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The 2020 Short-Story Reading Challenge

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Chris P

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I figured the clothes and letter were a plant. But even so - seems like that would have been a crime of passion, and the letter suggests malice aforethought. It was definitely a big plot hole.

Okay, so it's not just me missing something. Eoin's mother said the handwriting was his, so if a plant it was never explained. It's simply too long a story to read again (so the whole train scene was just to spark guilt in Katie's mind? That's 2/3 of the story!) so the mystery will remain for me.
 

mrsmig

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I was finishing up The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan as I was reading "The Postman''s Cottage," and they are so close in tone and subject that I kept having to remind myself which was which, and wondering if the plot holes in the short story were of my own manufacture through getting the two confused. Glad to know it wasn't just me. :)

Continuing with The Story Prize anthology:

31. "My Podiatrist Tells Me a Story About a Boy and a Dog" by Mary Gordon. I confess to grimacing during this one because I knew where it was headed, and quite frankly, couldn't see the point. Bleh.

32. "The Zero Meter Diving Team" by Jim Shepherd. I've been immersed in Chernobyl literature lately, and this was a welcome addition to the collection. The vivid descriptions of the effects of such intense radioactive exposure were heartbreaking, but not more than the head-shaking obedience of the principal characters, which doomed them just as completely as the accident itself.

33. "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff. Such a terrific story about words and language. Really enjoyed it.
 

Chris P

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mrsmig: those are pretty much my reactions to the stories too. "Bullet in the brain" reminds me of the type of writing I discovered when I first ventured out of Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie that really turned me on to stories like this. I imagine you have read "Voices from Chernobyl" by Svetlana Alexievich? A modern classic, and this could have been right out that book.


Carrying on:


80. "Memory wall," by Anthony Doerr

I liked this one, long though it is (novella-length). As dementia sets in, Alma consults a memory clinic where her remaining memories are downloaded onto cartridges she can review and perhaps stave off further memory loss. It is also widely believed among the fossil-trading community that literally hours before her husband Harold died he made an amazingly important and amazingly profitable discovery deep in the Karoo desert of South Africa. What might Alma's memory cartridges contain that can lead an underground profiteer to the unclaimed prize? This is the type of upmarket story I aspire to write; accessible and easygoing (thriller-ish plot with heartfelt connections), with literary elements (fossils buried in stone, memories buried in time) and some nifty writing (Luvo's reflections alone in the desert, for example).
 
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Lakey

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The next chapter of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is about story structure; here are the three stories at the end of the chapter.

58. “Mud,” Geoffrey Forsyth, 2008
A man suddenly finds his dead father, mother, and wife in his apartment, alive, though covered in mud as though they had dug themselves out of their graves. Story didn’t work for me. Nothing about the characters or their interactions connected for me, except one moment at the very end when the man, who knows his revived wife is in the next room, declines to go and see her because he has a big business meeting. It was a sweet and sad way to show him trying to move on past his grief, but for me, the story wasn’t really worth it for this one moment.

59. “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor, 1956
Like O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” this story presents an amusing caricature of an officious old southern lady, only to smack her (and us) with a terrible tragic death in the end. What I liked most about this story is its astute commentary on the way well-meaning white people interact with Black people—commentary that feels ahead of its time and uncomfortably accurate. The POV character Julian is embarrassed and enraged by his mother’s patronizing racism, by her pride at being descended from slave owners, her belief that Black folks were better off as slaves, and so on. But the way he sucks up to Black people is in its own way just as patronizing and offensive; he doesn’t see them as people, rather as opportunities to prove his difference from his mother and rub it in her face. It’s really a great story. Julian’s mother’s pride reminds me rather a lot of Pearl Tull, the matriarch in Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and I had a head-slapping moment wondering why I had never before noticed what a tremendous influence Flannery O’Connor must have been on Anne Tyler. Two great writers of whom I have read some and will certainly read more.

60. “Escapes,” Joy Williams, 1990
I believe I read a Joy Williams story last year — twice, if I’m remembering right — and could not make a lick of sense out of it. But this one is lovely, a very sad story about a young girl’s relationship with her alcoholic mother.

