The 2020 Short-Story Reading Challenge

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Lakey

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Do you like short stories? Do you want to read more of them, or more of a certain kind, or just to get to know the form a little better? Join the Short-Story Reading Challenge for the coming year.

Here are the rules: Set your own goals, and come and tell us what you’re reading. That’s all.

In the 2019 challenge we had a few intrepid readers who shared a sentence or two about each story read. That is not required, though it is appreciated and encouraged. The discussion and sharing of stories (including linking stories that were read online) made last year’s challenge tons of fun and great for learning about the form. But the primary goal is to read. So don’t fret if you don’t have time or inclination to write something about every story. If you’re reading short stories, you belong here!



Here’s my own plan for the challenge. I am once again aiming to read 100 short stories, but at least half of them will be stories from the last five years. It’s very easy and tempting for me to devour collections of stories from my favorite midcentury writers, but as I continue to work on getting my own short stories refined and published, I need to pay close attention to what short stories look like today. And so I’d like to be more intentional about reading new stories. Half of my target sounds like a lot, but it’s just one contemporary short story a week. I should be able to do that!

Okay—I still have three stories to go to complete the 2019 challenge so I’ll get back to that for now, but I’ll be back next week to start in on 2020. How about you?

:e2coffee:
 

Woollybear

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I'm in. Giving short stories another chance, from within a community of people who enjoy them, seems like a possible path for me to learn to appreciate them properly.

I'll aim to read 20 short stories over the course of 2020. I'll sit in the back of the classroom for the most part, auditing.
 

Chris P

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Yay! I'm in again this year. Great discussion and exploring stories I wouldn't have read otherwise.

Thanks for setting this up :)
 

mrsmig

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I'm in again too. Thoroughly enjoyed the 2019 thread. Thanks for starting this up again, Lakey!
 

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Aye, me three.
After happening upon a collection (match up, by the international thriller associacion) sort of by accident, I've been thinking I ought to read more of them.
Very much enjoyed the format, stories, characters. I expect they're not typical, as these were established writers collaborating and having their famous characters meet just long enough to work through a story. Should be interesting to see if there's a significant difference in character presentation if they only "live" within a short story.
 

Lakey

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Thanks for joining up, folks. By the way, in case it isn’t clear, all genres of stories are welcome.

I'll aim to read 20 short stories over the course of 2020. I'll sit in the back of the classroom for the most part, auditing.
Great! Looking forward to having you around, Patty.

Yay! I'm in again this year. Great discussion and exploring stories I wouldn't have read otherwise.

I'm in again too. Thoroughly enjoyed the 2019 thread. Thanks for starting this up again, Lakey!

My pleasure! I’m so glad both of you will be back. The best parts of the 2019 thread were when two or more of us read the same stories and gave our different takes on them.

After happening upon a collection (match up, by the international thriller associacion) sort of by accident, I've been thinking I ought to read more of them.
Very much enjoyed the format, stories, characters. I expect they're not typical, as these were established writers collaborating and having their famous characters meet just long enough to work through a story. Should be interesting to see if there's a significant difference in character presentation if they only "live" within a short story.

Welcome! I think characterization is different in a short story—but I’m still trying to get a handle on it. If nothing else, mastering the kind of quick, efficient characterization that short stories demand can also make one’s novels more textured.

:e2coffee:
 

Chris P

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Yay!!!! AW is back!

Onward with the challenge:

1. "The Plan," by Sigrid Nunez

Roden has a desire to kill. Someone. He hadn't always, but then one day he did. He finally decides his girlfriend Harley was the one. So he devises a plan. . . This story was about twice as long as it needed to be, and although I like a bit of grit to my stories this one just didn't do it for me. I was really thrown by this story being in third, when everything about it reads like first.
 

Lakey

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I somehow haven’t read any short stories yet so I’m already a couple of stories off pace. I am not sure how that happened. I know I started a New Yorker story but didn’t finish it. I’m glad AW is back because the thread will remind me to keep up!

:e2coffee:
 

mrsmig

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I haven't started reading short stories yet, either - probably because I got so many great books for Christmas. But I will!
 

Chris P

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In case you're interested, all the stories I'll be posting until otherwise indicated are available in the 2019 Best American Short Stories compilation.


2. "Letter of apology," by Maria Reva

Writer Konstantyn Illych Boyko made a joke about the government, and the government is not laughing. Government Culture Ministry agent Mikhail Igorovich is sent to secure a letter of apology from the writer, only to become involved in a delightful cat-and-mouse game with the writer, his wife, and himself. All the Cold War goodness you can expect from such a tale.


