short stories

I’m pretty exacting when it comes to short stories. Either they please me quick, or I bail out.

I want a plot. I want characters whose voices are loud and clear. They don’t have to be likable, but they’ve got to engage my interest somehow. I want to be enchanted or amused or shocked or furious, all those things at once, if possible. Many classic short stories leave me cold, so don’t be surprised that you won’t find James Joyce on this list or (cough) Hemingway. Don’t misunderstand: subtle is just fine and dandy, as long as it still comes with a plot attached. The list is in the Extended Body below.

Of those stories I’ve mentioned, I would have to say that Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne” is as close as it comes to perfect, in my view of things. This short story has been filmed as a part of the Issues of Aging Curated Video Collection (actors Theresa Merritt as Hazel and Bill Cobbs as Bovanne).

I’d be interested to hear from you if you know any of these stories and have an opinion. Oh, and: I’ve given you more than one place to find the story, if I have that information available.

ALLEN, WOODY. The Kugelmass Episode
New Yorker May 2 1977
Worlds of Fiction ed. Roberta Rubenstein & Charles R. Larson, MacMillan College Division 1993

ATWOOD, MARGARET. Rape Fantasies
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991
Fiction: A Longman Pocket Anthology ed. R. S. Gwynn, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1998

We Are the Stories We Tell: The Best Short Stories by North American Women Since 1945 ed. Wendy Martin, Pantheon Books 1990
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

Epoch 1985
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

BLOOM, AMY The Story
The Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E. L. Doctorow, Houghton Mifflin 2000

GODWIN, GAIL Dream Children
The Harper Anthology of Fiction, ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

JACOBS, W. W. The Monkey’s Paw
Harper’s Monthly Sep 1902
Olden Tales ed. Bradford M. Day, Hillsville, VA: DayStar Press 1996

KING, STEPHEN The Reach AKA “Do the Dead Sing”
Yankee Nov 1981
American Short Stories (7th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Longman 2001

OATES, JOYCE CAROL Extenuating Circumstances
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
New York: Dutton 1994

O’BRIEN, TIM The Things They Carried
Esquire Aug 1986
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

MUNRO, ALICE Friend of My Youth
New Yorker Jan 22 1990
Short Fiction ed. Charles H. Bohner & Dean Dougherty, Prentice Hall 1999

ROSENFELD, STEPHANIE Grasp Special Comb and
in her collection of short stories: What About the Love Part Ballantine 2002



Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the
{theater/writing/storytelling} business.
The natural condition is one of
insurmountable obstacles on the road
to imminent disaster.

So what do we do?

Nothing. Strangely enough, it all
turns out well.


I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

from Shakespeare in Love, by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

head lice. no really.


When I was fiction editor at the Bellingham Review (short stay; long story), I got a submission called “How I Went: (A Recipe for Lime Curd)”. I did something very unusual: I called the author immediately to accept it, for fear that somebody else would take it first. The author is Stephanie Rosenfeld, and she was struggling to get started at that point.

That was 1999. Now she’s got a collection of short stories out there and a new novel (Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu), both of which are on the top of one of my to-be-read piles. The one closest to the bed.
Stephanie’s stories are very good, but one of them has always stayed with me. It’s called “Grasp Special Comb” and it’s about a mother’s reaction to her daughter’s head lice.
Continue reading “head lice. no really.”

The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett

[asaleft]0156006219[/asa] There’s a book I wanted to say something about when I first started this blog, but I didn’t. I think because I was afraid of somehow trivializing it. But I’m going to try now.

Somebody handed me The Magician’s Assistant, or I probably would never have read it. It was one of those fateful, off hand gestures. She mentioned the book, and left it on my doorstep. I had nothing else to read just then (or nothing I wanted to read, more to the point) so I started it right away.

This novel is a work of art. Like any work of art, not everyone will appreciate it, but to me it is as close to perfect as a novel gets, in its own particular way. It’s about a woman who has lost her husband, and in the process of grieving learns more about him and herself than she ever imagined. Now, if somebody told me that about a novel, I wouldn’t be in a rush to read it. Doesn’t sound like my kind of story. But it is. Might be yours, too.

One word of caution: it probably won’t appeal to people who feel most comfortable defining ‘family’ in traditional terms.

In this short excerpt Kitty, Sabine’s sister-in-law, takes her to Wal-Mart. Sabine is a dyed in the wool Los Angelina, and this is a new experience for her. In this short scene (you only get a little of it here), you come to understand almost everything about Kitty’s life and world.

On the curb was a soda machine, all drinks a quarter. Kitty leaned in towards Sabine as they pushed open the glass-and-metal doors. The warm air smelled like popcorn and Coke. It smelled like a carnival wearing new clothes. An older woman in a blue tunic who seemed to be patterned on Dot, the same plastic glasses and gray curls, the same roundness, pushed out a shopping cart for them to take. She greeted Kitty by name.

“I buy books here,” Kitty said. “I buy my shampoo and underwear and cassette tapes and potato chips, sheeets and towels and motor oil.” There was something in her tone, so low and conspiratorial, that Sabine put her gloved hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

“Why?” Sabine said. “Why?”