Category Archives: Short Stories

The Joys of Picking My Favorite Books

 I am thrilled and honored to be  Westport Library Guest Curator for November. In the list of 100 books I chose as curator, I share those books that changed my life.  Great good comes from reading great books – check out my list of 100 great books online or visit the Westport Library (or any library or bookstore!) to find them for yourself.

The best books are transformative experiences. By reading a great book, we are changed forever: changed in how we think about something or someplace; changed in how we address joy and sorrow in our own lives; changed in how we find purpose in our lives; and changed in how we appreciate the diversity of experience that the world offers.

Nine years ago I began a project of reading a book a day for one year. My purpose was to find a way to live with the unbearable sorrow of losing my oldest sister to cancer. During the experience of reading 365 books, I was transformed. I came out of the darkness of loss into a place of warmth and light and understanding. I will never be the person I was before I lost my sister but because of the year I spent reading, I am a better person than I was. I am more compassionate, more patient, and more resilient.

In this list of 100 books, I want to share the books that I have found to be most transformative for me during my lifetime of reading.  These books changed me for the better and made me appreciate all the beauty in the world. I have greater patience now to get through  the hard times that come up in every life (every day!). I am resolved to face down the worst qualities in humankind, and to celebrate, always, the best.

Merry Murders

Nothing says the holidays for me more than a good old-fashioned Christmas murder mystery. I also like the more modern ones, but give me a snowed-in estate in England, with house guests galore, a burning Yule log, a flaming pudding, holly branches cut fresh from the woods and stuck behind centuries-old picture frames, and I am just the jolliest reader ever.

The best thing about reading Christmas mysteries in the weeks leading up to the big day itself is that the joys and pleasures of the season come early and often, as long as I can find the books to read, and the time to read them, and the glass of wine to drink while reading…

But finding the right Christmas books can be hard, very hard. I’ve been lucky in the past, and I have favorites to revisit (Dickens’ Ghost Stories for Christmas – and I don’t just mean The Christmas Carol!) but this year I really hit the jackpot. My favorite mystery peddler has put together his best collection ever – Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. I could not resist this cover, and when I got the book home, and settled myself in with wine, cat, and even a fire going in the fireplace, I discovered that behind that fabulous cover, paradise awaited me. The paradise where snow falls and Yule logs burn and punch is poured – and a dead body (or two) appears to spice everything up.  images

I love this collection of short stories and how could I not? The first story is by Agatha Christie – The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding – and all the stories that come after are as diverting, pleasing, and murderous as her sumptuous offering. But it’s not all high tea in jolly old England – there is the pleasure of Ed McBain in San Francisco and Mary Higgins Clark in New Jersey and a fun historical piece (the 1950s) by Ed Gorman set in Iowa. There is even a ghost story – but I can’t tell you by whom or its title, or I’ll give the whole thing away. Read the book, and discover for yourself. If you love mysteries, and enjoy the holidays (or even if you don’t), you’ll love The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.

Of course, Anne Perry has come out with her annual Christmas offering.  A Christmas Hope is a lovely, light pleasure (even with a murdered young woman and some evil lords and a valiant lady trying to do what is right) and goes well with a glass of eggnog and a cookie. If you have to read your books on the subway or in the California sun or behind a closed office (or bathroom stall) door, don’t worry! Reading Otto Penzler’s great collection or Anne Perry’s latest offering will make you feel as if you were sitting by a frosted window, fire burning low on the hearth, carols on the radio, cookies on a tray, and Santa on the roof.

Joy to all and to all a good night – of reading.




Time for Summer Reading

Time to read. Summer means many things — long days, hot weather, kids freed from homework, swimming pools and cool lakes and days at the seashore. Crickets (no locusts for us), fireflies, a rabbit in our front yard. Dinners cooked on the grill, lunches eaten in the yard, making homemade ice cream for dessert. Bike rides and kayak trips and maybe a baseball game.

And time to read. I have good work to do this summer (preparing my book on Letters, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, for its publication next spring and finishing up my book on poets) and housework (it never goes away, does it?) and I want to enjoy every moment I have with my kids. But I also want to read every day this summer for at least an hour a day. I spent a wonderful year reading hours a day, the year I read a book a day, but this summer, setting aside a full hour for reading is the commitment I can make. Days when I can read more, great! But every day I will make the space and find the place to read an hour a day.

I plan on reading some new books – Transatlantic, the new novel by Colum McCann, for sure — and I plan on rereading Brideshead Revisited, The Leopard, and a number of novels by Graham Greene. I will certainly read some mysteries and I know that my monthly book chats at Westport Public Library will inspire me with recommended books to read.

SO wish me luck, fellow book lovers, and I send the wishes back to you. May you find the time and discover all the joys of summer reading! I’ll be reporting back on great stuff I’ve read, and please let me know what’s been good for you. Read on!

