Editor’s notebook: Keen insights flow through 2018, one short story at a time

“Truth tickles everyone’s nostrils.” — Isaac Babel

Among the shortest and most disturbing of the stories I read this year was the Isaac Babel war story that belies its innocent-sounding name: “My First Goose.”

Brief surprises that tickle as you breathe them in; that’s what the best short stories are.

As mentioned in this space February, I endeavor to track 2018 by reading one short story a day. Some are re-reads, but most are new to me. Since last report, I’ve read or re-read classics such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain; “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe; “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield; “A Passion In The Desert” by Honore de Balzac; “The Open Window” by Saki (H.H. Munro); “A Lodging for the Night” by Robert Louis Stevenson; “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber; “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor; and “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

Personal favorites included my second reading of “Big Two Hearted River,” parts 1 and 2 by Hemingway, my fourth or fifth reading of “Tinker” by Jack Cady, truly one of my all-time favorite stories, by a guy I used to talk to in a deli in Port Townsend, Wash., where we both lived.

The tale is magical, moral, and what a finish — a delicious tale of comeuppance.

I am gradually working through “Dubliners” — three stories left — by James Joyce, saving “The Dead” (it’s about the living) for Christmas Eve.

Writer I’ve had enough of: Stephen King.

Writer I know I will return to this year: Vladamir Nabokov.

In his “The Passenger,” I learned the word viatic, “pertaining to traveling.”

Phrase of the year so far, from “Swept Away” by T.C. Boyle: “A species of comprehension settled into her eyes.”

Sentence of the year so far, from Richard Ford: “I don’t know what makes people do what they do or call themselves, only that you have to live someone’s life to be the expert.”

The exercise has placed me back in the folds of my friend Benedict Kiely (1919-2007) from Ulster, who I met in Dublin in 1991.

“The Dogs in the Great Glen,” my fourth or fifth read, is one of my favorites, and also I returned to “Journey to the Seven Streams” and more.

Tales to come on my list include Tolstoy (“God Sees the Truth But Waits”), Roald Dahl (“Parson’s Pleasure), and Faulkner (“A Rose For Emily”), and I plan to read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, as grim a tale as imaginable. But Jackson’s whimsical “Tootie in Peonage” gave me a whole new perception of her.

If “The Demon” and “The Omen” by Joyce Carol Oates sound like great consecutive reads, it’s because they were. Works such as “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa, and “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges gave me an appreciation of magical realism, a genre I had never tried; I went on a Borges binge the first week of August.

My Irish bent — for there are no storytellers like the Irish — has been partly satisfied by continued doses of William Trevor, Joyce, Kiely, Michael McLaverty, Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, and Liam O’Flaherty, and my return to some of the mid-20th century Irish storytellers who invoke a time in history that seems distant but is not so long ago.

Then I found my dog-eared copy of O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex.”

From June 8-10, I re-read the first three stories: the title story, “The Genius,” and “The Study of History” — a unique trio of stories that have to be considered as a novella, amounting to one of the funniest and most moving coming-of-age stories.

The 7-year-old protagonist, Joe, says, “But whatever innocence the world wanted to rob me of, it was welcome to it from my point of view, if only I could get a few facts to work on.” Soon after, on July 12-13, I read “My Old Man” and “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway — tragedies with fathers figuring prominently, albeit differently, in a boy’s first glimpse of death.

Surprise of the year: I had never heard of Henri Munger, but I loved “The Passage of the Red Sea,” a whimsical tale of artistic intention.

“Odön von Horvàth Out Walking” by Lydia Davis is one of the number of uber-brief short stories from a volume graciously given me by Brian and Maria McCormick.

Few stories have stuck with me this year more than “The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton. It is both a tale of terror and also a timeless allegory on identity (the theme that all the great stories come down to).

“Swamp Mischief” and “I’ve Always Loved This Place” by Annie Proulx are connected stories amounting to humorous visions of hell.

In late July, I was blown away by four consecutive stories all by east-coast, mid-century urbans, but they have some stunning commentaries on faith: “The Conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth; “Defenders of the Faith” by Philip Roth; “and Pigeon Feathers” by John Updike.

While written in 1948, “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever feels prescient of the damaging effects of social media: “Irene’s life was nearly as simple as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language that came from the loudspeaker that morning astonished and troubled her.”

Just change loudspeaker to Smartphone.

And on July 31, the great “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor, a tale of racial tension which was written in the 1960s but could have been written in July 2018.

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