‘Sing to It’ by Amy Hempel

I’m compensating for having two novellas in this list by now including Amy Hempel’s one hundred-and-seventeen-word (I just counted them) title opener to her most recent collection. I could have chosen anything from Sing to It, because I think it is one of the great books of literature of our time, but I’m including the first story because it is a barnstormer of an opening track, like ‘The Thrill of It All’ or ‘The Queen is Dead’. It blasts you into the stratosphere. For its brevity, it is epic. I discuss this story often with students in my creative writing class at Cardiff University, and rarely do we get the same interpretation twice in one room. The literature takes place in the reader. And as for our theme of short stories tackling big subjects, ‘Sing to It’ is about death, but also death as the ultimate metaphor for life, and the fact the story is itself a metaphor while essentially just being a foggy account of a conversations about metaphors. I’m telling you; it has layers. And how else can you talk about death without veering off to the elegiac and the magical? Where the story ends is in transcendence. Hempel is a precious mind.

Published in Sing to It, Scribner, 2019. Available to read on Lithub, here

‘Tom-Rock Through the Eels’ by Amy Hempel

A story for August
‘Tom Rock through the Eels’ is about a woman in the aftermath of her mother’s death. It’s a story told through fragments, memories and moments. A double bed now slept in alone. A nursery selling garden plants and tools.  A forty-eight house train journey. (“When the car lights go out, a porter brings me a blanket. He tucks it around my shoulders like––what else?––like a mother.”) Each scene is distilled to its essence. Each sentence matters:

“My head against a small synthetic pillow, I think: Mothers. They teach their daughters to use pumice on their heels, and to roll a lemon inside its skin before slicing, to bring out the juice. My mother said men, unless they were sober, what they meant when they asked you to marry was that you looked nice in that dress, or they liked your hair that way.” 

I’ve selected this story for August, because it’s the kind of story that rewards slow, leisurely reading. Imagine yourself in a park, sun on your face, taking the time to marvel at Amy Hempel’s lucid, lyrical writing that sees into the depth of people’s lives. 

First published in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Knopf 1990. Collected in The Dog of the Marriage: Collected Stories, Quercus, 2009

‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

If I could only read one story for the rest of my life it would be this. The fact that this was the first story she ever wrote – the product of a prompt by Gordon Lish in his writing class – is nothing short of miraculous. The prompt was to write a story that would ‘dismantle’ their sense of self, and Hempel wrote about a friend who died too young of cancer. The narrator is flawed, brutally honest and unsentimental (almost willing us to dislike her) But, by the end, the voice is one undone by loss and a gnawing regret. It’s a masterclass in the importance of blank space on the page, of what isn’t being said. Hempel herself stated “You want to be underneath the bleachers in a story, looking for what’s left”. 

First published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, and collected in Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

‘In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

I read this story every day for an entire summer. I am not sure anymore what I was going through then but I am happy to report this story still makes me cry every time I read it. I love the first line: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said, “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” I had not realized what an elegy could do until I read this piece. Hempel builds the story’s momentum by painstakingly bringing seemingly disparate details together. I also credit this with teaching me how much can be contained within a paragraph break.

First published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, included in the collection Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

‘In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

A story about a friendship between two women, one of who is terminally ill. One of my favourite things about Hempel’s story is how the location of Southern California is a character in and of itself, the chance of earthquake ever-present, the detail about the glass of water at the end becoming, for me, the most moving moment in the story. This story gives you only the barest essentials with which to interpret the feelings of grief and loss that pulse through the story, threaded through with Hollywood dread, a perfect elegy for a lost friend. 

Originally published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, included in the collection Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

I have been recommending this short story to everyone recently. I first read it years ago, but then someone linked to it on Twitter and I was reminded of it all over again. Another body slam of a story, this one about friendship, the family we create for ourselves, if we are so lucky. I find it hard to even write about this story without feeling tearful, and Hempel does this because of her complete lack of sentimentality. It’s about loss, about death, but written so sparely, with a dark, dark humour, and with almost everything unsaid, unwritten, left for you in the gaps. It’s one of the most powerful, beautiful and harrowing stories about the love between friends that I’ve ever read.

“Oh, yes.
For her I would always have something else.”

First published in TriQuarterly magazine in 1983, included in Reasons to Live (Harper Perennial, 1985), and available to read online here