Immigration Stories

Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost captures the universal immigrant experience — where versions of paradise are both lost and gained — through the very particular experience of the refugees who fled Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Lam grew up in the American Vietnamese community of San Francisco and the experiences he heard about as a child (and some which he lived through himself) are the source of his storytelling, but it is his supple and daring imagination that turns the bones of the events into living and breathing portraits of love, sacrifice, sorrow, and endurance.

Lam’s stories weave in and out of the insularity of suburban California, to the luxury of pre-Communist Vietnam to the horrors of the Communist invasion and the resulting Vietnam War, and then back to the United States again, to the Vietnamese communities built by immigrants and fostering so-called “first generation” Americans. As a first generation American myself, I know we children bear the weight (or wear the wings) of both where our parents came from and what dreams or fears brought them here in the first place. For Lam, the two forces meld into a perfect taking off point for searing, hilarious, and moving stories of what it takes to be an immigrant — and to be the children of immigrants.

An older immigrant, skilled in working with leather, takes a job in a San Francisco S&M leather store; a waitress finds herself serving the American soldier who shot her husband in a field decades ago; a grandmother uses Karma to escape death and flash freezing; a gay man comes out at the funeral of a first generation American who has given the ultimate sacrifice for his family’s adopted country. These are just a few of the unforgettable characters and scenarios created by Lam and given to us, his fortunate readers.

Lam crystallizes the tension of immigration — the pull between wanting to hold onto the old world while needing to accept the strangeness of the new — with sensitivity, beauty, and yet with a welcome lack of sentimentality or bathos. He celebrates the strength required to immigrate and then adapt, while understanding the price paid for such upheaval, often in scars that persist through generations. He also understands the complexity of the motivations of the immigrant. There is perhaps no greater optimism than the optimism of the immigrant and yet the fact of immigration is often founded not in hope but in fear: so many have come to this country in flight from horror and violence. How is it that immigrants can turn such potential for self-destruction into reincarnation, rebirth, renewal? They lose everything they know and are thrust into a world totally new and often quite bewildering. The weight of change is borne by the immigrants and then falls, like a gift, upon their children: against terrific and terrible odds, the next generation has been brought to a place of relative safety and opportunity. Now it is up to us to make good. Lam pays back whatever debt is owed with his terrific storytelling, built from the bones of desperation and filled in with the blood and muscle of struggle, conciliation, and hope.

Egg in My Beer

“Egg in the beer” is slang for benefit, asset, boon. Great short stories offer egg in my beer, providing keen satisfaction and lasting impact with the draw of one long swallow. While a novel may take the full bottle of wine (or, for some books, a gallon of the hard stuff), a short story is, by definition, a shorter draught – I sit in my chair, open the latest collection, and ten or twenty minutes later, I have been to another place and back again. I might be crying or laughing, stunned into speechlessness or bubbling with ideas that I have to share, right now. I’ve had my egg in the beer and I like it, a lot.

A boon of short story collections has come out over the past months and I’ve been drinking up. In A Place in Time, Wendell Berry once again (this is his tenth volume in the series) centers his stories around the mythical Port William on the banks of the Kentucky River. He roams through the past hundred or so years, focusing in on individual situations up and down the fields and hills of the small community. Each story stands alone in its beauty and simplicity, but taken all together, Berry has created a quilt illustrating universal truths about family, community, sorrow, loss, and resilience.

The stories in Joan Wickersham’s The News from Spain are connected not through place but through a recurring phrase, “the news from Spain”; love stories unravel across continents, friendships disintegrate and reinvigorate, families topple and reconnect, and although the mood is often somber, the lasting impact is one of hope: adaptability ensures survival, and connection makes survival worthwhile. Wickersham is an elegant and acute writer, and a joy to read.

In his latest collection of stories, titled Tenth of December, George Saunders exercises his talent at pharmacology (Vivistif, Verbaluce, Veritalk) and psychoanalysis, rendering the inner secrets, dreams, and lives of the hapless and the unlucky in stories that stun, tickle, and stimulate, again and again. We are all weirdoes, under Saunders’ kind yet exacting eye, and oh how beautiful is our weirdness.

Emma Donoghue’s Astray is a marvel of imagination, in which Donoghue utilizes items she’s found over the years – news clippings, photos, letters – to create unforgettable stories about change: the moving from one place to another, either of mind or of geography, a migration that might be forced or might be chosen, but that leads, for a time, to a sense of being led astray. The past is gone, the future unknown, and the present a journey — and never an easy one.

Junot Diaz explores loss in story after story in his collection, This is How You Lose Her. An accumulation of pain and sorrow, the stories nonetheless underscore the permanence of love. Loss cannot matter without love, and with love, so much — even loss — can be endured.

