December 2016 favorites

december2016

December 2016

The December stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘The Final Problem’ by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. ‘A Worn Path’ by Eudora Welty
  3. ‘Domestic Life In America’ by John Updike
  4. ‘O Tannenbaum’ by Maile Meloy
  5. ‘Ben’ by Kay Boyle
  6. ‘The Poor Relation’s Story’ by Charles Dickens
  7. ‘The Christmas Masquerade’ by Mary Wilkins Freeman
  8. ‘The Centerpiece’ by Peter Matthiessen
  9. ‘Merry Christmas’ by Stephen Leacock
  10. ‘Bertie’s Christmas Eve’ by Saki
  11. ‘Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desire’ by Michael Tournier
  12. ‘The Christmas Story’ by Vladimir Nabokov
  13. ‘Christmas; Or, The Good Fairy’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  14. ‘Grandmother’s Christmas Story’ by Faith Wynne
  15. ‘The World In A Bowl Of Soup: A Christmas Story” by Annie Dillard

As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.

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December 2015 favorites

December2015

December 2015

The December stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Christmas Morning’ by Frank O’Connor
  2. ‘Drawing Names’ by Bobbie Ann Mason
  3. ‘The Frozen Fields’ by Paul Bowles
  4. ‘Tenth Of December’ by George Saunders
  5. ‘Christmas’ by Vladimir Nabokov
  6. ‘The Birds For Christmas’ by Mark Richard
  7. ‘Every Little Hurricane’ by Sherman Alexie
  8. ‘An Old-Time Christmas’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar
  9. ‘Two Of A Kind’ by Sean O’Faolain
  10. ‘Christmas For Sassafrass, Cypress And Indigo’ by Ntozake Shange
  11. ‘Family Christmas’ by Roxana Robinson
  12. ‘A Visit From Saint Nicholas (In The Ernest Hemingway Manner)’ by James Thurber
  13. ‘Creche’ by Richard Ford
  14. ‘The Christmas Tree’ by Charles Dickens
  15. ‘A Kidnapped Santa Claus’ by L. Frank Baum
  16. ‘Xmas’ by Thomas M. Disch
  17. ‘Christmas Every Day’ by William Dean Howells
  18. ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’ by Paul Auster
  19. ‘Falalalalalalalala’ by Nikki Giovanni
  20. ‘Old Christmas’ by Stephen Merion

February 2015 favorites

February2015

February 2015

The February stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Death In The Woods’ by Sherwood Anderson
  2. ‘Cheap In August’ by Graham Greene
  3. ‘Debarking’ by Lorrie Moore
  4. ‘The Juniper Tree’ by Lorrie Moore
  5. ‘Flight’ by John O’Hara
  6. ‘To Build A Fire’ by Jack London
  7. ‘Harvey’s Dream’ by Stephen King
  8. ‘The Keyhole Eye’ by John Stewart Carter
  9. ‘The First Flower’ by Augusta Wallace Lyons
  10. ‘Subject To Search’ by Lorrie Moore
  11. ‘Thank You For Having Me’ by Lorrie Moore
  12. ‘Foes’ by Lorrie Moore
  13. ‘Spring In Fialta’ by Vladimir Nabokov
  14. ‘Talk To The Music’ by Arna Bontemps
  15. ‘The Contest For Aaron Gold’ by Philip Roth
  16. ‘The Old Army Game’ by George Garrett
  17. ‘Alma’ by Junot Diaz
  18. ‘Children Are Bored On Sunday’ by Jean Stafford
  19. ‘A Long Day’s Dying’ by William Eastlake
  20. ‘To The Wilderness I Wander’ by Frank Butler
  21. ‘Mammon And The Archer’ by O. Henry

‘Spring In Fialta’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov, Vladimir 1936

Spring In Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov, 1936

The magic trick:

Creating a romanticized past through lush sentences

Happy Valentine’s Day! We’ve had love stories all week on the SSMT blog, and we wrap up the madness with one of the most lovesick stories ever written.

The moment means everything in this story. The narrator is telling us about a past relationship, so he’s already in the mode of looking back. But within that looking back is a second level of backstory about the relationship he continually skips back to. So we have the present tense of the telling of the story, the present tense of the main action of the story in Fialta, and a whole slew of scenes and memories involving Nina from the years prior to Fialta. Confused yet?

Well, I think that’s kind of the point. Nabokov – as we saw on SSMT last year with his nostalgia trip, “First Love” – revels in looking back. This story is nothing if not romantic. The writing style, I think, is his most important asset. The sentences are complicated and dramatic. Many are downright beautiful. The writing makes for a melodramatic, hyper-romantic tone – a tone that is perfect for a narrator who is looking back to the past. The narrator laments that at every meeting throughout his relationship with Nina, he feared it would be the last time he saw her. He never could appreciate the moment. Back then, he was worried about the future. And now, he’s pining over the past. If that isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is. And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.

The selection:

And regardless of what happened to me or to her, in between, we never discussed anything, as we never thought of each other during the intervals in our destiny, so that when we met the pace of life altered at once, all its atoms were recombined, and we lived in another, lighter time-medium, which was measured not by the lengthy separations but by those few meetings of which a short, supposedly frivolous life was thus artificially formed. And with each new meeting I grew more and more apprehensive; no – I did not experience any inner emotional collapse, the shadow of tragedy did not haunt our revels, my married life remained unimpaired, while on the other hand her eclectic husband ignored her casual affairs although deriving some profit from them in the way of pleasant and useful connections. I grew apprehensive because something lovely, delicate, and unrepeatable was being wasted: something which I abused by snapping off poor bright bits in gross haste while the neglecting the modest but true core which perhaps it kept offering me in a pitiful whisper.

