February 2017 favorites


February 2017

The February stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘We Didn’t’ by Stuart Dybek
  2. ‘Separating’ by John Updike
  3. ‘A Retrieved Reformation’ by O. Henry
  4. ‘Postcard’ by Alice Munro
  5. ‘Aurora’ by Junot Diaz
  6. ‘Ligeia’ by Edgar Allan Poe
  7. ‘The Altar Of The Dead’ by Henry James
  8. ‘An Ounce Of Cure’ by Alice Munro
  9. ‘The Furnished Room’ by O. Henry
  10. ‘Transients In Arcadia’ by O. Henry
  11. ‘On The Gull’s Road’ by Willa Cather
  12. ‘The Skylight Room’ by O. Henry
  13. ‘How’ by Roxane Gay
  14. ‘Teller’s Ticket’ by Robert Flanagan
  15. ‘It Was Romance’ by Miranda July
  16. ‘The Romance Of A Busy Broker’ by O. Henry

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December 2014 favorites


December 2014

The December stories organized solely by my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Jeeves And The Yule-Tide Spirit’ by P.G. Wodehouse
  2. ‘The H Street Sledding Record’ by Ron Carlson
  3. ‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote
  4. ‘A Christmas Tree And A Wedding’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  5. ‘The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle’ by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. ‘Christmas At Red Butte’ by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  7. ‘Christmas Eve’ by Maeve Brennan
  8. ‘One Christmas Eve’ by Langston Hughes
  9. ‘The Gift Of The Magi’ by O. Henry
  10. ‘Powder’ by Tobias Wolff
  11. ‘The Ledge’ by Lawrence Sargent Hall
  12. ‘A Child’s Christmas In Wales’ by Dylan Thomas
  13. ‘The Adventure Of The Christmas Pudding’ by Agatha Christie
  14. ‘The Christmas Wreck’ by Frank Stockton
  15. ‘At Christmas Time’ by Anton Chekhov
  16. ‘Christmas Day In The Morning’ by Pearl S. Buck
  17. ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen
  18. ‘Markheim’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
  19. ‘Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor’ by John Cheever
  20. ‘The Burglar’s Christmas’ by Willa Cather
  21. ‘Papa Panov’s Special Christmas’ by Leo Tolstoy
  22. ‘The Beggar Boy At Christ’s Christmas Tree’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  23. ‘A New Year’s Gift’ by Guy de Maupassant
  24. ‘The Christmas Banquet’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  25. ‘The Best Christmas Ever’ by James Patrick Kelly
  26. ‘Christmas Eve’ by Guy de Maupassant

‘The Burglar’s Christmas’ by Willa Cather

Cather, Willa 1896

The Burglar’s Christmas by Willa Cather, 1896

The magic trick:

Presenting a stark contrast between the young mans circumstances at the beginning of the novel and those of the ending

Cather presents a stark contrast from start to finish in this story. The opening scene features two homeless men debating where to go for a free meal on Christmas Eve. The younger man is so far gone as to be considering suicide.

Flash forward a few pages and you’ll find the same young beggar wolfing down a fancy dinner in a fancy chair seated at a fancy table in the fancy library of his parents’ fancy home.

That’s a long way to travel in a short story, but the distance – and the contrast – is kind of the point of the story. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.

The selection:

Yet he was but four and twenty, this man—he looked even younger—and he had a father some place down East who had been very proud of him once. Well, he had taken his life into his own hands, and this was what he had made of it. That was all there was to be said. He could remember the hopeful things they used to say about him at college in the old days, before he had cut away and begun to live by his wits, and he found courage to smile at them now. They had read him wrongly. He knew now that he never had the essentials of success, only the superficial agility that is often mistaken for it. He was tow without the tinder, and he had burnt himself out at other people’s fires. He had helped other people to make it win, but he himself—he had never touched an enterprise that had not failed eventually. Or, if it survived his connection with it, it left him behind.


November 2014 favorites


November 2014

The November stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Chickamauga’ by Ambrose Bierce
  2. ‘Paul’s Case’ by Willa Cather
  3. ‘The Veldt’ by Ray Bradbury
  4. ‘The Story Of An Hour’ by Kate Chopin
  5. ‘Of This Time, Of That Place’ by Lionel Trilling
  6. ‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol
  7. ‘A White Heron’ by Sarah Orne Jewett
  8. ‘A Circle In The Fire’ by Flannery O’Connor
  9. ‘Going For A Beer’ by Robert Coover
  10. ‘Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen’ by O. Henry
  11. ‘Dawn Of Remembered Spring’ by Jesse Stuart
  12. ‘The Middle Years’ by Henry James
  13. ‘The Catbird Seat’ by James Thurber
  14. ‘The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story’ by Joel Chandler Harris
  15. ‘The Peach Stone’ by Paul Horgan
  16. ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges
  17. ‘An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving’ by Louisa May Alcott
  18. ‘Who Lived And Died Believing’ by Nancy Hale
  19. ‘The Devil And Tom Walker’ by Washington Irving
  20. ‘The Facts Concerning The Recent Carnival Of Crime In Connecticut’ by Mark Twain

