Ten favorite short stories

This post was begun a few months ago in response to a meme, the progenitor of which I can locate no longer. The draft has been changing repeatedly and I couldn’t decide whether to publish a list or to say a few words about each item. Moderate verbosity won, and here is the list of 10 stories that I loved when I read them, and still do. If I was able to find the story online, a link is provided. There are some introductions but no spoilers.

After Twenty Years – O. Henry: We had this in our English textbook in middle school. It is a story about two men who make an appointment to meet after twenty years to compare notes about where life has led them.

Dusk – (Saki) H. H. Munro: A delightfully funny story of how life takes Norman Gortsby for a ride in Hyde Park.

The Monkey’s Paw – W.W. Jacobs: Another story from a curricular text, this one gave me the creeps even in broad daylight in a classroom full of students. The plot centers around a talismanic primate paw which can be used to gain the fulfillment of three wishes, each at a horrible price.

Rain – W. Somerset Maugham: One of Somerset Maugham’s most famous stories, Rain tells of a Christian missionary who tries to convert a prostitute named Sadie Thomson. (The story has been adapted on film and stage, with the role of Sadie played first by Gloria Swanson, then by Joan Crawford and again by Rita Hayworth.)

Antu Barava – P. L. Deshpande (Pu La): Many Marathi readers know of Vyakti Ani Valli, a series of poignant character sketches which capture the good and the not-so-good aspects of life in Maharashtra (my home state, located in Western India) told with the humor and wistfulness that have made the late Pu La a household name in the state. Antu Barava is a cynical, acid-tongued, old villager of failing body and razor-sharp intellect who, nevertheless, captures the heart. It is very difficult to choose among the characters in Vyakti ani Valli; each is so beautifully sketched.

Anthem – Ayn Rand: A novella, rather than a short story, but still readable in a short sitting. This could be considered as a sort of distillation of the themes of Ayn Rand’s more famous works, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Though the Randian outlook does not hold the austere, heroic charm that it held for me when I was nineteen, I would still recommend Anthem as a strong, concise and romantic view of objectivism.

To Build a Fire – Jack London: Very similar in spirit to his other, longer tales of the difficulties faced by man and beast in the cold, snow-covered North. A clear-eyed, but horrifying story about a man who attempts to build a fire to keep himself and his husky dog alive.

The Upper Berth – F. Marion Crawford: A scary yarn about the experiences of a man wonderfully named “Brisbane”. Much like Conrad’s adventure-hardened Marlow, Brisbane finds a receptive audience and narrates a story about how he once endured a few weird nights in a ship’s cabin. Dampness and an open porthole could seldom evoke such terror as they do in this story.

The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe: A very short Gothic story about a man who commits murder and is plagued by a guilty conscience. I love Edgar Allan Poe. My sister and I once scared ourselves out of our wits while watching The Pit and the Pendulum on TV.

A Temporary Matter – Jhumpa Lahiri: This is the first of nine stories that make up Interpreter of Maladies. A couple tries to deal with all that has gone wrong with their relationship.

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Two by Russo

I just read two wonderful short stories from Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child. The first, from which the book gets its name, tells the story of a nun who, during the course of a writing class, discovers unexpectedly, something that she had never suspected about her parents – something that completely overturns the assumptions she has held for decades. A worthy prototype for a short story with a shocking ending, like Maugham’s incredible Rain.

Joy Ride, the second story – and the one I liked more – tells of a mother who abandons her husband and takes her twelve-year-old son on what is to become a road trip across the United States. Throughout, the reader is aware that this venture will not end well, that the flight would turn out to be “devoid of glory”. Russo seems to understand his characters deeply, and perhaps that is why he is so accomplished at fleshing them out in so few words. Years later, the reader discovers, mother and son have completely different recollections of the joy ride from hell. I loved this, because it is so true in real life; that, as unbelievable as it seems to oneself, one’s memories of an experience can be morphed by time into a sequence of events that never really took place.

Updike short story

John Updike has a moving short story titled My Father’s Tears in February’s New Yorker. Here is how it begins:

Come to think of it, I saw my father cry only once. It was at the Alton train station, back when the trains still ran. I was on my way to Philadelphia to catch the train that would return me to Boston and college. I was eager to go, for already my home and my parents had become somewhat unreal to me, and college, with its courses and the hopes for my future they inspired and the girlfriend I had acquired in my sophomore year, had become more real every semester; it shocked me—threw me off track, as it were—to see that my father’s eyes, as he shook my hand goodbye, glittered with tears.

Elsewhere in the same issue, John Lanchester writes in a review piece called Pursuing Happiness:

Risk-taking Ig and worried Og both would have regarded our easy, long, riskless lives with incredulous envy. They would have regarded us as so lucky that questions about our state of mind wouldn’t be worth asking. It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.