‘The First Sally (A) or Trurl’s Electronic Bard’ by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

Pulling together my own personal anthology of short stories made me think for the first time in a really long time about the world literature textbook I had in my first year of high school, which is when I first started reading literature from a lot of different places and not just those interminable books about boys and their dogs they make you read in middle school (Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller). It was in this textbook, which I loved, that I came across Stanislaw Lem, through his story ‘The First Sally (A) or Trurl’s Electronic Bard’. I thought it was so hilarious that I immediately borrowed The Cyberiad from the bookstore where I worked. (I was surprised they had it, because it was a bookstore in a suburban mall full of Oprah’s picks and true crime and Christian books.) I was more into the absurd as a teenager than I am now, but I have a lot of nostalgia for the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two robotic engineers who go on adventures across the universe. And literature-writing machines, the subject of this story, have been on my mind since I read John Seabrook’s piece in the Oct 14 New Yorker, ‘The Next Word: Where will predictive text take us?

First published in Polish in 1965. First published in English in The Cyberiad – Fables for the Cybernetic Age, Secker and Warburg, 1975. Currently available from Penguin Modern Classics, 2014

‘Spider Lilies’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Juliet Winter Carpenter / ‘Night Journey’ by Taeko Kono, translated by Lucy North

If we’re continuing with the autobiographical thread for now—which we are because I am doing this the day before it’s meant to be sent out to you, showing I haven’t changed much from my high-school self—then here are some Japanese short stories, because I taught English in Japan for two years after college. I had read Murakami in middle school, encouraged by a Russian friend just as zany, who had the most fun and drunken bat mitzvah I had ever been to, and we had to take two languages at my high school, so I took French and Japanese. I tried reading Murakami untranslated a few times, but I could never be sure if I was reading correctly and there really was a talking cat or a vanishing woman or if I was getting my verbs and subjects wrong. It wasn’t until much later that I read work by Japanese women writers like these two stories. Both are creepy in their own way – Hiroko Oyamada’s ‘Spider Lilies’ is about the deceit that lies beneath the surface of family stories, and Taeko Kono’s ‘Night Journey’ is the story of a couple who are on their way to visit another couple when their evening takes a strange turn.

‘Spider Lilies’ first published in English in 2014 in Granta 127: Japan, April 2014 and available for subscribers to read online here.

‘Night Journey’ originally published in Japanese in 1963. First published in English in Toddler Hunting, New Directions, 1996, and in a revised edition, 2018

‘The Red-Headed Miss Daintreys’ by Rosamond Lehmann

Not sure how long this story-of-my-life-through-short-stories is going to last, but the author of the next story is one I discovered while writing my doctoral dissertation on how abortion is represented in British fiction and film (soon coming to an academic library near you). Rosamond Lehmann’s 1936 The Weather in the Streets was one of the most fantastic things I read during my dissertation and it’s always top of my recommendation list. Lehmann wrote mainly novels, but during WWII she wrote some short stories, including this one, and it shares a lot of the concerns of her novels: the deft, economical character sketches, the retrospective structure, the nostalgia for Edwardian Britain. 

Collected in The Gypsy’s Baby, Collins, 1946, which has been a Virago Modern Classic and is currently available from Hesperus Press, 2007

‘Joanne Wilson’ by Pat Barker

I started reading a lot more about WWI when I moved to the UK from the US, and that’s how I came across Pat Barker. The Regeneration Trilogy is great, but I also really like her first book, an interlinked series of seven stories, each named for a woman living in a working-class community in the Northeast during the 1970s. She thought it was too depressing and too much about women to be published—she had been trying to write “middle-class novels of manners” — and it took her ten years to find a publisher (go Virago!) even with the encouragement of Angela Carter, who told her “If they can’t sympathise with the women you’re creating, then sod their fucking luck.” It was finally published in 1982. I could choose any one of these seven stories, but I went with the second, ‘Joanne Wilson’, because of its vivid depiction of factory life. 

First published in Union Street, Virago 1982. It has since been published as a Virago Modern Classic and in collected in a combined edition with Blow Your House Down by Picador, 1999

‘The Isabel Fish’ by Julie Orringer

The first novel I ever reviewed was The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, and I did not love it because all the challenges in the novel arose from the situation, not the psyches of the main characters themselves. But I did like her recent novel, The Flight Portfolio, and also her first book, the short story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which included some beautifully-told stories from the perspective of children, like this one, in which a girl tries to get over bereavement by learning to swim. 

First published in the Yale Review, Vol 91, Issue 3, July 2003. Collected in How to Breathe Underwater, Knopf 2003, which is now available as a Vintage Contemporary, 2005

‘Sultana’s Dream’ by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

I came across this short story while doing my PhD and thought it was fascinating to read a SF story about a society that flips patriarchy on its head, making women dominant while the men are locked up in purdah, and even more fascinating still since it’s like a less eugenicist version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland but came out in 1905, ten years earlier. And the amazing women in this story invent solar power and helicopters. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a Muslim feminist and social reformer.

First published in English in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, 1905, and available here

‘Kew Gardens’ by Virginia Woolf

I taught ‘Kew Gardens’ to undergrads and even they liked it. I’ll just quote it: 

Even when she wondered what sort of tea they gave you at Kew, he felt that something loomed up behind her words, and stood vast and solid behind them; and the mist very slowly rose and uncovered–O, Heavens, what were those shapes?–little white tables, and waitresses who looked first at her and then at him; and there was a bill that he would pay with a real two shilling piece, and it was real, all real, he assured himself, fingering the coin in his pocket, real to everyone except to him and to her; even to him it began to seem real; and then–but it was too exciting to stand and think any longer, and he pulled the parasol out of the earth with a jerk and was impatient to find the place where one had tea with other people, like other people.

First published privately in 1919, then in the collection Monday or Tuesday, The Hogarth Press, 1921. Widely available since, including as a standalone edition from Kew Publications, 2015, and in the Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000

‘Big Bear, California’ by Rebecca Curtis

I read this collection after a friend quoted a character on dining out: I wanted to go home, but more than that I wanted dinner. I had not eaten dinner in months. I wanted to choose my food from a list of food.Curtis keeps a kind of deadpan that highlights the alarming situations her protagonists get into. 

First published in Harper’s Magazine, July, 2002 and available to subscribers here. Collected in Twenty Grand, Harper Perennial, 2007

‘Republica and Grau’ by Daniel Alarcón

Another story from the point of view of a child – that seems to be kind of a theme here. I love the dialogue in this story and the pacing and the details. And you can listen to Levar Burton read it out loud. 

First published in The New Yorker, October 2006 and available to read online here. Collected in The King is Always Above the People, Riverhead Books, 2017/Fourth Estate, 2018

‘Zimmer Land’ by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This entire SF-ish collection is intriguing and disturbing, and the title story is certainly also worth a read. I chose this one because it uses that uber-American setting of a theme park to confront violence and identity in interesting ways, much like another story Levar Burton reads aloud—’Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™’ by Rebecca Roanhorse, which you can consider a bonus. 

First published in Friday Black, Mariner Books 2018/riverrun, 2019

‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Again, another great SF-ish collection. I love how this particular story just plunges you in and leaves you to make sense of things. I’ll leave you with the first two sentences:

The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking the little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. By the time she noticed, it was too late, the leg a tangle of fiber, and she pulled the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the infant grow up maimed.

First published in The New Yorker, October 2015 and available to read hereWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Penguin Random House, 2017