3. "Black Corfu" by Karen Russell

In his subterranean medical theater well below the opulent homes of his clients, the Doctor performs profane surgeries to ensure the dead stay dead. The doctor is aging, however, and needs to train someone to carry on his profession. But the stakes are high: one mistake and a zombie will roam the land, and the authorities will take matters into their own hands. A skilled--and tight lipped--apprentice is needed, but perhaps not secured.


4. "Audition" by Said Sayrafiezadeh

Coming from a family of some means, the narrator has little in common with the laborers working for his father's construction company. The narrator has dreams of going into acting, but keeps these and his background hidden from Duncan, the worker the narrator befriends and who introduces him to drugs and the poverty lifestyle.


5. "Natural Disasters" by Alexis Schaitkin

I liked this one, but I'm not sure why. New York City native relocates with her husband to Oklahoma, where she takes a job writing real estate copy for a local realtor. She is assigned to write up a house out in the prairie, owned by a man named Mac. A storm comes up, in more ways than one.


6. "Our day of Grace," by Jim Shepard

I gave up on this one. A 20-page series of letters written between several people tied up in the Civil War, with no discernible story by the halfway point.


7. "Wrong object," by Mona Simpson

A therapist's client named K admits to something she isn't sure she is required to report, or wants to if she can help him without all the trouble. She makes her choice. . .

8. "They told us not to say this," Jenn Alandy Trahan

Although I only read this story a couple weeks ago, no matter how much I skimmed it again I can't recall anything about it. I'd have to read it again, but if it's that not memorable I'll move on.


9. "Omakase," Weike Wang

A man and his girlfriend go to a Japanese restaurant on a cold winter day. The story flashes between the history of the couple's dating and the male character wanting to learn more about the history of the chef. An intersection of lives, very atmospheric.
 
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Chris P

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Almost caught up here! Moving on to the next compilation, The Best American Non-Required Reading 2019. I have been following this compilation for a number of years now. It's by turns quirky, serious, woke, or silly, depending on the panel of high-school aged editors they have that year.

10. "Hill country," by Patricia Sammon

The life of Lynelle, a convenience store clerk at a truck stop, intersects with many others, most of whom she will only see once ever. Likewise, a traveler with his own story to tell will intersect with many others, most of whom he will see only once.


11. "Follow the drinking gourd," by Charles Johnson

An escaped slave returns to the deep South to help his wife's cousin Ida and her infant escape to freedom.


12. "Curse for the American Dream," by Jane Wong

A very short story about an immigrant father with a gambling problem.
 
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mrsmig

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I haven't been reading short stories lately, but getting AW back has given me the impetus. So I went over to dailysciencefiction.com and read one, my first for the year.

1. "The Best Horses Are Found in the Sea, and Other Horse Tales to Emerge Since the Rise," by Beth Cato. It concerns a journalist researching the disappearance of horses following a catastrophic rise in sea level. I didn't care for it particularly - the basic concept was interesting, but the story itself had a lot of telly passages, which made me wonder if it had been a longer work before being published at DSF (which has a 1500 word limit). That telly-ness kept me at arm's distance from both the story and the main character.
 

Chris P

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13. "The Frog King," by Garth Greenwell

An American man and his lover living in Sophia, Bulgaria travel to Italy for the holidays, where they don't have to be as secretive. Bologna has a frog effigy the locals burn on New Year's Eve to bring prosperity for the next year. I actually gave up on this story halfway through; too long, plodding and dense.
 

Lakey

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Ugh, you guys, I have not read any short stories at all despite my best intentions. I’ve been reading a ton, but haven’t managed stories yet. I will have to hustle to catch up (I might pick up the anthology Chris is working through to make that task a bit easier). Now that AW is back I’ll count on this thread to goad me into keeping up.

The only thing I’ve got so far—apart from half a New Yorker piece I haven’t finished yet—is a reread of something I read and talked about in last year’s thread. I reread it because it was assigned in a six-week short-story writing class I’ve just started. I count rereads of books in my yearly totals, and accordingly I’m going to count this one here.

1. “Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor, in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)

Forward ever onward! 1/100 read, 0/50 from the last five years.
 

Chris P

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Well, I've gone and done it and only have myself to blame: I'm reading too many books at the same time.

In last year's challenge, I read a short story "The Great Interruption: The story of a famous story of old Port William and how it ceased to be told" by Wendell Berry, and loved it. I was familiar with Berry's poetry from a college prof who thought highly of him, but since poetry is largely wasted on me I never knew about Berry's short stories and novels. So, for a recent gift day I got the Library of America's Wendell Berry: Port William Stories and novels, the Civil War to World War II. The stories are every bit as delightful as The Great Interruption. Berry's way with poetic words translates perfectly to the prose page. His literary style goes down easily, is playful even in the serious stories, and is full of heart. These are the types of stories I want to write!


