I could select any number of Kevin Barry stories for the joy they create from his use of language. Here, an unnamed twentysomething narrator wrestles with himself as he tries to figure out how to make the first move on a young woman he has desired for at least three months which for him seems an eternity. The story is filmic and the camera is close up, so close that we see the “opaque down of her bare arms, each strand curling like a comma at its tip.” After a kiss that doesn’t take, the young woman leaves and his heart opens and takes in “every black poison the morning could offer.”
From Dark Lies the Island, Graywolf Press/Jonathan Cape, 2012. Available to read online at pen.org
Bock’s collection of linked stories draws on imaginary outtakes of Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics to unite the stories of post-war German immigrants. ‘The Wedding’ is my favourite. Narrator Peter’s grandparents decide to renew their vows for their 35th anniversary. Olympians themselves, they were in the stands when sprinter Jesse Owens changed the course of history. We know from the opening sentence that something has gone awry, everyone subdued from the night drive home from the lake where they “have been for the last day and a half, sorting out details with the police.” Quietly and masterfully shifting between present and past, the story becomes a photograph itself.
From Olympia, Doubleday Canada, 1998
City night life is in vibrant relief in this tale about Booker, a man who buys two or three books a week and reads them in the early mornings by the window of his cheap waterfront flat. At night he breaks loose to prance and play, “cool as the breeze on Lake Louise.” He meets the new club singer, Empress Angel Eyes, who tells him “everybody wants to break your heart like Piaf except she breaks your heart better.” The two do a flirtatious dance that ends with them tumbling into bed after plenty of boozing. He looks to the book titles on her shelf above her bed and not finding anything to get his mind and body going in the way she anticipates, Booker disappoints. In disgust, Angel tosses his clothes in the hallway and Booker follows them, naked and laughing at himself and I laugh along with him.
From All the Lonely People, Exile Editions 2018
I’ve taught this early feminist piece many times, mostly to adolescent boys, who appreciate all of the twists and the way Chopin manipulates the reader’s emotions as the tone shifts. The narrative drives to its pitch-perfect ending: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.”
First published in Vogue, December 6, 1894. Widely collected, including in The Awakening and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics. Available to read online at katechopin.org
This perfectly constructed story emerged out of a writing workshop Choy took with Carol Shields. She put the names of colours on scraps of paper and had each student select one at random to use in the short fiction they’d write. Choy plucked pink. He was staying with his aunts. They had peonies blossoming in their Vancouver garden. Some of them were pink. The colour appears several times in the story, the pink eyes of a white cat, the eyes like pale fire of the albino juggler, the pink, blushing towards red, of the piece of jade that grandmother Poh Poh gives to her grandson Sek-lung, a talisman, that after her death seems to beat “like a beautiful cramped heart.”
Often anthologized, appearing as chapter 9 in the novel The Jade Peony, Douglas and McIntyre 1995. Available to read online at sundayat6mag)
When I was researching my book about Martha Gellhorn in her restricted personal papers in Boston, I discovered many stories she never submitted for publication. ‘Requiem’ is about abortion. She wrote on the manuscript pages that she thought it was written in 1931. In December 1930, Gellhorn returned to the United States from living abroad in Paris for most of the year. She was pregnant and felt like a failure at 22. In January 1931, she had an abortion in Chicago. Just as she would write unflinchingly about what she saw and heard during the Spanish Civil War and WWII, Gellhorn turns the lens on her own experience in unforgiving detail, but manages to evade self-pity. With the permission of Gellhorn’s literary executor, I included this astonishing story at the end of my book.
Written 1931. First published in Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949, Firefly Books 2019
What is remarkable to me about this Hemingway story is how timeless the exchange is between the characters. And, how Hemingway trusts the reader’s intelligence to figure out what is going on in that train station by what is not being said. There is the story and then there is the experience that each reader brings to it. And, it is interesting that final words belong to the girl: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Has her lover convinced her to do what he wants? Each re-reading, I change my mind.
First published in transition August 1927 and in the collection Men Without Women, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1927. Widely anthologized
Moore’s story is a hybrid form that includes screenplay scenes which are scaffolded on top of a poem, John Steffler’s ‘The Green Insect’. When trapped, the insect “unwound its history, ran out its spring in kicks” just as the protagonist does. There’s a dinner party where a guest opens a bottle of champagne with a machete, a provocative reason to introduce yourself to Moore’s imaginative landscapes.
From Open, Anansi, 2002
Truly, I could write about any Munro story based on the vibrant and convincing interior lives she constructs for her characters. And, although there is also her well-known story about Alzheimer’s, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ (adapted by Sarah Polley for the screen as Away From Her), this one is a curare dart to the heart. Such exquisite beauty and pain.
First published in Granta 118: Exit Strategies, 2012, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Dear Life, McClelland & Stewart/Chatto & Windus, 2012
The way Salinger calibrates the different voices of the characters in this story from the nagging mother, to the bored young married daughter Muriel, to Muriel’s war-damaged husband Seymour, to Sybil, the child at the beach, always strikes me as masterful. Sybil, for example, says “my daddy’s coming tomorrow on a nairiplane” and “I like to chew candles.” Like any five-year-old would, she stomps on a sagging sandcastle as she runs down the beach. The tripartite structure of the story creates tension and serves the pace, and you have to read right through to the final phrase to know what happens to whom.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1948, and available online to subscribers here. Collected in Nine Stories, Little, Brown, 1953
If you’ve read Ezra Pound’s ‘In A Station of the Metro’ the lasting image of the white pallbearer’s gloves on a wooden casket will be familiar. What is extraordinary, to me, about this story is the way Winter handles grief and folds time back in on itself with aplomb.
From One Last Good Look, Porcupine’s Quill, 1999
Zdybel’s first collection is the best domestic short fiction, each phrase so aptly tuned to emotion, that I’ve read since Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. Her incisive, pared-down prose and her insight into family life and friendship mark her as a writer to watch in the years to come. In this story, a twentysomething woman discovers her own notion of feminine sexuality while skinny-dipping with her best friend’s mother during a thunderstorm.
First published in The New Quarterly, Fall 2018 and in the collection Equipoise, Exile Editions 2021