Short Fiction : Gems from the North Carolina Digital Library

As a reader, I’ll read fiction and nonfiction in approximately equal amounts.  And when I just have snippets of time to indulge, short stories are hard to beat.

The North Carolina Digital Library has you covered if your yen for fiction goes for the shorter works, and whittling down your search to short story specifics is easy – just click on the Subjects link on the upper left hand side, and then scroll down to the link for short stories, and you’re there.  You can sort by popularity, author, title, and more.

Here are some suggested titles to get you going.  Some of the authors you might recognize.  Included are collections by specific authors and some anthologies (collected works by different authors).   Genres include general fiction, westerns,  science fiction/fantasy, and mystery.  This list is not comprehensive, but a jumping off point for further reading adventures.

Dear Life by Alice Munro – winner of the Nobel Prize in 2013, Canadian writer  Munro continues honing her craft of the short story in this collection.

Ford County by John Grisham – proof that the writer of courtroom thrillers can try  his hand at shorter fiction, and succeed.

The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 edited by John Joseph Adams and Carmen Maria Machado – sometimes you might want to switch up your authors, and have your reading to be more…otherworldly.

Tenth of December by George Saunders – the acclaimed author in Lincoln in the Bardo shows his prowess in the short story form.

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler – two stories previously unpublished by the author of Kindred and Parable of the Sower.  Also, take a look at Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Law of the Desert Born by Louis L’Amour –  for those readers who like the Western genre – the king of them all shines in this collection.

For the Sake of the Game edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger – this anthology reimagines the world of Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of a variety of authors, who either stick to the Holmes/Watson script, or go off on their own tangents.

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – another collection of speculative fiction, with an emphasis on new visions for our country.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch – the author writes of children, outcasts, and the desperate in this startling collection.

Where the Light Falls : Selected Stories of Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff – mid-twentieth century writer Hale gets her due in these twenty five tales that showcase the talent of a writer who won several O. Henry awards in her time.

As I mentioned before, this is not a comprehensive list of short story collections, but a beginning point for lovers of short fiction.  All of these and more are part of the ebook collection of the North Carolina Digital Library, accessible through the Greensboro Public Library.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Suicide Woods : Stories by Benjamin Percy

Suicide WoodsA pandemic.  House burglaries.  Suicide support groups – what do they all have in common?

All of these play a part in Suicide Woods, an unsettling collection of short fiction that at first glance appears to be horror, but turns out to be something more uncanny and speculative.

The author’s writing style is highly accessible; you’ll get drawn quickly into his eerie worlds.  What you won’t get are tidy endings; most of these end with an unearthly “what if?” cliff edge.

Some examples include:  “The Cold Boy”, in which a man’s nephew survives a near drowning, but has new extreme needs, “The Dummy”, a tale of a female wrestling enthusiast whose harasser makes the wrong move, with the wrong opponent, “The Balloon”, in which two survivors of a horrific plague have to pin their hopes on a barely floating mylar balloon, and “The Uncharted”, where an unknown corner of Alaska keeps its own secrets and eliminates those who dare to explore it.  And there are others…

I wasn’t sure what to make of Suicide Woods, and still don’t, after reading it.  As I mentioned before, horror seems to be the game here, but yet it isn’t entirely.  Some stories are fantastical (“Heart of a Bear”, “The Mud Man”) where others throw commentary on the horrors of the modern world (“Writs of Possession”).

Percy’s writing style is a plus – highly descriptive of the natural world, but not too much to burden the story line.  He also can ratchet a story up very quickly, with the turn of a phrase.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Every True Pleasure : LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina edited by Wilton Barnhardt

every true pleasureHigh school crushes.  Transitioning husbands.  Bitter homecomings – these are but a few of the topics covered in Every True Pleasure, an anthology of short stories and essays written by LGBTQ authors either from North Carolina or associated with the state.  Writers vary from well known (David Sedaris, Allan Gurganus) to up-in-coming.

Here are a few examples of the contents – In Michael Parker’s “Pete and Daniel”, two brothers drink together as one of them plies the other for details on a potentially incriminating encounter.  In Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s “Love The Soldier”, a policewoman has to contend with a future deployment to the Middle East as she navigates her sexuality and mourns her older brother.  In Belle Boggs’ “Jonas”, the main character uses therapy to negotiate her feelings between a transitioning husband and a religious daughter who will barely talk to her.  And in Penelope Robbins’ “Girlfriend”, a young wife chafes against her domestic life as she remembers a young love from high school and then meets her friend, decimated by disease, years later in Europe.