Pull up a chair, draw a beer, and throw in the egg of inspiration: in other words, find a quiet place to read and open up a book of short stories. The satisfaction will last longer, much longer, than any beer (egged or not).

This post also appears on The Huffington Post.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nathan Englander

There are some short story writers with such a definitive style and taste, that if I were to read one of their works “blind”, I would know as soon as I was three or four paragraphs in, who wrote it. Ernest Hemingway, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Antonya Nelson, Edith Templeton, Eudora Welty…I start reading one of their short stories and I am fully engaged, and fully cognizant of who wrote this piece. But it is not knowing who wrote the story that makes their works so good, it is the power of craftsmanship that each author wields, unique and beautiful and satisfying. Even more importantly, what makes me love each of these authors is their uniquely demonstrated commitment to illuminating a corner of the universe, and in that singular illumination, demonstrating a truth about life.

Nathan Englander, on the other hand, is a writer who experiments with styles and tones, displaying different skills of character, place and plot. Although he works along a continuum of the Jewish experience, his stories — so varied in approach and in expression — vary in impact, and in satisfaction. His latest collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, includes some stories I loved, like the title selection, which dissects, in a perfectly rendered moment-by-moment reunion of old friends, the nature of relationships; Sister Hills, a legend-style story of Israel; and Camp Sundown, where the question of justice unravels along the shores of a Jewish summer camp. All three share a pacing in structure and a lovely light touch mixed with very heavy meaning that made these stories distinctively Englander — and illustrative of some aspect of humanity. But the other stories fell apart for me, some rather painfully so (Peep Show); and others because they seemed to be showcases of Englander’s skill but devoid of any actual illumination of a feeling or event or person (Free Fruit for Young Widows and The Reader).

I want illumination, not just skill. And when people talk about Englander (he is causing lots of talk and garnering lots of praise with his latest collection), they seem to mostly talk about his skill, his ability to be both funny and serious, to create situations that are sharply focussed and rich in detail. But where is the illumination? Where is the deeper pounding at what matters, meaning of life and all that? I found it in a few of his stories — as mentioned above — and so when I talk about Nathan Englander, I am talking about a writer still developing, not only his signature style but his commitment to broadening his readers’ experience — and understanding — of life.

Eudora Welty: Casting a Stark and Beautiful Light on the South

One nice offshoot of The Help and its new movie version, is all the attention that Eudora Welty is (rightfully) getting, ten years after her death. Welty’s incisive and beautiful ability to expose the South in all its beauty and horrors led the way for me — and for many of Northerners — to understand the culture of the South of the mid-twentieth century.

W. Ralph Eubanks, author and director and director of publishing at the Library of Congress, recently spoke on NPR about Welty, and The Help. He talked about one of Welty’s most haunting stories, titled, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” I’d read the story before but what I had not known was that Welty wrote “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in the same year in which The Help is set; in fact, Welty wrote the story — a harrowing account of the stalking and murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers — upon learning of Evers’ murder, on the very day it occurred.

As she writes in the introduction to The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, “Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place.” And Welty, in just two pages, sets out with clarity and force the time and place that allowed such an event to take place, bringing the murderer into our own horrified consciousness.

Welty accomplished in her short stories what is so very difficult, and she did it cleanly, succinctly, beautifully: she made her world of Jackson, Mississippi, the world of her reader; she made it familiar and disturbing and undeniable. When I read the stories of Eudora Welty, I am observer but also participant; and through that participation, I understand so much, even the very ugly aspects of humanity — our shared humanity — that I would rather deny.

Two years ago (almost to the day) on this blog I reviewed Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green, a collection of short stories. I wrote then, “Reading Welty’s stories is like going back in time to a different world, back to a Deep South of stupefying heat and small towns, a time of inequality, injustice, inbreeding, and intense pathos. Welty came from that world, she sprang out of it to turn back and see it with an eviscerating eye and write about it with an incredible (if at times extreme) talent. With her stories she drags us back to that bizarre place and makes us see its charms, its horrors, and its unique place in our American culture.”

Reading “Where is the Voice Coming From?” takes us back to when and where a good man could be murdered for the good he was trying to do. By allowing us to understand why, Welty ensures we will never forget the hatred or the answering indignation of those times — and empowers us to show that same indignation, today. With Welty’s words to move us, complacency doesn’t stand a chance.

Save a Bookstore: Buy a Book (or Two, or Three)

Tomorrow June 25th is Save a Bookstore Day, with its own Facebook event page and a very clear agenda: on Saturday, all of us who love our local bookstore, will go out and show our love by buying a book at that bookstore — or an armload of books, if the pocketbook allows.

