a Nigerian parable. A Nigerian woman does her best to raise her only son in the ways of her people only to be disappointed when he becomes Christian as a result of white missionaries who push their cultural ways onto him in the name of their religion. Then the son does his best to raise his daughter in the ways of Christianity only to be surprised that she takes more of an interest in her grandmother’s ideas. When the grandmother consults an oracle to sort out all of this “mess” she gets an unlikely surprise:

Michael would be very angry if he ever heard of this oracle suggestion. Nwamgba, who still found it difficult to remember that Michael was Anikwenwa, went to the oracle herself, and afterwards thought it ludicrous how even the gods had changed and no longer asked for palm wine but for gin. Had they converted, too?

Adichie writes several of her stories in second person which gives them an unusual sound but one that at least makes the reader take notice if only for the fact that very few stories are written in second person.

After reading these stories, I’m looking forward to reading Adichie’s novels.

John Updike: Gesturing (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 23)

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Dinner would lead to a post-dinner drink, while the children (two were off at school, two were still homebound) plodded through their homework or stared at television, and drinking would lead to talking, confidences, harsh words, maudlin tears, and an occasional uxorious collapse upward, into bed. She was right, it was not healthy, nor progressive. The twenty years were by when it would have been convenient to love each other.

John Updike tells great stories about people I don’t like.

In “Gesturing”, married couple Richard and Joan decide to separate because it’s what they feel they are suppose to do when each of them are having an affair about which the other one knows. Discontinuing the affairs never seems to be an option.

All the psycho-babble spewed out by Richard and Joan to each other over dinners and glasses of wine would become irritating and annoying if Updike didn’t make it so irresistible. Both characters would probably benefit by talking about the occasional gestures they each notice about the other as opposed to the shallow conversations in which they get lost.

And the conversations Richard has with his mistress, Ruth? Same thing just from a different angle.

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This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by none other than John Updike. I read it when I selected the Ace of Hearts for my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list is here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

And how cunningly spirit and body are knit together. A slip of the knife and you create an idiot. If this is so, why not the reverse? Could you sew and snip, and patch together a genius? What mysteries remain to be revealed in the nervous system, that web of structures both material and ethereal, that network of threads that runs throughout the body, composed of a thousand Ariadne’s clues, all leading to the brain…

I figured it was about time I read something by Margaret Atwood. I selected Alias Grace because it was the only Atwood novel that was still checked in at my library and I’m glad I did. I have not seen any part of the Netflix Original Series based on this novel so I’m not able to make any comparisons.

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In 1850’s Canada, Grace Marks, a “celebrated murderess” tells her psychiatrist Dr. Simon that the murder confession she gave to her lawyer during her trial ten years past contained what her lawyer wanted her to say so as to avoid the death penalty (which she did). So as Grace tells her doctor her own story, a seed of doubt is immediately planted in the readers mind about the reliability of Grace’s story. Sometimes unreliable narrators come off as too contrived but Atwood perfectly uses this tool to build the psychological suspense that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Not only do we get Grace’s story but we get the thoughts and reactions of all those around her. Some look at Grace from a spiritual and religious sense either convincing themselves she is a sort of demon or making attempts to save her soul and reform her. Others see her from a scientific and medical standpoint as someone who is either insane and too far gone or as someone who’s mind can be put back together.

Atwood weaves all of these viewpoints together to provide a different type of mystery or thriller. While the reader may not question whether Grace has something to do with the murders of her employers, they don’t know exactly the how and the why of it. That’s the real mystery.

Atwood’s characterization of Grace provides another contrast that adds to the mystery. As Grace tells her experiences to her doctor, the reader gets minute details about her work ethic as a servant. In another story, this might bore the reader but here it provides one more chilling reason to wonder how Grace may have become a murderess. And Grace’s faith adds the final dimension to her mesmerizing story:

As for what I was named after, it might have been the hymn. My mother never said so, but then there were many things she never said.

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me!/I once was lost, but now I’m found,/Was blind but now I see.

I hope I was named after it. I would like to be found. I would like to see. Or to be seen. I wonder if, in the eye of God, it amounts to the same thing. As it says in the Bible, For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.

If it is face to face, there must be two looking.

Through Atwood’s storytelling, the reader sees Grace clearer, maybe even “face to face”.