Modern American Short Stories – Philip Van Doren Stern (ed.) (1943)

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In this short story collection first published in 1943, there were 19 stories from the 1920s and 1930s by authors with whom I was familiar (Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck), some with whom I had only a name familiarity (Ring Lardner [one of Fitzgerald’s buddies], Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Katherine Ann Porter) and then some who were new to me (Jerome Weidman, Sally Benson et al.) and one whose story I just couldn’t finish.

(You get three guesses. Oh, OK: it’s you, Hemingway with your Snows of Kilimanjaro).

Specifically, I enjoyed the following, most of which are available on-line if you’re so inclined:

  • Profession, Housewife – Sally Benson (1938)
  • You were Perfectly Fine – Dorothy Parker (1929)
  • Babylon Revisited – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1931)
  • The Happiest Man on Earth – Albert Maltz (1938)
  • Going Home – William Saroyan (couldn’t find the date published)
  • The Night the Ghost Got In – James Thurber (1933)
  • Young Man Axelrod – Sinclair Lewis (1917)

Published towards the end of WWII, this collection of short stories seems to be poignant and innocent in some ways. (Not surprising when you realize that some of them were written not too long after the carnage of WWI or within view of the outbreak of WWII). Several of the stories seemed to be rather sad in some ways — as though the authors had seen too much or experienced too much — and there’s a general feeling of this lost innocence. However, there’s also an edge that seems to warn readers that these authors are not to be taken advantage of, either.

After reading a great book of lit crit on The Great Gatsby, I especially liked reading something from Ring Lardner (friend of F. Scott’s) and a few of his other writing friends, although Hemingway (never my favorite at the best of times) was not a good addition, not only as I happen to find him annoying as a human being and as a writer but also because he was mean to Fitzgerald during his lifetime. Fitzgerald may have had his issues, but overall he seemed to be a pretty sensitive and gentle writer so I see no reason for Hemingway to be so shitty towards him. No need to be mean, is there?

Some good quotes for you:

There were a few Tommies that showed minute and white against the yellow, and far off, he saw a herd of zebra, white against the green of the bush.”

(HEMINGWAY/Snows of Kilimanjaro)

(Disclaimer: This was the one sentence of the few that I read and really enjoyed. Just sayin’.)

 It had been given, even the most mildly squandered sum, things most worth remembering, the thing that now he would always remember – his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont. (FITZGERALD/Babylon Revisited)

The Ghost that got in our house on the night of November 17, 1915, raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I am sorry that I didn’t just let it keep on walking                  and go to bed.                                                                    (THURBER/The Night the Ghost Came.)

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Showing the Flag – Jane Gardam (1989)

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This was kindly sent from my mum from England, a recent find for her and as we share similar reading tastes, I received it via the Royal Mail. Having loved Gardam’s other works (most of which I have read pre-blog), I had looked forward to this read and I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a collection of short stories and was, as is usually the case, a mixed bag. This collection had been mostly published in various literary places during the 1980’s and, in general, most had aged just fine, not particularly dated etc. Gardam is such a great writer that even if the story and I didn’t particularly enjoy each other, at least the writing was high caliber.

I think my favorite story was the title one, “Showing the Flag”, about a young boy going abroad via a large boat who loses something important to him, but to be honest, 90% of the other stories were really good. Each had a strong narrative arc, one or two were absurdist in places, and all of them were unpredictable at the endings. A couple were very Po-Mo in how they finished and I’m ok with that as I am not such a big fan of nice and tidy conclusions all wrapped in a big red ribbon. (I enjoy wondering how the story finishes once the writing had ended…)

So a fast read with some great writing and another title off the TBR shelf. Win, win, win. 🙂

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner – Alan Sillitoe (1959)

Loneliness Long DistanceThis collection of spare short stories was really good, although not quite what I was expecting (although I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting if you ask me). Apart from being this surprise read, I really enjoyed Sillitoe’s early work and have ordered his debut novel (from 1958) called Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings as it sounded so good.

Sillitoe is usually considered to be one of the earliest members of the “Angry Young Men”* movement in England during the 1950’s which embodied the feeling of disillusionment stemming from the hardships of WWII that were still ongoing years later. Industry had not really recovered since the war, unemployment and poverty were rife (especially for the working class in the Northern part of England), and so conditions were tough for a lot of people. It’s from this perspective that the stories are shown – of working class lads living working class lives facing common life problems.

The title story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, is the one that I have heard of before although, for many years, I thought it was about marathon running (haha). It does concern running, but it’s much more literary-minded than that.

