August 15, 2010

Review: Some Simply Superb Short Story Collections

So, here's the question--  How many of you enjoy reading collections of short stories?

I have to admit that I rarely did, until about ten years ago when I first discovered the short fiction of Edith Wharton (my favorite American author).  I am now a confirmed reader of short stories.  I usually have a collection of shorts on the bedside table, and it usually accompanies me to beach near Malibu on the weekends.

In reading the short stories of some of my favorite authors I have come to realize that some authors use the short story genre to test out new plot ideas and literary techniques for novels they may be writing, or to experiment with character and scene development.  I've also found that some authors are really just more comfortable with writing short stories in contrast to writing the longer novel.  Also, the pacing of short story plots tends to be faster, the plots themselves less complicated, and the overall effect of dialog and action is maximized.  Nowadays, when I discover a collection of short stories of an author that I am reading (and liking), I usually make an effort to acquire and read them.

The purpose of this blog posting was to take a couple of minutes and share with you some of my favorite short story authors and their collections.  While I am not reviewing each of the collections per se, I have included my impressions of 'why' I believe they merit reading.

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Selected Short Fiction, By Sarah Orne Jewett

This was a woman profoundly admired by the young Willa Cather; and, in fact, Jewett told Cather (paraphrasing) 'to stop writing like Henry James, and just tell the story.'  Cather was so affected by Jewett's influence that she dedicated her 1913 novel, "O' Pioneers" to Jewett.  This collection of Jewett's short stories is magnificent; they are a quiet, pastoral, lovely and idyllic look at a small slice of Americana in a small Maine sea-side village at the end of the 19th century, and told from the perspective of an unnamed female narrator.  Each of these unpretentious little stories just has the feel of something that your grandmother, or great-aunt, would have told you over a bowl of blueberries and cream.  Cather included Jewett's writing in with Nathanial Hawthorne's and Mark Twain's as some of of America's most timeless fiction.  High praise indeed!

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, By Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is near the top of the pinnacle of American fiction for me.  While I have read all of her novels, I have come to realize that her greatest strength may well be her short stories.  They are simply sublime.  They definitely pack a punch!  And while I reference the New York Review of Books edition here, I have a couple of other collection of her shorts and they are all nothing short of brilliant.  She published a volume of ghost stories that are truly some of the best spooky stuff out there.  In my opinion, Wharton is one of the masters of the short genre; she grabs you in a page or two, and doesn't let go.  When finished with a story, you just lean back in your chair and breathe a low, "Whew!"  Yes, she's that good!  Wharton's shorts span more than forty years, from the early 1890s until her death in 1937, and reflect her evolving literary style as well as her changing views on society and the lives and relationships of the people living in it.   If you read only a sample of Wharton shorts, read Autre Temps, Pomegranate Seed, and Roman Fever.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, By Susannah Clarke

If you loved Susannah Clarke's debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, you will adore this collection of short stories.  Several of the stories have a direct tie-in to JS&MN, and a several are stand alone, but they're all very good.  This woman can write a story that engages you from the get-go.  These are almost 'fairy tales' in the true sense of the word.  I particularly enjoyed the title story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, as it expands upon one of Clarke's footnotes from JS&MN (i.e., Footnote 2, Chapter 43).  While this collection is an excellent companion to the novel, it can also serve as a stand-alone introduction to Clarke's style, wit, prose, and imagination.  Having read this collection of short stories, as well as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it strikes me that, above all, Clarke provides a view of what it means to be English.  I think that these are amazing books, and this collection of short stories a welcome addition to her work.  From this collection of shorts, I highly recommend The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, On Lickerish Hill, and Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower.

The Troll Garden, By Willa Cather

All six of these short stories are worth reading!  This is an exquisite collection of Cather's early writing.  Once Cather embarked on writing her novels, she only wrote sixteen more short stories, so these early works are an important window into her maturation as a writer.  From this collection, I most especially loved Flavia and Her Artists, A Death in the Desert, and The Marriage of Phaedra.  This is a woman who is in touch with the pulse of the people around her in her time.  This is very good stuff.  As an aside, I am a huge fan of the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and was quite intrigued to find that Cather uses a stanza from Rossetti's epic poem, Goblin Market, as an epigraph to open the collection.
"We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
Like Wharton, Cather is a master at describing, with pathos and drama, the relationships and conflicts between men and women.  Each of these stories is crafted with imagination, tension, and poignancy--it is all here.  Cather is just brilliant!  This is a terrific collection of her short fiction! 