Our protagonists run the spectrum of the LGBTQ experience.  They are straight-laced school superintendents, supporting wives, occasionally victims of abuse.  They represent different ethnicities, different social statuses.  One story here (“Rabbit Heart”) even delves into speculative fiction.

Consider Every True Pleasure for your reading list in this last week of Pride Month.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Last Stories by William Trevor

William Trevor’s career as a writer was long and prolific.  Although better known as alast stories novelist, Trevor also wrote copiously in the short story format.

In this collection, unwelcome situations are a strong theme.  Whether it is the tolerance of theft, an affair not wanted, or a pushy person who somehow inspires empathy, a sense of intrusion provides the tension here.  Despite this, Trevor’s approach to  storytelling is subtle, and often you have to ponder what has just happened.

In “Making Conversation,” unwanted encounters with an obsessed married man put the main character in strange crosshairs with the man’s estranged wife.  In “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” the teacher in question finds that witnessing the brilliant talent of her student comes at a small price with each lesson.  “At the Caffè Daria” brings us a jilted wife as she takes in the news, from his last lover, of her husband’s death,.  And in “Mrs. Crasthorpe,” a widow determined to make the most of her inheritance flirts with a younger widower and struggles with an unhinged son.

There are ten stories in all.  If you are all about high action, these probably aren’t for you.  But, if good writing and subtlety is what you crave, then give Last Stories a look.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger published a relatively small body of written work; Catcher in the Rye isNineStories easily the best known of his writings.

Salinger developed his writing chops with the short story format, and this collection showcases some of his best.

In these stories, his characters range from chatty to self-absorbed to war-damaged.  Nine Stories was published in 1953, and there’s a definite post-war feel to most of these, although in For Esmé – With Love and Squalor, World War II is front and center, in its telling of a damaged soldier and his chance encounter with a teenage girl in England right before he is sent off to fight.

Other characters are moneyed socialites, enlightened ten-year olds, and delusional would-be artists.  To be honest, very few of them are sympathetic people.  Some of them are downright contentious, but come to think about it, was Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye likeable?  Not really, but the book is still worth reading, as are these.

My favorites – For Esmé – With Love and Squalor and The Laughing Man, with its story-within-a-story setup and whimsical rendering of a tale-telling troop leader.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain by Don Waters

saints of rattlesnake mountainFaith and Catholicism are major themes in this group of stories largely set in the American Southwest, although I don’t think you have to be a Catholic to appreciate the writing.  The characters in this collection are not what I would call mainstream – Waters tells of prisoners, middle-aged surfers, terminally ill expats, and others, some on a search for meaning, and on occasion, on the run from reality.

In the title story, Emmett is a “trustee” – a prisoner who is allowed out of the cell block to do hazardous herding work, in this case corralling a group of wild Mustang horses.  The wide open-ness of his surroundings and his limited freedom bother Emmett almost as much as confinement and eventual taming bother the horses.  In “Day of the Dead,” our terminally ill protagonist heads to Ciudad Juarez for a suicide pact with a priest, and finds that he’s not quite ready to watch someone else die.  In “Full of Days,” an anti-abortionist in Las Vegas wants to save the word according to an inspired sign he’s created, but finds that successes aren’t ever guaranteed.  And in “Last Rites,” a poor kid finds salvation of a sort from skateboarding and altar boy duties with his well-off best friend.

And there’s much more.

None of the stories here are “easy”.  Death, risk, and occasionally disfigurement all play parts in Waters’ world of fiction.  I found it hard to find any of these a feel-good story.  What you will find in The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain is lyrical writing about the underbelly of life in the Southwest – the author provides gritty but accessible voices to other worlds beyond the tourist havens and the casinos.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier

Reader, I Married Him is a short story collection that borrows from the generalreader i married him premise of Jane Eyre.  The title phrase is in reference to the character of Jane Eyre addressing her reader from time to time within the narrative of the novel.

Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, but like the short story format, you’ll probably enjoy Reader, I Married Him.  Writers such as Tracy Chevalier, Lionel Shriver, Emma Donoghue, and others have crafted stories here that either stick closely to the theme of Jane Eyre, or contain elements of it but go off into their own universes.

