summer reading II: story collections

IMG_0951With the intention of reading a story a night, a reader asked yesterday about story collections. I love that idea. No brand new collections to suggest, I’m afraid, but here are three great oldies:

Women & Fiction, edited by Susan Cahill, published in 1975. “Short stories by and about women.” Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19,” Jean Stubbs’ “Cousin Lewis,” Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Carson McCuller’s “Wunderkind”….Try to avoid the very pink 2002 Signet Classic edition.

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, published in 1994. “Contemporary American writers introduce stories that held them in awe.” There’s a great story in here by Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode,” chosen by John L’Heureux. Also, Annie Dillard chooses a James Agee story. Bobbie Ann Mason chooses a Tim O’Brien story. Lorrie Moore chooses a John Updike story….This is a good, solid book.

The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, published in 2004. “26 stories by contemporary writers and how they work.” I was fascinated by Stephen Dobyns’ explanation of how he wrote his story, “Part of the Story.” He was inspired by Raymond Carver’s method. “…the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Also, stories by Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell….

Others worth mentioning:

  1. Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie

Then there’s The New Yorker and One Story.

As far as the initial question, I assumed anthologies, but here are two new single author collections:IMG_0978

  1. My Father’s Tears by John Updike, out today and reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.
  2. Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson, out June 9th. Loved her collection, Who Do You Love. Also reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.

Of the single author collections I’ve read in the last couple of years, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
  2. Last Night by James Salter
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

So many good stories, apparently I could go on and on…

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what’s in a novel

" any other name would smell as sweet"

" any other name would smell as sweet"

In a 1921 New York Times article entitled, “What is a Novel, Anyhow?”, Henry Kitchell Webster, writes “A novel is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a fictitious prose narrative of sufficient length to fill one or more volumes.  Well, do you know, that is just about what I thought it was.”

Michael Ondaatje calls Divisadero, published in 2007, a novel.  The book is divided into three narratives.  The writing is beautiful.  As a novel, though, I found it unsatisfying.  I wonder if this dissatisfaction goes to my expectation (founded or unfounded) of what a novel is.  But I’m not the only one who had issues with the form.

Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times of London, wrote in a New York Times article, “’Divisadero’ is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel; but then I wouldn’t be happy calling it a book of linked stories, either. Ondaatje is a writer who likes to blur form….He is a poet as much as (or even more than) he is a novelist, and the crosscurrents of his writing flow and ripple against each other as poems might. Sequences of images set themselves out in their individual beauty and lucidity; sometimes how they fit into the whole is almost beside the point.

I have to disagree with her last sentence.  I’m not sure that if a book is going to call itself a novel, that how the parts fit together can be beside the point.  For an excellent and succinct review of Divisadero that puts the form issue in perspective, take a look at “‘Divisadero’: Where narrative splinters.

In an audio NPR interview on June 2, 2007 (worth listening to just to hear the author’s voice), the first question to Michael Ondaatje  was “What makes this a novel?”  His answer was that each section by itself was unfinished, that the only way he knew to finish the first story was by another story.  He does admit that it is an “odd structure.”

A better approach would, perhaps, have been the one recently taken by Elizabeth Strout.  The cover of her book Olive Kitteridge merely says fiction, leaving it to the reader to ascertain the form of the work.

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Her father turned around.  ‘Pancakes?’ he asked her. 

Winnie didn’t want pancakes.  ‘Sure,’ she said.”


You will find these simple sentences, which take you to the heart of Winnie, at the end of the story “Ship in a Bottle,” which, with twelve other linked stories creates the book, Olive Kitteridge, new this year by Elizabeth Strout.   

I read Olive Kitteridge because it was chosen by my writing group.  We read a book a month to discuss together.  I had loved Amy and Isabelle, but Abide with Me, not as much.  Olive Kitteridge is beautifully written.  The second story, “Incoming Tide,” will make you pause–in an attempt to hold onto the moment.  OK takes off from there.