And a bonus, if I can call it that, a fairly well-known science fiction story (really more of a novella, but I endured it, so I’m going to count it):

61. “Understand,” Ted Chiang, 1991
Ugh, ugh, ugh. RYFW holds me back from saying what I really think about this story, but I can summarize it thus: There is not a single aspect of craft in which this story works for me. It reads to me as flabby and self-indulgent, full of pointless threads that go nowhere.

61/100 read, 24/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

mrsmig

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mrsmig: those are pretty much my reactions to the stories too. "Bullet in the brain" reminds me of the type of writing I discovered when I first ventured out of Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie that really turned me on to stories like this. I imagine you have read "Voices from Chernobyl" by Svetlana Alexievich? A modern classic, and this could have been right out that book.

I have indeed, and thought it was extraordinary. (In fact, I may have read it as part of last year's Reading Challenge.) Some of the interviews would make great monologue material for auditions.

Continuing with The Story Prize anthology:

34. "Saleema" by Daniyal Mueenuddin. A meaty story that kept me reading even as my Kindle was whimpering at me that its battery was dying. The title character's scheming put me off initially, but the softness her relationship with her older lover awakened was moving. I expected everything to go sideways, though (this is literary fiction, after all), but still felt let down when it did.
 

mrsmig

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Interesting that you'd be reading Flannery O'Connor just now, Lakey - were you aware of the ongoing controversy over Loyola University renaming their Flannery O'Connor residence hall? This New Yorker article from June was the trigger. Apparently O'Connor's personal correspondence revealed racist tendencies that weren't reflected in her public writing, and renaming the hall was Loyola's response.
 

Lakey

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Interesting that you'd be reading Flannery O'Connor just now, Lakey - were you aware of the ongoing controversy over Loyola University renaming their Flannery O'Connor residence hall? This New Yorker article from June was the trigger. Apparently O'Connor's personal correspondence revealed racist tendencies that weren't reflected in her public writing, and renaming the hall was Loyola's response.

No, I didn't know about that. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising, that she expressed racist sentiments privately. It's depressing, though, because her writing explored racism (and other biases) in what strikes me as a sensitive and insightful way, as with my reading of Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." It would be one thing to hear that some white writer who wrote about white people and never really touched race as a critical subject harbored racist views; it's quite another to hear that someone who takes race on explicitly and well held them. :/

I've been reading a lot of midcentury American writing in the last 4 years, because of my ongoing obsession with that era, and that means reading a lot of writers whose attitudes would have been more or less problematic now. Some of my favorite writers of the era were white women who felt comfortable enough in pretty freely expressing their racist and anti-Semitic views, even if those views didn't turn up explicitly in their writing. (Some of the male writers of the era, of course, were exactly as misogynistic as you expect them to be.) I am okay with reading and enjoying their writing for what it is, and studying their craft for what I can learn from it, despite the views they held that are repugnant to twenty-first-century me. But that's a personal decision; I would not judge someone who said, "You know what? I don't need to read that author. There are other people to read." (I feel that way about certain male writers who are widely admired so I completely get it.)

:e2coffee:
 

mrsmig

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I re-read my question to you, Lakey, and am concerned that "interesting" might sound like some sort of veiled accusation - which was not my intent at all. I was trying to remark on the coincidence. Although there's nothing in your response that indicates you took it that way, I apologize for not choosing my words more carefully.

I've read O'Connor's work in the past and may very well read more in the future. Her personal correspondence reminds me a great deal of my grandmother Minnie, a Southern lady who once rose when a band played "Dixie." I was a teen when it happened, and found it puzzling and a bit amusing at the time; now the memory makes me wince, although she was only expressing her pride in being Southern...I think.
 

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Just finished "Rejected Worlds" by James Maxstadlt.

I loved it! Each story was fun and entertaining.

My favorite was "The Baracoot". It was a fun original fairy tale that had me enthralled the whole journey.

My least favorite was "If You Just Believe". It was a sequel to the author's past work that I haven't read, but it was still a good read.

I also loved how the author told what inspired him to write each story in a small passage after each story.

So much fun. Five stars
 

Chris P

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The Second Moon: Knowing the story behind the story can sometimes make or break a story for me. I'm not familiar with that author. I might have to keep an eye out.