The Withered Arm and Other Stories, By Thomas Hardy

As many of you know, I am on a serious Hardy jag of late.  Hardy is the bomb!  I haven't encountered an author with power like this in some time.  The last author that grabbed me like this was Cormac McCarthy for fiction and Christina Rossetti with her poetry.  Hardy's short stories are nothing short of amazing.  They are macabre, devilish, scary, spooky, bizarre, gut-wrenching, and hauntingly beautiful.  There are several superb collections of Hardy's shorts out there, but I strongly recommend that you find and read the following stories: The Withered Arm, Barbara of the House of Grebe, The Son's Veto, The Fiddler of the Reels, An Imaginative Woman, and The Grave by the Handpost.  If you are a fan of poetry, you can find many references to elements from these shorts in Hardy's poetry too.  Following on that thought, I have to say that much of Thomas Hardy's poetry reads like short stories too; as much of his poetry has the distinct earthy feel and flavor of the folk tales and ballads he would have heard growing up in southwestern England in the mid-19th century.  So, if you want to host a Halloween Party and read some spooky stories aloud, I strongly recommend reading a couple of Hardy stories (and some of his poetry); they'd go well with the Edgar Allen Poe stories (and some rum punches!).

I'd love to know if you if you like short stories, and what are your favorite short story collections.  I'm always looking for some new stuff to read!


  1. Some great choices there. I love Wharton's stories. And I'm so very glad that Jewett saved us all from Cather-trying-to-be-James. NO ONE should try to be Henry James, ever. :-)

    Speaking of Cather, my favorite short story is her "Neighbor Rosicky." It reminds me strongly of my grandfather. The first time I read it, I burst into tears.

    Another one I love is Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle."

    Will try to think of some more . . .

  2. I'd have to add Ernest Hemingway shorts to this list:

    The one thing I don't get from your review is WHY these short stories should be read... what makes them unique, haunting, etc. Are you posting reviews on them later on?


  3. Just stopping by to let you know that I've given your blog an award; stop by my blog to see. :)

  4. It sounds like I've got to add some Edith Wharton to my TBR. I've yet to read anything by her.

    On a related note, my favorite short story collection is by Miranda July - No One Belongs Here More Than You. It's really quirky modern fiction that is well written and very amusing.

  5. I don't often read short stories, but when I do it is usually because I really love the author and want to read everything I can by him. The short story collections I have enjoyed the most are those by Hemingway, Vonnegut, and David Sedaris.

  6. Christopher,
    Thanks for the comment on my blog. In answer to your questions, I haven't read any of Wharton's stories, but I have read two of her novels, "The House of Mirth" and "The Age of Innocence," and enjoyed them both. I'm currently reading "The Stories of John Cheever," and if you like Wharton's New York stories you should definitely check out Cheever's. As for Hardy, I have to admit I was scared away from him by my favorite high school English teacher's hatred for "Tess of the D'Ubervilles," but having lived in Exeter, Devon (Exonbury, Lower Wessex to him), for a couple of years I am interested in checking him out. The other collections you write about sound interesting, too, especially the ones by Jewett and Cather (who I adore).
    Thanks again for the suggestions, and happy reading.

  7. I'm a fan of Alice Munro's short stories.

  8. Thanks for posting! Short stories are hit or miss for me, so it's nice to have a list of good ones I can go to!

    I linked this post as part of my Friday Five at Kate's Library.

  9. What an excellent list! (The Ladies of Grace Adieu! I can't wait to return to that collection - I have it on audio. My favourite was the Rumpelstiltskin retelling; was that called, "On Lickerish Hill"? And Hardy wrote short stories? The more I learn about his work, the more adoring I grow.) Short stories are the one genre of fiction - if they can truly be called a genre - that I wish I read more of. I haven't found many contemporary shorts that I've enjoyed. My creative writing teacher actually frightened me away from them when he assigned Dave Eggers' The Best American Nonrequired Reading for the holiday. There was too much ambiguity and unexplained weirdness for me to appreciate.

    But. I regret not giving short stories the chance they deserve, because I've read some that I love, and there are just so many to read. Thank you for the list; it's perfect for reference!

  10. Thanks for the list. I've read a lot of Thomas Hardy books but not his short stories, I've enjoyed stories by Somerset Maugham, Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), Daphne Du Maurier, Kate Atkinson and Annie Proulx recently.