In Joanna Briscoe’s “To Hold”, a twice-married woman falls for another, then marries still another, a union of fate as it were, or revenge; In Jane Gardam’s “It’s a Man’s Life, Ladies”, the narrator observes the relationship of her grandmother to her seafaring grandfather and the secrets of making that marriage work; in Lionel Shriver’s “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”, love, or satisfaction comes through the demise of a vexing tree; in Elizabeth McCracken’s “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark”, the older of two dads has a change of heart after their child comes into danger; and in the story that shares the collection’s title, Susan Hill retells the woes of a famous royal scandal.  And there are many more.

As with all short story collections, it’s doable to get in a story or two as time allows, and to skip around.  The only problem with this is making sure you have read them all – and you’ll want to read them all in this excellent collection.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Signals by Tim Gautreaux

I have been aware of Tim Gautreaux for some time.  His novels The Clearing and The MissingSignals were both great reading; they showcase a time in the early 20th century when places in the Deep South and Mississippi River were frontiers in themselves.

Signals is a hefty collection of his short fiction (some new; some previously published).  Most take place in Gautreaux’s home state of Louisiana.  Others take on Minnesota and North Carolina, and most appear to take place in a latter-day time or recent past.

Gautreaux’s characters inhabit seemingly mundane lives but find themselves in a struggle to maintain the mundane.  In “Easy Pickings”, a small time crook holds an older lady hostage but has to reckon with her card-playing neighbors; in “What We Don’t See in the Light”, our main character moves far away from his family to repair his work-damaged lungs; in “The Piano Tuner”, a slightly deranged young lady has a gift for the keyboard but has to leave her crumbling house in order to prove it, and in “Wings”, a widow has to rediscover her dead husband through prompting from the neighbor across the street.

These are just a small sample – there’s plenty here for a short story junkie.  There’s lots of sadness here, some twisted humor, and several jaw-dropping endings.  And with endorsements from the likes of Ron Rash and Annie Proulx, you can’t go wrong with Signals.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The People in the Castle : Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken

To say the least, Joan Aiken was prolific.  In her eighty years, she wrote children’s and people in the castleyoung adult books, Jane Austen sequels, all kinds of genres – over a hundred books in all, many of them short story collections.

This one gleans from the short fiction Aiken wrote throughout her long career.  The selections included range from ghost stories to almost traditional fairy tale fare, all of them written with a quick wit and a great sense of uncanniness.

In “A Leg Full of Rubies,” a stranger with an owl inherits an even stranger business, along with a foul-tempered phoenix and a curse.  In “Lob’s Girl,” a dog’s devotion to his young mistress transcends distance and death.  In “Some Music for the Wicked Countess,” sometimes composing in the avant-garde can save you from the lures of the fairy world.  And in “The Last Specimen,” a country rector finds just the right sample of flower for a strange visitor to his church, and just in time.

There’s twenty stories here to enjoy and puzzle over, and maybe not read before bed.  For the quality of writing and imagination, I’d put Aiken on par with Saki and Roald  Dahl, and maybe even Ray Bradbury, all of them masters of the odd and unnerving.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Jess Walter writes stories of the down-and-out, swindlers, deadbeat dads, and… zombies?we live in water

Yes – that and more, in this collection of short stories by the author of Beautiful Ruins.  Walter, a native of Washington State, bases most of his stories here and other places in the Northwest.  His characters are damaged by the ravages of drugs, bad relationships, unemployment, and sometimes a combination of all these.  Their predicaments are often horrible, but humor still laces these tales of woe.

In the title story, a man relives through flashbacks the last time he saw his father, a ne’er do well who hopes for dignity to the bitter end.  The family man in “Thief” suspects the worst of his three kids when the family vacation fund dwindles.  A con doing community service in “The Wolf and the Wild” discovers the refuge of a child’s favorite book.  And in the aforementioned zombie story “Don’t Eat Cat”, the main character ponders his own future as he searches for his ex-girlfriend, who was a victim of a club drug that changes its users into something not quite human.  And there’s others here.

I’m always trawling for different authors and was pleasantly surprised by Jess Walter.  He writes in an earthy and humorous manner and isn’t afraid to tackle some pretty tough subjects.  That he places many of his stories in his native Spokane says volumes – he obviously has a strong regard for his hometown, but doesn’t hesitate to point out some of its grittier elements.  Jess takes some pretty solid jabs at Seattle and Portland, too, just to remind us that there’s a seamier side to even those idealized cities.

(William Hicks, Information Services)