‘Paul’s Case’ by Willa Cather

Cather, Willa 1905

Paul’s Case by Willa Cather, 1905

The magic trick:

Showing Paul in at least four different settings, guises

Cather’s heartbreaking depiction of Paul is based on the notion that he can’t be himself – he can’t truly live – in his life as constructed in Pittsburgh. She makes this point beautifully clear by showing him in different settings, each illustrating the ways his personality is forced to conform to the expectations of those surrounding him. We see him at school. We see him at work as an usher. We see him at home. And finally, we see him, free at last, in New York.

The shifts in his character and behavior are subtle enough to keep the reader believing it is always the same boy; but likewise they are notable enough to carry the story’s key themes. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.

The selection:

Perhaps it was because in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economics, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the unescapable odours of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring, these smartly-clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that bloomed perennially under the lime-light.


June 2014 favorites


June 2014

The June stories ordered solely on my personal tastes.

  1. ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly And Time’ by Peter Taylor
  2. ‘Blackberry Winter’ by Robert Penn Warren
  3. ‘Babylon Revisited’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. ‘Upon The Sweeping Flood’ by Joyce Carol Oates
  5. ‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor
  6. ‘My Old Man’ by Ernest Hemingway
  7. ‘I’m A Fool’ by Sherwood Anderson
  8. ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin
  9. ‘Only The Dead Know Brooklyn’ by Thomas Wolfe
  10. ‘Double Birthday’ by Willa Cather
  11. ‘The View From The Balcony’ by Wallace Stegner
  12. ‘The Magic Barrel’ by Bernard Malamud
  13. ‘No Place For You, My Love’ by Eudora Welty
  14. ‘The Schreuderspitze’ by Mark Helprin
  15. ‘The Hartleys’ by John Cheever
  16. ‘O City Of Broken Dreams’ by John Cheever
  17. ‘A Day In The Open’ by Jane Bowles
  18. ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
  19. ‘In The Zoo’ by Jean Stafford
  20. ‘The Lost Phoebe’ by Theodore Dreiser
  21. ‘Welcome To The Monkey House’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  22. ‘How Beautiful With Shoes’ by Wilbur Daniel Steele
  23. ‘The Little Wife’ by William March
  24. ‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles
  25. ‘The Faithful Wife’ by Morley Callaghan
  26. ‘The Golden Honeymoon’ by Ring Lardner
  27. ‘Resurrection Of A Life’ by William Saroyan
  28. ‘The State Of Grace’ by Harold Brodkey
  29. ‘A Telephone Call’ by Dorothy Parker
  30. ‘The Survivors’ by Elsie Singmaster

‘Double Birthday’ by Willa Cather

cather, willa 1929

Double Birthday by Willa Cather, 1929

The magic trick:

Using brilliant detail and human understanding to create remarkably complete characters

This really is a textbook study in how to create full and fascinating characters with the utmost efficiency. Cather manages to capture, by my count at least, five characters in this short story for the reader to analyze and ponder long after the last sentence.

She does so using several techniques, of course. The story is brilliantly structured, including expert use of flashback allowing her to present a fascinating set of contrasting relationships. But the magic trick I want to highlight, the one I feel is the foundation to the story’s success, is her use of rich, human detail. She very clearly has a deep understanding of human nature, how people think and what they need, and it comes through in nearly every sentence, imbuing the characters with a degree of nuance most writers need the length of a novel to achieve.

My favorite example is her description of the judge’s daughter, a character who arguably ranks as only the fifth-most important here. At dinner, the judge begins an angry report on his meeting with Albert. Cather relates that Mrs. Parmenter, the daughter, in her younger days would have taken offense to his tone, but now more mature, she recognizes his weakness in herself and now is more forgiving. It is a remarkably astute observation on Cather’s part about the human condition – growing up, and the changing dynamics between father and daughter.

Short stories offer much to love, be it plot, character, emotion, or poetry. But often I find that my favorite thing in short fiction is this exact kind of little nugget, where the author doesn’t so much as teach you something about life you didn’t know but rather verbalizes some essential truth, something you’ve lived and understand but needed put to words.

In doing this Cather not only creates a little “Yeah, that’s right, I know just what she means” moment for the reader, she gives tremendous breadth of character to Mrs. Parmenter, and also happens to present the story’s main ideas – judgment, maturity, understanding and forgiveness – in one tidy paragraph. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.

The selection:

As a young girl his daughter used to take up the challenge and hotly defend the person who had displeased or disappointed her father. But as she grew older she was conscious of that same feeling in herself when people fell short of what she expected; and she understood now that when her father spoke as if he were savagely attacking someone, it merely meant that he was disappointed or sorry for them; he never spoke thus of persons for whom he had no feeling.