15. "The girl in the window," by Wendell Berry.

Rebecca watches through her window as a band of armed men work through the town looking for loot. She can't decide if they are Confederates, rogue Union, or the latest band of opportunist thugs there to get whatever they can. In any case, the war won't last forever, and life needs to find a way to carry on.


16. "The hurt man," by Wendell Berry

Five-year-old Mat Feltner, still wearing a house dress as toddler boys did back then, witnesses a beaten man flee to his house for sanctuary, and being tended to by sympathetic townsfolk. We never know who the man was, or why he was beaten, which is something a five-year-old might not know either.


17. "Fly away, breath," by Wendell Berry

A beautiful story of Maxie, the 90+-year-old beloved family matriarch coming to her final day at the end of a long, full life.


18. "A Consent," by Wendell Berry

Ptolemy Proudfoot, a hardworking, quiet and lovable lummox of a farmer falls in love from afar with schoolteacher Minnie. Socially awkward and breathless in the presence of his beloved, he needs to find a way to break the ice. Minnie is looking for a hardworking, quiet and lovable lummox of a farmer to fill her life. Then comes the harvest festival, and the fundraiser cake auction. . .
 

Lakey

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Part of what I did on this thread last year was highlight interesting deals relating to short stories, so here is another one: Chirp Audiobooks has a new collection of crime stories by women writers (edited by Joyce Carol Oates) for $1.99. Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, JCO, and others are represented here.

Audiobooks make up at least 2/3 of my reading but I've always used Audible. I signed up for Chirp just to get this book, so I can't yet speak to their service or their app, but it's a terrific price that I couldn't resist. And I am familiar with the reader, Xe Sands, who is quite good.

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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Here we go at last!

2. “Three Women of Chuck's Donuts,” Anthony Veasna So, in The New Yorker (2020)
Engaging story about a Cambodian immigrant divorced mother who, with her teen and preteen daughters, runs a 24-hour donut shop that may or may not have been bankrolled by the Khmer Rouge. It explores a bunch of different themes, including identity (one of the girls wonders in the expected way what it means to be Khmer and also American, and has her mind blown when she meets a man who grew up in Cambodia and to her seems Khmer in every way, but whose parents evidently emigrated to Cambodia from China, and who thinks of himself as Chinese), and a few of the various ways in which women are mistreated and taken advantage of by men.

I started the Cutting Edge anthology I mentioned in my previous post, so my next few stories will probably be from it. (So far I've only read JCO's introduction, but it was great and really whetted my appetite for what's to come.)

Progress: 2/100 stories read, 1/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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From the anthology:

3. “One of These Nights,” Livia Llewellyn, in Cutting Edge (2020)*
Sufficiently disturbing story with which to open a modern noir collection. It draws on classic tropes -- it features a murderous pair of seductive teenage vixens, who in a story written by a man in another era would be wily, knowing temptresses, goading some poor chump into evil or victimhood. Here, despite the story being in POV of one of the girls, there is a grit and pathos, a sense of their victimhood even as they victimize others. They aren't innocent, but their teenage haste to reach what they think of as womanhood is not just unmitigated by healthy adult supervision; it's taken advantage of, by the lecherous father of one of the girls.

* I'm not sure whether everything in the anthology is brand new or has been published previously; I'm sure the print book has all the reprint information but the audio edition doesn't. I'm going to count them as "last five years" for the purpose of my goal, because even if they are reprints they are probably pretty recent.



3/100 read, 2/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Chris P

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19. "Pray without ceasing," by Wendell Berry

A tattered newspaper clipping from seven decades before describes a story the narrator Andy barely knows: the very public daylight murder of his great-grandfather at the hands of his best friend. A visit to Andy's ailing and aged grandparents connects him to a tale of friendship, anger, and eventual forgiveness and healing. Closer to a novella in length, the events leading up to the murder, the murder itself, and its aftermath are told from multiple points of view. This story had me early and kept me, playful and touching and heartfelt in ways I'm coming to define as Berry's style.
 

Lakey

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This week’s lesson in my short-story class is about nonlinear story structures, multiple timelines, fractured narratives. The reading assignment is:

4. “The Faery Handbag,” Kelly Link, in Magic for Beginners (2005)
Charming, slightly sad story about a girl, her grandmother, and the fables her grandmother spins. The grandmother claims to be from a place in the Caucasus called Baledeziwurlekistan. She is the guardian of a magic handbag, made from a dog’s skin, that contains her entire village and a tribe of enchanted folk who lived underneath the village. As you might imagine, the story plays with reality, leaving it up to you decide about the truth of the handbag stories. There’s quite a lot going on here; in accordance with the lesson of the week it feels haphazard and rambly, but is in fact carefully constructed—the author makes her choices with care.

