Many years ago I had the idea I would keep a growing list of short stories I loved and some day publish an edition of them. I didn’t actually succeed in keeping that list, let alone joining those stories in an idiosyncratic publication. Still, it pleases me to put together this list of favorites now. I’ve really had only one criterion. I’ve chosen stories I’ve always remembered because of a particular power they exerted when I read them, some in translation. I don’t make a claim for them as being “best” stories, though a couple would certainly make such a list. At least one, the Gorky, is only marginally good. But they are all stories that moved me in such a way that I’ve never forgotten the experience of reading them.
There’s a story that’s missing. It’s by Alexander Pushkin and has a scene, as I remember it, in which a momentous time has arrived and people are about to set out for some purpose on the frozen, wintry steppe, and there are horses and horsemen gathered, probably Cossacks, making their particular clatter and noise. When I read it on my first trip through Pushkin’s stories, it was so vivid, I wanted to stand up and shout. It was a wonderful moment of story reading, though when I read the stories again later, the impact was less, and now I can’t even find the pages with that scene or identify the story where it appeared. But I suspect somewhere someone is making the same discovery I did, with that story or another: how the world feels transformed when language creates life.
Here, in something like the order I first read them, is my list of favorites:
“Pigeon Feathers” by John Updike
Updike was just an amazing stylist (you can do that with language?) and an amazing chronicler of human intimacy. “Pigeon Feathers” became an early favorite of mine because of both those things. To eighteen-year-old me, they were a revelation.
“Angel in the Night” by Ilse Aichinger
I’ve searched everywhere in my home to find this story. I suspect it’s in some long-lost dual language collection of German short stories. It appears to have been published first in Aichinger’s Bound Man collection, which I could buy used for a very high price on the Internet. Instead I’ve chosen to reread a few of the Aichinger stories I can find, checking in again with her eerie presentation of experience. I’ve read “Bound Man” itself again and it occurs to me that, in some way I hadn’t remembered, it influenced the creation of the troupe in The Second Magician’s Tale, and the experience of magicians tied with rope. Of “Angel in the Night” itself, I only remember that there was snow and a child falling, floating off a rooftop in a haunting, devastating scene.
“The Birth of a Man” by Maxim Gorky
When I reread this story again after decades, I kept wanting it to be more than it was. When I read it originally—and more than once—it struck me as tapping into something primitive and elemental. Reading it now, it seems a little self-conscious and maybe didactic, more like the notes from a travel journal of someone pumped up on the physical world and the romance of the common man and woman. Even so, I’m leaving the story on my list because there’s something about it—a particular embrace of places, ideas, and time, plus a sureness and energy in the narrator’s tone—that makes me think it introduced me to a larger way of completely embracing the world through writing.
“The Dead” by James Joyce
Not every serious reader or writer makes it all the way through the Joycean ouevre, and I haven’t. But I do have a particular fondness for the early Joyce—not the somewhat unpleasant Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but Joyce of The Dubliners. There is an emotional truth in those stories and such an apprehension of life in all its sensory experience, and the particular presence of Ireland. “The Dead” is my favorite because, in such a small and perfect way, image after image, it evokes the city, the country, the people, and the individual lives and relationships. Most of all, it evokes the past and its powerful pull on the present in that way that is both maddening and yet the essence of life. And I can’t think of a more beautiful ending than this (though maybe not “his soul swooned”):
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
“The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick
This is simply the most powerful short story I’ve ever read. And the way Ozick captures the hugeness of her subject, the Holocaust, by writing aslant from the small particulars of the mundane is absolute genius.
“The Mass Island” by Frank O’Connor
I think I’m showing my fondness again for things Irish. O’Connor is a masterful storyteller, but what I respond to most in this story is the quiet,unexpected tribute paid to a seemingly unexceptional priest, first a single light and then more and more lights dotting the Irish midwinter as people make their way over “the treacherous mountain bogs and wicked rocks” to pay him their last respects.
“Linnaeus” by Andrea Barrett
It is almost miraculous the way Barrett captures the experience of age in this story about the man who named things for us.
“Gettysburg at Night” by Robert Olmstead
This is a well put together story about the determination and fortitude of a very young widow. What sets it apart, in addition to the fact it can make you cry at her pride and loyalty, is the way it manages to valorize the virtues of maleness that are often considered just bravado. I still agree with a note I jotted down the first time I read it: it’s interesting it takes a man to show women how we really love men and why.
“Poltergeists” by Jane Shapiro
I just read this story again the other day. I wondered if I would still like it as much as I did when I was recommending it to friends, as I’m much further removed from my children’s teenage years than I was then. I do. It’s one of those pitch perfect stories in which every detail works in concert to produce the right whole, in this case, the evocation of hormone and angst-driven adolescence and the attendant insanity of terrified parents. And it’s a very funny story.
“In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliott Dark
This is an AIDS story and a mother and son story. It’s utterly moving and inexorable, not as brilliant or conceptual as Susan Sontag’s AIDS story, “The Way We Live Now,” but lovely.
“We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek
Something about the particular intensity of the teenage years, with all their pressing physical and personal questions, must bring out the brilliance of writers and help them to write great comic pieces that also yield meaning. Dybek uses his poet’s chops to perfection in this story, employing the drumbeat of repetition—we didn’t—both to tell the story and to capture its sense of urgency. I love this story.
“Leonardo’s Baby” by Marianne Herrmann
This story has haunted me from the very first time I read it. It is a hard-headed and unique look at the deepest kind of grief, the way it spills over life, and the way startling things combine to push it toward an uneasy resolution.
Note: H/t to my husband, Bob. When we met the first week of college, he had already read his way through a broad swath of literature including some in the original German and much in translation, having quit his high school basketball team as a sophomore and spent the next three years buying a book at lunchtime instead of lunch. He is the one who introduced me to the excitement of reading more widely, and it has meant a long history of sharing our book discoveries, which has been an important part of my writing life, and my life.