81. "Snowmen," by Steven Millhauser

Beautifully written and descriptive, a new snow brings new adventures, each more fantastic and fantastical than the last as the neighborhood builds ever increasingly intricate snowmen and scenes.

- - - Updated - - -

The Second Moon: Knowing the story behind the story can sometimes make or break a story for me. I'm not familiar with that author. I might have to keep an eye out.


81. "Snowmen," by Steven Millhauser

Beautifully written and descriptive, a new snow brings new adventures, each more fantastic and fantastical than the last as the neighborhood builds ever increasingly intricate snowmen and scenes.
 

mrsmig

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Chris P, I've caught up to you in The Story Prize anthology!

35. "Memory Wall" by Anthony Doerr. A very satisfying story that's part mystery, part SF. Elderly Alma undergoes periodic "memory harvesting" as her dementia robs her of her past, including the whereabouts of a priceless prehistoric relic. This was a long one, but I was so intrigued that I didn't mind at all.

36. "Snowmen" by Steven Millhauser. Like Chris, I found this one both lyrical and gripping. Lovely story.
 

Chris P

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I need to up my game to stay ahead, mrsmig! Lol, actually there's no competition here. :)

82. "Ghosts, Cowboys," by Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire is the daughter of Paul Watkins, Charles Manson's Number Two at the Spahn Ranch. This very well done literary memoir recounts Claire's intersections with inescapable history, complete with the lodging of the now-40 year old daughter of one of Manson's followers, delivered by Manson himself, living in her home. I thought it was really creative how she traced the history back through several false starts of the narrative to the apparently cursed dust of the mine tailings of the Comstock Lode, and how no matter how much we try to move on from/paint over/grow out of our past, we are still the products of it.

It also made me realize how little I know about the American Southwest; I had to Google where the Comstock Lode actually was, and its relation to the modern-day cities of the area. I might have some non-fic reading ahead of me!
 
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mrsmig

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Too late, Chris P! I finished the anthology yesterday!

37. "Ghosts, Cowboys" by Claire Vaye Watkins. I did a paper in college on the Manson murders ("The Role of Journalism in the Manson Murders") so I found this quite interesting. (Like Chris P, I now feel the need to do more research on the Comstock Lode.) How weird it must be, to have grown up as a child of the Manson family.

38. "Tenth of December" by George Saunders. An imaginative boy and a suicidal man cross paths. I'm a huge, huge fan of George Saunders' work (his Lincoln In the Bardo still haunted me weeks after I read it) and I found this story equal parts surprising, delightful and oddly comforting.

39. "Something Amazing" by Elizabeth McCracken. A bereaved mother becomes a recluse feared by the children of her town. This was a strange one - a twisty sort of ghost story that managed to be both disturbing and weirdly funny at the same time. I might have to read more of Ms. McCracken.

40. "Nirvana" by Adam Johnson. Another strange one. A computer programmer comforts himself by talking to a hologram of a recently deceased POTUS; his wife, who is ill, self-soothes by listening to Nirvana's music. The conversations between the programmer and the POTUS were kind of delightful; I enjoyed the read.

41. "How She Remembers It" by Rick Bass. Lilly remembers a road trip with her father. Although the destination is never named, the stops along the way in this story have rich detail and a post-apocalyptic, other-worldly feel. I'm not sure ultimately what this story is about, except memory, but I found it a solid read.

42. "The Sign" by Elizabeth Strout. Tommy Guptill, a former dairy owner whose life changed drastically after a terrible fire, comes to terms with some questions from his past. I thought this was one of the best stories in the collection - subtle and spare - and no wonder, since Strout is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her book Olive Kitteridge. That book is now on my TBR list.
 

Chris P

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83. "The Tenth of December," by George Saunders

I agree with mrsmig's assessment; despite its darkness there is comfort to it. Happy ending, under the circumstances.

I am struck by the fallibility of my memory, however. I knew I had read this story within the past two years, liked it, and remembered it had something to do with a boy playing in the snow and encountering an old man by a lake, but wow, how many details just vanished! It's a whole new story :)
 

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I just finished "The End and Other Beginnings" by Veronica Roth.