It’s from the PoV of a young lad who has been sentenced to some time in Borstal, a youth detention center across the country (in England) usually set in barren and removed environments such as the moors etc. It’s a tough place and its inmates end up tough (if they’re not already), and for the protagonist of this particular tale, his is not a life he cares that much about. When he is selected from amongst his fellow inmates to run long-distance for the Borstal team, the act of running takes on much more meaning than his supervisors realize.  In running, this boy has his freedom when he has none otherwise, and so at the end, when he asserts his choice, it’s a way of reclaiming his independence. It’s really an excellent read.

The other stories were along those same lines, although very different. They each have working class protagonists living in industrial cities and in close densely populated neighborhoods of families who have similar problems and ideas stemming from their experience. They vary in age, but the stories usually revolve around relationships (ranging from friends, boyfriend/girlfriend and family of origin to work relations), and it’s obvious that Sillitoe has lived what he writes here. (He did – he had to leave school when he was 14 to work in a Raleigh factory in Nottingham.)

When Sillitoe was actually writing these stories, Wikipedia has an interesting theory (true? I don’t know…) about how the Labour Party (political party) continued to want power distributed among the wealthy and elite more than the working class (perhaps in case of uprising), but it knew it needed to keep the lower classes happy. So the welfare state was created and strengthened without assigning much political power to its beneficiaries and the Angry Young Men movement was born.

There was political and philosophical debate (according to the author of this Wiki) about whether the state was trying to help the working classes or “keep them down” as the saying goes. I imagine it depends on which side of the divide you are as to how you felt, and clearly, this issue continues to be timely. (Again, not sure how true this Wiki theory is, but I thought it was an interesting viewpoint nevertheless.)

  • The Angry Young Men (who were sometimes called the Angries 🙂 ) were a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and authors (including Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe and Philip Larkin) who rose to fame during the 1950’s in the UK and were characterized by disillusionment with traditional English class-riddled society. As time went on, the Angry Young Men group became less unified and many of the authors who were classed as such dismissed the idea and were not happy with being bunched together. (Can’t blame them – it seems to me that they were such a varied lot that lumping them all in one group would have been nonsensical.) It’s really interesting to read about and there’s loads on-line about this if you’d like to travel further down the particular rabbit hole.

Great American Short Stories – Corinne Demas (2005)

Not having had a lot of positive experiences in the past with short stories, I was curious how this book would pan out. Suffice it to say that this was a better reading experience than before – perhaps I had just chosen annoying writers before.  (I am looking at you, John Cheever and John Irving.)

So – bought this book earlier in the year and thought it was a pretty good selection of American “classic” short stories. In the past, the short stories that I have read have always ended too early – as though the story wasn’t finished in some way. In the intro to this anthology, editor Corinne Demas describes the short story referencing Poe in that a good short story should be able to be read in one sitting, and so the majority of the stories here can be done like that (depending, of course, on how fast you read).  I would also add that the end of a short story (for me) should not leave you hanging too much. I am all for post-modern endings, but not endings that end just because….

This anthology is pretty inclusive, although based as it is on nineteenth century authors, it’s automatically heavier on white males although, to be fair, I don’t think this is a fault of the editor. I think that that is really what has been considered the Western Canon in the past, and although I don’t particularly agree with the homogeneity of it, you get what you get from what’s available. There is an entry from Charles Chesnutt (one of the first Af-Am fiction writers to be published by The Atlantic monthly) and a couple of (white) female writers.

However, moving on to the stories themselves, I enjoyed it overall. There were a few I skipped over (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Melville). Hemingway and Fitzgerald are authors that I don’t particularly enjoy, and I had already read Melville’s story. Some of the stand-out stories for me included Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and that Cask story, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (new author to me), Sherwood Anderson, and Ambrose Pierce. I hadn’t read any of these writers’ short stories before (and some were completely new to me as writers) and I enjoyed their work. Poe is especially good, I thought.

I found that the best way for me to enjoy this book was to pick it up, read a few stories, and then put it down for something else. I don’t really like to plough my way through story after story, just because I like continuity between stories, and with these being complete short stories in and of themselves meant a change in strategy. I am quite surprised at how much I enjoyed these stories actually – I think that I had been so burned by the crap put out by Irving and Cheever that I had sort of lumped all short stories into the same pile. How wrong I was.

Now I am wondering if there is a twentieth century equivalent of this collection (or even a twenty-first century). (Dates are when the authors are born, not necessarily when the story was written.) I am sure there are loads of good anthologies out there for more modern authors – any recommendations? Or is there a good book of short stories by one writer out there that you would recommend? Just no Cheever and Irving (in case you couldn’t pick up on that). 🙂