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August 2014 favorites

august2014

August 2014

The August stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Bright And Morning Star’ by Richard Wright
  2. ‘Symbols And Signs’ by Vladimir Nabokov
  3. ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck
  4. ‘Free Fruit For Young Widows’ by Nathan Englander
  5. ‘The School’ by Donald Barthelme
  6. ‘The Night The Bed Fell’ by James Thurber
  7. ‘My First Goose’ by Isaac Babel
  8. ‘The Wood Duck’ by James Thurber
  9. ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ by James Thurber
  10. ‘The Fireman’s Wife’ by Richard Bausch
  11. ‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway
  12. ‘In The Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka
  13. ‘He’ by Katherine Anne Porter
  14. ‘The Rich Brother’ by Tobias Wolff
  15. ‘Lovers Of The Lake’ by Sean O’Faolain
  16. ‘First Love’ by Vladimir Nabokov
  17. ‘The Mysterious Kor’ by Elizabeth Bowen
  18. ‘Thirst’ by Ivo Andric
  19. ‘In Another Country’ by Ernest Hemingway
  20. ‘The Iron City’ by Lovell Thompson
  21. ‘Dusky Ruth’ by A.E. Coppard
  22. ‘The Odour Of Chrysanthemums’ by D.H. Lawrence
  23. ‘The Door’ by E.B. White
  24. ‘The Camberwell Beauty’ by V.S. Pritchett
  25. ‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield
  26. ‘Christ In Concrete’ by Pietro di Donato
  27. ‘American Express’ by James Salter
  28. ‘The Piano’ by Anibal Monteiro Machado
  29. ‘The Greatest Man In The World’ by James Thurber
  30. ‘Men’ by Kay Boyle
  31. ‘A Couple Of Hamburgers’ by James Thurber

‘First Love’ by Vladimir Nabokov

nabokov, vladimir 1948a

First Love by Vladimir Nabokov, 1948

The magic trick:

Using the story title to alter the readers interpretation

The words first love likely conjure up images of a momentous childhood relationship, one that ends quickly but whose innocence lingers on into adulthood. Or something like that.

And this story delivers something quite like that. The narrator indulges in a lovely nostalgia trip and remembers a summer bond he forged at the age of 10 with a girl named Colette. She kisses him on the cheek. He promises to run away with her. It’s all just what you’d expect from a story titled “First Love.”

One problem, though: I don’t believe the narrator’s relationship with Colette is the first love of the title at all. Nabokov separates the story into three sections. He makes no mention of Colette until section three. The first two are filled with detail after detail of the narrator’s summer memories, the beaches, the trains, everything.

The title toys with the reader’s expectations, and then helps to refocus the reader on the story’s central theme. Colette, in section three, comes to represent everything the narrator feels for his childhood vacations – the special joys, the education, the adventure the innocence, and the failed escape. And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.

The selection:

When, on such journeys as these, the train changed its pace to a dignified amble and all but grazed housefronts and shop signs, as we passed through some big German town, I used to feel a twofold excitement, which terminal stations could not provide. I saw a city, with its toylike trams, linden trees, and brick walls enter the compartment, hobnob with the mirrors, and fill to the brim the windows on the corridor side. This informal contact between train and city was one part of the thrill. The other was putting myself in the place of some passerby who, I imagined, was moved as I would be moved myself to see the long, romantic, auburn cars, with their intervestibular connecting curtains as black as bat wings and their metal lettering copper-bright in the low sun, unhurriedly negotiate an iron bridge across an everyday thoroughfare and then turn, with the windows suddenly ablaze, around a last block of houses.

‘Symbols And Signs’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov, Vladimir 1948

Symbols And Signs by Vladimir Nabokov, 1948

The magic trick:

Possibly mocking the notion of literary symbolism even while providing a beautiful example of literary symbolism

I can’t decide if this is a sendup of short-story symbolism or a heartbreakingly beautiful example of short-story symbolism. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s both, which is probably why it’s ranked by many among the best stories ever written.

Let’s first consider the satire. We have a young man who is “incurably deranged in his mind.” His problem? He obsessively sees everything in the world as a never-ending set of symbols and signs sent for him to decipher. Is this a not-so-subtle shot at critics and the over-analyzing lit nerds ready to find double meaning in every word of a short story? Possibly. Maybe even probably.

Nabokov follows up with some pretty obvious symbols. We get a brief mention of a small bird struggling to get out of a puddle. We get a brief mention of a man lying prostrate in a room across the tenement building. These can be seen as powerful or laughable, depending on your own degree of cynicism.

And then finally, of course, the story famously ends with the ringing phone – the ultimate treat for the over-analyzing reader. But who could blame the reader? The ambiguity begs for analysis. Is it the hospital calling with awful news? Or is it a wrong number and nothing of consequence?

It’s as if Nabokov is just playing with the reader, mocking our need to analyze and interpret everything, while at the same time encouraging us. So, really, the story is a win-win. If you’re a cynic and you to want to enjoy it as dark satire, have at it. If you want to buy into the symbolism and read it as an emotionally earnest piece, interpret away!

The story is full of symbols and signs, both real and imagined. And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.

The selection:

Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.

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