I adored the first few stories, but the last two were too confusing for me.

My favorite was "The Spinners". It was about woman who lived on a planet inhabited by humans and aliens. She hunts leeches. Leeches are aliens that take over their host leaving them mindless.

My least favorite was, the two-parted "Armored Ones". All the names were four letters and the plot was confusing.

I give this book 4.5 stars.
 

mrsmig

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I've been reading Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile so had pivoted away from short stories for the moment, but I subscribe to Daily Science Fiction and decided to click on today's story, just for a quick diversion.

43. "Dread" by John Dulak. A short-short that unfortunately has a creaky old SF trope at its center: colonists on another planet discover a mysterious machine and power it up. Other than the fact that it's written as all-dialogue, the story brings nothing new to the table (and the author also needs a remedial course in punctuation). To be honest, I'm a bit surprised this story was published by DSF; it's not up to their usual standards.
 
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Chris P

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84. "Something Amazing" by Elizabeth McCracken.

As mrsmig says, this is a strange one. I suspect the point was something about not being able to keep secrets hidden, but that doesn't seem to connect somehow. I also wonder if this was from a themed collection of connected stories, and this one would have been richer if I had read the others. It's still a good, well-written story, I just didn't understand it.


85. "Nirvana" by Adam Johnson.

Yeah, another strange one. Part Douglas Coupland, part Kurt Vonnegut. I had trouble getting into this story. I was picturing a much older couple so the attempt at a baby took some getting used to, and I couldn't really get on the husband's wavelength with his obsession with the former president.
 
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Tocotin

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Hello, friendly short story thread! Hello all the new people! :)

Okay, so I read a collection of crime shorts (!) by Jan Wróbel titled A Perfect Crime (Zbrodnia doskonała in Polish). The stories were surprisingly fun; four out of the total 14 were written by the author's daughter, and he gave her credit in the foreword – I was a bit miffed that her name wasn't on the cover, but it was probably because he seems to be a popular journalist or something, so his name was what was supposed to sell the book. I won't give all the titles or even synopses, sorry, since it's unlikely that the collection will ever be translated into English, but most of the stories were... mild, for the lack of a better word. No gore, in some stories there was no murder even – I appreciated it. My favorite story was titled "All for Agnieszka", and was about a guy whose wife (Agnieszka) is suspected of murdering her grandmother; he valiantly defends her, only to find out that she is not innocent, and that it's not what really matters.

So I read 27 stories this year so far.

Tocotin, congratulations on finishing that collection. It bears repeating that you are reading those in Chinese, aren't you? That's so fantastic.

Oh, I do so wish I could read it in Chinese! My copy was a Japanese translation.
:troll
 

Lakey

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I’ve completely fallen down on the job reading short stories; my eyeball reading, which is how I consume most (not all) of my short stories, has been hijacked by a beta read of my sister-in-law’s novel (quite good!) and a book club at work (Ruha Benjamin’s Race Against Technology). But I’ll catch up — I plan to go on a short-story bender as soon as I finish the latter. In the meantime, I am very glad you are all here, reading stories.

I just finished "The End and Other Beginnings" by Veronica Roth.
I read one Veronica Roth story earlier this year — it was the first work of hers I’d read, and I rather liked it. She’s someone I’ll look out for again.

Okay, so I read a collection of crime shorts (!) by Jan Wróbel titled A Perfect Crime (Zbrodnia doskonała in Polish). The stories were surprisingly fun; four out of the total 14 were written by the author's daughter...
These sound rather delightful, and it’s a shame that it probably won’t ever be translated into English.

Oh, I do so wish I could read it in Chinese! My copy was a Japanese translation.

