They don’t have to be lumped in with your vegetables, with what you think is good for you: there are some terrific short story collections just waiting to shatter your expectations of the form.
These stories are very short (usually 4 pages), so I found it easy to fit one in the morning and one in the evening, sometimes one in the middle with a coffee and a five-minute break from my screen.
The collection opens with acknowledgments, which suits it: “I would like to thank my family, again, for allowing me to write my version of our stories down. I know I never get it quite right, but you can’t say that I am not practicing.”
These really do feel like stories that are told at a kitchen table, or at a bar, or in a classroom. They don’t feel like finely-crafted works of art, but, more simply, stories.
Their power lies for me in their telling, in the movement from beginning to end, which is designed to reach the reader in a very particular way.
And, quite often the stories themselves are about reaching, about the connections (and perceived divisions) between us, and the ways that expanses can be crossed. Sometimes the connection is drawn with sadness and sometimes with humour: a satisfying blend.
So mostly what stands out is the telling, the shaping, but occasionally a passage demands the reader take up a pen to make a note.
Here is one of mine:
“If the word for you is butch, remember. Remember that your history is one of strength and survival, and largely silent. Do not hide this word under your tongue. Do not whisper it, or sweep it under the basement stairs. Let it fill up your chest, and widen your shoulders. Wear it like a sleeve tattoo, like a medal of valour.”
These stories read very quickly; it would be easy to read the volume in a single evening. But I would suggest parsing them out. They are often very touching tales; spreading their reading over a period of time will increase their poignancy.
You could pick up this collection because it’s from Graywolf (and you probably already know that they rock).
Or you could pick it up because it has such a striking cover (it does, doesn’t it?).
Or you could pick it up because you like interconnected short story collections.
I picked it up for a combination of the first two reasons, but if I had known the stories were linked I would have snapped it up sooner (because that’s one of my favourite things: interwoven storytelling).
Once you’ve picked it up, you could keep reading because you enjoy (as I do) the reappearance of characters that you previously caught only a glimpse of but later they are moved to centre stage (love that).
Or you could keep reading because Belle Boggs has a quiet, down-to-earth way of pulling you into the story.
But you aren’t likely to keep reading because you are so completely gripped by the plot. Nothing much happens really.
Take Marcus, for instance. He takes a job on the reservation working at Skinny’s to fix cars. He does it because he wants to buy a cell phone. So he can call his friend Khalil in Brooklyn and tell him how bored he is.
Not very exciting, right? And then he begins playing football (there’s a football game in there that reminds me a little of the basketball game in Sherman Alexie’s novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). And then he gets a girlfriend and and and…
Here’s a peek at “Good News for a Hard Time”:
“The airs she put on at school, you would have thought she lived in a teepee village, but really the reservation as just like anywhere else, trailers and double-wises and clapboard ranchers set on weedy lawns far off the black asphalt road. Pickup trucks with expired license plates. Girls who wore tight jeans and hair spray. It wasn’t exotic or special, just a big bunch of acres on the river.”
Nothing exotic. Nothing special. Unless you think well-written short stories are special.
She’s one of my MRE authors.
But her stories are like those high-priced (fairly-traded) chocolates that come with a map.
(You know how it is when you really do mean just to have two? Because you know you won’t just have one, even if you try to tell yourself that, so you don’t even try. But you keep looking at the map and you can’t resist one more. Then you put the lid on, because you’re serious about savouring them over a few days. But there, you’re taking off the lid again. And again. And…suddenly (because it does feel sudden), you realize you’ve had too much.)
They are short and sassy and sharp and fun (mostly, though sometimes they’re a bit painful). A smile slides off a face like an omelet out of a pan. An argument rises up like a beanstalk between them.
“There at the window, his face like a censorious turnip, my husband is staring in.” (From the title story)
They speak to disappointments, to marriages, to break-ups, to mothering, to friendships, to family meltdowns: everyday stuff…but with an edge.
“When he has blown his nose into his handkerchief, he looks into it as if there were a diamond dropped out of his head.” (From “Good Friday, 1663”)
It is really, really hard not to speed through a collection. But they are best enjoyed in small bites, just as they are written.
How about you: what’s the last short story that you read?