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Our Favorite Short Stories, Part 2

As we wrap up Short Story Month, we asked writers and editors to tell us about their favorite short stories or favorite short story collections. This is part 2 of a series. Find part 1 here, and get ready to add these to your ever-growing to-read pile.

There are certain stories that, as writers, we return to again and again. Whether we’re teaching others (or ourselves) compression, characterization, or how to pierce a reader with a melodic, sensory-laden line. Whether we’re returning to it in a time of need because something about the pervading loneliness spoke to us. For whatever reason, some stories stick for life. For me, it’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” The whole collection is a breathless whisper from one desperate soul to another, but it’s the title story that stays loud in my brain. It’s a story about connection and disconnection from children, from spouses, to strangers in far away, romanticized locales. A story about the ways we isolate ourselves. It’s a story about intimacy and the impact a chance meeting with a stranger we will likely never see again can echo through a lifetime and illuminate how others see us and how we see ourselves. All of this emotional weight occurs with some of the most striking images I’ve encountered in a short story—in a country where women keep covered, bare legs dragging across a backseat; a well-dressed tour guide serving as an interpreter in a doctor’s office; a roadside meal of omelet sandwiches, fried potatoes, onions, and mango juice; a walk around a temple; and a confession inside a car. This sort of density in a small space is what I work toward—not to mention the glorious recognition I feel with women characters who utter lines like, “I have terrible urges, Mr. Kapasi, to throw things away.”

Olive Kitteridge, a novel comprised of 13 linked stories and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a page-turner that readers never want to see end. Olive is a central character in nearly all of the stories, a retired seventh grade math teacher whose husband, Henry, is the pharmacist one town over. They live in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Their adult child, Christopher, is trying to make a life for himself. The stories are written from a close third-person point of view in which we are privy to the thoughts and observations of Olive, her family and particular townspeople, allowing us to know them intimately and accept them openly, warts and all. Like many New Englanders, Olive is stoic. She is also odd. By turns, she is critical, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, vulnerable, honest, compassionate, patient, and perceptive. Hers is a real world, full of contrasts, one in which grief and joy, hope and despair, loyalty and betrayal coexist, where life is fragile but endures. In the end, we identify with Olive fiercely, despite her failings and frailties, as we see our own humanity and self-acceptance reflected in hers. That this happens outside our conscious awareness is but one deft stroke in a novel that lingers long after we’ve finished reading it.

Could a title this great lead you astray? Not a chance. The story is myth meets Comedy Central—There are girls born to werewolves, a reformatory where they learn to be little ladies, and nuns who say things like “Ay, caramba.” Here, Russell uses fantasy to bring familiar themes into sharp relief—that of growing up, and of the dangers of being different. Take Mirabella, for instance. She’s the pack sister who doesn’t get hip to the Miss Manners-styled etiquette of the home, who sits muzzled in a corner while her sisters trade growly banter with their reforming wolf-boy brothers. We’ve all known a Mirabella. She’s the weird chick in 7th grade who doesn’t want to kiss boys or shave her pits, who stays wild while her former besties start stuffing their bras and wearing lipstick. Through the lens of fable, Russell manages to make Mirabella even more universal than she would be as your average outsider, and to evoke reader empathy. Russell also rivets us with wit. The pathos of the narrative—the exile from family, the loneliness of human ways—is seamlessly interwoven with humor, preventing the story from feeling overwrought. (Case in point: did you know that the phrase “goody two-shoes” stems back to Jeanette, the prissy big sister of the pack, who “spiffed her penny loafers until her very shoes seemed to gloat”?) If Hans Christian Andersen had a love child with Tina Fey, it would look something like “St. Lucy’s.”

My favorite short story collection . . . it seems like it would be an overwhelming decision. Yet, in a moment, I shoved aside hundreds of well-loved ones and settled on Bobcat. It’s a collection of brilliantly crafted, highly imaginative longform fiction I recommend frequently and have gifted to loved ones and strangers. When I first read it, the title story “Bobcat” surprised me with its complexity of characters, underlying menace, and heartbreak. It is a story deserving of the collection’s title. I expected the next story and the ones following to be good, but hardly able to live up to the accomplishment of the first one. How could a reader be so lucky? In this volume, Lee offers readers and practitioners of short fiction stunning munificence. Lee directs language and story masterfully with intricate layering. Each of the seven stories in her collection is a gem that places the reader in surprising settings with equally unique characters and unusual experiences from a dinner party with a descendant of the infamous Donners to therapy sessions with a strange Professor of child psychology in Saskatchewan to Hong Kong where we find an American woman negotiating an arranged marriage for a good friend. It’s difficult to say which of the seven is my favorite, but I vacillate between “Slantland” and “Min.” All of Lee’s characters and their stories live in my mind and memory vividly. When I manage to fall out of one of her stories and gain my bearings in the world once again, of course as a writer, I wish I could reach toward such talent. Lee’s stories are so wonderful—seven perfect stories—it’s enough to read them.

• Selections are the opinions of the respective authors. • Permalink • Tag: The Spark

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