Hahaha well you can still read in like three more languages than I can. :p

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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Two episodes of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast later:

62. “The Years of My Birth,” Louise Erdrich, 2011
A gentle story about a woman born a fraternal twin, rejected by her mother for some superficial deformities (which turn out to be largely reversible), and raised in an adoptive family with a ton of love and support. She feels a "presence" with her at various times in her life, which she may or may not believe is the twin brother she never met. When she is in her 50s, her biological mother surfaces to inform her that her twin brother is ill and needs a kidney. The woman must decide whether to meet her biological family, and whether to supply the needed organ. It's a very delicate story that touches in the obvious ways on themes of family, race, and class (the narrator's birth family is white; she was raised by Native Americans on the reservation), but there's also a lot of layering going on, with notes of loneliness playing in, as well as notes of twinship and duality. A really terrific story. There's also that little touch of magical-realism-or-maybe-just-human-psychology in the "presence," similar to another Louise Erdrich story I read last year, "The Stone," and talked about in last year's thread. It was my last story of 2019 and one of my very favorites.

63. “No Place for You, My Love,” Eudora Welty, 1952
Feeding into my obsession with midcentury American women, I thought this would be a hit with me. Though I've read some of the other Southern Gothic women with whom she is often grouped, such as Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, I hadn't actually read any Welty yet. This story didn't quite grab me, though it is interesting and I feel I ought to like it better than I did. It was a little too understated, a little too descriptive, more mood than narrative. A man and a woman, both northerners but strangers to one another, meet at a party in New Orleans and go for a drive in the swampy countryside south of town. Things do happen there, or rather they witness things, and these things probably have thematic meaning, but I found it too lulling to sink my teeth into. Eventually, they end up at a pub and dance the evening away, forming an ephemeral connection, which ends when he drives her back to her hotel in New Orleans and they part ways. An obvious theme here is the tenuousness of human connection, exemplified in the relationship between this man and woman who aren't even named, who don't even know anything about one another -- Welty goes into their heads and gives us their assumptions about one another, but doesn't confirm or refute those assumptions.

63/100 read, 24/50 from the last five years. (I checked last year's thread, and I was right around story 60 at the end of August then, too.)

:e2coffee:
 
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Lakey

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Today, digging into a single-author collection I picked up on sale, because it looked interesting. I’ve been wary of single-author collections after burning out on Flannery O’Connor last year, so I’ll give myself permission to take a break in the middle if I get tired of this one. The first story, though, was superb.

64. “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” Nafissa Thompson-Spires, in Heads of the Colored People, 2018
This story is hard to describe; there’s a lot going on, and it’s broken into six or so sections, to give a sense of its scope. At the core is a police shooting of two very different Black men who get into a fight really by chance, over the silliest misunderstanding that on a different day, or with either of them in a slightly different mood, would never have happened. There is a lot of attention given to the identities/personas of these two Black men; particularly interesting is the narrator's insistence, early on, of the legitimacy of the Blackness of one of them, who wears his hair blonde and his eyes blue and has a penchant for anime and manga and convention cosplay. Later, after his death, the media shows pictures of him apparently dressed like a gangbanger, pictures in which he was in fact dressed in costume as Justin Timberlake — in other words, he was a Black man, engaging in the typically white pastime of cosplay, playing a white man who was himself appropriating markers of Blackness... and with all this complexity his Blackness still gets him killed and portrayed in the media according to a well-worn set of conventions and justifications.

And that’s just one of the four characters whose relationship to his Blackness gets examined closely in this story. You see what I mean that there is a lot going on! The narration is amusingly self-aware, sometimes in a kind of over-the-top way. It’s a really interesting story; I will probably read it again before I move on. While looking up details about the book I found that the story is reproduced in its entirety on the publisher’s site — weirdly formatted, but it’s there. Have a look (expand the “Excerpt” section — it’s the complete story).

64/100 read, 25/50 from the last five years — finally moving the needle on that secondary goal!

:e2coffee:
 
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The Second Moon

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@ Lakey - I prefer single-author collections better because it feels--in a way-- "linked".

Sorry. I haven't been reading short stories lately, but I ran out of short story collections. Why are they so hard to find? I went to a chain bookstore and couldn't find many, but I did get some nice novels. Anyways, my 21st birthday is in ten days (eek!)and I hope to get some short story collections. I have a huge list of books (novel, novellas, and short story collections) I want. Like huge-huge! Last time I counted I had over twelve books on the list. Of course, I want other stuff for my B-Day, but it would be nice to join this conversation again.
 

mrsmig

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@ Lakey - I prefer single-author collections better because it feels--in a way-- "linked".

