The Art of the Short Story

I never set out to make 2013 the Year of the Short Story, but my reading choices have gone that way. In the first two months of the year, I’ve read four story collections and have quite a few more on my To-Read list.

It’s not as if this is a new genre for me. I’ve always appreciated great short stories. I would, in fact, argue that a great short story writer possess all the skills of great novelists and then some. After all they have to pack all the character development, story arc, subtext and emotional subtext of a satisfying story into a much more confined space. In short stories there’s no room to let a character “grow on” a reader or to allow them to “warm up” to a situation.

Some writers do this through shock. Aimee Bender and Karen Russell take their characters and stories outside of normal reality, grabbing our attention with women who can spin silk through their fingertips or teenagers with piano-keys for fingers. Others, like Elizabeth Berg, write about characters so completely familiar they could be our neighbors, sisters, or even ourselves.

For me, the key to a successful short story collection is a sense of completeness. Whether it’s one paragraph (420 Characters) or a novella (A Good Man is Hard to Find), I want a beginning, middle and end. I want to feel invested and satisfied, but still wanting a little bit more.

So far this year, I’ve read some hits and misses in this genre.

Vampires in the Lemon GroveVampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

4 stars

Given my absolute love for Aimee Bender, it seems that Karen Russell should be a perfect read-alike. She too throws reality out the window if it gets in the way of her storytelling. She invests her characters with strange powers and physical deformities that defy natural laws. She writes strong women and young people and skewers traditions and politics effortlessly. But, I have to be honest, I came to this collection with a bad taste in my mouth from Swamplandia!, which was decidedly underwhelming for me.

Now I think I might be a convert. This collection started slow for me, with the title story leaving me cold, but it just kept getting better and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I still don’t know how to classify her writing – is this magical realism? modern fantasy? satire? I’m not sure, but I don’t really care. I know that I was entertained and turned inside out and forced to allow my brain to travel down new paths.

These stories span the globe, many different eras and a variety of socio-economic conditions, but at their heart, they all investigate lonely people in search of connections. I think I am now ready to go back and read her first story collection and keep an eye open for whatever she has in store for us next.


there once was a wifeThere Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
By Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
2.5 stars
Dozens of short stories about people (mostly women) whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. There is real honesty here. I had no trouble picturing the world in which these people live. And, in a few places, I was arrested by a moment of brilliance or a character I would have liked to continue reading about. But then the story would end. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling.

I will say that this book was brought more vividly to life by the wonderful discussion it inspired, both on Goodreads and on WordPress, captured perfectly by my book-loving friends Cassie at Books and Bowel Movements and Claire at Word by Word.

this is how you lose herThis is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz
4 stars
I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself but I will say this collection is held together both my love and by the primary narrator, Yunior, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. I didn’t like him, but I still really liked the writing.

The Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: Stories
By Elizabeth Berg
3.5 stars
Listening to these thirteen stories, read by author Elizabeth Berg, was like having a really clever friend along for car rides. I was often amused, seldom bored and mostly inspired to find someone who gets a certain type of woman so completely. As the subject of the title story suggests, many of these stories are about food and weight issues. Berg wisely intersperses other issues, but when I say she gets a certain type of woman, I mean that she gets those of us for whom food is a daily issue. Judging by her proficiency and popularity, there are a lot of us. I haven’t read all that much Elizabeth Berg, but she certainly seems a pleasant way to pass the time.


I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours.


I’d love to know what everyone is reading. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? In paperback I am rereading one of my favorite books, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. It topped my 2011 books and I’m happy to report that it’s just as good the second time around. On audio I’m listening to Elizabeth Berg‘s The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted — a short story collection. It started off really strong, but 5 of 7 discs in, I’m getting a little tired of her voice.

What did you recently finish reading? Finally got around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I didn’t love. Also finished Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her, which I liked despite not liking the primary narrator.

What do you think you’ll read next? I have no idea what I’ll read next, which is sort of refreshing. I’ll hit the library later today and see what strikes my fancy. It’s not like I don’t have options with 300+ titles on my Goodreads To-Read shelf.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

This is How You Lose Her – a new review

I have had difficulty approaching a review of this book. I’m not even sure how to classify it – short stories or a novel? The bottom line is that I liked listening to it. this is how you lose her(The audio is version is narrated by the author.) The language and immediacy of Yunior’s emotions really moved me. I felt I was reading a viewpoint of the world that I don’t get to hear often, so in that way it felt very fresh.

But, I don’t like Yunior. He’s a cheat – the lowest of the low. He’s also the center of all but one of these stories – intelligent, but dishonest; lonely, but cold; searching, but blind.

In fact, I wanted to despise him, but Diaz writes him well enough that I stopped short of hatred. In fact, I felt a little heartbroken for him even as I cringed at his language and behavior. Yunior says about himself:

““In another universe I probably came out OK, ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”


“I’m so alone that every day is like eating my own heart.”

Compelling, right? Then, in the next moment, he’s describing Alma this way, “An ass that could pull the moon out of orbit.” I just never knew how to feel about him and the broken world he inhabits.

And, I have to admit, the foul language and vulgarity were hard to listen too. I think when I read the printed word I must skim profanity to some degree because I often found myself cringing at the crudeness of the men in these stories. Even when Diaz throws in Spanish words and phrases (which he does quite often without any translation other than context) I had the feeling he was swearing.

So I’d start to dislike the book a little bit and then Diaz would reel me back in with such beauty that I felt my breath catch. I especially liked the one story told from a woman’s perspective and the honest beauty of Miss Laura.

“There were a lot of middle-aged types living alone, shipwrecked by all kinds of catastrophes.”

Miss Laura is a sort of continuation of the earlier story of how Yunior deals (or doesn’t) with his brother Rafa’s death. It deals with Yunior’s inability to face the real world and his love affair with a much older neighbor woman. To me, this is the strongest story in the collection.

I haven’t read Diaz’s book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, honestly, I’m not in a hurry to pick it up after finishing this book. But I do admire his in-your-face style and bits of beauty.

“The half-life of love is forever. Sometimes a start is all we get.”