The story intrigued me enough that I added the collection it came from to my wish list. I’ve linked to the story on the author’s website, if you’d like to have a look.

4/100 read, 2/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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More from JCO's anthology of noir by women.

5. “A History of the World in Five Objects,” S.J. Rozan, in Cutting Edge (2020)
Oof, this was a tough read. A young woman imposes a strict order on her life, after suffering the extended trauma of her father's abuse, and the explosive trauma of her parents' deaths. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Props to the audiobook reader, Xe Sands, whose dramatization made it impossible for me to look away; I'm sure I would have skittered through some of these paragraphs if I'd been reading with my eyeballs.

6. “The Hunger,” Lisa Lim, in Cutting Edge (2020)
A story nearly as violent, a life nearly as miserable, yet tone is everything. There is something incongruently comic in this one, in which a Chinese immigrant woman exacts impulsive and thorough revenge for every misery she's ever been subjected to. The cognitive dissonance is enjoyable.

I'm a fairly squeamish reader, so I might not be able to read all of the stories in this volume in one go. We'll see.

6/100 read, 4/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 
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Chris P

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Back to The Best American Non-Required Reading 2019

20. "As sparks fly upward," by Renee Branum

Single mom Lydie suddenly finds herself caring for her twenty-something son after he suffers a sudden stroke. Their relationship had always been adversarial, and there is little room for happy endings in this long and gritty story of finality.

21. "Arabic lesson," by Latifa Ayad

In this flash piece, the narrator's diabetic grandfather utters the only English he knows as he loses consciousness, while the narrator must choose between the only two Arabic phrses she knows.
 
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Lakey

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More from JCO's anthology of noir by women.

7. “Too Many Lunatics,” Lucy Taylor, in Cutting Edge (2020)
I liked this one -- good voice, good suspense; a little violence but more tension/suspense created by the anticipation of violence that sometimes materializes and sometimes does not. A woman heads out in a terrible snowstorm to track down her addict sister. She takes a handgun with her. Wacky hijinks ensue -- well, not really. One thing I like in this story is the way a flashback is framed -- our hero gets into a minor car accident, hits her head, and is dropped into the memory when she loses consciousness. So, is it a reliable memory or not?

7/100 read, 5/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 
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Chris P

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22. "Barbara from Florida," by Maddy Raskulinecz

Allison takes a job as a "pizza boy," and introduces us to the varied world of pizza delivery drivers.


23. "Our Belgian Wife," by Uche Okonkwo

Udoka is a Nigerian university student preparing for an arranged marriage to Uzor, a Nigerian-born doctor in Belgium. Overly detailed and plodding, I gave up on this one halfway through.
 
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Lakey

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8. “Please Translate,” Edwidge Danticat, in Cutting Edge (2020)
This one didn’t do much for me. A modern epistolary—it’s a series of voicemail messages, translated (according to the story) from Haitian Creole—it seemed rather by-the-numbers and predictable. A woman leaves a series of messages for her husband, who hasn’t returned their child when he was expected to; the messages alternate between rageful and pleading; she threatens to call the police but hesitates because she is undocumented; eventually she does, with a tragic result that frankly seems melodramatic because it is not clearly motivated.

9. “The Boy without a Bike,” Jennifer Morales, in Cutting Edge (2020)
This is a rather sweet story (though maybe veering a little bit from the noir theme) about a woman's efforts to protect her ex-lover's son and a gentle boy he is friends with. The boys are very young - third grade - but the implication is strong that they are baby queers, and as the narrator is a butch lesbian, she feels some affinity for them.

Not to be overly critical, but since I think about craft a lot, I'm not sure about the author's choice to put this one in first-person present. I think the story might have been better in close third past (which admittedly is my preferred POV-tense pairing), or even first-person past. The use of flashbacks and introspection in this particular first-person present narrative rubbed me the wrong way, and pulled me out of the story. All it buys the author, as far as I can tell, is a slight delay in the reveal that the narrator is a woman, but with my "lesbian until proven otherwise" bias I wasn't at all surprised by that. ;) And I don't think the surprise adds all that much to a story in 2020, frankly.

The reading assignment for my class this week is an Otessa Moshfegh story, which I’ll read tomorrow morning, probably. I’m not sure whether it’s from the last five years or not—I will have to look it up. It’s funny, because I bought a Moshfegh short-story collection specifically for my modern-fiction challenge. I hope it turns out I like her!

9/100 read, 7/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 
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