‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O Henry

This, by O Henry, is an American classic Christmas story. He wasn’t a fabulous writer, but he was a potent writer, famous for his ‘surprise’ endings. Even as I winced at its clunkiness, I found a little tear forming in my eye at the finish.

First published in The New York Sunday World in 1905 and widely collected. Available to read online here. Chosen by Lee Randall


I grew up in an American suburb, reading short stories. In the 1980s I worked in trade publishing in New York. If you remember the publishing scene then, short stories were having a moment. Recreationally, I read them in the New Yorker, in The Atlantic, and Harper’s. I participated in multi-week story workshops run by Madison Smartt Bell, Susan Minot, and Christopher Reeves’ father. My home contains several long, overstocked shelves filled with single author and group anthologies. Long story short (ahem), the form is a vital part of my reading DNA.

Being a woman of taste and discernment, I love every short story writer you’d expect me to love. I still cherish the hug I got from Lorrie Moore. I bow before Donald Barthelme, Mavis Gallant, Tessa Hadley, Damon Runyon, the Elizabeths — Taylor and McCracken — not to mention Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and oh gosh, many more.

One of the delights of subscribing to these letters is hearing about authors I’m unfamiliar with, or who’d slipped from immediate memory. I thought I’d try to choose 12 who’d have that effect on you. Then I thought I’d follow a clever theme. Then I decided I’d just choose any 12 and maybe one day, return to choose another 12, and later, another 12. I could do this once a month for a year without repetitions.

‘Why I Live at the PO’ by Eudora Welty

Families are mad, maddening organisms. Though I can’t remember why — we’d probably had a row — I know my mother made me read Eudora Welty’s much-anthologised masterpiece when I was a teenager. It knocked me sideways, and took me two goes to understand. It was the first time, textbooks aside, that I recall being stymied by something difficult to read, and was probably my introduction to the baroque cadences of Southern writing, which I instantly adored.

First published in A Curtain of Green (1941). You can read it online here

‘Tiger Bites’ by Lucia Berlin

Berlin is a new favourite of mine. The anthology is chock full of wonders, but when I think of the book and all it contains, my mind’s eye conjures the image of a beautiful woman standing up inside a convertible. Revisiting Tiger Bites, I see it’s a cousin to Welty’s story. The pace is as hectic, the characters as engagingly off the wall. Here, too, a woman without resources is forced to return to her family, child in tow, following the collapse of her marriage. Events go off — wildly so — in unexpected directions. It’s the matter-of-factness of Berlin’s characters, and their ability to accept one another (in circumstances that would drive others into therapy), that catches me every time.

Available in A Manual for Cleaning Women, published by Picador in 2015

‘Love and Death in Brighams’ by John L’Heureux

I discovered L’Heureux by accident, via his story ‘The Comedian’, in The Atlantic Monthly. Many years later, I found out he’d taught David Vann, and we bonded over our mutual appreciation. L’Heureux’s written often about marriage. This one, though, is about the process of writing, as much as it’s the tale of a married couple and a feisty old bat. I’m a sucker for stories that heckle themselves, and this is full of asides about  the decision-making process that is writing. It’s fabulous.

Published in Desires (US edition is Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1981). The collection is available to borrow here

‘Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages’ by Amy Bloom

Rejoice! Amy Bloom has a new novel coming this spring. She’s a hero of mine. Until then, try this story, which is a snapshot of a middle aged couple — not beautiful, not thin, not mocked for this — surprised to find themselves rewriting the scripts for four lives. It’s about companionable love and sex. It is a story for grown ups.

Published in Ploughshares in Fall 2002; anthologised in Where the God of Love Hangs Out, published by Granta, 2010. 

‘The Most Beautiful Dress in the World’ by Shena Mackay

A frazzled, formerly alcoholic writer, frustrated by LIFE and her inability to work, tries to do a good deed, but in the process ruins a vintage dress, and. . . well, I don’t want to spoil the hilarious, horrifying final lines for you.

Anthologised in The Atmospheric Railway (Jonathan Cape, 2008). Also available via Vintage Digital, The Most Beautiful Dress in the World / Cardboard City (Storycuts), November 2011. 

‘The Thistles in Sweden’ by William Maxwell

This is a sublime story about marriage, about gender roles, about disappointment. I adore the oh-so-precise description of his apartment in Murray Hill. It makes me wildly nostalgic for a Manhattan I missed out on knowing, since the story is set in 1950. That description’s followed me all my days, and I could walk through their home blindfolded. The story thrums with heartache and love.

Pause for sighs of appreciation. Anthologised in All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell; First published in The New Yorker in 1976; available to read there and also here

‘Adult Holiday’ by Elizabeth Spencer

Oops, I’m noticing a theme. Spencer is American and southern, and the introduction to my edition of this collection is by Eudora Welty. The Adult Holiday is short, potent, and not a million miles away from the Maxwell, with its wise insights about the complicated business of love, marriage, regret, and passing time.

Available to read via this link, anthologised in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (US edition Doubleday, 1981, reissued by Penguin in the UK in 1983). 

‘Arrangement in Black and White’ by Dorothy Parker

It’s worth remembering that Dorothy Parker left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr, whom she’d never met, with the proviso that, should anything happen to him, she’d like it turned over to the NAACP. Knowing that, read this scathing story (and clock when it was written).

First published in The New Yorker in 1927, available in their archives and also here.

‘The Texas Principessa’ by William Goyen

Goyen said a short story was, “a rhythm, a charged movement, a chain of pulses or beats. To write out of life is to catch, in pace, this pulse that beats.” He wrote exquisitely. Here’s an appreciation piece I found from his centenary in 2015. I’ve chosen one of the silliest of the stories from his 1985 collection. In it, a woman struggles to explain how she inherited a Venetian palazzo, describing an improbable friend of hers — the titular figure — who had more money than taste, but a knack for ensuring everyone had a good time. Just as telling are the narrator’s self-interruptions and digressive asides.

Anthologised in  Had I A Hundred Mouths, Clarkson N Potter, 1985. Available to read in the Triquarterly archive here.

‘Landlord of the Crystal Fountain,’ by Malachi Whitaker

This is the story of a sturdy young teacher, Brenda, en route to northern England to visit her sister. It’s a duty call; there’s no relish, and we sense that she’s fed up and stuck. On the train she meets five jolly publicans returning from a convention. The quieter one, a widower, engages her in conversation, and before the journey’s end, proposes. What she does, and why, is one of the deep pleasures of this brief tale. I see that Persephone has put out a new edition of Whitaker’s stories (which I must buy).

Widely anthologised. I read it in her collection entitled The Crystal Fountain, Carcanet Press, 1984.

‘Recalculating’ by Deborah Eisenberg

Eisenberg’s one of the authors I discovered in the 80s, during that short story moment I mentioned earlier. This newish story is one I’d never read before — but will never forget. Her work gets under your skin. Like all the best writing, what it seems to be about is the iceberg’s tip. Yes, it’s about family, about love, about secrets. But really it’s about all of life in a life. It’s haunting and I predict I’ll read it several more times.

Published in The New York Review of Books in 2011, and available to read here