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?

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Phuong had seen the film on a pirated videotape, and was seduced immediately by the glamour, beauty, and sadness of Scarlett O’Hara, heroine and embodiment of a doomed South. Was it too much to suppose that the ruined Confederacy, with its tragic sense of itself, bore more than a passing similarity to her father’s southern Republic and its resentful remnants?

-from the story “Fatherland”

Refugees

Here are my thoughts on the stories included in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees:

Black-Eyed Women: In my post for Nguyen’s novel The SympathizerI didn’t mention that he uses ghosts as not only a little comic relief but to great literary effect. In this story, he does it again. Maybe not for the comedy but, again, for great literary effect and story-telling.

The Other Man: Two gay men sponsor a Vietnamese refugee sometime around the late 1970’s. They all have some adjustments to make.

War Years: A story demonstrating that a totalitarian mindset can begin anywhere – even in a group of Vietnam refugees making their way in the United States.

The Transplant: A Hispanic man attempts to locate the family of the Vietnamese man who gave him his liver. It takes him places he wasn’t intending.

I’d Love You to Want Me: I already posted about this one here. My favorite one of the group!

The Americans: Unless I missed it, this is the one story that does not include Vietnamese refugees; however, refugees can take other forms in America.

Someone Else Besides You: A tough father and son story might make this my second favorite story here.

Fatherland:  This one tells the story of the wartime affect on the next generation of a refugee family. Not everyone is able to pull themselves up by their boot straps.

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’d Love You to Want Me

As I’m reading through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of short stories The Refugees, story number 5 (out of 8) “I’d Love You to Want Me” blew me away so I have to write a separate post about it.

Refugees

Told from the point of view of Mrs. Khahn, an older Vietnamese wife whose husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she thinks back periodically about the escape from Saigon she made with him and her six children.

As she deals with the effects of her husband’s disease, such as when he refers to her by a different name, the events that her family survived decades before are still as fresh and new as the Alzheimer’s.

Nguyen’s ability to portray a love that goes well beyond the romantic or the emotional is stunning. It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a character this strong. Mrs. Khanh’s husband is a reader, sometimes to her dismay and frustration, which makes the following passage both heart-breaking and uplifting:

She wondered what, if anything, she knew about love. Not much, perhaps, but enough to know that what she would do for him now she would do again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. She would read out loud, from the beginning. She would read with measured breath, to the very end. She would read as if every letter counted, page by page and word by word.

The other stories I’ve read from this collection are also very good and I’ll post about them soon.

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen presents one of the more memorable protagonists that I’ve encountered in my reading in a while. Right from the start, we know this unnamed narrator is a Communist spy in South Vietnam. He has a Vietnamese mother and a French father which sets him up as an outsider for most of his life. We also understand that as an adult he has two close friends, one of which knows about his spying (because he is a spy, too) and one doesn’t. And finally, we know from the beginning that he is presently in an isolation cell writing a confession to a Communist superior. What is he confessing? That’s where the story takes us.

sympathizer

I would describe the plot as a “slow boil”. We go deep into the mind, background and character of the narrator while small plot turns add up to a satisfying and explosive conclusion. But the novel’s focus remains on the duality of the narrator’s character. In spite of his role as a communist spy, he has been educated in the United States. In spite of his dislike for much of the U. S. foreign policy, he gets “westernized” through music and literature.

The most fascinating aspect of the narrator and the novel to me, though, is the fact that he has what many would call an ability to see politics, history and religion from more than one point of view. This ability is probably what alienates or isolates him the most. At the same time, it’s probably what allows him to have the few close friendships that he has.

And on a final note, the depth and complexity of this novel still allows for comedy – not just something funny stuck in for comic relief but a humor that works. Perhaps since the narrator easily sees things from multiple viewpoints, this also lets him see the humor in life:

After love, was sadness not the most common noun in our lyrical repertoire: Did we salivate for sadness, or had we only learned to enjoy what we were forced to eat? These questions required either Camus or cognac, and as Camus was not available I ordered cognac.