Sorry. I haven't been reading short stories lately, but I ran out of short story collections. Why are they so hard to find? I went to a chain bookstore and couldn't find many, but I did get some nice novels. Anyways, my 21st birthday is in ten days (eek!)and I hope to get some short story collections. I have a huge list of books (novel, novellas, and short story collections) I want. Like huge-huge! Last time I counted I had over twelve books on the list. Of course, I want other stuff for my B-Day, but it would be nice to join this conversation again.

The Second Moon, there are a lot of online sites where you can read stories for free (in fact, if you back through this thread, you'll find a lot of us have provided links to stories we've read). I subscribe to dailysciencefiction.com, which occasionally has some pretty good stuff. Their length limit is 1500 words, so you're not into a huge time investment, either.

Speaking of: I read another Daily SF story yesterday.

44. "Someday" by Filip Wiltgren. Two creatures in a post-apocalyptic setting discuss the way life used to be, and what lies ahead. It had a neat little twist, with some poignant imagery and a lovely, wistful voice.
 

Lakey

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@ Lakey - I prefer single-author collections better because it feels--in a way-- "linked".

You know, it's interesting. It is true what I said about that O'Connor collection, but at the same time, two of the best books I read last year could both be framed as linked short-story collections, although both happen to have been marketed as novels: Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout), and The Company She Keeps (Mary McCarthy). If I remember correctly, McCarthy pioneered the "novel in stories" form with The Company She Keeps, but Strout has certainly done tremendous things with it. (McCarthy is one of my all-time favorite writers.)

And, I loved Grace Paley's first short-story collection front to back, but I'm pacing myself on her second one, because by then she had adopted an even more experimental style, and the stories can be somewhat difficult. I don't think I could just read them one after another; instead, every few months I pick up the book and read one or two of them. It gives me a chance to sit with each one, which I think will help make them more memorable in the long run.

ANYWAY. Happy birthday! I hope you get a lot of terrific books.

Meanwhile, continuing with Nafissa Thompson-Spires:

65. “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” Nafissa Thompson-Spires, in Heads of the Colored People, 2018
Not as rich or expansive as the title story, I think; this story centers on an infantile, misogynist, passive-aggressive, gutless man. He is a literature professor who gets himself into an utterly stupid battle with his office-mate over whether the lights are on or off. What's most interesting about it, really, is that the protagonist grows more and more repugnant, rather than more sympathetic, as the story goes on. And it makes the end, where he gets his gonads handed to him by the de facto chair of his department (a woman, of course), rather satisfying.

It is possible, however, that I missed the point of the story entirely. Late in the story a friend of his mentions the paradoxical bind in which white supremacy traps Black men, simultaneously emasculating them and demanding hypermasculinity of them. It could be that Thompson-Spires meant to show her protagonist flailing around within those confines, rather than just being a characterless, weak individual. I'm actually not sure.

65/100 read, 26/50 from the last five years

:e2coffee:
 

Chris P

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@ Lakey - I prefer single-author collections better because it feels--in a way-- "linked".

Sorry. I haven't been reading short stories lately, but I ran out of short story collections. Why are they so hard to find? I went to a chain bookstore and couldn't find many, but I did get some nice novels. Anyways, my 21st birthday is in ten days (eek!)and I hope to get some short story collections. I have a huge list of books (novel, novellas, and short story collections) I want. Like huge-huge! Last time I counted I had over twelve books on the list. Of course, I want other stuff for my B-Day, but it would be nice to join this conversation again.

Happy (early) birthday, Second Moon!

As to single-author compilations, I usually avoid them unless I know the author. Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Dennis L. McKiernan, and Wendell Berry all come to mind immediately, but all of them except Berry I knew from novels before buying their collections. As much as I liked them, I had to take them in bits or (particularly McKiernan and Berry) they can run together.

Have you signed up for BookBub or Early Bird Books? They send daily emails with $2.99 and lower ebook deals, and there is usually at least one short story collection each day.

And as mrsmig points out, there are a lot of free websites. My first-ever published story (wow, way back in 2008 already) was on Daily Sci-Fi. Sci-Fi in particular seems rich in story sites and compilations.
 
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Elizabeth George's book Write Away