Not sure where your local bookstore is? Check out Indiebound’s helpful bookstore searcher, mark your routes, grab your kids, and get yourself out to the bookstore tomorrow. Be sure to pick up Tolstoy and the Purple Chair for all the book lovers you know — or for anyone looking for ideas on the meaning of life — and why not grab S.J. Bolton’s latest thriller, Now You See Me, for great summer reading? I also recommend Phil Rickman’s The Bones of Avalon, for a great Tudor mystery; Geraldine Brooks’ beautiful Caleb’s Crossing for compelling historical fiction; and Otto Penzler’s wild The Big Book of Adventure Stories, perfect for reading on the beach, in between dips into the water and trips to the ice cream stand.

Bookstores provide flavor, life, and pleasure to our towns, cities, and villages — don’t let them disappear, falling victim to the economy, the internet, the UPS delivery guy. Buy food local, and buy books local. Just imagine what lengths our local bookstores might have to go to, if we don’t go out tomorrow and next week and the week after, to pick up a book or two. What happened in Russia could happen here….

G.K. Chesterton and his Unstoppable Father Brown

Yes, I finally finished reading the complete collection of Father Brown Mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton over a period of twenty-five years.  I downloaded the collection onto my Kindle and over the past two months have been dipping in and out of the stories.  Certainly the collection has its high points (The Blue Cross is the first story and a great way to start) and its low points but throughout the collection I found deliciously pithy humor, intelligent observations, and uncanny detective work, all coming from the same source: the quiet, nondescript Father Brown.  The man gets around, and gets his man, every time.

My favorites were the Flambeau mysteries, where Father Brown matches wits against the charming and gifted burglar, Flambeau.  Tricky and sly Flambeau may  be (in one story he invites a policeman to am English pantomime, fully intending to use the show as a ruse for beating the poor copper silly and fleeing the scene of his latest jewel thievery) but he is no match for Father Brown.  No stray hair or broken plate or dust-binned cruet set escapes Father Brown’s eagle eye and the bad guy always gets named, if not necessarily caught.  Justice is not the point here: protecting the innocent, preserving the jewels, and being RIGHT are what counts.

Chesterton was a great writer and a prolific one.  He wrote over one hundred books, hundreds of poems and short stories, five plays, and thousands of newspaper essays.  There is a very active society — the American Chesterton Society — devoted to promoting the reading of his works and the adoration of his personae: as their website states in no uncertain terms:

G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century. He said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else. But he was no mere wordsmith. He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century.

I’m not willing to sign onto the “best writer of the 20th century” proclamation but I will say that Chesterton provides great reading, always witty and smart and big-hearted.  He was a contemporary of both George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and his ability to turn out funny and accurate aphorisms is every bit as wondrous and wide-ranging as theirs. In writing his fiction, Chesterton placed his nugggets of wisdom and wit in the mouths of his characters, sprinkling the bits liberally amidst all the players.  Not only is Father Brown wise but other characters are allowed their moments in the sun as well.

I enjoyed having the Father Brown mysteries on my Kindle, which I carry with me.  Stuck at the doctor’s office or waiting in the car, I could easily turn to Chesterton for a little relief and escape.  During my year of reading a book a day, I read Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a classic that I also highly recommend as Chesterton 101.

While Mortals Sleep: So Much That Kurt Vonnegut Left Behind For Us

The recently released While Mortals Sleep, a collection of unpublished short stories by the late and great Kurt Vonnegut, provides marvelous insight into his development as a writer and his convictions as a human being. Following his own rules for writing short stories, set out in the video above, Vonnegut crafts works that don’t waste a minute of our time: every minute is savored, every sentence is necessary, and every character is worthy of our attention, if not our admiration. In allowing us to see the depths of possibility within each of his key characters, Vonnegut makes us understand the unlimited potential within ourselves for both being both good and bad. Vonnegut reminds us to guard against behaving badly (greedily, selfishly, vindictively) and to revere – and exercise – our potential for good.

In his introduction to the collection, Dave Eggers describes the stories as “mousetrap” stories, stories that lead us by the nose to a neat ending, complete with a twist and a moral. But we are led willingly and happily, for the twist is always a good one and the moral is always one worth remembering: money can’t buy happiness, people should be judged by their interior character and not their appearances, and anyone can change for the better, in any situation.

We learned much from Vonnegut when he was alive (see the recent wonderful blog posting from the A.V. Club, “15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has Or Will” ) and he has left behind for us so much to enjoy, to remember, and to discover all over again. We are the lucky ones, to be lured into his enduring mousetraps laced with enticing fun, goodness, and hopefulness.

If you’ve never read Vonnegut, these stories are a fine place to start; they were, after all, his start in the literary world, written when he was just starting out. But make sure to follow up with Slaughterhouse Five, Armageddon in Retrospect, and Cat’s Cradle. If you are a Vonnegut fan, these stories will provide satsify cravings for something new, and if you are not a fan, these stories might just turn you into one.

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